Time Travel and Retconning: Revisionism and Reconstructionism in Doctor Who

Just as the New Year is approaching, so is “The Time of the Doctor.”

Time of The Doctor

I’ve come out of hiatus again, essentially, because this is another thought that just won’t leave me alone. After I was exposed to Julian Darius of Sequart’s distinctions between Revisionism and Reconstructionism with regards to comics, I applied it to my article In a Different Place, a Different Time: Revision and Reconstruction in Comics Without Superheroes? Of course, I should have realized it was not going to end there.

I mean, come on: I already mentioned space and time in the aforementioned article’s title. And after a while of gestation and trying to stave it off, I knew what was going to happen. I was going to provide the distinctions of Revisionism and Reconstructionism, taken from Julian Darius, the latter term apparently coined from Kurt Busiek, to the development of the Doctor Who series. Let’s face it: this was just going to happen and, if we’re going to be honest with each other, it probably has in no so many words and in ways that have been covered far more exhaustively than I am going to be.

So let’s get to the point and quote River Song, as I tend to with a lot of the Doctor Who articles I’ve written, to say, “Spoilers.”

This is really going to be a brief case of looking at parallels between the development of the superhero comics genre and Doctor Who. Like the early comics versions of Batman, Superman and others, The Doctor as a character starts off as a relatively morally ambiguous character: someone who isn’t necessarily evil, but not always good. Certainly, they all have the power to impose their will on others whom they don’t agree with, or are quite willing to let someone destroy themselves as opposed to interceding on their behalf. The Doctor himself, in his very first incarnation was more than willing to abandon people to their deaths if they became “inconvenient” to his or his granddaughter’s own survival.

And this was in the 1960s. Superhero comics themselves, especially the ones I mentioned, existed from the 30s onward: from that Golden Age period where superheroes were still trying to get past their “might is right” mentality to reveal at least some of the heroism that we recognize. The Doctor, however, had an even more interesting challenge: in that he was a character in a science-fiction program that drew on a tradition of science-fiction programs and stories. He wasn’t exactly a hero then and never quite fit that mould well. He and his Companions were more explorers and, as such, the program was one of exploration that bordered on a weird sort of horror: the kind of horror that, well, basically came from the spectacle of science-fiction B movies, comics, and pulp stories before it. Even the early Doctor Who episodes, from I’m given to understand, have a very pulp and serial feel to them: with constantly interrelated chains if episodes making a story followed by standalone episodes and “monsters of the week.”

Of course, things changed for both superhero comics and Whoniverse respectively. It was the Comics Code Authority that greatly white-washed many of the darker elements away from superhero adventures. Some of them simply didn’t survive and became silly caricatures of their original selves. This wasn’t always the case and some stories managed to be told well even in the midst of not being able to question authority-figures among other things. Towards the sixties, however, there were many campy and downright silly elements amongst this genre of comics: particularly with regards to Batman and such.

Doctor Who, which started in the sixties, always had an element of the uncanny and the weird in itself. It also had elements of camp and strange, tangential adventures. For some time, the BBC had a low budget so they basically had to utilize B movie props and effects to make their monsters and their stories. And The Doctor himself became a lot more of a swashbuckling character or archetype: embodying different ideals but becoming somehow more human as time went on. The humanization of The Doctor, which began with his Companions from his early days, contributed to this and probably in no small part due to the fact that the program began as a children’s show.

But just as there were so many disparate elements and strangeness in the Silver Age of superhero comics, this was definitely the case with the original Doctor Who series. What is interesting to consider with regards to Doctor Who however is that many “silly costumes and props and styles” have become iconic in themselves and even popular in a vintage, classic, nostalgic sort of way among fans. The books and audio dramas also helped to expand many of these elements and add more to the quantum branch of reality that was the Whoniverse.

