Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 79: Downton Abbey
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.
May 28, 2014 @ 12:30 am
As I've never watched Downton Abbey, I'll throw in a comment from Ben Aaronovitch, which is that he thinks Downton Abbey would never have happened if Doctor Who didn't come back. He thinks that drama was on the way out of UK television in favour of reality shows before Doctor Who made it important to have drama on television again. Whether that's more than an eccentric opinion I don't know. It is true that Matt Smith's first series was broadcast between a talent show casting Dorothy for Wizard of Oz, and Don't Scare the Hare.
May 28, 2014 @ 1:04 am
Saying that, quiz shows and light entertainment have always been the bread of the sandwich of Saturday night on the BBC, with Doctor Who the interloper.
May 28, 2014 @ 1:07 am
I am convinced that in the season when Downton Abbey finally hits the 1930s, there's going to be at least one clunky scene at a dinner party with a aristocratic Mosleyite who smirks a lot and says things like "That Hitler chap in Germany is doing tremendous things! We need someone like that over here!" so that everyone can frown disapprovingly at him. It's that kind of show.
May 28, 2014 @ 1:41 am
I've never seen Downton Abbey, and have little desire to do so, precisely because of the reasons that you mention in your essay. I would say, however, that the most damning criticism of Downton Abbey is from the author's own work, and would suggest that any reading of the tv series needs to have the film Gosford Park taken into account. Essentially, Gosford Park is set in the same world as Downton Abbey, but instead of celebrating it, attacks it, from the fawning directed toward the upper class, to the way those below stairs are trapped by their status. It also has a brutal denouement:
"What gift do you think a good servant has that separates them from the others? Its the gift of anticipation. And I'm a good servant; I'm better than good, I'm the best; I'm the perfect servant. I know when they'll be hungry, and the food is ready. I know when they'll be tired, and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves."
In context, horrible. In short, Gosford Park has the contrast that Doctor Who frequently has, and Downton Abbey lacks. It is probable that this totally down to Gosford Park's director, Robert Altman. But it didn't stop Julian Fellows from picking up the Oscar for best screenplay…
Meanwhile, if I can enter the territory of The Last War In Albion, may I bring everyone's attention to this: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/cosmic-trigger-play
Daisy Eris Campbell, daughter of Ken Campbell (the actor too extreme to play the Doctor so they cast his collaborator who put ferrets down his trousers instead™) has written a play about her father's staging of a theatre production of Robert Anton Wilson's The Illuminatus! Trilogy and now wants to adapt the great man's Cosmic Trigger series, essentially his autobiography. More details in the link, but something worth supporting. Please excuse my use of these comments for commercial means, but I thought many reading this would be interested.
May 28, 2014 @ 2:32 am
I'm going to assume that your distaste for the show prevented you from watching past series one. Because if you'd seen beyond that, there's no way you'd have praised it even as highly as you did.
May 28, 2014 @ 2:41 am
Never seen Downton Abbey either, but I love the narrativisation here, and the idea of Doctor Who as internal opposition. Though lurking outside the mainstream ultimately brings with it its own risks – there's a fine line between "this show is smarter and better than the most popular thing on telly" and "we fans are smarter and better than fans of the most popular thing on telly" – and you end up back with the old 'you can't watch Coronation Street and Who' silliness, and require a RTD figure to come along and say "There is another way."
I think Ben Aaronovitch has it right, meanwhile, not because reality TV would have taken over (that wave was always going to break) but because the easy lesson of Doctor Who's success was "the great wheel has turned, and the things that worked on TV in the 70s can work again". Hence thinking "let's revive costume drama", an absolute staple of weekend TV in the 70s and 80s. i.e. the conservatism of Downton arises out of a conservative interpretation of what the success of the Revival meant.
May 28, 2014 @ 2:43 am
"reflects", not "arises out of" actually – as the post demonstrates, Downton's conservatism has deeper roots.
May 28, 2014 @ 3:22 am
This came out a little while back, you might find it interesting:
May 28, 2014 @ 3:25 am
BUT DON'T READ THE COMMENTS
May 28, 2014 @ 3:42 am
We should be getting some praise for Mussolini any episode now.
May 28, 2014 @ 4:03 am
Well I have been watching Downton Abbey, it's something my Mom really enjoys and it's good to have something to share with her since she can't appreciate Herzog films or the Velvet Underground. I do love some frockish period drama, say what you will.
