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So, the Doctor Who Christmas special, then. I am usually an absolute sucker for these, frequently believing them to be far better on the day of viewing than I later realise is really justified. But sadly this one failed to wow me even on Christmas day itself. swisstone has already covered most of the plot-holes and lazy clichés, thus saving me the trouble, and I agree with his basic thesis - that Steven Moffat is not really giving Doctor Who the attention it needs or deserves. So I will stick to noting a few things which particularly struck me as I watched.

The two stand-out aggravations for me were mystical motherhood and negotiable death. On the mystical motherhood side, I couldn't shake off an icky feeling throughout the story that someone had pointed out to Moffat some of the sexist tropes which have cropped up in his previous stories, so he decided to Do Something About It and redress the balance - but completely failed because he assumed that femininity is essentially equivalent to motherhood, and can only understand motherhood anyway by treating it as strange and mystical and quasi-supernatural. I thought while I was watching that I recognised this as a common trope by male writers who are trying to portray women positively, but still fundamentally viewing them from a patriarchal and reductive point of view. However, having typed a seemingly endless string of searches involving words like "trope" "women" "feminine" "motherhood" "mysterious" "mystical" and "magical" into Google, I still can't seem to track down a basic description of it or a list of other examples, even on TV Tropes. Surely I'm not making this one up, am I? More likely I'm just using the wrong search terms. Anyway, it's annoying.

As for the negotiable death, Moffat has done this so often now that it is intensely predictable, and I groaned with resignation at the inevitability of what was to come as soon as Madge started seeing visions of her husband's 'death' in the time vortex. That's annoying in itself, because it makes Moffat's stories less able to surprise or enthral, but I find this particular device repellent even if it is only used once. It undermines our ability to engage meaningfully with in-story deaths, so that any emotions which they provoke have to be regarded as temporary or provisional until we can be sure whether or not the death is 'real' - often much later in the story. And it toys with the viewer, dangling a hard-hitting narrative with a very powerful emotive force, but then just waving it all aside without working through its consequences properly. I would respect Moffat very much if he had dealt with parental death properly in the Doctor Who Christmas special, and equally much if he had chosen not to include it at all. But what he actually did smacks of wanting to have it both ways - maximum emotional impact and a fairytale happy ending - without being prepared to do the creative work necessary to make the two consistent with one another. In other words, it is lazy writing again - not to mention insulting to people who have had to deal with the utter non-negotiability of death in the real world.

Other than that, I also felt that we hadn't had enough time to get to know the family and their wartime lives before they came to their Uncle Digby's house, so that it was difficult to get any real sense of how fantastic the house might seem to them in comparison to everyday normality, or how badly they needed such a wondrous experience. Here, in fact, it would have helped if the children had known by the time they arrived that their father was dead, so that we could have seen them briefly being able to forget their pain and loss as they got caught up in the magic of what the Doctor had in store for them. As it was, all the Doctor's efforts seemed rather embarrassingly over-blown from their point of view. And although this in itself could have been been used to move the emotional trajectory of the story forward by tipping the children off to the fact that something more fundamental was wrong within their family, it wasn't.

Meanwhile, I'm sufficiently steeped in the work of Ray Harryhausen at the moment to notice how similar the design of the Tree King and Queen was to that of the wooden figurehead who comes alive and starts attacking people in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and to be very little surprised to come across yet another example of the extent of his influence:

But as for Doctor Who, I don't really have anything else to say about this story.

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( 35 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 29th, 2011 11:03 pm (UTC)
What you describe is an episode that's done to gender and motherhood exactly what the Magical Negro archetype does to race. It seems to me to be all about the old thing of portraying men as the norm, and the male experience as neutral. Even though women (mothers) are portrayed as intrinsically better in some way, it still has the effect of making them "different" or "abnormal"

Well, at least Just Jane got an outing. And presumably the trust that owns her got a wodge of cash from the BBC for filming, that will help her ongoing restoration to flying status.

Edited at 2011-12-29 11:55 pm (UTC)
Dec. 30th, 2011 05:00 pm (UTC)
Yep, that's it. In the end, a rosy-eyed exaggeration of differences isn't really much better than a vilification of them.

Interesting about the plane, though - and I hope you're right about the financial benefits for it.
Dec. 29th, 2011 11:23 pm (UTC)
But honestly the only possible way ladies can be fulfilled is if they have children ;-)

And I think you've hit the nail on the head Harryhausen-wise, I knew there was something the wooden people reminded me of :-)

