4 years, 9 months ago
|I don't like Mondays.|
It’s May 14, 1996. (That is the date we’re going with in this post. You’ll understand.) Mariah Carey is at number one with “Always Be My Baby,” while Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Celine Dion, Coolio, Tracy Chapman, R. Kelly, and Whitney Houston also chart. As does Alanis Morissette with “Ironic,” which isn’t. Those are, of course, the US charts. The UK goes with George Michael in number one with “Fastlove,” with Gina G, Smashing Pumpkins, and Blur also in the charts. And, actually, both Liverpool FC and the Manchester United FA Squad dueling it out in the charts instead of the pitch. So that’s funny too.
In news, let’s go with the whole month of May, since we never did. ValuJet Flight 592 crashes in the Florida Everglades, killing 110. Thunderstorms and a tornado kill 600 in Bangladesh. The MV Bukoba sinks, killing a thousand. Eight die on Mount Everest in severe weather. Fifty-three die in a Sudanese jet crash. Outside of calamitous death, Benjamin Netanyahu is elected Prime Minister of Israel for the first time, the Supreme Court overturns a Colorado state law forbidding municipalities from protecting gay rights, and the Duke and Duchess of York divorce.
While on television… we have a problem. Or, at least, I do. This was always going to be an autobiographical post. I feel like I need to put that out front in it, before the analysis. I’ve known this post would be autobiographical since Planet of the Spiders. This entry was in part about the end point of a childhood love of Doctor Who: the moment where it came crashing down, becoming an old past love, on the shelf following Masters of the Universe and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, remembered with affection, but clearly and decisively left in the past. The weird British sci-fi show I was the only one who had heard of made a new movie for American television, my friends and tormenters watched it, and… it sucked. There was nothing to defend. People came up to me the next day and told me that they’d seen that Doctor Who thing I liked so much, and it sucked. And I couldn’t disagree. They had me dead to rights. The big, climactic return had happened, it was awful, the series keeled over and died again, and that was that. There was nothing left to do but walk away. And so there’s the lens of history. 1992 to 1996: my Doctor Who fandom. Which, of course, involves some reflection on the early days of my fandom, curling up in the corner of a fifth grade classroom in Newtown, Connecticut and reading Target novelizations.
And then the day before I was set to write this post some bastard murdered twenty children in my town.
It wasn’t my elementary school where twenty kids got murdered. I went to Head O' Meadow school, on the other side of town. I know people who went to Sandy Hook, obviously. The town’s school system worked by having four separate elementary schools that merge together after into single middle and high schools. So plenty of my middle school and high school friends went to Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The school, for what it’s worth, is named for the part of Newtown it’s in. It was founded almost as soon as the main town was, in 1711. The town’s symbol is a golden rooster, the weather vane from the top of what is now the Newtown Meeting House, previously the Congregational Church. General Rochambeau and his troops camped in Newtown in 1781 marching towards Yorktown, Virginia. Local legend has that they used the golden cock for target practice, a figurative shooting at the golden dawn.
The main town is based on a pair of roads crossing what is now Main Street. The first, now Sugar Street and Glover Avenue, is the road my parents live on. The second, now West Street and Church Hill Road, winds to the east down into Sandy Hook, a settlement a few miles from the main town founded by people looking for larger plots of land. Sandy Hook lies along the Pootatuck River, named for the indigenous tribe that sold the town in the first place. That tribe continues to be denied federal recognition in any of its forms. The Pootatuck was the same river where, in 1986, Richard Crafts disposed of his murdered wife’s body by feeding her through an industrial woodchipper in the midst of a November Blizzard three days before the final part of Terror of the Vervoids aired. The murder was lightly adapted to form part of the plot of the Coen Brothers movie Fargo,
The river eventually turns to the artificially built Lake Zoar near the Stevenson Dam, one of the largest dams in the United States that also serves as a bridge. It lies on Route 34, which turns off of Church Hill Road right before one gets to Sandy Hook Elementary School. The killer lived on one of the streets off of Route 34, right near the town’s high school, and about two blocks from where the author of The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins, lives. At the corner of the plot the high school sits on Wasserman Way winds up towards the Fairfield Hills campus, the site of a former mental institution that now sits as a crumbling white elephant. The buildings were in poor condition when the hospital closed in 1995, and delays in deciding what to do with the property meant that when it finally was sold to the town the buildings were nearly beyond repair. In 1941 five attendants were charged and two were convicted for beating patients, one of them fatally. The hospital was a hotbed of the fad in psychosurgery, conducting a hundred lobotomies in a single year.
