22 November 2013

Save the Day essays #6: Anarchy in the U.K.

A lot of fictional heroes are either police, or very thinly disguised police. And this was probably more true in the 1960s than now. Go back to that time, and you won’t see Batman as a vigilante, but a hero often working closely with Commissioner Gordon and the police.

When you strip away all the glamour – the cars and booze and women – James Bond is a civil servant. He’s an authority figure who’s working for “the man.”

The Doctor is an unusual hero because he doesn’t fit that mold.

In story terms, Doctor Who starts with a rapid succession of crimes by the show’s ostensible hero. Off screen, before the first episode starts, the Doctor steal his TARDIS (not “the” TARDIS, because there was originally more than one in the story) and goes on the run with his granddaughter Susan from his own people. This is promptly followed by kidnapping his granddaughter’s teachers, Ian and Barbara. Then, he’s hefting up a rock in an (unsuccessful) attempt to kill a caveman.

While the fugitive aspect of the Doctor was toned down even during Hartnell’s era, the Doctor remained, perhaps not a criminal or an anarchist, but certainly an anti-establishment character. In some of the classic series, it seemed that “toppling oppressive regimes” was a very close second to “stopping alien invasions” on the Doctor’s to do list.

The Troughton and Pertwee stories often played with the Doctor as a defiant figure. The Doctor was in conflict with the Time Lords, the established authorities on his planet. And how the Doctor resented the times he was yanked around like a dog on a chain to carry out missions from the Time Lords.

On top of that, the Doctor was forced to work with the authoritarian military (U.N.I.T.). This conflict led to some of the show’s most interesting relationships, the Doctor and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. There were frequently sharp words between the pacifist Doctor and the military man. That conflict never really died away even, as the characters became close. The Doctor respected the Brigadier personally, but never what he did professionally.

That slightly anarchic side of the Doctor continued through the classic series, whether in large strokes (the season-long battle when the White Guardian yanked the fourth Doctor’s chain, much like the Time Lords had before) or tiny details (the eighth Doctor pulling an alarm, being asked why, and responding, “To liven things up!”; the second Doctor being told, “You”re not allowed in there!” and saying, “Me? Not allowed? I’m allowed everywhere!”). The Doctor’s suspicion of Time Lord authority had been proved to be well-founded, as later stories showed an a system rife with political corruption and backstabbing.

I don’t think it’s any accident that many of the show’s biggest, best, most popular, most effective villains are authoritarian military regimes (the Daleks, the Cyberman, the Sontarans) and a despot, who name is authority incarnate (the Master).

When the show returned, the Doctor couldn’t be the tamed agent working for the Time Lords any more. They’re gone. The Doctor couldn’t rebel against that authority. The series played with the Doctor becoming the voice of power. In “New Earth,” he says:

I am the Doctor. If you don't like it, if you want to take it to a higher authority, there isn't one. It stops with me.

That theme goes even further in “The Runaway Bride” and “The Waters of Mars.”

Adelaide: Little people? What, like Mia and Yuri? Who decides they're so unimportant? You?

The Doctor: For a long time now, I thought I was just a survivor, but I'm not. I'm the winner. That's who I am. A Time Lord victorious.

Adelaide: And there's no one to stop you?

The Doctor: No.

Adelaide: [Noticeably angry] This is wrong, Doctor! I don't care who you are! The Time Lord victorious is wrong!

It might have been easier for the Doctor to be a rebel in the 1960s when he was young (so to speak; the show was young, in any case). It got more complicated the Doctor for the Doctor to fight powers when returned in the twenty-first century, middle-aged (the show as in its 40s).

But... But! The point of those stories is to show that the Doctor rejects having that much authority. The point of those stories is that he realizes he needs to be stopped from doing whatever he wants. He doesn’t become the thing he hates.

After you’ve watched your hero for a long time, you can lose track if some of the elements that resonate with you are because you have those character traits to begin with, or whether you picked them up from watching your hero.

That deep uneasiness with authority is something I share with the Doctor. I don’t automatically respect people in the military. I enjoy (sometimes more than I should) rattling cages and pushing back against overly rigid system. I like to rebel just a little bit. To liven things up.

But, like the Doctor, as you go, you tend to accrue more authority. You’re given responsibility, and the chance to make decisions that genuinely affect other people’s lives. The question becomes what you do with it: embrace it completely and wield it like a club to suit your own ends? Or do you try to use it sparingly, to genuinely improve the lot of others?

In the end, the Doctor is never part of “the system.” He’s powerful, but never “the power.” He’s one person in a box.

Related posts

Save the Day essays #1: Restoration
Save the Day essays #2: Recovery
Save the Day essays #3: Family
Save the Day essays #4: Rewatching the rebirth
Save the Day essays #5: Playing favourites

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