2 years, 10 months ago
For all that the story of the Moffat era is (as we’ll see over the next season’s entries) one of the series breaking out as an international hit, it is hardly the only, or even the biggest international export in British television. Indeed, even domestically, it’s worth noting that Doctor Who’s status as “the biggest hit on television” was emphatically usurped not long after the fifth season wrapped. As of the end of 2010, it was Downton Abbey’s world.
This is not a surprise, of course. Nothing’s the biggest thing in culture forever. Even Downton Abbey has been unseated by Call the Midwife by now, and something’s sure to unseat that any day now. The massive status that Doctor Who had at the end of the Davies era was always going to falter, and there’s nothing to conclude from that in and of itself. What is interesting, however, is the nature of the transition. Yes, Doctor Who was always going to be unseated, but by what?
It is easy to point out that Downton Abbey is a conservative show. Indeed, it is literally a Conservative show - its creator and sole writer, Julian Fellowes, was made a Baron Fellowes of West Stafford not two months after the first season of Downton Abbey wrapped, and he now sits in the House of Lords as a Tory. But tempting and in many ways justifiable as it is to simply demonize the show on those grounds alone, it is frustratingly unfair. The nature of writing and language, after all, is that texts routinely subvert and distort authorial intent. Given that he wrote a TV story grousing about his tax bill less than two years before the 1979 general election it would hardly be surprising to discover that Robert Holmes supported Thatcher, and yet, as Jack Graham has repeatedly demonstrated, there’s practically no writer in the classic series whose work better supports Marxist readings, and that includes at least one actual Marxist. Meanwhile, Mark Gatiss is demonstrably and committedly a leftist and yet seems chronically unable to avoid writing stories with awkwardly right wing leanings. It is, in other words, cheap and beneath this blog to criticize Downton Abbey just because it happens to be written by a Tory peer.
Instead, let’s criticize it for being exactly the sort of television show you’d expect a Tory peer to write. It is not, to be clear, that Baron Fellowes is a bad writer. Downton Abbey is, in almost every technical sense, very, very good. It’s got an astonishingly strong cast, the writing does a solid job of revealing and unwinding characterization at a satisfying pace, it’s lush and beautiful, and is well-directed and shot. It’s not even a little bit hard to understand why people like this show: it’s really, really good. It’s one of those nice examples of a piece of television succeeding through good old-fashioned quality.
But it is hopelessly ethically bankrupt. If one takes the 2010 election as signifying a shift in the national mood beyond “Labour’s been in power for a long time and Gordon Brown is a complete wanker,” and the truth is that at this point we’re too close to the history to really narrativize it that emphatically, then this essay would straightforwardly argue that Downton Abbey’s ascent reflected a national mood - a shift back towards a culturally conservative vision of Britain based on the nationalistic valuation of past glories. But if that argument is dodgy, it’s because it’s still not clear that the 2010 general election actually marked a substantive right wing shift or if we’re finally exiting the period we entered back in 1979 of lengthy single-party rule, not because Downton Abbey isn’t exactly that.
This is a difficult allegation to work through with a period drama, however. Any period drama, necessarily, is going to be based in part on the idea that the past is a fundamentally desirable place, even if only because it’s terribly pretty. That requires nostalgia, and that, in turn, requires something that can easily look like conservatism. On top of that, it’s ludicrous to suggest that Downton Abbey contains no critique of its period. It’s full of critique, whether in the form of Maggie Smith being hilariously out of touch (“what’s a weekend,” she memorably asks) or in the form of showing history’s march and the slow fall of the aristocracy that Downton Abbey is at its core about. It has the obligatory nods to diversity, with all manner of “strong female characters” and even a gay one, because we’re just that inclusive these days.
Except, of course, that the gay characters are all scheming stereotypes of the worst sort and the strong female characters are the sort of strong female characters who are strong because of how they embrace their role in life with quiet dignity, or, occasionally, with ineffectual indignity. Diversity is nodded at, but only inasmuch as it can be treated as fundamentally incidental. The audience is invited to recognize the way in which we’ve moved beyond the attitudes of the time. But the result is more insidious. By marking the specific aspects of the past that the audience is meant to reject, the show quietly shields the rest of it. Downton Abbey closely controls exactly what is and isn’t acceptable about the past, and on top of that makes one of its central pleasures the ironic awareness of the disconnect. We are meant to laugh at the silly old-fashioned stuffy people. As Jack Graham puts it, “the attitudes are depicted so as to simultaneously shock and titillate modern sensibilities. Class is manifested in terms of cultural attitudes that are funny in their old-fashionedness. Maggie Smith's character is the tell-tale marker of how we're meant to see things: she's outrageously snobbish but her snobbery is evidently supposed to be likeable for its outrageousness, its truculent pig-headedness, its obstinacy. The old battleaxe is lovable for the very attitudes which are presented as the quaint eccentricities of a noble relic. She, and the past she comes from, are ultimately absolved.”
