(reprints from old DTM with a new bit at the end)
Modern Mythic: Tom Baker and Sarah Michelle Gellar (2007)
Doctor Who initially ran from 1963 to 1989. The popular reboot began in 2005. Discussing the show’s entire history from 1963 to 2007 has gotten complicated, so my shorthand designations are:
Doctor Who = the complete older show that ran from 1963 to 1989
new Who = the current series
TB = the years that Tom Baker played the Doctor
This essay is only about TB. My “expertise” was acquired while still in elementary school: The most important event in my day was getting home by 4:30 to watch a half-hour episode on PBS. Eventually, in fifth grade, I took second-place in the Chicago Doctor Who Convention Costume Contest as the Doctor. I won as Baker’s predecessor Jon Pertwee, because I didn’t feel worthy enough to imitate Tom Baker.
After getting serious about music, I turned my back on Doctor Who. But one can’t disregard one’s formative experiences. In my early-twenties, prompted by my first trip to England, I rediscovered the show and started collecting the videotapes. I thought this was just harmless nostalgia, of course. Surely I was now too old to ever form a significant relationship with another fantastical television series…
Hah. Ten years later, my wife showed me an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, and I was instantly hooked.
The shows are very different.
++ TB is a kids’ show (although it has a major adult following). BTVS is for teens and up.
++ TB is firmly science fiction/space opera, and BTVS is firmly fantasy/supernatural. There is a TB that is about vampires (“State of Decay”), but it also involves space ships and takes place on a far-away planet. There is a BTVS that involves an alien (“Listening to Fear”), but it is called to earth by a local god.
++TB is not the product of any one imagination, but BTVS was created and overseen by Joss Whedon.
++ While there are companions who travel with the Doctor in the TARDIS, there is no one as remotely important to the plot as the Doctor. In BTVS, Buffy is surrounded by friends and enemies who get their own important story arcs.
++TB is English, and BTVS is American.
++TB is formatted as half-hour episodes that make up two- to six-part serials. BTVS is made up of 45 minute episodes that, while usually complete in themselves, end up being part of the longer soap-opera of the season. All seven seasons of BTVS also comprise an arc. This is not the case with TB with the exception of its 5th year, the Key to Time.
While there are also countless other differences, large and small, between the shows, there are also a surprising amount of similarities. As far as I know I’m the first to anthologize them:
++ Both TB and BTVS ran for seven seasons: TB from 1974 to 1982 and BTVS from 1997 to 2003.
++ The first three years of TB were produced by Philip Hinchcliffe, and the look and feel of the show was very consistent. In year four there was a new producer, Graham Williams, and the show opened up a bit, at times uncertainly. Many TB fans would consider the first three years “the classic years.”
Likewise, the first three years of BTVS took place at a high school. Joss Whedon was the hands-on producer at all times, and the look and feel of the show was very consistent. In year four BTVS changed networks, Whedon began looking after the spin-off Angel as well, the characters were now at college without the same place to go to every day, and the show opened up a bit, at times uncertainly. Most BTVS fans would consider the first three years “the classic years.”
++ Season six of TB has a lot of broad humor installed by the new script editor Douglas Adams (author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). The sci-fi genre is made fun of in sophisticated ways.
Likewise, season six of BTVS has a lot of broad humor from the Trio, spoofing nerd culture. The fantasy genre is made fun of in sophisticated ways.
Certain fans are incensed by this humor, and really hate Douglas Adams or the Trio for their lack of respect. I have always enjoyed the fun, and certainly find it infinitely preferable to the cheerlessness of the last season:
++ Humor vanishes in both shows’ final year. It’s a grim trudge to the end, often with a new level of incoherence in the story line and a rather sudden and desperate proliferation of new characters (Adric, Tegan, and Nyssa in TB, the potentials in BTVS).
TB was made when the BBC brimmed with wonderful, blue-collar entertainment talent. They could make something out of nothing, and nothing was what they often had to work with.
BTVS is comparatively high-budget and glossy. Indeed, I thought I wouldn’t like BTVS because it was next door to teen soaps like The O. C. or Dawson’s Creek. That’s not true. Whenever there is a too much sentimental romance, a howling, vicious vampire will burst on to the set and the Slayer will draws her stake and kill.
Probably an independent observer would judge BVTS as the greater show overall. However, in the heart and mind of this author, TB does manage some kind of ineffable magic (a magic admittedly based in nostalgia) that puts it on the same playing field.
From Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text by John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado, “Send up: Authorship and Organization”:
The disagreement over audiences and dramatic values between [Graham] Williams and [John] Nathan-Turner itself raised quite dramatically the ways in which an institution like Doctor Who can vary according to different production and professional practices. This chapter will look at ways in which variations within professional ideology materially affect production practices; and further, at ways in which professional values that are ostensibly identical can themselves be inflected differently according to pressure from within and outside the television industry.
From the anthology Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale, “Brownskirts: Fascism, Christianity, and the Eternal Demon” by Neal King:
The quasi-fascist philosophy that justifies Buffy’s slaying concerns me in my next discussion. I will outline the show’s cosmology and by doing so, set up my imaginary Buffyverse, just to make my point about the show’s potential for fascism. I conclude with a better solution to this problem, one that stretches credulity less and eliminates the show’s nasty streak of racism. The important characteristics of the existing Buffyverse that prime it for fascism include elements of a Manichean racism (tempered by an Augustinian division of the world’s evils), adherence to primal and state authority, and formation of citizenship in ritual combat. I consider these in turn.
If you want to keep me out of your hair, just give me a new book of TB or BTVS analysis.
While The Unfolding Text is mostly held back by overly turgid prose, that chapter is one of the most interesting things I have ever read. Douglas Adams is interviewed extensively in counterpoint with producers Graham Williams and John Nathan-Turner, and it gets quite gritty and revealing.
As far as Buffy and fascism goes, I have never studied philosophy. Those who have will undoubtedly protest that I need to actually read Augustine for real…
…but that is just not going to happen. Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale is the closest that I am ever going to get.
I’d love to read a book that took a serious look at the acting performances of Tom Baker and Sarah Michelle Gellar.
Similarities between the stars:
++ While neither was famous at the time of landing their roles, they were both seasoned acting professionals. Baker, 30 at the start of season one, had played many stage roles like Macbeth and had one important movie credit, the villain in Ray Harryhausen’s The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Gellar, while only 19 at the beginning of BTVS, had been acting since the age of four and won an Emmy for her work on All My Children.
++ They both were divas, especially after the shows proved popular.
++ They were both the ones to call a halt to production. While there are conflicting stories about Baker, it seems reasonably certain that he said to the producer, “Don’t you think it is time for a new Doctor already?” (Whether he expected his bluff to be called is unclear.) Regardless, at the time, the British press were told that Baker wanted to move on.
In the American press, it was made clear that the decision to end BTVS was Gellar’s.
++ After the series were over, both would refuse to do more with the show, at least at first. “The Five Doctors” had make do with outtakes of Baker from a previous episode and a mannequin from Madame Tussauds.
The 100th episode of Angel, “You’re Welcome,” was initially written to conclude the Buffy/Angel story, but then Gellar pulled out.
While we are told that both were simply too busy to participate, it is ridiculous to think that Baker or Gellar couldn’t have made time to do these small but meaningful projects if they had wanted to.
The main thing about both of them however, is this:
++ They transmit their character in a pure, natural fashion. Whenever they are on screen, the viewer can relax. Both actors take whatever the production crew has thrown at them that week in stride. Their total commitment keeps the viewer from disengaging.
After all, like all television ever made, these two shows have a constant collection of flaws and blemishes. Even in the best television shows, there is just not enough time and money to get it all right. The star needs to carry the day.
TB can flag when Baker isn’t there to move it along.
In BTVS, the situation is much more complicated, since there is so much invested in every character. Indeed, many consider the “multiple character story arcs” one of the most innovative and important aspects of BTVS. (Ironically, New Who emulates many details of BTVS, including giving the Doctor’s companions their own story arcs.) The group casting of Alyson Hannigan for Willow, Nicholas Brendon for Xander, and Anthony Head for Giles was wonderfully fortuitous. Whedon justifiably called them, along with Gellar, the “core four.”
Overall, the person with the harder gig is Gellar. Baker simply needs to be a genial madman, first eating a jelly baby and then furiously accusing an alien of attempted genocide. Gellar needs to reach much deeper. She has to be (among other things) a perky girl, a lover, the bereaved, a seer, and, of course, a fighter.
One of the most telling Gellar performances is in “I Will Remember You,” from the spin-off show Angel. I accept David Boreanaz. He’s fine. The idea of him taking a vampiric place in the long line of “brooding Los Angeles private eyes” on Angel was solid.
But compared to Gellar, Boreanaz is average. On “I Will Remember You,” Buffy and Angel reprise their usual double-act of heartbreak and demon destroying. Gellar is phenomenal, going from stern ass-kicking to goofy immaturity to mushy love to further ass-kicking and, at last, deep heartbreak.
Seeing this episode made me realize I was not going to keep watching Angel. Television needs the power of a star to keep me interested, and Boreanaz is just not that kind of star.
