it’s spacetime, spacetime, spacetime that you love

Welcome back! It’s Sunday morning, which as you know, is the day we answer your questions.

Today’s question comes from alert reader Scott Eric Kaufman, who commented on Facebook to ask what I made of the Doctor’s shift from traditional hero (slaying the bad guys, or at least incapacitating them) to tragic figure (causing more damage than he’s able to prevent). Arguably, the episode I posted on (“Blink”) is a part of that shift.

Sorry for the delay, Scott! Here’s your answer.


Basically, with the caveat that I’ve only done on a very abridged whirlwind tour, I would say that most of our identification with the Doctor comes more from his functions as spectator and scholar than from his ability to defeat villains in open battle. Even when he is being tough, as when he bumps into Sally wielding a bow and arrow, the show regards him with patronizing amusement — he’s being henpecked, at that same instant, by his impatient assistant.

Another good example is The Shadows on the Leaves. The whole time, the Doctor walks around next to a bunch of lethal piranhas that he can’t kill. The only difference between him and the other people in the group is that he has a better idea what is wrong, and who is dead. After all, in the very first episode, his initial superpower is the ability to read quickly, a superpower that only one other being in the universe possesses (robot No. 5 from Short Circuit) presumably because the other celestial beings chose superpowers that didn’t lead to getting beat up on the celestial schoolyard. And the ironic effects of his work are immediately foreshadowed (again, in the very first episode of the re-boot) when the conspiracy theorist says that Death follows him, rather than saying that he comes to prevent death and catastrophe.

There’s so much to like about this narrative, in which the Giles outshines the various Buffys and just learns those evil creatures to death. It’s such a pacifistic structure. It’s so pro-intellectual. This is a fantastic show for kids, and parents will love it, too!

But the asymmetry between the Doctor and his enemies creates big dramatic problems. The show often gets by on what amounts to 40 minutes of evasive maneuvers. The Doctor is like that guy in one of Izzy Prcic’s stories who logs onto FPS (first person shooters) and runs right into enemy territory, shouting via the chat window, “The Buddha teaches compassion! The Buddha teaches compassion!”

So there you have it. On the one hand, we all love the doctor because he is a great tour guide, a veritable fountain of pertinent information and childlike wonder. He pokes you in the ribs, and goes, “Did you see that?! Amazing!” On the other hand, the fact is, I’m not the most reliable guide to what makes the Doctor heroic because I mostly do not find him inspiring.

What does it say about me that I identify more with the hero of Hell on Wheels? I dunno. Probably something bad. But I won’t apologize. I still don’t own a gun, and thanks to role models like Mr. Bohannon, I say “yep” and “gee willikers” much less often.