Friday, December 23, 2011

Thirteen Days of Doctor Who: Neil Gaiman and the Allegory of the TARDIS

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Ever wonder why are ships referred to in feminine terms?  Me too!  So, first I broke out the Google Fu and found that perhaps up until the Sixteenth Century, ships and sailing vessels were referred to in masculine terms.  Really? Makes sense I suppose because it’s easy to imagine Vikings naming their longboats after Odin or Thor instead of Freyja or Nanna and the Greeks and Romans might have paid homage to the gods instead of the goddesses as well.  Even the brilliant research librarian at my local branch was stumped about the change.  Though, I’m sure that next time I’m there, she’ll beckon me over with a stack of books on this very subject.  My opinion?  Sailors are known to be both superstitious and a little bit crazy, which endears them to me over all the other branches of the military.  Discipline and logic can only take you so far until a healthy dose of nutty makes them irresistible, decked out in those tight pants.  For example, a naked woman on board a ship is considered good luck but a clothed one—not so much.  As a matter of fact, most female passengers who didn’t hold the title of the captain’s wife, ran the risk of being thrown overboard to appease angry gods and rough seas. Talk about a crash course in swimming lessons.  Supposedly, a bare-chested woman (even a figurehead of one carved into the mast) possessed the power to tame the waves.
  Right. Sure she did.  Remember that sentence about superstitious and crazy? Okay, there’s your proof. But having a lone female on a ship full of men surely would’ve been distracting and perhaps deadly for all concerned.  You need focus to keep everything in good working order and any male/female ratio where the male number is greater than two can only lead to eventual disaster and ruination.

I much prefer the part of my search that says that sailors referred to their vessels in feminine terms because they needed love and comfort in addition to fortitude.  Men are certainly capable of providing those emotions to other men. They offer it everyday as fathers, sons, brothers, friends and lovers.  But usually that’s the job of women, and tradition dictates the attraction of opposites.  With sea travel being such a long and arduous way to navigate the world, men were separated from their loved ones for extended periods and their existence and well-being depended upon their ability to manage and care for their transport vessel.  Those vessels that would be their boon companions throughout their many adventures, even 900 plus years’ worth.  Ha!  I’m sure you wondered when I’d get around to it. Sorry for being a tiny bit evil.

It’s no secret that I’m a great admirer of literary genius Neil Gaiman as are many, many others. Writers and readers alike, we all love his work.  When the news broke that Himself was writing an episode of Doctor Who, the glee and speculation began in earnest.  Which episode? What would it be about?  Would he make a guest appearance?  Well, we needn’t have worried because in typical fashion, The Doctor’s Wife was brilliant.  It ranks among my most favorite episodes ever and showcases Gaiman’s ability to mesh whimsy with the sublime and terrifying.  If you’ve read The Graveyard Book or any of his other works, you know just what I’m talking about.  If you’ve not read the Graveyard Book, go here or get yourself to a library toute de suite.

The Doctor’s Wife opens with our motley crew tooling through space, business as usual, when a knock (yes, a KNOCK!) is heard at the door of the TARDIS. An antiquated box with a distress call from another Time Lord sends the Doctor and the Ponds on a trip outside their universe. After some knob-wibbling and a bit of turbulence, they’re off.  Once they land, things get interesting.  A green mist floats away from our beloved blue police box and is transferred into the body of Idris (played by the fabulous Suranne Jones), another traveler evidently lured to the planet straight from the set of Regency House Party from the looks of her dress.  It appears that our intrepid trio has been duped—lured by a  sentient planet/entity called House (voiced by Michael Sheen), who intends to “eat” the TARDIS.  The Doctor sends Rory and Amy on a fake errand in an effort to return them to the perceived safety of the TARDIS, which separates the friends.  I say “perceived” safety because with a slip of that glib tongue, the Doctor has alerted House that he’s the last Time Lord, ipso facto, no more TARDIS on the menu.  House institutes a “change of plans” and instead of eating the TARDIS’ artrial energy and murdering the Time Lord, House absconds with the blue box, Amy and Rory trapped inside.

So, with the Doctor stranded on the dying husk left behind by House and while House hurtles through space, terrorizing Amy and Rory, we learn that the matrix of the TARDIS has been captured in the comely body of Idris.  The beauty of the exchanges between Idris and the Doctor are hysterical and touching, especially this one when they’re attempting to reconstruct a TARDIS console (thanks to Diary of aProcrastinator’s livejournal for the transcript and of course, thanks to The Neil for the actual words):


The DOCTOR and IDRIS have put together a shell of a room with a small console in the middle. IDRIS pops up and taps a small piece of equipment with her finger.

