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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later.Support Elizabeth on Patreon.

33 Comments

  1. Adam Riggio
    August 27, 2012 @ 5:08 am

    Another wonderful essay, Phil. My thanks as usual, don't even need to be said were it not that this seems to be the first comment (though someone else might be typing faster than me right now). The way you explain the book's take on the Doctor is fascinating. It reminds me of two things.

    One is your essay on Remembrance of the Daleks. You wrote about the Doctor having become a fixed property that is an agent of change in the world where he moves. The expression you used, as I remember it, was that the Doctor's mercury has been pushed outward. Warhead seems to extend those themes: ordinary people are characters that can develop and change, while the Doctor seems to have a fixed nature, separating him from them. The Doctor plays games that are bigger than ordinary people, and that people tend to get lost in when they involve themselves without his guidance (just like Maria the custodian, who knew of her employer's nefarious activities, but didn't do anything — she was a janitor, so maybe she just couldn't conceive of what she could do).

    Back when you put forward your plan for the NAs, I recommended Sky Pirates!, and while you didn't have time to include it, it fits snugly into that path of making the Doctor alien. If anything, I think it brings Doctor Who to a point from which it couldn't go on. The Doctor's nature in Sky Pirates! is revealed to be so alien and strange that he becomes utterly cut off from any quotidian level at all.

    Doctor Who couldn't continue with a protagonist like that: it's inherently alienating from the people he loves. Accepting the vision of the Doctor that the implications of Remembrance, Warhead, and Sky Pirates! lay out and escalate would destroy the show. He's an architect of universes, not an adventurer. If the Time Lords function as gods to us ordinary folk, then someone who's "more than just another Time Lord" would be god squared. The vision is seductive because it makes the Doctor so cool, but it's also destructive because he doesn't have any authentic relationships with his friends anymore. Friendships like his with Barbara become impossible under this vision of the Doctor.

    It's a path that, with their freedom to experiment, the NAs explored, but which thankfully didn't survive — it couldn't survive without destroying the fundamental premise of Doctor Who itself.

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  2. Ununnilium
    August 27, 2012 @ 7:20 am

    " The Doctor later declares that “Ordinary people don’t have the ability to alter the course of events. Only the big corporations and the very rich have the power to do that.”"

    Interesting. I'd like to know the context of that, because it seems one of the most un-Doctor Who things one could say.

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  3. BerserkRL
    August 27, 2012 @ 7:25 am

    Except when he's in "Time Lord Victorious" mode.

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  4. peeeeeeet
    August 27, 2012 @ 8:18 am

    I like your take on this. I always thought Warhead was unfairly dismissed. It's interesting that you link it with Ian and Barbara, since these days it seems to me that this is like a story from a parallel universe in which the pilot episode rather than An Unearthly Child was broadcast, leading to a series that embraced the alien and sinister sides of the Doctor a little bit more, and the silly and childish sides a bit less. Such a series probably wouldn't have lasted this long, I suppose, but it's nice to imagine; not least because it would have been harder to get away with the weaker companions over the years if it had been (even) more necessary for them to function as audience gateways.

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  5. Elizabeth Sandifer
    August 27, 2012 @ 8:25 am

    Fuller excerpt.

    "Okay," she said. "You need a weapon. Those two kids are the weapon. I don't know what the target is, but I can guess." They were in the homeopathy section of the drugstore now. A smiling boy in an apron was offering samples of an all-natural toothpaste. "That girl's got a thing about cars, pollution, the environment. She's a bit psychotic."

    "Perhaps. But she also happens to be right," said the Doctor. "This planet is reaching the point of no return. Ordinary people don't have the ability to alter the course of events. Only the big corporations and the very rich have the power to do that."

    "Yeah, but eventually they'll have to do something," said Ace. "They have to breathe the same air we do."

    "Not necessarily," said the Doctor.

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  6. Matthew Blanchette
    August 27, 2012 @ 8:57 am

    Well… there's no point in being grown-up if you can't be childish, sometimes. 😉

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  7. Matthew Blanchette
    August 27, 2012 @ 9:01 am

    I'm pretty sure it survived into the new series; the RTD years, most notably with Paul Cornell's "Human Nature", seemed to revel in making the Doctor "angry" and "epic". Lots of walking towards the camera stonefaced while explosions go off behind him; lots of lashing out at "little people".

    Fortunately, Moffat's been taking two whole series to back away from that awful tack, and I think it's been worth the journey.

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  8. Josh Marsfelder
    August 27, 2012 @ 9:16 am

    I don't see this as putting The Doctor on the same level as corporations as much as it is just seething cynicism. After all, this is staunch anti-Thatcherite Andrew Cartmel. The Doctor is pointing out, rightly I might add, that the most prominent harbingers of change on Earth in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries are the drive towards industrialism and free-market neoliberalist dominance. And they are: Centuries of dangerous industrial practices left chronically unchecked have resulted in real, measurable, tangible and probably irreversible harm to the planet and its ability to sustain life.

