We Need to Talk About the Doctor

Well, this blog post was a draft I created, and never did anything with, back in November 2017, but now that I’ve watched Twice Upon a Time, Moffat’s last (hopefully forever) stint at writing Doctor Who, I have more to say on the topic so here goes.

I attended my first Doctor Who convention back in November–Long Island Doctor Who–and had a couple conversations with various other fans and attended some panels and appearances and what really kept slapping me in the face was the ways in which gender is so constantly and consistently essentialized, brought down to particular traits or behaviors that people can’t help but associate with one or the other binary genders.  And beyond what we like to consider others’ ignorance around gender, such as equating genitals with gender, is the issue of so-called allies and their responsibility to call out the gender bullshit when se wee it.  We need to be able not only to recognize it, but be prepared and practiced enough to speak out.  Not doing so just makes us feel good that we didn’t do it, but doesn’t do anything to actually make positive changes so that the next generation doesn’t have to go through the same bullshit.

But anyway, back to Doctor Who.  We all know that the next Doctor will be presenting female, rather than the male half of the binary of the last 55 years.  And as happy as I am, it really worries me because our society on the whole lacks the basic ability to talk about women and gender with any real sensitivity, so to watch the fandom world talking about a woman in the role for however many years we get to see a woman as the Doctor, to watch a group of people who have already shown themselves to have sexist and misogynistic tendencies talk about a woman in a major media role, gives me a lot of trepidation.

To give this context, even men who purport to be feminist and supportive of a woman as the Doctor, have a hard time talking about women as if they aren’t a separate, unfathomable species.  Sylvester McCoy himself, in his stand-up appearance panel at Long Island Who, referred to Whitaker’s taking on the roles as “I’ve had a sex change,” and when talking about the con experience in the 80’s reference a con he attended in Florida in which the women were all dressed as Leela, but many of them “shouldn’t have been.”  Because they were fat, you see.  And fat women shouldn’t inflict their appearance on anyone.  Luckily (she muttered sarcastically) the next Doctor is a thin, blonde, white woman.

Which brings us to Twice Upon a Time, which I’ve come to think of as an Emperor’s New Clothes moment for both Doctor Who and Moffat.  It, for me, was the point at which Moffat showed that he really has no understanding of the core of feminism and wrote a bunch of tone deaf jokes at which he was the only one laughing.  I suppose some have lauded how “evolved” the Doctor has become in Peter Capaldi, as he cringes through the horrible takes the First Doctor is given to express about women and their role, but I’m pretty sure Capaldi was cringing at all the ironic sexism Moffat was flinging at the script in a bid to prove that he really is a feminist.  Hopefully, should Chibnall choose to take a more anti-sexist stance he’ll actually find women to write his scripts so it doesn’t come off as just another bro mocking the feminist movement that has led to his beloved show turning girly.

And to get down to the story, where was it?  The entire special seemed like just another chance for Moffat to bring out his one trick pony and revise some Doctor Who history by pulling the First Doctor out of time to have an adventure with the Twelfth before regeneration.  Gatiss’ storyline, as a WWI captain about to die, was completely unnecessary to the story, as was Bill’s, really.  I’m pretty sure Moffat just wanted an excuse to bring Clara back and flog that dead horse a bit before putting his era of the show to bed.  Now the Doctor has his memories of Clara back, so everything in the Moffat-verse is right, and he can leave knowing he has made the show perfect (in his own opinion).

When we all know that the best parts of the show have to do with its not being perfect, with continuity not being the most important thing, and with not knowing some things about the universe.  With absolute power, it seems, has come Moffat’s loss of wonder.  Very little about Twice Upon a Time was wonderful, or really very cohesive.  An adventure in which the Doctor is reunited with Bill and has to, with his 1st iteration, figure out whether she’s real, whether she died, why she’s part of the testimony database if she really is alive, and then figuring out, at the end, that it’s ok to be afraid of dying, would have been a perfectly rational story, and would have given more weight to Bill’s arc on the whole, and what happened to her with the Cybermen in the final two episodes.

Instead, Moffat has to wheel in a man, and a turn of the century symbol of masculinity–the WWI soldier who “does his bit”–no less, in order to give the story the weight he thinks it lacks.  All of this leading up to the Doctor–our Doctor–regenerating into Jodie Whittaker’s iteration.  All we needed to complete the picture was Missy popping in to put on some lipstick and spout a bit more nonsense about upgrading to girlbot and we’d have had Moffat Who bingo.

