Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 59 (Harry Potter)

(66 comments)

Let's start with a quick update on the Kickstarter for the second edition of the Hartnell book. Short form: it's doing amazingly. We're well over goal, and working our way through stretch goals at a pleasant clip. Right now the stretch goals are commentary tracks for specific episodes. So let's talk about that.

I've been musing off and on about whether there's a sequel to be had in terms of TARDIS Eruditorum. And in terms of the blog, no, there isn't. I'm not going to have much more to write on Doctor Who when I'm done. I mean, I'll come back at the end of every season or so and do a catch-up, but it's not like I've developed bold new interpretations of The Web Planet since 2011. But there's always been a dimension the blog hasn't been great at doing: the visuals and storytelling of episodes. Simply put, that's stuff that's easiest to talk about when you have clips in front of you. And while I've occasionally done video blogs (Here's a random example) that talk about this, it's just not what the blog is best at. It's the wrong medium.

And so I want to at least experiment with another way to go through the series: commentary tracks that can be played alongside episodes such that I can talk about the stories in terms of how they're put together and what their storytelling says. And right now the Kickstarter has moved on to funding some experiments with that.

So far we've unlocked commentary tracks for The Rescue, The Ark in Space, Paradise Towers, and The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang. Next on deck are Kinda, The Mind Robber, and The Three Doctors. All told I have ten stories up for grabs. And what I'll do is record commentaries on them over the next few months and post them for free.

If the commentaries are good and people like them we'll continue in this vein, going out of order and posting commentaries on episodes. Eventually it'll switch to a model where the latest one is free and the archive costs $.99 a story or so, bur that's in the future.

So if you haven't contributed to the Kickstarter yet and are interested in exploring possible futures for the blog and my Doctor Who criticism, please head on over and pledge. I've just added some new rewards, and there are plenty of shiny things to be had among the low-price rewards as well. Every bit helps. You can donate over here.

Meanwhile, today's entry: Harry Potter.

Another crucial piece of the puzzle, so to speak. What almost everybody who comments on Harry Potter gets out of the way very early on is that there is not actually very much in it that is original. They’re straightforward instances of classic British children’s literature. The closest thing to innovation they can be said to have is that they perform a genre collision of the school story genre with fantasy, but this isn’t even new: off the top of my head Jill Murphy did basically the same setup in 1974 with The Worst Witch, and Mary Stewart had something along the same lines in 1969 with The Little Broomstick.

But this is, all in all, a terribly silly set of objections. Originality is not an inherent virtue - being the first to come up with an idea doesn’t mean you did a good job with it. And while Rowling’s prose is not going to win any major literary awards, it has an almost Dicksian functionality. Rowling writes to be devoured in single sitting. She is one of the greatest binge writers of all time. In this regard she was almost made for the midnight release. She writes books that are made to be events - ideal for awaiting and then consuming until one collapses from exhaustion only to pick up the next day. It’s a book to race to finish.

In this regard we should recognize that first and foremost, Rowling grasped the grammar of the modern media landscape, where the only unifying signifiers are “events” designed to draw in mass audiences. This is perhaps worth contrasting with the discussions of the BBC as a national broadcaster that strove to reach the whole country. This is true, and harkens back to the Reith/Greene model. But the evolving media landscape has, over the decades, worn away the distinction between Reithianism and what we might call Gradianism, or perhaps Birtianism. Or, hell, Murdochianism. That works well. The “something for everyone” approach still exists and matters, but that’s background material - the long tail. This has its own appeal and importance, and Doctor Who has been living off on the long tail since 1990 at this point.

But there’s still a notion of national unity as well - of big things that everybody watches. That’s the sick irony of Murdochianism: it’s just as invested in national unity as Reithianism. It’s just invested in uniting the nation in ways that are profitable to Rupert Murdoch, whereas Reithianism at least made a play, however flawed, at a notion of public service. National unity, after all, is easily subverted. But in this regard Murdochianism won the underlying battle so thoroughly as to have been mildly self-defeating. Big events reign supreme. Everybody plays for the big audiences - even the BBC, under people like Grade and Birt, had become a mass culture broadcaster. And once that happened the margins realigned themselves, finding a way to work within the structure of the big commercial event. It was hardly a tricky one. Reith and Greene were masters of this trick in their own way.

But in the modern approach, J.K. Rowling was at the forefront. Because she was so adept at writing for events that she ended up subverting the structure and, in effect, taking it over, manufacturing events that come out of the margins. I mean, I’m not going to claim that Harry Potter is some triumph of radical counterculture. Rowling didn’t craft Genesis P-Orridge for the masses. No, she crafted something about as subversive as teatime brutality for tots.

See, here’s the thing that it’s easy for a lot of British Doctor Who fans, and frankly all American ones to forget. Doctor Who was massively popular. I mean, absolutely massively so. We talked last Wednesday about how Sherlock very impressively got seventeen whole percent of the country watching it while the US’s top-rated drama gets a measly seven. These days, of course, Doctor Who isn’t quite as popular as Sherlock. But it’s still a big show. Twelve percent of the country watched The Rings of Akhaten, for example. Which is absolutely nothing compared to the classic series: in 1976, back in the Hinchcliffe era, when Mary Whitehouse was flipping out over the Doctor drowning? Twenty-two percent of the country watched it. In the doldrums, when the series was sliding to being cancelled? Battlefield was watched by 6.4% of the country. In the US that’s a reach that exceeds any network drama whatsoever.