    Historically, no attempts to raise awareness about the effect of such practices have been able to gain any lasting ground or make any meaningful strides to turn back the process, due in no small part to those in positions of extreme power more interested in short-term economic gain than the long-term consequences of their actions. Unfortunately, the nature of power structures dictates that those trying to instil change at an individual level will face insurmountable opposition because they don't have the backing of powerful industrial and economic forces and it doesn't seem like this is a trend that will change anytime soon.

    I don't see this as making The Doctor monstrous so much as I see it as him pointing out some uncomfortable truths about life on Earth in the twilight of Modernism, which is exactly what he ought to be doing in a contemporary Doctor Who story. It's not a utopian or fun observation, but it is a realistic one.

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  9. Elizabeth Sandifer
    August 27, 2012 @ 9:23 am

    Except that the Doctor says it in the context of changing the world. I mean, I share your sympathy for the sentiment – I am, after all, terribly skeptical of individualism. But I think there is something monstrous about that statement when uttered by the person who is just a few dozen pages from altering the course of events, and who is in the midst of talking about his plan to do just that.

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  10. daibhid-c
    August 27, 2012 @ 10:49 am

    Hmm. Steven Moffat's Doctor:

    "We're in the biggest library in the universe … look me up!"
    "I'm the Doctor. And basically … run."

    Yes, now the Moff has moved away from that, but I don't see it as two seasons of gradually backing away. It's more like taking off the brakes, and charging in the current direction as fast as possible, until he hits something that spins the show around.

    In "The Wedding of River Song", we get a Doctor who is so epic and angry, he simply cannot function as the Doctor any more, so he has to stop doing that. And I get the feeling that this is not because Moffat disapproved of the epic Doctor, but because he enjoyed writing him too much and wanted to try moving out of his comfort zone.

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  11. Russell Gillenwater
    August 27, 2012 @ 12:14 pm

    While it has survived into the Modern Series it comes across IMHO in a different way. To me both the 10th and 11th Doctors are "angry and epic" but in a more human sort of way. It is more like the "epic" is in the frame of look I am the Doctor and I am famous so watch out! The 7th Doctor's "epic" was grounded in the fact he is "alien."

    The best example of this is the differences in how the 7th and 10th Doctors chose to become human in Paul Cornell's Human Nature (and I think we will get into these details more when we discuss these works). It is this 7th Doctor that unseats the 4th as my favorite.

    I guess, unlike most, I miss this alien Doctor and it is why I have a love, hate relationship with the Modern Series take on him.

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  12. Iain Coleman
    August 27, 2012 @ 1:26 pm

    Casting plays a big part in that – or at least, in determining what kinds of characterisation are possible. David Tennant is a fine actor, but his performance style is humanistic and relatable – showing us the inner life and common humanity of larger-than-life characters like Casanova or Doctor Who. Whereas Sylvester McCoy has an essential strangeness about his performances, a fundamental eccentricity that he can turn to comic or sinister effect in such characters as Lear's Fool, Michael Sams or Doctor Who.

    There are things Tennant can do that McCoy can't, and vice versa, and if you want to emphasise the alien strangeness of the Doctor you want McCoy not Tennant.

    Smith has a different kind of performance again. I haven't seen him in much else, but as Doctor Who he does an amazing job of portraying an incredibly old person in a young body, in all his jollity and sadness. It's possibly my favourite ever performance in the role, and I'm looking forward to seeing how he is able to explore the role further this year.

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  13. Ununnilium
    August 27, 2012 @ 1:56 pm

    What Iain said.

    Personally, I really prefer the modern series Doctor, someone who's alien and immortal but has human emotions and flaws, over an inscrutable presence whose universe-spanning plans can never be truly understood.

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  14. Ununnilium
    August 27, 2012 @ 1:58 pm

    Hm. See, this sounds more like the he's saying that society is careening towards taking more and more power away from "normal" people and giving it all to the rich and powerful – not that such a disparity is natural.

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  15. BerserkRL
    August 27, 2012 @ 3:40 pm

    the drive towards industrialism and free-market neoliberalist dominance

    Hmm, I guess free-market neoliberalism like Jewish Nazism. Or Islamic atheism.

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  16. Josh Marsfelder
    August 27, 2012 @ 4:00 pm

    Neoliberalism of course in the Thatcherite, Reaganite sense, though I get the feeling the word carries different connotations depending on the discipline it's used in?

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  17. Elizabeth Sandifer
    August 27, 2012 @ 4:01 pm

    Actually, I suspect his objection is that Thatcher and Reagan aren't actually pro-free markets.

