I was born in 1970 and I loved the Second World War. In 2018, the UK has largely shaken off its obsession with World War 2, arguably the last ‘good’ war in which the country has taken part, but it’s fair to say that my childhood was dominated by a conflict that left the UK without its Empire, in horrendous levels of debt to the US, in need of national re-building and yet somehow one whose result could reasonably be seen as a ‘victory’. Perhaps because of that strange dichotomy between patriotic satisfaction at a job well done and the real geopolitical and economic consequences of that endeavour, UK pop culture was positively saturated with World War 2. Airfix models of planes, tanks and soldiers; TV shows like Dad’s Army, Colditz and Secret Army (and latterly its far more successful parody ‘Allo, ‘Allo); the novels of Alastair MacLean and Sven Hassel; Biggles; comics like Commando and Battle Picture Library: as a boy growing up in the 70s, it was impossible to escape the war. And that’s not including the personal reminiscences of my grandparents (my dad’s father, not fit enough to fight on the frontlines, nevertheless helped man an AA battery on the North West coast of England that one night downed a Junkers 88 bomber on its way to bomb Liverpool) or the various documentaries about the war which regularly appeared on our black and white (and eventually colour) TV screens.
The following is the first in (probably) a series of personal posts detailing my relationship with the comic medium over the years. This one’s an introduction more than anything else. It’s also (mercifully) rather short…
A rambling, probably somewhat pretentious post today, but then I’m in a rambling mood and I’m rather tired. It may have come to your attention that I quite like comics. Comics have been a part of my reading DNA since childhood. Hardly surprising really, given that in the UK comics are still largely regarded as a childhood (and childish) medium. (As well as producing some of the most delicious soft cheese in the world, France also has a much more mature and sophisticated approach to the format, something that was brought home rather powerfully when I first visited a Leclerc hypermarche a couple of years ago and row upon row of hardback graphic albums glinted seductively – if mostly incomprehensibly – at me from their shelves.)
When I was a kid, I read stuff like Warlord and TV Comic, black and white weekly comics each featuring a range of strips, the former war stories and the latter a mix of single-page funnies and longer strips based (loosely) on TV series like Doctor Who and, if memory serves me correctly, Hazel. (Why I have no idea. Who remembers Hazel now???) My love affair with comics was largely formed at that point. They were disposable and ephemeral things, printed on cheap paper only slightly better than newsprint, but their links to science-fiction (particularly Doctor Who) and World War II cemented their place in my imagination and I collected them avidly all the same. My parents had an account at the local newsagents and my regular weekly delivery of a comic was something about which I got genuinely excited. Comics in the 70s had a smell and a smooth, slightly yielding – almost greasy – texture. Print dirtied your fingers, marked you as a reader. There was something grimy and physical about reading a comic back then. It was more than just words and images that were transferred from the page.
The allure of comics, of course, is the mixing of images and text. There had been picture books, of course, and I can still remember my mum taking me to the local library (which, sadly, is no longer standing) for the first time. I took out three books that day, but I can only recall the one about trains with any clarity. Like any child, I enjoyed those picture books – large, beautifully drawn images above a few sparse lines of text. The dividing line between image and words was clear. Comic books were different, though. You didn’t find comic books in libraries and their images were more dynamic – less pretty – than the ones found in picture books. Comic book images told the story in a way that those that illustrated picture books didn’t. There’s a difference between comic book storytelling and illustration. The balance of narrative power between image and text is different; the images drive the story and, at times, it seems like the words are pushed to the side. There’s an alchemy at work, a collaboration that is as instinctively understood as it is obvious.
I have been known to say that the medium of comics is some kind of ‘half-way house’ between visual media like TV and film and the written word, but I no longer think that’s true. The comic medium is its own thing, misunderstood, scorned and disdained, the poor relation of more ‘literary’ forms. It is true, I suppose, that there are some comics creators who seek to redress the perceived unfairness of that viewpoint and good luck to them. Personally, I’ve come to appreciate comics’ strange pariah status, their pulpy roots and mass market appeal, their subversiveness and silliness, their puerile profundity. They remain my favourite medium and over the next few posts, I’ll try to understand a little more clearly just why I like them so much. I hope you’ll join me…
I get inspired to write poetry about once a decade. (After reading this, you’ll almost certainly be very grateful for that.)
