Everybody Needs a Good Hero

One thing about writing DW fiction that has amazed me has been the response to my depiction of Jon Pertwee's Doctor, the Third Doctor. I have gotten e-mails from men, women, young people, elderly people, Christian people, a Buddhist, people who practice atheism, and even those whose lifestyle shows a clear departure from the moral reference points that I hold dear.

What unites most of the responses has been the cry for understanding. Many readers have shared the common experience of having suffered abuse or abandonment by one or both parents. I can't find a typical age in these responses. I think that most of the people who have written are probably younger than I am--mid to late twenties is my guess. But I have also received responses from people my age and older.

The overwhelming tone has been one of camaraderie and tenderness. I hear from many people who are adopted or who lost a parent early in life or endured some other hardship as children. But rather than spending most of their message time lamenting over their experiences, most letters I receive are from people who--like me--really want to put an unpleasant past behind them and be happy. They share with me the experience of enjoying the optimism of Doctor Who, and most of them were introduced to the Doctor while also being in the difficult situation. So Doctor Who was their escape, just like it was for me. The Doctor is the childhood friend of the friendless and forgotten. Jon Pertwee himself discovered that aspect of the Doctor's appeal and remarked upon it.

The Typical Reader

Directly in line with my observations, I have also found that Hounds and Hares has been my most popular story. I wrote it as a tribute to Jon Pertwee after his death, and it reads almost like a Hardy Boys book. It's got a lot of running around and escaping in it, and it includes some commentary on science fiction itself. One central issue that it deals with is abuse and how to deal with it.
I thought that this story would be a dud, but it has generated a lot of e-mail and comments. It focuses heavily on a boy and girl who help the Doctor and Sarah, and in the course of the adventure actually come to mean a great deal to the time lord and his companion.

What I did not realize was that so many readers of DW are still children themselves. We fool our college aged students into thinking they are adults, and they fool themselves, too. Until I taught college part time for a few years, I forgot that---at 20, or 21, or 22---while these poor children are experimenting with things they are still too young to fully understand and appreciate (like each other), they still desperately need to be loved for what they are, to be accepted, and--yes--to be corrected and scolded and reassured that the universe still operates along certain guidelines. Even my most cynical students, while boasting about sexual conquests or the vast quantities of alcohol they can consume, or the cars/stereos/computers they operate, can still respond to stories that address their basic needs: to be parented, to play a valuable role in a worthwhile endeavour, to do good and be on the side of right. For them, story serves the same function that it has served throughout mankind's history: comforting them and stretching them to consider what is truly of value.

This is what Doctor Who is about. It's the band of heroes thrust week after week into a new combat against evil. Granted, in the Hartnell era (the first of the seven Doctors), the Doctor was ambiguous and often regarded himself as above good and evil, at least in theory. The other characters in the band established the tone of solid British Middle Class decency. Of course, in the worst pinch, the Doctor would come through: find the cure, create the weapon, figure out the escape, etc. In the Hartnell era, the Doctor was actually the vehicle of the story (the cause of the conflict and the source of the solution), while his companions were the adventurers and the solid good guys.

But by the advent of the second Doctor (Troughton), our timelord was more clearly established as a hero. As the lovable teacher and father figure to Jamie, and as the comic clown, he introduced the young viewer to a new concept of Goodness. Goodness could be decent and compassionate, and even brilliant, but also funny and endearing.

With Pertwee's third Doctor, the crusader emerges. Certainly Pertwee himself wanted to create a Doctor who was clearly a good guy, and Barry Letts' own morality agreed with that direction, though, as he admitted, he wanted a Doctor that had a few faults in him. So they created a celestial knight errant with a few holes in his armor that he'd patched the best way he could.

It's in the Pertwee era that we most clearly get the "We are the good guys and the invaders are the bad guys" theme repeated over and over. And while viewers today find fault with such a provincial attitude, it was Pertwee's Doctor that first went overseas in viewership and became popular on a larger scale than had been attained in the previous eras.

Story Emerges in Doctor Who

Pertwee's Doctor is the Doctor of story. With the Third Doctor, the reader expects a clearly defined battle, clearly defined villains, and a clearly defined storyline. There must be ingenious methods or devices of warfare and destruction. There has to be a rescue. There even has to be suffering among the good guys. When I was 12, one story that effected me very much was DAY OF THE DALEKS, because in it the Doctor is scourged, and later he is tortured by the Mind Analysis machine and brought to the brink of death. (The other failings of the DAY OF THE DALEKS story were lost on me until I saw more of the Daleks in other stories.)
The idea that the hero could be harmed increased my fascination for this straightforward type of story. Granted, we expect the Doctor to rescue Liz/Jo/Sarah, but there are also times when the less abled good guys band together and rescue him. And this characteristic increases the message that all the good guys are somehow equals. They may differ in amount of skill or ability, but they are all essentially made of the same stuff.