I wonder if your critique – mostly correct – of the show is complicated by the fact that Lord Grantham is consistently shown to be running his own estate into the ground because of his myopic worldview and unquestioned privilige? Every decision he makes is the wrong one, causing no end of financial trouble and even the death of one of his daughters. He is, essentially, naive, and it looks as though his pampered by pragmatic daughter will eventually be the one to take the reigns and finally run things properly. It does, at least, complicate the picture some.
May 28, 2014 @ 4:09 am
From what I've read and heard about the production of Gosford Park, Fellowes' screenplay was used as not much more than a guideline, and much of the film was improvised on set by the actors and in the editing room by Altman.
May 28, 2014 @ 4:10 am
All they need is a reason for Maggie Smith to adopt an Edinburgh accent.
May 28, 2014 @ 4:16 am
It may be an eccentric opinion, but it is not an idiosyncratic one:
"Saving it from extinction."
— Frank Cottrell Boyce, when asked his opinion on Davies' greatest contribution to British television drama.
May 28, 2014 @ 4:35 am
We're looking for something to go just after the football scores and just before Jukebox Jury.
May 28, 2014 @ 4:38 am
Hmm, appears my own tv preferences are about equally divided among Tory, Labour, and LibDem. It must be because I'm such a moderate.
May 28, 2014 @ 4:47 am
That basically sums up 90% of communication on the Internet — interesting but SERIOUSLY DON'T READ THE COMMENTS.
May 28, 2014 @ 5:47 am
Oh, I have no doubt that was the case, hence my "didn't stop Julian Fellows from picking up the Oscar for best screenplay…" bit of sark.
But it's that dichotomy between script and realisation that any part of Downon Abbey lacks.
May 28, 2014 @ 7:08 am
I haven't watched season 4 and might not (I'm not as Downton-crazy as some), but I do take issue with this:
"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."
That was not what I got out of that scene. What I got from it was that Grantham was trying to explain to Matthew about the social contract that existed at that time and in that situation, and making the point that unilaterally ending that social contract is a dick move. Grantham's point isn't "make the valet feel useful; it'll be ever so good for him", it's "dude trained as a valet with the expectation that we'd employ him, and you can't turf him out just because you feel like it. What's he supposed to do, for God's sake?".
And the thing with that social contract is that it maybe wasn't so bad in places. Grantham clearly believes in holding up his end–health care for the cook and housekeeper, etc.–but the trouble is 1) Grantham may be a stand-up guy, but other lords aren't necessarily (bet you Mary's rich newspaper guy fiance from season 2 was a bad boss), and 2) Grantham's tremendous suckiness with money jeopardizes his good intentions anyway. A system like Britain's current one (aspires to be), where everyone gets health care and retirement benefits even if their bosses are shitty and/or bad with money, is objectively better.
May 28, 2014 @ 7:42 am
"… 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."
I can't be the only one to pick up on the irony here.
May 28, 2014 @ 8:46 am
Ironically Doctor Who's influence over Downton grows and grows, as todays story from the Telegraph shows:
May 28, 2014 @ 4:37 pm
A friend of mine writes about the comment threads at Reason (but it applies elsewhere too):
"Imagine that when a comment is particularly dense, it exerts a certain gravitational force proportional to its density. Now if enough comments of sufficient density are brought together in a sufficiently small space, their mutual attraction will pull them together beyond the Schwarzchild radius, creating a black hole, where no possible illumination can overcome the gravitational force; nor can any traveler who slips across its event horizon ever return, or even survive. No structured information whatever can survive the crushing forces of a black hole; everything becomes so maximally dense that it is pure mass without structure, light, or the possibility of escape. This is in fact the best explanation why H&R comment threads exist in an alternate dimension inaccessible to the rest of our universe, and why you should never, ever try to go into them."
May 28, 2014 @ 4:41 pm
The Doctor isn't an old rich white man. He's an old rich white male humanoid.
May 28, 2014 @ 4:44 pm
I think the notion that the Doctor is rich is at least somewhat complex. In one perfectly reasonable reading, he's a homeless man living out of his car. In another, his world is a post-scarcity one in which the notion of wealth is fundamentally meaningless.
Although yes, I take your point, and I was aware of the irony in question when I wrote it. 🙂
May 28, 2014 @ 5:22 pm
Came here to say this exactly. I don't precisely mind Downton Abbey and even like it in places: my political opponents are entitled to their own entertainments, and as Tory agitprop goes, Downton has the advantages of being relatively subtle, well produced and not at all bloodthirsty (compare Michael Caine's sub-Taken revenge-on-the-darkies fantasy Harry Brown).
But even at its best, Downton is a deliberately defanged version of Gosford Park, and I'm a little staggered that Fellowes thought such a thing was necessary.
