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.