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Let’s do the Time Lord again: Laurie Penny and Nicholas Lezard debate Doctor Who

With Peter Capaldi about to step into the Doctor’s shoes, two passionate Whovians talk to Helen Lewis about favourite companions, gender politics and missing theremins. 

Unleash the psychic paper: our own Doctor Lezard and his companion Captain Penny. Photograph: Charlie Forgham-Bailey

“Doctor Who” returns to our TV screens on 23 August with a brand new Doctor, Peter Capaldi. That Nicholas Lezard bears a passing resemblance to Capaldi seemed like a good excuse to get our columnist together with our contributing editor, Laurie Penny, to talk about the long-running series.

Helen Lewis First, easy question: who’s your favourite Doctor?

Laurie Penny They say you never forget your first Doctor and mine was Christopher Eccleston. He was cool, and tortured, and moody and sexy.

Nicholas Lezard Patrick Troughton was my first Doctor, so I liked the way Matt Smith channelled him. When Eccleston came along, I had to readjust – it was very well done, because it wasn’t trying to self-consciously go back to the old Doctor Who. And I had children by that stage and they were watching it for the first time. They got interested very quickly – they got shivers down the back of their necks and they didn’t even know why. It’s as if there’s something ingrained in the British psyche which responds to Doctor Who.

LP And then Billie Piper was the first companion of the reboot; I had to explain to some Americans the other day that, for us, seeing Billie Piper on the screen –

HL You thought she’d walk round singing: “Because we want to!” That’s something that gets overlooked now: how much Russell T Davies was known as the guy who wrote Queer As Folk – this hardcore, groundbreaking Channel 4 series. Added to which you’ve got a companion best known as being . . . I wouldn’t say a female Chesney Hawkes; that would be overly harsh.

LP The fact that Russell T Davies came from Queer As Folk was really important. For a lot of the people who I knew were watching Doctor Who for the first time, that series was really important because of the queer content and the diversity of the characters. Davies’s agenda is incredibly obvious in his run of the show – which all the right-wing commentators thought was terrible – but that’s exactly why I loved it: the idea that there could be a future where everybody was bi and gay and that was fine.

HL There are two great moments on that score. The first is obviously John Barrowman [Captain Jack Harkness] – when he kisses Rose and the Doctor goodbye and gives them exactly the same kiss – but also the bit with Lesley Sharp’s character in Midnight, which is one of these claustrophobic episodes set inside a cargo container. There was a reference to a partner of hers, and it was just “she”, and that was fine.

Did all of that gender politics leave you cold, Nick, or did you appreciate it?

NL It didn’t leave me cold; I like it. Russell T Davies deserves some kind of official recognition for what he’s done, not only bringing traditional families back together – you’ve got people from different generations saying, “Quick, Doctor Who is on” – but also inserting into that the notion that there are other kinds of relationship as well.

He did it deftly, charmingly, and with just the right amount of bravery and humour. He is exactly my age, so I suppose what I feel about Doctor Who is pretty much what he feels about Doctor Who. He was always going to be mindful of my generation’s sympathies and ideas of the show.

HL There were some cracking episodes. School Reunion, the one where Sarah Jane comes back . . .

NL Oh, I cried.

LP Heartbreaking.

HL That’s going to be blubtastic for anyone over a certain age, isn’t it?

The other great ones are The Family of Blood, written by Paul Cornell, which is based on a book, and the Steven Moffat episodes . . . But can you get over the absolute stinkers? I mean, Love and Monsters, which ends with a guy saying that his girlfriend’s turned into a paving slab and they still have a sex life . . .

NL Was that the one with the fans?

HL Yes, with Peter Kay as a fat monster . . .

LP Children’s drawings and monsters made of human fat are generally things to avoid. But if you look back on the old ones, even the deftly scripted episodes have terrible special effects. What is it, The Ark in Space? Where everyone’s terrified of the maggots that have infested the space station and it’s a man in a green sleeping bag, wiggling down the BBC corridor?

