America Needs a Doctor

Other — By on August 11, 2009 at 7:31 pm

Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming monstrosity, Inglorious Basterds, has finally gone into high-gear marketing for its impending release.  The film features a campy Brad Pitt and a squadron of American thugs (including, of course, Tarantino’s signature hot fighter chick) who go behind enemy lines in occupied France during World War II and spend a couple hours brutally and spectacularly killing Nazis.  It has been American film tradition to treat Nazis as the ultimate one-dimensional bad guy.  No one questions the justice of killing a Nazi on film.  We like to leave moral ambiguity and individuation of characters to historians, not filmmakers.  Tarantino is now taking that to a new level, goading theaters full of twenty-something boys into cheering with each gory death.  Whether he’s trying to shock us out of our cultural programming or not, this filmed bloodbath will undoubtedly continue what American action films, especially war films, have trained us to do: see the world in black and white, good guys versus bad guys.  The good guys deserve to win, and the bad guys deserve to die, no question.

The problem is that’s not biblical.  We all deserve to die, good and bad alike.  We’ve all been offered mercy, good and bad alike.  But American film history decided such ambiguity is inconvenient and boring.  It trained us to settle for cheap catharsis.
We need a new model.  If art is supposed to show us great truths, our art falls woefully short.  It offers us a convenient false dichotomy that satisfies both our blood lust and our hackneyed sense of justice.  It should instead teach us to see the truth more completely.  In fact, our mother culture could show us the way.  We have Jack Bauer; Britain has the Doctor.

If you’ve never seen Doctor Who, you should do yourself a favor and spend a few days catching up.  Not the cheesy Doctor Who dating from the mid-60s with people running around in rubber suits and sets that wobble if you hit them (though they have their own nostalgic charm, especially the Tom Baker series), but the new incarnation of the series which premiered in 2005, reinvented by longtime fanboy Russell T. Davies.  If you’re unfamiliar with the mythology (as many Americans are), Doctor Who follows a character called The Doctor, a Time Lord who is all but immortal and travels the universe in his TARDIS, a ship that is capable of travel through time and space.  He’s the closest thing scifi gets to a god, mostly through the power of his intellect.  He always chooses to have a human companion.

The new series begins by dismantling the history of the Doctor.  Where once he was one among many Time Lords who just bops around the galaxy meeting strange beings, Davies’ Ninth Doctor (played brilliantly by celebrated actor Christopher Eccleston) has just survived the death of his entire race at the hands of their archenemies, the Daleks – and he may have had to wipe out both races to end their Time War, a history deeply rooted in the culture shaped by World War II.  He stumbles onto earth and meets Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), a low-income teen Londoner, who he takes with him to travel the stars.  Through her, he confronts the darkness of his role in the Time War, and rediscovers himself after the great tragedy.

Why does America need this very British Doctor?  Because the Doctor always surprises me.  I don’t mean that the stories are surprising.  By and large, they’re just great scifi.  What surprises me is the Doctor.  His capacity for mercy is breathtaking.  When he faces a Dalek who somehow escaped the Time War, a Dalek who is part of a race dedicated to exterminating anyone unlike them (sound familiar, Quentin?), he’s ready to blow it away, but instead he pities it.  Time and again, the story takes you to what you think is a fork in the road, and then the Doctor turns and runs into the forest, and you realize that mercy is much larger than oversimplified false justice.

I never see it coming.  I’ve been too well trained by the false catharsis of Jack Bauer and John Wayne.  But the Doctor’s a lot like God.  The more his human companions thirst for violent vengeance the greater the grace the Doctor shows to his enemies.  And I come away from Doctor Who thinking that God’s mercy is unfathomable, and because of that, when his companions don’t understand, He must be very, very lonely.  I’ll take that over Brad Pitt and his gang of thugs any day. ‘



  • http://www.evangelicaloutpost.com Joi Weaver

    I love that the Doctor so often sees self-sacrifice (or at least, the willingness to sacrifice himself) as the necessary course. He is a character who loves very deeply, even when he knows that he will lose everyone he loves (Sarah Jane, Rose, Donna, etc). He knows that he will always, ultimately, be alone, and yet keeps on loving anyway.

    The other thing that really impresses me about the show is the promotion of wonder as a virtue. The Doctor is always so excited to see everything, even the monsters. He’s never lukewarm about life, in sharp contrast to the passionless plastic coolness of so many American tv heroes.