I’d have loved if Moffat cut out all the sexist stuff and stuck to jokes between Hartnell-Bradley and Capaldi, with the good final regenerations scenes at the end.  But let’s be honest, I could have watched Capaldi soliloquy about dying for the entire episode.  Those were the best parts, and lot of it had to do with direction and the actor’s own ability to deliver the lines.  The parts about whether Bill was real or not were just unnecessarily creeping and didn’t really lead to anything, which can pretty much be interpreted as Moffat just seeing every woman as somehow suspicious and dangerous, even when you already know them.

So hopefully the new year will bring better writing for Doctor Who, with plenty of laughs and adventures for the Thirteenth Doctor, and no more Moffat.  Ever.  Looking at you, Chibnall.

Media Watch: The Good Place, Season 1

I recently watched season one of The Good Place (some network, I dunno, I watched it on Netflix) over a period of about three days.  That’s the beauty of half-hour network shows, they just fly by.  It also helped that it was a really funny show that played on the absurd in creative ways to keep watchers on their toes and lead up to the big season finale reveal in a fun and unexpected way.

Synopsis: Eleanor Shellstrop wakes up to find herself in the afterlife, The Good Place, as helpful architect Michael informs her, showing her around her new, perfect life and all the people she’ll be living beside for the rest of eternity.  But there’s just one problem–Eleanor is not the Eleanor Shellstrop they think she is.  What is she to do?  If she admits she’s not the supremely good person who got into the Good Place, she’ll go to the Bad Place.  If she doesn’t say anything, she’ll be looking over her shoulder for the rest of existence, causing unintended  negative consequences for everyone else that will have other residents and the architect trying to fix whatever the problem is.

With one of the more effortlessly diverse casts of current television offerings, this is a series that also does a good job at fleshing out its core characters.  Chidi, from Nigeria by way of Senegal, is an professor of ethics; Tehani is British, of Pakistani origins, and famous for being a humanitarian; while Jianyu is a Buddhist monk who took a vow of silence at the age of eight and refuses to give it up, even in the afterlife.  Each episode provides subtle hints as to who these people really are, how they ended up in this particular neighborhood in The Good Place, and Eleanor’s relationship to each develops in a natural–and yet absurd, in the manner of a pseudo-magical afterlife–progression that helps the reader come to terms with her attempts to not only remain, but deserve to, in The Good Place.

Helping Michael (played by Ted Danson) is the personal assistant Janet, who knows everything in the world and yet has no curiosity and only the morality with which she was programmed.  It seems unbelievable that Eleanor’s existence where she doesn’t belong could go undiscovered, and yet Michael is so unquestionably not human, so fascinated by human behavior and overwhelmed by making sure his first community be perfect, that the viewer can forget that minor glitch and enjoy the humor of so many good people attempting to live together in a place not of their own making.

Oh, and everyone has a soulmate.

This little gem provides added comedy, along with some much-needed social commentary on seemingly every piece of media’s obsession with pairing people up.  Chidi, as we learn in the first episode, is Eleanor’s soulmate, and so she trusts him with her secret.  Chidi, good person that he is, agrees to teach her ethics so she can learn to be a good person.  Antics ensue, with some good comedy that, for the most part isn’t insensitive or overly reliant on harmful stereotypes.

But, Chidi is Nigerian, a black man, an extremely smart academic, who has been enlisted to teach Eleanor, a blond white woman who never made an effort to be a good person, to be a better person.  Which, many people will recognize, is akin to the emotional labor that people of color are constantly called upon to perform in real life, to help white people be less racist, better allies, not assholes, and etc.  The fact that the show doesn’t shy away from pointing this out helps, but I would imagine that people of color watching the show might find it tiresome after a while.

The big reveal of the final episode also helps somewhat (possible spoilers ahoy), as we learn that The Good Place that Michael has created has quite a few more flaws than meets the eye.  This isn’t just another series that acknowledges its own racism or sexism and then goes on to perpetuate said -ism; it sets up The Good Place as a utopia in which these -isms don’t operate, and show the ways in which they did work in flashbacks to characters’ lives, particularly Eleanor’s.  Eleanor is presented as a sympathetic character, but is consistently called upon to acknowledge that whatever shit she endured as a child did not exempt her from treating people decently later on.

The Good Place is also, in its own absurdist way, a look at the ways in which community operates.  In fact, much of the humor of the show comes from seeing communal activities from real life taken to extremes in The Good Place, whether it’s a scary-intense but super happy and friendly chef at her new restaurant’s opening gala, or the ways in which people form communities on social media over shared viewing experiences like The Bachelor.

The Good Place, flaws and all, is smart and nimble, and worth a watch.