HL The regeneration of Colin Baker has to take top honours, with that wibbly-wobbly music in the background. Nick, do you have a favourite from the old series?

NL One thing that they’ve lost is the excitement in the theme music. The original theme, where you’d see these psychedelic patterns that gradually merged into Patrick Troughton’s face, was terrifying. To watch that as a three-year-old is why I can remember my childhood so well; that image was seared into my mind. And also the strange simplicity of Delia Derbyshire’s electronic arrangement has been a little lost with the over-orchestration of the theme tune.

LP You can’t hear the theremin?!

NL You can just about hear it. I liked it very much when they did the 50th-anniversary episode, when they suddenly went back to the William Hartnell theme music and graphics. I jumped up at that point.

My children told me to shut up; they were watching the show –

LP I loved watching Doctor Who with your kids. Me and Nick used to live together, for people who don’t know –

HL For people who missed all those columns that you both wrote.

LP Yes. So we would always watch Doctor Who, and it was an interesting experience, watching these little boys watch it for the first time.

HL It’s great watching it like that. All they really want is a good, scary baddy, preferably dripping ooze. It’s nice to be reminded that you might be sitting there thinking, “Well, this isn’t really enough like The Usual Suspects for my taste,” but that’s not what they had in mind while they were writing it.

Something I miss from the series before the break is that they would do a plotline over six episodes, say. They’ve ended up relying on two-parters more and more, because trying to squeeze a set-up, a decent story and a resolution into 45 minutes is hard, particularly if they have to sell a new race or something complicated.

NL You can do it, I think, with things like the Weeping Angels; that wasn’t a two-parter and that worked very well. And those “Doctor-light” episodes.

LP Back in the day, Steven Moffat taking over the writing of Doctor Who was going to be the best thing ever (rather than the disaster for its gender politics that it has become), because he wrote The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances, and the Silence in the Library double-parter, and Blink, and The Girl in the Fireplace, all of which were among the best episodes of the reboot. But under him as showrunner it became, as it always does, a different show.

HL Russell T Davies’s book talks about how he had to do all the polishes of everyone else’s script, and write the season finales and openers himself. There was a criticism by a Seventies Doctor Who writer that Davies became a “first-draft writer”. He would have these amazing ideas and throw them all down, but he never did the work you had to do to make it come across as very tight.

The opposite happened with Steven Moffat: he was such a tight writer, everything like clockwork, that he came to rely on it too much, and ended up reusing the same characters and tropes. Which is why you get these extraneous appendage women who turn up and constantly need saving.

LP I think this is where Nick and I disagree. I am not a fan of the way the companions have been used after Donna, who was the best thing that’s happened to Doctor Who companions in many, many years –

NL She really grew on me. I was worried at first; I think everyone was.

LP But the latest companions – the “Impossible Girl”, the “Girl Who Waited” – they’re not real people; they’re stories that happened to the Doctor. They’re not characters in their own right. And the other thing Moffat has done is get rid of having the companion’s family, unlike Russell T Davies. Both Clara [played by Jenna Coleman] and Karen Gillan’s character [Amy] have no family whatsoever, functionally, whereas the Tylers were brilliant. Martha’s family were great, and Donna’s strange, difficult relationship with her mum . . .

HL Mickey. I love Mickey. When he turns up and gets stuck in a wheelie-bin . . .

LP The hapless boyfriend was fantastic.

HL Doesn’t it come down to the different ways they see Doctor Who? Russell T Dav­ies saw himself as the companion. I sense Steven Moffat sees himself as the Doctor, rescuing ladies . . .

LP Well, he has written a grumpy, middle-aged Scottish man as the new Doctor. But the reason you can talk about Doctor Who for ages is that it functions now in the way that sagas and myths used to function. You have to start talking about Doctor Who, and a few other cultural artefacts, like Star Trek, in the same way. The story has been told by so many people; the canon and the history are so long that they are bigger than any one writer, than any one fan.

