The Alabaster Sock

We Will Fight the Threat with Fighting

Television Aliens I Have Known (Not About ALF. The ALF post will come later this week)

Posted by Matt on July 14, 2011

Why don’t I explain why I like Doctor Who? I don’t think I’ve done that yet.

Now, one thing to be noted is that I became a fan of the show recently. However, it wasn’t with the new series; I found a bunch of Tom Baker-era reruns on television before the new series aired, and was fascinated with them. Because of my latecomer status, I think I have avoided the zeitgeist that often comes with something as old and fanatically loved (and, in the case of the UK, ingrained in the basic fabric of the culture) as this, and can thus rationalize how I like this show a little more clearly.

One of the big things that endears to me about this series, both the original and the new ones, is that they seem to be able to balance different ideas of sci-fi quite effectively. What are those ideas? The first one is the speculative, the one that has dominated the first half-century of Science Fiction prose before the even pulpier aspects of the genre turned into space opera and took over. This side of sci-fi is the obsession with big ideas, with futuristic plots, with What Ifs. The show’s time travel element, more than it’s space exploration, exemplifies this, especially in the last few seasons, where going back and forward in the timeline to alter things plays a significant part of some of the plots (look at the “Pandorica Opens”/”Big Bang” finale from last year). When the show got weirder ideas in its head, even better. Some of the first episodes I saw were the wonderfully strange “Talons of Weng-Chiang” (which managed to mash together a time-travelling criminal, a killer ventriloquist dummy, Victorian England, giant rats, and Chinese stereotypes into one story) or “The Face of Evil” (which is essentially the standard ‘technology influences a primitive culture’ plot, but also has a computer with multiple personalities, including the Doctor’s). Even in the show’s lesser moments, you could often find a weird story idea or two that stand out among the Sci-Fi television landscape. Whether the show went into the future, or added an alien twist to the past (the latter of which I really enjoy because of the mash-up of incongruous elements. A story about medieval England is so much better when a robot shows up to fuck shit up).

The other element is the one that has been a part of pulp fiction for years, but was really solidified in the 50s: the love of goofy monsters. DW, more than any other big science fiction television show I can think of, has embraced that side of sci-fi, always attempting to come up with some sort of alien beast for the characters to face. Helping that is the low-budget nature of the show; for whatever reason, costumes and make-up and puppets (the show hasn’t even had the money to utilize some stop motion) just make more of an impression than impeccable computer creations (even when the show uses CGI these days, it’s pretty low-rent). I think it may be because the people behind the show had to be creative to make up for the fact that a lot of their monsters were simply fake fur and spray paint. A lot of the scariness ends up being implied; the Daleks and Cybermen are simple and low-tech in execution, but they were given unsettling concepts (the Cybermen were the Borg some 25 years before the Borg, remember, and what are the Daleks but miniature Panzers with a super-Nazi ideology?) to make up for being kind of goofy looking. Sometimes that didn’t work, and we ended up with something completely laughable (Kandy Man?) But even then, there’s something endearing about them. I mean, even bad old monster movies, not Dracula or Bride of Frankenstein, but The Giant Claw and From Hell it Came, have followings. The same deal applies here: it doesn’t matter how stupid a monster is, something about those rubber costumes instills delight in people.

There is also something appealing to the idea of a show where the protagonist is more of a thinker than a fighter, even if it doesn’t always follow up on that idea (here is an analysis of that). Despite being an alien and having lots of gadgets (and, at one point, mastering kung-fu for some reason), the Doctor is not superpowered or a gun-ho type, nor are most of his companions. The characters on the show end up having to solve their problems with thinking…and the odd deus ex machina (again, inconsistencies are there, but not enough to ruin the whole enterprise). This is usually where the horror and mystery elements kick in, which is another thing that makes the show stand out. For someone like me, who can enjoy well-done action with kick-ass heroes beating the shit out of evil, it’s a refreshing thing in to see in the genre pantheon. It’s fun to have an eccentric science-type to be the real hero of the story, and like the monsters, I think the limitations set by having (generally) normal characters who have to use their wits lends to some fun, inventive storytelling.

I think this is why it appeals to me more than the various branches of Star Trek, for example. Now, even though I’ve never tried to become a Star Trek, I do respect what it was trying to do, for the most part. Well, what the original series was trying to do, and TNG tried to emulate, and every other one after that sort of lost. Especially in those original episodes, there was an attempt to combine social awareness (the fact that it had a multiracial and ethnic cast should not be overlooked; I know my generation has come to loathe ‘affirmative action’, primarily because they are a mob of spoiled dickheads, but really, trying to be diverse shouldn’t be considered a problem) and the pulp goofiness, a potent combo that defined Science Fiction literary canon for years (including works from alumnus who worked on the show, like Harlan Ellison). Later series tried to capture that again, and sometimes succeeded, but starting with TNG, the series started to bog down with a love of the bureaucratic utopia the original show proposed, wedging itself firmly up its own ass and losing the sense of fun that the adventures of Kirk & The Gang had (I know there are lots of fans of Picard’s Merry Band out there, and I’m not someone who wants to hate TNG or anything, but I’ve found lots of enjoyment in original series fans’ evisceration of it). So, yes, Star Trek, on paper, should be right up my alley. But it isn’t, and Doctor Who is. To put it simply: I’ve just never been as much of a fan of stories about the kind of space adventuring on Trek, which feels almost militant and colonial; but I can dig the more free-spirited nature of Who, which feels more like wandering from place to place, never knowing where you’re going, not having any sort of mission or objective other than pure curiosity. Add in the horror and mystery stuff that DW aspires to more than most sci-fi televison, and we’re set for life.

But that’s not all. Remember all those production limitations I mentioned before? While the show’s special effects and conflict resolutions are kept in check, the one area where the show doesn’t really have much of a limit is in story possibilities. As I mentioned before, we could have an episode in 13th century England with robots, 20th century Germany with slug monsters, or some distant planet with robot slug monsters. It’s that freedom of imagination that really appeals to me, I think; a show where you can really do anything has always been very agreeable to me.

Being a new convert, as well, means that there’s a ton of history of the show to get into. It’s been fun looking back and seeing how show has evolved over the years, reflecting the times, etc. It’s just like how I was a late convert to comics, and found that I pretty much have ‘new’ material to last me for the rest of my life. It’s reassuring to know that I am still wading in the shallows of the ideasphere. I always have something to go back to.

And that’s why I like Doctor Who

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