You know, I hate to admit it , but despite appearances my geek credentials aren’t nearly as solid as they look.
(who am I kidding? I don’t actually mind admitting it at all)
I’m just not really all that into it all. I’m a mac user, and not a particularly talented one, and generally find computers and technology an uninteresting sort of bewildering. I read very few superhero comics, mostly prefer “indie” / “alternative” comics like Chris Ware, Lynda Barry (go Geoducks!), James Kochalka, Dame Darcy, Charles Burns (go Geoducks!) and Daniel Clowes, and my impressive knowledge of DC and Marvel canon is just because I’m freakishly good at remembering trivia and go on lots of wiki walks (though I really do adore Dr. Strange, and loved the X-Men when I was a kid). I’ve seen very little Buffy, only a couple episodes of Firefly, and don’t think Joss Whedon is all that impressive, really. Just pretty good at what he does. I’ve never seen the Battlestar Galactica reboot at all, and may never really bother getting around to it. I hate Kevin Smith, and The Big Bang Theory, with a fiery passion. I’ve never ever read Orson Scott Card, David Eddings (except for the first few chapters of the first Belgariad book when I was 10), Terry Pratchett, Suzanne Collins, George R.R. Martin, J.K. Rowling or Isaac Asimov. I really love basketball, fashion, high art, punk rock and poetry. I’m really just a sort of culturally omnivorous sort so I just end up really liking some random things that happen to be part of geek culture (like Douglas Adams or tabletop roleplaying) and have the aforementioned weird memory thing that lets me memorize lots of canon even from franchises I don’t particularly care about…. which then lets me hang out with people who do love those things, and carry on friendly conversations with them about it, even though I don’t actually care.
But most of all, I really don’t care for science fiction. I find it a bit more interesting than fantasy, but as a general thing, nope… not my thing. As far as books go, I usually don’t like genre fiction at all, except when the genres are being deliberately played with, or used as an interesting set of imposed, formal constraints (as in the fair-play whodunnit). I prefer writers like Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Samuel Beckett, Lydia Davis, Kazuo Ishiguro, David Mitchell, Susan Sontag, Georges Perec, Harry Mathews, Ben Marcus, W.G. Sebald, Mary Robison, William Gaddis, David Markson, Thalia Field, that kind of thing.
And when it comes to Star Wars and Star Trek? I’m sorry, but I just don’t feel all that strongly about them. I think Star Wars has a really fun mythos, but what I find most interesting about it is how somehow this really fun mythos, and a bunch of great storytelling, managed to emerge entirely despite the efforts of its creator. Like this amazing setting being born almost entirely of a man’s failure to achieve his really silly, talentless vision. Lucas didn’t create Star Wars. Lucas was Star Wars’ worst enemy. Star Wars was created because Lucas was too young and naive to successfully stop it from happening.
And Star Trek? A pretty tedious morality play. It’s all about bludgeoning you over the head with particular values and worldviews, expressed through cheap narrative devices like “Our Utopian and perfect future society gave up the barbaric practice of [thing author disagrees with] long ago!”, and those don’t even happen to be worldviews and values I particularly share. Often their Utopia looks pretty Dystopian to me. What happened to all the LGBTQ people in The Federation anyway?
I mean, I don’t hate Star Whatever. And I don’t hold it against anyone that they love them. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s rather pointless, sad, and self-defeating to be all cocky and proud of disliking something, or defining your identity and taste by how you’re “above” whatever “shit” your friends like. It makes you into a jerk. And it means you have one less source of joy in this world than they do. And really, like I said, I don’t actually hate them. But if I did, I wouldn’t wear that hate like a badge of honour. It’s just that I don’t share the same passion a lot of people I know do.
Which makes things awkward since I run in circles where this is a common, shared culture and language, a shared set of metaphors and reference points, a means of being together, communicating, sharing meaning and passion and excitement and common narrative. I’m missing out on something. Communities build around fandom because sharing these kinds of things is an important part of being human, or at least of being a human who shares her life with other humans, being part of culture. Who wants to be alone? So when my friends share a cultural touchstone that’s important to them but not to me, and when cultural artifacts that are important to me aren’t to them, it’s a bit of a sad, alienated, lonely feeling.
