Posts Tagged ‘‘Herland’’

On the Selection of a Female Dr. Who

August 6, 2017

The week before last, the BBC finally broke the tension and speculation surrounding the identity of the actor, who is going to play the next Doctor. They announced that the 13th Dr would be played by Jodie Whitaker, an actress, who has appeared in a number of crime dramas. Like many people, I was shocked by this radical departure from tradition, but not actually surprised. The Doctor has been male for the past fifty years, but thirty years ago the Beeb announced that it was considering making the next Doctor a woman as Tom Baker was leaving the role and preparing to hand it on to the next actor. In fact, the announcement was joke dreamed up by the Baker and one of the producers and writing team, and the role went to Peter Davison. The announcement of a possible female Doctor resulted in a few jokes, such as ‘the most painful regeneration of them all’. One of the British SF media magazines – I can’t remember whether it was Starburst or Dr. Who Magazine, then went on to make a serious point, that nothing was known about the Time Lord family, and so it was quite plausible that this alien race could change their genders during regeneration.

I can also remember Mike telling me at the time that there was also a feminist group in the European parliament, who wanted a female Doctor, who would have a male assistant, which she would patronise, in a reverse of the usual situation. The role of women in Dr. Who has been somewhat contentious down the years. Critics, like the Times journalist Caitlin Moran, the author of How To Be A Woman, have criticised the show’s portrayal of women in the Doctor’s companions. She claimed a few years ago on a TV segment about the show that they usually were there to say, ‘But Doctor, I don’t understand’. Others have also made the point that their role tended to be stereotypically passive and traditional. They were to scream when threatened by the monster, and be rescued by the Doctor. It’s quite a controversial statement, though I do remember seeing one of the team behind the Classic Dr. Who saying that there was some truth in it. They had tried to make the Doctor’s female companions less stereotypical, and stronger. So you had Zoe, one of Patrick Troughton’s companions, who was a computer scientist from the future. Romana was a Time Lady, who had majored in psychology at the Academy. In her first appearance in the Tom Baker serial, ‘The Ribos Operation’, it was made clear that she was actually more intelligent than the Doctor, who had scraped through his degree after he retook his exam. Sarah Jane Smith was a feisty female journalist, who was fully prepared to talk back to the Doctor, representing the new generation of independent young women that came in with ‘Women’s Lib’ in the ’70s. And the strongest female companion of them all has to be Leela, a female warrior of the Sevateem, a primitive tribe descended from a group of astronauts sent to investigate a jungle world. Leela mostly wore only a leather bikini, but she was skilled with the knife and the deadly Janus Thorn, a poisonous plant, whose venom killed within minutes. Leela was quite capable of defending herself and protecting the Doctor. In the serial ‘The Invisible Enemy’, for much of the story she is the active member of the team, after she proves immune to the sentient virus that infects and paralyses the Doctor. There were also attempts to introduce strong female villains, such as the Rani, a renegade Time Lady of the same stripe as the Master, but who specialised in genetic engineering and biological transformation rather than mechanical engineering. But the producer or writer conceded that as time went on, these strong female characters tended to become weaker and more stereotypical, so that they ended up screaming and waiting to be rescued by the Doctor.

The stereotypical role of the female companions has become more outdated as traditional gender roles in society have changed, and Science Fiction as a genre began exploring and challenging issues of gender and sexuality. There’s a tradition of feminist SF, which has been present from the emergence of the genre in the late 19th century, but which became more prominent with the rise of the modern feminist movement in the 1960s. A few years an anthology of female utopias, created by late 19th and early 20th century female writers, Herland, was published. It took its title from that of a female utopia described by an early American feminist and campaigner for women’s suffrage. Feminist SF writers include Joanna Russ, Ursula K. Le Guin, best known for her ‘Earthsea’ fantasy novels, and Sheri S. Tepper. Russ is an American academic, and the author of The Female Man. She considers that the rise of the women’s movement is a far more revolutionary and profound social change than space travel and the other technological conventions of Science Fiction. And many of these SF authors, both female and male, have created worlds and species, in which the genders are fluid.

In Le Guin’s The Word for World Is Forest, conditions on the planet on which the book is set are so harsh, that little time is available for procreation. The people there are neuter for most of the time. However, they have a breeding season, during which they may become male or female. However, the adoption of a particular gender doesn’t necessarily recur, so that a person, who is female one season may be the male in the following season, and vice versa. Michael Moorcock also experimented with gender identity in some of his books. The Eternal Champion may be male or female, depending on incarnation. And at the end of the Jerry Cornelius book, The Final Programme, Cornelius is transformed into a beautiful hermaphrodite, which leads humanity to its destruction.

