Hey Dr. Who, When They Kick Out Your Front Door, How You Gonna Come?

Posted by on April 21st, 2010 at 1:59 PM


[Why is Dr. Who so worried we might hurt some fascists?]

When They Kick Out Your Front Door
How You Gonna Come
With your hands on your head
Or on the trigger of your gun?

– The Clash, “Guns of Brixton”

Last Saturday night, BBC America debuted its new Doctor Who series, and Dr. Who certainly got his door kicked out. Sad to say, he came out with his hands on his head.

I was a Doctor Who fan of the 1970s Jon Pertwee/Tom Baker era, and I like the new doctor (Matt Smith). On a no-babysitter Saturday night, I was curious to see what a post-Matrix, post-Iron Man, post-I-don’t-know … post-microwave oven Doctor Who might be like?

Having a kid has certainly put me back in touch with my nerd roots. It’s not easy getting a pre-K into Kevin Huizenga when Superman is around. One entertaining move of Doctor Who show runner Steven Moffat is to make the series premiere as much Clive Barkerish lizard horror as it is 1950s BBC sci-fi. They did a great job creeping me out with Prisoner Zero, a piranha-faced thing hiding out in (I think) multiple dimensions, one of which is in a little girl’s house.

It was a fun episode … on the Doctor’s return, a galactic police force surrounds Earth and will incinerate us in 20 minutes unless Prisoner Zero surrenders. This, as they say on MacGyver, is a tough spot. The Doctor jumps through incredible hoops to capture Prisoner Zero. But … the Doctor never once asks what Prisoner Zero did. Nope, the cops flash their big badges and he skips ropes for them. Literally, he doesn’t ask why, just how high.

What surprised me is what an Upper Class Tory twit the new Doctor is. The Doctor, of course, is a Time LORD. Not a Time Lad, a la Noel Gallagher or the average football YOB. He also talks up his doctorate quite a bit (“I’m the Doctor!” he likes to shout) — I mean, he’s not a medical doctor, but a sort of physicist who insists on using his title at all times – so he’s got some status issues. And he works out of a police call box. An aristocrat, a preening edu-snob, a fetishist for the law and order trappings of government power — so of course he never thinks twice when the cops bark orders.  He’s got a lot invested in the status quo. Over here he’d be an alien Wm F. Buckley or George Will. The new Doctor even wears an iconic 1980s conservative bow-tie, as Will still wears every Sunday morning talking politics.

As for that little girl in the house, the biggest problem in her life isn’t the alien down the hall — it’s that the Doctor blew his time coordinates when she was 8 or so and left her waiting 12 years after he promised to come back in five minutes (with an alien down the hall from her, no less), putting her in years of therapy over the “imaginary” time traveler who abandoned her. By the time he gets back, she’s a sex-worker (OK, a “kiss-a-gram girl” who dresses up as cop or nun for “parties”), a classic self-esteem case with abandonment issues.  Sad.  I mean, compare the emotional damage done to this poor girl (actress Karen Gillan, as the Doctor’s new assistant, Amy Pond) by the Doctor with her boarder alien, who has the courtesy to block her mind from sensing him for 12 years – the perfect roommate!  There’s a total insensitivity on the Doctor’s part to Time Commoners like ourselves.

Could be the alien got here via an Underground Railroad escaping a concentration camp for piranha-faced lizards – but does the Doctor ask? He’s certainly been to enough horrible totalitarian planets. Instead of getting rid of the aliens planning to incinerate Earth in 20 minutes, he manipulates the Internet to track Prisoner Zero and turn him in – a creature who hasn’t really done any harm here except live here among us – just like the Doctor!

Maybe I’m too liberal for Dr. Who. Which is odd, since Moffat and many of the show’s creators past and present are currently supporting Labour Party PM Gordon Brown.

[Gordon Brown campaign ad featuring Sean Pertwee, son of Jon, and David Tennant’s voice-over]

Maybe they feel guilty in a Leni Riefenstahl way for foisting this Tory time traveler on us. Check out the trailer for Victory of the Daleks (above), when the Doctor travels to 1940s Britain and finds Sir Winston Churchill using Daleks as a secret weapon against the Nazis. This Doctor, of course, finds these heroes of the Left too vicious to use on the Third Reich (the first hero in history to pity the Nazis). I’ve only seen the trailer, but I’m worried the “victory” in the title may refer to Churchill listening to the Doctor and turning the Daleks on Ghandi to keep India in the Empire.

