Stories: bigger on the inside

Analyse this? 

I came across a fairly thorough psychological interpretation of Harry Potter via FB recently. The page linking to it had a lot of comments – people were either upset as it had ‘ruined’ the books or they were angry that someone had ‘bothered’.  Whatever the complaint, there was so much entitlement, or ownership. I understand people invest in stories, so don’t want their emotional connections sullied, or they don’t want their ego bruised if their own view of a story is somehow challenged.


I mounted a defence as best I could along multiple lines: if another’s person’s critique of a thing ruins it, the thing and you were not perhaps as tight as you thought. Or your understanding of the text is not as robust as you reckon, or basically, the book or song or painting is not as good as you imagined. Additionally, we bother to analyse stuff because we humans analyse stuff all day every day. We wonders, for instance, why siblings ‘borrowed’ my transistor radio (sigh) as a kid, and what some people see in their partners, or find accountancy entertaining or why there are Twihards.

We speculate about the motivations of people – real or imagined. It’s ok if you don’t want to speculate about characters, but in the end, we’re all stories, and therefore we are characters we make up in our heads and present to the world.

Furthermore, many of the comments confused the meaning of canon and criticism. To be clear. What I do here is mostly examine canon (if there is one), by adapting techniques appropriate to literary and televisual criticism. This is secondary to canon, in fact it can’t exist without the primary substance called canon. Canon is considered to be the product of an effort to create something original and have it accepted as authentic. Of course, I could apply criticism to fan fic – which is not canon – but I don’t think anyone wants that.

But all the above is a kind of agreed nonsense and others explain it better than me, but suffice it to say Shakespeare wasn’t all het up about originality. As that link goes on to explain the major concern for literate poet types who cared about this stuff  700 years ago was the: one distinction, between the matiere, which was the source material, and the san, which was their treatment of it.

So I suppose as a critic I am messing about with Who matiere, and in this process creating san, but of a different order. Not so much retelling the story, but explaining it, because I think our ability to ‘read’ symbols, understand analogies and appreciate the depth of our cultural heritage and how it’s inflected by certain writers is not as widespread or common as it once was. It is, in fact, a speciality.

And, that is why there are Harry Potter literalists who decry reading a text any other way than their own. They don’t get metaphor. They only accept stories as ‘made up’ because they can’t see how it engages with a wider culture or can lead us into understanding more than just the actions of a boy wizard. Or an alien.

You Who?

Thus, I will persist with the analysing about Doctor Who.  I don’t do it to take something from you that is yours. Or to diminish something that people love. It doesn’t mean I can’t write about other programs or books or films and sometimes I do, but Who lends itself to analysis because it’s long running, its characters are myriad and ever transforming, while the plots deal with any or even all time periods and difficulties. Beyond that I keep going back to it. Other things fade away, Who hasn’t. In short, unlike much of popular culture, it is not just glossy packaging: it does what it says on the box.

No really, why Who?

I could write about Arrow and the difficulties in living a double life, but that’s covered with companions in Who. For instance Clara lives an everyday school teacher non-Doctor life in contrast to her secret-ish time travelling. Sometimes this is difficult and other times this is easy. It was the same with the Ponds, who battled the pull of  a ‘normal’ work-and-friends kind of life against the lure of adventure and it was the same with Rose and Donna, who wanted to be with The Doctor, but also had family considerations. In addition, The Doctor is living multiple lives. Mostly he ‘pretends’ to be human, he refuses to discuss much of his past unless absolutely forced to, and he has duties and obligations and rules and often he hides these or runs away from them, like our Arrow friend, in the face of great loss and hardship. The Doctor does what he does because he has done it for so long, but it was, as far as we know, a choice first.

I could also write about sexual tension between the Hero and the Bright Young Assistant in Arrow but again, Doctor Who has it in spades. This program constantly negotiates and redefines roles and the relationships between Hero and Companion whether it is love interest Rose, long-lost love Sarah Jane, pining-rebound-non-Rose Martha, friend Donna or wannabe/not wannabe Clara – all within the confines of a ‘family friendly’ program.

Of course I could write about the actors, and looky what we have here with Arrow. Laurel Lance’s ‘Mom’ – the mad woman who believes her daughter is alive, and is right, but doesn’t know it. Not to mention Malcolm Merlyn (Malcolm – bad in the Latin) the anti-Robin Hood.

Bad in the Latin!

Bad in the Latin! Awesome in Everything!

Or I could delve into the Star Trek films and explore how reboots reshape and retell stories, but again, Doctor Who is all over it. In 2005 the TV program was rebooted, and, more importantly, the hero reboots himself every few years anyway and has done for bloomin’ decades. This program, basically, invented the reboot. And not only that, as a time traveller, he could and has in fact, retconned his entire story line and defeated others who have tried.

I could also delve into Star Trek to discuss spin offs and their relationship to the core stories. Again, I can do it with Doctor Who, what with the Sarah Jane shows, the K9 one, and Torchwood, not to mention the films, audio plays, and novels.

I could spend more time writing about the Marvel universe than I have, but each of our Avenging heroes manages to represent aspects of The Doctor, as I previously mentioned. Although Guardians of the Galaxy is a pretty damn funny and entertaining reboot-thing of Firefly + Star Wars and deserves more attention and many more accolades.

More words could be directed towards everything Joss Whedon-y, but having read a lot of stuff over at Tea at the Ford, they’ve had it covered for a long time, although they do cover everything else is well, if only sporadically. But go read.

In time, focus will turn again to Tolkien with the third instalment of The Hobbit, which will bring its own themes to examine. Here be dragons.

Generally Genre

I could write about genre regarding any number of books or films, but Doctor Who makes use of them all. Want horror, with ghosts or zombies? Yep The Doctor has ’em. Want ‘hard’ SF? Got that too, want space operas, family dramas, dinosaurs, westerns, or serious psychological stories of ‘Othering’, pirates, or modern mystery adventures or alternate universes, battles with Romans, Sherlock-like things, or a crap load of robots, or Victorian steam punk lizards plus comedy? All covered. Want, say, examples of feminist heroines from the 1970s, or explorations of the impact of colonialism, examinations of class, or the impact of war, unregulated healthcare provision or scientific experimentation, unchecked militarism or rampant industrialisation, examinations of organised religion, developing celebrations of diversity, or the dangers of imposed technology? Check, check, check etc.

Rules and Boundaries

Doctor Who, like Arrow or I don’t know, Neighbours, has rules to follow as a program, but unlike them, it has less boundaries. If the Neighbours cast suddenly battle an alien invasion it’s no longer the soap opera it set out to be. If the hero of Arrow suddenly pursues a career in interpretative dance in Canada, it wouldn’t be Arrow. Yet Doctor Who can be an urban family drama (eg any ep featuring the Tylers) or it can be a full on cartoony super-villian program (any ep with The Master) or end up in a Toronto jazz ballet class and still remain itself.  It’s not that Neighbours or Arrow are worse programs, they’re just constrained by genre, as they should be.

For the record, Arrow is pretty good, and I’m fairly certain being Australian means having at least watched some episodes of Neighbours, even if not for a decade.

Anyway, if you find, after all of this, that Doctor Who is the program for you, it is perhaps because, just like the box The Doctor travels in, its stories are always bigger on the inside.


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