Something I love (in the way a child might love macaroni and cheese) has become a football for shallow criticism, and it breaks my heart. Why does this sort of thing happen?
If you like Doctor Who, and read things on the internet, you've probably heard strong opinions about the most recent season of Doctor Who – specifically, that it's sort of mediocre and disappointing, maybe? Well, I hope to be to one to disappoint you, today. I suspect that people are exaggerating so audiences can feel better about arguing with each other. If you don't care about Doctor Who, skip down to the section talking about Ghostbusters and Captain Marvel (trust me, this is not about reviewing media).
There's a bit of irony here, but I first need to establish something important: that these strange online discussions are at least partially detached from reality.
Don't get me wrong, they're also mean-spirited. Welcome to the internet. And things have actual problems, so it's okay to acknowledge that. In this case, a lot of people point to the fact that the BBC hired Chris Chibnall to run the show. He's the credited writer on maybe the worst episode of recent Doctor Who, The Power of Three. It's largely incoherent until its extremely explicit 'And That's The Moral, Folks' ending. It's probably best not to expect much out of a show-runner like that.
But who'd blame Jodie Whittaker? She's a fantastically talented actress who's demonstrated she doesn't just have a great presence for gripping drama – she can even stoop to the saccharine and goofy realm of The Doctor. That's got to be an ego-challenging career transition, yet, her tone is perfect.
To skip over boring filler: If you're concerned the last season was slightly too madcap or unfocused, well, I'm going to guess you haven't seen much Doctor Who, have you? Whatever golden age you're imagining was also strange and aggressively campy. That's the show.
I might even go further: Doctor Who is bad television. I say that as a fan. It is so jam-packed full of childishness and out-of-place goofiness that it'll never be the cross-cultural hit people want it to be. Take, for instance, one of my favorite episodes, "Smith and Jones" – it introduces one of the more interesting companions, Martha Jones, has real heart, a fun race-against-the-clock adventure, and a splash of time-shenanigans. If you don't like this episode, Doctor Who might not be for you.
But in "Smith and Jones", David Tennant does a silly shoe dance to get radiation out of his system, the tension in the plot involves rhino space cops being bumbling investigators (did they not know they were after a plasmavore? why sweep the building with tests that plasmavores can fake?). It also contains a "you need to kiss me so I can give my pursuers the slip" romantic mislead cliche. This is a fun space romp, but if you expected it to be gritty sci-fi, you won't get much out of it.
There are two episodes (at least) where correctly the main characters need to answer trivia questions as a focus of the plot (here and here). Things really haven't changed much from classic Doctor Who. I've heard that they gave long expositions to Daleks in order to pad running time back in those day. Actually watching the older stuff, even at 2x speed, requires some patience. While the micro-budget CGI has a charming lack of pretense, the pacing was... leisurely.
It's probably worth clarifying I do actually like this show.
So when I say the most recent season, notable for having a female Doctor for the first time in the show's many-decades-long history, was not great and didn't have any stand-out hits, know: it's only because we're all spoiled by how good Doctor Who has been recently.
Parts of David Tennant's run were classic, but a lot less than people remember. It was still burning off the strange fart-alien child-energy of the early part of the reboot, and would eventually have an episode where people need to trust in their hearts the now-Gollumized Doctor will save them for him to be magically empowered to save the day.
Matt Smith had plenty of great moments, as did Peter Capaldi – but to say they produced intense science fiction for their entire run would forget all of the strange and bad stuff in there as well. They had arcs that developed more over time, but those were disappointing as often as not. But I think it's fair to say that Steven Moffat's era as showrunner built up people's expectations: this was Good Science Fiction that had Real Drama and definitely was not a goofy and embarrassing mess.
At some point, they needed to return to that classic feel, though.
So let's explore some of the (reasonable) complaints about the Thirteenth Doctor, just so I can exorcise this desperate need I have to be slightly sane in an insane corner of the internet, as well as justify this topic as being a specific example of a deeply strange mutual parasitism.
So, it's easy enough to point this out, but they teed up quite a bit of "culturally relevant" episodes, but didn't really develop the cultural commentary. We get to see Rosa Parks, and the Civil Rights struggle. There's a lot we can still learn from that time in history.
When they work through all their time shenanigans, the heroes have to be part of the system that treats Rosa Parks badly – so that she can stand up to it. That's, ya know, okay. They feel pretty bad about it. They also stop the future-nazi, who is definitely very bad.
