on Doctor Who and a female Doctor

So, the Guardian asked me this morning to respond to this piece, which contains this extremely awful paragraph about the possibility of a female Doctor:

"This is also the time when many people – who probably don't watch the show very much – suggest that the next Doctor could be a woman. It's well established that Time Ladies exist; one has even travelled on the Tardis. Even though you can pretty much reset anything in the Whoniverse, so much of the Doctor's character, his strengths and his weaknesses are, to me, fundamentally male. He is impatient and petulant and always think he's right – massive generalisations, yes, but qualities that have been hardwired into the character for 50 years. The pairing of an ancient male Time Lord with a youngish Earth girl works for a reason and it's not a dynamic that should be messed with for the sake of it."

I wrote a response, which is partially posted here. I say 'partially' because for some reason the bit where I was *really really angry* has been totally removed from the piece. So, here's what I wrote, in all its glorious rage at women who want a female Doctor being called, essentially, a fake geek girl:


So, it’s choosing a new Doctor time again. Exciting, for those of us who love the show and its brilliant “regeneration” wheeze, which means that the Doctor is always changing, and yet somehow also always the same, and that the public never have time to get tired of any single actor in the role.

Sadly, it’s also time for statements like this: “many people - who probably don’t watch the show very much - suggest that the next Doctor could be a woman”, a sentence brilliant in its patronising, patriarchy-upholding blindness.  

So. To respond. Many men – who probably haven’t met very many women – can’t imagine a female Doctor.

This is despite the fact that it’s been established at least twice under current showrunner Stephen Moffatt that the Doctor could indeed be a woman. In Neil Gaiman’s superb The Doctor’s Wife, the Doctor mentions another Timelord, the Corsaire, who has regenerated as both male and female. And when David Tennant regenerated into Matt Smith, Smith’s Doctor, he felt the length of his hair, and exclaimed in surprise: “I’m a girl!” The simple fact that he considered it a possibility establishes (in ‘canon’ as we uber-fans who “probably don’t watch the show very much” like to say) that it could happen. One wouldn’t even have to stretch to do it – the character of the Doctor has “moving with the times” built into its genetic-loom – the whole point is that each regeneration gives the new showrunners a chance to reinvent the character.

Are the qualities of the character “fundamentally male”? No. For one thing, there’s no such thing as a fundamentally male personality. Women can be hard and men can be soft. Women can be combative and men can be nurturing. For goodness’ sake, this isn’t the 1850s. And anyone who thinks that women can’t have the qualities of being “impatient, petulant and always [thinking they’re] right”… well, they clearly haven’t met me.

So all ludicrous objections – from people who probably haven’t thought about the show very much – aside, who would we cast as our ideal first female Doctor?

Helen Mirren’s said she’d love to do it – and would be a fantastic choice, harking back to the magisterial alienness of William Hartnell. She’d make an imperious Timelord, travelling the universe for her own unimaginable reasons, deigning to take a companion onboard from time to time. Tilda Swinton would be another glorious Doctor – she has the quality of seeming unreadable even while conveying that much is going on beneath the surface, the perfect combination for a centuries-old being who’s seen the breadth of time and space.

Sue Perkins is a popular choice, though perhaps too much herself in the public eye to be a believable Doctor. Eve Best, if she could be tempted to return to the UK from her work on the fantastic Nurse Jackie, would be a rambunctious and joyful Doctor, believably a brilliant mind but also out for a good time, like a Jon Pertwee for our time. And I haven’t been able to get the idea of Tanya Moodie’s possible Doctor out of my head since seeing her as Hunter in Neverwhere – she’d bring a presence that is both warm and fierce, a Doctor with powerful emotions stirring beneath the surface. My personal favourite would be Olivia Williams – a very fine actor who I sense could bring things to the Doctor we’ve never seen before – she has a vulnerability combined with seriousness, she’d play the role with absolutely no bouncing around whatsoever, surely a welcome contrast to what’s gone before. There are many wonderful actresses to consider, but if I were casting the show, I’d be on the phone to Williams right now, asking her to read for it.

But then, what do I know? I may have had my first ever rejection slip at the age of 14 from Doctor Who Magazine, I may have read more than 40 Virgin New Adventures in the dark interregnum when the show was off the air, I may have risked my “literary” reputation to write a Doctor Who novel myself… but I probably don’t watch the show very much. 


Bane and Douglas Reynholm

Look, I'm just posting this because as far as I can tell I'm the only person on the whole internet (so far) to notice that Bane in The Dark Knight Rises sounds *exactly the same* as Matt Berry's portrayal of Douglas Reynholm in The IT Crowd. 

I need better clips to appear on YouTube to illustrate, but in the meantime this knowledge will either slightly dent your enjoyment of the film or (I predict) *massively enhance it*.


Buffy: Never kill a boy on the first date

Oh dear. This episode makes even Teacher's Pet look well put-together. 

