Hey MaximumFun friends, it’s time to take a good look at a sci-fi legend. This is Podthought columnist Ian Brill with an interview with Marc Schuster and Tom Powers, college professors in Pennsylvania and the authors of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. The book is a philosophical examination of the long running BBC show Doctor Who. The entire history of the show, from William Hartnell’s Doctor from the early 1960’s to today’s incarnation starring David Tennant, is brought in to prove how the show reflects and satirizes human civilization.
Ian: For the MaximumFun readers who may be only slightly familiar with Doctor Who why is the show important and worthy of such analysis?
Marc: One of the great things about Doctor Who is that since the Doctor is a time traveler, he and his traveling companions can see the far-reaching effects of current-day trends and the consequences of the collective decisions our culture makes on a daily basis. For example, in the first season of the new series, the Doctor travels to a space station called the Game Station in an episode titled “Bad Wolf.” The Game Station is basically a massive television studio in which reality TV shows are produced, but the catch is that contestants aren’t simply voted off their respective shows; they’re killed. While this may seem somewhat far-fetched, it also isn’t hard to imagine the ways in which current trends in the entertainment industry might, over the course of a thousand years or so, lead humanity to such a sorry state of affairs. The flipside of this, however, is that while the Doctor’s travels provide us with frightening visions of the future, there’s always an element of hope in the show as well. The human race is capable of great things, and the Doctor is one of our biggest fans. His adventures do a nice job of showing us the ways in which we may not be living up to our fullest potential but at the same time showing us just what that full potential consists of.
Additionally, Doctor Who is a very complex show. On the surface, it’s about an alien who travels through time and space in what appears to be an old British police box. But as fans of the show know, it’s also so much more. Like the Doctor’s time machine (the TARDIS), which is larger on the inside than on the outside, the seemingly simple outer shell of each episode conceals layers and layers of deeper meaning. So a single episode might touch on a number of political, sociological, psychological and spiritual issues, and it’s up to the viewer to make some connections among these various ideas and to probe beneath the surface to find something unexpected. That’s mainly what we’ve done with our book, but our goal has never been to say that this is THE way to interpret Doctor Who, just that this is one way of interpreting the show. Every fan brings his or her own ideas and experiences to the show, so there’s an infinite number of ways to interpret Doctor Who. By this logic, there’s also potential for an infinite number of books on Doctor Who as well, and we like to think of ours as one of the first in what might become an ongoing dialogue about the importance of the program. At the very least, we see it as a kind of call to arms—not just to watch Doctor Who with an active and inquisitive imagination, but to watch all television in this way.
Tom: For too many years in academia, the literary “Canon,” as it’s been called, meaning the legitimate and the so-called (depending on individual taste and POV) classic poems, plays, short stories, and novels that were inflicted upon many a generation of suffering students, dominated the intellectual landscape. Then, with a gradually shifting cultural perspective in academia acknowledging the importance of such uniquely twentieth century art forms as television, film, and the graphic novel, and not to mention mass retirements, a show as important as Doctor Who at long last could assume its rightful place in terms of scholarship. In one form or another, be it on television, radio, or in print, the show has thrived for nearly forty years. Yes, it isn’t always as eloquent as Shakespeare, but, at this juncture, it has been generating original material longer than the Bard had by the time of his retirement.
On another level, Marc and I are taking a modern scholarly approach to analyzing Doctor Who since we thought that our book could work as a backdoor introduction to that reader who had been previously uninterested in this form of writing. What if we turn that one reader on to higher thinking, that one hypothetical person who may otherwise have led a miserably mundane, non-intellectually satisfying life, but now that enlightened individual goes on to become a powerful teacher, scientist, doctor, or charismatic leader? This scenario may be a heady one, yet for me, when I was in my early teens, such analytical books as John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado’s Doctor Who – The Unfolding Text and David Gerrold’s World of Star Trek gave me an early introduction to the art of critical writing, and today I’m an ever-evolving teacher and writer.
Fans, moreover, are more sophisticated than ever due to the proliferation of blogs and online discussion groups. No longer do we exist in a world where the primary mode for expressing one’s opinion on new Who is the letters page of Doctor Who Magazine or one’s home-grown zine. Conversely, now that we can experience instant gratification by sharing our valid views with the rest of the online Doctor Who community, the bar has been substantially raised for any critical works examining the show. With great humility, Marc and I hope that we have contributed to setting a new, reader-friendly benchmark in Who-scholarship.
Ian: Some chapters, such as the Daleks and Cybermen chapter, are very political. At the same time the last chapter pays a very close reading of the show that both appraises the art of Doctor Who as well as extends its wisdom to life in a much broader way. In writing the book did you feel you were swinging between a very political mode and an artier mode?
