THE TRUTH SNAKE – The Mythos Makers (#2)

Note: this is the second part of an essay attempting to outline the formation of the ideology of post-2005 Doctor Who through examination of it and the spinoff content predating and surrounding it. I advise reading the first part first, which will provide much needed context for the more complicated arguments here. Click anywhere on this paragraph for the first part.

Generally progressive as they were, however, the political shifts ushered in by the Virgin New Adventures had losses along the way, and some radical and positive perspectives were neutered or erased in the transition from classic Doctor Who through the spinoff content into the new series. There were limitations and erasures, for example of queer representation (queer being the most commonly utilized academic term for explorations of non-straight/cis identities and thus the one that will be used here). For example, Ace found herself entirely wiped of queerness. It was limited in prominence in the show, of course, with the only clear case being Rona Munro’s Survival, for which she’s memorably on the record fretting “you’re killing my lesbian subtext” over the execution in the serial. [1] But the absence of this vision in the expanded universe is nonetheless striking. While other messages her era muted in the show came to fruition in the books, like the so-called Cartmel Masterplan, Ace’s queer sexuality is abandoned. She still gets some very radical political storylines in the Virgin books, such as a love story with a male anarchist in Paul Cornell’s Love and War, but never again did she show any interest in woman, with the whole incident generally ignored. This erasure continues to this day, with Big Finish upholding a very straight portrayal.

iris squad.jpg

Such limitations of queerness can be seen in other translations of characters across Doctor Who media, not just with Ace. For example, the character of Iris Wildthyme, a postmodern, self-aware “archetypal fag hag” parody of the Doctor, was introduced in the BBC books before 2005 with a queer man of color as her companion. [2] It is worth specifying that a “fag hag,” for those unaware of the term and no doubt bristling at the slur involved, is a term in gay culture for women who hang around gay men, which makes her preoccupation with the Doctor quite suggestive. She and her companion are, in essence, a postmodern rewriting of what Doctor Who is, uniting its ideology with gay culture and with greater diversity. However, when Big Finish made audio plays starring Iris, Tom was unceremoniously written out between stories, replaced by an aggressively heterosexual sentient Panda stuffed toy. The culture key to what the character is and what her role in Doctor Who is was removed from her. Interestingly, this isn’t the first translation of Iris Wildthyme through which queerness was stripped away: she was initially a lesbian novelist character in a non-Doctor Who publication by Paul Magrs. This odd process of translation and change illustrates the complicated ways in which Who ideology is written and rewritten, both producing a rather unfortunate result of erasing the queerness of women or people of color. It is somewhat indicative of a general lack in this era of Doctor Who that has fed into the modern era, a severe limitation of queer women, among other things. Explorations of LGBT issues have been overwhelmingly limited to white men, matched by a prominent trend toward white, often gay, men over women and people of color as producers of Who content.

quillthea

This limitation shows in the modern series. Take the Class cast, for example. It is wonderfully, beautifully diverse, and not a single one of the lead characters is a straight white man. The closest things to that are an alien villain and a teacher from Doctor Who whose purpose is to get shockingly killed off as part of the baton pass. There’s rich and prominent roles for many people of color, such as with Ram and Tanya and their families. Women dominate more than half the main cast. Yet its only exploration of queerness comes through the two white men. They exist in a curious isolation, with no single LGBT characters or other queer relationships present whatsoever (no matter how longingly Dorothea might seem to gaze at Quill). This is a sort of limitation that extends to the entirety of the modern series, really. It took nine years after the first kiss between men in Russell T Davies’ first series of modern Doctor Who until Steven Moffat finally delivered a kiss between women in the show, and even then he had to provide a technobabble explanation for the married Vastra and Jenny to be kissing. To this day there’s only a single same gender kiss in televised Doctor Who with a participant who isn’t white, requiring looking as far away as Torchwood’s Greeks Bearing Gifts, an episode with a widely discussed unpleasant monologue about trans identities and that came out more than a decade ago. In a show that has defined ideology of an open and accepting queer future, these are conspicuous deficiencies. And as mentioned, this issue extends to the writers. None of the writers of modern Doctor Who or its spinoffs have been people of color, and only a handful have been women. But white men are in no way in short supply, a number of them gay, like Gareth Roberts, Russell T Davies, Patrick Ness, Joseph Lidster, Tom MacRae, Mark Gatiss, and so on. Despite a queer, accepting future becoming the norm, there are limits to how far it goes, particularly in regards to race and gender.

