Dialectic of the MRA: The Return of Doctor Mysterio, Reviews, 29/12/2016

Steven Moffat is the second-longest-running producer in the history of Doctor Who. He’s been in the role since 2010, and when he steps down at the end of 2017, he will have served as the primary creative producer of the show and franchise for eight years.

With The Return of Doctor Mysterio, he’s wrapping up his seventh year. The episode makes me think that the next year may see Moffat’s style running out of steam. Or at least looking for avenues of originality.

The Doctor and Nardole actually make a pretty decent team. Matt Lucas
is appropriately restrained but present in his weirdness, and has fine
chemistry with Capaldi. It looks like we'll be seeing more of him
throughout the next season, thanks to the trailer.
Small moments – bits of conversation with Nardole in the TARDIS, the final confession at the end – put this story in the aftermath of The Husbands of River Song. This whole coming season takes place in that shadow of that story – Moffat himself thought Husbands would be his last Doctor Who story as producer, but the production needed him for one more year before Chris Chibnall could get his crew together.

So it's quite fitting that Doctor Mysterio would return to a set of images that have haunted the Moffat era since pretty much the beginning of his tenure – the appearance of sexism.

Now, I don’t actually think Moffat is as sexist and misogynistic as his greatest detractors have argued. I consider him very feminist in his character construction and his narrative priorities. But I can understand how people can see sexism in his stories.

In Phil Sandifer’s review of Doctor Mysterio, he even mentions the interpretation of Grant’s character as a stalker, but only to say that it isn’t realistic. Sandifer himself wrote a definitive account of Moffat’s style and approach as feminist. But any critical viewer has to admit that the tendency to unfortunate imagery exists.

And Doctor Mysterio features some of the most unfortunate of all. To discuss it, there will inevitably be

The Ghost is a pitch-perfect homage to the transparently virtuous spirit
of traditional superhero comics. And it comes with all the positives and
terror of that tradition.

because that cringe-worthy imagery lies in the relationship of Grant and Lucy. I call it the dialectic of the MRA because Grant and Lucy’s literally lifelong relationship conforms – I can only presume unintentionally – to the most horrible narrative of Men’s Rights misogyny.

I’ll present it literally as a dialectic. A few quick passes back and forth between a surface reading, and then a new angle that brings the problem to a deeper level. I hope it ends up with a moment of redemption. And I hope it will work.

A – The Sitcom Story

This is the classic farce of the secret identity love triangle. It’s as old as superheroes themselves – Lois Lane falls in love with Superman, without realizing he’s Clark Kent and that Clark is in love with Lois.

It’s a perfect story for Moffat, who achieved national mainstream success with a sex comedy sitcom all about these farces of missed understanding.

The central plots of most episodes of Coupling were just such farces – one set of characters understands a situation in one way, another understands it another way, mayhem ensures when they try to act all at once on how they see the world.

In his effort to be close to Lucy, Grant has made himself her servant, a
position which many of the most disgusting misogynist activists
denounce as turning away from manhood itself. Really, he should be
just negging her constantly.
Doctor Mysterio's central character dynamic is a textbook example. Grant is in love with Lucy, which Lucy doesn’t notice, as she gets a serious crush on The Ghost after her rescue from the Harmony Shoals New York office.

B – To Be Nice Is to Be Persecuted

Ask yourself why Lucy gets a crush on The Ghost. Try to figure out why, based on her character’s history.

Grant once had a friend named Lombard, who married Lucy but ran out on her when she had their baby Jennifer. If he’s the type of guy who’d leave a woman from fear of having a baby with her, it’s safe to conclude that he’s a stereotypically manly man.

Grant has always been a reserved, sensitive person. His superpowers, difficult to control in puberty, kept him socially awkward. Moffat’s script makes it a joke, but it’s actually a heightened version of what a lot of emotionally sensitive young men experience as teenagers.

He’s so overcome by his feelings that he becomes too nervous and embarrassed to act on them. The Doctor even jokes about it – “Finally, I’ve met someone who’s worse at this than me.”

That lifelong social awkwardness probably kept Grant from dating much as an adult. Maybe he’s even still a virgin well into his 30s. Since Doctor Mysterio adopts the mid-20th century aesthetics of Hays Code superhero comics, the characters quite possibly live in the same sexual milieu too.

Lucy clearly intended to seduce The Ghost during their interview, and
it's only when Grant begins to show the mannerisms he developed for
his Ghost persona that Lucy starts to show the same erotic drive
toward him that she did for the masked man. Yeah, he's keeping the
suit, alright.
Grant has a natural sense of empathy so strong that he works in child care. He kept his relationship with Lucy and cut off Lombard after the divorce because he’s a naturally sensitive soul. Grant cares, while Lombard never did.