It was in the 1980s that things began to change for superhero comics. This was when Revisionism came into play. Writers like Alan Moore and Frank Miller asked themselves the question of what a superhero would be like, with the powers and abilities they possessed, in a realistic situation. They were also mindful of the pessimism, cynicism, and fear around in this particular time period and wondered how the hero would function in such a world: and what they would do to that world. This is the period in which the superhero really got dissected. Writers in this time and onward seemed to draw on the ancient classical designations of “hero”: of a person of spectacular power and skill that bordered on, or were totally amoral, to reshape the heroes of the 30s and 60s. This allowed much in the way of character development and the creation of truly epic story-lines. Of course, the danger was also created: that the dark grittiness of Revisionism would become a form onto itself and not a vessel to tell a carefully thought out story. Darkness for darkness’ sake, as it were.

With Doctor Who, I argue that its Revisionism came in 2005 with the beginning of the new series. After a gap from 1989, and television movie in 1996, The Doctor returned in 2005 under a very different premise from his earlier adventures. It is almost like producer and screenwriter Russell T. Davies created his own Crisis on Infinite Earths and destroyed much of the quantum and tangential branches of the old Whoniverse in order to create a very centralized, dark, and Byronic reality: as though he and others believed that the only way the program could survive would be to “mature” into this new spirit. It is as though they expected viewers to want something less silly and more “realistic.”

So there was a Time War, the Last Great Time War, that seemed to have obliterated many loose-ends (and cause no small heap of trouble in the loose-ends that did, in fact, continue to exist for the Universe) and leave a Doctor that was more gaunt, more lonely, and far angrier than many of his other incarnations before him. The children’s show origins of program seemed to have been burned away by rage, an attempt at a more serious tone, singular purpose, and Revisionism.

Even the inclusion of David Tennant as the next Doctor, who was a marked contrast to the sullen leather jacket-wearing Doctor who somehow began to lighten up a bit towards the end, only accentuated this kind of Miltonian grandiosity. He might as well, in a ridiculously sublime way, have been an angel from Milton’s Paradise Lost sailing through a perfect clockwork Universe skewed by Original Sin, or perhaps as a far livelier Virgil figure in a kind of Dante’s Inferno of wonders. When Steven Moffat took over as producer and the Matt Smith incarnation of The Doctor came in, the youngest depiction there has ever been (he is about my age), the dark elements were beginning to wear a little thin.

But there is something truly wonderful that was forming with Doctor Who, and its spin-offs Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Smith Adventures. Despite the darkness and the angst of The Doctor being “the last Time Lord,” there has been a great depiction of wonders. I’m not just talking about the more advanced CGI or sophisticated props and costuming provided to the program. I’m also talking about its embrace of diversity: about its inclusion of different cultures, race and even sexual orientations. And it doesn’t seem to display them as novelties but as givens. As science-fiction that, by its very nature, encompasses the future and its possible sensibilities in addition to all of space and time it is extremely encouraging to see. It might have something to do with the fact that Russell T. Davies is gay himself and wanted to include diversity, but there is also the fact that Doctor Who is the longest running science-fiction show in existence and it changes with the times and the attitudes in each era in which it finds itself.

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But the sense of wonder that is, in the words of the program’s first producer Verity Lambert, “C.S. Lewis meets H.G. Wells meets Father Christmas,” is so much older than this and it wins out over the darkness every time. It is similar to the sense of nobility and kindness from Superman or the sure sense of justice from Batman. You can also call that sense of wonder hope.

By the time of Steve Moffat, whose episodes are strong in a self-contained short story fashion but whose overall structure begins to unravel the strong Miltonian clockwork of Davies with plot holes, much in the way that the Cracks in Time began to appear, or how the Weeping Angels feed off of temporal rifts and die from paradox-poisoning (which is ironic when you consider how Moffat created them in the first place and that his stories have many plot-holes), you may be witnessing a change beginning to happen. From 2005 and onward, most of Doctor Who has taken place on Earth or has focused almost solely on humans and has maintained a relatively linear story line and premise.

But then Moffat did something. By 1995, Julian Darius argues that Revisionism in comics began to change. Writers such as Grant Morrison began to look back on superhero comics before Revisionism and draw on the idealism and hope of those periods. They took the character-writing and plot development of Revisionism and combined it with the light-heartedness of heroes against the darkness. They, arguably, contributed to the creation of Reconstructionism.