In theory it ought to be fine. A nice bridging episode bringing together several different elements: the Master gets a new ally "the Annointed One", which should make him more scary. Buffy tries to have a dating life with Emily Dickinson-fan Owen but it doesn't work out, making her lonely predicament more obvious. Angel becomes more important to Buffy; Willow and Xander get to be mildly heroic, the plot generally thickens. 

Maybe in fact that's the problem. Nothing changes in this episode. Everything just gets a little bit more so, in very unimportant-seeming ways.

It's not important that the Master gets the Annointed One because we don't know what he's going to do. It's not important that Buffy can't have Owen because it's only in this episode that she seemed to be interested in him, and even so she seems more into Angel. It's a bit important that Xander and Willow and Giles are in danger, but they never seem significantly in danger (do not worry, in The Pack, we will see exactly how to make a character seem in signficant danger, and the various kinds of danger they can be in. A clue: the greatest danger to Xander in The Pack isn't that he'll get hurt, it's that he'll become a killer. An excellent kind of peril.).

This Annointed One - there's a bit of business trying to misdirect us to think he's the muscley dude, before we reveal at the end that in fact it's the little boy. But... we never even knew we were supposed to be trying to work out which one he was. 

What this episode is missing, I think, is set-up. We needed to have some questions raised in our minds at the start that it would then solve. If Buffy had started the episode saying "maybe what I need is some guy who's into... death, someone who might think all this vampire stuff is cool", then Owen would have been an interesting potential answer to that question. If we'd started the episode with Giles at least saying *why* the Annointed One is so dangerous, or at least that he'd be hard to identify*, then we'd have that question in mind. Absent these questions, the episode doesn't seem to have much of a point. 

But don't worry. The next episode is The Pack. It is amazing. 

*Incidentally, how *does* that kid going 'we went on an airplane!' become The Annointed One? Is this ever resolved? Is he a demon in a child's body? When did that happen? Why? Just like Roger Ebert told us, everything hangs on having a good villain and this is not a good villain, and certainly not one with much clarity.

Buffy: Teacher's Pet

So I watched three episodes: Teacher's Pet, Never Kill a Boy on a First Date and The Pack all in one go. Mostly because I knew I wanted to see The Pack again so much, and seeing it in context like this makes me realise what an amazing ep it is and how much there is to learn from it. In fact, The Pack is hands-down the best episode of Season 1, the only one really worth re-watching, and although I expect there'll be moments to enjoy in the rest of the season I feel kind of annoyed to have to slog through the rest of the season before I can get on to juicy Season 2. 

HOWEVER, a commitment's a commitment, and therefore, sigh, I have to write about Teacher's Pet first. But I suspect I'll be spending the rest of Season 1 explaining in detail what each of these episodes get wrong that The Pack gets so right. 

Teacher's Pet. First off, it is not a great name for an episode. This stuff is important: as we saw with the name Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a great name can indicate the kind of clarity a show has. It can show up an essential tension, raise a question that the show needs to answer. This is not a great name. The teacher is not a pet - she, Natalie French, femme fatale biology teacher, turns out to be a giant insect of some sort. But not the kind of insect that anyone involved in the episode keeps as a pet. And her major plan isn't to keep any of her students as pets either. She wants to mate with the male, virgin students and then bite their heads off. Xander is caused to swoon by her bodacious body, pheremones, and his desire to lose his virginity. The gang have to save him. But, going back to the name, Xander isn't *even* the teacher's pet. There's another student Blaine she likes better, captures first. So at the very best, the name "Teacher's Pet" indicates that Xander would *like* to be the teacher's pet. But only in a metaphorical way, not a literal one.

What I'm saying is, this episode title has one level of meaning *at best*. And that's pretty much the case with the episode too. 

Witch dabbled in some dark psychological territory - things we don't like to talk about - like how mothers can be murderously jealous of their daughters, and growing old can make you bitter and resentful of youth. Teacher's Pet, meanwhile, keeps things extremely light, psychologically. Boys want to have sex with beautiful women, is about the limit of it. Boys like to pretend they've lost their virginity when they haven't. Xander wants to impress Buffy by being strong, but hasn't yet realised that this is never going to work out for him. (There's also a little misogyny in the "beautiful women are out to control and eventually destroy helpless men" subtext here...)

No one's motivations in this episode are complex. There's no urgency to any of them, no dark needs - unless you count 'wants to have sex' as a dark need, which really this ep seems to do. If you'd wanted to push it with Miss French you could have done a bit of biological 'ticking clock' in which she *needs* to get some boys to mate with her before her eggs go off. Or you could have really pushed the inappropriateness of the teacher/student relationship, the 'teacher's pet' angle, by having Miss French get Xander to do one or two things which he "can't tell his friends about", feeling isolated and confused but still horny as hell. But no, instead it has a sub-plot with a vampire with a rake for a hand, who Buffy eventually uses as a sniffer dog to find Miss French when Willow's generic 'hacking' of the school computer fails to turn up the right address. There is a nice moment, though, when the teacher who Buffy had felt understood by turns up dead; it darkens *her* experience a little bit, which is nice. 