Bond the tube directly into the Tachyon Diverter.
Yes, yes, I have actually rebuilt a TARDIS before, you know. I know what I'm doing.(the DOCTOR is dragging a piece of wall by a rope)
You're like a nine-year-old trying to rebuild a motorbike in his bedroom. And you never read the instructions.
I always read the instructions!
There's a sign on my front door. You have been walking past it for 700 years. What does it say?
That's not instructions!
There's an instruction at the bottom. What does it say?
Pull to open.
Yes, and what do you do?
I push!
Every single time. 700 years. Police Box doors open out the way.
(throws down the rope and walks over to her)
 I think I've earned the right to open my front doors any way I want!
Your front doors?! Have you any idea how childish that sounds?
(turns away and mutters)
 You are not my mother!
And you are not my child!
(turns around and walks back)
 You know, since we're talking with mouths, not really an opportunity that comes along very often, I just want to say, you know, you (points in her face) have never been very reliable.
And you have?
You didn't always take me where I wanted to go.
 (walks away)
No, but I always took you where you needed to go.
 You did! (whirls around, happy) Look at us. Talking. Wouldn't it be amazing if we could always talk? Even when you're inside the box?
You know I'm not constructed that way. I exist across all space and time, and you talk and run around and bring home strays.

IDRIS falls but the DOCTOR catches her.

See? Bickering just like an old married couple.  That scene brings home the long relationship between the TARDIS and the Doctor for me.  All these long years, she’s loved him and looked out for him as best she could within the limitations of her construction and technology.  She’s taken him where she thought he needed to go sometimes instead of where he wanted to go, always bearing he and his friends away from danger just in the nick of time.  In my mind, this episode shows that the TARDIS is the ultimate companion with Donna Noble's strong, I'm just as good as you, no-nonsense attitude coming in a close second in term of the human companions.  Notice I said "human" so all you River Song fanatics can calm the flock down because we all know that River's got a little something extra special going on, yes?  But that's a topic for another post.

Back to the matter at hand. This scene brings home the feminine reference to vessels:

The DOCTOR gets up and hugs her. IDRIS stands slowly.

Not good. Not good at all. (the DOCTOR helps her sit) How do you walk around in these things?
We're not quite there yet... just hold on. Amy, this is... Well, she's my TARDIS. Except she's a woman. She's a woman, and she's my TARDIS.
She's the TARDIS?!
And she's a woman. She's a woman and she's the TARDIS.
Did you wish really hard?
Shut up! Not like that.
Hello. I'm... Sexy.
Still shut up.

 His spaceship is the Doctor’s wife, really.  She’s his longest and most important relationship because without her, he is a madman in a box without a box.  No way to travel throughout time and space saving his beloved Earth from whichever other alien species aspire to menace our society.  Like other sailors, he’s committed to her upkeep for their mutual benefit, just like a marriage.  And in the end, Amy says it best:

Look at you pair. It's always you and her, isn't it? Long after the rest of us have gone. A boy and his box, off to see the universe.

Even though the Doctor regenerates and the stream of companions flows right along, there’s always that blue police box.  She’s the constant, traveling among the stars with her beloved Doctor. What do you think? Who’s the Doctor’s ultimate companion?

Now that I’ve tortured you with my half-baked lecture, I think you deserve a chance to win prizes:

grand prize drawing
For the grand prize, The Complete Sixth Series on DVD, please leave a comment with your name and email address. You may enter once at every stop on the blog tour for a total of thirteen chances. The grand prize giveaway is limited to the US and Canada, due to regional restrictions on the DVD. Entries will be accepted until midnight CST on December 24th. Erica and Eliza will post the winner on December 25th and notify the winner via email.
bonus raffle
Commenters on this post will also be entered to win this Red Canvas Drawstring TARDIS backpack from Bagnabit. You'll need something  to carry around all those books about nautical myths and legends, right?

 Shipping is open to anywhere the USPS ships including international destinations. Contest closes at midnight CST on December 28th. I will post the winner on December 29th and notify them via email.
next stop!
Many thanks for dropping by! Be sure to visit Becky at Libri Dilectio for tomorrow's final stop on the tour where she talks about Growing Up with the Doctor. And if you’ve missed any stops along the way, consult the blog hop’s Wibbly Wobbly Schedule.

Happy Holidays!


Bart said...

