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Doctor Who, Folklore and Faerie

August 15th, 2007 (12:43 am)

I’ve gradually come to the conclusion, over the years, that the question isn’t whether Doctor Who is science fiction, but where and when it is. I think that there is a case to be made that some televised stories can be classified as science fiction, whereas others can’t. Surprisingly with hindsight, it took me a long time to challenge the assumption that Doctor Who was science fiction; the first insight came when, as a student, the literary SF fans would turn up at my university’s Doctor Who society and argue that the programme was rubbish because it wasn’t conforming to the rules, as they saw it, of science fiction. I realised that it wasn’t cheating to say that they were, in terms of addressing the whole of Doctor Who, asking the wrong questions; yet it would be possible to construct a reply on their terms referring to some Doctor Who stories and not others.

It’s one of the ironies, when addressing this question, that when the creators of Doctor Who (sidestepping the arguments circling around the application of that term for now) wrote the writers’ guide for the series back in 1963 and denied in it that Doctor Who was science fiction, they tried to prevent a reliance on “spaceships and robots and stuff” and instead emphasized “real environments based on the best factual information of situations in time and space and in any material state we can realise in practical terms”. Science and history, in the event, proved difficult to dramatize in the way that Newman and Wilson seem originally to have envisaged. Webber’s notes were too whimsical for Newman, who dismissed them as ‘Nuts!’, but at the same time they reflected a greater practical knowledge of what could be achieved within the BBC’s resources than Newman, still new to the BBC at this time, may have possessed. Ironically, it was Webber, though apparently a paid-up member of the tendency who saw Doctor Who as a blow by the technocrats to the perceived neo-mediaevalism of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who pointed the way towards the blend of science fiction elements with the folklore which Lance identifies as Doctor Who’s defining characteristic.

I wasn’t altogether convinced by the grouping of so many characters together as aspects of the same archetypal British folk hero. I’d argue that the Doctor, and many of the characters whom Lance lists, exhibit the qualities of an ideal English gentleman. I’d define this figure as having the financial wherewithal and strength of character to be independent of authority without feeling the need to oppose that authority because it is authority, supporting it where the actions of authority are helpful to the body politic, and opposing it where they are not. I’m tempted to label this figure a ‘Whig gentleman’, as he owes something to the ideals of the opposition aristocratic cliques of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Britain. The Doctor can be interpreted as having been this kind of figure from the beginning. daniel_saunders, who is more familiar with many of these characters than I am, has expressed his reservations about Smiley and Winston Smith in a comment on one of my earlier posts, and though I don’t really know Smiley I can remember enough about Smith to support his interpretation, as Smith seems to me to be an inhabitant of a country where the Whig gentleman has been extinguished. There may be echoes of this figure in Smith’s conduct, but they are echoes only, and as Daniel says the defeat of Winston puts a final point to the possibility of their being rekindled.

Merlin is another problem. In Geoffrey of Monmouth, he is a hybrid figure, the son of a princess of Demetia and an incubus. He predates the others substantially, and is not a gentleman but often presented as alternately servile and devious. The Doctor owes something to him, but he also has some characteristics of King Arthur; having cast aside the Matrix crown of Gallifrey, our world is in a sense his Avalon.

While I understood the necessity for Russell Davies of providing the Master with a motivation and backstory unknown in the 1970s and 1980s, I also regretted it because it revealed that damage has been done to that very strata of folkloric identity to which Lance points. The Master’s pursuit of narrow self-interest was once enough to mark him out as a bad lot. Malcolm Hulke wasn’t being entirely facetious when he had the Master compare himself to Tennyson’s Sir Galahad in Frontier in Space, because the Master didn’t allow himself to be distracted by the welfare of others - in that sense his heart was pure. For the present age, shaped by ideas which at least pay lip service to neoclassical economics and which place the interest of the individual at their heart, trusting that the welfare of society will follow along behind, the Master’s former motivation makes him less remarkable. Giving him a psychological disorder accommodated him to Russell’s emotion- and immediacy-driven series but diminished part of his appeal in the process. However, I appreciated the way that the presentation of the Master as representative of all that is bad was driven home by the bruise on Lucy’s cheek. Cosmic brutality is made one with the domestic, and the idea that there is a hierarchy of suffering rejected, surely a function of the way that folk tales can bring the everyday into alignment with the supernatural, emphasising that each has a bearing on the other.

It’s in relation to this point that I think Last of the Time Lords fumbles the connection, somewhere along the strand involving the Doctor’s extreme old age and his renewal through faith. There has always been a tension between the drive for verisimilitude in Doctor Who and the Doctor’s role as an interlocutor with Faerie. I don’t think that he’s ever truly been a member of Faerie since we have known him - understanding Faerie less as ‘fairyland’ but as an imaginary world where the natural world and its laws can be manipulated by forces unknown to human beings. The world of the Time Lords, who control time, is one manifestation of Faerie. The Doctor draws on his knowledge of Faerie’s ways to preserve harmony in our world or on alien planets (some of which are presented more naturalistically than others) while being an outsider when he returns to Gallifrey, where he is either expelled or leaves voluntarily.

