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Monday, February 29, 2016

The Black Archive ~ 'Dark Water'/'Death in Heaven'


I have a problem with being a Doctor Who fan in this day and age, and it lies largely in finding people to talk to. I'm not saying I can't find fans. I can sure find fans. I'm currently at a con full of them. What'll happen, though, is I'll watch an episode and immediately want to discuss it with someone.

And here's the problem: for me, 'discussing' a Doctor Who episode means analysis and theorizing; for the majority of other people I seem to run into, 'discussing' means 'Let's sit down and make a list of the things we hated about it to prove that we're proper fans who don't just enjoy things blindly.'

Modern online critique of  Doctor Who (and other things, I'm sure) has become a bit lazy in that regard. It boils down to a one-to-ten scale of how much you didn't thoroughly dislike it, backed up by subjective opinion treated as fact, a dash of Tumblr rhetoric, and behests that 'we can't be afraid to critique what we love' before taking a large rock to it and declaring that things just haven't been the same since whichever bit the 'critic' personally prefers. So I gave up on ever being able to read any sort of modern critique.

Here comes The Black Archive from Obverse Books to ask me to change my mind. It's a series of extremely stylish monographs penned by a variety of authors, each focusing on analysis and critique of a different televised Doctor Who story. In particular, I had a look at Philip Purser-Hallard's take on Dark Water/Death in Heaven.

Now, while there is editorial consistency, each volume is its own animal and will have its own focus. This one, in each chapter, addressed a different facet of the two-parter: whether or not Missy can be seen as an analogue for transgender people, the potential influence of cyberpunk, the structure of a 21st-century Who series finale, etc.

That said, even while addressing multiple points, it was not a disjointed volume at all. On the contrary, it instead used the finale as a stage upon which to address the evolution of various elements of the series -- as well as whether that evolution was successful from a storytelling standpoint. It was, in some ways, more a study of Doctor Who as a whole and how it ended up where it did at the end of Series 8 (while acknowledging plot points in Series 9 that alter the meanings of these two episodes).

This really was the first time in recent memory that reading a full-blown critique of a 21st-century Doctor Who story hasn't been a prickly or off-putting experience. And that's even considering that  there was discussion of whether or not certain elements 'worked' or 'were good,' something I tend to shy away from because such opinions are usually rife with emotion and subjectivity and not (as they were here) presented intelligently and backed up and sourced.

Which is not to say this is a dry volume. Yes, we're in triple-digit footnote territory. And yes, we're talking about an extremely deep study that, while in a slim volume, is substantially larger than your average term paper. But it's an easy read that avoids alienating language, and it explains everything -- as in everything. One of the pleasant surprises in reading through was the realisation that, say, a college student doing a paper on the representation of soldiers in modern British television could pick up this book, these two episodes, and need nothing else for context, even if they'd never seen a lick of Who in their lives.

In short, as a fan who loves the Twelfth Doctor's era and enjoyed the Series 8 arc, I found this enlightening, as well as an intelligent way (finally!) to gain understanding and background for some views of modern Who that I don't necessarily hold or agree with myself. As a fan who enjoys engaging with other fans, I'm extremely pleased that this series now exists, and that it looks set to go for a while. I sincerely hope that, in addition to shedding light on the relevance of individual stories, it will also encourage us as a fandom to reexamine how we discuss the show amongst ourselves, as well as how we treat each other within those discussions.

The Black Archive is a series of critical monographs written by a variety of authors and edited by Philip Purser-Hallard, exploring the history of Doctor Who on a story-by-story basis. The first four volumes -- 'Rose,' 'The Massacre,' 'The Ambassadors of Death,' and 'Dark Water/Death in Heaven' -- will be available starting in March, with four more volumes released in 2016. Starting in 2017, six volumes will be released each year.

You can preorder the first four volumes from the Obverse Books website.