And yet, the Doctor’s suck-uppery to intergalactic jack boots got me thinking.  If he’s so right wing, perhaps the Daleks are not the horrid exterminators of All Life, but Socialist liberators the Doctor hates for trying to force him into an equitable healthcare system. Perhaps the dormant Silurian dinosaur men are natives simply tired of human imperialists.

And you know why the Doctor FINALLY gets mad at the alien cops? Because they finally push him around, like village constables stepping on his Lordship’s prized rose garden to catch a burglar. Once he turns Zero over, he wants them to kiss his butt for being a lord — and there’s even a montage of all the past doctors (a nicely done nostalgia moment for older fans) to emphasize his aristocratic lineage. Like he’s saying, look here officer, I’m the 11th Earl of Who, SO GET OFF MY LAWN.

I hope Doctor Tory has a great run, but the next one needs to be played by or Russell Brand or Lennox Lewis.

[Special thanks to Facebook Friend Jake Rosenschein for making the Gordon Brown – Doctor Who connection for me.]

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9 Responses to “Hey Dr. Who, When They Kick Out Your Front Door, How You Gonna Come?”

  1. Caro says:

    Hmm. Maybe a little bit of Romana I got mixed into his regeneration? He really didn’t come off this much of a stuffed shirt to me. I was associating the arrogance with the “overstepping his bounds” theme from the last couple of Tennant eps.

    Have you seen The Beast Below yet? There’s a scene toward the end that I think is a key data point for your argument. It didn’t really matter what Prisoner Zero had done or whether he (?) was guilty or not, because the billions of people on earth were definitely less guilty. He recognized that the alien cops were the “evil” ones, which is why it was so imperative that he remind them not to come back.

    So the Doctor didn’t turn PZ into the Abraxi because they were the cops with the authority so they must be right: he just sacrificed the desires of the one for the needs of the many.

    Yeah, his speech was arrogant as hell, but it was superhero arrogant, not gilding-my-lily politician arrogant — and it scared them off without him having to do a single violent thing. All he had to do was talk. Coming off the Swamp Thing Roundtable, I thought right after he said “run”: “He is in his place of power, and you should not have come here.”

    I got from the trailer that he was concerned about unholy alliances with the Daleks, not to mention their behaving out of character…I’m going to give it a couple more episodes. The dialogue still sounds like it’s written for Tennant’s cadence, so I’m crossing fingers that there are just a few kinks.

  2. Caro says:

    Errata: it’s Atraxi, and there should be a paragraph break after “for your argument”. Oops.

  3. DerikB says:

    Oddly enough, I watched a couple Dr Who eps recently from 2008-2009 and, in contrast to your comments, there is one where he helps a thief escape the police (though, she is a hot young lady whose been flirting with him, so maybe that doesn’t count).

  4. Caro says:

    Derik, that’s the bus one, yeah? That was an outright flouting of police authority, since helping her didn’t actually benefit anybody else.

    Seriously, this arrogance/authority thing is an ongoing theme, and it does not make him Tory. If there’s a relationship to contemporary politics it’s allegorical.

  5. Ben_Schwartz says:

    Thanks for posting guys. First, I should say that essay is meant somewhat tongue-in-cheek, at least as far as the Doctor’s Tory leanings go. I’m sure he’s not a Cameron man, but, you know, he does seem pretty chummy with Sir Winston as he weeps for his Empire. Go ahead, make a case for him as a Clegg voter.

    I am serious in my complaints about how the premiere episode is written. That speech he uses to convince the aliens to run away from him — why not say that the first time he meets the Atraxi instead of in the last five minutes? Why doesn’t he grill Prisoner Zero about how “a silence will fall” when he’s encountering a creature with a pretty good understanding of time and space dimensions that eludes the Doctor himself — instead of just giving Zero up to the Atraxi. Whoever wrote that episode was satisfied at the first draft, it seems.

