The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Television, Hope, and a Doctor

I think that television gets a bad rap. Now, don't get me wrong, I do agree with those who hold that the average American (and likely the average person from many industrialized nations) watches far more television than is healthy, but this does not mean that television itself is a great evil.

Thinking back to my childhood, there was one show that was very important to me. It was a science fiction/fantasy show, and it was fun, but that's not what made it important to me. What made it important was that it's lead character was one that I could identify with, and it gave me a sense of hope that was extremely important given where I was living and who I grew up around. The show was Doctor Who. The original run of the series was aired in the United States on PBS stations during the 1980s, and it wasn't the slickly produced show that people viewing the current run of the series would know, but it was (like many BBC productions) a low-budget affair (at least as compared to the American equivalents) with abundant over-acting, silly costumes, laughable sets, and special effects that, as I once read somewhere, inspire the sort of affection that one might have for a three-legged dog.

Here's a couple of images to give you a taste:

So, why did a show that, when compared to the production values and acting of most American Science Fiction shows truly was lacking, become so important to a kid growing up in California in the 1980s? The answer to that question lies in two places: who I was as a child, and the lead character of the show.

I grew up in Salida, California. It's a small town that is now essentially a suburb of the city of Modesto, but was a bit more isolated when I was a kid. California's Central Valley, in which Salida is situated, was and remains one of the world's agricultural powerhouses. Local industries were largely based around agriculture and the transport of agricultural products, and Salida had a very blue collar and rural character when I was a kid*. There was nothing wrong with this, in and of itself, but it meant that I didn't fit in.

I was a brainy kid who enjoyed reading and enjoyed imagination, but who lacked coordination or muscle strength. I was the definition of unathletic, and was disinterested in sports. Given that sports were important to many of the people - adult and child alike - where I lived, this marked me as an outsider. Worse was the fact that the community in which I lived didn't much value education past the high school level (I have written about this before) and so my interest in reading, and the fact that I was just as interested in reading non-fiction as fiction, was one factor that led to me being branded a "nerd."

Another factor was the fact that I just didn't get how to socialize. I found it difficult to understand subjects that were popular (football, professional wrestling, pop music) which made it difficult to talk about them. I had, and often exercised, the potential to be very boring by talking about topics that interested me and none of my peers. I couldn't comprehend many of the more subtle social cues that the other kids were learning and employing, and therefore any attempt that I made to relate to them fell flat, and often led to ridicule. Even something as seemingly simple as dressing to fit in failed, as I failed to grasp the often small differences that made one article of clothing popular and another undesirable. There are alot of potential explanations for this, but I'm not interested in getting into them here. The end result, though, is that I was the oddball, and in the neighborhood in which I lived, this meant that I was constantly tormented by bullies, and was even bullied and tormented by the kids who were known for being kind and gentle to pretty much everybody else. In the town in which I lived, few adults noticed this, and most of the few who did (including many school personnel) ignored it and a few even approved of and encouraged it (I remember one occasion when the father of one of the worst bullies - one who actually made death threats to me - informed my father that if I was incapable of fighting off six other kids at once, then I deserved to get beaten up).

At least once a week I came home from school with bruises and cuts from getting beaten up by a group of kids, having objects including metal shards, rocks, and broken glass thrown at me as I walked home from school was not uncommon. Even trying to isolate myself didn't help, as I would be sought out by kids wanting to cause me grief - to the point that I could be sitting in my yard at home and have someone walk up and start throwing punches at me. With the exception of two kids who were genuinely my friends, most of those I called friends were just the kids who let me hang out with them so that they would have someone to pick on. It got to the point that, by the time I was 13, I assumed that all friendly gestures were simply a set-up for me to be embarrassed.

My parents did what they could, but their help alternated between simply being a sympathetic ear, to trying to get uninterested school administrators to do something, to encouraging me to "try to fit in" while not listening when I tried to explain that that was precisely what I had been doing.

And so when I discovered Doctor Who, it was a validation.