As a result of such limitations, it’s worth examining who has been left out of the transitions across Doctor Who media. One prominent absence given the importance of the Virgin New Adventures to the modern show is Kate Orman, a dominant creative force of that era as well as in the BBC Books. For her, it was an experience of “being cast out of Olympus. We can still see it. It’s still there. There’s still this glorious business going on, but we’re excluded from it.” [3] In many ways, Orman fits the mold of the people who came to take over the show. She’s got politics in the right place, she’s from the Virgin background, she even had the idea of a female Master before Steven Moffat pushed that into the show in 2014. Ideologically she seems a perfect match. But she failed the transition due to other forces at work. She was “on the wrong side of the planet” whereas “those were people who weren’t just writing for Doctor Who books, which was all I was doing, but also had burgeoning careers in television radio,” and “that’s simply what they stepped into.” There’s a number of explanations that can be read into that statement, from politics of national identity to gender exclusion in work opportunities to social support for people with mental health struggles (which she has struggled with), but in the end, unfortunately, for whatever reason one ascribes, Orman has been left to the wayside and the new series has lost a valuable creative perspective.

Karra_Survival

Similarly excluded from the modern show are those writers who worked on the original run of the show. This was a definitive choice on the part of Russell T Davies, who, according to classic series writer Bob Baker in a DVD commentary, outright decided that no writer from the original run were desired. In this way, the continued propagation of old Doctor Who ideology has been forcibly sliced away, with notions like “no hanky panky” finding a no platform for a return. It’s an effective case of the dominant ideology of today restricting the expression of past dominant ideas. It’s also telling that the first classic writer to write for the new show series in the upcoming run with Bill is Rona Munro, the aforementioned peddler of lesbian cheetah subtext. It’s a very conscious statement of what ideology and ethos the modern series values, and even one that steps away from the Virgin New Adventures somewhat, with televised series writers like Marc Platt who continued to write for the Virgin New Adventures and even still do Big Finish remaining barred from modern televised Doctor Who. Rona Munro is in no way particularly representative of the original run, but she politically entirely suits the current evolution of the series with choices like the sparkling new black lesbian lead. Her return also lends itself to a new retrospective narrative of history, as she was the writer of the very last story before the original show’s cancellation. Now, she will almost certainly be portrayed as the baton pass to the inevitable new life of the show, connecting old and new in an apparent linear political progression that is in no way as linear as that. Doctor Who history and ideology, like any other, is a constantly changing statement made from the present by those in the position of greatest influence. Bill and Rona Munro in series 10 are each a step away from the deficiencies outlined earlier, a choice to push a specific political vision of Doctor Who forward. Munro and Orman are just two cases of how the modern series is determined, and there are many more that could be the focus of entire papers in of themselves, but there is one other aspect vital to consider in outlining the ideological formation of modern Doctor Who.

Big Finish and BBC Books aren’t just historical artifacts, after all. They are ongoing lines integrated quite firmly into an ideological structure alongside the show. This is, among other things, evident in crossover of staff. For example, “Barnaby Edwards and Nicholas Pegg…can be unseen in any Dalek story. Alan Barnes and Gary Russell got the plum of doing The Infinite Quest, and Gary Russell was script editor for the new series (a far more menial and paper pushing position than on the classic series) on the last few Tennant specials, as well as on a few episodes of [spin-off shows] Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures. And, of course, Nicholas Briggs voices all of the monsters.” [4] Similarly, the current producer of Big Finish’s Torchwood continuation and author of various other Doctor Who tie-in material, James Goss, worked on the Torchwood website, even providing the inspiration for one episode of the show in 2008. The 2005 version of Doctor Who has offered careers and interlinking opportunities to many of these fan and tie-in content creators. These creators, in their subordinate position, follow the narrative and political lines set forward by the show. The aforementioned James Goss, for example, accompanied a preview of his tenth anniversary Torchwood audio tribute in a publication called “Gay Times” with a piece entitled “Torchwood, the queerest show on TV.” [5] This is not to suggest that people like James Goss don’t genuinely believe in the importance of LGBT representation, merely that they are the sort of people that the current vision of the Doctor Who universe has oriented itself toward servicing. Even without an official canon, the modern series has become an organizing influence for the ideology of the writers. And similarly, it impacts the storytelling.

