14 June 2013

The Doctor Diaries III.1b: Smith and Jones

Some Notes on Names and Narrators

Have you noticed that all of the Doctor's companions and hangers-on are very ordinary people with common names? Rose Tyler, Mickey Smith, Martha Jones, Sarah Jane Smith, Donna Noble.... I think there are a couple of reasons for this.

[Yes, Amelia Pond has a fairy-tale name, and she turns out to be pretty important—but that doesn't invalidate my main ideas here. Hold on.]

First, the point is that he is not picking out someone who is “special” in the world's eyes: not someone famous, or extra-talented, or noteworthy. He's not even really picking people out; he stumbles across someone's path, or she stumbles across his, and they have a connection, and so he invites her along.

The point with that scenario is that any ordinary person has the potential to do really amazing things. An uneducated, lower-class shop girl can save the world, over and over and over, or become a conduit for the Time Vortex, gaining power over life and death, out of the depths of her love and self-sacrifice. A hard-working, intelligent, but otherwise unremarkable medical student can reveal all the truly remarkable depths and complexities of her nature when paired with the Doctor and faced with peril and adventure.

So that's the first point: There are no ordinary humans. Every one can be amazing if given the chance. But that's the point within the narrative, taking the characters as people, inhabiting the world of the fiction.

There is another purpose for the ordinary names altogether when we look at Doctor Who from a literary point of view. This has to do with the narrator. Wait, you say, there is no narrator. There is (thankfully) no voiceover—except in a few odd episodes like “Love and Monsters”, but that's an exception with its own particular purpose. Television is not like written fiction.

When a story is written down, there has to be somebody telling the story. You remember those lessons in high school English class about the narrator: first or third person, limited or omniscient? A movie takes a totally different approach, by filming perspective. It could be filmed from just one character's perspective, but that is rare. I have written a bit about perspective here, in this post about The Hunger Games.

But there is another narrative matter I want to discuss now. I believe that the Doctor Who team used companions with ordinary names because they represent us. Each one is an EveryHuman. She stands in for us, observing the Doctor as we would observe him. This is very important. It is very important to have an outside, ordinary perspective on a Genius or otherwise extraordinary character, so that the reader/viewer will have a way in, a way of understanding the Genius and his relationship to “normal” people. In written fiction, this person often tells the story, so that the reader can identify with the narrator's responses to the Genius. It would be more difficult to identify with the Genius directly, so the writer often puts in an ordinary guy or girl so that we have a way in. Even when the main character is not a genius, but merely someone out of the ordinary in one way or another, we often need a mundane character to bring us in. Even when the narrator does not speak in first person, there is often an ordinary person at the heart of the action.
 - We read Sherlock Holmes through the eyes and words of John Watson. (watch this)
- Lord of the Rings is told mostly from a hobbit's perspective, not from a king's or a wizard's.
- The Great Gatsby is told by Gatsby's very ordinary (and very culpable) neighbor, Nick Carraway.
- Mr. Lockwood, an ordinary guy, narrates Wuthering Heights, about people who live at the peaks and troughs of extreme emotions.
- Frankenstein is a complex series of nested narratives in which the two geniuses, the scientist and the monster, get to speak, but the whole is mediated through the letters of a ship's captain to his sister. He is ambitious, but his decisions render him more human than Victor Frankenstein.
- Atticus Finch might be the superhero of To Kill A Mockingbird, but the story is told by a little girl.
- Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is a story of traveling through ever-smaller circles to approach the supposed genius of Kurtz, narrated by the more down-to-earth Marlow.
- Captain Horatio Hornblower has Lieutenant Bush.
- Jeeves has Wooster.
- Lord Peter Whimsy has Bunter.
- Winston Smith in 1984 is a very ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances, under the control of people with unthinkable power, and he responds as just about any of us would.
- Professor Pierre Aronnax narrates 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, about the crazy genius Captain Nemo.
- In The Chosen by Chaim Potok, Danny Saunders is the genius, and the novel is narrated by his barely-below genius friend Reuven Malter.
- Although Harry Potter is “special,” chosen, and powerful, the narrative focuses so much on his ordinary humanness that he is our stand-in for ourselves, then develops into what we want to become. - (feel free to shoot me for this one) Bella, a human, narrates Twilight: no vampire gets to tell the tale (although a werewolf does narrate a third of the final book).

OK, so that's a lot of examples. And of course there are counter-examples of novels whose third-person narrative focus is on the genius (such as The Agony and the Ecstasy, about Michelangelo) or whose genius is the first-person narrator (such as Chaim Potok's My Name is Asher Lev). And of course there are first-person memoirs by geniuses, such as Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!.

But you get the idea. I think that Sherlock Holmes is probably the best parallel to the Doctor: his is someone who is apparently human, but who has superhuman powers, accompanied by a faithful follower who stands in for the reader/viewer.

 You know, this is funny, but isn't the Bible like this in some ways? It's all about God, it's all about Jesus and His one-and-only true story, but it's told by and about all these shabby little humans making awful mistakes all the time. Even in a narrative about a slightly more admirable human like, say, Paul, it's written down and narrated by Luke, the ordinary guy who gives us a glimpse into Paul's great work.

So that's how it works with Rose, Martha, Donna, Amy, and the rest. They are Us. They allow us to watch the Doctor do his amazing stuff from both the inside (as someone close to him) and the outside (as someone not as brilliant as he). And I suspect that's one of the reasons for the mostly ordinary names. They are just little humans—and every little human is as important as the whole universe.

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