out of order

Can I confess here, in the safety of my weblog, to being a Doctor Who fan? No one at the bar besides my friend Cloudesley will engage me in this kind of discussion, although someone will drop a sentence like “I thought last week’s episode was really good/complete shit” and leave it at that. When grown-ups are drinking and hockey players are swimming around on the projection screen in the background, it’s slightly shameful to go on about a science fiction show designed for ‘family’ viewing. It’s meant to appeal to adults and children alike, but the adults are meant to watch and appreciate it with their kids. It’s the kids that legitimate the grown-up enjoyment, and since I have none of those, I have to admit that I’m just a big child nearing his forties who likes shows about time travel and alien monsters lumbering around on sound stages.

Do any of you need a spot of background on Doctor Who? Perhaps for those of you who grew up with Star Trek and The Bionic Man flickering on the rabbit-eared televisions of your childhood? The Doctor Who series first appeared in 1963, ran straight through until 1989, resurfaced as a TV movie in 1996, and appeared again in 2005. The Doctor, as he calls himself, is a time-traveling alien called a Time Lord (thanks 1963, for that stupid stupid name). He takes on traveling companions from time to time and goes on jaunts to the past, where we learn a thing or two about history, and the future, where we learn a thing or two about science. The show was in part conceived as educational entertainment for British children, but the storylines and science fiction elements began to overwhelm the educational element until it became a series of ripping yarns, with a strong thread of the horrific and the grotesque, the better to drive a generation of children behind the couch in terror. The new series has been tweaked for more adult consumption, but much of what made the series wonderful and occasionally pretty silly has been kept in.

I make no claim that every episode of the new Who is great television. Some of it is cringingly bad (avoid the “Daleks in Manhattan” episodes in season three), and lately the series seems a bit tired of itself and the inevitable formulaism that creeps in after a while: The Doctor shows up, talks a lot, there’s an enemy, there’s a crisis, Doctor solves crisis with his advanced thinkiness, and away they go again. Even the Doctor’s traveling companions, who are there to provide a human face to the Doctor’s alien nonchalance and a point of vulnerability for an invulnerable hero, seem to be going through mostly the same crises.

One of the strangest deficiencies of the series is its staid treatment of time travel (there are exceptions, of which more later). Zipping back and forth in time is the most visible signal of the Doctor’s difference from the rest of the humanoids crowding the universe, but most often it’s treated in a Sherman-and-Peabody manner, as if the entire space-time continuum were a map in which The Doctor could simply stick a pin and say, “There!” The various complications involved with time travel, such as The Doctor encountering himself, are explained away on-the-fly in blips of exposition either glib or ominous, mostly involving “rules”. In the episode “Father’s Day,” time travel rules are grossly violated. A character goes back into the past and rescues her father from death, which triggers the decay of the continuum, with emptying streets and batlike monsters bubbling out of nothingness to devour the world.

This is a classic fable about the dangers of getting you wish for, but it doesn't have much to say about a world in which time travel is a possibility. The catastrophe is presented as sci-fi horror, but it’s really a drama about someone who attempts to alter with the fundamentals of her psyche by the restoration of the absent father, but nearly destroys the psyche in the process. An unwise amendment of the past is really a revolt against the self and its formative experiences; undo the event and you undo the self. In the context of the show, the psyche is mapped onto the more massive scale of the world of the character, so it is the world itself which is undone. Fortunately for all of us, the world is restored in classic Freudian fashion when the father reenacts his death, which allows the daughter to reintegrate the trauma back into her miserable but non-universe-destroying life.

More entertaining are the episodes in which the characters are forced to deal with the inherent strangeness of time travel, such as “The Girl in the Fireplace,” which features a spaceship with a series of portals that open into the life of eighteenth-century Frenchwoman Madame de Pompadour, or “Blink,” in which a young woman’s day is plagued by creepy statues and a series of inexplicable messages from the past. Of these kinds of stories, which function as four-dimensional puzzles, “Blink” is the most entertaining. It’s one of the best episodes of Doctor Who, and possibly one of the best hours of television you’re likely to see. It’s a knotty little mystery, a relationship drama, a science fiction story that outstrips what usually passes for science fiction on television, and a sly, sophisticated take on the nature of how we watch film and television.