Which just about sums it up. The negative aspects of the past exist in a sort of textual equivalent to those “officially sanctioned protest zones” that got set up around Sochi for the Winter Olympics - a blatant and unsubtle instance of recuperation whereby the objections to the past are cataloged and put in their proper place so that we may go about enjoying the rest of it. Yes, they’re all snobs who are hopelessly out of touch with the realities of the world, but that’s their only problem. If they only all knew what weekends were and didn’t think having a job was a bit disreputable everything would be fine.
The single most revealing moment in the show comes in the second episode. To recap the basic premise, for plot related reasons the heir to Downton Abbey is an upper middle class solicitor named Matthew. Lord Grantham proceeds to invite him to live at Downton and learn about it for when he will eventually take it over. As part of that, Matthew is given a valet. Matthew, however, is a self-sufficient middle class sort who thinks more than one or two servants is a decadent luxury, and thus refuses to give his valet many tasks, instead doing things like dressing himself. Upon having it put to him that Matthew might not need a valet, Grantham proceeds to set him straight, explaining how his selfish insistence on putting on his own clothes deprives his poor valet of any purpose or meaning in life, advice Matthew takes to heart, letting his valet dress him, at which point Dobby beams with happiness at a job well done.
This is, to be clear, seriously the world that Downton Abbey presents. One in which the nobility is a wise and valued patriarchy that understands the world and benevolently takes care of all the little people, giving them people to serve and thus purpose in life. And while history slowly sweeps the gentry away, we are, over the many hours of Downton Abbey, meant to see this as a sad fate. Really, what would be best is if some nice nobles showed up to provide calm and reasoned leadership and we could return to the days when Britain was great.
It kinda makes one sick.
Nevertheless, this is the new hot show. This is what British television loves. More to the point, this is what the world loves - Britain’s great cultural export is nostalgia for the day when men were men and servants were happy. Even more to the point, this and not Doctor Who.
And yet it’s very much tempting to answer this with “well, good then.” It is worth recalling that Journey’s End was the first time in Doctor Who’s history that it was ever the number one program on television. Doctor Who had never been the absolute centerpiece of culture. And, crucially, this was for the most part good for it. There’s an oft noted adage in comedy that one ought always punch up - that is, poke fun at people who have power, not people who don’t. In many ways, the same basic logic applies to something like Doctor Who. When you are a show defined by the ability to puncture and upend boundaries, it doesn’t actually help to be the biggest show on television. There’s nowhere else to go after that.
No, at its best Doctor Who has always been a beloved also-ran. A popular show, but never the biggest, and thus always able to take its place just outside the mainstream. Or sometimes very far outside the mainstream. But its success has always relied on the balance between those two points. Get too obscure and you end up with the worst parts of the Wilderness Years, with Doctor Who reduced to a barely audible echo chamber. But get too mainstream and you have your own problems. There’s nothing to snap at or subvert. Victory’s as bad as defeat. In many ways, that’s always been the point of this blog - it’s why Doctor Who is such an interesting lens for a half-century of history. Because it represents perfectly one specific idealized vision of what Britain is - a place where the normal and the utterly bizarre abut each other. I’ve said countless times that the portal to faerie is one of the fundamental images of Doctor Who. It’s also a fundamental image of British culture and mythology, and one that is peculiarly, specifically British. And that’s what the portal to faerie is - the idea that the weird and the ordinary are neighbors. Doctor Who is the mundane’s love letter to the strange - the culture’s Loyal Opposition.
And what is a loyal opposition without something to oppose? It is, perhaps, a myopic reason to appreciate Downton Abbey, but the truth is that a culture that valorizes order and tradition and the idea that old rich white men will fix everything is one where Doctor Who’s brand of mercurial subversion thrives. Downton Abbey may be a sickening and reactionary bit of drivel, but a world with Downton Abbey in it is one where Doctor Who can be very, very good. A world where Downton Abbey is the biggest thing on television is almost perfect. Downton Abbey’s ascension means that Doctor Who gets its traditional place in the culture: big enough to matter, but small enough to lurk in the shadows of the culture.
Or, to put it another way, yes, Downton Abbey has the throne now. But any Doctor Who fan knows that the real fun comes from crouching behind the furniture.
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