At my desk,
The shadows close in,
Thick like velvet drapes,
Texture like tar.
There are things to be done.
Worrying at threads
The lamp flickers on.
And the white expanse
Of an exercise book
Pressed close to the margin.
Strength in numbers.
The pen is briefly cold
But soon warms,
Takes heat from my hand.
The lampshade glows steady.
But the shadows remain,
Trembling in the corner of my eye,
Perhaps in anticipation,
Perhaps with the simple knowledge
That their time will come.
Well, this is going to be a bit self-indulgent, so bear with me. Fans of anything tend to be tribal, vociferous and irrational. I’m going to try and avoid that where possible, but ultimately this is going to be an opinion piece and, as I’m not the most rational of people at the best of times, I can’t guarantee I’ll be successful.
I’m going to outline below why, now that the Doctor is a woman, I will no longer be watching the show. I am not blind to the blatant ridiculousness of that statement and my aim in this post is to explain why, even though it may be ridiculous to you, it makes a kind of sense to me. Before I start, let me just say that, if you’re overjoyed/enthusiastic/cautiously optimistic about the casting of the rather impressive Jodie Whittaker as the 13th (or is that 14th?) incarnation of everyone’s favourite Time Lord, then more power to you. It is not my intention to rain on your parade. Enjoy yourself. I simply find myself unable to share what you’re feeling and am trying to explain why.
First, a little background. I’m 47 years old and have been a Doctor Who fan for most of my life. A couple of days ago, I posted on my Facebook feed that I used to feel that Doctor Who ‘spoke’ to me. That’s perhaps a bit pretentious, but when I was a child it resonated with me on a fundamental level that it took me quite a few years to understand. Partly, it was to do with my developing collecting instinct that well and truly blossomed once I discovered Target novelisations; partly, it was to do with the sense of wonder, excitement and fear with which I suspect most subscribers to this group will identify, when it comes to explaining their attraction to the show. Partly, though, the Doctor was an aspirational figure for me – witty, knowledgeable and, perhaps most important, articulate. As a decidedly non-sporty (my occasional flirtation with cricket and brief obsession with Subbuteo notwithstanding) bookish child, the Doctor was a perfect character with which to become obsessed.
Through that obsession, the show has actually given me a great deal and I’d like to acknowledge that here. It taught me to be analytical (and the John Nathan-Turner years provided plenty of opportunities for criticism), it fired my imagination, it inspired me to write, in primary school it gave me my best friend, in my early twenties it gave me fandom, the unique experience of contributing to and helping produce a fanzine and a group of friends who were witty, intelligent and extraordinarily kind. When I became a father, it gave me the never-to-be-forgotten experience of my three year old son arranging all my VHS Doctor Who tapes into a long line stretching from the living room into the kitchen in transmission order. I must admit, I never really thought I’d end up voluntarily walking away from the show.
Yet here we are.
The issues I have with a female Doctor are somewhat complicated. They are born out of a slowly developing dissatisfaction with the new series ever since Tennant’s overly mawkish swansong and, despite the odd triumph of storytelling (‘The God Complex’ is an incredible story for all sorts of reasons; ‘Flatline’ is perhaps the most genuinely scary story in the new Who canon), it’s only got worse during Moffatt’s tenure as showrunner. Moffatt’s penchant for overly complex story arcs whose thread he never quite manages to hang on to, his (rightly) much-derided portrayal of the Doctor as so clever he might as well be God, his elevation of ‘cleverness’ above the fundamentals of storytelling (Clara is an extraordinarily unlikeable companion because of this) – all of these have contributed to a sense that the show is no longer speaking to me, but down to me. Where the show used to take me by the hand and lead me through some scary, thought-provoking, awe-inspiring stories, now it seems to want me to stay in my seat and marvel at how wonderfully clever it is. The installation of a female Doctor is part of that trend. It’s as if the show (or certainly its most vocal supporters) want me to admire how progressive and ‘ground-breaking’ it is. More on this in a moment.