Yes. You read that right. In the week of April 2nd there was not a single piece of US television drama seen by the percentage of the country that Battlefield, the nadir of Doctor Who’s popularity, saw. So the reach of The Deadly Assassin? Gargantuan by today’s standards, and downright unfathomable by US television standards. It’s comparable to movie standards - most years the top-grossing film in the US doesn’t reach twenty-two percent of the country. Doctor Who was at one point in its life massively popular by today’s UK standards, and unfathomably popular by today’s US standards. And that was the goal for its revival. That’s the thing that is so starkly different between the Eighth Doctor era and the current one. Doctor Who was, in its revived form, being made to be hugely, hugely popular. And it is - in relative terms its more popular today than it ever has been. It’s just that the British television landscape has fragmented, albeit not to the extent of the American one, and so that doesn’t equate to the same massive reach it had in the 1970s.

As much as we consistently hold Doctor Who to be a subversive television show with its roots in alchemy and radical politics, we have to remember this. It is utterly, completely mainstream. Except for the hole in the wilderness years, it is at the heart of British popular culture. There’s only so subversive it can be. And the same goes for J.K. Rowling. She’s as mass culture as they get. You cannot look at her and find radical social upheaval. It’s just not there.

Except that it is. Quietly, and on the edges, but it’s there. The novels may be a school story pastiche, but throughout them you can tell they’re school stories by someone who read them, not by somebody who lived them. There’s a working class grit to these. The people in charge are either uselessly paternalistic, hopelessly incompetent, or, in the worst cases, actively malevolent. Harry may be heir to the greatest magicking name in history, but he’s at best a drag performance of being aristocracy. They’re written for the people at the back of the class, keeping their heads down. They’re school stories written by someone who’s been on the dole, and isn’t going to forget the experience. And that quietly suffuses them. That’s the paradox at their heart. They’re a working class novel in a posh genre. It’s clever, and it’s witty, and it’s not half bad for a massive media event

But there’s more going on here. There is, after all, the other half of Rowling’s genre fusion. OK, Harry Potter is a working class version of the posh school story, excellent, but what the hell is with all of these wizards? And that gets us to the other thing about Harry Potter. It’s part of a very long legacy within British children’s literature: the Alice in Wonderland/Peter Pan/Chronicles of Narnia tradition of portals to other worlds and magical parallel worlds. Harry is basically a Philpott who stumbles into Narnia. Really, it’s Frances Hodgson Burnett meets Lewis Carroll. And, obviously, Doctor Who fits squarely into this tradition. It’s got a sci-fi gloss in much the same way that A  Little Princess has a non-magical one, but it’s firmly part of the same tradition as Alice in Wonderland.

This is, recall, a specifically Victorian tradition. That’s why the series has its roots in the Victorian inventor - because it’s a stock character in those stories. And then wrapped around a classic sci-fi ethic at a time when classic sci-fi was still around. But then it started getting weird, replacing the Victorian inventor with another stock magical figure (or, if we want to be Campbellian about it, the supernatural aid), the poor hobo. Box of Delights, essentially, hence the brilliant casting of Troughton in that, which amounted to taking his Doctor and restoring him to his Victorian setting instead of the weird sci-fi one he inherited from William Hartnell.

But it’s a mistake to only trace this back as far as Victorian children’s literature. Really, what’s going on there is an incidental collision of two other phenomena. On the one hand you had the invention of childhood, which is a modern invention borne of changing economic status that meant that children didn’t have to be used for labor as early. And so we invented the modern day notion of childhood as an idyllic period of exploration and discovery and innocence. And since at the time this was happening Britain kind of ruled the world a little, this meant that they were at the forefront of inventing childhood, and so ended up inventing children’ literature. But the fact that they ruled the world also meant that they were in a bit of a nationalistic period, and so prone to dusting off their ancient heritage. The Victorian period was also, for instance, when The Mabinogion was translated.

Because here’s the thing - the portal to another world is really just a further derived version of the old Celtic legends of faerie. The idea of magical spaces nestled within real ones is a very old and fundamental British myth, and one of the things that differentiates the British/Irish cultural tradition from other European ones. Doctor Who picked up from the Victorian manifestation of it and brought it into science fiction. Harry Potter mashed it up with a different Victorian children’s genre while connecting it with a working class ethic it was never entirely far away from, Victorian manifestations aside. It’s Victorian because it was at-hand when children’s literature was invented, and it turned out to be well-suited to that, but it’s far older than that.

Implicit in the idea of eccentric magical spaces that are nestled inside normal ones is a peculiar relationship between the esoteric and the mainstream. Faerie is an irrational space alongside a rational one - or, at least, a differently-rational space. It is the radical alongside the mainstream. And its existence thus parallels another basic fact about Britain, which is that it has always had a somewhat unusual relationship between its margins and its mainstream. Its margins are part and parcel of its mainstream. Strange, radical things go on in the mainstream, and they do it for a mass audience. The crazed counterculture has, in Britain, always been a little closer to the mainstream than anybody lets on.

