Dr. Who and Girl Power

TARDIS from Dr. Who. Image used under Creative Commons.As a rule, “gender-swapping” characters really annoys me. Marvel comics has been the worst about it of late, finding annoying ways to make characters like Thor and Wolverine female, and then wondering why they aren’t playing well with audiences. Surely audiences want strong female characters, right? As someone with two daughters (one of whom loves Wonder Woman), I can answer resoundingly yes, but re-purposing a male character into a female character does not a strong female character make. Rather, it shows a complete lack of creativity and belies the heavy hands of marketers relying more on their data than on common sense and dedication to the art or the medium.

I grew up with Dr. Who. My family watched it on PBS every Saturday night for as long as I can remember. The recent announcement that the Doctor will be regenerating as woman (while it was set up sloppily in the dialogue of this most recent, poorly-written season) makes sense to me, though. Is that symptomatic of a cognitive dissonance on my part? Not really. I actually think these examples are two entirely different things.

The Doctor was an ingenious character when written decades ago in what is now referred to as the “classic” series, in that a Time Lord‘s regenerations make him infinitely adaptable. Subtle quirks and personality shifts in each regeneration make for endless possibilities. The Doctor (or any other Time Lord) remains who he is at his core, but is a slightly different person each time, accompanied by a completely different physical appearance with each regeneration (although, to be fair, David Tenant and Matt Smith always looked remarkably similar to me, but I digress). The key to what this imaginative, fantastic twist to the world-building accomplishes is the perpetual opportunity for a writer to explore “what if,” to ask what it would look like for this character to have a different set of personality traits while still drawing on the experiences of being impossibly old, to show us what would be different if this character were an old man or a young Millennial. There are a nearly infinite number of possibilities in the Doctor, and this has made Dr. Who one of the most original concepts in science fiction, as well as one of the most enduring.

So, if the Doctor can regenerate from young to old, why not regenerate as a woman? This sort of just makes sense, as a Time Lord (and pardon my descent into geekery here) is essentially a shape-shifter at the time of his or her regeneration. The writers have even more possibilities to explore now as they can enter into the question of what a feminine dynamic will bring to the character. We’ve seen something similar done creatively (if not explicitly) in good science fiction before, after all. The character of Dax in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine springs to mind.

These sorts of spins are the result of creative pursuits of the story, not poor editorial direction, as is the case with Marvel’s recent gender swaps.

Even DC Comics’ more traditional take on strong female characters is wanting in comparison. Characters such as Supergirl or Hawkgirl were often afterthoughts, a forced editorial choice to make a female version of a male character in order to gain readers. Not that this doesn’t ever work (I personally have always loved the strength of the character of Batgirl), but, in comparison to an original, strong female character such as Wonder Woman, the efforts fall short.

My point is that, if the writer’s intention is to create a strong female hero or protagonist (something more of which our literary landscape desperately needs), then do just that: write a new character. The genius of the Doctor is that he now has the ability to be an example of how this is done well, while drawing on decades of other great writing to build upon.

My hope is that this will be approached as creatively as the BBC has time and again displayed it’s ability to accomplish, with the notable exception of the tragically poor writing of this most recent season. I say that this is my hope because if this decision is reduced in practice to merely a gender-equality move…more “girl power,” as it were…then it won’t work. It will last perhaps a season, and be remembered as an ill-fated blip in the history of the Doctor.

If, however, it is left alone…if the story is served and the creative legacy of Dr. Who honored…then these nuances will occur naturally, and we’ll be left with an even richer speculative universe, asking all of the questions about ourselves that such a universe brings.

Here’s to hoping.


Image attribution: Mike chernucha under Creative Commons.

So-Called “Faithless” Literature, and a Gospel According to Martha Jones

There’s been some debate lately about whether or not faith still thrives in fiction. That is, there is some speculation that the existential questions traditionally allocated to the realm of faith, such as those of purpose and ethics, and which drove literature in both veiled and not-so-veiled ways for some time, is now addressed or ignored in a purely secular art form.

Paul Elie recently considered in the New York Times whether or not fiction has lost its faith. Gregory Wolfe, editor of Image Journal, responded in the Wall Street Journal, insisting that it has not. Me? I’m strongly in Wolfe’s camp, and not only in literature, but in the arts in general.

I was struck by how strongly different genres of different mediums explore concepts of religious faith when I was around for a random re-watch of an old episode of Dr. Who. The episodes in question, which earned a full re-viewing by me later (what did we do before Netflix?), were the final two episodes of season 3 of the new series, in which the Doctor (then partnered with Martha Jones), finds himself in a desperate struggle to defeat the only other surviving Time Lord, the Master, as he has taken over the Earth and reduced the Doctor to a helpless invalid.

During a year of the Master’s reign of terror (which passes between the two episodes), Martha Jones escapes and wanders the entire planet earth. There, she essentially preaches to the population (nearly all of whom have been enslaved by the Master, and frequently tortured and killed), telling them of the heroic Doctor who is their only hope against the Master…the Doctor who has saved their lives over and again without their even knowing it, and who is the one person capable of defeating the Master’s evil.

