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Less concerned with who’s first up against the wall than with how to decorate it

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L.I. Underhill is a media critic and historian specializing in pop culture, with a focus on science fiction (especially Star Trek) and video games. Their projects include a critical history of Star Trek told through the narrative of a war in time, a “heretical” history of The Legend of Zelda series and a literary postmodern reading of Jim Davis' Garfield.

12 Comments

  1. FlexFantastic
    September 5, 2014 @ 4:10 am

    Great stuff, man. Both our backgrounds in this show and where a lot of our taste tends to tilt towards is similar, even if I got into the show more than you.

    (Not a profound response, I know, but I feel bad for not tossing a comment here recently. That's what happens when you read blogs mostly through an RSS reader, I think)

    Also, thanks for putting me and James in such esteemed company in terms of Who critique!

    Reply

  2. Adam Riggio
    September 5, 2014 @ 7:54 am

    Perhaps I seem to be in a strange minority (though I usually am), but I've always been a fan of both Star Trek and Doctor Who in fairly equal measure. Doctor Who has always received the lion's share of pure enthusiasm, but I've always loved what I considered Star Trek's beautiful world.

    To put a very future-minded vision on things, I found that one of the serious problems Star Trek encountered as its world grew increasingly detailed was the weight of its own continuity. I especially have in mind many of the most problematic stories of Enterprise, in which entire episodes were written solely to fill continuity holes, and not for more reasonable reasons like having an interesting story to tell. Doctor Who itself went through that conflict during its Wilderness Years, but eventually settled on its current approach of ignoring continuity altogether at the level of story-to-story links and fictional species' histories, instead simply telling interesting tales. It was in the McCoy era, with its casual retconning of so much of its own history (done on purpose this time, not for the older reasons, largely that Terry Nation couldn't have been bothered), that Doctor Who's creators realized for the first time that the fetishist loyalty to continuity with prior stories only got in the way of creativity, and that they had the power as storytellers simply to ignore them. While it took a couple of more decades for the message to arrive in its full force, Doctor Who remains innovative in this way.

    Star Trek today seems to be trapped in the navel of continuity reconciliation and its gravity. Its continuity reboot was achieved entirely in-canon, as if we needed a diegetic explanation why we were telling stories that couldn't have matched the established life of Kirk et al. Star Trek Into Darkness didn't need to be about Khan at all, and its constant aping of that earlier film's narrative kept it from being little more than a fan film with a budget – and not a particularly interesting fan film.

    However, I share your special attachment to the McCoy era. Not only do I consider it the artistic pinnacle of the classic series (maybe even the series as a whole, taking entire eras as my units of evaluation), but in my case, Sylvester actually was my first Doctor.

    And I quite loved your journey through Dirty Pair. It was an entirely new world to me, and if I didn't comment, it was because I was listening.

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  3. bbqplatypus318
    September 5, 2014 @ 11:07 am

    I'm like a lot of people in that I had only heard, vaguely, of Doctor Who before the series was revived. I became a fan after that, during Tennant's second season, and a couple of years ago sat down and watched bootlegged copies of every serial ever made (having only watched a few individual old-series stories before then).

    I'd like to echo the praise for the McCoy era in this comment section. It particularly struck me upon going on my summer marathon, after the drudgery of Eric Saward's tenure as script editor, to see an invigorated show so full of wit and subversiveness. The lower budget really worked in its favor, I think – it gave it as much "underground" cred as a BBC production can possibly get.

    I still watch the show regularly, but I don't really engage with fandom as much, except on the Jon Pertwee Recipe Book forum. Clearly the best and most lucid segment of Doctor Who fandom.

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  4. bbqplatypus318
    September 5, 2014 @ 11:07 am

    By "a lot of people" I mean "a lot of Americans."