It would, of course, be trivial to knock all of this together into a meta-narrative about the unsettling flavor of the place. Violent murder and mistreatment of the mentally ill. It’s like psychogeographic gold. The truth is that Newtown’s a perfectly ordinary suburban smear in the northeastern megalopolis. The refrain that these things don’t happen here is the definition of silliness. This is exactly the sort of place that these things happen. We stared at Littleton, Aurora, and Oak Creek with the same slack-jawed horror that we’re now stared at. That you’ll be stared at when it’s your town. We carried out the same empty rituals of public mourning that are now done on our behalf. The #prayfor____ Twitter hashtag serves every purpose. The shop-worn descriptions that get trotted out. “A quiet town.” Now a rallying cry for gun control laws that are never going to happen.
And by the time this posts, a week and a half since the shooting, you’ll have moved on. We’ll just be another town on the familiar list, waiting for the next entry. Until then comes the lachrymose pornography of public mourning: candlelight vigils, the same photographs of police cars and ambulances outside buildings, interchangeable glurge from politicians. Even David Cameron weighed in to tell us his thoughts were with us. I bet we’ll even get a benefit concert or comic or something.
More than anything, I want to skip that. I want to opt out of the nauseating theatre of our public mourning. I’m told reliably that America is grieving with me, and I wish they’d stop. Because if I hear one more person ask what’s wrong with the world I’m going to scream. What’s wrong with the world is that you’ve already started to forget. What’s wrong with the world is that we built a world where things like this happen and there’s a process to deal with them and then we all just move on. That we’ve developed an entire cultural apparatus to anesthetize the shock and horror of this so that we can move on to the next time it happens. Our beloved master narratives...
There are few topics in Doctor Who, or indeed, in the history of television in general as meticulously and forensically analyzed as the failures of the TV Movie. Everybody knows what went wrong here. And I’ve been setting it up for entries. Still, in the interests of completism, let’s go ahead and rehearse the autopsy. As I said back in the post on Lungbarrow, the usual thing that is seized upon as evidence of the TV Movie’s wretchedness is the establishment that the Doctor is half-human. This is ridiculous. The most obvious thing to seize on is the fact that the Doctor’s half-human nature, which is explicitly said to be reflected in his retina structure, is never actually used to affect the Eye of Harmony, which we’re told can only be opened by human eyes. A major revelation about the character, repeated three times throughout the movie, never actually has anything to do with resolving the plot. There’s some evidence that this is something that got lost in successive rewrites - the fact that the Doctor is half human is mentioned by the Master in such a way as to suggest both that the Doctor tried to open the Eye at some point and that he failed because he’s only half human. But it doesn’t actually parse or make any sense. The revelation is important enough to come up three times, but it’s not important enough to do anything. This is so blindingly obvious that for nearly seventeen years I misremembered the plot of the story and just assumed it went the way you’d expect.