And Morrison himself was known to have really liked the strange and wacky DC elements that existed before what he considered to be a cynical Crisis plot: perhaps much in the way that some of The Doctor’s fans might view his present “gritty and realistic” situation.

Now look back at Steve Moffat. In “The Day of the Doctor” he took the premise of The Doctor having destroyed the Time Lords and, in a typical time-travelling fashion, changed and retconned time. He had The Doctor and his previous incarnations save Gallifrey. Now The Doctor has to go and find it. In one stroke, however it was executed, Moffat eliminated the heart of The Doctor’s modern angst. And in the next episode, in the Christmas Special “The Time of the Doctor” we are going to see him fall to his lowest as he is apparently on his “last incarnation” and is going to die. But we know that isn’t going to happen. We know he will survive. We know there will be a new Doctor.

And perhaps, just perhaps, this is Moffat’s attempt to apply Reconstructionism to Doctor Who. Certainly the inclusion of Tom Baker, the former Fourth Doctor that represented The Doctor’s kindliness, affability and wisdom, into “The Day of the Doctor”–representing what could be another future incarnation of the Time Lord–can be interpreted as a sign of that return to some the weird, and wacky adventures that possess no small amount of hope.

But whatever the case, we are going to see Peter Capaldi as an older, but perhaps wilder Doctor: someone who is not a soldier, a traumatized war veteran, a hero with an anguished dream, or a lonely boy but an adventurer and traveler. He is going to look for where he put Gallifrey. He is going to go out again. Perhaps he might even leave Earth in all time lines and we can see how the rest of the Universe has been doing, how other worlds and newer beings live, and how he will interact with them. Maybe after all the time that Davies has reforged the content of the program it will open up back into larger vistas beyond just Earth and the human.

There is just one last Battle of Trenzalore, a Regeneration rule to work around, and then perhaps the potential for some reconstruction, for something new, for something old, and for something new again. Either way, I look forward to the journey.

In a Different Place, a Different Time: Revision and Reconstruction in Comics Without Superheroes?

This is going to be more of a sloppy Blog post because it’s more out of sheer enthusiasm than it is actual research. For a while now I’ve been somewhat obsessing over an idea that I got from Julian Darius at Sequart: which is the distinction between Revisionism and Reconstructionism in comics. Whereas Revisionism takes superhero characters and adds a dark and gritty sort of realism to them and their stories, Reconstructionism brings them back to their more idealistic roots but arguably keeps much of Revisionism’s character development and mature themes. Sometimes it can be all the difference between dystopian and utopian ideals with regards to fictional characters in tights.

However, that is a very limited way of looking at it. After finishing an article that I’ve recently sent into Sequart and thinking about another one that I’ve been rereading and reworking, I wondered how these concepts of Revisionism and Reconstructionism would apply to something that is neither North American nor primarily focused on the superhero genre. I’ve actually been thinking about how, if at all, both ideas could apply to Japanese manga.

So here is where I begin to get messy and not get dates right or accurate or, really, try to be nice at all. I believe that in order to really look at considerations of Revisionism and Reconstructionism in North American comics and Japanese manga, you have to look at some quick and dirty historical contexts. North American comics, aside from perhaps Mayan and other Central American friezes came from European comics that date more or less from the nineteenth century: Egyptian and Sumerian sequential glyphs notwithstanding.

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The earliest comics were satirical cartoons and depictions of folklore. Then they were Sunday morning slapstick cartoons. In North America, however, around the thirties the figure of the Victorian strong-man was adopted as an aesthetic for masked and super-powered heroes: beings depicted as fighting a whole lot of crime.