What I really want to talk about though, is the 'wink wink' ending. It's so X-Files. We've killed the insect-teacher, we've rescued Xander. And then under the desk, in the final scene, there are some of her eggs! Hatching! Dun dun dun! The End. It's very similar to the end of Witch. The mom is in the cheerleader statue! Forever! Dun dun dun! The End. 

Why are these sting endings X-Files-ey*? Because they imply that the story's not over, and no final victory has been achieved - something more could happen later, maybe something scary for us (the eggs) or just for the person involved (the statue). X-Files lived and breathed this lack of finality, the suffocating sense that however much Mulder and Scully did, it'd never be enough and the darkness would always overcome them. (In fact, it's quite Lovecraftian; the unsettling ending.) And those endings worked quite well in X-Files. Yes, you've killed the monster but one day it might come back... maybe for your successors at the FBI, maybe to terrorise some other family in rural Indiana. But they're not so great for Buffy, because Buffy is set *in the high school*. If those eggs hatch, Buffy's going to have to deal with them, and we'll have to have another boring episode about a giant insect. 

Now, The Pack has a very different sort of ending, which works so much better. Xander has been involved in some very horrible happenings. (If you haven't watched The Pack, please do. It's like £1.89 on iTunes. Go and get it and watch it now.) At the end of the episode, the monster is defeated, all seems well, Xander says he's forgotten all the things he did while under its influence. EXCEPT HE HASN'T FORGOTTEN, which is the final sting. This isn't a plot sting. It's a character sting. We've learned something about Xander which sits like a timebomb under the character: he's a liar. That timebomb will just sit there, like the mother in the statue, like the eggs under the desk. But unlike those stings, the writers can bring this back at any time without committing themselves to a whole plotline, or a recurring monster. A single line will make us remember that Xander is a liar, and that he's still got the same personal identity and memories as a much more horrible person. It deepens the character without committing the writers to anything. 

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the many many reasons that The Pack is better than Teacher's Pet. 


On Talking Smack

Adrian Hon and Andrea Phillips and I often shoot the breeze about how much we hated some movie, book, TV show or game. We go into some detail. We explore the many different ways in which we hated it. We do it so much that we've frequently joked that we should set up a podcast about all the bad bits of culture in the world and call it Snarkcast. It may yet happen, except that this amount of hostility might forever torpedo our reputations as easy-going and generally lovely people. Plus, we'd then invite everyone else to snark about our work.

However, the more I think about it, the more I believe that talking smack about other people's work - privately, if you must - is an incredibly important creative skill. 

In school, we get shown great pieces of world culture. Books that are acknowledged classics, art or music or movies that were made by people at the peak of their powers. We're supposed to learn how to reverently "appreciate" this greatness by pointing out why it's so good.  That's fine, that's how we learn about our shared culture. 

But I was never shown anything truly dire in school, or an early work by a talent that wasn't yet formed. Never encouraged to point out the flaws, or to answer the question: "how could this have been made better?" In fact, it wasn't until I did my Creative Writing MA that anyone tried to systematically get me to critique, rather than just identify many different reasons to praise greatness. 

Which is a shame, because that question: "what is wrong with this, and how can it be made better?" is maybe the single most important thing that any practising artist who wants to improve can ask themselves - both about others' work and their own. And trying to pinpoint exactly what the problem is and then trying to solve it is the fastest way I've ever found to become better as a writer. 

If you've been reading my Buffy posts, and if you read them in future, you'll see that I'm going to talk a lot of smack about Buffy. This is not because I don't rate Buffy. I think it's the greatest TV show ever made. But nothing is perfect (except, perhaps, a couple of stories by Saki and Borges). And certainly Buffy had its flubby episodes. And there's so much to be learned from comparing the ones that just missed the mark to the great ones, and the ones that totally failed to the ones that only just failed. 

The "only just failed" ones are the most interesting to me, because they pinpoint something. With a genuinely genius piece of writing (like The Soprano's "Pine Barrens" or Buffy's "Fool for Love") so many things are going right that it's hard to strand them out and learn from them. With something that almost worked, you can more easily pick apart what's going on: did the threat work but the characterisation was off? Was the underlying metaphor great but the plot logic shaky?

One could argue, I suppose, that failure and success is subjective. That the episodes of Buffy I think fail might be other people's favourites. But that's fine too. The way to get better at your art is to pick the things that work *for you*, and those that fail, *for you*, and work out what the former has that the latter lacks. After all, surely you want to make art that gets closer and closer to being the thing that, if you hadn't made it, would make you pull your own heart out with love. 

I'm sure this applies to everything. If you want to be a better artist, seek out bad art and work out why it's bad. If you want to be a better musician, think about why terrible music is so terrible. In fact, in many professions - medicine, law, accountancy - the 'post-mortem' or studies of failure are critical parts of the learning process. I think it's just the same for the arts. Critical, engaged, thoughtful snark is the way we learn what to avoid, and so how to get better.