You see, the lead character, known only as The Doctor, was a time-traveling scientist-adventurer from another world given to weird eccentricities. His eccentricities weren't due solely to his being an alien, he was a definite oddball even when he met with members of his own species. But the Doctor was never a "fish out of water." He always know what he was doing, and how he was doing it, and if other people took issue with his general weirdness, well, that was their problem, not his. The Doctor had all of the traits of the nerd or geek - strong intellect, esoteric interests, an aversion to violence, a tendency to monologue on matters of interest to nobody but him, and fashion sense so atrocious as to become weirdly brilliant (see the photo below) - and yet he was neither a nerd or a geek. He had transcended such labels. And unlike the brainy characters of so many television shows, the Doctor was not the sidekick or technical support to an action hero, he was the hero and he often put a stop to the violence and chaos caused by "action hero" type characters when they appeared. He used his intellect, sense of compassion, and strong sense of justice to put an end to the villains, and he did so while never carrying a weapon and only occasionally resorting to doing so much as hitting anyone (and most of that during the time that the character was in his third incarnation - oh yeah, the Doctor could change bodies rather than dying, which allowed the production staff to hire a new actor when the old one decided to go).

All of this stood in contrast to the rest of the pop culture to which I was exposed. The Doctor was usually played by a middle-aged actor in fairly average physical condition, quite the contrast to the stars of the action movies that were popular at the time. The Doctor always solved problems via his intellect and eschewed violence (the only time in the original series that I can recall him picking up a gun with an intention to fire it, it was made very clear that he was disgusted with himself for doing so and that he couldn't bring himself to use it in the end), in contrast to most of the other media role-models offered up to boys. Although the Doctor was willing to work with a team, he was just as willing to go it alone, unlike most other oddball fictional characters (contrast this with another geek culture icon, Mr. Spock, who longs to fit in and reaches his apex as a member of a team following Captain Kirk).

This was the message that I needed to hear: "don't worry about not fitting in, the problem isn't you, and just because you are the outsider doesn't mean that you can't be brilliant." Seeing this on a television show made for a broad audience (albeit a British rather than American audience), and a television show that I quickly learned had been running for several decades, meant that enough actors, producers, television executives, etc. etc. - and most importantly, enough of an audience - found the notion of the heroic eccentric outsider plausible or compelling enough for the show to have been successful. This meant, I reasoned, that as alone as I usually felt, I really wasn't - there were plenty of other people out there like me, and I would find them eventually.

So, really, television did one very positive thing for me. It introduced me to the concept that I was not alone, that I was not doomed to be the butt of ridicule and a literal punching bag forever, and I might even come into my own and become someone of importance, however small and lonely I often felt. I needed that as a child, and so when I hear that television is somehow inherently bad for children, I often think that the person making the claim is cherry-picking their evidence. Yes, alot of kids watch too much television to the exclusion of other things. But even the silliest of shows can be a window into a wider world that a child may need to see.

*This began to change in the late 80s, and is only somewhat true now. Lower land costs in the Central Valley during the 80s and 90s led to many Silicon Valley professionals buying houses and commuting form between 4 and 6 hours on their daily round trip. This changed alot of things about the area, including the general character of the cities and towns, and they have become rather "yuppified" as compared to what they were when I was a kid.


randompawses said...

I love Doctor Who! Tom Baker was "my" Doctor - it was during his tenure that I found and fell in love with the show. Now that my husband and I have hooked our oldest son on the new series, we need to invest in the earlier series' DVDs and show him how much fun it was then - even with cheesy low-budget special effects! (Which was actually part of the charm, oddly enough...)

I was always an outsider growing up too, although I didn't have anywhere near as much violence perpetrated on me as you did. The school authorities and those douchebag parents of the other kids should have been horsewhipped!

wv: munation. Sounds like the name of an old Doctor Who society - the Mu Nation! LOL

Anthroslug said...

I wonder how he'll react. I got my nephews to watch the new series, but I have been a bit unsure about having them watch the old one - it's so different from anything that they are used to that they may simply not "get" it.

The Lonely Traveler said...

I too was an oddball, still am, but I had a few friends. I remember the kids like you from school... I watched them get tormented. Never participated, but then never intervened either.

I got my nephew onto the new series as well. He too is very smart, but hides it and doesn't apply himself so that he can fit in with the kids he wants to fit in with.

and so it goes...