Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Trauma and Doctor Who

In “Temporality and Trauma in American Sci-Fi Television,” Aris Mousoutzanis discusses how recent science fiction television shows display and discuss trauma. So is it to anyone’s surprise at all that I will be using this blog post to talk about Doctor Who? I mean, how many references to Doctor Who have I already made this semester on posts that actually have nothing to do with the show? I’ve been waiting for this moment all semester, and it seems my time has finally come.

Doctor Who is all about exploring the human condition (even if that exploration is through a two-hearted, virtually immortal alien that travels through time and space). It analyzes our relationship to time and space, but more importantly, to each other and how we relate to the events in our lives. The Doctor’s relationships with his companions highlight many different human interactions, from friendship, to romantic love, and everything in between. Conflicts often arise, especially when the Doctor’s companions take matters into their own hands and don’t listen to the Doctor’s directions (aka every decision Donna Noble makes). Unfortunately for the Doctor, every one of these relationships ends in heartbreak for all involved (except, again, Donna, but that fact is exceptionally heartbreaking for everyone else, audience included).

While these relationships can cause quite a bit of trauma for everyone involved (I will never be over Rose and the Tenth Doctor’s separation), Doctor Who also examines trauma through the events in the show and through technology itself. Mousoutzanis argues “that trauma sci-fi television should be seen as a very self-conscious, ‘metatextual’ television genre that reflects on certain aspects of the nature, function, and history of the medium of television itself. The fact that often the major event within these programs involves a technological accident or breakdown only highlights further such an approach” (97). Trauma science fiction provides a new vehicle for the discussion and analysis of trauma and how it situates itself in our lives.

In recent years, science fiction has evolved to focus on different ideas that our society finds relevant. His discussion on this transition and evolution of science fiction relates to post 9/11 studies of literature. Mousoutzanis writes:
The recent shift of focus in the genre of media events is further indicative of this dialectic between television and trauma. Whereas, in 1992, Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz were classifying media events in terms of ceremonies, contests, and conquests, by 2007 Katz and Tamar Liebes were arguing that the focus has now shifted to disaster, terror, and war, not necessarily because there has been an increase in the occurrence of these events, but because the proliferation of media technologies make these events more visible at a global scale. (105)
After about five years after September 11, 2001, television and literature in general began to be much more critical of war and the government. While the events of September 11 definitely spurred this transition, Mousoutzanis notes that updating technology itself also fueled the increase in the visibility of war, terror, and disaster. Every time there is a shooting (and the fact that I have to say “every time” because shootings have become almost commonplace is quite telling), the shooter(s)’ and victims’ faces are plastered all over the news, and hundreds of news outlets and social media sites provide nonstop coverage of the unfolding events and aftermath. Yesterday, terrorists attacked Brussels, Belgium, and you can bet that the news will attempt to give the public every piece of information possible. This is not always a bad thing, because victims of the attacks need our support, but many different biased news outlets and celebrities and politicians use the immediacy of technology to hijack these tragedies for their own gain. The instantaneity of new technology allows for more discussion of these events, and naturally, that discussion transfers over into other new media, such as television shows.

            Doctor Who was created in the 1960s and “ended” in 1989. Throughout what is now called “Classic Who,” the villains are almost solely aliens from distant planets, like the Daleks from the planet Skaro. Classic Who does sometimes venture into painting “government officials” in a negative light, such as the superior Time Lords back on Gallifrey, but again, they were still aliens and distant from the human characters. When Doctor Who rebooted in 2005, the viewer finds out that, sometime during the hiatus, the Doctor’s home planet of Gallifrey was destroyed in the Time War between the Time Lords and the Daleks. As Mousoutzanis writes, the “focus has now shifted to disaster, terror, and war” (105). The new iteration of the show starts immediately with a focus on the aftermath of war and the Doctor’s ability or inability to cope with being the last of his kind. I will note that the response and eventual storyline relating to the destruction of Gallifrey is extremely interesting, as SPOILER FOR END OF SEASON 7 AND ON, the writers eventually bring Gallifrey back at the end of the 7th season. They are able to explain and then reverse or reroute what happened in those hiatus years for the Doctor. Even though we as a society are very interested in trauma and the exploration of war, terror, and disaster, we still want that happy ending. We want a resolution, and this newest revelation that Gallifrey still exists and is suspended in a moment in time allows us to both experience the trauma while still getting that happier resolution and wish fulfullment.