Accomplishing this was one of the basic remits of the BBC. And the BBC, of course, comes out of the same thinking as the welfare state. Which was itself a product of Britain’s radical streak. Which is the odd thing about mass culture in the UK. It’s the sort of place where “Mr. Blobby” hits number one. It’s the sort of place where The Deadly Assassin is seen by nearly a quarter of the country. It’s the sort of place where Harry Potter happens.

Except Harry Potter did something unexpected. It jumped and became a global media sensation. This isn’t a huge surprise - Britain has taken over the world before, after all. They do this occasionally. Harry Potter is one of the benign manifestations: only publishing empires are involved. But this, in turn, suggests a cultural model that was primed for this particular cocktail of radicalism and magic. Thus far through the wilderness years we’ve looked and seen how television has evolved technically for Doctor Who. But here’s a more fundamental thing: a story about a boy who falls out of the world and has magical adventures, one with genuine counter-cultural influences, as mainstream as it’s designed to be, suddenly took over the world. Never mind that people had laid the groundwork to figure out how Doctor Who worked in the modern era. By this point we’ve reached a time where Doctor Who is deeply compatible with the era. In the late 90s/early 00s J.K. Rowling created one of the most enduring and well-known fictional characters of the preceding fifty years. No wonder Britain’s other great and enduring fictional creation of that period made a comeback. Clearly the time was right.

Comments

Ewa Woowa 4 years, 5 months ago

Do I *look* like a She?

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dm 4 years, 5 months ago

At first, I read "Dicksian" as a typo, but of course it isn't. I'd almost begun to believe this post was never going to happen.

Some far less interesting and meaningful connections: the film that features David Tennant is also the one that features tents which are bigger on the inside (and a one note "deranged" performance from Roger Lloyd Pack), RTD asked Rowling to write for series one and she declined (she commented that she was "amused" by the idea), The Writers Tale has details of an episode RTD was planning which would star Rowling herself, and would basically be a Who-Potter crossover.

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Scott 4 years, 5 months ago

I dunno, but you're absolutely gorgeous.

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SK 4 years, 5 months ago

Harry Potter? Working class? Bloody Hell. Harry Potter is the least working-class thing ever. There's not a single working-class character: they are all, without fail, resolutely, completely, utterly, middle-class. There's no wizards from estates there. They're all from Privet Drive. In Surrey, for goodness' sake. They don't have working class people in Surrey.

As is Rowling herself: yes, much has been made of her writing the first book in a coffee shop for warmth while on the dole. But the coffee shop was owned by her brother-in-law, and as she herself has admitted in interviews she didn't have to be on the dole: she was a fully qualified teacher and could easily have got a job (or indeed gone back to her parents, who were reasonably well-off). Instead she decided to live on benefits in order to focus on writing.

Being able to choose whether to work, or whether to indulge your hobby full-time: that's not exactly a mark of the working class.

(Now if you'd said Harry Potter was a middle-class version of the posh school story, that would be accurate.)

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Spacewarp 4 years, 5 months ago

I don't think you need to worry about your blogging future. If you can deconstruct Harry Potter as well as you did there, you can do anything.

As an aside, I've always maintained that Harry Potter has been an influence on recent Doctor Who, albeit a mildly unconscious one. Just look at the way Tennant holds his sonic in full "Harry Potter with wand" mode.

I thought for a while Smith was going to break the mold on that one, but here we are in Series 7 and he's straight-arm pointing it at they enemy once more. I keep expecting him to shout "Rictusempra!"

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Spacewarp 4 years, 5 months ago

This is probably down to Phil not 100% understanding the nuances of British class culture. Although I get where he's coming from. Yes, Privet Drive is inescapably middle-class, but that's a comment on the Dursleys, not Harry. Although he's been brought up in that house, the Dursleys have never attempted to integrate him into their world, so Harry has remained somewhat classless for all of his life.

He certainly doesn't have a middle-class attitude, and displays a noticeable working-class dislike for the trappings of both his Aunt & Uncle's life and to a certain extent the traditions of the Wizarding world.

Harry's predicament is similar to that of a working-class student in Oxford on a scholarship - he fits into neither world. The only two things that prevents the Wizards from looking down on him in the same way as they do to Hermione is his surname and the fact that neither of his parents were Muggles.

Many of the characters in the books may be middle-class, but Harry definitely isn't. For most of his life he hasn't been able to choose or indulge anything, quite unlike his spoilt middle-class cousin Dudley.

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SK 4 years, 5 months ago

That he's been mistreated doesn't make Harry working class. The aunt and uncle are clearly modelled on Hyacinth Bucket: the amusing thing about them is not that they are middle class, it's that they are middle class with pretensions. And it's the middle class who find things like, 'Bucket residence, lady of the house speaking' most funny. Harry's dislike for his aunt and uncle's lack of taste is middle, not working, class.

And the fact that he doesn't fit in at school isn't working-class either: as you write, they look down on Hermione more, and she's definitely middle class.

