The Show Without Ego
Note: I wrote this for a fan-made Doctor Who publication called Enlightenment, and thought I’d post it here after the recent passing of Leonard Nimoy. It may be a piece about why I ultimately prefer Doctor Who to Star Trek, but it’s also about how Spock is the heart of the show. As I suggested on Twitter, Nimoy’s graceful portrayal of a thoughtful, curious character made life a little easier for me as a young introvert. For the uninitiated, a Doctor-lite episode is an episode of Doctor Who that doesn’t feature The Doctor very much.
For years, I instinctively felt Doctor Who was somehow even more open-minded than other science-fiction shows, including Star Trek, but for years I only thought of the more obvious reasons: Star Trek has themes of acceptance, but it’s ultimately using the narrative framework of a military ship in space. The show boils down to something along the lines of “We think all you life forms are really great but here, put on this uniform.” Even if the world of Star Trek clearly has millions of characters who aren’t in Starfleet, they’re marginalized non-characters, and anything remotely significant or that we’re allowed to see happens to a character in Starfleet. We love and care about the characters in Starfleet. Deep Space Nine is the one exception. As an ongoing drama, it blended Starfleet characters with others who’d never sign up in a thousand years. And arguably, it’s one of the more mature, dramatic Treks (Voyager was supposed to have a blended crew, but someone made the unfortunate decision to have the whole crew put on Starfleet uniforms in the pilot).
The Doctor, however, is the ultimate individual. He wears what he wants, travels where he wants and does it with the people of his choice. He even sheds his appearance from time to time, along with shifting the emphasis within his personality. In a way, he’s not even an individual as much as he’s assorted individuals. Personally, I’d rather have a cup of tea with the eleventh Doctor than the hard-nosed, UNIT advising third Doctor. He’s more in favour of preserving the status quo: the next time you have a look at The Time Warrior, notice how the third Doctor is interested in keeping the power in the hands of the upper-class character. Other than this particular incarnation, it’s safe to say the Doctor isn’t much of a joiner, except for a loose collection of people he thinks are pretty great. At best, he has an informal collection of friends and former companions.
So, let’s all pat ourselves on the back and go lecture some people dressed as Romulans, shall we? Wait, there’s more. For a long time, it struck me as somehow worthwhile that as a program, Doctor Who brought the viewer to a space station, a planet or a ship for at least a brief period before The Doctor arrived. Why? I wasn’t quite sure. But recently, I’ve sorted it out. There’s a respectfulness about an attempt to establish another culture, however briefly, before a central character arrives to introduce his or her viewpoint, and that’s quite different from beginning every story with a captain’s log and not meeting any aliens unless they appear on the viewing screen or Kirk and company have already arrived. It’s a subtle thing, but I think for Star Trek to use this particular format contributes to the Americanism of the show because the feeling on some level is that nothing much matters until the crew of the Enterprise gets there.
The only possible criticism here is that the foreign cultures on Doctor Who aren’t frequently established particularly well. It’s a group of British actors on a set establishing they’re on an old mining ship, or about to inherit an alien kingdom, and frequently trying to give a certain amount of natural feeling to explanatory dialogue that goes out of its way to create a setting. Potentially, the various planets in Doctor Who are all fragments of British culture, or are at least somehow a reflection of British imagination. But I think this is a reasonable conclusion for any science-fiction show, and that Star Trek reflects American culture, and American imagination. A character like Neelix, the relentlessly cheerful cook on Voyager, is alien only in appearance.
If the viewer arriving before a main character it creates a distinct difference – it gives the impression of a lasting universe with a nearly endless amount of variety, with the Doctor inspiring people to make whatever difference they can, whenever they can. He’s pretty much the ultimate example of a life well lived. He isn’t trying to get people over to his viewpoint or organization as much as improve worlds, communities, and lives.
None of this is to suggest Star Trek hasn’t done anything over the years for tolerance, or a love of diversity. Growing up, it gave me hope, and was a remarkably colourful, entertaining show with memorable characters. Kirk trying to find the middle ground between the logic of Spock and the passion of McCoy is one of the great character setups in popular entertainment today. It’s probably up there with Holmes and Watson. The sequel Star Trek shows have only been able to recreate it in fragmented ways, and now that the original characters are back it doesn’t seem, sadly, that it’s going to be about much more than making popcorn movies. Ultimately, the original show and Deep Space Nine remain my favourites, because of McCoy (who somehow manages to seem like he’s barely in Starfleet) and the blending of military and non-military characters on DS9. These are the Trek shows with a dramatic edge, a less narrow perspective, and a greater foothold in reality than the rest of them, simply because society will always be changing, and struggling through the process of integrating a variety of cultures and viewpoints.
If anything gives Star Trek heart, it is a fondness for the character who’s an outsider: Spock struggling to balance his human and Vulcan side, Data struggling to be human, Odo having next to no idea why he’s so different. If you’ve never noticed, Spock finally does “find himself” in the subplot of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, where he learns through the example the V’ger entity, discovering that “for all its knowledge, V’ger is barren, cold. Logic and knowledge are not enough.” In a later film, the now more peaceful Spock will admit, “Logic is the beginning of wisdom, but not the end.” I’m talking about the Leonard Nimoy character here, not the Spock who’ll smooch with Uhura in the transporter room later seen in the 2009 film. But to return to the point, logic and knowledge are not enough, and neither is it enough to have a single, more or less inflexible viewpoint and travel the universe encouraging people to conform. If there are any Trek characters the Doctor would appreciate, it’s likely these outsider characters, and I’ve no doubt any crossover stories written by fans instinctively pay attention to this.
Walt Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, and I contain multitudes.” The Doctor quite literally contains multitudes, and encourages nothing else. He isn’t flawless: people die, and there’s always struggle and loss on the way to a universe that’s a little safer for a sense of openness and inclusiveness. At the same time, the narrative framework of the show has quietly, and for a long time, helped by creating a less egocentric perspective. It’s a wide universe with the Doctor popping up here and there, not a series of events that only happen when he’s around. If anything troubles me about the revived Doctor Who series, it’s the lack of longer, two-part stories. I’d like to see more of them, at least partly because a longer Doctor Who story allows for a better look at this more distinct, less egocentric perspective I’m talking about, and multiple-episode stories help set Doctor Who apart from Trek, which is probably best known for single episode stories. It has been a long time, but there’s even an episode without the Doctor appearing at all (Mission to the Unknown, designed a prelude to The Daleks’ Master Plan, back in the 1960s), and even if it was done then to give the cast a week off or for some other reason related to production, it would be an interesting experiment to repeat, if only to help further establish the idea that it’s a tremendous, complicated universe the Doctor is travelling. As Philip Sandifer suggests in an essay for one of his collections, Mission to the Unknown is an occasion the Doctor simply doesn’t make it, and surely that happens sometimes? The Doctor is already scarce in occasional stories, but could the series go from a Doctor-lite episode to a Doctor-zero episode? Stranger things have happened.
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