As I think I may have already said I heard child actor bratty type voices and so opted to do the washing up in the kitchen instead, after about 10 minutes Mr Pops called me from the living room to say I had made a wise choice.
Dec. 30th, 2011 05:03 pm (UTC)
The kids weren't too bad, actually, but Mr. Pops was still right about your choice. ;-)
Dec. 30th, 2011 12:08 am (UTC)
The idea of dominant ideology undercutting/framing/essentially messing up attempts at subversion of said dominant ideology pops up in pretty much everything I read for the PhD, so I think you can definitely call it a trope, even if it's not on Google. :P
Dec. 30th, 2011 05:09 pm (UTC)
I'm so sure I have come across people specifically talking about the habit of portraying motherhood as mystical and magical in a rather icky patriarchal way before, though. Kind of linking in with all the hippy stuff about Earth Mothers and the mystical feminine - you know, the idea that women are particularly 'in touch' with nature and the Earth and the seasons and so on, because of how they are all magical like that. I'm honestly quite thrown to find that it isn't dealt with on TV Tropes, but I really can't find it there.
mystical mother woo-woo - glitzfrau - Dec. 30th, 2011 05:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: mystical mother woo-woo - glitzfrau - Dec. 30th, 2011 05:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: mystical mother woo-woo - strange_complex - Dec. 30th, 2011 05:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: mystical mother woo-woo - swisstone - Dec. 31st, 2011 01:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kernowgirl - Dec. 31st, 2011 12:00 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - strange_complex - Dec. 31st, 2011 12:26 am (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 30th, 2011 02:16 am (UTC)
Actually, I just watched this and enjoyed it very much, although I fully understand your issues with it.

The only defence of the mystical mother trope I can offer here is that Dr Who has a tendency to make just about everything mystical sooner or later especially in Christmas specials. (And honestly, in fiction, it's always refreshing to see the mother figure be the active role; usually the father figure is dominant and mothers are more of a nurturing background figure).

That said, while I felt that there were some very strong notes hit on the whole concept of motherhood, I also felt that a lot of it was heavy-handed. For example, I remember when the doctor was talking about why it hurt for Madge to see her children so happy, saying it was because they would be so sad later. And I thought: "No, it's because she's jealous of them!"

Clearly, that would have made Madge a less sympathetic figure... After all, mothers are supposed to be ultimately selfless. But selfless characters tend to lack depth--in many ways, we're defined by our desires. So there's an all too common portrayal of motherhood as subsuming the female character. She is living only through her children.

That said, I enjoyed Madge as a character, and thought the actress did a good job of making her interesting and personable despite the by-numbers writing. I would just have liked to have seen a more flawed and complex character, as opposed to the rather patronising imperfection of bad driving.

I was thrilled to see Bill Bailey and disappointed when he was only a cameo and a rather wasted one at that. Still, his first scene made me chuckle out loud, as did the doctor's: "There are some sentences I should really stay away from" line. (I always appreciate a good reword of an old joke).

But as a mushy Christmas story, I liked it a lot better than last year's.... partly because of the Narnia references, admittedly. I do wish the husband had stayed dead though, and I can't help but wonder what poor Anderson's fate was!
Dec. 30th, 2011 02:25 am (UTC)
Also, I found myself somewhat bothered by how the children completely failed to have any kind of family resemblance. Which was odd, because they seemed to have been cast for their looks. They were picture perfect child characters: the coke-bottle glasses and red hair of the little boy with an interest in space, and the large eyes and full lips of the girl burgeoning on womanhood.

But they didn't look anything like their parents, and the roles they were given didn't live up to their archetypical appearance: the boy was the plot-necessary heedless wanderer, while the girl seemed to be building up to a character breakthrough that never happened. I kind of felt that if they liked the actors so much, they should have saved them for another episode.
(no subject) - strange_complex - Dec. 30th, 2011 05:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kernowgirl - Dec. 31st, 2011 12:01 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - strange_complex - Dec. 30th, 2011 05:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 30th, 2011 08:33 pm (UTC)
I didn't enjoy this Christmas special. </p>

Generally wet.

I agree about the mystical motherhood trope and the negotiable death. Both poor in their own way.

I'm not much enjoying Moffat's tenure.

Dec. 30th, 2011 08:44 pm (UTC)
No, me neither (on Moffat's tenure). In all honesty, I wish he would pass Doctor Who on to someone else, and concentrate his energies purely on Sherlock. But there's no way the BBC will take that risk with the 50th anniversary coming up, so I guess we're stuck with him until at least the end of 2013. :-/
(no subject) - swisstone - Dec. 31st, 2011 01:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - danieldwilliam - Jan. 6th, 2012 04:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 30th, 2011 10:39 pm (UTC)
I found it slightly missing something too. Pleasant enough to watch, but the Narnia references didn't do much for me - there wasn't really any reason for them to be there as far as I could see. Also the true sadness of losing a father wasn't really explored, as you mentioned in your review - almost trivialised by the fact that he was saved by the Power of Sacred Motherhood.

And WHAT about his co-pilot who seemed to conveniently disappear? And WHAT would his superiors say about his lancaster suddenly turning up in a completely random place? And why not use Bill Bailey a bit more? Etc, etc.
Dec. 30th, 2011 11:50 pm (UTC)
Exactly! There were at least two other people on board that plane (Anderson and the bloke who reported that he was 'in a bad way'). Also, why exactly did all the tree-spirits need to travel off the planet in Madge Arwell's head if they were then just going to float off amongst the stars anyway? Plot-holes don't bother me that much in themselves - I can easily forgive them if a story makes sense emotionally. But when it falls apart on both fronts, I get annoyed. :-(
(no subject) - hollyione - Dec. 31st, 2011 12:05 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - strange_complex - Dec. 31st, 2011 12:17 am (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 2nd, 2012 07:30 pm (UTC)
I have to admit I'm surprised it was only when you saw the visions of the husband in the vortex that you realised he was going to come back to life. I was assuming from the moment they actually bothered showing him that he was going to come back. Otherwise his death would have been better served off screen allowing for more time for the family.