Harry, like most of the characters, is definitely written as middle class. His parents, from what is given, were middle-class, and then he was adopted by another middle-class family, and while they may have mistreated him, he displays classic middle-class mores of politeness and just generally never reads as a working-class character.

(Some of the characters -- mostly baddies, but also eg Dumbledore -- read quite upper-class. But I can't think of a single working-class (human) character. The entire working class is basically represented by elves and goblins, unless someone can think of a human example?)

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Wm Keith 4 years, 5 months ago

Surely the posh school story was always written for day-school children, able to relish the imagined independence of their public school peers?

Public school children will have needed a different kind of escapism. They knew that their lot was "Lord of the Flies" with added buggery.

Harry Potter, if I recall, escapes the intellectual poverty of a Surrey car dealership by journeying into a world where he can use his fantasy riches to assist the offspring of financially embarrassed civil servants.

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Wm Keith 4 years, 5 months ago

There is a magic bus driver and a magic bus conductor. As I recall they are drawn with a rather broad brush.

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Spacewarp 4 years, 5 months ago

I think we really need to define the difference between middle and working class in this context then. As you point out, Harry's parents are middle-class, but that's irrelevent as he isn't brought up by them. His adopted parents are also middle-class, but I defy you to claim that he is brought up in a middle-class way, being forced to sleep in a cupboard and wearing hand-me down clothes. Harry doesn't have a "middle-class" life by any stretch of the imagination. He doesn't have the same living standards of the people he lives with any more than Oliver Twist and Mr Bumble.

Harry's attitude is more akin to working-class, not his circumstances. Well as I said before, actually classless, since your class is more or less determined by the Class group you are part of, and identify with. Harry is essentially a loner, excluded from the society the Dursleys move in for the first 11 years of his life, and therefore unable to identify with it. If you told him he was middle-class because he was polite, and lived in an estate in Surrey he'd laugh in your face. He may live in Middle-Class Suburbia, but he's not a part of it; and he's polite because underneath it all he's a fairly decent polite kid.

No he doesn't quite read as a working-class character, because he's not been brought up working-class, but I maintain that his feelings of exclusion from both the upper class of Hogwarts and the middle class of Surrey mark him as being in neither of those.

Also which family does he gravitate towards, and feel naturally part of? The Weasleys, who are about as working-class as you can get in the Potter books (considering that in a world where everyone can do magic nobody can be truly working-class).

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SK 4 years, 5 months ago

Oh, Harry's definitely written as an outsider, but a middle-class outsider. A working-class outsider, for example, would be a very different character, as would an upper-class outsider. An outsider character is defined in relation to the society they are outside, and the society Harry is defined in contrast to is very definitely middle-class.

What Harry would say is neither here nor there. You don't get to choose what class you are.

(The reason he doesn't read as a working-class character I suspect is because Rowling wouldn't know how to write a working-class character, so her 'default' character is middle-class.)

And the Weasleys are nowhere near working class. The dad is a civil servant which is about as middle-class as you get, and the mother is a housewife. I mean, you're right that that's 'about as working-class as you can get in the Potter books' but 'about as working-class as you can get in the Potter books' is 'firmly middle class'.

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goatie 4 years, 5 months ago

On the figures comparing viewership of various shows: I'm not too familiar with England's television landscape. In my mind it's still just a handful of channels (in the sense of "what do you want to watch, cheese or snow?"). I know there are hundreds of channels to watch in America, and that alone makes seven percent absolutely huge. Does England also have a gluttony of television channels?

Putting aside my lack of knowledge of modern television across the pond, I do know that it's not fair to compare today's ratings to those in 1976. There was definitely a disparity there with the number of available channels. You touched on this point long ago in the blog, by noting that even though viewership numbers went down, viewer appreciation ratings went up; the reason being that there were more channels to choose from, so people who didn't like Doctor Who watched something else and therefore didn't add negative points to the appreciation index.

And now coming back to comparing modern television, because I clearly don't know how to edit this comment to flow well: we are talking about Sherlock here. Even if England has thousands of channels to choose from... come on, Sherlock. Sherlock!

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Anton B 4 years, 5 months ago

As a blog primarily concerned with how high and low pop culture impacts on Doctor Who and vice versa this entry dealt perfectly with the HP phenomena. I'm fascinated by the links between Who and British classic myth and fairy tale. Both Moffat, with his Peter Pan style nursery abductions and RTD's more CS Lewis quasi-religious take have addressed it but I Iook forward to some future incarnation that uses Lewis Carrol or PL Travers (you could do worse than Mary Poppins as a template for a female Doctor) as tropes.

Back to JK though. I have read all the books and seen all the movies and can't help agreeing with your observation that

' ... while Rowling’s prose is not going to win any major literary awards, it has an almost Dicksian functionality. Rowling writes to be devoured in single sitting. She is one of the greatest binge writers of all time. In this regard she was almost made for the midnight release.'

I suspect as soon as the films became massively popular and caught up with the release events of the book launches she wrote more and more as screenplay than as literature. Notice how 'Harry' becomes more like Daniel Radcliffe as the series progresses.

As for HP influencing DW - remember The Shakespeare Code and Tennant's
"Expelliarmus! Good old JK!"

