Monday, 28 January 2013

Doctor Who - Chicks Unravel Time


When I posted my review of Chicks Dig Time Lords, I mentioned that I had originally hoped to post it along with a review of its follow-up, Chicks Unravel Time: Women Journey Through Every Season of Doctor Who, but unfortunately I had not yet been able to find a copy of Chicks Unravel Time. Well, not long after posting that review, my order from Amazon finally came through and my copy arrived. I then had to find time to read it amidst a busy schedule that has culminated in a bout with the flu (thus my slowness with posting, in general, in the last couple weeks). But at last the reading is done and I have to say that the wait for the book was well worth it.

As much as I enjoyed Chicks Dig Time Lords, I enjoyed Chicks Unravel Time a great deal more. At the basic conceptual level, the two books are very similar: a group of women authors write essays about Doctor Who. But whereas Chicks Dig Time Lords meanders about with numerous different styles and topics—from reminiscences to the position of women in fandom to critical analysis—and a few interviews, Chicks Unravel Time benefits from a more focused approach. Each essay examines one season (or one aspect of a season) from a critical lens. There is exactly one essay for each of Seasons One through Twenty-Six, the 1996 television movie, Series One through Six, and the 2009 specials (in the gap year between series four and five). With its more analytical bent, there is a lot less reminiscing in these essays and a lot fewer anecdotal stories. That’s not to say that such things are bad. I enjoyed the reminiscences in Chicks Dig Time Lords a lot. They were both entertaining and informative. But my natural preferences lean more towards analysis (just look at what I do on this site, after all) and, as such, I think I got just a little more out of the essays in Chicks Unravel Time. Of course, that doesn’t mean that these authors never do any reminiscing. Quite a bit does indeed show up, but it’s always in a manner that’s contextual to the topic of the essay.

Much like Chicks Dig Time Lords, Chicks Unravel Time has a wide variety of authors from different parts of the world and different backgrounds in life. Some of the authors experienced their respective seasons back when they first aired; others discovered their seasons at a much later time, a few (it would seem) for the first time only when they were assigned to write their essays. There is some overlap of authors between Chicks Dig Time Lords and Chicks Unravel Time, but most of them are new to this book. Of the thirty-four authors in Chicks Unravel Time, only five also have essays in the previous book. I like the addition of so many fresh perspectives. It helps to demonstrate just how many female fans are out there and that it’s not just the same few writing everything.

Upon starting into Chicks Unravel Time, I was at first somewhat surprised by the arrangement of the essays in the book. From the subtitle, Women Journey Through Every Season of Doctor Who, I was expecting the essays to go through every season in order, starting with season one and ending with series six. There’s nothing in the subtitle that actually says they do that, but it was my natural expectation. However, the introduction explains why they don’t go in order—indeed, the order seems as though it could be entirely random—and it actually makes a great deal of sense. Doctor Who has had such a long history that many, many fans (including the authors in this book) did not start watching the show at the very beginning. They discovered the show somewhere in the middle and later went back to see the earlier episodes. Even when rewatching the show, fans are prone to pick and choose the episodes they feel like watching at the time, rather than starting at the beginning and watching all the way through. So, in much the same way as the Doctor himself jumps back and forth through time, Chicks Unravel Time jumps back and forth in the history of Doctor Who, starting with series one of “Nu Who” (with Barbara Hambly’s “Regeneration – Shaping the Road Ahead”) and ending with season eight of the original series (Amal El-Mohtar’s “Reversing Polarities: The Doctor, the Master, and False Binaries in Season Eight”). And it works incredibly well. Although I was briefly tempted to read the essays in “chronological” order, I’m glad that I didn’t. There’s a definite Doctor Who-ish feel to jumping about all over the place. However, for those who would still prefer to go through the series in order, the introduction goes on to say that “the essays are neatly labelled by season so you can begin with Season One and meet us at the end of Series Six. The choice is yours.” Unfortunately, people choosing that route will not have as easy a time as the introduction implies. Those neat labels appear only in the margin of the first page of each essay. They do not appear in the table of contents or on any other page of the essays. A couple of the essays include the season in their titles, but the vast majority do not. As such, attempting to read the essays in series order will result in much page flipping as you try to find the next season in the sequence. It’s a minor complaint, but if the editors had wanted to easily facilitate this alternative reading order, it would have been better to include the seasons in the table of contents or perhaps add an index. (In fact, in preparing this review, I have encountered the problem of finding a specific season. The period of Doctor Who being discussed is easier to remember than a specific title or author and so, several times, I’ve found myself trying to find, say, the essay that talks about Season Two and having to flip through the book until I spot it.)