NL There’s something Homeric about it. It’s been transmitted from generation to generation for 50 years. People think about themselves as Doctor Who or as the assistant.

HL If you could be a companion, which one would you be?

LP Captain Jack. Sorry, I didn’t have to think about that.

HL Are you on board with being Captain Jack in Torchwood as well, where you have to be sealed in a box and then die every two seconds for 2,000 years?

LP I would get to snog Spike from Buffy, which would make it all better.

NL I think . . . who was the one who was the savage girl, who wore the leather bikini, who said, “Shall I kill him now, Doctor” and he said, “Well, maybe not actually.”

HL A companion from the famous “one for the dads” era of the Seventies, I think.

NL No, I liked the boldness of her character!

LP Oh, that’s why you can’t remember her name . . . Her name was Leela. 

The new series of “Doctor Who” starts on BBC1, Saturday 23 August (7.50pm)

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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No, J J Abrams – Star Wars was never “a boy’s thing”

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”.

In 1977, millions of people went to cinemas to see Star Wars: A New Hope, and afterwards, a good portion of them were suddenly rendered invisible. It didn’t matter that they rushed to line up for the sequels; it didn’t matter that they were eager to buy and play with the toys; it didn’t matter that they grew up to read the novels and explore the expanded universe and sit through the prequels and introduce their children to something they had loved as a child. They’re a group that overlaps with the invisible force that haunts comic book shops, or plays a lot of video games, or makes up nearly half the audience for superhero films, or, to one New Statesman staffer’s persistent, possibly-only-half joking incredulity, liked Doctor Who long before Russell T Davies got his hands on it. 

With less than three weeks before J J Abrams’s rebooted Star Wars hits screens, the director went on Good Morning America yesterday to talk in vague, broad strokes about his turn with the franchise. But the otherwise-unremarkable interview made headlines because of one segment, when Abrams was asked who he most excited to hear from about the film. He said:

“Star Wars was always about, you was always a boy’s thing, and a movie that dads take their sons to. And though that’s still very much the case, I was really hoping that this could be a movie that mothers can take their daughters to as well. So I’m looking forward to kids seeing this movie and to seeing themselves in it, and seeing that they’re capable of doing what they could never imagine was possible.”

That invisible group of Star Wars fans, who love that well-known “boy’s thing”? Women, who have spent the past four decades loving the franchise just as much as all those fanboys, even if no one else – the fanboys themselves in particular – seemed to take much notice. Abrams’s offhand remark coincided with recent headlines like Bloomberg’s “‘Star Wars’ Toys Aren’t Just For Boys Anymore as Rey Takes Over”, a reference to the female lead of The Force Awakens, portrayed by Daisy Ridley. Across the web, aside from stirrings by the now-mandatory Internet Outrage Machine, the overwhelming response seemed to be one of sad and somewhat resigned frustration, with women sharing memories of falling in love with the series, essentially saying, “We’ve been here this whole time.” My friend Lori Morimoto, in “An Open Letter to J J Abrams”, wrote, “I’d like to tell you the story of a girl who became a Star Wars fan. I hope you can suspend disbelief over my existence long enough to make it to the end.”

Star Wars is a universe populated by complicated gender politics, on and off screen. The three original films fail most facets of the Bechdel test (I laughed out loud here seeing the suggestion that A New Hope deserves a pass because the only two named female characters could have talked offscreen). Princess Leia’s enslavement and escape (and the bikini she wears while doing it) is a cultural touchstone that’s launched a complicated feminist dialogue over the decades. And it is perhaps because of the mostly-male cast in the films – and the long-held assumption that science fiction is a primarily masculine property – that the franchise has long been marketed exclusively to boys, despite the massive and loyal female audience.

