divine anthropological escapism

alright kids, here's the deal. 

i've been "working" on an armchair ethnography for about the past year now – actually longer, i guess – and i've finally gotten to the point where i can start working things out here, among friends. (we are friends, right? i certainly hope so.) so we're about to start on a bit of an epic adventure.

Image description: The inside of the TARDIS, 1970s-80s.

Image description: The inside of the TARDIS, 1970s-80s.

so first, back story. 

as it may have become evident over the past several years (okay, it's blatantly, in your face evident), i get a kick out of doctor who. i grew up on the show. i started watching it when i was about fourteen (along, of course, with the rest of the pbs bbc line-up), and it's just been a constant in my life since then. honestly, when the show was revitalized in 2005, i had a lot of feelings – excitement, trepidation, fear that it would be just awful, like the movie – all of that expected nonsense. but the show returned, and it became popular here in the usa.

for me, that was strange. it's still strange. doctor who was the show that i watched that no one else watched. none of my friends knew what it was. my parents remembered it from when they were growing up, but it wasn't really their sort of thing. my siblings would occasionally watch story arcs with me, but the fact that it came on after midnight on saturdays really seemed to limit the audience.

Image description: A poster that appears to printed on wooden slats. There is an image of K-9, the robot dog from Doctor Who. Text at the top says "Professor Marinus presents the completely automatic K-9, phenomenal indication data observation unit." Text at the bottom reads "Imagine! Your very own robot dog! No more cleaning up after yourself or the dog."

Image description: A poster that appears to printed on wooden slats. There is an image of K-9, the robot dog from Doctor Who. Text at the top says "Professor Marinus presents the completely automatic K-9, phenomenal indication data observation unit." Text at the bottom reads "Imagine! Your very own robot dog! No more cleaning up after yourself or the dog."


now there are doctor who concerts, and season premieres are epic events. now there have been successful spin-offs. now there's the doctor who experience museum. i know. i've been. i took the photos in this post there, and i lugged home this awesome k-9 placard from cardiff to baltimore. i would argue that doctor who is no longer a show; it is a spectacle.

and there's nothing wrong with that. spectacle, and the world-building that goes into the creation of spectacle, is a wonderful, magical expression of imagination. spectacle is carnival in brazil, it's the floating duck traversing the globe, it's flash mobs. spectacle is ritual, but it also marketing. 

this post isn't actually about spectacle, but clearly i felt a need to go there for a second.

back to doctor who.

i'm not going to explain the show. for those of you who don't really know much or anything about it, here's the wikipedia summary. and for those of you who want even more information about it all, here's the tardis wiki

oh yes, now there's a wiki dedicated to all things doctor who. forgot to mention that one before.

i digress again.

a few years ago i decided to watch all of doctor who, starting from 1963 up to the present, in order. and i did. and it took a stupidly long time to get through it all. roughly around two years, i think... i wasn't just sitting glued to the screen going through in one mad push. i really hope you think better of me than that. 

along the way, i had a lot of thoughts.

  • k-9 would have really benefited from solar panels.
  • can you believe those overalls sarah jane wore on her last story arc with tom baker?
  • has anyone else noticed that the women companions names' were reused in the early show a lot? there was sara kingdom, then sarah jane. there was vicky, and then there was victoria. did some writer just have a really limited baby naming book?
  • i really loved william hartnell's companion stephen, but no one seems to remember him. i also thought in his first episode he was going to be a psychotic killer, but that's beside the point.

the most important thought i had, though, was that i couldn't understand why no one seemed to know what kind of doctor the doctor was. to me, it's clear: he's an anthropologist.

he's a really bad anthropologist, the kind you wouldn't want to let loose on any society, but he's an anthropologist. 

let me explain this a little more.

anthropology is the study of humankind, of cultures and society and all the fiddly bits that make up our world. anthropology is built on observation and participation. it is going out of our own societies to study the "other," and in attempting to understand others, provide further understanding and insight into them, ourselves, and our world. 

the doctor travels – through time and space, yes – to visit other societies. he observes them, and he participates in their rituals and other aspects of daily life. and pretty much every time, he gets it wrong. he assumes, he judges, he maintains a "savagery, barbarism, civilization" tiered philosophy. he claims to not get involved, but then he can't resist telling everyone he meets that how they live their lives, that what they believe in, that the choices they make are wrong

looking at the 1963 doctor who, this sort of behavior and presumption isn't really that surprising, but this mentality has continued all the way up through matt smith's incumbency. and, with all the press i've heard about the incoming doctor, peter capaldi, i expect it will continue in the same vein.

science fiction is an excellent tool for evaluating ourselves. after all, as kim stanley robinson said, "you can never properly predict the future as it really turns out. so you are doing something a little different when you write science fiction. you are trying to take a different perspective on now."

i have long been fascinated with stephen caton's lawrence of arabia: a film's ethnography and the idea that entertainment can also be ethnology. so, as i considered this idea of the doctor as anthropologist, it struck me that, given its impressive life span, the show provides a fascinating vehicle for discussing the evolution of anthropological thought, changing ideas of what anthropology "should" be, as well as the role of science fiction in anthropology and the role of anthropology in science fiction. 

so let's take a journey. 

i was going to say "take a little" journey there, but it's not.

it's a long journey, that doesn't begin fifty-one years ago, but before that. it started with travelers, explorers, creepers who just sat down in the middle of market squares and stared at everyone (i kid! kind of...). it started with philosophical thought and questions of who we are and why we are here, which evolved into "hey! who are those other guys over there? and why are they here?"

it's also a long journey because of the fifty-one years of doctor who. this isn't the sort of discussion that can just start somewhere in the middle. that's not how we roll around here. we have hundreds of episodes to consider, not to mention the books. (don't even get me started the books, not today... i just... i can't even.)

i truly believe, that for all its seriousness, anthropology needs to be enjoyable at least some of the time. it also needs to be accessible and engaging. i know so many anthropologists, and the work they do is stunning and so important that i feel lucky to know them and to learn about their work. what they do  is vital for the communities they engage with, for the propagation of knowledge, and for the advancement of our communities – locally and globally.

this isn't an academic paper, but it's also not just a comedy dump. at best, i think i'd call this a meta-ethnography. i am an anthropologist looking at anthropology through the lens of science fiction. 

let's do this thing.

a heads up for those of you who check in for food anthropology posts and other such nonsense, i'm clearly taking a step away from that for a bit. i'll still share some link love over in seeds, though, if you're looking for a food/anthropology/etc... sort of hit.