    Ben

  6. Caro says:

    I wasn’t taking you to mean that there’s a literal political allegory; the show’s generally more moral than political. I just read “Tory” as a quippy shorthand for “less than questioning of authority” and/or just “authoritarian.”

    But I also think the details just aren’t there for this reading. Making a political allegory depends on there not being much ambiguity in those themes of authority and arrogance, and I think there is.

    Those themes are defintely the big ticket for the current story arc (which I think started with the last few Tennant eps), but it’s on the moral scale, not the political: you want him to find a way to save Zero, or at least prove that he’s guilty first, but that wouldn’t be consistent with the theme of the sacrifice of the one for the many. The legal register you’re starting from doesn’t really give a lot of room for a theme that doesn’t have a good “right” answer.

    Although, that said, I think the script actually does show that he thought about it:

    1) He didn’t tell the Atraxi to run earlier because a) he wasn’t face to face with them before that, except in Amelia’s room, which was before he had any details and before the Atraxi revealed their pyromanic tendencies. Remember how hard he tried to get them to notice the sonic screwdriver in the town square? The Atraxi weren’t paying attention to him enough for him to have the chance to make the speech. He’s very annoyed when he looks out the window after they take Zero, and when he called them on the phone, he said “I didn’t say you could go.”

    2) He doesn’t ask Zero about the comment about the silence because it derailed his prepared sequence of “questions”, which do almost all the work you’re asking for. It’s this beautifully packed bit:

    The doctor prompts first:”take the disguise off.”
    PZ replies: they’ll kill me; I’d rather they burn Earth.

    The doctor prompts second: go back the way you came
    PZ replies: “I did not open the crack” and “don’t you know where they came from.”

    In that exchange, the doctor (and the writer) a) establish that Zero is on the opposite side of the Doctor vis-a-vis the theme — for Zero the needs of the one outweigh the many — so he isn’t a particularly “good guy,” and b) get partial information from Zero about the crack: Zero didn’t open it, and Zero thinks the time lord should know about it.

    In that exchange, the doctor is grilling Zero: through seemingly innocuous prompts that Zero will answer; the Doctor doesn’t ask follow up questions partly because he has no expectation of a response and partly because Zero’s expecting him to know about the cracks takes him by surprise. If he kept going, he wouldn’t be in charge of the exchange anymore. That’s a very characteristic rhetorical move of the old doctors, especially Tom Baker: the doctor doesn’t ask questions he hasn’t thought through. When he starts to lose control of the exchange, he creates a diversion. Here, it also wouldn’t be in keeping with this characteristic arrogance they started with Tennant and are still not through wrapping up.

    3) But, that said, even if you take the exchange at face value, he’s still got to get Zero off the planet even if Zero has information of value. And cutting that conversation short — via the clock time virus kicking in — sets up the opportunity for yet another cycle of the theme: in the truncated timeline of the “20 minutes,” he has to move on to execute the plan to stop the fire. This is not because of some warped relation to authority that makes him “just give up Zero,” this is the theme again: is the Doctor’s need to know about the silence greater than the population of Earth’s need to not be roasted?

    Of course, the theme itself is a loose end of sorts — is it right to make these choices, to sacrifice PZ to benefit the billions of humans? what if missing the chance to address the crack causes something worse to happen? — but it’s an intentional loose end, setting up both the next episode and the “silence” theme that’s likely to be this season’s Bad Wolf.

    I think the execution of all that is really pretty tight.

    In this episode at least. The Beast Below is fairly disappointing, but it definitely gives a denouement to this theme, and, probably, sets up the next one.

  7. A.J. LaFollette says:

    Apparently British campaign ads are smarter than ours, but equally cheesy. Not sure why I should be taking advice from some bloke walking down a country road, but at least it’s nice to see a political ad that discusses the global financial crisis intelligently, unlike what we get over here.

    But although Doctor Who may be produced by a bunch of Labour shills, the first episode really had no discernible political content. It’s a moral dilemma that isn’t really much of a dilemma — Prisoner Zero is creepy and objectively bad to have around, and the entire earth is going to get toasted just because he’s here. If he weren’t so busy snarling at everyone, perhaps he could have changed the Doctor’s mind.