doom coalition4

For example, in the aftermath of the introduction of Michelle Gomez as the Master, and after Steven Moffat stated that “gender is fluid” for them, various Time Lord characters in audios have suddenly hopped to different genders. [6] So far, at least four different audio plays have featured this in the aftermath of Missy: The Black Hole, Gallifrey: Enemy Lines, The Trouble with Drax, and Doom Coalition 4. Doom Coalition 4 alone offers up no less than three gender-changing regenerations, featured alongside more obvious modern series influences like the Weeping Angels and River Song though no less connected and no less important. Before Steven Moffat expressed his stance unambiguously both inside and outside the notion was a rarity in the audio plays. And even when it did turn up, it was less than an endorsement, with 2009’s The Two Irises using it as an obvious signifier that a character is not who they claim to be and 2003’s Exile presenting it as something viewed as disgusting and worthy of a death sentence. Such reactions were in a way the inevitable reaction to the emergent idea of gender change in the series, as, to quote some heavy media theory, “the reality of any cultural process must then always include the efforts of those who are in one way or another outside or at the edge of the terms of the specific cultural hegemony.” [7] As mentioned earlier, the solution has been in a production overlap between Big Finish and the televised series, with even the writer of Exile, Nicholas Briggs, having a role on the show and contributing to heavily new series-influenced storylines like Doom Coalition. The oppositional formations have been absorbed and changed by the dominant views presented by the show. Similarly, the queer future narrative discussed before has become incorporated as the norm into spinoff spinoff material like Big Finish. Writer Matt Fitton, for example, reportedly recently told a fan that audio companion Liv Chenka was bisexual, simply because “everyone in her time is bi as she is from the future.” [8] No longer is the decree of the Virgin New Adventures’ progressive notions a mere emergent formation, but instead they are the law of the present show and related content, as decreed by the official organization that is the BBC. It is, if not official canon in the sense Paul Cornell suggests, the cultural canon that is hegemony.

But as is often the case with these hegemonic shifts, the new landscape of Doctor Who ideology is in no way totalizing, with dissenting voices from multiple political perspectives. Though outcry to the notion of a woman-lead series has lessened, the recent finale featuring the regeneration of the General and an ending in which companion Clara Oswald got her own equivalent of the Doctor’s time machine to take on a role like his inspired reactionary outcry, such as a YouTube video entitled “Radical Feminism: Doctor Who Hates Men.” [8] And people like Lawrence Miles are present to bemoan the push of LGBT representation in the show, viewing the “making of the gayest-ever version of Doctor Who” as a cynical and forced act of “trying to please.” [9] Meanwhile, many fans just want more representation, and leap on any opportunity to further queer the show. As soon as Bill’s existence was announced, long before her sexuality was known, bloggers were already posting demands to “give Bill a girlfriend.” [10] Other issues are similarly at the forefront of heated debate. Some view the series as sexist because it hasn’t done enough, for example not following through with a female Doctor yet. Others are horrified by the notion. Overall, a huge split appears to be present in fan views on whether a woman should play the character, despite the statement of it being possible resounding through the show and through Big Finish’s tie-in material. Progress is happening: for example, 46.47% of respondents supported the notion after the Missy reveal, an improvement from an earlier poll on the same site in which 13% of respondents supported it. [10] Even porn parodies are getting in on the action, so to speak, with one, Doctor Whore, having the Doctor regenerate into a woman and declaring “Why would they miss the opportunity to cast a woman or minority in the role to better reflect the…oh, they went that way, have they? Okay, well, we can get it right,” and then proceeding to showcase a bisexual threesome with Martha, Jack, and a woman Doctor. [11] In short, the dialogue about what Doctor Who is is tremendously diverse and varied and in no way complete. Though the show has a distinct view of such things at the moment, culture is full of oppositional or emergent perspectives. With Steven Moffat soon to go, it is entirely possible that the historical narrative of Doctor Who could soon undergo a radical shift under the guidance of the new myth maker.

