Thursday, April 26, 2007

A cultural analysis of Doctor Who and Star Trek

From a cultural standpoint, it makes no sense to me why Star Trek is an American science fiction fantasy and Doctor Who is a British one. You’d think it would be the other way around.

Let’s look at the British, who are said to be more class-conscious than Americans. They have a monarchy, the House of Lords, and a history of limited social mobility. At first glance, they seem to be all about adhering to hierarchy. You’d think they would be the ones to dream in terms of rank and duty when it comes to escapist TV. That they would be the ones to create the fantasy of living on the Enterprise, a spaceship that looks an awful lot like the setting many people work in.

But they didn’t. They came up with Doctor Who, an unemployed individualist who roams aimlessly throughout space and time wearing whatever he wants. Excuse me, but there’s been a mistake here. That should be our fantasy. We’re the ones who are supposed to be all about informality and living outside stuffy social conventions.

With its short-napped carpet and drab colors, all the Enterprise needs is cubicles and Styrofoam coffee cups to pretty much recreate the office settings in which many of us toil and suffer. Those uniforms, the ones on the TV shows at least, appear to be made of the same material as the ones worn by fast food employees. This does not look to me like fiction created by yahoos who left the Old World to roll like a lawless wave over the continent, stealing land from the natives and answering to no one. We’ve produced cowboys and carpetbaggers, been a nation of fortune seekers and nonconformists. But now you can’t ride west on a Conestoga to stake a claim anymore. We’ve tamed ourselves, or been tamed by those who managed to find themselves in charge of things. So how come when we get home from our dumbass Secret Santa parties and performance reviews we want to sit down and watch other people at work?

To me, being a member of the Enterprise crew would be almost as bad as being Borg. No wonder Seven of Nine switched loyalties so easily. The crew lives at work. They have to follow orders and file reports. And for the vast majority of crew members, the ones with lower rank who never make it to the bridge, their lives must be incredibly boring. Sure, maybe they can look out the window and see enemy ships firing away and know things aren’t good, but they probably don’t know the finer details of what’s going on, and they’re supposed to just go about their jobs like it’s none of their business. They’re stoic in their devotion to duty. Everybody on Star Trek seems to be preoccupied with upholding professional roles with the utmost decorum. Rarely does anyone kid around, swear, flirt with any real enthusiasm, say anything off color, etc. And there’s always a plan on Star Trek. They’re always leaving one place and trying to get to another on time.

What a fucking nightmare.

They seem to derive all their satisfaction in life from the fact that they are proud to be members of Star Fleet. They are such elitists that all they need from life is to belong to this Ivy League-like alumni group of Starfleet Academy graduates. Or they believe so much in the Star Fleet mission, they just love being a part of it. They don’t always agree, but they remain staunchly loyal to each other.

That’s the kind of horseshit thinking that we Americans fought the Revolution to overthrow.

I like the Doctor Who character because he chooses to run around with people he enjoys, and eventually he parts ways with those folks (his assistants) before the relationship wears too thin. Mostly he chooses females, and the question of whether or not he’s dating them adds a fun ambiguity to the show. If I remember correctly, Janeway’s rank prevented her from dating anyone on the Enterprise, and she had to seek romantic solace on the Holodeck. In my mind, that’s just high-tech masturbation, which is not very glamorous. It’s mean to the character, too, and possibly evidence of sex discrimination. You can’t tell me Captain Kirk abided by the Don’t Fuck Beneath Your Rank rule. And as for the sexual tension between Captain Picard and Dr. Beverly Crusher, that was next to no fun because they were both such bastions of good Star Fleet character they didn’t flirt much.

Once you join Starfleet, you put on that uniform and leave much of your individuality behind. Doctor Who might go from having a reporter assistant in camo pants to a jungle/cavewoman assistant in a suede bathing suit. Most recently he traded up a shop girl for medical student. The diversity of these characters and the fact that they don’t have to conform to any organizational standards or codes of conduct keeps the show refreshing.

It’s not like Doctor Who is a hedonist with no responsibilities at all. He feels obligated to save the earth or whatever planet he’s on if the need arises, but it’s not such a pain in the ass when you know nobody expects you to do it. And if you don’t know when you get out of bed in the morning that you’re going to have to save the world, you don’t waste all morning dreading it.

The doctor is more entertaining because he has no rank. In fact, his credentials as an actual doctor are in question. He carries no gun and mostly just bullshits his way through confrontations. Wouldn’t that be great if we didn’t have to get degrees, practice at the shooting range to stay sharp, or move up the ranks?

Rarely do characters in the Who universe follow orders. In fact, if they’re given an order you can almost go ahead and assume they’re not going to do it. He might get pissed off, but the Doctor does not regretfully tell them he’ll have to put disciplinary letters in their permanent files. I think Picard’s underlings would have told him to cram the disciplinary file up his ass sideways if they weren’t trapped on the same ship with him and his security officer.

Perhaps these examples of Science Fiction dreams are compensatory. I’ve read somewhere – forgive me but I don’t remember where – that people tend to dream of what they don’t have because the unconscious needs a sense of balance. So in the land of individualism, we dream dreams of characters giving themselves to a collective, to Star Fleet. And the more socially striated English unconscious dreams in a much less structured fashion.

Or maybe over here we’ve become so obsessed with guns and military whoopass we can’t even dream without them.


Kiri said...

Nice analysis. Interesting dichotomy that you've pointed out here. Still, you gotta admit that there is something supremely British about Doctor Who - the sheer unlikeliness of it all, the sheer whimsy. We may be the land of cowboys and rugged individualism, but there is a certain "seriousness" in American culture, or rather, an expectation that financial success will be the bottom line. The Doctor is unemployed - no mortgage, never a wonder about where his next meal is coming from. In Star Fleet we know that all meals come from a hole in the wall, and you know there's a gov't paying for it all.

verona said...

Right. Star Trek is pro (Star Fleet) government, while Dr. Who generally distrusts governments.

I wonder why we're so serious and they've still got such capacity for whimsey?

Anonymous said...

Hmm. As a Brit, I beg to differ with your analysis of the two cultures. In Britain there has always been a very strong social movement toward humanism and a very deep place in society for the eccentric. People who are eccentric are truly accepted, much more than they are in America (where I now live). It's my experience that Americans see themselves as being rugged individualists while actually doing their very best to conform, and shunning anyone who dares to be odd.

Don't confuse the British Empire of the 1900s with modern Britain, which has moved on so much that things like interracial marriage, and giving birth out of wedlock, are fully acceptable -- not a stigma, as they are here. And don't assume that because the history of the US is full of individuals doing whatever they wanted to, that America is comfortable with eccentricity. The origins of America, as you know, are in Puritanism; and despite the self-image, they carry those Puritan roots everywhere, down through time.

Since the 1970s, America has been moving more and more toward that Star Trek ideal, partly because that ideal appeals to so many Americans. You're right; it's a horrible ideal. But Americans must like it, or they wouldn't be living this way, would they? I'd say the culture followed the show, not the other way around.

Anonymous said...

Pour moi, Doctor Who est sans conteste la meilleure série qui existe, et c'est une très bonne analyse que vous nous offrez là. Je pense, personnellement que, il y'a beaucoup de double-sens ('double mining' I think, in your mother tong) A chaque fois que je regarde un épisode de Doctor Who, je ne peux m'empêcher de penser qu'il fait un éloge de l'angleterre, vraiment. A bien y regarder, ça devient évident !