May 28, 2014 @ 5:49 pm
I could not make it through two episodes of Downton Abbey and am amazed that my friends all like it so much. As the son of parents who fought tooth and nail to get into the middle class so that my sister and I could have college degrees and professional jobs, I find myself nauseated by a show that glamorizes the rich as superior life forms (even though they're so divorced from everyday life that they can't even dress themselves) and servants as well-trained noble savages who should feel privileged for the chance to serve their betters just as their fathers and fathers' fathers served. I did see the clip of Maggie Smith asking "what's a weekend?" and my first thought was "it's a part of the reason why you weren't sent to the guillotine like your counterparts in France were, you old bat." Honestly, Downton Abbey seems to be Upstairs, Downstairs but even more contemptuous of the lower classes. .
May 28, 2014 @ 6:00 pm
If so, it would be topical given that neo-fascist political movements seem to be on the rise in Europe, to the point that the Tories are now kowtowing to UKIP just as the Republicans have with the Tea Party (to the GOP's eventual ruination, IMO).
May 28, 2014 @ 6:53 pm
It is an interesting point: while on the surface it may appear that the show is saying that the upper class are more naturally suited to ruling, the incompetence of many of its members is repeatedly shown to undermine that proposition.
Is this a commentary on what we lose if we lose the gentry or is it a commentary on how out of touch they are and are thus not really to be trusted with our future? After all, the most competent characters on the show have often been shown to be the people from lower or middle class backgrounds.
May 28, 2014 @ 9:43 pm
(Before this deletes itself again–)
Terribly off-topic, but I am obsessed with the River Song episodes order and I think I've cracked the code!
Let’s Kill Hitler (epic half season-opener with historical setting and overhype)
Angels Take Manhattan (epic half season-closer leaving the Doctor and Ponds devastated because of the villains and their actions, the Ponds are lost instead of River Song)
Impossible Astronaut (epic half-season opener with historical setting and overhype)
Wedding of River Song (fixed point in time with everything happening all at once, time at a standstill, so it doesn’t budge)
Flesh and Stone/Time of Angels (The Angels return with a paradox of sorts involved and Amy is endangered with the Doctor trying to fix/save Amy.)
Forest of the Dead/Silence in the Library (River’s ghost is tied to her death, the Silence are similar to the Great Intelligence, River says the Doctor’s name, yet doesn’t say it, the companions are endangered and even die trying to save the Doctor.)
*Pandorica Opens/Big Bang (All of Doctor Who’s villains trap the Doctor in a puzzle box as the companions try to help the Doctor or are removed from the picture, the Doctor sacrifices himself to save and reset the universe, yet he is saved himself by his companion and we’re all stories in the end.)
Did I get it?
May 28, 2014 @ 10:30 pm
Whether the Doctor is wealthy is one question but he is always portrayed as being part of the British educated middle class – even Christopher Eccleston. Class matters more than wealth in this context.
May 29, 2014 @ 12:09 am
Also on an Albion tip there's this. Watch out! Alan Moore's discovered cyberspace.
I bloody love Ken Campbell! Did the best drama workshop ever with him about ten years ago.
I hate Downton Abbey for all the reasons already eloquently stated. Now I know why Gosford Park is the only Altman film I couldn't manage to sit through to the end.
May 29, 2014 @ 12:12 am
And here's the link I ommitted from my comment above.
May 29, 2014 @ 12:28 am
Actually he's a homeless man living out of a stolen car. Who fights fascists.
he is always portrayed as being part of the British educated middle class
This assertion is often made but I disagree and think it would be difficult to provide any evidence to support it. Anyone want to have a go?
May 29, 2014 @ 1:58 am
We don't know much about the Gallifrey economy. But it is probably true that outside the Pertwee era, and a few other stories where the Doctor needs to fix the Tardis – Vengeance on Varos most notably – the Doctor doesn't have any economic links to the places he visits. In the new series he sometimes messes about with the lottery, but except for The Lodger, the money doesn't pass through his hands.
I haven't seen Downton Abbey, but while I get the sense that the Abbey is in continual financial trouble (but never actually goes broke), I doubt there's any real examination of where the money comes from? Rents from land and investments I suppose. But given that it's supposed to be part of a real economy, that amounts to mystification.
In other words, for all that Downton Abbey gives lip service to money troubles and Doctor Who doesn't, Downton Abbey is pretending that it's characters exist in the same sort of economic innocence that the Doctor does. (I stand corrected if Downton Abbey regularly depicts the work of the tenant farmers who keep the place going.)
May 29, 2014 @ 4:05 am
Phil, the last sentence of your posting is one of your best punchlines to date.