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At the same time there were a lot of other genres of comics out there in North America: Romances, Westerns, War stories, and–of course–Horror. These different genres danced around our superhero friends: who were still in their terrible twos of “might is right.” I’m not even sure why they came about to begin with. Most likely–and in my opinion–they were made to symbolize hope for the future in a relatively new nation against the darkness of the past World War, the upcoming Great Depression, and the resulting Second World War that everyone could sense coming on some level. A disturbing sense of moral ambiguity and uncertainty, which you can argue really started to crop up in literature and culture after WWI, needed something clear cut and decisive to counter it: even if it was interpreted as being tied into adolescent power-fantasies which is a hilarious concept when you think about the fact that superhero comics were actually just in their infancy then.

But in the 1950s, and slightly before, the fear of Communism and nuclear war created a society of paranoia. All of the darker, gory, amorally violent aspects of comics were self-censored by the creation of the Comics Code Authority in order for comics businesses to continue during the censorship “witch-hunts” going on during this time. The irony of course is that the dark elements of horror and sexuality did not go away as a result but, rather, they literally went Underground: into the developing Underground Comix movements.

But the Comics Code-endorsed superhero genre was one of the few that actually remained and the audience became very specialized as a result and in contrast to the wider age and gender range that it had earlier. Many have said that superhero comics became “watered down and puerile” for a time until about wherever you can distinguish the Silver Age of comics coming into play: where Marvel and eventually DC as well started to make flawed superhero characters that nevertheless tried to do the right thing.

In about the 1980s, writers such as Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman took the superhero genre and started add some gritty, bloodier and more “graphic” elements back into it. I compare it a lot to how the Victorian Age and onward attempted to sanitize folktales into fairy-stories only for the old tales to come back and essentially eat their bastardized children: both those derived from them and those that were entirely new. Perhaps during this period of both heightened counter-insurgencies happening between the United States and the USSR and then the latter’s decline influenced this Revisionism: which tended to criticize and look at the real-world politics and attitudes of the era. Certainly the 80s was a time when authority was at its height and, at the same time, was also being heavily questioned along with the implicit idea that “all authority is good” and should be obeyed by even superheroes that defend the status quo.

In about 1995, the time Julian Darius defines as the beginnings of Reconstructionism through the publication date of DC’s Underworld Unleashed, America was the sole superpower of the world in the midst of an idea of globalization. At the same time, it was embroiled in a lot of various different wars and clean-up from its Cold War missions into other countries. The way I figure it, and I am pretty sure there are other elements you can identify here as well, the art and culture of this time was influenced by a need and a sense of morality or certainty: of heroic figures needing to be depicted as having such. At the same time, they could not really go back to being ignorant or having bad storytelling. So, in the end, people such as Grant Morrison tackled these issues in their works: neither shying away from brutality nor letting cynicism completely win out in the superhero genre. It seems such a paltry explanation for this idea, but that is the best I can think of at the moment.

And then we have Japan. Manga has arguably been around in Japan–and the other Far East Asian countries–but in particular Japan for a thousand years or more: from their different kingdoms, to their Empires, the Shogunate, the Meiji Restoration of the Emperor and onward. Early scroll work illustrated humourous, sexual, and mythological stories. The term manga itself or something similar to it was apparently coined in the 18th century: meaning something along the lines of “whimsical drawings.” However, it can be argued that comics creation in Japan has been a very long and ancient tradition.

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Of course, you have World War II and then the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the American Occupation of Japan to consider. Unlike North America, or indeed any part of the world, Japan didn’t have to fear the possibility of a nuclear attack: it had already experienced it. At the time, the State-sponsored wartime version of Shintoism–that Japan was an invincible island blessed by the ancestral gods ruled by an Emperor of that divine bloodline–was pretty much destroyed by fire-bombing, nuclear-bombing, war trials and the U.S. Occupation. It is also during this period that many American soldiers brought over Disney comics and animated films.

Tezuka Osamu, Hikari (June - December 1959).

Artists like Tezuka Osamu were very influenced by Disney aesthetics and adopted them to make strange artistic hybrids of “whimsical” cartoons. However, these cartoons became challenged by the genre of what is called gekiga: of “dramatic pictures” with realistic, gritty aesthetics that delved into the more graphic aspects of life and even politics. The foremost of the gekiga artists that comes to mind for me is the person who coined the term to begin with Tatsumi Yoshihiro: who started drawing such work–which he did not like to call manga–in 1957.

