Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

April Books 12) The Unsilent Library, edited by Simon Bradshaw, Antony Keen and Graham Sleight

This short (170 pages) and digestible book of essays on the Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who was published last month by the Science Fiction Foundation; the editors kindly invited me to contribute when it was first mooted two years ago, and I wish I had had the time (and scholarly resources) to do so, as it is always nice to be in good company (two of the three editors and altariel are also contributors).

To run through the contents: we start with a foreword by Robert Shearman about what it felt like to bring the Daleks back. It's a story he has told before, but he tells it well, and it's worth reading again. The editors then give a brief introduction noting the unexpected impact of the show under RTD, and summarising the articles. The articles themselves are as follows:

1) "The Big Picture Show: Russell T. Davies' Writing for Doctor Who", by Graham Sleight, analyses how Davies gets away with breaking some of the 'rules' of writing and yet manages (usually) to turn out very successful product, by his use of spectacle, emotion, fast pacing and scale, but also by distancing himself from 'science fiction' as it is usually understood and interpreted.

2) "The Reasons and Functions behind the Use of Deus ex Machina in Series One of the New Doctor Who", by Paul Hawkins, is more readable than its title suggests, and looks one particular aspect of Davies' writing which breaks the 'rules', his use of endings which don't actually tell us more about the characters but usually work anyway.

3) "He's not the Messiah: Undermining Political and Religious Authority in New Doctor Who, by Una McCormack, looks at the subversive tendencies of New Who in political terms using a lot of ideas from Foucault which more or less made sense to me, and then looks also at the way in which Davies, who is not shy about his own atheism, repeatedly uses religious imagery to tremendous effect in New Who. I'd have added to this the point that the Ninth Doctor came to us at Easter 2005, and the Tenth was revealed in his full manifestation on Christmas Day that year, which may not have been completely planned by Davies but is perhaps also germane.

4) "Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?", by Tony Keen, argues very strongly that only Sarah Jane Smith, of the whole range of Old Who companions, could have been brought back for School Reunion, and looks at the fates of all other companions to examine what this tells us about the weaknesses and strengths of the show's set-up - probably the essay that will most gladden the hearts of Old Who fans.

5) "How Donna Noble Saved the Universe (and Had to Pay for It)", by Sydney Duncan and Andy Duncan, examines the fate of Donna in Journey's End and goes in some depth into why it isn't really a satisfactory ending for her, given her role in the story, the Doctor's own abilities (note how the humanised Doctor doesn't get mind-wiped or destroyed) and the viewers' (well, these viewers') expectations for how women characters should be portrayed. I would add that it's not terribly satisfactory in dramatic terms either, and not relly helped by her reappearance in The End of Time.

6) "Does the Doctor Dance? Heterosexuality, Omnisexuality, and Spontaneous Generation in the Whoniverse", by Catherine Coker, rather joyously examines sex and relationships in New Who and Torchwood, the only essay in the book to really look at either spinoff series.

7) "Conflict, Hybridity and Forgiveness", by James Rose, is again a better essay than its title, considering the Ninth and Tenth Doctors as sharing a single character arc from trauma to healing, and looking at the role of hybrid creatures (the Daleks, the humanised Doctor) in that process.

8) "The Importance of Language Converted to Knowledge in the Arsenal of the Tenth Doctor", by Leslie McMurtry,
is a very entertaining and informative look at the way in which the Doctor takes other people's words and learning and uses them to win; while the essay mainly looks at the obvious Tenth Doctor stories, McMurtry makes the point that it is a long-running theme in Old Who too.

9) "Philosophies of Time Travel in the New Doctor Who", by Richard Burley, takes a rather sober approach to the way in which time travel actually "works" in the Whoniverse. Burley acknowledges that Steven Moffat's approach in the RTD era was different, and of course Moffat-era time travel has turned out to work by Moffat's rules rather than RTD's. This was one essay that might have benefited also from an engagement with Old Who, which also had a variety of approaches to this (compare The Aztecs, The Space Museum, Earthshock, Mawdryn Undead, just as the first examples that came to my mind).

10)"Approaching Character in New Doctor Who", by Clare Parody, provides tools for analysing why characters are written the way they are in New Who, particularly considering how it has become extensible as well as unfolding, with cheerful violence to continuity and spinoff shows and other phenomena. I hope that a future essay will go a bit more into the other manifestations of Who, including the stage shows which have now become almost routine.

Although the focus of the book is on the five years of the Russell T. Davies era - from Easter 2005 to New Year's Day 2010 - almost all of the authors seem pretty solidly committed to looking at Who not only with the tools of interpretation of contemporary media and literature, but also as a phenomemon which started in 1963 rather than 2005, and indeed which continues past Davies' handing over the reins to Steven Moffat in 2010. For old school fans like me this is rather comforting, and hopefully it may tempt any New Who fans who pick it up and have not yet been converted to give Old Who a try as context. In any case it's a very good set of essays, more profound than Chicks Dig Time Lords, more diverse than Triumph of a Time Lord, and better than any of the other analytical books I've read about New Who.
Tags: bookblog 2011, doctor who, doctor who: reference

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