    Reply

  5. brownstudy
    September 5, 2014 @ 3:24 pm

    One of the attractions for me of "Star Trek" was the cast of characters, seeing their interactions, watching them work as a team, growing old with them, in a way. I love "Doctor Who" for the fanciful storytelling and humor, but the Doctor doesn't quite have such a persistent entourage, hence so much recent fascination with Rose, Amy, Clara, etc. But as with comics, the golden age of both shows is the age you were when they made their deepest impression on you.

    The following is off-topic, but where better than here to share this link. Steve Donoghue at Open Letters Weekly reviews a new "Star Trek Seekers" novel and opens with an anecdote about DC Fontana I hadn't heard before but that may be old hat to others: http://www.openlettersmonthly.com/book-review-star-trek-seekers-1/ . I shared a link to Steve's blog in a previous comment; he's one of the old-timer ST fans and Open Letters is one of his outlets for reviews of his copious reading.

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  6. K. Jones
    September 5, 2014 @ 6:28 pm

    Doctor Who fills a strange role for me – for some time I've effectively felt like I'd exhausted my supply of TV format sci-fi. So to stumble across a classic series that effectively fills in the blanks of all the years Trek wasn't on the air was incredible, whether it be stretching from the late 60s of TOS to the launch of TNG, or how the new series kicked off not long after Enterprise had ended. And yes, I'd call myself a Trekkie first, and an unabashed Whovian in addition to it. While part of my liking Classic Who tends to be an acceptance and liking of the camp, bad effects and appealing to my Anglophilia, my critical eye for quality is pretty stretched. But that's not really the point, and I'd never compare the two properties as whole entities. Doctor Who certainly makes me think about the boons of a long-running serial continuity, metatext, narrative hijinx and the "fun" of sci-fi, but it RARELY makes me think, like think, about who I am and what being a human means. Which isn't to say it touches on these themes, just that Trek's placement as morality tales fills a massively different function. But I do quite like it when the shows tread on one another's "Turf", so to speak – when the paramilitary "teams" of Trek find themselves in Chronal or Cosmic dilemmas (Tasha Yar's "return" as Sela feels like an especially flighty, Whovian way to bring an actor back when frankly they should've just brought Tasha back – as a defector), or when Who gets all grounded and slightly less flighty and does some worldbuilding.

    I'm far more eager, speaking about characters that live on the fringes of their respective narratives and universes, to get into TNG at the moment. We've got so much to get through, but the first character I thought of was Barclay, and the second was Garak – one underutilized, the other with a build-up that's "just right". (And for that matter Bebe Neuwirth's Lilith, whose Cheers rise to prominence mirrors DS9's Andrew Robinson, and whose "Annual Guest Spot" on Frasier mirrors Dwight Schultz on TNG (criminally underutilized))

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  7. Jack Graham
    September 5, 2014 @ 10:42 pm

    As a lifelong Who-fan, I loved Star Trek when I was a kid (mostly movies 2-4) and a bit of the old series here and there as I caught it. Then I watched TNG and liked it in a vague way. Then I loved DS9. Followed that. Then I went through a sort of MUST KILL TREK WITH FIRE!!!! phase for some reason (possibly owing to DS9 disappointing me as it trudged to a close). Now, partly thanks to Josh re-educating me, I like it all again. Not in an uncritical way… but then I don't like anything uncritically. Except Shirley Henderson, but that's beside the point.

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  8. scottlocklin
    September 10, 2014 @ 10:44 pm

    I honestly can't tell if this blog is some kind of parody of "social justice warrior" speak, or if you actually believe in such nonsense. Either way, I suppose you have good enough taste in science fiction to understand the genius (and inherent niceness and decency) of Raumpatrouille Orion, so you're probably worth talking to.

