Othering Thursday


Someone called 'Bright Coat and Bravado' (you can guess their favourite Doctor), posted this on tumblr.  Here's a snippet:

I have a serious problem with  the “Cartmel Masterplan”. It’s not really about Looms, if you’ll believe that. It’s about The Other.

I can’t fucking stand the idea that the Doctor - or anyone - is “destined for greatness”. 

I posted the following off-the-cuff response (which I reproduce here, opportunistically, because I quite liked it when I read it back):

On the whole, I love the Cartmel era, and have a lot of affection for the Virgin New Adventures… but I don’t like the idea of the Doctor as the recycled ‘Other’.

I don’t like the idea of him being ‘exceptional’ for his society.  Much as he is bound to be exceptional from a human standpoint, I think that should always be because of what he does rather than what he is.  I like the idea of him as someone who failed in his home context - “…scraping through with 51% at the second attempt” - and being a bit rubbish, a bit of a dilettante, a bit of a second-rater, a bit of a fartaround.  Probably because I feel like one of those myself.  But that’s okay.  I hate the winners vs losers view of life.  I hate the idea that one’s worth is determined by one’s ‘success’ in the competition of life, in carving a niche for oneself in a hierarchy.  I still more hate the idea of those kinds of judgements being made without taking into account the fact that some people start off at higher rungs and with greater advantages.  The Doctor should be someone who started off at such a high rung but who proved unsuited for it because of his infinite distractability, his vagueness and his inability to ‘play the game’… and also because of the moral sense - and the imperative to be a social actor - that he acquires from his involvement, from his breaching of the walls of the enclosed and reactionary envelope of Gallifrey, from his adventures and researches and friendships ‘out there’ in the muck and strife and pain of the universe.

The transformation of him into the reincarnation of a godlike founder figure from mythological pre-history injects a 80s/90s ‘epic’ sensibility into a 60s/70s ‘rebel’ storyline.  It is a post-defeat rationalisation overwriting an artefact that originated at a time of struggle.  The Doctor-as-drop-out-from-the-ruling-class is an (admittedly imperfect) artefact of 1969.  It gets renewed - even intensified - in 1976.  And then it gets downplayed and downplayed until - interestingly enough - Holmes gets his hands on it again at the end of the Trial in 1986.  But in the run up to the ‘long-90s’, Cartmel et al lay the groundwork for a potential vitiation of it.  Even as that crew take the show to angrier and bolshier territory than its has visited for quite some time, they’re also utiling an affect from various cultural strands that bigs the Doctor up and fetishizes him, and his ‘power’.  I criticise Moffat (and RTD) for this… but the truth is that Cartmel & Co. started it, or almost started it.  Thankfully it only partially and intermittently materialises on TV.  They took out the “more than just a Time Lord” line, and the “brief glimpse of his birth” line makes its way into the novelisation of ‘Curse of Fenric’ but not the broadcast show.  The NAs, being purely made of words, can allow these tendencies to come out to play in a way that the TV show itself seemed to reject.

Fair disclosure: I loved the Cartmel masterplan at the time (and all the stuff that goes with that term… i.e. the manipulative, amoral, chessmaster Doctor, and his grimdark adventures, and his mythological origins, and his power, and his way of saying things that Merlin said in Excalibur, etc, etc, etc)


Bright Coat and Bravado 6 years, 6 months ago

Thanks for the plug, Jack! Fun fact: MY NAME IS ALSO JACK!

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liminalD 6 years, 6 months ago

Well put. I quite liked the CMP when I was younger, I liked the epic grand narrative of it all, but as I have aged I find I like it less and less. Like you, I much prefer a Doctor who is awakened by interaction with the universe, who becomes great because of his exploration of the universe and its denizens, rather than a Doctor who is a saviour because of his inherent greatness as an exceptional part of a privileged, ruling elite.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 6 years, 6 months ago

I wonder how much of this is hindsight, though. Which is to say, I think it's easy to miss the ways in which the Other is totally weird and unlike anything the series would do today, much like it's easy to miss all the ways that the Hartnell and Troughton eras in no way act like the Doctor is a Time Lord.

One thing that strikes me about the Other is that I'm utterly unable to recall what the hell he actually did. He was basically Rassilon's conscience, yes? Did they ever establish anything else about what he did? You have all the War of the Pythia stuff, but through all of it he's just sort of the thorn in Rassilon's side that he can't just get rid of like he did Omega.

So for the Doctor to be the Other reincarnated doesn't actually put him in a position of power. Indeed, he's specifically, from the very name, put on the outsides and the margins of Time Lord culture. I think it's wholly fitting that the Other barely scrapes through school - a huge part of the Other mythos is that he's a quite minor figure in the official histories of the Time Lords.

It's very much not "Luke I am your father" epic stuff. It's much more "Luke I am your vagrant uncle that nobody in your family ever really talked to you about but who showed up drunk to your fifth birthday party and gave you a bicycle with some other kid's name painted on it."

In hindsight, because Davies went in the direction of the big, epic Last of the Time Lords, the Other looks like a prototypical "Doctor as big mythic figure" thing, but to my mind it's wildly less epic than, say, "the Doctor is the person that the White Guardian entrusts the Key to Time to," or "the Doctor becomes Lord President of Gallifrey," or even "the Doctor saves the Time Lords from their greatest crisis." It's very much "the Doctor is the bit of grit in the machine that never goes away, no matter how much the official histories try to erase him." The Doctor becomes the spectre that haunts the Time Lord vision of history.

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encyclops 6 years, 6 months ago

Jack, I couldn't agree with you more, and I love the way you put it here.

To Philip's point: I feel like even a legendary speck of grit in the machine is still legendary. To position him as part of a trinity with Rassilon and Omega -- even the "humble outsider" part -- and then to have him reincarnate with pretty much the same function is still to give him an epic destiny that sticks in my craw.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 6 years, 6 months ago

But he's pointedly not part of the Trinity. His holiday is an obscure afterthought. The Other is part of a legendary trinity in the same way George Clymer is a founding father of the United States, which is to say, it's technically true, but nobody who uses the term is actively thinking of him.

I don't think what's important about the Doctor-as-grit is that he's legendary grit. I think it's that he's eternal grit. He's what the grand system of the Time Lords can never quite erase, no matter how much they marginalize it and him.

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