When I taught college English to freshmen, I noticed that they responded to straightforward, good vs. bad stories about the same way that I did. Story itself still had the power to hold their interest. We always started the English 102 semester with a quick review of some of literature's best known legends and epics. I'd start with the Pardoner's Tale from Chaucer: "Three Young men and Death," and this grimly ironic tale set them up for an introduction of narrating and discussing stories. And when I moved on to the Wife of Bath's Tale (simply telling it to them in my own words to give them an idea of the wit and feel of it), they would soon realize that this was truly "story time." They would relax and listen, surprised that a bit of English class could be genuinely entertaining. The riddle from the Wife of Bath, "What do women truly want" could engage them, and as we wandered through the story together, they were as interested and ready to guess at possible answers as any fourteenth century audience. In our first class, we would cover many quick narrations of famous stories, of adventurous bits of English history, of true events that had been immortalized in poems.

That first class was designed to awaken them to the power of story, and they usually responded with enthusiasm by the end. I'm glad that they could still respond, for I believe that the role of story is to feed the human soul's desire for goodness and rightness to triumph. In time, perhaps the cynicism that is so overwhelmingly marketed to teenagers and twentysomethings may take away the basic needs of the soul that they can still feel. Pretty soon, if the ultra-secularized, exceptionally shallow and oversexed commercial communciations industry has its way, all things worthy of consideration and reflection will be imitated by worthless counterparts. (Rather like what Disney has done with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules.)

The Decline of Story in Doctor Who

Eventually, if our society of marketing and packaging has its way, all that will be left of personal relationships will be what a person can get, and ethics and values will be reduced in the minds of men and women to mere social mores and outward behaviors rather than absolutes. At that point, story will become mere entertainment on an almost purely sensual level, and a tale will be evaluated on its shock value, graphic detail, special effects, music, and technical accomplishment rather than on what it is actually about. Because, by that time, the stories that people read or watch will not really be about anything at all. A story will be something that acts on the reader's senses rather than appealing to his mind and personality.

I sense the continuation of childhood's needs most strongly in college students because I have learned a lot about them. But I ultimately realized that the needs of childhood continue well into adulthood for most people--including me. We all come into this world and continue through it with a priori needs and desires that can be appealed to by means of story. Until those parts of us are killed or repressed into oblivion, story can continue to awaken us to the glory and the mystery that surrounds us, and it can heighten our awareness of the importance of the role that each of us can play.

This desire for story is what prevents me from really liking the rest of Doctor Who beyond the Third Doctor. I agree that the first year or two of the Fourth Doctor included many elements from the previous era. But once the lamentable "gothic" stories began, and Doctor Who became self-referential, I think the decline was inevitable.

Granted, the season in which we saw Frankenstein and Day of the Triffids retold as Doctor Who stories were popular. But they were not enduring. For a moment, the viewer's attention could be held by seeing how the director and producers refitted Shelley's tale for the Doctor. And the Doctor's nattering was entertaining. But twenty years after the fact, what "sticks" with the viewer from Doctor Who are the moments when the Controller suddenly finds his courage and intervenes with the Daleks in order to save the Doctor, when Jo steps in front of Azal's energy blast, when Barnham tries to save the Master from the Keller Machine and is run down and killed. Those are the moments when Good is enticingly good and we long for it in us, and when evil sends a horrifying thrill into us, and we are afraid of it simply because it is evil.

Robbed of the elements that make for a strong storyline, Doctor Who slowly slipped towards being insipid. Brilliance and innovation in some of the stories halted the decline and slowed it. Talent and skill in the actors helped, and the format itself remained engaging. But still it declined. Some of the companions became too ambiguous or downright unlikable. The Doctor himself could not maintain a clearly defined characterization, though this was improving right at the end.

The greatest evidence of the decline, of course, was the lamentable movie, in which the Doctor was insipid, the companions needed counseling more than they needed rescue, and the primary vehicle of the story was a flashy motorcycle instead of an interesting plot. Everybody was young, beautiful, and pathetic. My question at the end was "Did Disney make this movie?"

These days, Doctor Who as it exists commercially is a pool of hard SF about self-engrossed or morally detached characters, read by a limited audience most noteworthy for its own self-promotion as the torch bearers for Doctor Who. And yet the modern Doctor Who is not the Doctor remembered by that larger group of people who also regard themselves as fans of the Doctor. The Doctor that exists in the ethos of the British culture is that simpler, more straightforward character who finds the evil (or else is targeted by it) and fights it with ingenuity, good humor, and the help of a youthful human being or two.

Telling Story

We are each of us our own story, but we hear the tale told intentively, from end to end, only when our lives are ending or are over. I'm afraid that--in losing sight of the struggle between good and evil in stories--we are in danger of losing sight of the struggle of good and evil in ourselves. It's possible to buy into the contemporary interpretations of the hero and thus view doing good as an option and not as a necessity. Heroes today are the guys who win, not necessarily the guys who do what's right.
So while some light is left, I plan to write stories, whether or not they are Doctor Who stories. If a story can awaken a reader to what life is really about, I'll keep depicting steam tunnels and rock quarries, desperate chases in the darkness towards light, terrible deaths and valiant rescues. In the end, what I'm finding is that we're all children in some respects, until the soul becomes convinced that it doesn't exist at all and then shuts down to conscience and faith and sacrifice. And then, for any practical purpose, it doesn't really exist. Childhood ends, and story ceases to serve its function. We get prolonged self analysis instead of straightforward adventure.

Return to Jeri's Doctor Who Non-Fiction Page
Return to Jeri's Doctor Who Fiction Page
Return to Jeri's home page