Nice post, Pamela. Good guess as to why ships are feminine, but Russian ships are 'he.' Go figure.

Nancy Brandt said...

It's always fun to find another writer who loves the Doctor. We're all obsessed here at my house. My son is getting a TARDIS backpack from his sister and SHE is getting a TARDIS messenger bag and an Adipose! I loved the Doctor's Wife episode, because it is a romance and it's beautiful!

Ryann said...

Yay, Pamala! Great post. I loved that episode, too, even if it broke my wee heart. The library shout-outs were a nice touch, too! *wink*

The Original Drama Mama said...

Interesting...I can't help but think of Futurama and the episode when Bender has an affair with the ship (it ends badly, and she goes all HAL on him).
If I win that awesome bag, I am stashing it for my husband's birthday ;)

The Original Drama Mama said...

Oh, and I loved the exchange..."You didn't always take me where I wanted to go."
"No, but I always took you where you needed to go."
That is awesome.
I'm not trying to sneak an extra entry...I just really liked that quote

Colin Smith said...

Great post, Pamala. This was my favorite story from season 6. I've not read any Neil Gaiman, but I've been meaning to, especially since this episode (too many books, too little time--oh, for a TARDIS!).

Remember in School Reunion when Sarah Jane and Rose are talking about the Doctor's relationship with the TARDIS? "You know how he strokes bits of it...?" Did that episode inspire Neil, or were Toby Whithouse and Neil Gaiman both drawing from the same sense of the bond between the Doctor and his faithful vessel that's always been there, even through the classic series? I tend to think the latter.

Anyway, thanks for the interesting discussion!

lyssness said...

This was wonderful! I actually have yet to see Neil Gaiman's episode because I haven't yet watched series 6. I actually just finished series 5. The dialogue sounds like classic Gaiman, though, and this post has just made me more excited to see it!


Celeste said...

I adore this episode, and I adore the TARDIS. I know some people want to bring her back, but I think it's perfect as-is, best left to the imagination.

Suzanne said...

This was one of my favorite episodes, hearing what the Tardis had to say and seeing her personality was great.

Thanks for the post and the giveaway!

Rebecca T. said...

Fun post! This is a great episode. Also, I LOVE the Graveyard Book! Gaiman's other books are on my TBR pile, but I haven't gotten to them yet :(

This blog hop is so much fun :)

Pamala Knight said...

@Bart - That's interesting that Russian ships are still referred to in masculine terms. Wonder why they didn't make the leap? Thanks for stopping by and feel free to leave another comment with your email so you can be entered in the Grand Prize drawing.

@Nancy - It was a beautiful and romantic episode, wasn't it? My son is a total Whovian and it might e a struggle to get that red backpack shipped away from my house ;-).

@Ryann - Librarians rule!

@Original Drama Mama - That quote breaks my heart. So many touching moments

@Colin - The embedded link is to Gaiman's Mouse Circus where HE reads The Graveyard Book. You should check it out. I loved the School Reunion episode, if only to see Sarah Jane, but it was wonderful. There's an interview somewhere with Neil Gaiman where he talks about the genesis of the episode. I'll try to find it and post it.

@lyssness - Let's hope your season 6 dreams come true with a win of the grand prize. Good luck!

@Celeste - I agree wholeheartedly. If the TARDIS talked all the time, then the show would be Knight Rider instead of Doctor Who, right?

@Suzanne - Thanks for stopping by.

@Rebecca - The Graveyard Book is good stuff and you have loads of others to look forward to like Good Omens (collaboration w/Terry Pratchett), the Sandman (OMG), Stardust, Neverwhere, Anansi Boys, and on and on and on.

Thanks EVERYONE for stopping by and leaving comments. Feel free to leave another one if you didn't leave your email for the drawing.

Becky said...

A box-less Doctor would just be...tragic. Not allowed.

My devices have always been all male, and I did it without thinking. (And then, I wonder briefly if it's weird that I'm assigning pronouns to inanimate objects, but psh, look, history is on my side! Humans and...Time Lords just can't help it.)

Pamala Knight said...

@Becky - *snort* tragic indeed. I'm sure you're not the only one who's named their inanimate objects but you just might be the only one brave enough to admit to it here *grins* Thanks for stopping by.

Krispy said...

I loved this episode, and you put it so well about the relationship between the Doctor and the TARDIS. I think Gaiman was the perfect person to write this relationship. It's funny and subtle and deep.

Marilyn Brant said...

