Friday, June 16, 2006

Of interest possibly only to Doctor Who fans....

Unusual departure point for a blog entry, but...

Went over Benedict's place the other day and saw an episode of the new Doctor Who. It's mighty fine, almost hold-your-breath good in parts, and I drove home afterwards (replete with fine food, fine conversation and what he assures me was a fine red wine) thinking about the whole women in science fiction thing.

My first memories of women in SF were those who wrote or starred in my favourite reading material (second hand SF books or superhero comics) or who appeared on my favourite TV show (Dr Who). And I have to say, ladies, that you disappointed me. My first experiences with women in SF were not entirely positive.

For a start, why couldn’t women write decent SF? What were the options? Anne McCaffrey writing about dragons – obviously brainless fantasy stuff, unlike credible male stories of time travel and faster than light ships. Ursula Le Guin – wizards and such-like, or long novels about feelings where nothing ever happened. Marion Zimmer Bradley – never looked that interesting, to be honest.

But on the male side we had luminaries like Clarke, Priest, Cooper. Why couldn’t a woman write a short story like Harlan Ellison could? Why couldn’t she give you that “blow your brains away weirdness” like Phillip K Dick, give you that “courage in the face of despair” feeling like Wyndham could? Why couldn’t a woman write about the horrible loneliness of people surrounded by friends and family like James Tiptree Junior?

And why didn’t anyone tell me until five or so years later that the horribly talented James Tiptree Jr., whose collection of short stories I had read and reread until the cover fell off, was in fact a woman? Would have saved me a lot of painful re-thinking.

And for the record, the best living horror writer in the world at the moment is Lisa Tuttle. Not horror that makes you go “bleargh”, or horror that makes you run off screaming, but horror that makes you lie in bed at night for a few days afterwards thinking – I don’t know, something you can’t put in words. Some cross between unease and sorrow and yearning, all on the surface of a definite undercurrent of fear.

Anyway. Women in the comics were different. They were, as previously confessed, my original and most loyal crushes. Sue Storm. The Black Widow. Later Emma Frost. But when you go back to the original comics I read – the late sixties/early seventies stuff – and you look at the women in them, it’s startling to think what stuff you took in unthinking.

Plot of early FF comic, (imperfectly remembered):
Nefarious villain (whose name escapes me at the moment) has trapped the Fantastic Four and has somehow goaded them to fight each other by causing them to see illusions of whatever they most fear.

The Thing (rocky, supernaturally strong looking guy) sees… something he doesn’t like.

Reed Richards, the modestly entitled Mr Fantastic (infinitely fluid body, smartest man in the world) sees his greatest fear, (can't actually remember it).

And Sue Storm, the Invisible Woman, able to bend light and punch holes in brick with her mind, certainly the most physically powerful "don't even think about it, boy" member of the group, sees – her beloved Reed embracing another woman.

Chaos ensues, but things are eventually set right. Reed outsmarts the other guy, and afterwards Sue weeps in Reed’s arms.

Invisible Woman: “Oh Reed, I feel like such a fool!”

Smartest man in the world: “Not a fool, Sue, only… a woman.”

And this is the hero and the smartest man in the world talking, and what he says is all treated as completely normal speech, and she weirdly doesn’t use a forcefield, or a shotgun, to blow a hole in that big fantastic brain of his.

The past. Another country.

But the main reason I was thinking about this stuff as I drove home was the latest Doctor Who that I’d seen at Bene’s place.

It’s weird, looking at something twice at two widely separated times in your life.

It shows you something about yourself.

It’s almost as if you can use these things, these books or televisions shows or whatever, to look at yourself, and if you use the same object, the same book, the same idea, the same character or situation, you can see how you’ve changed over time.

Like when you return after a long absence to a room in which you lived as a child, or to your old primary school, and you see how small and close-packed everything is that once was huge and open. Or when you measure yourself against something inanimate – the table in our old house comes up to my hip, my mother remembers me running underneath it without ducking my head.