There’s one thing where I never feel like that, though. One bit of geek culture that I do feel utterly, truly, stupidly passionate about. One thing that allows me to wholly and completely understand what it is to geek out over a relatively silly little bit of pop culture, to be a fan, to be part of a fandom, to understand a canon in and out and actually care about those details, to have this mutual language and set of metaphors and stories and myths and reference points and means of understandings things through this narrative that you all, the fandom, know and understand together… to be part of a community that way, and connect with a story so strongly. I mean, hell… it’s pretty much exactly like religion, and meets the exact same social, cultural and psychological needs (myth, metaphor, community, morality, ritual, art), just without all the danger and harm that comes along with literal belief, absolute authority and insistence upon faith. The bit of sci-fi that does this for me, and allows me to feel all this genuinely? It’s the answer I provide whenever anyone asks me whether I prefer Star Wars or Star Trek:
The reasons I love Doctor Who with so much of my heart while other science fiction tends to leave me cold are a bit multifaceted, but not so hard to articulate when comparing it to something else, like Star Trek.
One of the first and more obvious differences is the issue of “hard science fiction” vs. “soft science fiction”. This distinction is about how grounded the science fiction is in actual science, the known physical laws of our universe, and what kinds of technologies or organisms are actually possible and we can speculate on existing within our own universe, under our own universe’s laws, or perhaps someday existing. The joys of “hard science fiction”, or at least the joys that are distinct and unique to it, lie in that speculation, in thinking about what could actually be, how wild a possibility can be, and how interesting its potential consequences, while still remaining a possibility.
Doctor Who is about as far on the “soft” side of that scale as you can possibly get. It frequently bends the laws of physics in ridiculous, absurd ways, the actual “science” usually being nothing more than a bunch of word salad techno-babble. Sometimes the writers aren’t even trying to give a semblance of consistency to the properties of the world in which their telling their story. They’ll even break the rules of fantasy novels where magic is supposed to operate a consistent way. In Doctor Who, even the magic can work one way under one circumstance and another way in another circumstance. It’s completely absurd and wibbly-wobbly. There are no rules whatsoever.
And I love rules. Like Georges Perec, who I mentioned earlier: he wrote a novel without using the letter e, and another that moves through a bisected apartment building frozen in a single moment in a time along the pattern of a “knight’s tour” (a particular chess problem where a knight visits every square on a board without landing on the same space twice) describing the contents of each room. I believe constraints can often help focus and draw forth a writer or artist’s creativity. There’s a reason most poets employ forms, and that the “free verse” movement was never really all that free, only lasted about twenty years (except amongst high school students), and tended to just end up creating some pretty stupid conventions of its own: like the blistering glowing starry american howling beatific ragged scuttling string of excessive unpruned wild-eyed stark and straggling staggering blind endlessly and eternally undyingly forward forever stacked adjectives.
So why would I find Doctor Who more satisfying than Star Trek, which actually provides a structure to its universe, and challenges its writers to work creatively within that structure?
Well, a lot of it is just my interests. I don’t like hard science fiction at all, really. I find it dry. I don’t derive that thrill and fascination from speculating on scientific possibility. Like I mentioned, I’m not a tech girl, I don’t find computer or systems or machines to be interesting. When I was a kid, I almost never did the take-things-apart-to-see-how-they-work thing. In fact, when it comes to machines and how things work, I’m kind of an idiot. Like I honestly do have below-average mechanical intelligence.
There are some sciences that I really do find fascinating and awesome, and I would love to maybe go back to school and study. But they’re only particular sciences. Physics is usually uninteresting to me, except for certain random specific questions that occasionally pop into my head (“why does fission ever stop?” “how the fuck do magnets work?” “why are metals more conductive than other elements?”). I bug my friend Lars with these questions a lot. Chemistry is similarly baffling and weird and boring to me. But I adore biology and medicine. With biology and life it all becomes so much more, to risk returning an overused word to its original meaning, visceral beauty. It’s elegant and gorgeous and it’s an emergent system. It’s not a designed system, like technology or maths, nor is it simply the governing physical laws that just happen to be in place in our particular universe, as in physics or chemistry. Instead it is the infinite beautiful diverse forms that emerge, from a finite number of combinatorial elements, in consequence and adaptation to those set physical laws. I love that.
But even that isn’t where my main passions were, academically. I studied language. That’s what was most compelling to me. All these ways that we construct meaning and thought from this strange and arbitrary discrete signs and representations, also infinitely diverse from finite combinatorial elements, to convey the infinity of not only the universe but of possible universe and all possible perspectives. To be able to conceive of things that aren’t even here at all (like God… or The Doctor). Language was also a beautifully emergent system, not even governed by set laws like life is. Language, contrary to common belief, doesn’t actually have rules and isn’t defined by dictionaries. It’s defined by use, and is ever fluid and shifting, and always just one step away from falling apart into nonsense, but also maintaining enough tension to carry the power to ruin a life, or even topple a civilization… and always dictating the forms of culture. It’s like what I love about biology, but more.