Pamala, I loved learning a little more about both Doctor Who and Neil Gaiman from you!! Thanks for your thoughtful post and for sharing that fun dialogue snippet with us. Wishing you a very happy holiday as well ;). xox

SM said...

Very nice post. I loved Idris as well and thought the episode was very well done.

smcdanielc [at] gmail [dot] com

Pamala Knight said...

@Krispy- You'll get no argument from me on that score. I loved the nuance of this episode more than I can say.

@Marilyn- Thank you for stopping by my friend! I'm glad that you learned a little more about my obsession and favorite author. Maybe I'll convince you to actually watch an episode one day ;-) Happy Holidays to you.

@SM - Suranne brought so much to Idris, didn't she? I thought she was perfect, exactly what the TARDIS would be if she had been a woman instead of a time/space dimension machine.

ReneeRearden said...

What a wonderful post! I love Doctor Who. My girls and I have watched every season BUT season six. They're in high school now and busy doing things with their friends. I miss our nights hanging out on the couch watching the Doctor. The girls have always said TARDIS was his wife. I guess they picked up on the fact she'd been his companion forever.

I can't wait to tell them about this I can get them to hang out on the couch with me and watch it!


erin said...

the Doctor's Wife is just the very best of Who; sweet and funny, sad and romantic!


Lhuv-Kerapht said...

Absolutely my favorite episodes of Eleven's run so far!

Name: Heather R. Holsclaw. Email: hrholsclaw (at) gmail (dot) com.

Pamala Knight said...

@Renee - I hope you and your girls have a nice Doctor Who marathon over the holidays! Thanks for stopping by.

@ erin - I totally agree. Beautiful, funny, scary and poignant, this episode. Thanks for leaving a comment.

@Heather - Eleven has wormed his way into my heart too.

fourdognight said...

I love the running joke about the unseen parts of the Tardis--the swimming pool, etc.

You worried me when you said "Feel free to leave another comment with your email..." All through the blogs, I've been assuming that you bloggers could get my email from my Google login--am I wrong? Ack!

Pamala Knight said...

@fourdognight - Hi there. I'm told that we'll figure it out if folks forget to leave their emails, but whether or not we can find it depends upon your blogger settings. Don't worry though, we'll enter you into the drawing and cross that bridge if we come to it, okay? Thanks for visiting!

Danielle Ellison said...

Great post!!

You posed some really great thoughts. This was personally my favorite episode all season---great bickering!


Nancy J. Cohen said...

That was a good episode, where we learned about the relationship of the Doctor to the TARDIS as embodied by the real-life woman, if only temporarily. But then who's River Song to him? We learn that eventually, but River pops in and out of the Doctor's life, while the TARDIS, as you say, is his constant.

Nancy said...

I loved th last actor that played Doctor Who, but Amy is a wonderful addition if I cannot have donna. They are all alive with my TV set to BBCAmerica. The tote bag would be a welcome addition!
Nancy Lee Badger

lise said...

Excellent post. Gaiman's episode was one of my favorites, as well, and I think Matt Smith was perfect in it.

Constance Key said...

I have to wait for Dr.Who to show up on PBS because BBC is extra.

tg said...

This episode was what got me started watching Doctor Who. I had a friend who watched it back in the eighties, but I didn't care for it. Then they did the reboot, but I didn't bother. Then I heard that Neil Freaking Gaiman wrote an episode and I had to see it. But I knew you couldn't just start out with the middle of a season, so I started with "Rose" from 2005. So. Worth. It. And now I'm a huge Doctor Who fan, not just the Neil Gaiman episode. Traci tgperg(at)gmail(dot)com

maggie p said...

Very interesting! Posts like these are the reason I always loved English courses (even though I went on to become a science teacher!). Wonderful insight.

Pamala Knight said...

Merry After Christmas folks! The GRAND PRIZE drawing happened and the winner is:

Mrs. S who left a comment on Phoebe North's blog. Check in on Erica's site for more info.

There's still a few days left for a chance to win the TARDIS backpack, so keep your eyes pealed for the announcement.

@Danielle - I'm so glad you liked the post. Good luck in the drawing.

@Nancy J - As River would say, SPOILERS! ;-)

@Nancy - Matt Smith is awesome, right? That perfect mix of childlike and aged, compassion and menace.

@lise- Hey there! I totally agree--perfection all around.

@Constance - PBS seems to be catching up to the BBC America schedule, so hopefully it won't be long before your up to date.

@Traci - Welcome to the Who universe!

@maggie p - Thanks! I'm glad you liked it.