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  18. Josh Marsfelder
    August 27, 2012 @ 4:03 pm

    I suppose it would do me no good to stake my position on the opposite end, or at least at some kind of median? I appear to be increasingly outvoted, both on this blog and within fandom at large…

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  19. Josh Marsfelder
    August 27, 2012 @ 4:07 pm

    This comment has been removed by the author.

    Reply

  20. Josh Marsfelder
    August 27, 2012 @ 4:11 pm

    This comment has been removed by the author.

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  21. Josh Marsfelder
    August 27, 2012 @ 4:41 pm

    Well, one of the big Neocon manifestos has always been economic deregulation, hasn't it? Of course, when they talk about free market capitalism it's always to emphasize how important it is to keep the government from interfering in the economy at all, in spite of evidence that governments can provide needed competition. There is the train of thought that what Thatcherites and Reaganites espouse is not a true free market system as such (see Naomi Klein and Kevin Carson). I suppose technically what we have now is an oligopoly, whether that's the result of a truly free market or not.

    I guess the contention comes down to how you use the term "free market": I was half-sarcastically using it in the way the neocons do to emphasize my point, rather than in a Carson-esque "free market anti-capitlaist" sense.

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  22. cardboardrobot
    August 27, 2012 @ 5:46 pm

    I really enjoyed this book when it first came out, but I also remember thinking, "Is this a parallel universe?" I was fairly new to DW, and the book's grim and gritty near-future world doesn't seem to have much in common with what I'd seen on TV, whereas Cornell's Revelation seemed to me like a natural (if far deeper, psychologically) extension of season 26.

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  23. BerserkRL
    August 28, 2012 @ 4:50 am

    Right, neoliberalism is about attacking regulations within the corporatist system, not about attacking the regulations that sustain that system in the first place.

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  24. encyclops
    August 28, 2012 @ 9:54 am

    Josh, I'm with Ununnilium on this, but I encourage you and anyone else taking the Other position to stake it and keep talking about it. Don't feel shouted down, in other words…even if you don't change my mind, you'll still say interesting things on the subject.

    Does the "inscrutable presence" description really match any Doctor, modern or classic, other than the Seventh? Maybe the First or Second at a pinch? I ask not to argue against you, I'm just wondering whether that conception begins and ends with McCoy.

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  25. Ununnilium
    August 28, 2012 @ 10:45 am

    Very much agreed! Debate and different opinions are good things!

    (Way back when, I read the Mary Whitehouse entry and the part about the reason Enlightenment liberalism wants a plurality of viewpoints versus the reason postmodern liberalism wants it, I thought, "What about those of us who see multiple viewpoints as a good in and of itself?")

    Also: I'd say that they can all be inscrutable presences from time to time, but not as a standard operating procedure. Except maybe Two – and he's a lot subtler about being subtle than Seven.

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  26. Josh Marsfelder
    August 28, 2012 @ 1:03 pm

    Well, thank you both very much for your words of encouragement!

    Actually, I'd even object to the use of the word "Other": I'm not sure whether or not encyclops intended it, but that immediately evokes Mark Platt's elaborate Ancient Gallifrey mythic structure to me which, believe it or not, I'm not really in favour of either (though admittedly mostly because it explains far too much and rather defeats the purpose of introducing mystery IMO). I guess I prefer some kind of median between Iain's and Ununnilium's view and Platt's.

    My Doctor would probably be rather like a strange, mercurial hybrid of Homer's Athena and Calliope: A subtle background character who serves as a trickster mentor and guide to heroes; Something probably close to Lambert/Whitaker-era Hartnell (as he's the only one part of a true ensemble) but with Troughton's mercury and Cartmel-era McCoy's presence and ability to disappear. Notably, the eras of Doctor Who I'm least interested in are the ones where The Doctor becomes a charismatic leading man, a cosmic horror or just another human character.

    I could very well be misreading the entire point of the show and character as it exists now, but that's just how I imagine a character we've come to associate with the Master of the Land of Fiction: A guide, companion and mentor to heroes, not a hero himself.

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  27. Adam Riggio
    August 28, 2012 @ 1:31 pm

    There can be quite a lot of visions of the Doctor: some are more interesting than others to some folks rather than others, and some allow the narrative to probe one kind of problems, while others open other kinds of narrative spaces.

    The alien/other vision of the Doctor opens up some really interesting narrative possibilities. Some examples would be feelings of alienation between the companions and the Doctor, being able to watch the Doctor operate on a cosmic scale, understanding the different planes of reality the show can move around.

    What most concerns me about that vision of the Doctor is that it limits the kinds of relationships he can have. It's difficult to create a character who can learn from his companions the way he learned from Barbara, or love them as friends and, well, companions like Donna and Amy. The cosmic/alien/other vision of the Doctor wouldn't work with a character like River Song in his life. Right now, we can explore what happens when the Doctor interacts with his friends on this very personal level, because that's what Steven Moffatt is good at.

