The Who Yorker?

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I fussily read The New Yorker in chronological order. New issues of the venerable magazine go to the bottom of the occasionally hefty pile, awaiting their turn behind older, as yet unread issues.

In an event almost as rare as the Transit of Venus, I recently jumped an issue to the top of the queue, ahead of some that had been waiting, patiently, for a month or more. But then, the “Science Fiction” issue demands no less, in particular a short piece by Emily Nussbaum focusing on Doctor Who (“Fantastic Voyage,” June 4 & 11, 2012).

Nussbaum looks at notions of fandom in arc-based genre television, or “cult fanhood,” as she puts it, through the lens of Doctor Who. My interest, though, is with a specific point she makes about the use of time travel as a literary device in the original and new iterations of the show:

The old “Doctor Who” dealt with time primarily as a mode of transportation: it jumped in a linear fashion, usually no more than one adventure per series. On the new “Who,” time travel is a philosophical and an emotional challenge: it braids together flashbacks, alternate realities, and so on, exploring with poetic verve some truly wrenching themes of mortality and loss.

Nussbaum’s point was timely (no pun intended), given my recent analysis of “The Space Museum,” which explores time travel as a philosophical phenomenon rather than a pneumatic tube shuttling the Doctor and his companions from place to place. I don’t seek to quibble here, as she points out that she’s not lifelong Whovian; rather, I tend to agree in broad terms that time travel, especially in the early stages of the series, remains a plot device in Doctor Who rather than an integrally woven element of the drama itself.

What time travel does, however, in the early stories, is begin to weave together a continuity, a coherent world that remains invisible to casual viewers yet imparts the very sense of fanhood that Nussbaum attributes to shows with multi-episode arcs. After a point, the fan assembles a timeline of the Doctor’s existence through asides and seemingly throw-away lines: he’s met historical figures, visited previously unmentioned planets, remembers past visits to locales in the current story, and so on. The Doctor’s ability to have been anywhere, anywhen, via time travel layers the show from its earliest days with the complex nuance that drives fandom.

The First Doctor and Susan by willhowells on flickr.com via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivatives License

Without continuity, there is no fandom. It’s important that the First Doctor wields his walking stick from “Marco Polo” throughout his tenure, without its being implicitly mentioned; its continued existence in the show remains necessary on the level of continuity. The characters, the world, had a past and will have a future. Continuity signals to the careful viewer that the creators of the show—the actors, writers, producers, directors, set and costume designers—care deeply about the world the show brings to life, that contemplation will be rewarded with insight. When a show promises continuity and then fails to deliver on it (see Lost), fans who have devoted time and energy to following the show feel slighted.

The use of time travel in early Doctor Who functions as an important literary element of the show, because it is used to further the creation (and maintenance) of a living world: no matter where in time the Doctor travels, no matter how convoluted the timeline gets, he still has his cane (or his scarf or, ah, celery stick).

(Image courtesy of willhowells via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivatives License)

From Europe With Love: The Eurovision Song Contest

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Anthony Lane, writing in the June 28, 2010 issue of The New Yorker, visits one of those peculiarly European spectacles, the kind one points to when thinking of what Europe, as an entity distinct from its individual nation states, means: The Eurovision Song Contest.

The music that Eurovision honors and enshrines is the music you still hear from one corner of Europe to the other. […] But here’s the rub: European pop sounds like Eurovision pop even when it’s not from the Eurovision Song Contest. The stuff you hear in the back of Belgian taxis, on German radio, in Sicilian bars, and in the lobbies of Danish hotels: it was all created by the great god of dreck, and Eurovision is his temple.

(Anthony Lane, “Only Mr. God Knows Why,” The New Yorker, June 28, 2010, subscription only)

Yes, it is that bad, as anyone who has sat though an installment of the annual contest can attest. And yet, Eurovision remains absurdly compelling viewing and listening. It’s pop, to be sure, but it’s distinctly European pop, tinged by yet disparate from American or British pop.

Fans Inside Telenor Arena, Eurovision Song Contest 2010 by SQFreak on flickr.com, via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike License.

The quality of the music isn’t the point so much, really. Eurovision is like an international musical sporting event, the Olympics of High Camp, complete with voting along regional blocs and ringers brought in from other countries to help your chances, there being no residency requirements to be a country’s entry.

