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‘Doctor Who’ and Those School Lockers

Image – iStockphoto: Surpass Pro

‘It’s Populism’

For several years, I was one of the local stars (God help the locals) of PBS pledge drives at a network affiliate in the southerly states of America. That was where I first encountered Doctor Who. More to the point, I encountered its fans.

On the Saturday night of my emcee duties, our phone banks were manned by the desperately devoted teens who watched the show with its awful MOOG-wheedling theme song (we played it a lot to trigger donations) and that infernal business about the flying police box you had to call a TARDIS or be laughed at for showing your Who-ignorant butt.

One of my duties as local star was to explain to our viewers that TARDIS stood for “Time and Relative Dimension in Space”–and to assure them that important concepts about the space-time continuum might be quite close to us as we yammered on about all this. The Beeb had been pumping this stuff into Her Majesty’s living rooms since 1963, you know, 30 years before the Maastricht Treaty. It’s a wonder Europe let them in, let alone out.

The Whovians taught me a lot about entertainment cults, although “cult” is too harsh a word for these kids. They were unfailingly sweet, thrilled, painfully awkward misfits. Most of them could drive a phone and take the pledges coming in, but that was about it. I’d catch glimpses on the monitor of myself in the studio, resplendent (shut up) in my tuxedo, interviewing ardent young citizens dressed in lots of cookware from their mothers’ kitchens.

In this era, stage fright still existed. It took nerve for our strange youths to face the lights and my microphone to tell us how much Who meant to them.

Many of these kids, you could tell, were cripplingly unpopular at school. Or simply invisible. And Who gave them a place in the universe. A place on a live PBS broadcast. We talked about their love for K9, the show’s endlessly annoying mechanical dog. More donations poured in from more misfits watching at home with cheese graters attached to their belts.

These were magnificent, brave young Time Lords and Companions, driven home after the show by the concerned parents of socially challenged children.

‘One Long Self-Indulgent Pantomime’

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

Earlier this month, the London-based game and television writer and producer Dave Morris [1] was on his Mirabilis: The Year of Wonders [2] blog site, quoting a recent monologue from the Doctor about “I do what I do because it’s right. Because it’s decent. And above all, it’s kind. It’s just that. Just kind.”

Morris rather courageously nailed the sanctimony into which the show has fallen, sound and fury signifying everything better left unspoken. “That, right there,” Morris writes, “is why I can’t sit through an episode of Doctor Who anymore. Because it’s become one long self-indulgent pantomime, all speeches to the audience about how special the character’s feelings are.”

And he wrote this on July 2, before the announcement this week of the first female Doctor Who stormed the tabloids. Actor Jodie Whittaker is to be paid no less than the latest male Doctor, Peter Capaldi, thankfully, a critical point in the UK, as in the US of A.

But will she be handed the same fulsome dialogue Capaldi was given?

Morris’ bigger point–mercifully going farther than the planet Gallifrey–is that “The sensibilities of YA fiction have taken over a lot of stories today. In effect, the characters are adolescents, with everything that happens in the story being about them personally…We’re going to hear a lot more speeches about how hard it is to be a hero, a lot more tear-jerking farewells as the music swells. Moments in which the show can run out in front of the fans and tell them its manifesto.”

There’s nothing wrong with good YA, actually. As long as it pushes past the lockers.

I read Morris’ column just as an otherwise well-produced series I’d discovered on Netflix had gotten to its first school-locker scene. So I was primed by more inexcusable suburban sentimental attachment to the damned lockers at high school. Do we really ever need to see another school locker scene? The changing of classes, the preening of the cute kids, the loneliness of the hated kids, the imperious stare of the teachers, and yes, the declamatory statements before the slam of the locker door: “Because I loved you!” or “Because I hated you!”

“It’s populism,” Morris writes. “Bad enough that it’s wrecking politics, now it’s taken root in storytelling, too. Every season of Doctor Who is like a barrage of self-congratulatory Trump tweets.”

And that’s where we’ve seen this trend before, seen this show before, read this book before, isn’t it? Our civic life is trapped in the TARDIS.

Today we’re six months into another self-indulgent pantomime, referred to by a euphemism, no matter how you see it: “the administration.” And that show’s dialogue is full of self-aggrandizing, declarations of making something great again and what’s “very unfair to the president” (never mind the country) and family, family, family, lockers slamming in the halls of the West Wing.

I get what Morris is saying. How much of what you’re reading today ends up at the lockers? And is that what you’re writing? “The fans just lap this stuff up, of course,” Morris writes. So do certain voters. “The more a show refers to itself, the more they love it.”

And you need to sell your books, of course, I get that. You need fans to lap them up. So I’m worried about you. As I was worried about the young Whovians. As I’m worried about the country. Can I lend you my cheese grater?

Are you writing school locker scenes? May I offer you a small sum of cash to resist? Have “the sensibilities of YA fiction taken over” your stories? Are you conscious of the populism sweeping our fiction today just as it’s steamrolling our political nonfiction? Does this add a challenge to your work?

About Porter Anderson [3]

@Porter_Anderson [4] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [5], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [6] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [7]