Thursday, December 1, 2011

Doctor Who Meets Sleep Deprivation

I haven't slept much lately. I've slept a bit. I've spent more time trying to sleep than actually sleeping. In other words, I've been awake a lot. And tired. Very, very tired.

So naturally, in my sleep deprived state, I turned to Doctor Who.

I used to do this all the time in high school. I've always had somewhat insomniac tendencies to me, and whenever it got particularly bad, I've noticed, is when I always seem to get back into Doctor Who. I don't know why, it doesn't make much sense, but it seems that the show has become my go to "thing to do when I can't sleep". Granted, even when I'm not experiencing a period of sleeplessness, I still love it. But, there's something about being totally sleep deprived that makes me think "Hey, I should re-watch some Doctor Who."

And so, I did.

On Tumblr recently people have been talking about "things they like that no one else likes." I'm not sure how the topic began, but it seems to have taken the place by storm. I don't usually respond to Tumblr things, because I don't usually write on Tumblr much. I have a blog, it seems somewhat redundant to post long winded things that don't matter in two different places on the internet, so I usually just use Tumblr to reblog pictures I find funny and to read feminist criticisms of DC Comics and Disney movies.

But, of course, because I haven't been sleeping, and because I've been watching so much Doctor Who, it got me thinking. Not really coherently, of course. It's a miracle I can currently string more than one word together as it is. But it got me thinking about things that I like that no one else seems to, or at least, that are fairly conflicted, specifically in Doctor Who. I remember back to when I was massively, unhealthily involved in the Doctor Who fan community, specifically the Outpost Gallifrey forums (which, I believe, have a different name now) where I was constantly reading other peoples' opinions on various episodes, and how I occasionally disagreed, but usually wasn't terribly fussed. I never really spoke much on the forums, I just read. But, with all the debate that went down, and all the controversy over which episode was the greatest piece of speculative fiction ever written, and which was clearly thrown together in the space of an hour, there was one episode that seemed to get it the hardest.

Now, this may have changed. I haven't been on the forums in years, not since before series four. I haven't read any forum posts on the current run of the show, and, to be honest, I don't even know if my account would still work. Maybe there's a new "love it or HATE it" episode that's enraging people, I don't know. But back in high school, when I was knee deep in discussion and fanfiction, the episode that sparked a thousand forum wars was series two's "Love and Monsters"

"Love and Monsters" was an interesting experiment. It was the first of what was to become traditional, one episode per series being "Doctor light" meaning, that it made limited use of the show's primary leads. With the limited screen time of the Doctor and his companion, their actors could be off filming a different episode while simultaneously filming this one, the allowing two episodes to be done at once without overworking the actors. This was done to save money and to get an extra episode out per series.

As with any new idea, the concept of an episode that made limited use of the Doctor was a bit of a gamble, and took some time to perfect. The series three "Doctor light" episode "Blink" is generally considered to be very, very good, and even ended up winning a Hugo award. Series four threw the formula for a bit of a loop and had one episode that was "Doctor light" but "Companion centric" and one that was "Companion light" and "Doctor centric", and both episodes are strong contenders for my favorite new series episode of all time.

But though everyone grew to like the formula, some even looking forward to what they would do with it this time, there was always that controversial first one, "Love and Monsters". Despite being significant, the episode is not commonly remembered fondly. I remember there being a discussion about Russel T. Davies' writing on the forums and someone commenting that they "liked the guy, liked his writing, but there was no excuse for Love and Monsters" People just didn't know what to do with it.

Here's a quick summary: A man named Elton (not the funny sunglasses one) keeps a video blog documenting his encounters with extraterrestrial activities, in particular, the time he came downstairs as a child and saw the Doctor standing in his living room. We follow him as he makes friends, falls in love, runs into monsters, and eventually gets his mystery solved. The entire episode is an examination of the lives of the people the Doctor leaves behind, those whose lives he touches but who never really get the full story.