It’s worth noting, too, that I am a conservative Christian with a family and a fairly traditional outlook. While I never found RTD’s atheism especially troubling (the stories were simply too good to be derailed by it) or his sexual orientation (which is none of my business and ditto), the show in recent years has acquired a decidedly smug tone in pushing its ‘progressive’ agenda (the most egregious example being this year’s anti-capitalist fable, ‘Oxygen’) and it is a smugness that, because of the issues outlined above, hasn’t really been earned.
The female Doctor is, imho, a large part of this. She is part of a wider cultural movement in which differences between genders must be respected until to do so is deemed disadvantageous to women in which case we must pretend that they do not, in fact, exist after all and that, for example, gender-swapping roles will have no negative impact whatsoever. Not only that but it’s a change that is neither radical nor ground-breaking at a time when we’ve had a female lead in the new Star Wars trilogy, an all-female Ghostbusters reboot and Wonder Woman (deservedly so) is outperforming all expectations at the box office. In this climate, the female Doctor is a remarkably safe ‘radicalism’, a change beloved of media elites and progressive identitarians, a change whose time, apparently, has come, but, as the recent Radio Times poll seems to indicate, is not creating anywhere near as big a controversy as might be expected. In fact, I would argue (as Spiked-Online has done already) that the ploy is partly ideological and partly a cynical attempt to revive interest in a show whose increasingly opaque storytelling has been turning viewers off in significant numbers. (For reference’s sake, Matt Smith’s first episode ‘Eleventh Hour’ accrued ratings of 10 million, considerably more than the first issue of the last series which had ratings of 6.68 million.)
Whatever the motivation behind the change, to me it represents a deliberate disregard for the show’s televised history, its broader past and the unique appeal of its central (male) character. For over 50 years, the Doctor has been male. Now, after 12 incarnations of gender consistency, we are expected to believe that the Doctor can be a woman? It is hard to escape the feeling that this change has been prepared for quite deliberately and has been influenced by external social and cultural currents. Put bluntly, we now have a female Doctor because it’s ‘trendy’ and because Western culture, feeble and increasingly impoverished, is currently experiencing paroxysms of guilt-inspired self-harm, in the process casting aside or defacing anything that smacks of tradition, continuity or certainty. (Yeah, I know. I might be stretching there with that last sentence, but if you’re going to be a cultural conservative, you might as well go all in.) Neither of these reasons are worth ruining a long-established cultural icon for.
And, of course, fans who have objected to the change (many of whom have been women, curiously enough) are pilloried and dismissed on social media. Most of those responses aren’t worth dealing with as they tend to display precisely the same sorts of prejudices from which this enlightened change is meant to be redeeming us. Some are genuinely funny (the Doctor Who hotline for upset fans is well worth a listen, if you get the chance), but I’d like to address one in particular. When one fan pointed out that the social justice left would be outraged if Miss Marple, Xena, Wonder Woman or any other female popular icon had their gender ‘flipped’, a social justice ‘warrior’ helpfully replied that we’ve already got Poirot and Hercules. Which rather misses the point. Hercules doesn’t come from Themyscira or fly an invisible plane; Miss Marple doesn’t have a best friend called Hastings. What has happened with Doctor Who is not the same as the Ghostbusters re-boot or the casting of Daisy Ridley as the new Star Wars lead. This is taking an already established character, a character who has accrued a vast amount of cultural capital during the course of his relatively long life, and changing a fundamental aspect of him, an aspect that has been consistent for decades, an aspect that may, in fact, turn out to be integral to his success in ways the new, short-sighted showrunners simply do not understand.
Look, at the end of the day, a female Doctor is relatively small beer. As a 47 year old adult, the disrespect for the show’s history and my own miniscule personal investment in it are things I can shrug off relatively easily. I’m not devastated by this development. Nor am I crying tears of ‘nerdrage’ as so many memes on my Twitter feed are assuming I must be doing. I’ve got a hell of a lot of DVDs, novels and comics to keep me going for the time being. (Oh, and Big Finish CDs/downloads – so many of them!) I can’t help thinking that my 9 year old Target book-collecting self wouldn’t have been able to cope with the change with such equanimity, though.