See, in the original Doctor Who, the Doctor traveled with a series of companions. The Doctor was immeasurably old (at least six hundred), vastly intelligent, a moral paragon, infinitely alone – exiled from his race and planet to wander amongst the stars. His companions were generally young, attractive, female, human beings who existed to have things explained to them, to require rescuing… but also to be the comforting terrestrial response to the situations in which the Doctor and his companion found themselves. The Robin to the Batman, the Watson to the Doctor’s Holmes. The companions would last a few series and then be replaced by another – so you had the ever-changing progression of beautiful young women who needed rescuing and who could never be as smart or as powerful as you.

Overall a very satisfying show for young people – and particularly for geeky young males.

Anyway, in this latest series, the Doctor (and new, young, attractive female companion**) are investigating the archetypal strange events at a local school. Simultaneously, these events are being investigated by a reporter for a newspaper – one Sarah Jane Smith – the Doctor’s companion during the mid seventies.

And the whole show from then on is emotion. There’s the compulsory extraterrestrial menace subplot for the kids, but for us it was all about the interaction between the Doctor, the new companion and the old, and the asking of questions that wouldn’t have made any sense to any of us when we were eight years old, but made a hell of a lot of sense now.

What kind of man does what the Doctor did? Intense, serial relationships that begin (and occasionally end) at his choosing**? Is that what a moral paragon does? What else is going on in his head? If he’s so perfect, why does he need a companion at all – which he obviously does? How honest is he being about what's going on – with himself and with her? What about hubris, what about the confusion of power with strength, of knowledge with wisdom?

And what kind of effect would that have on someone – to be picked up, taken to the end of time and the far reaches of space and then be dropped back in the suburb and time you grew up in? How do you get over that? What if you don’t? What about being hurt by someone like that, how do you get that anger out?

Anyway. Big questions – questions that make you grateful to be asked. Questions without answers, things that maybe wouldn’t occur in the world of a moral paragon or a hyper-intelligent being. But now the show's about a vulnerable man and a woman who won't be spoken down to, who sometimes knows more about what's going on than he does - something impossible to have imagined back when I sat watching Sarah Jane scream through "The Pyramids of Mars."

Anyway, thanks for listening,

*It's a Dalek sucker, okay? And it's not doing anything untoward. Just... looking t her, or something.

This is a show for kids, for God's sake!

**This line is the subject of some dissent in the Bronze household. Did the companions leave of their own volition or were they “left behind” by the Doctor? Email your recollections in and save our marriage.


Blogger Danny said...

Female sci-fi/fantasy writer? C.L. Moore ring a bell?

9:13 PM  
Blogger Benedict 16th said...

1) SueStorm
2) EmmaFrost
3) The BlackWidow

Actually my first comic-book love was Katrinka Colchnzski, a.k.a. Nova Kane from E-man* He was the blonde bimbo with incredible powers and she ... well she was the brains (and exotic dancer).


* Don't tell Sarah** it was written by a woman

** Whatever the arguement - Sarah is right, just remember that very simple rule - "Sarah is right", no arguements, no but's no nothing, the only thing that trumps Sarah is a mother (specifically hers), and to recap - Sarah is right, shame on you, I thought you knew better.

2:48 PM  
Anonymous Camilla said...

I'd go with His Holiness's response on this question (brilliantly summed up by him, in my opinion).

And I loved the Sarah Jane episode too! I thought it was fantastic. I know that Dr Who has changed a lot since we all gathered behind the sofa at 6:00pm on weeknights to watch it, but I wonder what today's kids would have got out of that episode - did it have the same power as for us, who watched Sarah Jane so many years ago in her Screaming Phase? Or was it just grown up stuff that went over their heads? I don't know any kids of the appropriate age to ask, unfortunately.

*vikqiu* - a new euphemistic spelling? D@mmkn this internet age!

3:40 PM  
Blogger Foilwoman said...

Tom Baker is the best Dr. Who ever. And Sarah Jane Smith? Very enjoyable. I don't remember how she departed the show however. I'd assume she told him "Lose the damn scarf. I'm sick of it already." He didn't, and she left for bigger and better things. The scarf was atrocious.

12:17 PM  
Blogger Foilwoman said...

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12:17 PM  

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