But the whole thing feels similarly cursory. Grace’s character arc is absurd, and she flips from belief to disbelief almost entirely based on the needs of the plot. Even less thought, shockingly, seems to have gone into the question of how to introduce the series to new viewers. Sylvester McCoy has several times suggested that the biggest problem with the TV Movie was that he was in it, which overstates the case, but not by as much as you’d think. It’s not that introducing the idea of regeneration is too much. But McCoy’s character is too perfunctory to generate any audience attachment, and McGann’s version doesn’t meaningfully show up until the halfway mark, spending a healthy chunk of time dealing with post-regenerative trauma, which is here an even worse idea than in The Twin Dilemma. Huge quantities of stuff are put in odd places - the relationship between the blue thing labeled “Police Box” that whizzes around the screen and the room in which McCoy’s Doctor sits must have been baffling to anyone unfamiliar with the old “bigger on the inside” routine.
Typically this is blamed on the excessive number of Philip Segal’s “kisses to the past,” as though the continuity was too dense to follow. This is only partially true. Certainly McCoy’s point - that it would have made more sense to give McGann the entire ninety minute block in which to properly be the Doctor - is sound. The TV Movie is a prime example of something that tries simultaneously to appeal to a hypothetical new audience and to appease a base of entrenched fans and fails spectacularly at both. What’s really striking, though, is the lack of meaningful effort made at both. Other than the strange structure imposed by McCoy’s presence it’s difficult to argue seriously that the excess of existing continuity obscures what’s going on here. No, what obscures the plot is the fact that nobody has bothered to think through how to introduce Doctor Who to a new audience, instead just throwing in a standard Campbell-by-numbers set of plot beats in with no attention to the fact that McCoy’s presence should force a different structure or to making them intelligible as anything other than familiar story beats.
Instead we get generic American cult sci-fi. It appears that given the choice between going to series with Doctor Who and producing another season of Sliders Fox opted for the latter. To be fair to the TV Movie, for all of its innumerable flaws it is not, in fact, worse than Sliders. The reason Sliders was picked ahead of it was purely that Sliders was made in-house by Fox. In fact the TV Movie is about as good as Sliders, which is in some ways more damning. There’s a slightly irritating current of thought about the TV Movie that suggests that its problem is that it’s “American.” While I’m never one to turn down the opportunity to prefer the UK to my own country, this is at least a bit unfair. The problem isn’t that it’s American, but that the specific type of American television it’s emulating is mediocre, and it has no ambitions whatsoever towards surpassing that mediocrity. The TV Movie is trying to be bland and pointless American sci-fi, it succeeds admirably, and for that, at least, it is rightly hated.
Certainly the people in it seem to have a distinct lack of interest in being here. Eric Roberts, for all the criticism he gets, is at least having fun with the script. His decision to devour large swaths of scenery locate him firmly in the tradition of Graham Crowden and Joseph Furst. Which is to say that he’s not destined for fan acclaim, but he’s easy to like if you’re of the mind to. Geoffrey Sax is actually on the ball, directing with a sense of droll whimsy that at least makes a noble effort to have something oddball in the story. But past that finding things to praise is a challenge. The less said about Yee Jee Tso and Daphne Ashbrook the better. Sylvester McCoy puts in an effort, but since his Doctor is overtly marginalized and made characterless in a doomed effort to deal with the narrative implications of starting with a regeneration there’s nothing for him to work with.
And then there’s Paul McGann, about whom… Look, however good he may be on the audios, he’s on autopilot here. Curiously, he’s much livelier in the audition tapes included as a DVD extra, where he’s delivering lines out of the (mercifully) abandoned Leekley version. This is almost understandable - for all the horrific flaws of the Leekley version, it at least offered McGann a story arc instead of leaving him an essentially reactive character. But in many ways what’s most striking is that so much of the DNA of the Leekley draft is still in this. The script is constantly harking back to a theme of parentage that has little relation to anything that’s going on elsewhere in the script, a strange legacy of its development history. In any case, McGann has little to work with and seems at times to be rooting against the project just so he can move on to something that isn’t misery-inducing. His reluctance, initially, to come back to do the Big Finish material is utterly understandable.