    Settling on the cosmic/other vision of the Doctor would preclude these kinds of storylines, which, however you may think about how they're playing out aesthetically, are still interesting territory for Doctor Who to explore. In a way, I'm glad that we've never had to settle on one single overarching vision of who the Doctor is, and the visions of the show and characters can shift with the problems that the writers want to explore. Alien/cosmic Doctor happens to be, I think, one of the more limited interpretations in terms of what kind of stories can be told. So I'm glad Doctor Who never settled on it. But I'd be sad if Doctor Who ever really settled on anything.

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  28. Josh Marsfelder
    August 28, 2012 @ 2:10 pm

    Right, and ultimately this comes down to personal opinion. The great thing about Doctor Who is how everyone who writes for it brings a unique perspective to the table and finds new ways to explore the show's premise and structure. That's where its underlying mercury comes from: Mercury cannot be fixed into a specific form, rather, it adapts to fit whatever container its placed in.

    That's why I made a point to say "My Doctor": However problematic that phrase might be in certain contexts, the underlying point in me using it was to say that's how I see the show and character and the approach I would personally use if I was ever lucky enough to get a shot at writing a Doctor Who story. That's not to say I'm trying to claim this is the only way The Doctor should be; I personally think it's a both pointless and arrogant to demand Doctor Who always be a certain way. As long as the inherent liminality and mercurial nature of the show and the character is preserved, it's a valid take the way I see it.

    That's not to say I can't and don't take issue with certain interpretations of the show, I do, and am usually very loud about it. However, I always try to make a point and critique the show by its own merits at any given point in time and look for ways the mercury can be maintained in each specific context. And plus, fans just like to argue, don't we?

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  29. John Seavey
    August 28, 2012 @ 5:42 pm

    Personally, I can't stand the scene where Justine shakes Ace's worldview, because that isn't Ace's worldview. This is a woman who has held the sword Excalibur while being threatened by the sorceress queen Morgaine and her bound demon, and she's saying "There's no such thing as magic"?

    Basically, Ace is transformed for this one scene from an actual character into an exemplar of an aesthetic that Cartmel personally disagrees with, solely because there's nobody else there to fill that role in the novel. It is the sign that Cartmel is all about creating distinctive set-pieces at the expense of everything else (plot, characterization, coherence)…and while I can intellectually accept that this is a valid form of storytelling, and Cartmel is really creating a piece of free-association on various themes, I still can't stand the freaking thing. 🙂

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  30. Elizabeth Sandifer
    August 28, 2012 @ 5:54 pm

    Surely Battlefield supports Ace's position that the Doctor's use of a magical explanation is just him covering up the real sci-fi explanation. I mean, yes, she held Excalibur while facing down Morgaine, but it still turned out the Arthurian legends were just space aliens. Just like vampires and her old Victorian haunted house were.

    I'll grant that Battlefield does have a line that contradicts this – the discussion of Clarke's law. But that wasn't part of any version of Battlefield that anyone had seen in 1992. Indeed, the Justine scene could be seen as Cartmel taking the lost Battlefield scene and redoing its main point, with Ace expressing Clarke's law before having Justine make the same observation the Doctor does – that the reverse is also true.

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  31. BerserkRL
    August 28, 2012 @ 8:07 pm

    I'm likewise bugged by Sarah Jane's insistence in SJA that there are no ghosts. Because she certainly knows that there are sciencey-things-that-almost-anyone-would-call-ghosts.

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  32. Russell Gillenwater
    August 28, 2012 @ 9:00 pm

    However the "alien" 7th Doctor is close to his companions and learns from them. The Doctor is very close to Bernice to the point of becoming human (in Human Nature) to more understand a loss in her life.

    In someways the human companions are more important to the 7th Doctor because they help him evolve from this master manipulator to a more "human" Doctor.

    I do understand that the 7th Doctor as he evolved in the NAs wouldn't work in the Modern Series, but it doesn't mean I don't miss this take on the character.

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  33. Matt Michael
    February 14, 2013 @ 3:54 am

    I'm running to catch up myself – with this blog since the end of the TV series. It's been years since I read Warhead (probably 16 years), and I have to agree with you: it sings. After the rather academic and aloof Time's Crucible especially, it feels like this is my kind of Doctor Who. The Doctor falling out of the sky, and small, intimate lives suddenly opening up into something vast and astonishing. Bigger on the inside indeed.

    And the moment you highlight, when Justine rocks Ace's worldview, suggesting the Doctor's technobabble explanations are just that – senseless technobabble, that the Doctor is in fact a wizard, Merlin. Well, it's the McCoy era in a nutshell. The Doctor battles sorceresses and demons, vampires and angels and werewolves, and yet if you stick a flashing light on it and drop in a reference to evolution it's sci-fi.

    Lovely review of a magical book.

    Reply

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