While there is, as I said, a greater focus to this book (narrowing each essay down to one season pretty much guarantees this), there is still quite a large variety of topics in the essays. Some look at gender or race representation in the programme; others, such as Erica McGillivray’s “How the Cold War Killed the Fifth Doctor”, look at how the political landscape of the time influenced the stories told on the show. “The Sound’s the Star” by Emily Kausalik looks at how the use of stock music in Season Five influenced later years, and “David Tennant’s Bum” by Laura Mead examines the way in which the tenth Doctor is the advent of a new kind of sex symbol, one born not out of machismo, but out of intellect.

Some of the most interesting essays are actually the ones about the earliest years of the programme. Coming to those episodes from a modern-day perspective allows for new insights that were probably not noticed of at the time (or indeed, even intended). For example, Teresa Jusino’s “All of Gallifrey’s a Stage: The Doctor in Adolescence” looks at the fact that we now know the fist Doctor was actually quite young when compared with the age he is now. Even though he looked old on the outside, from a Time Lord perspective, he was little more than a teenager. It’s a fascinating reinterpretation, suggesting that his crotchetiness was not something brought about through age, but rather the whining of a spoiled child. Of course, the production team of the time certainly didn’t see it that way—the Doctor was crotchety because he was a privileged old man, not because he was young and hadn’t grown up yet—but that doesn’t really matter. So much more has been learnt about the Doctor since then that reinterpretations like this help to fit everything into the greater whole. Just as the eleventh Doctor is an old man in a young man (practically a boy)’s body, the first Doctor was a boy in an old man’s body, one not afraid to use his apparent age to his advantage. Of course, even if he was young by Time Lord standards, he was still old by human standards and “All of Gallifrey’s a Stage” doesn’t fail to acknowledge this. Indeed, it suggests that Season Two is when the Doctor finally starts to make use of the wisdom gained over his acquired years—when he finally starts to grow up a little. And this coincides exactly with when the show was starting to soften the Doctor a little, to make him a little less grumpy and a little more likeable.

Another interesting reinterpretation comes in “I Robot, You Sarah Jane: Sexual Politics in Robot” by Kaite Welsh. In particular, Welsh presents the character of Harry Sullivan as a reversal of the typical gender roles in companions: “In essence, he is the traditional idea of the Doctor’s female companion, and flipping the gender roles underscores what a problematic archetype this is.” This reading of the character certainly fits the Harry Sullivan seen on screen and it’s a reading I’m definitely going to apply to future viewings of his stories. Alas, where I think Welsh goes too far is the suggestion that this was actually intended by the production crew of the time, rather than just a happy side-effect. She says, “His function as comic relief also indicates on which side of the battle of the sexes the show places itself, even if this isn’t always borne out in the writing.” It’s well known that Harry was originally conceived as an action character when they thought the new Doctor would be an older man. When Tom Baker was cast, there was no longer any need for action-hero Harry Sullivan, so he was made into a bumbling fool instead. Considering that Terrance Dicks, who wrote “Robot” and thus the template for Harry, will happily state in interviews that he believed the role of the female companion was to be tied up, screaming, and waiting for the Doctor to rescue her, I find it doubtful that Harry Sullivan was a conscious attempt to subvert gender roles. Admittedly, despite his stated views, Terrance Dicks also wrote most of the strongest female characters on the show at the time, so there may well have been a subconscious attempt at it.