Other SF writers have envisoned futures, where humans are able to transform the bodies in a variety of ways, according to taste, including switching genders. In Gregory Benford’s ‘Galactic Centre’ novel, Across the Sea of Suns, the crew of an Earth ship sent to investigate the centre of the Galaxy following the attack of the Mechs, a hostile galaxy-spanning machine civilisation, devise special pods, which can remake and refresh the crew. This includes changing gender. And Ian M. Banks ‘Culture’ novels are also set in a future, where humans are able to use technology to switch genders easily. In Alastair Reynolds’ Chasm City, the bored, immortal rich of the titular city on a world orbiting Epsilon Eridani, are able to use nanotechnology and genetic manipulation to change their appearance, often into outlandish forms. One character, a woman, is called ‘Zebra’, because she has covered her self in black and white stripes, and sculpted her hair into a mane that runs down her back. She tells the hero, Tanner Mirabel, that this is only her latest appearance, and that she will probably change it and move on to another in the future. She also states that she hasn’t always been female either.

In the 1990s there was a particularly strong demand for Science Fiction to challenge gender stereotypes. This was a reaction to the traditional image of the genre as dominated by White males, and focused on issues of surrounding technology and hard science. Thus one of the American SF societies launched the Arthur C. Clarke award for Science Fiction that challenged traditional stereotypes. There has also been a demand for a better representation of women amongst the genre’s writers. The anthology of ‘Dieselpunk’ stories therefore has roughly as many women writers as men.

The exploration of gender roles has also included explorations of sexuality, including same sex attraction. Gay fans of Star Trek in the 1980s hoped that the new series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, would include a gay character, a wish echoed by David Gerrold, one of the writers of the Classic Trek series. They were disappointed when the series did feature a story, where Riker becomes romantically involved with a member of the Jnai, an alien race, who have evolved beyond gender, but where it re-emerges occasionally amongst a persecuted culture of throwbacks. Riker becomes attracted to one of these throwbacks, a female, and attempts to rescue her after she is arrested. However, he arrives too late. The corrective treatment meted out to such people has worked, and she is now as sexless as the rest of them.

Gay fans of the series felt that they had been cheated. Instead of a forthright endorsement of homosexuality, they’d been given a kind of half-hearted nod. The issue of gay rights was there, but so heavily disguised that it may as well not have been there at all. They also objected to it on the grounds thta it seemed to reinforce the prejudiced view of opponents of gay rights, who declare that it is about removing gender altogether. This prejudiced was clearly expressed by the conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, a couple of years ago on his show, Infowars. Jones ranted that gay rights was a ‘transhumanist space cult’ intent on creating a race of genderless, cyborg people.

Er, not quite.

Gay characters and the exploration of alternative sexuality have been part of Science Fiction since William S. Burroughs’ books The Naked Lunch, and Samuel R. Delaney, a Black American writer, who also uses his novels to explore racial issues. Gay characters and issues of gender and sexuality have also been a strong element in the modern Dr. Who series. Captain Jack Harkness, a time traveller from the future, who became the lead character in the spinoff series Torchwood, is bisexual, and Ianto in the second series of that show was gay. This is probably mainly due to the series having a strong gay following, and that the writer behind its revival, Russell T. Davis, is also gay. For those, who can remember that far back, he was the creator of the gay series, Queer As Folk on Channel 4 in the 1990s.

There’s a sort of inevitability to the news that the next Doctor would be female, as the new Dr. Who series has also experimented with issues of gender roles. In the episode, ‘The Doctor’s Wife’, Matt Smith’s Doctor revealed that the Time Lords changed their gender, when explaining that another Time Lord he knew always retained the tattoo of a serpent on their arm throughout their regenerations, even when they were female. In the series before last, a Time Lord general shot by Peter Capaldi’s Doctor regenerates as female. And then, of course, there’s Missy, who is the female incarnation of the Master. My guess is that these changes were partly used to gauge how the audience would respond to a new Doctor. Once it was shown that most accepted the idea that Time Lords could regenerate as the opposite sex, then the way was clear for a female Doctor.

The show has also several times had strong female leads, while the Doctor has been more passive. Thus, in the last episode of the First Series, ‘Bad Wolf’, Rose Tiler becomes virtually a goddess, mistress of space and time, after peering into the heart of the TARDIS, saving Earth and Christopher Ecclestone’s Doctor from the Daleks. Catherine Tate’s character similarly rescued David Tennant’s Doctor from Davros and his Daleks after she gained all his knowledge as a Time Lord. And in one of the stories featuring the revived Zygons, it seemed to me that apart from the Doctor, all the characters in positions of authority – the heads of UNIT, scientists and so on, were all female.