Don't get me wrong, "it sucks to be racist" and "the mass-murdering racist was very evil" aren't exactly deep themes to be walking away with. But Doctor Who finally depicted racism halfway accurately, so that's pretty weird and new. And one of the spookiest (and best) episodes of Doctor Who ended with the moral "people repeating you is creepy", if it has any commentary at all. Maybe importing that habit of small kids into space wasn't supposed to be commentary on that behavior, but whatever. As much as it seems like it's teeing up a big message, at the end of the day, Doctor Who is all about tone, and the Rosa Parks episode gets the feel of the Jim Crow south quite well.
The episode about the India/Pakistan split also didn't have much to say about it, except, "putting people in groups helps them hate each other". That's not no commentary, it's an interesting idea, but it mostly criticizes people for being murderous religious zealots. Like, yup. That's bad. But again, the standards here are low – remember when The Doctor battled Satan by smashing pots on his porch? I do. I remember that.
Confused Character Arcs
Honestly, none of the companions have ever really had an arc. They just hung around until they were killed or lost to time or trapped in an alternate dimension or whatever. They didn't get stronger, or see the world differently, or really change much at all, really, with the exception of Amy and Rory Pond growing together.
If you expected those characters to change and develop over time, you forgot that this is still essentially the same show that just cheaply pumped out 20 minute episodes of slow-paced adventure schlock.
But if you're disappointed, you are. They clearly tried. It's not something I really paid any attention to.
Uninteresting Season Arc
This is the type of complaint that makes me think people are looking for issues.
Seasonal arcs can't be very good unless the villain is also traveling through time. If they aren't also time travelers, they can really only bump into them once or twice, so it'll be a tad underdeveloped. That's okay. You can fight an abstract force, or destiny, or try and solve a mystery, or give up. This has never been a strength of Doctor Who.
I know a lot of people have said that sexism is driving some of this backlash about Chibnall's reign of fine. But maybe the greater part might be just bog-standard disappointment. Well, I've got some news for you: watch some of the Classic Who stuff. If you can't handle near-constant disappointment, you might be mega-fans of the wrong long-running show. Trying weird things and going in strange directions, most of which will be painful to watch, is the baseline for Doctor Who. Having it be consistently pretty-okay is a revolution in quality, and should be considered a shocking advance in the state of the art. And that's what we've seen from Chibnall so far.
It just seems sort of mediocre if you loved the Smith-Capaldi stuff. That stuff was actually good about seven times a season.
Ghostbusters and Captain Marvel
Part of my complex feelings about this are because I don't believe there are this many people who are actually sexist – but they aren't really making any good points. If they don't have a point, why do they keep making it?
You'd have to be pretty stone cold stupid to think women can't do a job as well as a man, in 2019. Some people are dumb, but that dumb? And even stupid people would know to be ashamed of that type of thinking. But there is a kind of faux-edgy crypto-sexism that I see people winking at in this type of critique. Why did that 2016 Ghostbusters reboot get so much heat along these lines? It wasn't any more of an unfunny train wreck than any other comedy movie they make these days. Why does there seem to be a lot of Captain Marvel criticism-clickbait?
These things are allowed to exist because crypto-sexism and anti-crypto-sexism are strong group signals, and let people market their idea to an uncritical audience. Clearly, a critical audience would blow them off. Both groups rely on (and benefit from) their supposed enemies, and need people who are deeply skeptical of their character and weirdly committed to an opinion about mass-market art. One group is suspicious, because they see tokenism being used to prop up bad art, which would be strangely hypocritical. The other group is suspicious, because they see people in a tizzy about inoffensive art, and surmise their motives are to justify a bad (and wrong) ideology.
This might be a microstructure of clickbait. Yes, on the surface, just tempting people in general is effective. And being suspicious of people's motives is a very human activity. I guess people who don't read good fiction need an outlet for that. Things aren't as chaotic as they were in our ancestral environment, so those skills and impulses are almost totally unusable in real life. But it needs an outlet, even if only some people experience it strongly. So now there's entertainment, and commentary, for two groups, creating an informal group identity to be torn down in their rivals' eyes.
It's pretty silly, but no sillier than conspiracy theories. People really do need to demonstrate and practice skepticism, as well as empathy. Imagine people are more complicated than they seem, and make sure to notice if someone's secretly an enemy. Again, that sort of thing was useful for most of human history, it would make sense we'd need it in the same way we need to look at faces. But these days, with more boring and less deserving targets, it ends up looking like a fight over something stupid. Like, for instance, whether a hard-to-love show with a dedicated fan base is having their expectations met.
Even if there was honest-to-God sexism (and I'm sure that does exist, it's a big stupid internet), why would we need to criticize it? It's clear that the current staff of Doctor Who isn't trying to appeal to hardcore sexists, and they probably shouldn't devote any effort to trying. So if they don't like a female Doctor, then... okay? I'm fine with that, essentially, and there are more interesting people to laugh at. Aren't we all, collectively, fine with that reaction? Is this one of those weird grandpa-politics things, where this old show has a lot of 80 year old fans, and they just haven't changed with the times? I don't think the demographics for the new Doctor Who would justify that sort of concern. I don't think they need to pander to early Doctor Who viewers anymore (and I was glad, in the last Capaldi special, that they acknowledged how awkward it is that the early Doctor was super sexist and racist).