But the modern Star Wars empire is helmed a woman, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and when she revealed that two-thirds the story team behind the newest film was female, she also pledged that there would be a woman in the director’s chair before too long. And since one of the leads in The Force Awakens is a woman, her character, along with a black male lead – portrayed by John Boyega – sparked anger from the reactionary white guy corner of the internet in recent months (sorry that the SJWs ruined your movies, guys!). For films that once portrayed a place so alien that only white men were allowed to speak to each other, the widening of representation in this reboot apparently looks to some like a political – or, to them, a politically correct – act.

The welcome diversity of the leading cast highlights all the good intentions in Abrams’s statement: that this new film promises more than a panoply of white guys, that girls and people of colour can see themselves reflected back in these new heroes. All the girls who thought the movies weren’t for them because they only saw men onscreen, or the endless line of male action figures on the shelf, have a point of entry now – that’s what representation means. And that’s certainly worth cheering for, even if it only took us 40 years to get there. But it’s hard for all the people who aren’t white men who’ve found other points of entry over the years, who managed to love it without seeing themselves there. I can speak from personal experience when I say that a lifetime of media about white guys hasn’t stopped me from finding characters and stories to fall in love with.

Here’s a theory: you might not have noticed that you were surrounded by female Star Wars fans all these years because you were the one who rendered them invisible. Women who like things such as Star Wars, or comics, or anything else that leads journalists to write those painful “not just for boys anymore” trend stories, have had to take it from all sides. Enthusiasm for something seen as the province of men clashes with mainstream perceptions of femininity. Even women liking this stuff in the context of traditionally feminised fan spaces, like fanfiction, find themselves fending off assumptions from men and women alike, perhaps the accusation that they are sexualising something too much, or they are placing too much weight on the emotional elements of a storyline. Basically, that they’re liking the thing the wrong way.

But women’s enthusiasm for perceived “male” spaces is always liking the thing the wrong way. The plainest illustration of this is the Fake Geek Girl, in meme and in practice: the barriers to entry are raised immeasurably high when women try to join in many male-dominated fannish conversations. The wonderful Noelle Stevenson illustrates this beautifully – and then literally, when a guy challenges her on her work. I’m sure that just by writing about Star Wars, I’m opening myself up to the angry gatekeeping-style pissing contests that men like to toss at women who claim to like the things they like. (Let’s get it all out in the open here: Star Wars isn’t my fandom. I saw the three original films on dates with my first boyfriend – our first date: Star Trek: First Contact, because we were clearly the coolest kids in town – and upon rewatches as an adult nothing grabbed me. But I am also a fandom journalist, so that’s kind of how this works.)

There’s a persistent myth – and I say persistent because I keep seeing these deluded boys get mad in new viral posts – that women who claim to like geeky things are just pretending, the somewhat confusing notion that they are doing it for attention. (And then there’s the inevitable anger that in this supposedly desperate plea for attention – why else would a woman claim to like their beloved characters?! – these women still don’t want to sleep with them.) And what never seems to occur to any of these gatekeepers is that these women were there all along, liking these things just as much – and are finally being given the cultural space to be open about their interests and passions. But that space is given haltingly; plenty of women, tired of waiting, are going out and taking it. The result is the tension (and, at times, outright hostility) that has marked certain corners of the fannish world in the past few years.

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”. There are many reasons that people love Star Wars, and most of them are universal things: the themes, the characters, the archetypal struggle of good versus evil. Most of the time we default to the white guy; he struggles with things we all struggle with, but somehow, he is deemed most relatable. Abrams, Kennedy, and everyone behind the new films should be applauded for their efforts to give non-white guys a turn at the universal story – I think these are incredibly valuable choices, and certainly will make the films vastly more accessible, particularly to children.

But we don’t just need Rey on screen and Rey dolls on the shelves for mothers and daughters – those same mothers and daughters have found plenty to love without many women to look to on their screens. We need boys to love the female heroes as much as we’ve loved the men over the years: we need universal to be truly universal. And when we express that love, the default reaction shouldn’t be a challenge: not, “You don’t like this thing as much as I do,” or, “You don’t love this the right way.” Isn’t it easier to say, “Oh, I’m so glad that you love this, too!”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.