The Master fears Martha enough to go after her personally…he arrives on the street outside where she is taking refuge, as one of the helpless slaves states words to the effect of “he never walks among us.” The Master belittles Martha’s faith and hope as being unable to stand against his weapons. He mocks Martha’s efforts just before he is to publicly execute her, as he learns that her plan was to have everyone on the earth, at the same critical moment, think of this mythical figure whom they had never met known as the Doctor.

Because, in his year of captivity, the Doctor has been able to telepathically connect himself with the same mental network that the Master used to persuade the people of earth to place him in his dictatorship. Thus, the Doctor receives massive power from this psionic energy being funneled into him. Essentially, the Doctor’s power comes through the prayer of the believers from Martha’s “gospel,” and he uses his power unexpectedly to, in the moment at which he has the Master defeated, utter the words which he has tried to say yet which the Master has avoided throughout the episodes: “I forgive you.” The Doctor, displaying the nature of a hero, sees the Master has someone worth saving, despite his evil deeds.

And, in the end, the Master’s refusal to be with the forgiving Doctor results in his final demise.

Season 3 of Doctor Who ended with the Doctor written overtly as a Christological metaphor. Difficult for me swallow, then, that art has lost its faith. Every medium and genre is scattered with artists who explore questions of faith and belief from various perspectives, and these two episodes of a science-fiction program are but one example to stand alongside many others.

Perhaps the issue is any delineation at all between “sacred” and “secular,” our insistence on placing artistic expression in one camp or another. I don’t believe that there is any such separation, and I am immediately suspect of any genre distinction that attempts to enforce it.

Faith is not gone from the arts. It is as powerfully stated as ever, if, as Wolfe points out, stated in a different manner, a manner consistent with our cultural evolution. That’s because the existential questions that haunted humanity a hundred years ago haunt us still, and require our attention no less than they did then. That is an integral part of the human condition, and it is the questions of that condition that the arts continue to explore.

Photo Attribution: ewen and donabel under Creative Commons

Bad Wolf: The Retrospective

Doctor Who: Series Six, Part One [Blu-ray]I was having dinner with friends Monday night, and (all of us being at least somewhat of a nerd-like bent) the topic of Dr. Who came up in conversation. Because, lets face it, if you’ve watched Dr. Who for very long, you have to concur that there really isn’t any other television program worth discussing over dinner. Three of us were raving about the current season, and explaining the series to another person at the table, while making plans for a marathon weekend in which we could catch up the uninitiated friend so that she will be addicted, also (because friends should do that for each other). Someone in the conversation referenced some research she had done on all of the previous incarnations of the Doctor, and that she didn’t understand how I was able to store all of the information that I remember about the Doctor, and his companions, and his adventures.

Perhaps I’m just getting old, but I’ve had this thing for nostalgia over the past few years. At first, it only surfaced during the holidays. More recently, its been showing up rather unexpectedly in various places that I least expect. But for a few moments as my friends and I talked on Monday, I vividly recalled the Saturday night ritual of my childhood: staying up late to watch Dr. Who on PBS. I’ve loved many a science fiction adventure since, but never in quite the same way.

My friend said she didn’t understand this, similar to how she didn’t understand how a gentleman she knows is able to recall classic baseball games, with the players and scores and all other relevant data, upon request. My theory is that it has something to do with the age at which we were exposed. If my father had made it a point to take me to baseball games, I likely would have developed a similar interest. However, we lived nowhere near a major sports arena, and my mother was a science fiction lover. Interestingly, she was first exposed to Star Trek at about the same age at which I was exposed to Dr. Who. She’s been an enduring Trekkie ever since, and can recall Star Trek trivia with the same precise ability that I have for Dr. Who. Something about falling in love with something that we’re encouraged to enjoy in those formative years makes it stick.

There are other stories and universes to which I’ve grown close, of course:  X-Men, James Bond, and others. Perhaps those just don’t hold with them that same sense of family unity that Dr. Who holds. We occasionally sat down together to watch a Bond film, but every Saturday night for years brought Dr. Who to our living room…from the time I was so young that I fell asleep during the episodes, forward. During my middle school days, I went with some friends to see an touring exhibit of Dr. Who. I still have one of the question mark lapel pins to this day. A poster of K-9 hangs above my writing desk, and I seriously want one of these.

I’ve grown into whatever level of storyteller I am in part of because of the amazing story arcs of Dr. Who (plots unduplicated in the rest of science fiction, as far as I’m concerned…and I think many would agree). I learned to appreciate the intelligent, complex, and engaging adventures of a character who abhorred violence and held his intellect as his greatest weapon. I’ve watched the character grow through the years, and religiously watch every episode today. And, through it all, I’ve maintained that sense of togetherness and safety that formed the base from which we engaged in those adventures in other times and far away lands.

So, yes, perhaps I am getting more nostalgic as I get older. I’ll accept that. And it will only get worse, dear reader, because, unlike the Doctor, I won’t regenerate. You will always continue to find the Doctor referenced here at times, though, because the character and his adventures have become that referent, that signal that helps me orient myself to a more innocent time, to the foundation for my current adventures. I find the insights and “what if” questions posed by the series everywhere, informing my worldview as though seeing “Bad Wolf” graffiti for myself at every turn.

And, if you know what I’m talking about when I say that, then I’m certain you understand.