Marc: Throughout the book, we really wanted to examine Doctor Who from a number of perspectives and to tease out those elements of the show that are always present but which may not be so obvious to the casual viewer. To do this, we played with a number of tones, styles and topics. Early on, we wanted to explain some of our reasoning behind writing a book on Doctor Who and, at the same time, to examine the show, so it seemed natural for chapter one to be about what we think Doctor Who tries to accomplish as a TV show. And since television is, among other things, a political tool, examining the show from a political perspective also seemed natural. At the same time, though, we weren’t looking to write a “political book” per se, so we were very conscious of countering that aspect of the book with a number of others.
With regard to the final chapter, you’re absolutely right. We knew this would be the final chapter as we were working on it, so we really wanted to go for broke, to cover as much ground as possible and leave the reader with a lot to think about it. As we were writing the book, we used a lot of musical metaphors in our discussions with each other, and one of our metaphors for the last chapter was side two of Abbey Road by the Beatles: it just keeps building and building with one track leading to the next. That’s what we wanted to do in our last chapter. We wanted our ideas to keep building on each other until we reached a crescendo akin, in our minds anyway, to “The End.” So we talk about Sarah Jane’s return in “School Reunion,” the fifth Doctor’s act of self-sacrifice in “The Caves of Androzani,” the fourth Doctor’s battle against space vampires in “State of Decay,” the birth of the eighth Doctor in the 1996 made-for-TV movie, and loads of other topics while spicing the proceedings up with references to Hegel, Aristotle, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Wars, Dawson’s Creek, PJ O’Rourke and the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek.
The ultimate idea we wanted to convey in the last chapter was that Doctor Who is, in many ways, about the meaning of life itself, but since the meaning of life is such a big topic, we definitely had to bring a sense of play to that chapter, to take an open-ended approach to the topic. If you look at the subtitle of the chapter, “Life, Death and Everything in Between,” we’re almost setting ourselves up for failure—comically so—by presenting ourselves with the task of explaining in the space of about thirty pages or so how Doctor Who relates to all of human experience. Obviously we can’t write about “everything,” but we can have some fun trying in our mad dash to the finish line. In fact, one of our main goals through the entire process of writing the book was to have fun with the material, and our publisher was very supportive in this regard. In fact, the president of McFarland went so far as to tell us to be sure to have fun with the project when the company offered us the contract, so all along we felt like we had the freedom to actively explore the world of Doctor Who and to experiment with various approaches.
Tom: Marc brings up an instrumental, pun intended, metaphor that informed our collaboration throughout the writing of the book: the musical jam. Many artists – whether they are visually or musically oriented – can agree that when they’re involved in a collaborative project, a paradoxical state of encouragement and competition exists. Marc and I often playfully challenged one another to push our creative and intellectual centers in order to create the best manuscript possible by saying that we were engaging in “dueling banjos.” Analyzing a show as eclectic and colorful as Doctor Who, which not only ranges in style from season to season but from episode to episode as well, allowed us to explore how such concepts as cyborg theory, language, and mortality function in the series. Working alone to create the book, either one of us may have written a decent text. But we both agree that the final work, a synthesis of our two distinct approaches to Doctor Who, like the creative union of producer-writer-actor-director-various artists who form the production team of the series, is greater as a collaborative whole.
As for the question of whether or not we’re being political, yes, there are moments in the text when we subtly – and not so subtly – comment upon corporations, our technologically dependent culture, war, and governments in general. Yet we realize that the book is an exploration and celebration of Doctor Who, not our political soapbox, so our goal is not to alienate fellow Whovians who may disagree with our views, but engage them in a dialogue that can continue on message boards and in the form of further scholarship upon the issues and the show in general.
Marc: And of course, when we’re being political, we’re having fun with the political implications of the show. We’re not selling a political point of view so much as saying that we’ve picked up on a political vibe that the show gives off. So when we say something like “Viva la revo-who-cion!” we’re not saying to overthrow the government but to revel in the revolutionary aspects of the show.
Ian: What would you say to someone who is intrigued by all this imagination in Doctor Who but is put off by the production values of the original series?
Marc: A lot of it comes down to what the viewer wants out of a science-fiction series—or out of television in general. George Lucas obviously raised the bar with regard to special effects in sci-fi movies, but he’s also always quick to point out that special effects alone don’t add up to a good movie. The story needs to come first, and that’s why Doctor Who works so well. So, yes, there are a lot moments in the original series when a tight budget meant that the monster would look a little bit more like something you’d see wandering around in an amusement park than a real threat, but the stories are good, and the actors who have played the Doctor bring enough magic and life to the screen that the flimsiness of the monsters and sets is almost forgivable.