“Blink” is one of the episodes that have come to be called ‘Doctor-lite,’ in which The Doctor barely makes an appearance and the focus shifts to characters whose lives intersect with The Doctor at a crucial moment. In “Blink,” he mostly appears as an Easter Egg on a (seemingly) random series of DVDs, staring at the camera and conducting one side of a cryptic conversation. The key to figuring out just what he's going on about is the key to solving the problem of the episode. The problem is, he's stuck in 1969 without his time machine, and he has to rely on the most abstruse series of devices to contact a person in 2007 to send his machine back to him. Did I say four-dimensional puzzle? It's more like a Rube Goldberg device.

The other problem is probably given a name in some introductory film text somewhere: the unconscious habit of the viewer to graft their eyes and ears into the two dimensional space of the screen. Every Film 100 student learns on some semi-comatose afternoon about master scene technique, in which back-and-forth cuts mimic and direct the behaviour of the eye, while a 180 degree line serves to place us within the scene. Find a movie that breaks this technique and jumps to the other side of the imaginary line; for viewers raised on Western cinema, the effect is jarring. We feel that we have "jumped" to the other side of the characters. Part of us perhaps expects to see the spectral studio audience in the background, or our own living room.

The other way that images reinforces our unconscious placement within the scene is by having characters look into the camera. The illusion that the character is staring at you is so powerful that it's hard to realize how bizarre it really is. Whenever I put in a DVD of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Ferris is ready to look into the camera, make eye contact with me, drop out of the action to tell me something kind of funny, kind of snarky, kind of irritating. But it's all nonsense. Somewhere back in 1985, Matthew Broderick is standing on a set, reciting lines at a camera. As he recites, I am fourteen years old, sitting in class or maybe throwing stones into the harbour. I make eye contact with Mathew Broderick, feel the force of human contact, but I am staring at him across of a gulf of decades. He stares into a lens in 1985. I stare at a screen in 2008. But neither of us is looking at the other.

What makes this non-relationship even worse is that it's an unequal non-relationship. Viewers see the image of Broderick and form a relationship with him. Memories accrete around the viewing of the film. We remember the best lines and commit to our permanent circuits the shape of Bueller-Broderick's face, the heaviness of his hair and the ugliness of his sweater vests. He becomes a kind of friend. Broderick, on the other hand, knows nothing of us as individuals. We are anonymous revenue sources. Facelessly we supply him with his needs. We are fans. Except for me, I can't stand Matthew Broderick.

"Blink" contains a benevolent fantasy of friendship with the image on the screen. I say benevolent because The Doctor is unfailingly altruistic. But what if you popped Ferris Bueller's Day Off into the DVD slot and Broderick called you by name? The effect would be terrifying. Probably nauseating to boot. And the relationship would definitely not be even. Instead, Mathew Broderick would take on the supernatural ability to see you as you hovered in that in-between space. He would probably have demands. He would invade your superego and replace it, and you would be subject to the force of Bueller-Broderick's will. Brundlefly! Run! You should be thankful that the images do not call us out as we skulk at the edges of the scene, like Jimmy Stewart peering at Kim Novak from a crack in the wall in Vertigo.

Vertigo is soaked in shame and desperation. It is a lens magnifying (or maybe concentrating?) the shameful, perverse aspects of watching images. To be called out by the image is to be exposed, all one's basest desires for gratification in the open, like someone catching you in the act of masturbation or singing along to American Idol. Imagine being a desperate Jimmy Stewart whose love entails the sadistic remaking of a living woman into a dead one. Throw time travel into the mix and you've got the makings of a Doctor Who episode.