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Tag Archives: Neil Gaiman

The Gospel According to Doctor Who

I’ve spent the days leading up to Christmas this year watching the The Doctor Who Takeover on BBC America. The Whos down in Whoville may like Christmas a lot, but when it comes to saving people in a world filled with merriment and mayhem, the Doctor they are not. The most recent incarnation features the grizzled Peter Capaldi (I’m Scottish! That means I get to complain!) saving people from themselves in between doing some serious ass-kicking involving villains and monsters.

The Doctor arrives as an alien in a strange land, into a world broken and under assault. Our rational, comfortable truths and assumptions no longer hold in a world mystifying sometimes even to those of us who live there. In the Whoniverse humans’ attempts to prevail are revealed as at the same time comically insufficient and profoundly heroic. Into this world, among all other worlds (which he visits occasionally), the Doctor emerges. He steps out of the Tardis after each regeneration born anew, marveling at his own existence.1

Legs! I’ve still got legs! Good. Arms. Hands. Oo! Fingers. Lots of fingers. Ears. Yes. Eyes two. Nose. I’ve had worse. Chin. Blimey. Hair. I’m a girl. No no. I’m not a girl. And still not ginger.

The Doctor’s persona has evolved along with the show’s original black and white production from the original somewhat bewildered William Hartnell of the antediluvian 1960s through the googly-eyed Tom Baker, who played the character from 1974 – 1981. Before cable, before the dish, before the DVD, local advertisers sponsored a variety of regionally-produced television. The period witnessed a lot of idiosyncratic and just plain weird shows. I made the Doctor’s acquaintance around 1970 when the British-produced episodes aired on our local educational television station. The production values were low, the sets cardboard, the action stagey and stories elementary2. A doddering, white-haired, sharp-eyed and -tongued figure (and later a dark-haired curly-haired smiling figure with a scarf) encountered a variety of robots, time-space vortexes and alien beings, including Daleks and Cybermen.

Since 2005 and the reboot, the series featured younger charismatic versions of the Doctor, including ones played by former soccer star Matt Smith and David Tenant, along with a shadowy version played by thespian John Hurt (of The Elephant Man and V for Vendetta).3

The Doctor comes bearing a sword along with a fez, bow tie, sonic screwdriver and, most recently, an electric guitar, like a Gallifreyan member of the Rolling Stones. The clever bon mots, idiosyncratic fashion, antic disposition and timey-wimey whimsy belie the harsh world he and the characters inhabit. Friendships are betrayed. Lovers are separated. People die. The show depicts the Doctor as an advocate for threatened or downtrodden species throughout the universe. But humankind holds a special place in his two hearts.

The Doctor’s ambivalent nature underlies many episodes. ‘Am I a good man or a bad man?’ Capaldi’s Doctor asks in his debut with his companion Clara. Can good alone prevail over weeping angels, Davros and the Daleks and Cybermen – not to mention the Doctor’s nemesis The Master, and more recent incarnation The Mistress? The companions and other people around the doctor, like Christ’s Disciples, are usually ordinary people, unaware of their own power and significance. With the Doctor they achieve ordinary greatness4. .

The Doctor, like the Dude, abides5. Recent writing for the show has mainly been in the incomparable hands of Steven Moffat, OBE along with stints by others such as Neil Gaiman (author of American Gods and the Sandman graphic novel series). The characters and plots have evolved far beyond the black and white original. Millions of fans worldwide frequent Doctor Who web sites and visit The Doctor Who ExperienceTM. . in Cardiff, Wales, where the show is filmed. Something must be working. That something, I think, is the ability of producer Russel T. Davies, along with Moffat and the whole ensemble to mine the myths that still underlie human experience and our search for meaning in the 21st Century. The Doctor is a trickster, a warrior and a sinner – and apparently a coy lover who snogged the Reverend Mother at the Church of the Papal Mainframe and got hitched to Marilyn Monroe – while chasing his paramour River Song through time and space in a cosmic version of An Affair to Remember.