And yes, I did think the same that Moffat was overcompensating for sexism.
Jan. 2nd, 2012 08:03 pm (UTC)
Well, given Moffat's track record and the general sentimental tone of the Christmas specials, I did note it as a likelihood from the beginning. But it was when the visions appeared in the vortex that I knew for 100% certain sure.

Edited at 2012-01-02 08:04 pm (UTC)
(no subject) - danieldwilliam - Jan. 6th, 2012 04:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - strange_complex - Jan. 6th, 2012 04:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 17th, 2012 10:34 am (UTC)
hey there, its jane, she of bitching about sherlock in cif...i'm a bit late to the party, but was on an early morning caffeination and doctor who noodle about, and found myself here...just wanted to say that i was really interested to read that your response to the mother-ship trope on xmas day was exactly the same as mine...'he's aware of the fact that many of us think his writing of women is dodgy and has stuck this whole adoration of the mother in to compensate.' what i find striking about moffat is that he is so blind about gender politics that when he tries to defend himself (or his fans try and defend him) against charges of misogyny they turn to other tropes which are equally suspect. he doesn't get that veneration and denigration are two sides of the same operation (its a strange omission is there is nothing on this on tv tropes etc...its seems evident...maddona/whore being only the most notable example...there is a nice taxonomy from melanie klein which might be useful here, it lists six types of defense against narcissistic wounds and almost reads as a patriarchal playbook...the most notable are denigration, appropriation and idealization). this issue also comes up i've found in that people seem to think that the fact that moffat often writes adult men as incompetent, blundering emotionally stunted menchildren is somehow evidence that he's not a misogynist - see he hates men too!! - without understanding that this is also only just the shadow side of the myth of the invulnerable, self-sufficient warrior hero...And lastly, with regard to sherlock specifically, Moffat thinks that a rebuttal of a charge of sexism here consists in demonstrating how chivalrous his protagonist is, and how he hates it when people are violent to women...Again, there is a fundamental failure to understand dialectical reversal...Two sides of the same coin steven, repeat three times and go to bed with some Jung under your pillow. anyway...i'm wibbling...just to say, its nice to find a smart doctor who blog - clearly my ident gives away my biases - i'll check out some of your pieces on the last couple of seasons...cheers.
Jan. 17th, 2012 10:37 pm (UTC)
Re: yupyup
Oh, hi, and thanks for your comment! I really enjoyed your piece about Sherlock in the Guardian. Personally, I found that the misogyny which so many other people were obviously seeing in that particular episode didn't strike me as forcefully as it had in the Doctor Who Christmas special, and it took me about a week to be able to articulate why. In the end I think it was because Sherlock revolves so heavily around double- and triple-bluffing that by the end of each episode, I'm left with an enduring sense that what I've seen on screen probably still isn't the full story - that is, there's a great deal of room for alternative, less misogynistic, readings of the characters' motivations in Sherlock in a way that there isn't really in Doctor Who. But that's about my reception of the programme rather than Moffat's writing, and it is sadly all too clear that Moffat is exactly as clueless about gender politics as you have pointed out.

I heard about Moffat's rebuttal of criticism regarding Sherlock at the BAFTA Cymru preview screening of The Hounds of Baskerville, both from a friend who was there and from this article (which I'm sure you'll have seen, as it references your Guardian piece directly). What the article doesn't make clear, but my friend's write-up did, was that the issue of sexism in Sherlock was raised in the very first question when the floor was opened up to the audience - which is a good indication of how prominent the issue has become amongst his target audience, and how fed up people are about it. But you are quite right that his response shows a continuing total failure to understand what it actually is that people are complaining about. In fact, not only did he confuse being excessively protective towards women with actually respecting us as human beings - he also deftly deflected the question from the issue of whether the programme (and therefore he as writer) is sexist to whether the central character is. Grrrr - not the same thing at all!

Sadly, it's obvious at this stage that Moffat ain't gonna change. He's hearing the complaints, but he's not really listening to them - and I doubt he ever will. But I'm glad all the same to hear a rising chorus of voices raised in criticism about it. It may be too late for him, but the more the problems in work like his are called out, the more hope there is that future writers will learn how to avoid them.
Re: yupyup - jayseajay - Jan. 18th, 2012 12:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: yupyup - jayseajay - Jan. 18th, 2012 12:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: yupyup - strange_complex - Jan. 18th, 2012 11:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: yupyup - strange_complex - Jan. 18th, 2012 11:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
( 35 comments — Leave a comment )

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