Posts Tagged ‘Peter Davison’

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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The Real Source of the Coalition’s Employment Policy: Morgus from Dr. Who’s ‘The Caves of Androzani’

November 30, 2013

Sometimes, life really does follow art. This week we had Boris Johnson telling a gathering of City bankers that ‘greed is right’, almost, but not quite, following Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko. The other night it struck me that the government’s way of tackling unemployment also seems to bear more than a little resemblance to another piece of 80s screen fiction, the Dr Who story ‘The Caves of Androzani’.

This was Peter Davison’s final regular appearance as the fifth Doctor. In it, the Doctor and Peri land on Androzani Minor, where they get caught up in a struggle between government forces, led by Major Chellak, and an army of androids, created by the mad scientist Sheraz Jek. Androzani Minor is the source of the drug Spectrox, which massively extends the human lifespan. Its production is controlled by a massive industrial combine, the Conglomerate, whose chairman is the avaricious and ruthless Krau Morgus. This has, however, been disrupted by Sheraz Jek. Jek had previously been employed by the Conglomerate, creating an android workforce, who could harvest the raw Spectrox safely. He was, however, betrayed by Morgus. Androzani Minor is subject to periodic mudbursts, geyser-like blasts of boiling mud caused by tidal action when the planet passes close to its larger twin, Androzani Major. Morgus sabotaged Jek’s instruments so that he was caught without warning in one of the mudbursts. Horribly disfigured and driven by an all-consuming desire for revenge, Jek has stopped production of the drug in order to force the Androzani government to kill Morgus. The government, in its turn, has sent in troops under Chellak to quell Jek and his androids and restore production.

Morgus, however, has managed to turn this situation to his own advantage. A ruthless businessman with absolutely no morals, Morgus is deliberately using the war to raise the price of Spectrox. He supplies the government forces with the arms and equipment they need, while also secretly supplying Jek through a group of mercenaries in return for shipments of Spectrox.

Spectrox in its raw state is highly poisonous, with the victims of Spectrox toxaemia dying in three days. The Doctor and Peri contract this after falling into a Spectrox nest. The plot revolves around the Doctor’s and Peri’s attempts to escape from Chellak, Jek and the mercenaries, and the Doctor’s efforts to find the antidote before they finally succumb to the poison. He is concerned primarily with saving himself and his companion. His mere presence on Androzani acts as a catalyst for increasing confrontation between Chellak and Jek, and the political and criminal machinations by Morgus, which finally culminate in his overthrow and downfall by his PA, Trau Timmon.

It’s a taut story, which combines the political thriller with elements of Restoration drama and Jacobean tragedy. At certain crucial points, Morgus turns to speak directly to camera. As in Jacobean tragedy, nearly everyone dies at the end, with the exception of Peri, Trau Timmon and the Doctor. Here’s a fan trailer for it from Youtube:

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It’s Youtube address is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KjH_hZZhaXw.

Morgus himself is smooth talking, exploitative and ruthless. When he finds out that one of the Conglomerate’s mines has produced too much copper, he arranges new equipment containing a bomb to be sent to the plant, which is destroyed in the resulting explosion. Fearing that Androzani’s president is aware of his duplicity, he personally pushes him down an empty lift shaft. Calling Trau Timmon to inform her of the tragic accident, he muses, ‘Still, it could have been worse.’
‘How so?’, she asks.
‘It could have been me.’

Here’s another fan produced piece from Youtube, showing Morgus as one of the fifty great Dr Who villains of all time.

It’s on Youtube at:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3mlkV6tmA0.

Particularly noteworthy here is Morgus’ solution to the social problems caused by unemployment. At 0.55 on the video he states ‘those without valid work permits will be sent to the eastern labour camps’. Morgus makes this comment in a conversation with the President, who drily observes ‘Where they’ll work for you for free’.
‘I hadn’t thought of that’, replies Morgus.
To which the President simply says, ‘I know’, while all the while looking at Morgus with eyes that say the complete opposite.

It’s this episode that reminds me very strongly of the government’s policy. After all, what is the Conglomerate’s deportation of the unemployed to forced labour camps except a form of workfare?

It’s been said that all Science Fiction is, despite its settings in the future, or on other worlds or parallel universes, about the issues facing present society. Workfare was certainly being discussed in the 1980s, when it was first introduced in America by the Reagan presidency. It’s been pointed out that much of the SF of the period is a reaction to the new, Conservative policies of the period, the privatisation of the economy and the growing power of frequently ruthless corporations. It is the Corporation in Alien and its sequel, Aliens, that sacrifices Ripley’s crewmates aboard the Nostromo, and the planet’s colonists and the marines sent to rescue them fifty years later in order to acquire the Aliens for the company’s weapons’ division. Another corporation, OCP, is also the villain in Robocop. The company acquires Detroit’s police force after it is privatised, and sets up a young, rookie cop, Murphy, to be gunned down in order to turn him into cybernetic law enforcement officer of the title. Morgus and the ruthless, exploitative Conglomerate can similarly be seen as a comment on the economic and social policies of Reagan and Thatcher. It is possible to go somewhat further, and suggest that the story’s also a disguised treatment of the Iran/Contra affair, in which the US government supplied arms to Iran and the Contras in Nicaragua, in return for the freeing of US hostages in Lebanon, and the shipment of cocaine into the US by the anti-Sandinista forces in Nicaragua.

It also needs to be noted, on the other hand, that the story is not necessarily an explicit comment on free-market capitalism. It’s assumed that the Conglomerate is privately owned, but it’s not stated. Both the Fascist and Communist dictatorships have used forced labour in industry, and so the use of unemployed slave labour in Morgus’ work camps could simply be based on those examples, especially as the work camps are on the ‘eastern continent’. Dr Who’s writers were clearly well aware of the way totalitarian states, particularly Nazi Germany, operated when devising their villains, such as Davros in The Genesis of the Daleks. Even so, free market capitalism under David Cameron has very definitely followed Morgus’ Conglomerate in the introduction of forced labour for the unemployed, even if they haven’t started to send people to Siberia yet. As for Morgus deliberately manipulating production to keep it profitably low, and create a reservoir of the unemployed, which he can exploit for free, the Angry Yorkshireman over at Another Angry Voice has pointed out that Neo-Liberal economics demands a constant unemployment rate of 6 per cent or so to keep labour cheap.

So, one way or another, Cameron’s government is following the Science Fictional policies of Dr Who’s Trau Morgus. Only without bombing mines and personally assassinating leading politicians. And it’s similarly time that someone brought it all to an end, though hopefully we won’t have to wait for a visitor from beyond the stars.