The programme has also experimented with male gender roles. In one story about a year or so ago, one of the characters is a man, who has an alternative identity as a superhero following his childhood encounter with an alien device that can grant people’s deepest wishes. In his normal life, he’s a childminder.

It’s been said that there’s a division between TV and film SF, and literary Science Fiction, with the audience for TV and film uninterested in science fiction literature. I don’t believe that’s entirely the case, and the audiences for the various media clearly overlap. And literary SF has had an influence on Doctor Who. In the 1980s the BBC tried to recruit SF writers to give the series a great connection with SF literature. And several of the stories in recent Dr. Who series have shown the influence of literary SF. For example, in the last series, Earth suddenly became a forest planet, as the trees grew and spread everywhere. This, it was revealed, was to save humanity from some cosmic disaster. This looks quite similar to a book by Sheri S. Tepper, in which trees come to life to save people from danger and disaster. And to me, the name of space station in the last series’ story, ‘Breath’, Chasm Forge, sounds a bit too close to ‘Chasm City’ to be entirely coincidental, although the two stories are very different.

I also think that there have been social and political considerations that may have influenced the decision to make the next Doctor female. As well as the general demand within SF fandom for more women writers and female-centred stories, I got the impression that the audience for SF on TV may have slightly more women than men. This is not to say that the numbers of men watching SF is small – it isn’t – but that the fan organisations may have a very large female membership. I certainly got that impression from Star Trek. If that’s also the case with Dr. Who, then the series’ writers and producers would also want to cater for that audience.

I also think that there’s probably pressure too to create a female character, who would act as a role model and encourage more girls to enter science, particularly male-dominated subjects like Maths, physics and engineering. There have been initiatives to do this before, but they’ve had limited effect. You may remember the video one governmental organisation made a few years ago. Entitled Science: It’s a Girl Thing, this featured attractive young women in lab coats tapping away to a pop tune. Many women, including female scientists, felt it was patronising and demeaning. As the Doctor is very much the hero as scientist, who solves problems through his superior Time Lord scientific knowledge, I think those concerned to see greater representation of women in the sciences would welcome the Doctor’s transformation into a woman.

I have to say that, provided the transition is done well, I don’t think a female Doctor will harm the series. As I said, the rumour that there might be a female Doctor along the way has been around since the last Tom Baker series back in 1980s or thereabouts. If done badly, it could easily reduce the series to farce or pantomime by being just that little bit too incredible, or just plain weird. But the idea of gender-swapping Time Lords/Ladies hasn’t been so far, and from previous experience I think it will be done properly. The series might lose some viewers, but I think many of the real, hard-core Whovians, like Mike, won’t be bothered at all. I hope so in any case, will watch the new series with interest.

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Kevin Logan’s Pick of Alex Jones Ranting Insanity for 2016

January 3, 2017

The New Year is a time when the commercial channels look back over the events of the previous year. For example, in sport the Beeb broadcasts the Sports Personality of the Year, ITV has Jimmy Carr fronting the comedy quiz, Big Fat Quiz of the Year, Charlie Brooker casts his jaundiced eye over the years’ events in a special edition of Screenwipe. In its prime, News Quiz on Radio 4 did much the same with a special, Christmas edition of the show looking back over the previous year. So it’s in this spirit that I’m reblogging Kevin Logan’s compilation of his favourite bits of sheer ranting lunacy from Infowars’ Alex Jones for 2016.

Jones is a conspiracy theorist, who really does seem to believe that the world is being run by a secret cabal of Satanists determined to destroy everything good and noble, including and especially America. He appeared a few years ago on Jon Ronson’s documentary series, Secret Rulers of the World, in which he claimed that the global elite meeting at Bohemian Grove every year had sacrificed a baby in a Devil-worshipping ceremony. He has his own internet show, Infowars. His broadcasting style is completely unrestrained. He’ll go off on long, splenetic tirades against the ‘globalists’ he believes are wrecking the planet and enslaving its citizens. He’s also done it on British TV. On Jon Ronson’s programme, he went off on a rant about how Americans wouldn’t stand for the globalists’ Satanic shenanigans as this was the Land of the Free, and they were serfs tugging their forelocks to the landlords, like Europe. Andrew Neil had him on his show over here, in which, sure enough, Jones starting ranting again. This ended with camera cutting away from the infowarrior to show Neil making circular motions with his finger around his head in the internationally recognised sign for ‘nutter’. Piers Morgan also had him on his show for an intelligent, informed conversation about the issue of gun rights in America after another mass shooting. Of course, he didn’t get any such thing. Instead, Jones took great umbrage at the question, no matter how mildly Morgan tried phrasing and rephrasing it, and ended up, once again, ranting and threatening the former Mirror editor with dire retribution if he turned up on the other side of the Atlantic to try to take the American people’s guns away.

