Saturday, May 17, 2008

Week Seven: Bad Charisma

In which Doctor Who destroys history.

This week's question... who gets to be a genius?

The irony, from my point of view, is that this subject is raised by a script with Gareth Roberts' name at the top: as you'll know if you've ever seen the "What Some People Have Said" column on the right of this page, Gareth has publicly described me as "probably a genius". Or at least, this is what I've been told. He ostensibly says it in Big Finish's forthcoming Bernice Summerfield - The Inside Story, although this may well be his way of apologising for dropping my first submission to Virgin Publishing down the back of some shelves (where it stayed until he thought to fish it out, a year later). Nevertheless, I like the use of the word "probably" in this context. You're only definitely a genius if you create something of obvious, undeniable importance. Since I've never been able to do better than a couple of TV spin-off novels and a comic-book that folded after two issues, I'll have to remain "probably" a genius until I can prove myself one way or the other.

This takes on a new significance for me, however, when we discover that in the Doctor Who world - at least, the Doctor Who world according to Gareth - Agatha Christie is also a genius. We know this for a fact, because the Doctor and Donna spend much of the episode telling her / us how great she is, and there's even a gushing tag-scene in which we're told that she's going to be remembered five-billion years in the future. I should, presumably, be flattered. Except…

was Christie a genius? We've touched on her corpse in this column once before [see …Of Death, below], but we should remind ourselves that her greatness is by no means accepted as a universal truth. Many critics have pointed out that she turned detective fiction into what one writer called "a series of arid crossword puzzles", and anyone who tries to read her prose in the twenty-first century might be forgiven for feeling that… well… that the Fenella Woolgar version knows what she's talking about when she describes her work as 'not great literature'. "Beauty of language" isn't a term that ever seems to have crossed her mind, and nor is she a close friend of Mr Characterisation: her books tend to supply characters with introductions along the lines of "he was the type of gentleman who could only have been a retired army colonel", which is effectively a writer's way of saying "this is an easy stereotype, but I know I can get away with it, so f*** you". You could argue that the characters in "The Unicorn and the Wasp" are deliberate pastiches of the kind of people you find in Christie's work, but you could just as well argue that this is exactly what Christie did all the sodding time.

Ah, but. Her real success was in the way she stripped down the murder-mystery until it was almost a form of engineering, and in the process, provided us with all the most basic Big Twists as if they were standardised machine-parts. Look away now if you don't want to know the results, but it was Christie who gave us the story in which the detective turns out to be the killer (The Mousetrap), the story in which all the suspects turn out to be the killer (Murder on the Orient Express), the story in which the only character who couldn't possibly have been the killer turns out to be the killer (Death on the Nile), the story in which the narrator turns out to be the killer (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd), the story in which the intended victim turns out to be the killer (Peril at End House… geek-trivia fans will note that like Murder in the Clouds, which the Doctor waves around in the final scene, this also features a wasp as a plot-point), and numerous variations thereof.

Consider this possibility, then: the people we remember as the all-time greats aren't the innovators, but the ones who boil things down to their simplest possible ingredients for mass consumption. You could make exactly the same argument about the Beatles. Nothing they did in their entire gestalt existence was genuinely new, certainly not the supposed "revolution" of Sergeant Pepper, yet they displayed an astonishing ability to take other people's music and make it so straightforward - you might even say banal - that everybody on Earth could understand it. No wonder they ended up bigger than Jesus. Ergo, we're happy to accept Christie's status as "the best-selling novelist in history" as proof that she was intrinsically great, even though we'd never dream of using the same logic to prove that Ronald McDonald is the world's most talented chef. The most obvious modern example of this phenomenon would be Harry Potter, and I was about to say "and you wouldn't seriously call J. K. Rowling a genius, would you?", but then I remembered "The Shakespeare Code".

Oh yes, "The Shakespeare Code". You may recall that in Week Two of this correspondent's course, we discussed the relationship between Doctor Who and big-H History. We reached the conclusion - well, I did, but you were watching - that the modern Doctor Who historical is a form of time-tourism, in which the past is nothing more than scenery for CGI aliens and dead celebrities. "Gee, honey, look! Doctor Who and William Shakespeare are fighting some monsters with a spell from Harry Potter. Have you got the camera?" And the most important thing to remember about tourism is that it never, ever shows you the actual territory, just your own preconceptions about what's supposed to be there. In modern Doctor Who, the Elizabethan era is "about" the Globe Theatre, so 1926 is obviously… "about" a murder mystery. We won't dwell on the thought that the series tried exactly the same schtick in 1982, because there's a more important issue here, and it's this: if history is now just tourism, then we're never going to be asked to question it. Agatha Christie is a genius. Why? Because we say so, that's why.