But that’s neither here nor there. As I’ve said elsewhere, I wish Jodie Whittaker every success in the world (or space-time continuum, as the case may be) and I hope people continue to enjoy the show for a long time to come. But, it’s no longer for me.
Comments are open below. Feel free to post, but I won’t be responding to abuse.
This is just a quick update to let you know that I’ve had a review published on the rather wonderful Weird Science DC Comics website and hopefully this’ll be a regular (or semi-regular) thing. The review is of Dark Horse’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and can be found on the Weird Science website here and on this site here. Wherever you choose to read it, check it out. I will just say, mind, that the Weird Science website has a ton of great reviews. Although their main focus is DC, they do carry reviews of books from other comic companies including Marvel and those reviews are fair, clear and very entertaining. In addition to their reviews, their DC Comics Podcast is required listening for anyone interested in comprehensive and insightful reviews of DC books. Just don’t expect brevity. 🙂
Another website I’m really enjoying is Chris Sheehan’s Chris Is On Infinite Earths. Chris is one half of the Cosmic Treadmill podcast and, as well as being a knowledgeable and articulate guide to comics past and present, is a very nice guy to boot. How do I know this? Because he recently opened his site up to reader suggestions and one of mine was the first one he picked. For his insightful take on Legion of Superheroes #28, check out his review here. It’s an excellent read and typical of Chris’ approach. Chris manages to review an issue a day which, to be honest, is an output of which I’m genuinely envious. Again, his website is well worth a look – as, for that matter, is the Cosmic Treadmill podcast, in which Chris and co-host Reggie Hemingway look at a single issue from comics history, provide a summary, review and, invariably, some fascinating contextual information.
As for me, I’ll try to keep this blog updated a bit more regularly over the next few weeks. I’ve got reviews in the pipeline for the new Spirit series, the new Vampirella series and, possibly, some comics in translation. Stay tuned for that and, if you’re looking for something to pass a few minutes with, you could do a lot worse than the new The Wildstorm series from DC. Warren Ellis is writing; Jon Davis-Hunt is on art. It’s a thoughtful, intriguing take on the WildStorm universe and I’m rather excited to see where it goes.
Yes, I know it’s a couple of days late, but I do sincerely hope you have a fantastic 2017. My 2016 was pretty good, all told. My granddaughter is gorgeous and healthy and it’s a joy seeing her grow and begin to explore the world around her. Although teaching is as hard work as it’s always been, I’ve enjoyed it more this year than I have in a long time, despite the efforts of government, OFSTED and other related personages. I’ve also been honoured to help out at my Mum and Dad’s church doing some preaching, teaching and ministering to some great people. I hope to be doing a lot more of that over the coming months. For the last couple of months, I’ve been doing some voice work for a fantasy and sci-fi publisher that I’m very excited about and still can’t quite believe is happening. When I’ve got something more concrete to tell you (or, more accurately, show you), I’ll let you know.
I’d also like to very quickly give a shout-out to the group of people who have made the last few months of 2016 much more enjoyable than they really should have been – the fine folks at Weird Science DC Comics and the Get Fresh Crew of assorted fans, contributors and followers. If you haven’t heard a 10+ hour podcast about the week’s DC Comics output and have the curious desire to do so, the Weird Science DC Comics Podcast is for you. I’ve loved listening to their podcasts and chatting with some great people on a dizzying variety of platforms. Weird Science post a huge number of reviews on their website (and not just of DC Comics either) and also host not only their own podcast, but an excellent series called The Cosmic Treadmill which looks at individual issues from the past, hosted by Chris Sheehan and Reggie Hemmingway, who are two of the most knowledgeable comics fans I’ve come across. For fun, thought-provoking comic analysis, and a great sense of community (and a fair amount of nonsense along the way) Weird Science DC Comics is the place to be.
This year I’ve tried to do more with the blog. I’m not really interested in making it a premier comic book or science-fiction site on the ‘net (there are plenty enough of those already) – I’m just using it as a place to discuss comics, books and films that have interested me in one way or another. To those who have taken the plunge and decided to follow me and/or comment on the reviews and articles, a big “thank you”. Your views and comments are very much appreciated. Hopefully, this year there’ll be more regular content and, perhaps, more varied content, too.
All the best! Roll on 2017!