    The next episode, the Beast Below, actually IS quite political. And decidedly un-Tory.

    As Caro points out, it’s been a thematic element in the show lately that the Doctor is a little too sure of himself and prone to being a bit callous toward his companions. He is something of a superhero, and like many recent superhero stories the show is a little bit ambivalent about the hero having so much power over ordinary people. But because his powers are more cerebral than physical, the overall message tends to be diplomacy over force — again, not so Tory.

    I like the “Time Lad” line, though. A good description of Mickey from a couple seasons ago.

  8. Ben_Schwartz says:

    See, this is why I don’t watch LOST, HEROES, or C-SPAN — too many plotholes.

    Caro — the Doctor has been doing this for 900 years! He deals with self-righteous alien armies all the time. You’d think he’d have more questions. He had direct contact with the Atraxi and then Prisoner Zero and was given the Atraxi message personally – and the cops are as creepy much more violent than Zero. Zero didn’t come here to burn the Earth up, they did.

    Also, the image of a prisoner hiding out in a house and an army threatening to burn down the “village” if they don’t surrender said fugitive — very WW II, very Nazi, very Anne Frank. Honestly, my first instinct was, why is this Doctor taking orders from these guys? Interesting, too, why didn’t the Atraxi want to know who the Doctor was immediately — he’s the one living being on Earth who can directly contact them. Later, he points out that he leads the Atraxi to Zero by using his sonic screwdriver because they’re looking for alien technology — so, the Atraxi definitely know our world, that the Doctor’s not part of it, and then ignore this until it becomes a key part of catching Zero.

    As for Prisoner Zero allowing Earth to die, the Doctor also makes clear that for these creatures such things are blips in their existence – Zero and the Atraxi spend 12 years in their stand-off. It was an odd echo of the “Ultimate Doctor Who Guide” or whatever it’s called, that preceded this episode, when Moffat points out that the Doctor has made lots of decisions where people died so that many could survive. It’s a blip in his millenial existence too, but he has a conscience. I’m telling you, the cops flash a badge and he loses it. And why is he telling that guy on the laptop not to look at Internet porn? Was Mary Whitehouse a former assistant?

    A.J. — the Doctor’s last speech is a definite threat to the Atraxi. And they did run. My question is, why didn’t he do that first if it’s that simple?

    Here’s an anti-Tory interview with Moffat where he defends the BBC from its critics:

    http://bit.ly/9EPWoF

    Anti-Murdoch, but he has the instincts of the organization man, and so does the Doctor.

    Ben

  9. Caro says:

    Ben! I was writing a response to you and when it hit 3000 words I decided I’d probably better put it as its own post over at HU.

    But I didn’t put all the geeky plot point arguments in that, so I’ll put them here. (Italics is you, from the last post.)

    Thanks for writing about Doctor Who. :)

    I think the premise of the show, with its truncated 20 minute timeline, was how to get the attention of the big bad alien without access to that alien technology, to the Tardis or a sonic screwdriver.

    the Doctor has been doing this for 900 years! He deals with self-righteous alien armies all the time. You’d think he’d have more questions.

    Not necessarily: you could say that he’s had so much experience and knows so much that he doesn’t need to ask more questions. Or at least that he thinks he does: I think that’s the more consistent angle to take given their “theme” of Dr Who being too sure of himself (as AJ put it).

    That said, he also got a lot of information out of Zero without asking questions: Zero didn’t open the cracks, he expects the Time Lord should know where they come from, and he gives the doctor a very specific warning: “The Pandorica will open. The silence will fall.” That’s a pretty good bit of information for a well-traveled 900-year-old genius with a fantastic education. How do you know that what Zero told him doesn’t answer all his questions?

    – and the cops are as creepy much more violent than Zero. Zero didn’t come here to burn the Earth up, they did.

    This was what I said in my first comment: the Atraxi are the evil ones, and the doctor makes a decision to sacrifice Zero as the most expeditious way to get rid of the Atraxi. The needs of the one are less than the needs of the many.

    He asks Amelia whether there’s an airport, a nuclear power plant, even a car. He sorts through all the other options, all the ways to deal with the Atraxi directly, and determines that the only thing he can do is use the thing that the Atraxi want – Prisoner Zero – to trap them. That’s the hard decision: the one must be sacrificed to save the many.