    Long live the Doctor!

  • http://www.evangelicaloutpost.com Chris Leigh

    Lindsay,

    While I appreciate the call to watch better TV and have heard many times that I need to take the Dr Who plunge (and I will…sometime soon), I feel that I must take issue with your dismissal of the Duke (and even, to a certain extent, Jack Bauer) as being the same sort of tripe as Tarantino’s latest.

    To equate Inglorious Basterds with John Wayne is to suggest that Jagger Bombs are the same as Glenlivet. They’re both hard liquor, after all…not good to take in excess (some would say at all) and they are certainly dangerous if used by the inexperienced or foolhardy.

    Yet, as anyone with taste certainly knows, Glenlivet is a scotch with flavor and distinction; Jagger, while it certainly has it’s uses and a unique flavor, is mostly nasty crap. The first is enjoyed by those of discerning taste, the second is used for shots by idiot college boys.

    I hope that by now you’re catching my drift (and I also hope that somehow, someone, somewhere appreciates my comparison and wants to reward me with a bottle of Glenlivet…) John Wayne was a cowboy; a shoot-em-up, smack his horse in the face if it disobeyed him, cowboy. He was not a gun-slinging barbarian. He did not glory in the death of foes (for the most part). Most of the time, when the Duke went into a fight, killing was the unfortunate sole solution to the problems that the bad guys had put into motion (notably, one of his best films, The Quiet Man, revolves around his unwillingness to fight because he wants to avoid exactly that dilemma). Often, even in death, there was room for sympathy for the villians or the anti-heroes; as in Rooster Cogburn, El Dorado, The Green Berets, Sons of Katie Elder, The Searchers, to name a few. Even his friendships were often complicated, as in In Harms Way, or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. Watching the Duke’s films is educational when studying the American history of the past century; he embodied what it meant to be a larger than life hero, burdened with the weight of being the obvious leader, and not always knowing how or even wanting to fill that role. Of course he was the hero; he was us! We identified with him, and so his struggle was our struggle. Passing him off as the simplest of his stereotypes robs us of the best that his long legacy of work offers.

    Tarantino, on the other hand, usually offers more to us that this most recent film promises; but, having watched most of his films (I still haven’t seen Reservoir Dogs or Jackie Brown) I will say that even the the best of them (arguably, the Kill Bill films) are, shall we say, limited in their scope. He makes films he enjoys making, as entertainment or homage films to films he loved. I know I am scraping at the top of the barrel, and other, much better film minds would tear my analysis apart.

    My point, such as it is, is this: I think that lumping John Wayne in with Tarantino is dismissive to a fault. Having heroes that are black and white (which Wayne was actually not) is not necessarily a bad thing. There are times when we need to reflect on how often most conflicts really do have a right and wrong side. However, John Wayne was not that simplistic, and it detracts from your otherwise thoughtful post to suggest that he was.

  • http://www.evangelicaloutpost.com Lindsay Stallones

    Wow. Jaeger versus Glenlivet. I love it!

    In seriousness, though, I think you have a point… to a point. Of course we can’t exactly equate Tarantino’s crass sadism with good ol’ John Wayne. I don’t mean to imply they’re the same.

    However, I think there’s something insidious about John Wayne, too. Maybe it’s more insidious than Tarantino (at least Quentin’s up front about it), maybe just more nuanced, but John Wayne movies, as fun and noble as they may seem, still culminate in cathartic violence. To their credit, it’s usually tempered by some brow-furrowing or words of regret, but the point is that they set up a situation so the audience can’t wait to see John Wayne throw a punch, draw his gun, or otherwise dispatch his wicked enemy. Blood’s spilled, we cheer, and we feel justice has been done.

    My point isn’t that any violence is wrong on film. As a lifelong student of history, I would be hard-pressed to say that violence is never the answer to conflict, however much I wish I could. And an argument for pacifism would take much more than an article celebrating Doctor Who.

    My point is rather that Doctor Who offers a more biblical view than most American entertainment. The depictions of mercy and what I’d call a third way (between victim and avenger) break our ingrained paradigms when it comes to violent conflict. That’s a valuable thing in a culture that’s about to make Inglorious Basterds one of the more profitable films Tarantino’s ever made.

    And though as a Southerner, it pains me to say it, maybe John Wayne’s led us wrong, at least a little. The way of the Cross rarely involves a six-shooter. I get the feeling it might be more likely to involve a TARDIS.

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