‘I’m the Doctor, and I save people’ he declares, recalling his own purpose at crucial moments. He holds human beings accountable, but also cares about us deeply as individuals and as a species. This year, of all years, the winter darkness gathers, growing stronger each passing day, threatening hope. We wait for reassurance. Will the light prove stronger? As Doctor Who himself asks, ‘Who are you going to call?’6 It’s a story that has all the elements of birth, death and resurrection – and a savior who seems more human, more flawed and more accessible than we are used to. And that is one that we all need.– CDL

1As with Merlin in the Crystal Cave and Gandalf the Gray’s transformation into Gandalf the White in The Lord of the Rings.

2Compared to the glories of American color with laugh tracks and slick commercials.

3Who started off the franchise by slaughtering the members of his home planet Gallifrey to save the universe.

4The latter in the Cohen brother’s The Big Lebowski

5Donna and Wilfred, for example.

6Referring to Santa Claus, actually.  But you get the idea.


Get the Picture?

I used to regard illustrated or graphic novels as literature for the illiterate; comic books as condescending to the callow.

Perhaps it’s because we live in a post-literature culture1, but I’ve grown to appreciate graphic novels as a medium unto themselves for telling a story and connecting to an audience. A recent article in the City Journal quotes William Eisner, creator of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle and the Spirit in the 1940s:

“The comic strip… is no longer a comic strip but, in reality, an illustrated novel. It is new and raw in form just now, but material for limitless intelligent development. And eventually and inevitably it will be a legitimate medium for the best of writers and artists.”

Illustrators have contributed their craft to storytelling since paleolithic cave paintings. Perhaps these projected early human fears and desires in an uncertain world; perhaps they were just early interior decoration. ; – )

Cave painting from Lascaux, France, ca 35,000-30,000 BCE

During the Middle Ages images in gothic cathedrals emphasized to uneducated peasants who was in charge.

Chartres Cathedral

Chartres Cathedral

 In the 19th century Dickens’ collaboration with various artists made the characters in his serialized novels come alive.

Dickens’ Dream, Robert William Buss

Ironically, illustration as a means of storytelling came into its own for a mass audience just as print culture was evolving to electronic culture with radio and film. Newspapers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries carried intricate, full-color surreal extravaganzas like Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo to a mass audience.

George Herriman’s Krazy Kat , appearing in 1913, anticipated the surrealist and Dadaist movements.

In the 1950s, the age of television and the gray flannel suit. Walt Kelly and his compatriots subversively explored parody and satire in the midst of (supposed) conformity.

As the cellphone and cable explosion began in the 1980s, Sam Watterson’s brilliant Calvin & Hobbes captured the truth of boyhood in the way perhaps no one else has since Mark Twain.

Bill Watterson’s Incomparable Calvin & Hobbes will always remind me of of my son. I miss it greatly. (Image copyright Bill Watterson.)

Alas, the exigencies of the newspaper industry spelled at end to the strip. Watterson and Calvin packed up their marbles (and Hobbes) and went home.

Lately, as the publishing industry has struggled and tried to capture our attention with e-books, the graphic novel has ascended to respectability.

Graphic novels lend themselves to our fragmented attention span and reading habits in the age of tweets and text messages. As life is increasingly conducted online, they create a bounded world of coherence and context in the midst of disparate words and images that bombard us daily. In an age preoccupied by our attempts to control the world through science and technology, many graphic novels and comic books dance on the edge of or immerse themselves metaphysics and fantasy. Several of these, such as the X-Men and Superman have been turned into film with varying degrees of success. A skilled illustrator and story teller creates a secondary world2 that transcends the rules of the world we know to provide a more satisfying (or at least distracting) alternate universe. Many of these, such as the Watchmen and Neil Gaiman’s the Sandman, explore adult themes and existential experience, turning the mythology into exotic reinterpretations that are, like our lives, dark and threatening, absurd, exuberant, whimsical or just plain funny.  — Chuck Lanigan


1By this I mean not illiterate, but one in which the ability to read (and write) sustained, thoughtful discourse is made irrelevant in a society overrun by soundbites and Twitter feeds.

2See Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories for a discussion on secondary worlds.

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