I would also say that the camp of the original series, for lack of a better term, actually makes the show more fun to watch. There’s almost a do-it-yourself vibe to the original series, especially with regard to episodes of the sixties and seventies—you might even call it a punk aesthetic. As a result, kids watching the show in its original heyday (and those watching older episodes on DVD today) could reasonably decide to make their own Doctor Who monsters out of paper bags, cardboard boxes, tin cans and, it goes without saying, toilet plungers. Maybe the old show left more to the imagination, or forced the imagination to work harder, but in the final analysis, I think that’s a good thing.
Tom: The key operating term in approaching classic Doctor Who is “a willing suspension of disbelief.” For the original series, however, this approach must work in a twofold manner: 1) accepting that an alien can travel the entirety of time and space in a vessel that’s infinitely bigger on the inside than the outside in his quest to fight monsters and robots 2) believing that rubber suits, wobbly spaceships and Color Separation Overlay can adequately relay these bizarre creatures and wild alien landscapes. Unfortunately, some adults viewing the classic episodes for the first time may not give these episodes the chance they deserve since said individuals are picky, jaded creatures who have forgotten the inherent power of their imaginations. Children, then, which the majority of us were when we initially became indoctrinated into the Church of Who, are the ones who make the requisite philosophical and imaginative leaps in viewing and accepting any era of the series.
Currently, strong ratings and DVD and merchandise sales prove that the new series is a resounding success in Great Britain, putting it on a level on par with the 1970s Doctor Who audience. A healthy budget and dazzling special effects, of course, contribute to a modern audience, both young and not-so-young, accepting the current incarnation of the series. But, if we were to divide up the demographics behind those who are watching the show and buying the assortment of clothing, toys, and inflatable chairs that carry the brand, we will most likely discover that they are children. What will be interesting, in twenty years or so, is to see what happens as the nostalgically minded adult versions of this new crop of young Who viewers attempt to “sell” the show to their fellow grownups who missed it the first time around, and who may be watching holovision television or whatever crazy TV technologies we have at that point.
Ian: The show was written before season three of the new Doctor Who series. Some of the points you touched on are further explored there, especially in great episodes like "Blink" and the Paul Cornell two-parter "Human Nature" and "Family of Blood." Have you seen any of season three and what do you think?
Marc: I love season three. Russell T. Davies, the series lead-writer and producer, has done a wonderful job of weaving together an over-arching narrative that builds throughout the entire season but which also allows viewers to watch single episodes of that series without feeling lost. My only regret, of course, is that our manuscript went to press as Series Three was beginning to air in England, and as Tom and I started watching the newest episodes here in the States, all we could talk about was how we could have integrated so much of the material from these episodes into our book. I was especially impressed with some of the ideas in the two-part adventure consisting of “Daleks in Manhattan” and “Evolution of the Daleks.” For example, the notion that the Daleks—a fascist race of cyborgs hell-bent on conquering the universe in the name of racial superiority—might realize that combining their own genetic makeup with that of humanity in order to evolve into a species more suited to survival would have served as a perfect example of synthesis, which we discuss in the final chapter of the book.
Tom: “The drums, the drums the drums, the never-ending drum beat. Open me, you human fool. Open the light and summon me, and receive my majesty!” Once these words were spoken in “Utopia,” just before the Master opened his fob watch to reintegrate his Time Lord DNA back into himself, I knew I was listening to the brilliant stuff of which Who dreams are made. For years, we feared that the series may never grace our screens again. More importantly, we wondered if any series revival would be faithful to the essence of the original show, and we could only pray that it preserved the original continuity. Our prayers were more that sufficiently answered with Autons, Daleks, Cybermen, Sarah Jane and K-9 reappearing in the first two series. Series Three, then, not only authentically portrayed the Master and added intriguing layers to his character, but it brought back such an esoteric 60s Who foe as the Macra as well!
Returning to the meaning of fob watches in Series Three, I am awe-struck by the concept of storing one’s genetic makeup, and even more crucially, one’s memories, in a watch, and becoming another person. For the Doctor in “Human Nature” and “Family of Blood,” this notion allowed him to wholeheartedly embrace the beautiful act of loving another, not just platonically, but physically. The Master, however, experienced an even more astounding transformation via the Time Lord technological miracle that is the Chameleon Arch when he became the kindly Professor Yana, as it finally proved that his character is not evil to the core, and that the potentiality for pure goodness exists within his soul.
