I’ll take a day’s break from my talk about my theatre projects for a eulogy of a sort. Most of my readers probably know this already (because I got a lot of my readers through that community), but TARDIS Eruditorum finished yesterday.
|It's August 23rd, 2014.|
I’m happy to say that I was part of a relatively privileged group of people as we approached the end as well. Some context as to what this privilege is. TARDIS Eruditorum is a project of Phil Sandifer, a former university academic specializing in literature and media studies, and a massive Doctor Who fan. It’s the first notable exercise in popular culture studies of a psychochronography, a cultural and personal walk through the development of, in this case, Doctor Who.
TARDIS Eruditorum covered every broadcast television story of Doctor Who, most of the notable novels and major audio releases in the Wilderness Years that pushed Doctor Who’s overall narrative forward, various bits of ancillary material, and cultural touchstones, influences, and centres of gravity for each era. At an average of three posts per week, the entire project took four years to unfold, from mid-January 2011 to mid-February 2015.
Phil also articulated some fascinating conceptual, political, and philosophical agendas through TARDIS Eruditorum. He understood Doctor Who literally as a quasi-sentient meta-fiction, a cultural body with something like a mind of its own, pushing itself forward to work through its flaws and adapt itself to the changing demands of its different times.
Regeneration to solve current problems, the side effect of which is creating new problems that would require future regeneration.* Phil called this material social progress. He also called it alchemy, the transformation of the material world through conceptual work. In my understanding of my own discipline, this is also what philosophy itself is for.
* Phil never touched on this particular notion, but this is also the vision of social and philosophical progress that John Dewey developed, and that Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari carried on and developed further.
|Phil's depiction of Katy Manning's Jo Grant, as played|
by William Blake's Enitharmon.
Phil tried some strange experimental posts over the years when he felt the circumstances demanded it. TARDIS Eruditorum wasn’t a review blog in the conventional sense. It was about mining each given story for an idea that would illuminate what Doctor Who was at the time and what it could teach us about its time’s cultural material problems.
His post on The Three Doctors was an extended poetic reflection of William Blake’s characters and mythical concepts through the characters and narrative beats of that story. His post on Logopolis was a choose-your-own adventure romp through allegorical images drawn from the Tarot and Kabbalah. His post on the Interference two-part novel was a multi-coloured cut-up. His post on Human Nature the television story by Paul Cornell played with strikeouts to show how the future and the past haunted each other. His post on the 1996 TV-movie was combined with a meditation on the inadequacy of our art to deal with the violence of the world, as its publication date fell only days after the Sandy Hook shooting, a culturally traumatizing event in Phil’s lifelong home of Newtown.
The Matt Smith era offered an opportunity for an extended experiment. Since River Song’s life narrative appears in a mixed-up order on Doctor Who, Phil presented the posts on her stories similarly out of order. They weren’t in River’s own narrative order, but an order that reflected philosophical parallels between the substituted stories, or introducing framework concepts earlier than they appeared in their most refined form.
Instead of Silence in the Library, Phil posted The Name of the Doctor, whose meditation on death suited the strange tone of River’s narrative in her first story, which simultaneously looked forward to her future on the show while depicting her death.
|An old man with a twinkle in his eye.|
For The Time of Angels, Phil posted The Time of the Doctor, which allowed him to explicitly introduce the central ethical concept of Steven Moffat’s take on Doctor Who: narrative substitution. With time travel, you can literally rewrite your past, overcome the constraints of established continuity or canon, turn an inevitable disaster into a lucky victory. Narrative substitution is how the Doctor makes the world better, and we can understand the entire Smith era’s use of it by examining it in its purest form in his last story.
For The Pandorica Opens, he posted A Good Man Goes to War, where Moffat used narrative substitution to tell an explicitly feminist story. The episode is set up to be a revenge story in the name of the refrigerated Amy, but River interrupts it to set up a tableau where the Pond family as a whole can know each other and heal together.**
** That healing happens entirely offscreen, because River as a character is composed almost entirely on the margins. She exists more through implications in our imaginations than on television itself. She’s designed to haunt the narrative.
The season six finale, The Wedding of River Song, replaced the premiere, The Impossible Astronaut, to show the weaknesses of designing a season where the epic scale of the finale occurs at the premiere, and showcase that episode’s central problem, concentrating on the minutiae of how the Doctor escapes his apparent death instead of the character development involved in the fakeout.
|Pictured, the Pond family.|
Let’s Kill Hitler filled the space of A Good Man Goes to War to complete Phil’s account of Moffat’s profoundly feminist story: his redemptive reading interpreted this deservedly-maligned episode as the story of a woman twisted by trauma and violence being healed through the intervention of a mother’s love and the female space of the TARDIS. The Impossible Astronaut replaced Let’s Kill Hitler’s place in the episode order as an endpoint to his redemptive reading of season six’s troubled production.
Angels Take Manhattan replaced the season six finale, forecasting the end of the Pond family’s story, since their five episodes in season seven served more as an epilogue to a narrative whose most important arc was in season six itself.
The place in season seven where Amy and Rory left the show saw Phil post on The Time of Angels, an essay that concentrated on how all the core ideas of the Moffat era appear there in raw, shadowy, incomplete form. Only after going through the explicit developments of the Pond family’s arc could we see all that this haunting story suggested.
The Pandorica Opens post came in the place of The Name of the Doctor, a personal essay about how this story, with its intimate scale and metafictional core concepts, inspired Phil to start the TARDIS Eruditorum in the first place. An account of the project’s beginning as it came to an end.
And the last post was Silence in the Library, possibly the weirdest post in the entire project. It didn’t discuss the story as much as it riffed on a single moment, when the Doctor tells the approaching carnivorous shadows that, as they’re in the galaxy’s biggest library, they should see who they’re dealing with by looking him up. They retreat.
|Sydney Newman, the Canadian Jew who created|
What they read is apparently Phil’s 100,000 word long book on the production history of Doctor Who, which I got to read one chapter at a time over the last six months as he finished rough drafts. It was my reward for giving him $40 during his Kickstarter project.
It was reward enough for me. I discovered TARDIS Eruditorum in mid-July 2011, through a link from the AV Club’s essay on The Mind Robber. He had reached Jon Pertwee’s first season. I was up until three am for the next week reading his back posts, enchanted with the power of his mind, the skill of his insights, and the depth and breadth of his scholarship.
Phil is, like me, an ex-academic forging a new path as a writer and professional. We’re both on very different courses, though we’re strangely similar in many ways. We’re both in love-of-our-lives relationships with health care workers who, it would seem, are more practical in a worldly sense than either of us would be. But Phil was an inspiration to me to find a new path in life when the one I had chosen (the one to which I had dedicated many of my best years so far) was breaking down.
He also showed me that a path outside the university didn’t mean abandoning my intellectual work. If anything, it could free you to produce work that was ultimately more innovative and valuable. Phil was my primary inspiration to start this blog, my most successful aesthetically and in readership.
As well, he gave me a new way to engage with the hero who had inspired me since I was a small child to be the best person I could be, never ashamed of my intelligence or my strangeness. So for all that, I want to thank you Phil Sandifer, for the TARDIS Eruditorum, and for everything.