I'm not gonna get involved in arguing about British class issues - That way madness lies!

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gatchamandave 4 years, 5 months ago

Dear goatie,

It is in fact BRITAIN'S television landscape, of which England's is merely a softy, Southern, twee part. All doylies on the table, and cottages with thatched roofs and the like.

Hee hee

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Daru 4 years, 5 months ago

"Implicit in the idea of eccentric magical spaces that are nestled inside normal ones is a peculiar relationship between the esoteric and the mainstream. Faerie is an irrational space alongside a rational one - or, at least, a differently-rational space. It is the radical alongside the mainstream."

Aye Philip, agree so totally that the time was indeed right for the return of Who in this culture.

I was really tickled and smiled to myself when I read your above comments on "the old Celtic legends of faerie" as I had only just then posted on 'The Girl Who Waited' about:

"...an Otherworld such as the Celtic Land of Faerie, which has its own laws of operating and offers a route-map to Initiation..."

A lovely conjunction!

I do strongly feel that the internal logic of the "eccentric magical spaces" which are the Land of the Fey, Faerie, or even its diluted form - Fairy Stories - is somehow informing the story writing process in Moffat's run. Except as you suggest Philip, mashed-up with Science Fiction.

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Daibhid C 4 years, 5 months ago

"The dad is a civil servant which is about as middle-class as you get, and the mother is a housewife."

Okay, despite being British I've never really understood the class system myself, but my Mum's a civil servant. And she came up as Traditional Working Class on the BBC's class calculator thing, as did I.

Granted, Mum's at the bottom of the civil service, and IIRC, Mr Weasley is at a level where he at least gets to express an opinion on policy, but still...

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Nick Smale 4 years, 5 months ago

The last of the UK's traditional analogue transmitters was shut down last year, so for the past six months all British TV viewing has been via multichannel digital platforms. At the moment approx 50% of viewers use 'freeview', a free service with about 50 channels, whilst the remainder are signed up to subscription satellite and cable services which carry 500+ channels.

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SK 4 years, 5 months ago

However, there are only about seven or eight channels on Freeview at any one time that are carrying new, programmme-based content: the rest are movie channels, music channels, news channels, porn channels, '+1' channels or repeats channels.

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Spacewarp 4 years, 5 months ago

The British Class system is more akin to the Hindu Caste system than a statement of where you currently sit within society.

The Working Class manage to be proud of being Working Class, while hating the Middle Class and being mildly deferential towards the Upper Class. The Upper Class paradoxically both despise and admire the Working Class, even to the extent of copying their speech patterns (e.g. "ain't").

The Middle Class is divided into several sharply defined layers through which the Middle Class move vertically up or down as they climb or fall (e.g. the Lower Middle Class want to be Upper Middle, while the Upper Middle wish there was an Upper Upper Middle for them to aspire to).

The Upper Class get on better with the Working Class than they do the Middle Class, and vice versa.

Everyone hates the Middle Class, even the Middle Class, who unlike the other two, never want to remain the Class they are.

This is why I would maintain the Weasleys are Lower (perhaps not Working) Class in nature. They don't aspire to better themselves, only to remain "comfortable", and they aren't social climbers. I used to work for the Civil Service and most of the people of the level I was at (CO or Clerical Officer) were unashamedly working class Londoners.

The Working Class and the Upper Class (aka the Aristocracy) can never change their Class. Only the Middle Class can do that, and only within the broader spectrum of the Middle Class (Lower, Middle, Upper Middle, Upper). If someone from the Working Class marries into the Middle Class, it doesn't make any difference. They'll always be Working Class, no matter how much money they have.

Understanding the Class system is the key to understanding the British, and to be honest it's almost impossible to rebel against it, and even if you do, nobody listens. What Class you are determines ultimately who you are friends with, where you work, who you should vote for. It's one of the few things that make me hate being British, the fact that someone can point at me, tell me where I am in the Class System, and it doesn't matter how much I protest, they're right and I'm wrong.

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SK 4 years, 5 months ago

The Weasleys are, if you want to gets precise about it, on the lower end of the middle-class spectrum; but they are definitely still middle class.

And Harry is very definitely a middle-class outsider. There is not a whiff of the working class about him.

I'm not really interested in a big debate about the British class system. I was simply pointing out that applying the label 'working class' to J.K. Rowling or anything about her creation is completely wrong. She and it are as middle-class as organic veg straight from the farmer's market, or reading the Guardian.

You certainly could have a series of books about a working-class wizard who goes to a magic school and doesn't fit in. But Harry Potter isn't even nearly it.

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SK 4 years, 5 months ago

(In fact I believe I read somewhere that one of Aaronovitch's ideas that led eventually to the Rivers of London series was, 'What if a working-class kid got into Hogwarts?').

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encyclops 4 years, 5 months ago

This is utterly fascinating.

I'd love to see you guys break down the class situation in The Young Ones for me. I have my guesses but judging by the above I don't dare to hope I'd be correct.

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encyclops 4 years, 5 months ago

"magical spaces that are nestled inside normal ones"

This phrase makes me happier and happier every time I read it. I love all the things you're evoking in this essay.