I adore this episode. I think it's beautiful. While it may not be the epitome of "Sci-Fi" it is a gorgeous example of character writing. Every character is fleshed out and interesting. Every one is clearly separate, and defined. The friends that Elton makes are all people whose lives have been touched by the Doctor in someway, and though initially that is the only reason they meet up and band together, we get to watch as their relationship evolves into legitimate friendship, as their meetings to discuss the Doctor become less about the Doctor, and more about simply being with each other.

The group is a bit of an affectionate parody of Doctor Who fans, people who are quirky and excitable and drawn to this one subject, but who are also generally sweet, normal people with all sorts of talents and interests. The villain of the piece, an alien disguised as a ruthless man called Victor Kennedy, is representative of the small, terrible minority of fans who seem to only exist to suck the fun out of fandom. He shows up, tells them they're not serious enough, and forces them to use their meetings for nothing more than hard work. He takes their passion, which they had been using as an inspiration for art, for writing, and as an outlet for social interaction, and morphs it into serious, hard work.

One of the major complains was that the villain's true form, a cartoonish green creature called the "Absorbaloff" was too ridiculous and stupid, but really, when it comes down to it, the episode wasn't about him. The episode was about the relationships between people and the complete craziness of life, and the fact that he was ridiculous and cartoony only served to make the final outcome more absurd, and because of that, more tragic. A big theme is Elton's loss of control over his life, it's literally crashing down around him, and a lot of that is due to the completely absurd things he finds happening to him. The episode would lose something if the villain was more traditionally intimidating, because, as a viewer, this is what we find normal. There is nothing absurd about a traditionally intimidating villain victimizing someone, the character will find it odd, but the audience will be comfortable and accepting of it. Having a truly ridiculous villain, that not only the character but the audience itself finds absurd, forces the audience to really feel the complete ridiculousness of the character's situation, thus making the absurdity and tragedy of the story even more poignant.

It's kind of like Brecht. But with prosthetic, green monsters.

I particularly love the scene with Rose's mother Jackie. Rose was the Doctor's companion at the time, and was only about my age. Her mother was only ever seen when Rose went home, and though she did get a good deal of character development from those episodes, it is in "Love and Monsters" that we finally get to see her when she's left alone. We see her pain and her worry; the fact that she literally has no idea where her only daughter is, only that she could be anywhere in the most dangerous corners of time and space. We see how devastated she is, and how lonely she, but also how fiercely protective she is of both her daughter and the Doctor.

Her subplot revolves around Victor Kennedy sending Elton to infiltrate her life to get information on Rose. Eventually, Jackie and Elton become good friends, Elton genuinely enjoying spending time with her. She tries to seduce him, at one point, but then admits that she was being stupid and that she was only doing it because she was lonely. Elton realizes then that he is in love with someone else, his friend Ursula, but that he values Jackie as a friend, and offers her a pizza and movie night.

Things seem to be going great, until he returns with the pizza to find a very livid Jackie who has just found a picture of Rose in his jacket pocket. This scene in particular is exceptional. Jackie takes a moment to yell at Elton, pointing out that it's never her, that it hurts to be left behind, and that despite all of this, she will protect her daughter and the Doctor until the ends of the Earth. Her monologue is beautifully written, and very well acted, and it forces you to look at Jackie in a whole new light.

In the end, of course, the Doctor and Rose show up and the monster is defeated. Elton finally gets his mystery solved, and despite having lost everything, manages to find peace. His final line to the camera is, honestly, one of my favorite quotes off all time:

"When you're a kid, they tell you it's all 'grow up. Get a job. Get married. Get a house. Have a kid, and that's it.' But the truth is, the world is so much stranger than that. It's so much darker. And so much madder. And so much better."

Like Jackie defending the Doctor and Rose until the ends of the Earth, I will defend this episode. Yes, it's atypical, yes, it's got some strange, cartoony elements to it, and yes, it's not exactly hard science fiction. But that doesn't stop it from being beautiful. While it's not a bitter deconstruction of everything Doctor Who is, like series four's "Midnight", it is a decidedly different look at the show, it's mythos, and it's fans. I realize a lot of people didn't quite get it, but to those who didn't, maybe you should take another look.

And that, to answer Tumblr, is what I love that everyone else seems to hate. If you haven't seen it, check it out. I'm going to try to get some sleep.