We should also deal with the claim that the ratings were good. The usual excuse by which they're good for the circumstances is that the episode was up against the episode of Roseanne in which John Goodman’s character has a heart attack, but this holds little water. The movie aired in May, which is, in American television, what’s called Sweep’s Month - one of the three times per year at which advertising rates are determined, and thus where networks go all-out with big event television. Yes, Roseanne was doing a big show that week, but May is a month where everyone does big shows. The TV Movie was supposed to be Fox’s big event, and it got lower ratings than the previous week’s rip-off of Twister. It did indeed do better on the BBC, which at least demonstrated a general desire for Doctor Who to come back, but at this point we fall into one of the basic fallacies of television, which is to treat a given episode’s ratings as indicative of how well that episode was liked. Ratings indicate how people thought they would like an episode. They tell us nothing about how popular it was, and there’s little evidence that the TV Movie was considered good by much of anybody.
We haven’t yet touched the fact that the TV Movie makes a complete mockery of Doctor Who’s past continuity. There are two things we should note here. I have argued before that the proper measure of a story’s canonicity is the degree to which it influences the future of the series. In that regard the TV Movie seems not so much to be non-canonical as anti-canonical: something that exists almost entirely as a negative example that the future of the series actively avoids copying. It would be one thing if the half human revelation were simply ignored in the same way that Cho-Je and the Watcher are. But the subsequent series has gone out of its way to bring up the possibility of the Doctor being half human just to shoot it down. There are, I think, several reasons for this. The first is the fact that it simply jars with so much else in Doctor Who. But plenty of other things do as well: the series is littered with radical breaks from the past. As much as people grouse about the difficulty of reconciling School Reunion with The Five Doctors, they don’t get nearly as bent out of shape about it as they do over the half human revelation.
Which suggests that there’s something more about the half human revelation that requires rejection. The answer, I think, is the logic that it gets at. Its sheer superfluousness within the narrative suggests that it’s there for no reason other than that everyone involved thought it was the sort of thing that belonged in the script. The Doctor/Grace kissing scene is similar: a detail that exists for seemingly no other reason than having an obligatory romantic subplot. These things are usually accused of being part of the Americanizing of Doctor Who, and that’s certainly not untrue, but the important thing isn’t that it fits into the American taste but the underlying logic here.
For all that the movie is packed with “kisses to the past,” after all, the resemblance between this and Doctor Who is tenuous at best. It would be one thing if this were Doctor Who’s take on American cult television. But Doctor Who never gets the drop on the American show. Instead we get the American cult take on Doctor Who, with Doctor Who’s tropes and ideas overtaken and subsumed by the American tone. Crucially, this means that there’s no real sense anywhere in this of the Doctor as a mercurial figure who drops into differing settings. The Doctor arrives on more or less contemporary Earth, by force. We never see anything that suggests the full scope of his character, or, more to the point, of the series’ premise. The TARDIS may be a time machine, but the idea of “anywhere in space and time” is miles from this. And so we get a very different conception of who the Doctor is and what he does than we’ve ever seen before.
The first clue is the hilarious profusion of clocks inside the TARDIS. Part of this is a matter of packing in the “he’s British!” signifiers, which, in American, means having him wear a frock coat and be old-fashioned, so lots of clocks and candles in the TARDIS. But it also is the most crassly literal-minded interpretation of “Time Lord” imaginable. The Doctor has a TARDIS full of clocks to demonstrate that he’s a Time Lord, and for no other reason. On the one hand this is moronic, but it does indicate the degree to which the story is animated by the idea that the Doctor is a Time Lord. But this is, predictably, interpreted in the most literal-minded way ever.
Throughout the TV Movie the Doctor demonstrates a new ability previously unseen in the series, which is the ability to know people’s futures and pasts. Apparently there are those who suggest that there is some explanation here based on him having met the people he meets in this story before, but the implication, heightened by the bits of dialogue about the complexity of the web of time, are that the Doctor has some sort of quasi-psychic ability to sense the fate of people and see their timestreams. (A second suggestion of this comes up when the Doctor handles the clothes he adopts in the hospital and the discussion of it being a “Wild Bill Hickok” costume is replayed in a manner that suggests it being some sort of psychic impression the Doctor is picking up from the clothes.