Interestingly enough, when the villains hailed from closer to home, in both the classic and new show, they usually do so through some use of technology, like the Cybermen. Mousoutzanis argues,
It may be seen as quite ironic that, even if they have relied on any possible resource provided by new technologies for the production and consumption of their narrative, many of these shows are quite technophobic, and not only for the compulsive restaging of plane crashes and car accidents mentioned above. Abduction narratives like The X-Files often provide fantasies of technological breakdown: abductions are marked by electrical failures in the car, power surges in televisions, clocks stopping. (136)

Technology, while still extremely useful for the Doctor in his travels and adventures (after all, he would not be able to go anywhere without his TARDIS, and his sonic screwdriver is quite useful), technology has a way of messing everything up. It creates the Cybermen. Alien technology is used against Earth. Every time something goes wrong for the Doctor, it is almost always due to a technology failure, be it his sonic screwdriver’s inability to work on wood, electrical outages, and so on. The bigger and more powerful the technology, the more devastating the consequences, as Wolfgang Schivelbusch notes (Mousoutzanis (136). Time Lord technology (creating spaces that are bigger on the inside) is ultimately used against the Doctor in the episode “Doomsday,” and leads to one of the saddest and most traumatic moments in the show for many fans. While Doctor Who may not be as trauma-focused as other shows Mousoutzanis mentions, such as Lost, 24, and The X-Files, it still effectively displays the correlation between trauma and technology through the medium of television.


  1. I agree on your use of Doctor Who when talking about trauma in television in relation to overall trauma (as it happens in the world and show) as well as the trauma of the individual (the viewer). Doctor Who is a series that readily and openly thrusts trauma at the viewer and simply saying "deal with it." Even something as little as the Doctor "dying" and regenerating every few seasons (or after one season, in the case of the Ninth Doctor) is trauma to the viewer, especially to the uninitiated viewer who doesn't know what is happening or going to happen. I also agree that viewers and people in general want the "happy ending," which often provides problems with how television (and other narratives) are written. Because authors want to be the "good person" and let their characters live and their readers/viewers rejoice, the narratives are often skewed in terms of relative believability or, in a way, honesty. To quote John Bender from The Breakfast Club, "Screws fall out all the time, the world is an imperfect place" (which ironically ends with a happy ending). Although we always want the happy ending, it isn't really necessary or otherwise useful (as Mousoutzanis and other critics argue). Trauma is part of the human condition, and lack of trauma in a narrative removes that aspect of the human condition. In your example, Gallifrey is destroyed during the show's hiatus (and introduced as such), which leads to the visual and emotional heartbreak and trauma of the main character (which is then transferred to the viewer). Later in the series (as you mentioned, SPOILER ALERT), the planet is then reintroduced through temporal play and deus ex machina, both to the rejoice of many and the outrage of others (who feel as if the destruction of Gallifrey was necessary to the current character of The Doctor). Although The Doctor isn't human (but a humanoid alien), he is still subjected (as a character) to the human condition, which includes trauma (as shown many times in the show).

  2. I really loved reading this article, especially since a friend and myself were recently arguing about the cop out feel of the show when dealing with trauma. Both of us felt negatively towards the idea of Galifrey being saved and more importantly, with SPOILER AHEAD, that they chickened out on keeping Clara dead. It felt that more than likely, the show is afraid to keep actual trauma within a series, and like you said, want to deliver on that happy ending that so many people desire. Even living in a post-9/11 world, the time has come to pass that it may be worth exploring making the trauma worse. Even though bad things happen everyday, should a work of fiction try to put a positive spin on the world to help cushion reality for it's viewers? It's shows like Netflix originals (looking at Daredevil and Jessica Jones) that I have found myself going towards. I no longer want the hero to prevail, to be able to go through a trauma and come out with some sort of happy ending. Too many of these fictional shows use trauma to draw in a viewer and make them believe that their trauma is wide spread, and in the end things will get better. That's not the way the world works though. I believe, as viewers, we need to begin to push for these people to show more of the nitty gritty of the world we live in. With Doctor Who, despite Moffat's notoriety for destroying things people love, he still gives them a way to believe things could be better. I believe with Capaldi's doctor, and hopefully with the new show runner once Moffat leaves, we may get to see a side of the Doctor that will never truly get a happy ending with himself.