Aliete de Bodard takes a wonderfully balanced view of the mid-Tom Baker years in “Robots, Orientalism and Yellowface: Minorities in the Fourteenth Season of Doctor Who”. She acknowledges the problematic portrayals rampant throughout the season while also acknowledging the time in which the shows were made and the good things that came through amidst all the problematic ones. This season, of course, is notable for the story, “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”, a story that is both highly regarded for its powerful storytelling and also justly criticised for its unfortunate racism. De Bodard doesn’t flinch from calling out this story (and other stories in the season) for its mistakes, but also points out its strengths, such as the characterization of Li H’sen Chang (if only he had been played by an actual Chinese actor and not a white man in yellowface). She says of “Talons”:

In fact, watching the story is like watching a train wreck in progress: you can clearly see where the writer was attempting to depart from the Orientalism, but a number of choices, from the lack of “good” Chinese to the alienation of the Chinese as a race, turn the story into a morass of racism. It would be inexcusable in today’s climate to make this kind of story (not that this has stopped some series from trying); but in the context of 1977 and the other shows on television, The Talons of Weng-Chiang is actually more informed and well-meaning than most.

Robots, Orientalism and Yellowface” also draws a neat parallel between the robots of “The Robots of Death” and the fear of the Other. Of course, this is nothing new to science fiction or Doctor Who, so de Bodard isn’t making a novel insight. However, she is pointing out something that is very easily missed and thus, should be pointed out. Many people will watch the story and completely overlook robophobia as being, in de Bodard’s words, “a rather ugly materialization and justification of prejudice bundled into a neat plot point.”

It would, of course, be impossible for me to look at every essay in Chicks Unravel Time in any sort of detail without writing a review almost as long as the book itself. However, I should say that overall, there really isn’t an essay that I don’t like, or find significantly less entertaining or informative. A few of them make one or two points that I disagree with, but with the vast majority of them, I agree with their central theses. The closest I come to outright disagreement with any of them is with “Waiting for the Doctor: The Women of Series Five” by Seanan McGuire, who posits that Amy, River, and other Series Five characters “are strong and they are weak, they are deep and they are shallow, they are flawed in a dozen different ways – they’re people, which is what I always hope for in a fully-realized female character.” Readers of my Doctor Who reviews will know that I don’t view Amy and River as fully-realized characters. But that aside, McGuire makes a number of points that I do agree with, particularly regarding the less-prominent female characters of Series Five.

A few other essays that stand out in my head as ones I particularly like are “Maids and Masters: The Distribution of Power in Doctor Who Series Three” by Courtney Stoker (which totally nails my opinion of Martha and why I think she’s unjustly criticized), “Nimons are Forever” by Liz Barr (which looks at the often-ridiculed Season Seventeen and how the pairing of the fourth Doctor and the second Romana made it work despite its flaws), and “The Women We Don’t See” by K. Tempest Bradford. The latter examines Season Thirteen and, in contrast to “I Robot, You Sarah Jane” and its look at Season Twelve, finds a near-total lack of feminist characters and indeed, women. This is the season where Sarah Jane Smith is frequently not only the only speaking female role, but also the only female at all.

If I had one criticism of Chicks Unravel Time as a whole, it would be that it’s a little too positive in its outlooks. While the essays don’t flinch away from making criticisms, virtually every essay is written by someone who, overall, finds more good than bad in the season. Of course, it’s natural that the majority would be like this. They’re all fans of Doctor Who, after all, and they wouldn’t be fans if they didn’t enjoy the show. However, not all fans are fans of all Doctor Who. There are those who only like the original series and despise the new, or vice versa. There are those who only like one particular Doctor and virtually ignore the rest. In “David Tennant’s Bum”, Laura Mead calls the old series “instant narcolepsy”. I can’t help but feel that it would have been interesting to see her write an essay on the one of early seasons, just to see what came of it. I wouldn’t want to see a whole book of such essays, but an occasional essay by someone who doesn’t like the particular season would have helped round things out a little, I feel.

Still, that’s a minor criticism and if such essays had been included, perhaps those would be the ones that I would now be tearing to shreds in this review. Who can really say? What’s important is that I found Chicks Unravel Time to be a wonderful and entertaining read, even better than the book it follows. It’s opened my eyes to all sorts of new ideas about my favourite television programme—new ideas that, next time I go back to watch old episodes, will help me rediscover them and perhaps see them again as if for the first time.

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