Countries could certainly spend a fortune to bring in hired talent with real pop pedigrees, but they don’t. For all the pseudo-English sung at this event, there’s national pride at stake—no, not pride. National spirit, national joie de vivre. It’s infectious, and it brings the countries of Europe together in a contest that has little to no negativity or even competitiveness. Watch it once and you’ll remember it forever. Like it or not.

If you spend any appreciable time in Europe, you can’t avoid Eurovision. Having spent several formative years in Norway during the early- to mid-1980s, I was exposed to Eurovision right at the point where my musical tastes were beginning to coalesce. Those who know me point to this as a reason for (in their sadly near-universal assessment) my terrible taste in music. They’re wrong, of course—Toto IV is, truly, one of the finest albums ever—but I owe my predilections to the very first cassette tape I ever bought.

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Hero Worship?

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The September 1, 2008, issue of The New Yorker is just packed with superhero references, each of which presupposes some knowledge of the genre on the reader’s part.

Ariel Levy’s profile of fashion designer Marc Jacobs (“Enchanted”) name-drops four alter egos:

He looks like a cartoon superhero: muscular, bronzed, shining with diamonds. And he has accomplished the comic-book feat of transforming himself from hardworking Everyman (Bruce Banner, Clark Kent, Peter Parker) into something elevated and different and not merely human.

[…]

Jacobs doesn’t have a butler like Bruce Wayne’s Alfred Pennyworth, but he does have a chef . . .

Perhaps the reader isn’t expected to know which superhero corresponds to which alter ego, the reference to alter egos being sufficient to cast Jacobs as someone who has transformed his image as surely as if he had slid down the Bat Pole and phoned the Boy Wonder for a crime-fighting date.

Batman and Robin, by iambigred, via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial License.

The same issue contains another, more subtle reference to a superhero and his alter ego. Sasha Frere-Jones, in “Sex and Sermons,” plays off the nearness of a singer’s stage name to that of a green-skinned hero in the cinemas of late:

Calling yourself David Banner—a mild-mannered alter ego of the Incredible Hulk—makes perfect sense for a big, six-foot-three man from Jackson, Mississippi, who has scored club hits with crude, elemental songs about sex …

Here, the reader is expected to know that Bruce Banner is the alter ego of the Incredible Hulk, the close similarities in the names providing a nice allusion to the singer’s stylistic choices.

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Who Knows "Who"?

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After forty-odd years of being on television and in popular culture, Dr. Who still requires an introduction, it seems.

The Tardis, by recurrence, via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike license

In the July 21, 2008, issue of The New Yorker (the one with all the cover fracas, in fact), Benjamin Wallace-Wells pens an article about Garrett Lisi’s quest for a Theory of Everything, noting that the good Doctor can be a soothing respite for an introverted physicist and his partner:

The weekend I visited, Lisi and Baranyk were getting ready for a party in Reno, forty minutes away, to which they’d been invited by someone Lisi met on a ski lift, and for which they were dressing up as giant rabbits. But most nights they stayed in and cooked. They sometimes watched videotapes of the British science-fiction show “Doctor Who,” but they preferred board games.

Has the Doctor not penetrated sufficiently into public consciousness that the show can be introduced simply as Doctor Who, with the expectation that it will be understood? Or will it always require an appositive to provide needed context for those who might otherwise think some obscure medical drama were being watched?

Perhaps these are just the grumbles of a niche fan who cannot understand his favorite show being relegated to late-night PBS airings. After all, one doesn’t bother to explain Star Wars as “the American science-fiction film based loosely on Joseph Campbell’s work” or Harry Potter as “the British children’s series, loved by adults, about a boy wizard.” Or perhaps it’s just good journalism to provide explanations for anything that might be unclear to your widest possible audience. Let’s go with that.

I’ll have to make a more thorough search of The New Yorker’s archives to see how the show is mentioned, if ever before, in its pages. The online archive is less-than-full-featured, and I despair of installing the kludgy, proprietary interface for the complete DVD set (which I treasure nonetheless), but we all make sacrifices for the Doctor.

(Image courtesy of recurrence, via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike License.)