But praising the pacing of Downton Abbey? Within each episode perhaps, but half a decade goes by in every season.
Some of the plot lines are ridiculous: "I'm paralysed, my bits are shot off, and I'll not have children. Oh, wait a minute, that was last week…" is up their with Crayford's Eyepatch in the Android Invasion. And now it's a series of "moustache twirling evil maid of the week". Looks fabulous, and occasionally very funny too. But anyone who criticises Moffat arcs needs to take a good look at Downton.
May 29, 2014 @ 4:06 am
Look up Dave Gorman setting "the bottom of the internet" as a found poem (as demonstrated in "Life Is Good-Ish").
May 29, 2014 @ 7:00 am
Alan Moore's discovered cyberspace.
Before I visited your link I thought to myself, "Ten to one says that it's yet another instance of Moore riffing on characters he didn't create." Sigh.
May 29, 2014 @ 7:08 am
This assertion is often made but I disagree and think it would be difficult to provide any evidence to support it. Anyone want to have a go?
Well, he's a Time Lord and at least middle class ("The Invasion of Time"), he's clearly educated ("The Deadly Assassin," "The Invasion of Time," "The Ribos Operation," "The Armageddon Factor," probably others), and he's explicitly British ("The TV Movie"…just kidding about that one). What kind of evidence are you looking for?
As for the stolen car, it's more of a luxurious RV and it's nicer than my apartment in pretty much every way. But I agree it's funny to think of it as a Pinto with fast food wrappers in the back.
May 29, 2014 @ 8:10 am
I think I dislike the Tardis being used or portrayed as more than a glorified camper van. There should be few problems that the Doctor resolves by having more advanced technology. The above discussion is perhaps part of the reason.
We see in The Deadly Assassin that the Doctor went to Oxbridge. (More accurately, Tom Baker's Doctor went to Oxbridge. The Doctor's youth on Gallifrey has always been in his current incarnation.)
May 29, 2014 @ 10:00 am
The Doctor's youth on Gallifrey has always been in his current incarnation.
Could you explain what you mean by this?
May 29, 2014 @ 10:57 am
I mean that whenever the Doctor or somebody else reminisces about the Doctor's time on Gallifrey the Doctor was always behaving in character for his current regeneration. Matt Smith says that instead of kissing girls he designed new sonic screwdrivers; Tennant was running away from the untempered schism and having ho yay with the Master; Pertwee says he was busy campaigning to ban miniscopes; Tom Baker's Doctor was basically being Tom Baker. The Doctor never says he was doing something that would be in character for Hartnell's Doctor but not his present character.
May 29, 2014 @ 11:11 am
That's an interesting observation. I'd interpret it as filtering his memories through the way his current incarnation chooses to view himself, since I don't see any of those things (apart from the "ho yay" which I don't remember any source for) as being incompatible with each other from a logistical or a psychological perspective. I also don't see any of them suggesting that he didn't go to the Academy, nor do I really know what to do with the idea that Tom Baker somehow became a Prydonian retroactively.
With your desire to minimize the role of the TARDIS in solving problems I heartily concur.
May 29, 2014 @ 9:13 pm
Well, the 'Lord' part of 'Time Lord' is a bit of a red herring as it's never been fully explained but surely it denotes mastery of time travel rather than any class based designation. However, even if the Doctor is to be considered privileged with a title that would place him firmly in the realm of upper class dilettante rather than middle class. His various tales of his school days can also, I suspect, be dismissed as his usual name-dropping, spotlight grabbing bravado.
No, I believe any class based reading of the Doctor has more to do with extradiegetic concerns ( the actor's accent, the writer's implied political agenda, the viewer's perception etc.) and little connection to what actually makes the character unique. I'm afraid the class system still operates within English drama schools and the BBC and a certain middle classless will always creep into the television portrayal of the Doctor. In fact Matt Smith, Although brilliant, is probably the worst offender. His 'posh-boy wackiness' did grate at times.
May 29, 2014 @ 11:21 pm
We see in The Deadly Assassin that the Doctor went to Oxbridge.
It is possible, you know, for members of the lower class to get into Oxbridge and even graduate. In Deadly Assassin and Invasion of Time, most of the Time Lords have a snobbish disdain for the Doctor. Ditto the Time Lord who showed up to tell Three about the Master's arrival in The Auton Invasion (and he even insinuated, IIRC, that the Master's grades were better). Ditto Romana, who wasn't expecting much at all from Four until he demonstrated that he was smarter than he appeared. It wasn't until the JNT era when Time Lord society went to the dogs to the point that kept repeatedly begging the Doctor to come back and be their dictator. (Which, strangely, now that I think of it, gives the Doctor a weird "John Galt" vibe that I'd never noticed before.) We don't know enough about Gallifreyan culture to really have any idea, but it's certainly possible that, by the standards of his own people, the Doctor was comparatively lower class with "ideas above his station."