I can see why it might have been thought a neat device by Russell Davies to manipulate this division and have the Doctor rescued not by his otherworldy abilities alone, but by those combined with his faith in humanity, and their reciprocal faith in him. The reasons why this has been identified as a shark-jumping moment by some critics are many; but I’d emphasise the problem that the Doctor crosses over here between being someone who has renounced (mostly) the supernatural, to someone who embraces it. In doing so he breaks his unspoken bargain with humanity, and makes himself into an object of faith and hope. While I think it was Russell’s intent to make a humanist statement here, I’d argue it’s compromised by the religious imagery of the Doctor’s haloed hover across the deck of the Valiant, redolent of a thousand crudely sentimental images of the resurrected Christ; and it also compromises the Doctor. The earlier identification of the Doctor as ‘the lonely god without a home’ have emphasised the Doctor’s Olympian nature, which seemed to me to open the possibility that the character was being misread. The more the Doctor embraces his supernatural potential, the less plausible his role as spokesman for humanity and the best of human values in the face of ignorance, greed and destruction played out on a cosmic scale.


Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: August 15th, 2007 08:55 pm (UTC)

The 'Whig gentleman' idea is interesting, although I would have opted for the slightly more nineteenth century 'gentleman amateur', emphasising the Doctor's/the programme's love of improvisation against planning.

Sherlock Holmes fits this mould, as do historical figures like Maxwell, Davy (I think) and Darwin; Faraday and Stevenson don't, being lower class autodidacts dependent on patronage, but in a curious way that sets up a certain parallel with the Doctor, at least in the seventies: the third Doctor was dependent on UNIT for shelter and equipment, while the fourth was frequently contrasted with the Time Lords: practical research vs the book learning of the elite. With the sciences being largely scorned by the British upper classes until the twentieth century, almost every British scientist before then has that much in common with the Doctor.

Of course, 'gentleman amateur' is primarily a sporting term, in which context I will simply say Black Orchid.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: August 16th, 2007 10:30 am (UTC)

The distinction between my 'Whig gentleman' and the gentleman amateur is a useful one. Davy is probably closer to Faraday and Stevenson in background - he's the son of a woodcarver, but was remotely of yeoman or gentry descent, and was supported in his early career by a surgeon-apothecary godfather, incorporating him into the professional class.

I agree with your description of the third and fourth Doctors. In some ways the fourth is a commentary on the third, in that the third was from the start a tatterdemalion, as all his clothes, real and metaphorical, were borrowed, yet this was hidden beneath the manners and appearance of a clubland gentleman (an appearance that became more theatrical and obviously affected as time went on); the fourth Doctor dispenses with these appearances and displays his ragamuffin status, but is at the same time more conscious of the need to actively pursue his independence.

Lance Parkin has added a comment over at Lost Luggage, which deals with the Smiley-Holmes connection, and I'd appreciate your views.

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: August 16th, 2007 12:07 pm (UTC)

Lance Parkin has added a comment over at Lost Luggage, which deals with the Smiley-Holmes connection, and I'd appreciate your views.

I don't buy it at all. I do vaguely remember the scene in question (and feel slightly sheepish for not spotting the joke at the time), but I don't think it's an attempt to turn Smiley into Holmes. The key differences, as I see it, are these:

1) Holmes is an independent investigator; Smiley is a salaried government official. Much as Smiley has a love-hate relationship with his colleagues, and with Whitehall, and much as he feels uncomfortable about the methods he has to use, he does not question the necessity of his position, nor does he mock the authority that gives him that position. Moreover, in The Honourable Schoolboy and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold Smiley is, in some sense, the villain, representing a faceless authority that tramples on justice and human emotions in the interests of the greater good. This is not something you could say about Holmes (who is willing to break the law in the wider interests of justice) or the Doctor (at least on TV).

2) Holmes, like the Doctor (except in his most recent incarnations), is emotionally disconnected, at least to some extent. Holmes even states that he has no desire to fall in love, as it would stop him thinking clearly. Smiley, on the other hand, is completely driven by the fact that he is still in love with his serial-adultress wife. This is the very first thing we learn about Smiley, before we learn that he's a spy and would-be academic. Le Carre's greatest novel (that I've read, and IMO, naturally), Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is as much a meditation on the nature of love and betrayal as it is an espionage thriller; Smiley's errant wife becomes both thematically important and a plot detail, his one known weakness, exploited by his Soviet counterpart. Smiley is equivocal as to whether it actually is a weakness, which separates him from Holmes.