derekfetters

Essays

Doctor Who: Outsider Hero (written May 20, 2004)

With this new season of Doctor Who being aired by the BBC, the first in (?) 9 years, I find myself obsessed all over again, just like I was in junior high. I find myself talking with anyone and everyone who will give me a minute and not get too glazed a look in their eye about my entire history with Doctor Who: how I read every novelization I could get my hands; how I joined a Doctor Who club in Spokane (which was 300 miles from where I lived, but I still made the meetings); how I wrote constant stories and scenarios for it, including a radio dramatization of the story The Five Doctors, which I got the members of the fan club to perform, even though we didn’t complete a recording of it; how I still have twelve years or so of the show on VHS tape.

Today I was going on about the new series and how much I liked it and how much a part of my early adolescent years Doctor Who was and my friend Sarah, who was enduring my spiel said, I’m glad you had such a nice time of junior high. This threw me. I didn’t realize that I was making it sound like junior high was all geeky-fun, time-travel adventure. I would never characterize junior high, or high school, as fun.  My adolescent years were spent in Yakima, Washington, one of the most conservative spots in the state.  And it was spent in the 1980s, during the Reagan/Bush era: one of the most conservative points in American history.  It was hell.  It was oppressive growing up as one of the few, sometime only, black students in my school in a town that was highly xenophobic. I spent my formative years growing up in enemy territory, hostile to what I was, and not especially caring to change their opinions.

Admittedly, not all of the hostility was because I was black. Some of it was because I was a nerd, not that that justifies it, but even my nerdiness was somehow tied into my race. I was seen as an anomaly: an intelligent, “well-spoken”, non-athletic black. At best, people thought they were complementing me when they said they never thought of me as black. This was a back-handed racist remark. While complimenting me, they were saying that blacks were not an inherently intelligent or well-spoken people. At worse, people just out and out said I wasn’t black.  Oddly, I only got that from white kids, not from any black kids.  The struggle of my life there was to prove that I was smarter than their racist stereotypes of blacks would lead them to believe, while still being black.  It was a frustrating way to get through life.

Doctor Who was a refuge for my imagination against the horrors of an adolescence I felt I had no control over.  I think there are many reasons why I unconsciously identified with the main character and his struggle. He was a highly intelligent and imaginative individual who was lead into situations because of his curiosity. This inevitably lead him face to face with the most hostile and violent landscapes in the universe.  How did he deal with this? By use of his intelligence and imagination.  I loved the idea of a hero who could get through life, and through the hostility of others, through the use of his intelligence and imagination, the two factors that I personally cherished the most about myself and yet felt the most persecuted for. I also felt like I was constantly facing hostility and wanted to know what way to proceed.  Like the Doctor, who was a Time Lord from the planet Galifrey, I felt like I was seen as an alien wherever I went. The Doctor didn’t let his alienness bother him though. He knew who he was even if other people were put off or bothered.

I also liked the fact that no matter how belligerent or violent the bad guys were, he never went to their methods.  It was important to him to try and find the most ethical way possible to resolve a conflict – one that would be a direct expression of his scientific intelligence and personality, as well as keep as much of the world intact as possible. He wasn’t especially strong or powerful, but he always beat the bad guys with his big brain. This also gave me hope, because I was always picked on by kids stronger or more popular than I was, but I also didn’t want to stoop to the level of the bullies, even if I was physically stronger or equal to those bullying me.  I found it refreshing to find a heroic model that used his intellectual and imaginative might and not physical force to defeat his enemies.  It definitely gave me hope.

But even when The Doctor was defending humans from alien invasion and such, he had this disdain for their ignorance, which he often saw as willful. He knew they didn’t deserve to be wiped out, but, man, were they stupid. He was constantly coming up against scientists who were doing stupid things that created threats to mankind, as well as military personnel who thought the solution to everything was blow it up. I guess I liked the commentary because I think unconsciously I felt like I was being treated as an alien in a world where I was intellectually superior to most the folks who were persecuting me. That might sound arrogant, but it’s a pretty typical coping mechanism of kids who feel bullied. I guess I knew that people’s stupidity would catch up with them, as it always did in the show.  I guess I felt, as The Doctor constantly showed, it was as important to be on moral high ground as intellectual.

But the last bit of identification I didn’t really think about until recently. The Doctor was an outsider, even amongst his own people. When I finally transferred high schools and was able to be around more black people than before, I was still ostracized for being a geek. I didn’t realize at the time that some of this was just how black people showed camaraderie, by giving each other a hard time, but at the time it threw me.  Instead of being welcomed with open arms, I felt I had been seen still as somebody they couldn’t quite get.  And while they did accept me as a refugee from the other school, and as a fellow black student, it’s true that they didn’t quite get me. But such is the nature of the artist, as a friend told me later.  The Doctor was the ultimate outsider. Not only was he a time-traveling alien, he was a refugee from his own people.  He had violated their #1 law and interfered throughout time and space.  His intelligence, imagination, curiosity, and moral stand made him an outsider even among his own race. But the thing was, he was still a Time Lord.  He was still from Galifrey. There no mistaking that. And when they needed him, he helped them, more than once.  Again, there was hope that I could be useful, that I could be a part of this group, that the things that made me an outsider could still be of use to others and put me on top in a weird way.  It was a story I related more to than, say, the story of Worf in Star Trek: The Next Generation. He was a Klingon raised by humans and couldn’t decide which one he was or who fit with more.  It wasn’t right.  He was a tragic mulatto.  I didn’t actually relate to that – even though the actor who played him was black. I think I knew who I was but felt like a universal outsider, like The Doctor.  It wasn’t identity confusion. It was community confusion, or role in society confusion or something. The only people I ever seemed to fit in with were other misfits, no matter what their color. And that fits The Doctor and his companions to a tee.

So let’s recap. Why do I like Doctor Who? It features a hero who faces violent and hostile situations with intelligence, imagination and morality. It’s these attributes which make him an alien, and they are also his best qualities. And even though he’s the universal outsider, even amongst his own people, he knows who he is and uses his attributes for the support of everyone, without stooping to the levels of brutality and vulgarity of his enemies. (Oh, and humans are stupid)

I think that’s pretty darn noble. I wish there was an American hero like this.  The closest we have is MacGyver, and he’s actually Canadian.

Maybe that’s up to me. Hmm.

  1. As I read this, it brought back memories, mostly good ones, because of the way you conducted yourself. I remember when you told administrators at the high school exactly what you thought of their racial portrayal of the other high school’s students at a pep rally and how the principal came to our door to tell me how proud he was of you for stating your objections to that performance. But as I read that, I thought about something else. It’ going to seem corny to some, I guess, but I thought about President Obama, the way he’s been treated and disrespected. In some cases, he’s been outright bullied. Ghandi said that, if you want change, you have to represent change. President Obama has done that consistently, and so have you.

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