This seems a curious development, when you put it in the context of the (small-h) history of Doctor Who. Think about "The Crusade" for a moment. Generations of children were brought up to believe that Richard the Lionheart - a mass-murdering war criminal of the worst order, whose actions were repellent even by the standards of the twelfth century - was England's greatest and most majestic hero, however much he may have detested this country. Yet "The Crusade" doesn't quite play ball with this idea, and presents him as an intolerant, self-obsessed opportunist. In About Time, my former albatross Tat Wood reached the conclusion that although an audience raised on tales of the Great Man would never have accepted a TV version of Richard who was as thoroughly awful as the real Richard, it was "a bold move" to show a less pleasant side of his character in 1965. All true enough, but the interesting thing is that twenty years later, Robin of Sherwood (being the first ITV show which thoroughly, resoundingly defeated Doctor Who on a Saturday night, and which remains so superior to the BBC's twenty-first-century disembowling of Robin Hood that it's almost enough to make you demand a license-fee rebate) did exactly what David Whitaker couldn't. The Robin of Sherwood version of Richard is an out-and-out villain. By the '80s, we were allowed to poke at these sacred cows as much as we wanted, even on children's telly.

Can you see what's gone wrong here…? Mid-1960s: historical adventures can question things, a little. Mid-1980s: historical adventures can question anything. Mid-2000s: DO NOT ASK QUESTIONS NO MATTER WHAT. Charles Dickens was a genius: everybody knows it, don't argue. Shakespeare was a genius, and therefore in the same bracket as J. K. Rowling: this is common knowledge, don't argue. Agatha Christie was a genius, and therefore the Doctor will need her help to solve an alien murder mystery: this is obvious, don't argue. And, perhaps the worst offender of all… Mme de Pompadour was one of the most accomplished women who ever lived, but the episode isn't even going to tell you why: she just was, don't argue. Still, at least "The Girl in the Fireplace" gives us a cross-section of the subject's century, which is more than most neo-historicals have got to offer. And "neo-historical" seems the most appropriate term, since these stories demand the same ignorance of actual history as every other daft idea that begins with "neo" (neo-conservatism, neo-liberalism… neo-Nazism, obviously, although that's a rather harsh comparison to make if we're talking about BBC Wales). The Confidential accompanying "The Unicorn and the Wasp" goes out of its way to celebrate this kind of non-history, and proudly shows us archive footage of "The Crusade" back-to-back with clips from "The Shakespeare Code", without noticing any contradiction there at all. It's like putting I, Claudius next to Carry On Columbus, and thinking they're examples of the same thing.

This isn't Gareth's fault, of course. Consumerism, and the cult of now that's promoted by most of our society's media interests, has guaranteed that the younger generation is incapable of grasping any form of history unless it involves celebrities on some level. We recall that the winner of last year's Big Brother had never even heard of Shakespeare when he entered the house, and this is by no means a freak occurrence (whereas if he'd been watching BBC1 on Saturday nights, then he'd know that Shakespeare was a seventeenth-century rock star). The question is whether Doctor Who should be pandering to this world-view quite so much. It's not an issue of the series being "educational", because even in the early '60s, it never really ended up working that way. It's doubtful that any of the children who watched "Marco Polo" made notes en route to Peking, or took heed of Ian's TV-for-schools speech about the Hashishin, which is historically dubious anyway. But what the programme did do was prime its audience to think about the way other societies might work, and the way other people might think, rather than playing up to the viewers' expectations or claiming that the past is just like the present with different hats. The time-tourism model of the series can only reinforce and / or parody, never change our minds. Also in this week's Confidential, the sales-figures of Christie's books are presented as evidence that she's one of history's great figures, which is about as consumer-obsessive as this programme can get.