Ian: One thing you never really covered in the book that I'm interested in is if you think the Britishness of Doctor Who is responsible for its impact. In American sci-fi we have dashing leading men like Captain Kirk and Luke Skywalker. The Doctor in all his incarnations has a feeling of quirkiness to him that I think extends far into British fiction.
Marc: I wonder if some of the quirkiness of British sci-fi heroes stems from the fact that compared to NASA, for example, the British space program remains fairly unassuming. The great British comedian Eddie Izzard does a hilarious monologue in which he complains that the British space program can’t even put a man in a track suit up a ladder. So, from a cultural perspective, maybe the natures of our respective real-life space organizations are reflected in our fictional space travelers. So in America, we have characters like the ones you mention who are almost too serious in all of their endeavors, while in England, the sci-fi heroes are, in many ways, accidental tourists. I’m thinking of characters like the Doctor, like Dave Lister in Red Dwarf, and like Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Tom: The Doctor, in several incarnations, as we do state in the book, can be labeled metrosexual in that he enjoys fancy cars, fine wine, theater, and jazz. Then again, he is representing the British ideal of the sophisticated gentleman who can both quote Keats and Churchill and engage in fisticuffs if his honor is challenged. Captain Kirk, on the other hand, and Luke Skywalker, to a lesser extent, indeed embody the ideal of the dashing, red-blooded leading man. Perhaps, however, they’re forced to constantly reaffirm their hyper-masculine identities because they are leaders – Kirk of an entire starship community, and Luke as a commander in the Rebel Alliance – and they’re constantly finding themselves in dire predicaments in which they must apply their most manly attributes (i.e., chivalry and self-sacrificing bravery) to survive.
In the original series, the Doctor repressed his attraction to women, with the rare exception, mainly because the age difference between his companions and himself politely relegated the Time Lord to an avuncular role. But, with the new millennium and a frank view toward male-female or, if you will, inter-species sexuality now being explored on a former children’s show like Doctor Who, we at last have the dashing leading male in the personas of the ninth and tenth Doctors. The new series, as a result, is more universal to worldwide television audiences than it ever was in the last quarter-century while still retaining its distinctively British charm.
Ian: A central theme to Doctor Who, one your book spends a lot of time with, is the destructive and short-sighted aspect of human nature versus the compassionate and caring side. The Doctor seems often frustrated with his human companions for their foibles. Many of the essays in the book, such as those concerning technology and corporations, extrapolate Doctor Who storylines and lead to some sad conclusions for the human race. Why for all of human beings' problems does The Doctor keep hanging around Earth?
Marc: In the new series especially, the Doctor sees Earth as his second home because his own home planet, Gallifrey, has been destroyed. But even before the destruction of Gallifrey, the Doctor always seemed to feel at ease among humans. One reason for this, I think, is that the Doctor sees his fellow Time Lords as pompous and stodgy—a direct result of their apparent superiority and highly advanced state of evolution. In effect, the Time Lords of the old series have reached the pinnacle of their development and have stopped striving for anything. Humans, on the other hand, have not lost their drive. They’re still “in process” as it were, still evolving, still changing, still reaching for the stars, struggling to better themselves, doing all they can to make sense of their universe and find their place within it. The Doctor likely finds this quality particularly endearing in humans. There’s a great scene early in Tom Baker’s reign as the Doctor in which the Time Lord praises humanity’s spirit. The serial is “The Ark in Space,” and watching the scene, one gets the sense that the Doctor is almost envious of humanity’s potential. And maybe that’s why he is so frequently frustrated with humanity. He sees all of our potential and wants us to become the best race that we can become, but he also is forced to bear witness to all of our worst blunders.
Tom: Russell T. Davies, in “New Earth,” has the cat-like Novice Hame, via a prophecy concerning the Face of Boe’s final words, obliquely refer to the Doctor as being the “Lonely God.” This vision of Doctor as a proactive, benevolent god-like force who interferes, or shapes, human history for the betterment of the species potentially best encapsulates the Time Lord’s raison d’etre. He’s lonely, naturally, because, to borrow a phrase from John Lennon, “Nobody else sits in [his] tree.” However, as Marc has mentioned, even before the Time Lords became extinct, the Doctor preferred to have adventures on Earth rather than lead a crusty life on Gallifrey. Why? Because, in his words, humans are inspirational and “indomitable,” being the last species to survive to the end of the universe, according to what we learn in Series Three’s Master Trilogy. This metaphor of the Doctor being a god, furthermore, is definitely hammered home in “Last of the Time Lords” as the entire human race chants his name in order to free themselves from tyrannical yoke of the Satan-like Master. The Doctor, therefore, believes in humanity despite all of their flaws since they, in turn, have complete faith in him.