According to my rough calculations, there are about 70 hours of TB. My favorite Baker performances include:
Ark In Space A desperate, almost action-movie type of performance
Genesis of the Daleks Even Baker-haters love him in this one. When he gives Davros the history of the Daleks, his voice is chilling
Pyramid of Mars Casual callousness, a genuine alien
The Deadly Assassin Poking fun at stuffy home planet Gallifrey, plus getting tortured in a vivid dream
The Talons of Weng-Chiang Baker imitates Sherlock Holmes. Racist but great
The Stones of Blood The debate with the interstellar jailers is superb
City of Death 10 out of 10. Perhaps best intro to TB for a newbie
State of Decay The presence of old-timers Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks means that this story is by far the best in the otherwise disappointing last season. Baker responds beautifully
Logopolis The last serial has a weak story and weak companions. However, Baker is absolutely King Lear
According to my rough calculations, there are about 108 hours of BTVS. My favorite Gellar performances include:
Prophecy Girl Vulnerable and invincible
Innocence A bad morning and death everywhere
Homecoming Pure bitch-fest with Cordelia
The Wish The alternative universe episodes allow Gellar to shine
The Zeppo The greatest meta-TV I’ve ever seen puts Buffy on the sidelines in favor of Xander; still, the Gellar scenes have the juice, too
The Prom The normal girl and the heroine in dialogue
Hush Powerful acting by all concerned, with far fewer lines to deliver than usual
Fool for Love In James Marsters, Gellar has someone who can actually threaten to steal a scene from her. But the Slayer triumphs
The Body As shocking as TV gets
Once More, With Feeling The greatest episode of TV ever broadcast? Gellar is not the best singer of the cast, but her segments are among the most moving
Normal Girl Again, the alternative universe episodes allow Gellar to shine
The slightly sombre coda to this celebration is the guarded assertion that these were Baker’s and Gellar’s best roles. Baker is now over seventy, and while he has done plenty of work since TB, none of it is immortal. Gellar is of course much younger, and has already starred in some high-profile movies (she’s good in them, too). However, there really hasn’t been something with the electric charge of BTVS for her yet.
It probably doesn’t matter if neither ever gets a genre-defining role again. They both were called to duty, “chosen” not unlike Buffy Summers herself. They should be honored as the caretakers of our modern myths.
Far Out in the Uncharted Backwaters of the Unfashionable End of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy (2009)
Televideo is a valuable analgesic for those incessantly on tour. Consuming pop culture about 15 years too late to be of much commonplace social use is a frequent “strategy” of mine: For much of 2009, I have been watching Chris Carter’s celebrated The X-Files with pleasure. iTunes vended me the first four seasons. It’s been a great ride, but I think I’m done: I don’t need to watch the next five series or see the movies.
I’m quitting because the mytharc is becoming too prominent. The Cigarette Smoking Man? Blah. I’ve already been tempted to skip episodes when William B. Davis is credited as guest. That big story – which I understand runs through all nine seasons and the movie, too – has already stretched to the point of logical nonsense. In coming seasons, there will surely be even more reversals and revelations to strain credulity even further.
Apparently, some of the hardcore fans love the mytharc, going so far as to watch those episodes all in a row, skipping the standalone “monster of the week” stories. But for me, the standalone episodes are the reason to watch The X-Files.
Television requires star power. A weekly show will always suffer from budget and time constraints. But we don’t need perfection if we get to watch a cherished hero do new stuff every week. In the X-Files, we have not just one hero, but two: Scully and Mulder. They are just so great. Two of the prettiest humans (Wendy Lewis pointed out to me how attractive just their mouths are; we could watch just the mouths forever) with mellifluous voices are placed in government suits and badges and exhibit deliberately square acting styles.
I’d happily listen to an audio-only mix-tape of Scully and Mulder technical discussions and expositional info-dumps. From “2Shy”:
SCULLY: It’s a metacarpal from Lauren MacKalvey’s hand. In life, bones have the tensile strength of forged iron. Even in death, they remain strong. But look at this. (she squishes the finger with a clamp)
MULDER: (referring to the vial of slime) What did this turn out to be?
SCULLY: It’s organic. Mostly hydrochloric acid similar to what is secreted by the gastric mucosa.
MULDER: It’s similar to stomach acid?
SCULLY: Almost identical, only twice as acidic. I also found trace amounts of pepsin, which is a digestive enzyme.
MULDER: So you’re saying that this did that?
SCULLY: I don’t know how else to explain such accelerated autolysis.