May 29, 2014 @ 11:43 pm
The Doctor as part of the middle class.
Not evidence: He is a time Lord – actually I think this bit is irrelevant. If his people were called Time Peasants or Time Serfs it wouldn't make much difference.
1. Accent – which is a biggy when it comes to portrayal of British class. He always has a British accent that is neither placed to indicate him being upper class nor specifically working class. When he is given a regional accent it is not broad nor strong in dialect.
2. Social mobility – a consequence of the plot The Doctor has to interact with people at different levels of society.
3. Role – particularly in 19th and early 20th century settings The Doctor plays a role akin to (but more anarchic than) the Detective/Inspector role. He is the outsider who is entitled to question and engage with the upper class without being of that class. Sometimes he is more Inspector Goole than Sherlock Holmes but either way it is a role that is inherently middle class. A counter-example to the Detective role is Family of Blood but in that case he is cast as teacher – a middle class role in which he can interact with the upper class.
4. Not part of the ruling elite poltically – OK the exception are Gallifrey set stories but in general The Doctor is neccesarily not part of the aristocracy. He is never of the upper class.
5. Not part of the working class economically. He doesn't do manual labour.
6. Interaction with companions. His companions are sometimes working class or middle class, rarely upper class. Exceptions? Victoria but arguably she is upper middle class. Nyssa is royalty and Turlough maybe is from a politcal elite?
May 30, 2014 @ 12:13 am
Honestly, Downton Abbey seems to be Upstairs, Downstairs but even more contemptuous of the lower classes.
Now that's interesting. Because Upstairs Downstairs was intentionally designed not to be contemptuous of the lower classes. It was created by two working class actresses as a reaction to period dramas where the servants were furniture that moved.
I mean, I never watched it, but in theory, that's what it was supposed to be. Possibly these plans didn't survive executive meddling.
May 30, 2014 @ 9:22 am
surely it denotes mastery of time travel rather than any class based designation
The whole "Time Lord" vs. "Gallifreyan" question is an interesting one. "Invasion of Time" suggests there's a significant difference between the two terms (and certainly Jack Graham's blog would be in need of a new title if not for the distinctions introduced in that story (or was it "Deadly Assassin"…?)), and yet most of the time we hear the Doctor's people referred to by outsiders, they're almost invariably called "the Time Lords." So the "Lord" part isn't just relative to the unwashed masses on Gallifrey, it's the way Gallifrey as a political entity is perceived by the rest of the universe.
I'm sure there must be an About Time essay covering this topic exhaustively. I might even have read it already and forgotten, since it surely must be in books 4-6 and those are the ones I've finished.
Corpus Christi Music Scene
May 30, 2014 @ 11:53 am
Downton Abbey is Upstairs Downstairs in all but name. The plots and storylines are so similar that Im surprised Fellows got away with it.
June 1, 2014 @ 9:53 pm
To clarify, Upstairs Downstairs as a show did not have contempt for the servants, but most of the characters within the show did, including what I would describe as almost a self-loathing on the part of some servants who literally could not conceive of anything in life more noble or spiritually enriching than acting as a domestic for posh assholes.
One of the last episodes I recall dealt with the Stock Market Crash. James, the eldest son, had been speculating and had made some money, and he persuaded Rose, the chief maid and main character to invest all the money she'd saved with him, and it was all subsequently lost, leaving a forty-year-old woman in 1929 nothing for a retirement. Then, Hudson, the head butler, flat-out says that Rose deserved to lose everything for "having ideas above her station," a sentiment so appalling that I wanted to reach through the screen and strangle him.
June 1, 2014 @ 10:31 pm
To be really upfront, I have absolutely no desire to watch Downton Abbey and neither would I watch Upstairs, Downstairs or call the Midwife – period costume dramas that valorise specific time periods in amber hold no interest for me. There's not much more I can say beyond that, except I love where your essay ended up and I love, love, love the idea of Doctor Who as a show being shunted away from the mainstream and into a more radical positioning again.
Which, I think is the same journey that the Doctor himself has moved though in time mirroring his class/status as far as his relationship to his culture. Coming from a radical background into a respected institution, making radical choices that win through but then see him eventually rejected, disappearing and then on a journey in and out of being popular/radical, always with a slide towards being on the fringe.