This short piece by Kevin Logan, who makes vlogs attacking the Alt Right and the disgusting denizens of the Men’s Rights movement, who are frequently part and parcel of the former, contains some fine examples of unbridled lunacy from Jones.
He starts off attacking James Randi, the notorious Skeptic, who specialised in debunking fraudulent mediums and psychics, before going on to claim that the world really is run by Satanists. He also rants about how men are being told that they’re redundant, but there will be a spiritual uprising of real men against the machine Satanist overlords. He also rants about how it’s now hip to fail and be a slacker, have pus and dead babies all over your face, smoke weed and worship Satan. There’s also moments where he mocks liberals, prancing around with exaggeratedly effeminate hand motions, while ranting about how liberals claim their nice and fluffy but really want to kill and enslave everyone. But they look caring and hip while doing so. He also mixes in with his ranting his personal, family history. In his diatribe against Piers Morgan, Jones screams about how patriotic his family has been, as they fought on both sides during the Texas revolution against Mexico. Which as Logan points out, would make Jones a traitor if he personally had done so. He quotes the Japanese WW II admiral, Yamamoto, as saying that they had ‘awoken a sleeping giant’ with their attack on America. He then claims that Oklahoma, and, by implication, the rest of the US, would have caved in without a shot if the Japanese had turned up in pink uniforms claiming to be ‘trannies’. There’s also a scene where he shouts at someone to shut up, and calls them an ‘authoritarian’, which is definitely a case of the pot calling the kettle black. He also rants about how he is being maligned as sexist and racist, and that Fox News will run a hit piece about a serial stalker of women. They will then show his face, turning red.

This is all highly amusing, but there is a deeply serious side to these rants. Jones was and is a very vocal supporter of Donald Trump. He had him on his show several times during the presidential election campaign and the nominations for the presidency. He claimed that Trump was just the man to stand against the globalists, and is still doing so, despite the glaringly obvious fact that Trump is stuffing his entire cabinet with them. I don’t know how many people take Jones or his show seriously. I suspect a large portion of Jones’ ranting is just theatre. He’s got an outrageous image, which he deliberately plays up to as he knows this will get the rubes watching. It’s the same attitude the great actor and drunk Oliver Reed adopted. Reed was notorious for his drinking, but said in an interview once a few years ago that he presented this persona because this is what the public wanted. They didn’t want to see Oliver Reed the actor, he opined. They wanted to see Oliver Reed the hellraiser. And the same’s true, I think, for Jones.

And his rants do show, in a grotesquely distorted form, many of the issues that do haunt the American Right, as well as wider society. When he talks about the threat of the machines taking over, he’s actually addressing a genuine problem that has been discussed by serious scientists. Kevin Warwick, the professor of robotics at Reading University begins his book, March of the Machines, with a scenario set 33 years from now, in which intelligent machines have taken over and enslaved humanity. He has said in interviews that at one time he was very depressed by this prospect, before he turned to exploring cyborgisation. Way back in the 1990s, the Astronomer Royal, Dr. Martin Rees, also discussed the possibility of robots taking over in a book he wrote, Our Final Minute, on possible threats to the future of humanity. And this is quite apart from the threat of massive job losses – about 2/3 are expected to go – from widespread automation during this century.

Since at least the 1990s, and going back even further to the 1960s, if not long before, there have been conspiracy theories about Satanists running the American government. This became particularly strong with the Gulf War and George Bush senior’s comments about a ‘new world order’. This conspiracy theory draws partly on older theories, in which America is being secretly run by the Freemasons and the Illuminati, following 19th century reactionaries, who tried to explain the American and French Revolutions as the actions of clandestine groups trying to destroy the monarchical, aristocratic order of the ancien regime. These theories were later revived by the Nazi and Fascist theorists in the 20th century, like Nesta Webster, and then entered the UFO milieu in the 1980s and ’90s with the emergence of the Abduction myth. This produced another conspiracy theory that the US government were allowing aliens to abduct and experiment on humans, and even create hybrid human-alien children, in return for technological secrets. Several of the people pushing this myth declared that the aliens’ human agents were the ‘Illuminati’, and tried to support this using passages from the notorious anti-Semitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Now, I’ve seen no evidence that Jones is racist or anti-Semitic. It’s clear from some of the videos he’s posted that he has Black employees on his show. But there is a profoundly racist aspect to the UFO conspiracy theories he espouses.

