Lurky McLurklurk (ionlylurkhere) wrote,
Lurky McLurklurk

Special Knowledge in Doctor Who

parrotfish made a very good point about one of the themes of new school Who and its spinoffs (minor Torchwood 2x11 spoilers). This started life as a comment, but it got overlong so I added in more explanation of why I feel the way I do and here it is as a post:

To recap in case you didn't want to click: parrotfish said that in new school, "special knowledge is a painful, destructive burden, and that heroes are people who take on the burden of knowing. It sets them apart from 'regular' people and forces on them a lonely destiny."

Which I think is a very cogent analysis, and it chimes with one of the things that's always troubled me: the elitism of new-school Team TARDISes and the consequent treatment of the "non-special" characters as something between baggage and lol-fodder (Mickey initally, everyone up to and including Queen Victoria in Tooth and Claw, Julia Swales who only I still remember the name of, etc.). It also ties in interestingly with the treatment of Adam who did the "wrong thing" with the special knowledge (out of a combination of greed -- which I think was what they were actually aiming at with that one -- and the fact that unlike Martha he hadn't watched enough time travel films).

But for all that it's cogent, it makes me terribly sad.

I may have banged on about this repeatedly mentioned this before, but one of the things I love about Doctor Who is that the worldview it portrays is, generally, very much a scientific one. The Doctor is quite often portrayed very specifically as a scientist hero (normally when he's fighting a plague, as it happens), rather than just a hero who knows science. And more importantly, the universe he lives in is portrayed as being susceptible to being understood by the scientific method of making hypotheses and collecting evidence to test them against. (Except when it's not. But as we've established I close my eyes and go "la la la" during those bits and try hard not to hate RTD afterwards.) The actual science of the Doctor Who universe bears precious little relation to ours -- it's skience, made of rubber and bits of string from the Doctor's pockets, but within the story it operates by the same methods as work in our universe. (And let's not forget that it so often explains things that appear supernatural on their faces.)

And it's impossible to square any of that science theme with the new school theme that knowledge isn't for everyone. Science is all about making new knowledge and sharing it. It isn't in the slightest bit elitist in the fundamentals of its operation. It's often seen as elitist, but when it's working (it doesn't always, it's a human enterprise [or rather a whole overlapping set of them], so of course it's fallible in all sorts of terribly human ways) it's actually massively and wonderfully democratic. It only works through sharing results and repeating each other's experiments and peer review.

Now, the thing is, there is secret knowledge in Doctor Who, there has to be if they're going to do stories in the "present day" and have it even slightly recognisable{*}, but in old school the suggestion was always that we were all of us capable of coping with the secret knowledge if we chose to open our minds enough. In new school you apparently have to have some sort of special power (that the Doctor can instantly recognise) before you can begin to find out about it safely. The audience is obviously meant to identify with the people who've got it, but that's just boiling down to a slightly less offensive version of the adolescent power fantasy, the usual lack of which is one of the things that sets Who apart from a lot of other SF.

{*} And yet ironically new school very often has "nothing can ever be the same again" incontrovertible proof of aliens OMG stuff, which it then resets. But I've moaned about that before.

But fighting against my feelings about all this is the fact that in general I love the whole thing, which I'm going to label as "Lovecraftian" for want of a term, where "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, and the fact that you can't even dream of them means that when you meet them face to face you will lose all your Sanity Points" which is what we got fairly explicitly in Adrift. I do. I love it to bits. It's the counterpoint to that CS Lewis "SF is the only mind expanding drug" thing. But the response of the characters should be "well, then, we will use science to learn how to dream of them and teach everyone else, and then this won't happen", not "OMG I can never tell anyone, my special knowledge makes me so emo".

Look at the Ace trilogy for a perfect example of knowledge treated right (and importantly, that's the last bit of old school there is -- this isn't one of those things where the new series is picking up trends that were headed in that direction anyway). It's all about the Doctor giving Ace enough knowledge about her past to put her various traumas into the proper perspective. But there's no suggestion that he's only doing it because she's a Special Person who can cope with that sort of thing. And she ends it less emo, not more. Knowledge is liberating. (Er, OK, Light is broken by knowledge, but only because he refused to open his mind. And it's not exactly great that Ace tells Judson and Fenric the answers, but look at her glee at figuring things out and her need to share what she's discovered with whoever's around. That's the sort of thing I'm talking about. That's why I love the moment in my icon.)

And where's new school's equivalent of characters like Binro the Heretic, huh?

Very belatedly, it occurs to me what "the special people have the secret knowledge and deliberately lie to the masses for their own good" reminds me of: Straussian neoconservatism.

(Two rants on a day when I was contemplating not posting at all, huh.)
Tags: doctor who, meta
  • Post a new comment


    default userpic
    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.