    It’s not a plothole: it’s right there in the scene where they’re walking through the village, right before the duckpond. They just don’t hit you over the head with it.

    Honestly, my first instinct was, why is this Doctor taking orders from these guys?

    He isn’t taking orders from them. He’s trying to stop them from burning up the world. In 20 minutes. Without a Tardis or a sonic screwdriver. Or any other way to contact them.

    I’m telling you, the cops flash a badge and he loses it.

    There’s textual evidence against this: the Doctor tells the Atraxi “Did you think no-one was watching?” How does that fit with the idea that he’s caving to them? Throughout the episode, he’s trying to get their attention so that he can flash his badge at them.

    Interesting, too, why didn’t the Atraxi want to know who the Doctor was immediately — he’s the one living being on Earth who can directly contact them.

    He can’t directly contact them. He has to “track the signal back” from the phone before he can call them. They didn’t know he was there.

    That’s also why they didn’t try to find out who the Doctor was right then: they don’t figure out that the Doctor is even there, let alone alien too, until they are on the rooftop with him.

    Also, they’re not really critical thinkers: that’s the point of the questions the Doctor asks them on the rooftop. They are self-interested, only concerned with their own goals, uninterested in context. Unlike the Doctor, who is so powerful that he has to make decisions about who gets to live and who has to die.

    A.J. — the Doctor’s last speech is a definite threat to the Atraxi. And they did run. My question is, why didn’t he do that first if it’s that simple?

    We don’t know what he would have said to them had he gotten their attention in the town square, since they would not have been able to see Zero if he’d managed it and only would have found the Doctor. When that didn’t work, the premises changed.

    I realize you’re asking why didn’t the screenwriters set it up for him to be able to talk to them earlier, but their theme is this “sacrifice one for the good of the many” thing. You’re arguing with their execution when your actual beef is with their premises. But what you’re missing is that their premises hold over a multi-episode arc which ends up in a different place than this single episode.

    As for Prisoner Zero allowing Earth to die, the Doctor also makes clear that for these creatures such things are blips in their existence – Zero and the Atraxi spend 12 years in their stand-off. It was an odd echo of the “Ultimate Doctor Who Guide” or whatever it’s called, that preceded this episode, when Moffat points out that the Doctor has made lots of decisions where people died so that many could survive. It’s a blip in his millenial existence too, but he has a conscience.

    That’s not an odd echo! That’s the theme of the multi-episode arc! It’s the interpretive key to the episode!

    You’re basically claiming that the doctor is reckless with this decision, with Zero’s life, but what you’re missing is that if the Doctor wanted to – if the screenwriters wanted him to – he could just destroy the Atraxi. He’s stymied by his Tardis not working, but that’s the artificial constraint there to set up the morality play. And instead of working out a storyline that lets him kill the Atraxi, or that lets him save them both, the Doctor gives up Zero but makes the Atraxi run. There are a number of options for how the morality could play out, and the screenwriters chose the one consistent with the theme Moffat points out. You’re calling that weak screenwriting?

    Then you say it’s a morality you don’t like – not Strummer enough – but I think you’re missing how Moffat’s point resonates here too: the Doctor struggles with the fact that he has the power to do this all the time. Because it’s a morality play.

    Also, the image of a prisoner hiding out in a house and an army threatening to burn down the “village” if they don’t surrender said fugitive — very WW II, very Nazi, very Anne Frank.

    Right, and we have a Steampunk, uh…Dieselpunk, uh…TimeVortexPunk Tardis, and the aesthetic of Starship UK is very militaristic, as are the camo-green Allied Daleks. Again: a theme, but not one we can parse with the information we have presently.

    This script is packed solid with intra- and extra-diegetic elements all working in the service of a single theme and absolutely full of continuity tricks for the age-old fans. It’s an extraordinarily tight script. It’s just not all on the surface.

    And why is he telling that guy on the laptop not to look at Internet porn? Was Mary Whitehouse a former assistant?

    That would be a nerd joke. The sexy, tall, blond, buff man, without a girlfriend, looking at internet porn, while Dorky Rory runs around with Amelia and the Doctor.