I suspect it's not practicality, but co-dependent meme-survival is what's driving it. One side makes unfairly harsh criticism, the other side calls them sexist, the first side justifies their criticism and can be offended by being called sexist (because sexism is bad, obviously), and the second side gets to say these people are doubling down on blah blah blah. That's the cycle. It's cheap clickbait that seems to make both sides money, but both need the other group to make any real money. They can't admit the whole thing is silly, without hurting their job – that's normal enough – but they also hurt their rivals' jobs. So if one side has an ubrupt dismissal, or ignores things completely, it can be seen as a form of attack, and feed into the outrage machine.
We should probably all take a lot longer to introspect about how what we consume impacts us, if strange, aggressive tactics like this are being used anywhere. If we don't routinely return to our basic values, there's no saying how turned around we might be – and imagine how bad that would be if it was about something that actually matters.
As far as I can tell, this is motivated by advertising. That's less obvious, some other times when this pops up.
Let's Talk About Talking About Talking
I recommend you watch this little gem. It is an analysis of something I'm convinced is the exact same phenomenon, popping up somewhere else. For those too impatient for a video that long: Big Joel argues that the online skeptic community transformed from largely arrogant atheists into a cultural rival of popcorn-feminism (like Jezebel and Buzzfeed) because that's how to match their strange and aggressive tone. It's a perfect tonal match between very... confident... atheists and the "common sense" ridicule of lazy clickbait social justice. Both address a group that definitely exists but isn't part of their conversation, and do so with staggering confidence – and a not-so-subtle suspicion that the other people are acting in bad faith (pun only marginally intended).
The Straussian reading of this video is that his initial fascination, the video where the political YouTuber says she's been faking her ideology, is not only honest but symmetric. Not necessarily with Big Joel, but in their own discussions. They criticize people, those people criticize them. But nobody means it. They need each other. They've even found something meaningful to talk about (compared to dumb culture stuff, at least – nobody is building a media bubble about criticizing nuclear security policies, so it's all relatively pointless).
So of course, when someone says, 'hey, everybody in my group is faking this stuff, either a little or a lot. I'm faking it, and I'm sick of that, and I'm walking away' they all, well, sort of ignore it. Big Joel isn't wrong to be fascinated with this strange upload from a prominent political voice online. It needs more attention.
Of course, if someone wanted to prove the other side was acting in bad faith, they'd be obsessed with this. But, unfortunately, they aren't being particularly honest either. Remember: saying the subject matter is not very important hurts both sides. Most people are squishes on every issue that gets them a polarized crowd, anyway. I think Big Joel is on to something when he says this genre has moved beyond political commitment, and so the question of sincerity has become meaningless to them. But that should terrify us. It's a toxic system, and it's invaded politics.
I don't want to inject myself too deep into things you might take seriously, but: if you like a non-local politician on Twitter, if you like how they have 'guts', for instance, that's almost certainly an example of this same dysfunctional pattern. You like them for standing up to people you don't like who see themselves as standing up to you. Without naming any names, all of those people (there are prominent examples on both the right and the left) are beyond sincerity, beyond what ought to be normal or encouraged. Maybe beyond what's even acceptable. Whether you can only see examples on your own side, or your opponent's, know: both exist, and there are plenty of them.
Let's remember: everybody is flawed, and basically trying to do something. The worst motives are generally petty ones, trying to keep their jobs or status. The best motives are generally quiet ones, like scholarship. Many people have principles, and coming to different conclusions than you doesn't mean their principles are even all that different. If they speak honestly, they're probably just like you. If they don't speak honestly, ignore them, even if they make you feel superior to people who are definitely wrong. The cost to listening to people like that, or those who repeat them, is measured in our souls.
Let's also remember that we're all basically trying to do our best, and have our say, and maybe modulate our tones to match our comfort with just telling someone to their face that they're wrong. It's okay to do that. I've had moments where I've done that with friends. And I'm sure they think I'm wrong! Not saying it helped us agree – but it did help us be comfortable disagreeing. And that's a good start for higher quality conversation.
And disagreeing isn't all that bad. I don't see why we should be so spooked by it, so motivated to get group status over people who disagree with us. So, they disagree. That's no problem at all. They're probably on to something, even if you can't see what it is. It's good to hear people out if they're being real with you. And maybe, just maybe, ease up when we notice