Monday, January 26, 2015

That Inevitable Response to Watching Doctor Who

I watched the 2014 Doctor Who series, and I feel sorry for Peter Capaldi who appears to be getting typecast as an asshole in everything that the BBC produced in 2014. (He plays the same character type in Doctor Who as he does in The Muskateers.)

At best, the most recent Moffat season is a fedora wish-fulfillment story. At its worst, it's an abusive break-up and then wish-fulfillment reconciliation of a writer and his fandom. It begins with the writers yelling that we, the viewer, asked for this—and ends with them stating we're all lying to each other about how we've moved on and are doing fine, thanks.

But that's not why I don't like it. The utter hot mess of subtext from that series of Doctor Who is fascinating in a horrifying way. BUT I watched Doctor Who because of its joy; I was in it for the sense of wonder and kindness that it reminded us to seek out. I don't see that in Capaldi's Doctor. When he's acting joyful or kind, I don't believe he doesn't have an ulterior motive.

A character doesn't have to be nice; nice characters tend to be too busy being nice to be interesting. I will watch things if the characters are interesting, but I don't have a high tolerance for characters who are cruel. Doctor Who has become an increasingly cruel and manipulative show. Perhaps it was always like that and my critical viewing tools have become sharp enough to detect it sooner.

But this increasing delight in being mean to the viewer happened with Sherlock. It's been a common story denominator in both shows. Much like the way Sherlock treats John all through Sherlock Series 3, Capaldi's first series as the Doctor features a person who supposedly cares about someone lying about her or his motives—and not to "protect" the other person, but because s/he's only thinking about her or his feelings. It's textual. There's no attempt to hide it. 

Worse, Doctor Who tells us that it's not good but continues to do it anyway. When Clara gets called out for lying, Doctor Capaldi does this vomit-in-your-mouth speech about how he thinks too highly of her to let that break up their friendship... after he has gaslit her. The forgiveness despite the extremely questionable behaviour is the same thing we watched John do for Sherlock, and that's... not ideal. Friendships shouldn't cost things of those involved.

While they're not as graphically violent as Hannibal, Sherlock and Doctor Who suffer from the same problem: The wish-fulfillment of gradually convincing another person that they are exactly like you and therefore you "deserve" each other. (While the Doctor is not always actively trying to convince Clara of that, the subtextual similarities exist; it's the expectation that being the person who will be there no matter how terribly they're treated should be considered romantic or what makes someone good.)

This kind of story also leans heavily on the Dracula model of being seduced by what is not recognized as conventional or acceptable in society; the appeal of something that's been labelled "forbidden." It's the dark side of the superhero narrative that tells that we are special—exempt from consequences of conventional society. Hannibal is "cool" because he's too smart to get caught. Sherlock can be as mean as he likes, because he's the only one who can solve the crime. The Doctor defies labels of "good" and "bad," so he can adventure on without repercussions.

And if I believed Doctor Who—or Hannibal or Sherlock for that matter—was being written to have an interesting discussion of what happens when we refuse to engage as members of society then I'd watch more. But there are never new consequences to being the Doctor. They are always the same consequences, and he never learns from them. And the writing always forgives him for refusing to learn so long as he shows up and saves the Earth in the finale. 

Possibly worse, each of these shows are well-produced. They often feature stunning cinematography, great costuming and set design, and well-utilized musical scores. It's one thing to have a beautiful-for-the-sake-of-being-beautiful story; it's another to glamourize something that isn't healthy and shrug it off as being "entertaining" or "just for fun."

Indulging a character in a bad system or encouraging them to remain in it? I do not find these things fun or entertaining. These are the things that tend to make me bare my teeth and require a deep breath before I remind myself that you are welcome to like what you like but do not expect me to also enjoy it.


Leigh Purtill said...

Well-put, Chandra. I have been watching all of the first season with Capaldi and there was something about it that I couldn't quite put my finger on that I didn't like. It was the loss of wonder and the meanness. Granted he is a completely different Doctor and that's okay, but the whole concept of Who is to show us a universe that is bigger than ourselves. Moffat et all have been bringing the Doctor down to our very-human, very petty level, rather than raising us to the Doctor's level. said...

The Time Heist was far and away my favourite episode of the season, although I will give credit to Missy for being so deliciously awful. She embodied all that the character was supposed to represent - exuberance,amorality, strength - and I wished that she was around more. She gave teeth to the counterpart, and made the Doctor look foolish when he needed to look that way.
As for the Christmas episode... not sure if you saw it. It was a little... Inception-y for me, but I did like that it addresses that ever-present elephant of 'what happens when ... '. This discussion may require more coffee.