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SK 4 years, 5 months ago

They're all middle class except Mike, who might possibly be working class, but probably isn't.

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Spacewarp 4 years, 5 months ago

Yeah I'd agree with SK with one reservation.

Rik desperately wants to be working class but is definitely middle-class, if not upper-middle.

Neil wants to live outside the class system but is very upper-middle (just look at his posh parents), although this was probably just a phase, and Neil probably would have got his hair cut a year or too later and ended up with a seat on the Board...if he hadn't gone over a cliff in a bus.

Mike? Yeah, probably lower middle class, but he (and his family too) are probably too dodgy to be sure.

Vyvian though I would say was working class. He despises middle class Neil and Rik, and his mum works in a pub.

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Abigail Brady 4 years, 5 months ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 5 months ago

I have no preconceived notions of how you look. You simply are.

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David Anderson 4 years, 5 months ago

Low ranking civil servants come only just below people on benefits on the list of people the Tories / right-wing tabloids hate, which must tell you something about their class standing.

I think the moral of the above is that Britain has a class system, everyone knows what it is, and no two people can agree on the details. (People are much more accurate about their own class and nearby.)

My reaction to Phil's description of Rowling as a 'working class sensibility' was also initially sceptical. But Rowling's first novel aimed at adults, her one book in which she can get away with anything and she'll still be published and read, is a social realist novel about a deprived council estate. That must count for something. (It might still be getting the politics wrong despite good intentions a la Dicks/Letts, but the intentions are clearly there.) It may just be that engaging children's fantasy has to be subversive because adult authority has to be corrupt or absent in order for there to be genuinely anything at stake.

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SK 4 years, 5 months ago

Ah, you know more about the programme than I do. I was just going on Vyvian being a punk, and most punks being middle class. But I suppose there were a few working class punks (unlike, say, goths, who are all middle class because there's just no way a working-class kid could afford all the necessary gear). But then there's his name: were there many working-class boys named Vyvian around then?

The working-class reading of Mike is that he's a kind of Alan Sugar type. Market trader wideboy kind of thing.

Neil and Rik are both firmly middle-class, and both of them hate that.

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Spacewarp 4 years, 5 months ago

For a fascinating study of the class system and much much more, check out "Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour" by Kate Fox.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 5 months ago

I'm not sure how to ascertain the gender of stuffed monkeys.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 5 months ago

I'd say that the influence there is making magic wands mainstream enough so that you can show the white science wand being used the same way.

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Daru 4 years, 5 months ago

Yeah, totally! Myself also. Inspiring indeed - made my day.

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SK 4 years, 5 months ago

I'd say that's the obvious way to hold a weapon (which, in the Tennant era, the sonic screwdriver obviously was) of that physical configuration.

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T. Hartwell 4 years, 5 months ago

What stuck out to me about HP when revisiting it recently was how much of it was centered around contrasting these high, epic fantasy tropes with the mundanity of everyday life. So we get wizards that have to go to boarding school, elfs that do menial work, and several characters defined by their rather mundane quirks (it's almost literalized in Arthur Weasley's fascination with 'muggle' culture). With this, then, the weakest of the books are generally the ones that drop the mundanity in favor of 'epic' fantasy.

Of course, Doctor Who had been doing that since Robert Holmes, which makes Phil's point in the essay even clearer.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 5 months ago

Which is slightly less fragmented than US television, but not enough to explain the sheer size of the gulf. I mean, for me the real stunner is that Battlefield, the story that's used as the point where Doctor Who stopped having any cultural relevance, would be the #1 drama in the US right now with that percentage of viewers.

Put another way, yes, time has a lot to do with it, and Doctor Who is never going to pull 22% again, but the degree to which television is a more culturally unifying force in Britain than in the US remains true.

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encyclops 4 years, 5 months ago

Vyvyan: Could the confusion stem from being a working-class character created and portrayed by middle-class writers and actors? I always thought "VERY METAL" was a somewhat incongruous thing for an ostensible punk to have on his denim jacket anyway.

Neil and Rik: totally agreed.

Mike: the toughest for me to read, but you both say convincing things about him. He's the only one in the house Vyvyan seems to respect, if that tells us anything.

Then of course there are the various Balowskis...

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BerserkRL 4 years, 5 months ago

As for HP influencing DW - remember The Shakespeare Code and Tennant's
"Expelliarmus! Good old JK!"


Or the Doctor's mentioning that he's read the 7th Harry Potter book (before it was published in real life).

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BerserkRL 4 years, 5 months ago

Yes, Harry lives in a middle-class home. But the maids and butlers in Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey live in upper-class homes; that doesn't make them upper-class. Harry seems more like a live-in servant than a member of the family.

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jane 4 years, 5 months ago

Amy's glasses (which the Doctor now wears) are rather Harry Potterish.

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Daibhid C 4 years, 5 months ago

"(In fact I believe I read somewhere that one of Aaronovitch's ideas that led eventually to the Rivers of London series was, 'What if a working-class kid got into Hogwarts?')."

Other way round. The Big Idea was that a posh kid learns he's a wizard ... and Hogwarts turns out to be a comprehensive.