Is it too much to hope that Doctor Who might, if only in the broadest possible sense, still have a duty to make its audience ask questions? Or are we now so mired in the filth and ringtones of consumer non-culture that the very idea of television having a "duty" is alien to us, even when we're talking about a supposedly public-service institution like the BBC? Certainly, I seem to be one of an increasingly small number of people who think this way. And what do I know? My idealism is all too obvious. I'm peculiar enough to think that if an SF series is broadcast shortly before a general election in which race-baiting has become a key issue, and at a time when violence against immigrant communities is on the rise, then doing a story about evil alien asylum-seekers is a really bad idea. Clearly, I'm hopelessly na├»ve. (Oh, actually, on the subject of politics… despite writing her best-known works in the socially-charged climate of 1920s / 1930s Europe, Agatha Christie's novels are so dismissive of people with political opinions that she doesn't seem to be able to tell the difference between left-wing radicals and Nazis. I'm mentioning this not to start another fight, but because it demonstrates just how weak a grasp she had on anything beyond the purely abstract constructions of her own plots. Yet according to the Doctor, only her mind can unravel this mystery, as she 'understands' people. Because she's a genius. Riiight.)

And if you consult the copy of About Time Volume One that you should own by now if you want to pass this exam, then you'll see that Tat has also reminded us of the origin of the word "charisma". It dates from the seventeenth century, and it didn't mean what it means now. Its Greek root suggests "grace" or "divine favour", and in the beginning, that's exactly what charisma was: a God-given blessing which marked certain people as special, and which allowed these chosen individuals to alter fate or re-shape history. During the Enlightenment, this seemed like a decent enough idea. In modern times, it sounds like the kind of adolescent bunk that leads monomaniacs to commit acts of genocide. Good history should teach us that there's no such thing as grace, and that individuals become important through social circumstance rather than some Inner Light (unless you want to believe that John Lennon was created by divine intervention). Even David Whitaker, who took the "Web of Time" approach to Doctor Who, never claimed that the big figures of the past had some innate magical quality which made them greater than ordinary mortals. The historical stories made on his watch show us the world, not the individual. Marco Polo isn't the be-all and end-all of "Marco Polo".

By contrast, one of the side-effects of the Cult of Celebrity is that it leads the population to take the "charisma" idea literally. If you're brought up to believe that such-and-such a historical figure simply is a genius / hero / god amongst men, without any context and without any understanding of the world he or she inhabited, then history becomes a collection of star names who exist solely because God has decreed that they had to exist. There's no meaning, no comprehension, no sense of consequences. There's just a collection of familiar faces who all float around in a nebulous grey void called The Olden Days. Effectively, then, the modern generation's view of history sets our culture back by about three-hundred years. That isn't Gareth's fault either, but he doesn't have to encourage it, does he? If nothing else, then it'd be nice to see a Doctor Who historical that's actually about the era in which it's set. Oddly, "Human Nature" is the latter-day story which comes closest to this, "oddly" because it's ostensibly about the Doctor rather than his environment. But the fact that it's set in 1913 is actually important to the themes of the story, whereas the fact that "The Unicorn and the Wasp" is set in 1926 is irrelevant, apart from providing us with the ideal opportunity to meet someone famous.

The counter-argument here is that this isn't a "historical" at all, but a parody of a different form of television (and let's be under no illusions, this is modelled on the TV adaptations of Christie's work, not on the original texts). The trouble is that if you take this view, then "Wasp" slits its own throat even faster, because the net result of stuffing Doctor Who full of stereotypes from Poirot - a series which is now showing every weekday afternoon on ITV, as all-purpose filler - is an episode of Poirot with a dodgy CGI monster pasted into the middle of it. But as you'll know if you've bothered watching ITV's effort, only the two-part Poirot stories really work. Fifty minutes simply isn't long enough for a competent murder mystery, since our introduction to the characters will inevitably be so brief that we don't give a Belgian's goolies who did it. So it is here, and the rest is mainly in-jokes, leaving us with the impression that the whole thing is a massively expensive piece of fan-fic in which British Legend "A" meets British Legend "B". Sad to say, an awful lot of Poirot episodes are actually better than this. If anything, it's more like Midsomer Murders with special effects… although in all honesty, you could say that about most of Doctor Who in 2008.

Of course, the really big irony here is that although I'm probably a genius, I have absolutely no charisma.