This strongly implies a worldview not only in which history is fixed, but in which there is a sense of destiny and fate. It’s not merely the oppressive arc of history, but a fixed set of individual destinies - ones that can be altered by the powerful, important people, but that is largely set in stone and immutable. Master narratives ahoy.
It would be lying to say that this is why I hated it in eighth grade. I didn’t notice it at the time, at least not in an articulable form. But this is, at least, a large part of what is so miserable about the TV Movie: its sheer banality. There is no spark of strangeness in this version of Doctor Who. It’s not just that there are no monsters or alien worlds. It’s that the Doctor is not a figure of anarchy or of the weird. He’s a figure of authority: an old-fashioned British man who sorts things out. He’s the enforcer of our destinies.
This goes hand in hand with the TV Movie’s eschatological tone. The world is going to end at midnight on January 1st, 2000, apparently. This isn’t even overtly connected to your garden variety millennialism. The date, within the narrative, is nothing more than a coincidence. The Master just happens to have sent the TARDIS crashing to Earth in time for some millennial world-ending. Which is to say that the TV Movie buys into the logic of eschatology not just uncritically (after all, it does everything uncritically) but reflexively, adopting the cultural logic of the apocalypse as simply a basic aspect of the world. Again, it presents a world dominated first and foremost by master narratives. And not in a conscious way. The absolute dominion of the master narrative is not something that the TV Movie consciously points out. It’s just completely rampant in its basic ideology. It’s the unconscious assumption animating every single thing it does, from its Campbell-at-all-costs structure to its depiction of the Doctor to its setting.
Which brings us back to where we started. The strangely isolating drear of our ritual of public mourning. Pray for Newtown, we’re told. Money raised for the families. A line of cameras opposite the church where the funerals are being held. The obligatory Presidential visit. I remember on the smaller scale, after my father’s stroke. The two weeks where we got more baked goods than it was physically possible to eat. And then the silence as we found out who among my father’s colleagues and running mates could be accurately called “real friends” who would come by and sit with him and confront the fact that a brilliant and funny man could barely speak anymore. Nobody wants to stick around for the long agony of grieving. They want to send a box of cookies to assuage their own grief and move on to something else.
Even within the town there's something unsettlingly alienating about the grief. A display of twenty-six miniature Christmas trees for the victims, with blue lights for the boys and pink lights for the girls, their identities quietly erased by our larger social narrative. The man in the diner who talks about how he doesn't even want to celebrate Christmas, then five minutes later is trying to get the waitress to come down to his car dealership. The arrival of Pies Across America, an organization that apparently shows up places to cheer people up by giving out free slices of pie. This is what we prefer. The grand gesture that can safely be followed with silence.
Newtown is a staggeringly rich town. A median household income of $90,000, twice the national average. We’re 95% white. I remember when the high school did West Side Story. We made terribly unconvincing Latino street gangsters. We do not need your money. We do not even need your prayers: we’re a strong and good town, and can pull through this, hard as it will be. We’ve pretty much got this.
Recent news has revealed that the United States has been engaging in what are called “double tap” strikes in its drone attacks. These strikes involve hitting targets twice in rapid succession, such that the second strike hits first responders. One hundred and seventy-six children have been killed in these attacks. Thousands of people die every year in my own country because of inadequate health insurance. People commit suicide having slipped through the cracks of our mental health system. There are over two hundred and thirty-two rapes a day in the United States, and over six hundred and eighty-four a day worldwide.