As for the homophobia, very many people, particularly amongst the older generation in Britain and America are unhappy with gay rights. They’re also deeply concerned about feminism and changing attitudes to gender roles. This has left many men feeling emasculated. And this has been an issue in American politics with strongly anti-feminist activists like the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Phyllis Schlafly and Anne Coulter, to name just a few. And while Jones’ statement that the new, Satanic order wishes to make men obsolete is farcically grotesque, masculine obsolescence was the stuff of journalistic discussion back in the 1990s. Some of the female journalists in the 1990s did write articles wondering what was the point of men, now that women had shown they could do their jobs, and in vitro fertilisation made them unnecessary for procreation. A number of feminist SF writers published novels about worlds, in which women prospered after the men had all been wiped out by a disease. Now this was an extreme view. Most women, I think, see feminism as being pro-woman, but not anti-man. As for the newspaper articles about men being obsolete, this was a favourite topic of the chattering classes generally. Will Self and J.G. Ballard had the same discussion in one of the literature periodicals at the same time. There is a genuine issue there, but Jones is probably taking far more seriously than many of the hacks, who wrote opinion pieces about it in the ’90s. Apart from that, Science Fiction has been exploring the topics of sex and gender roles since it first emerged as a genre in the 19th century. One pioneering American feminist depicted a future feminist utopia in Herland, while Theodore Sturgeon described a secret community of hermaphrodites in Venus Plus X in the ’50s or ’60s.

There’s also a section of American society that equates masculinity with militarism and firearms. Not only has Jones ranted against gun control, he’s also spouted weird diatribes about the UN coming to castrate every male. This latter seems to be a skewed misinterpretation of the Indian sterilisation programme of the 1970s. Years ago Magonia, a sceptical UFO magazine, commented on how closely guns and masculinity seemed to be linked in part of the American far Right in an article on the spoof space conspiracy, Alternative 3. This was an April Fool’s Day hoax by ITV, in which a fake science programme, Science Report, uncovered the fact that the Earth was dying. In order to preserve the human race, the Russians and Americans were co-operating secretly to colonise Mars. Selected intellectuals were being sent to the Red Planet to serve as the ruling caste. Beneath them were a class of slave ‘batch consignments’, who were deprived of independent will and ‘de-sexed’ through surgery. The producers of the programme also brought out a book. In the American version, the ‘de-sexing’ of the batch consignments was replaced with a statement about them being deprived of the ability to carry weapons. Which seemed to show how at least some in the American conspiracy fringe equated the loss of gun rights with castration.

As for the ranting about liberals wanting to promote failure as being hip, this seems very much to be a product of the Social Darwinist casts of American politics. The 19th century belief that helping the poor through welfare provision was a waste of resources because the poor were clearly biologically unfit, while businessmen deserved their power and status because they had proved their biological superiority in the competitive world of business, comparable to the Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’, is clearly very much alive and well. This also found expression in an SF short story. This described the racial deterioration of humanity following the decision of an American president not to follow the dictates of healthy ‘winner take all’ competitiveness. The result of this was that, millions of years in the future, humanity had degenerated to an unintelligent animal kept as a pet by the new dominant species, a form of Newfoundland dog.

And Jones’ hatred of globalism is clearly a product of American exceptionalism, which sees America as far more virtuous than any other country. As a result, America cannot allow itself to be bound by the rules it imposes on other nations. Hence the reluctance of the Americans to sign up to the International War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague, and the long diatribes by the Republicans and particularly the Neocons against the UN. Again, much of Jones’ bizarre ranting seems to be based on conspiracies theories going back to the 1970s which saw the UN as being set up to produce an oppressive ‘one world’ government. This is a government which the American Christian Right sees as Satanic. This will result in everyone in the world being marked by barcodes at birth, and the institutional persecution of Christians.

Jones’ ranting and his bizarre conspiracy theories and political views are grotesquely funny, but they’re fears shared by a large number of people in America and beyond. A significant number of people are alienated from a political system that seems intent on ignoring and marginalising them, and to some these malign conspiracy theories provide a convincing explanation for the perceived hostility and indifference of the government, or for the shifts in sexual morality and official attitudes towards gender roles during the past decades. Not only are these fears and the issues that inspire them problems in themselves, they are also partly responsible for the rise of Trump and the Alt Right. In that sense, Jones and his ranting need to be taken very seriously indeed, even if what he says is stupid, farcical nonsense.