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Pen Name Pending 4 years, 5 months ago

One reason I think orphans and the portal to another world are common in children's literature - other than the magic - is that you have to kind of get rid of the parents to have the kids really explore. I've found that in my writing my three top story ideas all involve the kids/teens ending up somewhere else when they go to bed/dream. Of course, the fact that I'm obsessed with dreaming and the like doesn't help, but there's just something funny about having the parents around. It doesn't quite fit when you want to tell a story about rediscovering your childhood or facing fears or getting to talk to those you never get to.

Audience share: are you using the final ratings? Those are time-shifted and include everyone who watched the episode live plus the ones who recorded it and watched it within 7 days. For those who record and watch multiple shows, they may be counted more than once. According to Digital Spy, the audience share for the live broadcast of "The Rings of Akhaten" was 28.8%. "Cold War" was the same, while "The Bells of Saint John" was a little higher.

What's amazing about Doctor Who is that it's had consistent ratings since 2005. The only trend - although it's the trend of television in general - is that less people watch live and more record (and there are always a million or so who download from iPlayer).

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Pen Name Pending 4 years, 5 months ago

The sonic is used by Smith as a scanner a lot. When I first started watching, I thought it was *for* scanning.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 5 months ago

I am using final ratings, but I'm not doing audience share, which is just percentage of the number of TVs that were turned on at the time. I'm doing share of the country as a whole.

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Pen Name Pending 4 years, 5 months ago

And the idea of setting things in a boarding school. I forgot that part. The whole thing is about gaining independence.

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Pen Name Pending 4 years, 5 months ago

@Phil

Oh, I see. I wasn't sure what the difference was.

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Scurra 4 years, 5 months ago

One of the things I think Davies really understood about Who was that the Doctor was, in effect, the White Rabbit who was inviting Alice to jump down the Rabbit Hole - but that it was Alice who had to make the decision. Hence the payoff for us as viewers wasn't so much the Doctor as the chance to see how that choice changed Alice by being taken out of the mundane world and into Wonderland. (And why Donna will remain the single most tragic figure in the new series because of that.)
Moffat is clearly taking this line and bending it beyond breaking point, which is why he exasperates the "SF" fans so much...

In passing, I will also note that in your JK Rowling comment you missed one other thing which was that the first book appeared in 1997 coinciding with the whole New Labour / Cool Britannia mindset, when people were actively looking for that national identity thing you mention. Sometimes timing is everything.

p.s. As you may guess, I've only just discovered this blog. So I'd like to thank you for ruining my next few weeks as I devour it all.

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Scott 4 years, 5 months ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Scott 4 years, 5 months ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Scott 4 years, 5 months ago

Harry's clearly a bit complicated when it comes to class, but I'm not sure the fact that Harry's upbringing is clearly abusive means that makes him working-class, since it's still clearly happening within a middle-class context (and I kind of feel it's important to note that abuse is not itself a fundamentally working-class experience; middle-class children are abused all the time, but that doesn't transform them into working-class. Not saying anyone's suggesting this, but I just feel like it should be put out there). Yes, he pretty much lives the life of a downtrodden slave, but the maids and butlers on Downton and Upstairs Downstairs were themselves born to working class families, which Harry IIRC wasn't; not only his foster parents -- and they are his foster parents no matter how much they treat him otherwise, not his employers, another crucial difference between Harry and the Downton servants -- but his parents were both middle-class as well (although there's an argument to be made about his mum and aunt, since they knew Snape who I believe was implied to be working class and Harry's aunt screams 'working class girl made good and overcompensating').

For me, the easiest way to resolve Harry is 'lower-middle-class'; he's grown up and lived on (for him at least) the lowest possible rungs of middle-class privilege, it's just that the form the abuse he suffers from takes is stereotypically working-class in nature.

And Phil, if / when you move the blog to a new space, I have but one request; please please PLEASE make it possible to edit posts after submitting them. :-)

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Matthew Celestis 4 years, 5 months ago

Pen Name Pending, very good point about orphans.

That is something that Moffat really does not seem to understand. He wants magical stories about a magical childhood, but he persists in putting parents in there. That combination does not really work.

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Multiple Ducks 4 years, 5 months ago

I hope you'll revist Harry Potter once you've started your Morrison/Moore Magickal Mystery blog, if only so we can track the sentiments which of course ultimately bubble over into this: http://mindlessones.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/all-these-flies-on-potter.jpg .

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Scott 4 years, 5 months ago

@Matthew Celestis: I dunno about this one. If we're looking at the companions as the 'children' in this case, I don't think Moffat so much wants magical stories about a magical childhood (particularly since none of the companions can be really said to be children) as much as he wants to explore the conflict between the magical childhood and the simple fact that even the magical childhood can't last forever and that you have to grow up sometime, and whether you can still keep ahold of the magic of your childhood even when you're an adult. Peter Pan remains young forever, but Wendy and the boys eventually have to go home and grow up.

Furthermore, if we're looking at the companions as 'children' in this case (and I'm overlooking the whole 'River' thing for these purposes), then aside from Brian Williams their parents hardly ever appear. Certainly, parents of companions (and mothers especially) were a far bigger part of the RTD years than the Moffat years by a long pole.