The aesthetics of gekiga would inform many more works after him such as Otomo Katsuhiro’s Akira.

What’s interesting to note about all of this is the contrast with North America. Aside from already experiencing a taste of what nuclear war could bring, Japan never really had something that was the equivalent to a Comics Code Authority: at least from my understanding. It’s true that, for the most, they seemed to have a very conservative and even authoritarian governmental structure even after the War and censorship did and does exist. However, the development of gekiga–as a genre or an alternative movement of comics–seems to display either dissent against such conservative elements or a method of purging the demons of war and nuclear atrocity from the psyche of an entire culture.

It is really interesting to note that Scott McCloud, in his Understanding Comics,  argues that while “cartoons” function as essential images or ideas which are easy to follow in an unfamiliar or realistic world, realistic drawings seem to have a more alienating affect on the reader: making it harder to follow them. In addition, “cartoons” seem to provide a buffer or buttress against some very potential distressing elements of a story. Realistic drawings in comics would, arguably, not function as a safe point for the reader to view that depicted world and would force them to face its grittiness all on their own: unfettered and unsettling. So perhaps some decisions in gekiga literally make the reader face the collective demons of, arguably, Japanese culture after the Bombings and the American Occupation.

On another note, I also really find it fascinating that Japanese manga never really embraced the idea of a superhero until after World War II and, from what I understand, aside from a few changes in trends manga continued to cover a wide range of subject matter and retained a large variety of different readers.

I am so tempted to say that gekiga is Revisionism in comics that did not originally have superheroes: a concept which, if true, greatly fascinates me. And perhaps through Tezuka Osamu’s own very public manga-experiments with his COM Magazine, his continued Phoenix epic, and even his Buddha series he not only managed to adapt to the gekiga style from his original Disney and traditional Japanese art-derived aesthetics, but he adapted gekiga to his sensibilities as well. Perhaps one could argue that Tezuka was a Reconstructionist: bringing back manga to his more whimsical aesthetics but also developing a more mature and nuanced approach at character development and story line.

It is intriguing to think about the fact that he and others “discovered” Revisionism and Reconstructionism at times before even North America had due to different cultural experiences: North America seemingly delving into both in the 80s and mid-90s, and Japan looking into it from the late-50s to early 70s onward–and crossing over each other–respectively.

I’ve also been made aware that the realistic aesthetics of the gekiga element is not as mainstream in Japanese comics art now as it was before and now there is a trend in going back to the more “whimsical” and elemental cartoon aesthetics of the past: though not quite the partially-Disney inspired aesthetics of Tezuka himself. Perhaps Miyazaki Hayao himself is a better example of this in terms of his ecological and cautionary themes: though mostly his more modern animated films such as Mononoke Hime come to mind at that. I think another thing I find really interesting about Reconstructionism is that return to a mythos or even the rebuilding of a shattered or forgotten one that is made relevant to another time. Certainly, the fact that Tezuka and Miyazaki combine “the cartoon” with very realistic backgrounds could be indicative of what Reconstructionism may mean in Japanese manga and the media inspired from it: a return to a character aesthetic that the reader may feel safe in following–deceptively or otherwise if the artist chooses to subvert that image–while exploring a real or realistically detailed world.

I am only scratching the surface here and I am definitely not an expert in Japanese manga or culture or, well, anything. Applying one culture’s concepts to another’s is a problematic venture at best. Also bear in mind: you are not dealing with an otaku here, my friends: just a North American geek that likes to throw shit out there and is fascinated with interesting things. I just can’t get over the idea that maybe there was a place where superheroes did not form in comics naturally, or in the way that we understand them and yet Revisionism and Reconstructionism–a realistic depiction and an alternative return to an idealized element–happened in any case in a different place and at different times from North America.

It is definitely something worth thinking about.