But still… now that I’m not in school anymore, there’s one thing that most maintains my interest, one thing that I’m still fascinated by more than anything else, and that is human beings, and human relationships. That’s the most beautiful, mysterious, complex, fluid, inscrutable and elegant emergent system of all. There is nothing as interesting to me as people, and how people deal with people.
Soft science fiction like Doctor Who is about human beings. Physical laws be damned, it will do what it needs to do with its universe in order to be able to tell its story. The characters are what are consistent, and they are the thing about which we speculate. Not possible, conceivable, speculative technologies or anatomies or civilizations, but possible, conceivable, speculative human beings, setting up situations in which we may explore being human, what that means, what it may mean, and may mean in certain impossible situations. Or what it may mean in all too real situations, too real to confront directly, thus we do so through metaphor and story and fictional settings removed from what would be too brutal in the context of our own world and lives.
Doctor Who is speculative fiction, yes, but it speculates on the kinds of things I like thinking about and just ignores everything else, or treats it as totally negotiable.
And besides, those wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey, loosey-goosey laws of the setting? They allow for some amazing fun. The Doctor can go dashing off anywhere, to any number of insanely creative worlds or situations or conflicts. There is absolutely nothing limiting the imagination of the writers. They can simply invoke whatever settings or situations they think would be fun or worth exploring or even just provide a beautiful image. And I love going along with that ride.
Doctor Who is every bit as much a morality play as is Star Trek. It also bludgeons you over the head with morals and lessons. But for one thing, it doesn’t use the cheap device of the utopia. And more than that, it is a morality I can believe in, and that resonates with me.
In Star Trek, they are a military organization, decked out in uniforms and armed with phasers and photon torpedos. Their morality is backed up by their infallible, perfect constitution, their prime directive, and the full might of their Federation behind them. If that weren’t there, how would the statements change? What would Picard’s speeches mean if behind him was a flawed and crumbling federation, or a tyrannical one, or a constitution that had proved useless, or no military to back him up, no uniform, on his own? Without the utopia to instantly lend credibility to Star Trek’s statements, what do they mean? And how admirable is it really to take a moral stand when you’ve got an entire multi-planet poly-civilization society standing behind you and nodding in agreement?
The Doctor doesn’t have any of that. He’s just a madman in a box. He’s an outcast, an outsider, with nobody but his friends to stand beside him when he feels he needs to do what’s right. His own people hated and exiled him, but he still ended up devastated when he lost them completely. He’s alone, and living in the margins and fringes. He gets by with just his cleverness, resourcefulness, a few friends, a few choice words, a sonic screwdriver, a scrap of psychic paper, and sometimes a jammy dodger. His power doesn’t come from might, numbers, strength, or weapons, but from his mind, his spirit and his interdependence with others. He despises tyranny and conformity, brute force, militaristic attitudes, blindly accepting what you’re told, lack of free thinking, cynicism, bigotry, intolerance, the elimination of diversity, slavery and exploitation. A whole lot of the time, doing what he thinks is right requires standing up to armies, to governments, to the complacency of societies, to police, to guns, to bullies, to the entire ingrained cultural understanding of a civilization. But he does what’s right anyway. He doesn’t do what’s right because his government tells him to. He does what’s right no matter what anyone else, much less any government, says. He would tear a prime directive to shreds without a moment’s hesitation if it told him to act against his conscience. But through all that, his motive is not simple rebellion or anti-institutionalism, but absolute, undying compassion.
THAT is a morality I can relate to.
He’s a person I can relate to. He’s someone I can aspire to be like. I live in the fringes and margins, am not liked by my society, fight against the principles held by the majority, have no weapons and few resources, and am ultimately reliant on my wits and my friends. And I can try to do what’s right, out of a sense of compassion. The Doctor gives me a hero that provides a reference point for my own life, and my own ethics, where something like Star Trek absolutely does not. I don’t wear a uniform. I’m a madwoman with a box.
(my laptop, of course!)
Like I said, fandom operates a lot like the nicer parts of religion do, in terms of providing a shared set of myths and metaphors we can use to help understand ourselves, build community and shared emotions, and give a frame of reference for our ethics. The Doctor works for me in that regard, where things like Star Trek and Star Wars don’t even come close. I am a fan-girl full of fan-girliness that needs somewhere to go, and I do need all the same things from stories that everyone else does. But each person requires different stories. Doctor Who is the story that I came across that worked for me, and into which I could pour that love, and find my needs met. It fits in a way that other science-fiction never did.
Us romantics, outcasts, underdog idealists and not-so-sciencey types need our myths too.
And Peter Davison, Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith are all really really cute.