MULDER: (pointing at the remains in the drawer) What’s in here, Scully? Theoretically it should contain the same cellular components as her various tissues—skin, muscle, blood …
SCULLY: In some broken-down form, yes.
MULDER: In the results of your chemical analysis did you find anything missing?
SCULLY: (looks at him strangely) Missing?
SCULLY: I don’t think so. (looks at chart) All the body tissues were accounted for …. except there were extremely low almost trace amounts of adipose.
MULDER: Fatty tissue. That could explain the weight discrepancy.
SCULLY: What weight discrepancy?
MULDER: The ME recorded Lauren’s weight at 122 but her driver’s license had her at 165.
SCULLY: She probably lost weight since the license was issued.
MULDER: No, actually Lauren’s roommate said she was quite nervous about meeting this guy because she put on some weight recently.
SCULLY: (stumped) What possible motivation could the killer have for removing his victim’s fatty tissue? I mean, who do you think we’re dealing with here?
MULDER: I don’t know.
Again, it is how Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny deliver this nonsense that makes it so wonderful. (I mean “nonsense” with love: this is really a very solid episode written by Jeffrey Vlaming.)
The mytharc episodes promote sentimental backstory at the expense of unruffled surface. Scully and Mulder’s personal involvement in conspiracy and extreme possibility is dangled in front of the viewer. Rather than making me more curious, I get bored. Dream sequences, abducted sisters, cancerous lesions, personal vendettas, go away! I want the sexy robots who are good with guns back.
The mytharc’s nadir so far was the crass hijacking of Native American spirituality in the interlinked episodes connecting seasons two and three. Mulder’s pretentious dream-musings while being saved by chanting tribesmen? Unforgivable. Mulder is not “spiritual,” he is a pod.
Going ethnic is usually wrong for the X-Files, anyway. The white worlds of medicine, the army, suburbia, business, etc. are the milieus where the show is most successful. Bland backdrops show Scully and Mulder in their most subversive light. We keep looking at them, wondering what is really going on. When we aren’t told too much about them, they are engagingly mysterious.
A lot of the best episodes of the X-Files have as much darkness, suspense, and terror as I’ve seen on mainstream TV. This is why I watch the show, of course.
But a few episodes jumped out as being not just suspenseful but credibly humorous, besides. A quick internet search revealed all: Darin Morgan was the writer of many of my favorite stories.
Morgan’s history with the show is intriguing: he began by playing one of the series’s most memorable monsters, the Flukeman. Then he wrote “Humbug,” “Clyde Bruckman,” “War of the Coprophages,” and “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space.” He concluded his relationship with the show onscreen as the humble villain in season four’s finest episode, “Small Potatoes” (written by Vince Gilligan, another of the show’s best writers, and the man responsible for Breaking Bad).
There’s a good article on Morgan by Jonathan Kirby at Popmatters which summarizes Morgan’s importance. He’s got dry humor, spectacular command of meta, and an ability to generate dialogue which actors clearly love to speak, usually by allowing the stars to be even weirder than usual.
Scully eats a cricket in “Humbug,” cleans her clothes and gun in “Coprohages,” and is a fanboy of thriller writers in “Chung.” These details don’t sentimentalize Scully: she’s still mysterious perfection. Morgan just makes her an even more interesting mysterious perfection.
I began watching The X-Files because I’d read how influential it was to my favorite show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I regard the “final” episode of Buffy to be the musical, “Once More With Feeling.” I acknowledge that there are good stories after that in season six, and that there are even memorable episodes of season seven. But the final song (and line) of “Once More With Feeling” is “Where Do We Go From Here?” This open-ended question is where I want to end Buffy, before that show implodes under a too-weighty mytharc.
Now with the X-Files, I declare the “final” episode of the show to be “Small Potatoes” from season four. I don’t want to watch the grueling series of surprises and ham-fisted tying-off-of-knots sure to come. I want my last image to be Eddie Blundht (played by Darin Morgan) dressing down Fox Mulder. For all his obvious unattractiveness, Blundht is a “normal guy” who therefore has more success with girls than Fox Mulder:
EDDIE: I just think it’s funny. I was born a loser, but you’re one by choice.
MULDER: On what do you base that astute assessment?
EDDIE: Experience. (Eddie leans forward) You should live a little. Treat yourself. God knows I would if I were you.
(Mulder gets up and leaves. Scully is in the hallway. She has watched and heard the conversation on a TV monitor. He signs out with the guard.)
GUARD: Good day, sir.
(They walk down the hall together, neither looking very happy. Scully’s arms are folded, but then she unfolds them and puts her hands in her coat pockets. Mulder is fiddling with his sleeves and looking down at the floor as he walks.)