moffat regen

That’s the thing. Doctor Who is a show that exists with the sole constant of change, and it is now on a precipice where anything can happen. Steven Moffat has taken it in a distinct direction, and series 10 looks to be the least ambiguous statement of those values yet, such as with Bill. Indeed, it’s leaning toward filling gaps in representation that have generally not been filled. Rona Munro even gets to finally write lesbian text! But that’s not a happy ending tied up with a bow, because change is coming as it always does, and the ideology of the Chibnall era could be very different. Hell, he doesn’t even have the Virgin background like Davies and Moffat did, he is a rather large unknown in terms of the ideology of Doctor Who. He clearly leans in a progressive direction, but the question is, how much? And in what ways? So much is at stake, particularly in the seemingly apocalyptic politcal moment. Choices as seemingly small as the new actors for his Doctor and companion help determine a massive amount of ideology for a British cultural icon, spreading far to many content makers and the many people whose lives they touch. In short, there’s an awful lot at stake, and anything can happen. Because the progression of ideology isn’t a straight line of improvements. There is no redemptive arc to history. It’s wavy and complicated and can go anywhere. We can seize upon one foundation to build a narrative, but there’s so many other directions to go next. We just need to hope the show chooses the right one.

Chris Chibnall, you’re up, mate. Please do us proud.


Works Cited:

  1. Munro, Rona. “You’re Killing My Lesbian Subtext!!” What Noise Productions. June 7, 2007. Accessed April 12, 2017. http://www.whatnoise.co.uk/DEEJSAINT/WORDS/Entries/2007/6/7_RONA_MUNRO_2007.html
  2. Sandifer, Phil. “Time Can Be Rewritten 11 (Verdigris, BBC Books, 2000).” Eruditorum Press. August 23, 2011. Accessed April 12, 2017. http://www.eruditorumpress.com/blog/time-can-be-rewritten-11-verdigris-bbc-books-2000/
  3. “Eruditorum Press Doctor Who Series 9 Podcast: Hell Bent.” Interview. Pex Lives: A Doctor Who Podcast (audio blog), December 10, 2015. Accessed April 12, 2017. http://pexlives.libsyn.com/eruditorum-press-doctor-who-series-9-podcast-hell-bent.
  4. Sandifer, Phil. “I Move So Fast, I Don’t Exist Any More (Storm Warning).” Eruditorum Press. February 17, 2013. Accessed April 12, 2017. http://www.eruditorumpress.com/blog/i-move-so-fast-i-dont-exist-any-more-storm-warning/
  5. Withey, Josh. “Special preview of the Torchwood tenth anniversary special.” Gay Times. Accessed April 12, 2017. http://www.gaytimes.co.uk/culture/50805/exclusive-special-preview-torchwood-tenth-anniversary-special/
  6. “Moffat: Gender Is Fluid on Gallifrey.” Doctor Who TV. December 8, 2014. Accessed April 12, 2017. http://www.doctorwhotv.co.uk/moffat-gender-is-fluid-on-gallifrey-69529.htm
  7. Williams, Raymond. “Selections from Marxism and Literature.” In Culture/power/history: A Reader in Contemporary Social Theory, by Nicholas B. Dirks, Geoff Eley, and Sherry B. Ortner, 585-609. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.
  8. Torture and Interior Design (blog), June 13, 2016. Accessed April 12, 2017. http://songofgallifrey.tumblr.com/post/145862330014/my-friend-met-matt-fitton-yesterday-at-utopia
  9. Miles, Lawrence. “Week Eight: “My Life with the New God-King”” Lawrence Miles’ Doctor Who Thing. May 31, 2008. Accessed April 12, 2017. http://beasthouse-lm2.blogspot.com/2008/05/week-eight-my-life-with-new-god-king.html
  10. “Give Bill a Girlfriend.” This Blog Does Not Exist (blog), April 23, 2016. Accessed April 12, 2017. http://the-macra.tumblr.com/post/143275372278/give-bill-a-girlfriend
  11. Myers, Lee Roy. “Doctor Whore XXX (minus the Sex).” YouTube. August 29, 2014. Accessed December 01, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJ7pb21gqyg.

2 thoughts on “THE TRUTH SNAKE – The Mythos Makers (#2)

  1. Pingback: TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – The Moffat Era and three-dimensional screenwriting | DoWntime

  2. Pingback: TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Game of Thrones, the Fantasy Ghetto and “To the Death” | DoWntime

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