Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Chameleon Circuit: Doctor Who and Postmodernism Lite

Postmodernism had been around for a while – since Borges, Nabokov, Rauschenberg and Warhol, but awareness of the phenomenon outside of France didn't blow up until the culture wars. The Yale School did most of its publishing in the eighties; campus speech code controversies picked up in the late eighties and early nineties; Harold and Allan Bloom (no relation!) wrote their big, fat books about the problems with intellectual culture around the end of the eighties; Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont wrote Fashionable Nonsense in the middle of the nineties.

This had a Reaganomic effect on culture: postmodernism trickled down from journals to grad schools to undergrad philosophy departments to high school English classes – where students now have to learn about "the other" – and, inevitably, into television. And what this trickling down congealed into, if you ask me, was the revival of a show called Doctor Who.

Doctor Who owes a lot of its popularity right now, I think, to the ways people think it differs from the "average" science fiction show. There's something about it that – speaking from personal experience, before I fell off the wagon – feels a little fresher than your average science fiction show, and I think it owes a lot of that to its adherence to the aesthetic dictates of a kind of Postmodernism Lite, the kind of Readers Digest postmodernism that you can explore in a forty-minute episode without cutting too many of the effects shots. But to explain exactly what that means, it's useful to look at the "average" science fiction show, and for that I'll turn, obviously, to Star Trek.

Marshall Berman defines two dominant threads in modernist expression: "cultural despair," the type practiced by Eliot, Faulkner, Sartre and Stravinsky, which is your average gloom and doom about anomie, alienation and ennui, and "modernolatry," the type found in the International Style and Futurism, which is all about enshrining the machine age, embracing globalism, and the belief that all social problems can be solved by strong central administration and efficient use of resources. This is the big utopian historical-narrative type of modernism that led to Pruitt-Igoe and the moon landings, and I don't think it's a stretch to see Star Trek (or at least the 1960s version) as an incarnation of it.

In fact, Star Trek really has it all: a multiethnic, utopian Worlds Fair of a crew who never broach the topic of race, a Futurist fetish for speed and violence, a progressive and omnipresent administration, and, most importantly, a highly self-contained and cohesive universe. It's true that there isn't a real geography in Star Trek (not there is in other fantasy, like Tolkien, anyway) but we know that when we encounter a Klingon, he isn't just a monster of the week; he's part of a faction that has institutions and politics of its own. We know that there's a Starfleet organization; there are things happening on Earth and on every planet that we visit. The crew are just the lens that we view things through; other stories, we can imagine, are being told elsewhere in the universe. The series works very hard to make sure that nothing in the show every breaks the illusion of the coherence of the universe – not the jokes, not the time travel, not even the music is allowed to interrupt the show's universe. Everything works on one register. In other words, it's a utopian, humanist, rationalist approach to constructing a fictional universe – an approach that's colored, I'd argue, by nothing as much as International Style modernist ideology.

Doctor Who, right from the beginning, has taken the opposite tack. There's no effective universal administration, no multiethnic crew members (at first, they're all white; as the show goes on it starts to deal halfheartedly with class and race), and certainly no preoccupation with speed and motion. In fact, there's no real sense of space as such in Doctor Who – the Tardis basically takes on whatever interior dimensions are convenient, and they never rationally fit inside of the phone box; moreover, it doesn't fly off into the stars like the Enterprise, it disappears and reappears somewhere else with apparently no motion involved at all. When characters do talk about "flying" the Tardis, it's abstracted and usually not particularly convincing; one of the show's running gags is how the knobs and levers in the Tardis can't really be assigned specific functions. It seems to move in some sort of frictionless way. The only real analog I can think of for the way the viewer understands the Tardis's motion is the hypertext link, actually: we find it in a new place, without even imagining that there might be intervening space between where it takes off and where it lands. Marinetti would be horrified.

But the real thing that I think sets Doctor Who apart from Star Trek, and from most science fiction shows in that mold, is its utter disregard for a cohesive universe. Doctor Who's focus on travel through time means that literally any character from any time period could potentially appear in any episode. This foregrounds the artificiality of the whole thing, demands that the reader view the episode not as one of many potential stories unfolding within a self-contained universe, but as something that could only happen under the exact circumstances of the episode. Even when the show does linger in one setting for a long time, even when it works at setting up a self-contained universe to inhabit for a few episodes, we're so colored by our experiences of all of the previous episodes and their own universes that we refuse to accept it on any level as absolute. Star Trek's universe has narrative impact because it feels new and fresh; the modernist ideal of art always plumbing new depths. The societies the Doctor encounters ultimately always seem like constructs, backdrops for the episodes, rather than places the viewer could really inhabit; their narrative impact comes simply from their exposure to the Doctor, and not from anything distinctive about themselves. A season of Doctor Who samples a lot of different settings; none of them suggests wider narrative any more than a three-second sample of the Amen Break really suggests the entirety of "Amen, Brother." Doctor Who's narrative avoids the totalizing, rationalist outlook that Star Trek seems so wedded to embraces meaning constructed out of the juxtaposition of elements, and throws in its lot with artificiality, irrationality, fragmentation and playful irony – all things that any freshman humanities textbook will tell you are emblematic of Postmodernism.

But clearly none of the really difficult aspects of Postmodernism come up in Doctor Who. Doctor Who is interested in the Nam Jun Paik/Grandmaster Flash kind of postmodernism, the kind that's fun and colorful and isn't heavy on theory. There's no micropolitics in the Tardis, no infinitely deferred meaning, no exploded subjectivity unless you count all the regenerations. For all its innovation, Doctor Who is ultimately humanist in the same stale way as Star Trek – it's more reductive in its humanism, certainly, but still humanist. Star Trek had the comfortable modernist belief that people, organized by administrators, could solve all their problems. Doctor Who also believes that people can solve all their problems, but legitimizes this, at least in the new series, not by endorsing universal government but simply by letting the Doctor talk about human potential until his face turns blue. It's always unconvincing, and it comes across, I've always thought, as a kind of ideological concession, a way of propitiating the ghost of Star Trek humanism even though Doctor Who, in the twenty-first century, knows a lot more than Star Trek about how insurmountable our problems are.
I read this as a real reluctance on the part of modern culture at large to embrace the kind of pessimistic outlook that Doctor Who's sense of rootlessness, isolation, fear and artificiality could engender. The audience is more than willing to consume Doctor Who if it tempers the threatening parts of its narrative with token humanism and whimsy. So as much as Doctor Who seems like it could qualify as a "postmodern" show on some level, it's really rooted in the same humanistic tradition as any other science fiction show that's on TV right now. It blends in, but it's smaller on the inside than the outside.

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