SCULLY: I don’t imagine you need to be told this Mulder, but you’re not a loser.
MULDER: Yeah, but I’m no Eddie Van Blundht, either. Am I?
I’m in Manchester, England at the moment, and will pick up the new Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy book tomorrow since it came out yesterday. I’m against this thing on principle (can’t Douglas Adams lie in his grave in peace?), but I guess I’ll have to at least take a look.
A friend sent me this very excellent article on 30 years of Hitchhiking by Jenny Turner, which I endorse in every regard.
One of the wonderful things about the BBC TV version of HG2G is how it stops before it’s own mytharc gets bloated. At the end of the televideo, there are still as many questions left as answers given.
Unfortunately, that’s not really true of the books: While there are brilliant passages in Life, the Universe, and Everything and the following two volumes, the first two books (and the material of the televideo) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe are the immortal displays of effortlessly spun gold.
In the sequels one begins to see the seams and the recycling. I cannot believe that there is a fan out there that really approves of how Adams “ties-off-the-knots” at the end of the depressing Mostly Harmless. That’s the real appeal of Eoin Colfer’s sequel: to see if there is life after death after all.
However, Adams’s knot-tying in Mostly Harmless is infinitely more acceptable than the gross violation perpetuated by the Hollywood movie, which ties the knots off so completely and happily that the greatest surrealist dark-humored sci-fi work in history is rendered as what? A romantic comedy!?! The producers should have been fed to the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal.
Before HG2G, Adams spent a season as script editor for Doctor Who. He even contributed one of the most beloved stories of the era, “City of Death.” My own personal “arc” in the 1980’s was not unique to a certain kind of geeky American boy, one who loved early, “scary” Tom Baker Who around 8-9 yrs; loved Adams-era “funny” Baker Who at 10-11; and loved the BBC TV HG2G at 12-13. It was a logical progression.
I’ve finally checked in with the wildly successful Who reboot. (Televideo is a valuable analgesic for those incessantly on tour…) It’s a lot better than I feared, and David Tennant is an authentic TV star. However, Tennant is leaving, and so is Russell Davies, the mind behind the coup.
The good news is that Davies is being replaced by Stephen Moffat, who wrote several of the best episodes of new Who. But I’m worried that this show is suffering under the weight of too much mytharc, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files. Let’s hope Moffat senses the danger and just promotes great new plots for his first season, refraining from digging for more backstory and connecting links to every character that ever was on the show, etc., etc.
I was reminded of Moffat’s “Blink” (season three Doctor Who) last week when watching Howard Gordon and David Greenwalt’s “Synchrony” (season four The X-Files; Greenwalt also wrote several of my favorite episodes of Buffy). Both episodes deal with time travel and its uncomfortable paradoxes. Both superbly show how limitless genre entertainment can be in the hands of the right technicians.
Darin Morgan; Stephen Moffatt; David Greenwalt; Howard Gordon; Vince Gilligan. I began this rambling post by praising TV stars, and its true I tune in to see Gillian Anderson, David Duchnovy, David Tennant, and Sarah Michelle Gellar give me a thrill. But it’s the technicians – technicians of the sacred, really, the witnesses of the heroes – who give the stars the fuel to entertain us. A cup of Douglas Adams-brewed tea raised to them, those writers who never get the name recognition accorded those who are lucky enough to speak their lines.
Don’t Even Blink (2010)
(The following was just written to follow up on the above)
Regrettably, Steven Moffat did not take Doctor Who in a less sentimental and overblown direction, but rather the reverse. The only thing I really like about the recent season is Matt Smith as the Doctor. He’s great.
How sad that the Weeping Angels of Moffat’s previous success “Blink” have become a part of the current season’s mightily emotional mytharc in such a banal way. In “Blink,” the Angels were a superb one-off. Part of what made them unusual was how they never apologized or explained anything. They also didn’t kill anybody. Now, in “The Time of Angels” and “Flesh and Stone,” the Angels not only talk, but even taunt the Doctor while breaking neck after neck of fearful human victims.
I wonder what that old technician of the sacred, Terrance Dicks, thinks of the current show? Dicks kept his characters more or less within the frame of possibility. Now the Doctor is a superhero who solves everything through magic, fantasy, and soulless CGI. Probably Dicks can’t speak up, but another Terrence, writer Terry Pratchett, has, in a blog post that was roundly condemned by Who fandom. I heartily endorse Pratchett’s criticism – and also his capitulation with the inevitable: “I will watch again next week… After all, when you’ve had your moan you have to admit that it is very, very entertaining, with its heart in the right place.”