(Besides which, this model suggests that we can't have Brian Williams, and I reject out of hand any model of story telling that either denies us Brian Williams or suggests he doesn't work.)

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Abigail Brady 4 years, 5 months ago

It's not a meaningful comparison, but I'm always fascinated by considering the absolute numbers of viewers. Doctor Who does not just have a bigger audience share, but is actually watched by more people than Buffy was, by more than any of the Star Trek series after The Next Generation. More people watched Jonathan Creek last week than watch Glee in the US.

Hell, Arrow picked up 1.46 million views on Sky on Monday: it's pulling only double that in the US.

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jane 4 years, 5 months ago

@Scott: Brian works, because he only shows up when Amy and Rory have finally settled into adulthood. He's there to show them that even when they get to his age, the magic of childhood can be reclaimed -- as evidenced by his extensive travel once he gets back from the dinosaur spaceship.

In Power of Three he becomes a Zen Master, taking care of the Home Base while the kids go off exploring -- this, then, is the final thing Amy and Rory have to learn.

River, by the way, is the perfect example of embracing the childhood/adulthood frisson. Her solution to having parents around is to have them around as children. As an adult, she's simultaneously daughter and "mother" insofar as she's got a whole lot more experience in the art of magical adventures.

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years, 5 months ago

And which, in turn, was incredibly idiotic.

Also, Roger Lloyd-Pack was the one giving the subdued performance; it was Tennant, sadly, who was giving the one-note "deranged" performance in Goblet of Fire.

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Spacewarp 4 years, 5 months ago

I'm sure you've all seen the "PS" scriptlet that was never filmed, showing Brian reading a letter from Rory?

If not, it's here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00zn6ff

(or look on youtube if you're in the US)

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 5 months ago

It's more like a Tricorder than anything else these days. For most of Smith's tenure the Sonic has been a device to get information or to facilitate Jiggery Pokery. Which the Doctor could do without the sonic if he really wanted to.

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Matthew Celestis 4 years, 5 months ago

Scott, I'm not just talking about the companions. The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe is the most naked example of what I am talking about.

The Narnia stories were about children having adventures without their parents. With Moffat's attempt at a Narnia-inspired story, the children's mother goes to the magical world and then the final outcome is their father coming back from the dead.

Likewise, with The Night Terrors, the emphasis is on the parent's perspective on the magical experiences of the child.

When Moffat portrays childhood, he tends to deal with it from a parental perspective and emphasise children's need for parental protection.

He's a father so I understand why he uses that perspective, but it is a somewhat limited one.

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jane 4 years, 5 months ago

@Matthew: The Wardrobe story is about Madge, not the kids. Madge is the one who needs the magical experience; it's all about breaking through her repression and owning up to the truth of her husband's loss. Reg's return is a metaphor for how salvation lies in memory, which is why it's so important the repression be broken in the first place.

Dealing with psychological repression is one of the key concepts to understanding what Moffat's doing.

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Froborr 4 years, 5 months ago

One of my (many) issues with Moffat is related to this, namely that (particularly for female characters) he equates adulthood to parenthood.

Coupled with the fact that he only writes one female character at different stages of her life (the female cast of Coupling, Amy, and now Oswin are all basically the same person; River is that person ten years older; Amelia is that person as a child) and subscribes to some rather extreme gender-essentialist views, the results are decidedly problematic.

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 5 months ago

I think that's a rather blinkered view of Moffat's female characters. I think calling Amy/Oswin/Clara (Victorian)/Clara Contemporary/River/Madge/Amelia/Vastra/Jenny/Abigail/Liz 10 are the same woman at the same point in her life. We have a number of women (Liz, River, Vastra, Jenny, Oswin, Sally Sparrow, Renette,) who are adults and have no connection to the child-rearing as adulthood paradigm. Even more so, we haven't seen nearly enough of Clara (Contemporary) to say she fits into that yet. It's like comparing where she's going to Amy in "A Time of Angels", or the Doctor in "The Daleks". it's ludicrous. And while she does work with children that's far from a part and parcel endorsing that view. If anything she's growing up now she's distancing herself from that.

Yes he does have some gender essentialist views. It can be problematic. But it's not like every piece of his writing is marred by that.

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T. Hartwell 4 years, 5 months ago

I found it interesting that in 1976, when Doctor Who was watched by 22% of the country, the highest-rated program in the US that year (All in the Family), was watched by 9%. I knew their would be a difference, but I didn't realize it'd be that big.

Heck, looking at US TV as a whole I think the only dramas/sitcoms that ever pulled numbers like that were the final episodes of The Fugitive, Dallas, and M*A*S*H (the last of which was watched by about 50% of the country). I don't think anything else really compares.

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jane 4 years, 5 months ago

Suggesting that all these characters are all "the same person" belies a far more extreme, reductive, and essentialist view than what's given by the characters themselves.

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sleepyscholar 4 years, 5 months ago

"betokens" rather than "belies", surely?

But I write this because I agree with you.

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Scott 4 years, 5 months ago

A bit late, but just wanted to say -- love your analysis there, Jane. Anything that cements Brian Williams' importance in the world gets an automatic thumbs-up from me. :-)

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