27 February 2013

The Doctor Diaries: II.Xmas

"The Christmas Invasion," since it was a Christmas special, doesn't really count as episode one. It's a full hour of extra pleasure on top of the whole season, before it even begins! And it is packed full of fun. In just one episode--ok, less than one--ok, just one scene--Benedict Cumberbatch had to move over on his throne to share with David Tennant. That man can act! Oh, he plays up me like a pipe: he knows all the stops, he sounds be from the top of my compass to the lowest note. He's a laugh-riot, he's a tear-jerker.

I have found a couple of occasions recently to point out that there is a fine line between an archetype and a cliche. A really great work of art, or a really popular one, taps into those universal archetypes so that the very first time you read or watch it, you feel you've always known it. The minute I met Harry Potter, for instance, I felt I had always known him. He immediately became a permanent member of my mental dramatis personae. The enduring myths work this way: they have a limited cast of familiar characters, and they play the same few themes over and over again in endless variation: always new, always timeless, always familiar.

Doctor Who shamelessly piles archetypes on top of cliches, shakes the whole thing up, then dumps the resulting mixture on our willing heads. One moment there's a blatant piece of plagiarism--such as when the Doctor gets his hand chopped off, a la Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Just before that, there was a direct quote (with citation) to The Lion King, of all things. But those pop-culture references are more than just hilarious. They are also meaningful. The Lion King, for instance, is a retelling of Hamlet. Now, in 2005 Tennant had not yet performed his critically-acclaimed Hamlet on either stage or screen, so the Lion King reference and the subsequent sword fight cannot be references (more like prophecies?), but he was already a noted stage actor and had played Romeo at the RSC. So the Star Wars reference taps into timeless archetypes of family antagonism, while the Lion King reference and the sword fight point to Shakespeare's eternal appeal--and showcase Tennant's sword-fighting skills.

I want to comment on another skill of his that Shakespeare's original audience would have particularly admired. Actors in those days were highly praised for being able to pull off sudden, wild changes of emotion. Leontes in Winter's Tale, for instance, goes from loving to murderously jealous in no-seconds flat. Obviously, Tennant is a consummate master of the sudden mood shift. Yet he adds another, deeper layer below the changeability: his Doctor maintains a kind of permanent calm underneath the "wild and whirling words": a self-confidence, a sexual confidence, a sense of power and control. That's a huge part of what we love, I'm sure. My sister Nadine says he has every facial expression known to man, too, which certainly helps!

Two more points and then I'm done for today. Even before I started watching these, I was wondering what it is that gets Americans addicted to British television. I mean, we even went crazy over Downton Abbey, which is--you've got to admit--pretty lousy television. I still don't know, but I just want to point out that Russell T. Davies and the rest know they've got us hooked, so they can even make a cultural joke a serious plot point: the necessity of a cup of tea. "Very British," says Mickey, right before it saves the Doctor's life. Sweet.

Finally, one aspect of Doctor Who that just gets me every time is how the writers know how to tap into what creeps us out the most--killer angel statues, for instance, or in this case, people we love all walking, walking, walking, climbing, standing on edges, lemmings to their doom. Our fears, our horrors, coming to life on screen. And then all being solved by a loving, appealing, darling of a man. Who could resist?


Anonymous said...

The most frightening words for any fantasy author; "there is a fine line between an archetype and a cliche". Chills.

Iambic Admonit said...

But notice that I also said Doctor Who mixes both together indiscriminately and is still a huge success. Do not fear!

Dominic Christison said...

Just started reading these posts - fun! I like your enthusiasm. On your point about Americans loving British stuff - even "Downton Abbey"! Downton Abbey taps into something deep in us - some nostalgia, perhaps us longing to go back to a nobler age? The reason it's popular in UK too is simply that modern Britain is, from some perspectives, a very "post-British" nation. I mean in the sense of; cosmopolitan, secular, impolite and most certainly lacking in the social graces of the Crawleys!

Iambic Admonit said...

Thanks, Dominic! I'm watching Series 3 now and will blog about it soon. Thanks for your encouragement. Your analysis of the "post-British" culture is insightful and accurate. Cheers.