    While everyone likes the Dr. Who they saw as a kid, the very best, most canonical Dr. Who episides were the ones written or edited by Terry Nation and Robert Holmes and performed by Baker and Petwee (I got started on Davidson, who was hamstrung by a dearth of decent plot material and too many companions, but was still pretty good). Many of the episodes are takes on classic Hammer "video nasties" of a few years earlier, The original Quatermass and the Pit miniseries (not the 68 remake) provided the tropes for a good fraction of canonical Dr. Who, and is still considered the ne plus ultra of British SF. Quite a few of the better atmosphere pieces were riffs on Hammer material: no way they could have done Talons of Weng Chiang without Christopher Lee's performances in the Fu Manchu movies. All the surviving Patrick Troughton episodes are also rare treasures: the man could ham it up, and his sidekicks were a lot of fun as well. I couldn't stand McCoy's Who when I was a kid, and still consider these episodes to be pretty execrable …. excepting maybe the last two years where the scripts improved, and McCoy stopped trying to be Troughton. The new series is … what you'd expect of a modern remake of Dr. Who … Kind of genius for appealing to the lowest common denominator, though I suppose wide appeal was always a feature of Whovian writing. It's just that nobody reads Dennis Wheatley novels any more, as they did when the classic stuff was made.

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  9. encyclops
    October 8, 2014 @ 8:33 am

    I was about to ask in the comments on your guest post (which I quite liked) when you'd gotten into Doctor Who. You've basically confirmed my guess here. 🙂 I initially got into the show between the ages of 8 and 11, which I think is probably exactly the right time to do it. I was 12 going on 13 when "Encounter at Farpoint" aired, and while I watched and enjoyed most of TNG, it never quite captured my imagination the way it might have if I'd been younger and more impressionable. Star Trek was also about people who were good at working with others and fitting in and finding their places on teams, which are skills I've never had in abundance; Doctor Who was about an eccentric individual whose strength and M.O. were not fitting in, and I identified with and responded to that more.

    Having said that, even though I don't and may never (perhaps could never, if my theory about when in life one's pop culture preferences are formed) love any flavor of Star Trek as much as I loved (and sometimes still love) Doctor Who, I get the appeal, and sometimes wish I could be more that type of person. I think you're bang on target about gender roles, at least in TNG, and that the structure lends itself to considerably more egalitarianism.

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  10. Daru
    October 20, 2014 @ 9:18 pm

    Thanks for a brilliant essay again Josh! Great to finally hear you Who journey and how you feel about the show. I was watching I think Doctor Who and Star Trek concurrently. I never identified as a 'fan' of either and always thought of them equally as they gave me different things. Doctor Who for the sheer breadth of storytelling and a feeling of rebellion and creativity; Star Trek (especially TNG) for the inner journey of characters and connection to my ideas of spiritual growth.

    I was an absolute lover of Who up until Colin Baker's period, and into McCoy's time. I became cynical as I started art college and moved away from enjoying how the Doctor was portrayed then, something broke for me. Now I love McCoy's Doctor more than ever before for all the reasons above and don't feel what I did then. I guess sometimes we have to move away from something to appreciate it, to have distance.

    RPG's were a large part of my development and at one point with my small collective of gamers, we immersed ourselves in TNG marathons. We did attempt to play the TNG RPG for a while but the need to play rank completely turned me off – just a reaction inside me. I figure if I was a character in a Trek story, I'd have to be someone outside of Star Fleet, if not the Federation.

    Nowadays, I do regard myself as more identified as a Who fan, but Trek is still there for me in many ways and I hold a deep love for both shows in relation to my journey.

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  11. Josh Marsfelder
    October 21, 2014 @ 12:21 pm

    The issue of rank is of course a pesky one as it pertains to Star Trek in all its incarnations. As much strides as the shows make to build a familial, communal atmosphere, that lingering remnant of its pulp sci-fi days is still there to complicate things unduly.

    I do have a solution to that I've been working on for awhile now, but I need to find the right moment to articulate it…

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  12. Daru
    October 21, 2014 @ 9:45 pm

    I really look forwards to hearing what you come up with. having attempted in the past to play within those strictures (at least that's how they felt to me), it makes me think that in a lot of ways the show must in the context of using Star Fleet actually be quite hard to write for. I wonder if there would be any mileage in the idea of a non-Star Fleet based show set within the Trek universe?

    Reply

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