The master narrative, of course, dictates that you care about all of these things less than you do twenty dead first-graders in my hometown. I, at least, understand why I care about the deaths in my back yard. But I an unable to feel anything but alienation from this public chorus of grief. This isn’t my sorrow. This isn’t my town in the news. This is some strange copy of it, edited to the sensibilities of wherever I’m reading about it. The Guardian likes us quiet and idyllic, and prefers the degree to which Adam Lanza cannot be understood. In the Daily Mail Adam Lanza was a ticking time bomb, and Newtown is a “small town forever tainted by tragedy” framed in terms of a British family who moved here, declaring it an "American adventure" days before losing their son in the massacre. Salon declares it a consequence of masculinity and psychoanalyzes the capitalist implications of the fact that our local pizza place is called My Place. The National Review says it's because we're too feminine. I’d check more, but I haven’t the stomach for it.
There's a really, really great Chinese restaurant in Newtown called New Wok. Some of the best Chinese food I've had, anywhere, and I've eaten in some of the best Chinese restaurants in London and Chicago. One shopping center down there's a fantastic Italian bakery. I still have half a cheesecake from them that I bought to celebrate my girlfriend finishing her last day of work at her old job. And my favorite breakfast spot, King's, which we still call Leo's even though it hasn't been called that in over a decade, is right there too.
My comic shop is just up the road from Sandy Hook Elementary School. It's in an old train station, and Jerry Ordway buys his comics there. If he has something out that week he'll walk over to the rack and sign all the copies of it, and just leave them there. No fuss is made about it. The store never announces a signing or does anything like that. There's just signed Jerry Ordway comics sitting there. The comic shop is right near an old railway bridge that had low clearance, and trucks would keep ripping their tops off on the bridge.
Every year we do a big tree lighting ceremony. They line the streets with luminaria, almost right up to my house, and people park all around the house to walk down to Ram's Pasture and watch the tree get lit. For years the tree was the dumbest looking thing - we called it the Christmas Thumb because of how it looked lit, and one year the star fell over and just looked like a flying saucer over the tree. Last year the tree came down in one of the storms and they just started using a smaller tree nearby, so now most of the people at the tree lighting can't even see the tree.
Our main landmark is the flagpole. We tell people that if you look at it and wonder "is that the flagpole," it's not the flagpole. Because it's a giant flagpole smack in the middle of one of the busiest intersections in town. It's the most gloriously idiotic thing ever, and there are lots of photos of it at half mast on the Internet right now and none of them explain what it is or why it's so important to the town.
Most days these are the most important things there are to know about Newtown. And if everyone in the world is going to know the name of my town then I really wish they knew those things too and not just that some bastard murdered a bunch of children. I really wish they knew my Newtown instead. My Newtown, where I was bullied for years for loving a weird British sci-fi show nobody had heard of. Where I watched a crappy American remake of the show and gave up on it for nearly a decade. Where for two years running the school where I was bullied has had Doctor Who-themed scarecrows outside it for their annual Halloween competition. A dumb little town indistinguishable from any other dumb little town, safely insulated from the arc of history and the teleologies that now insist that whenever it’s talked about it’s framed in terms of one horrible day.
A dumb little town, completely and wonderfully unique, just like all the other dumb little towns.
Earlier in this post, when I had to make the transition from the school shooting to Doctor Who, I opted to do it with a jump cut. I figured any attempt to smooth it out would just be tacky. Better to rip the band-aid off. You can go from Doctor Who to unimaginable tragedy easily enough. Going big’s always easy. But to go from twenty dead children to a ropey sci-fi show is inappropriate. And yet next door to every family who’s child didn’t celebrate Christmas yesterday is one that played at normality. The transition from history to humanity is just a step down the street. Indeed, there’s no real history in what happened in Newtown. Just twenty-six families, each of them wholly unique in their grief.
In May of 1996, I loved a silly British sci-fi show that was unlike unlike anything else on television. And then people I will never meet with power I will never dream of took it and made it just like everything else. And I walked away from it and lived my life in my own little town of tragedies and good Chinese food. And I live there still today.
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