If Lucy had really been attracted to the strength of caring men, she never would have gotten involved with Lombard in the first place.

C – She’s Nothing But a Whore

This is the point in the argument when the misogyny of the story becomes most stark. The Ghost is literally the most powerful man on Earth – Superman-like powers delivered with a stern, didactic morality. He’s a powerful man who gives orders.

In the light-hearted tones and contexts of the story, he says things like “Always have a working smoke detector!” But The Ghost is an authoritarian strongman. He dominates, takes control.

It’s implied that Lombard had that same aggression. Lombard was the alpha male to Grant’s gamma – the dominant, masculine sexuality that pushes Grant’s desires to the margins. He boasts his sexuality until Grant is completely overshadowed. In Lombard, Lucy found an outlet for her own sexuality – to be dominated.

But Lombard eventually abandoned his own dominant role. He ignored the responsibility that comes with power.

On another note, I'm interested to see how the Shoal will develop
through the 2017 season. They appeared in The Husbands of River
Song, and now are the primary villains of The Return of Doctor
Mysterio. They seem to be a return to some of the aesthetics of the
Slitheen (head-zipping mostly), but concentrating on bodyswap-
possession horror instead of camp.
And Lucy only embraces Grant when she realizes that he’s The Ghost – that he’s the Earth’s most powerful source of authority. She will only be with him once she realizes that he’s truly an alpha – a dominant, powerful man who will put her in her proper place as a female with his authority.

D – The Power of Ethics

But there’s more to the narrative of Lucy and Grant than this tawdry Elliot Roger fantasy of alphas and whores. It’s about the transformation of values.

The misogynist narrative wouldn’t hold the power it does if there wasn’t some truth to it. A horribly partial, inaccurate, incomplete truth. But it is a truth.

Confidence is attractive, no matter the gender. And some women are attracted to strong personalities, especially if they’re young and immature. But those immature relationships often self-destruct.

Lucy doesn’t change her mind about Grant on learning that he’s The Ghost. She changes her mind in a moment of understanding what’s actually important to her. The confidence of quiet devotion ultimately matters to her more. And her conversation with The Ghost helps awaken her to that.

E – Pining and Obsessed

Yet Grant himself occupies the mind-set that the most misogynist, predatory MRAs have preyed on for recruiting – the sensitive but awkward young man who’s habitually suffered from unrequited love.

Grant has spent years of his life pining for Lucy and finding ways to inject himself in her life. Even at the most intimate circle of becoming a central caregiver for her child. All this time, he’s harboured a deep feeling of love for her. But for literally decades, she’s never felt about him this way.

And the Shoal's plan to conquer the Earth by replacing humanity en
masse recalls the ideas animating the old Patrick Troughton era story
The Faceless Ones.
Except that she has – she just didn’t notice it, and needed to be awakened by just the right accidental words from The Ghost. She’s justified her years of devotion by having felt the same way – just never having been conscious of it.

But this narrative of the loved one who has loved her lover back all the time without knowing it is a filthy, violent, repugnant narrative. Grant himself may not technically be a stalker, but his story justifies stalking behaviour.

It’s the contention that, even though your target – sorry, loved one – says and believes that she doesn’t love you back, she really does, and all it will take is the right words or actions to make her realize that.

F – Falling Back

And this is where I’m stuck. I loved watching this episode for the spectacle, the cracking adventure storyline, and the comedy performances of Peter Capaldi and Matt Lucas as new companion Nardole. I think I’ll love this part of the story when I watch the episode with the GF later.

But the core relationship of the key guest characters can’t escape these horrifying implications. I think it appears as a function of Doctor Mysterio's nature as an homage-throwback to the classic superhero narratives of the 20th century.

Many of those stories were told from a very masculine perspective. Women were often marginalized characters, even when they had significant page time. It’s only recently that mainstream comics creators have had more freedom and come from more diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences.

This is far from the first time Doctor Who has been in a comic, you know.
The era of comics written by people like G. Willow Wilson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Mariko Tamaki will produce some very different narratives than those from the shadow of Stan Lee, which brought us the first, literal woman in a refrigerator.

But if Doctor Who draws on the old tradition of comics for inspiration in its stories, like The Return of Doctor Mysterio, it will end up falling back into the worst habits of that tradition.

When Doctor Who takes on too much fealty to a tradition – even its own traditions – it collapses. The Return of Doctor Mysterio might be a well-told story, but it’s hobbled by its fealty. I hope Capaldi’s third season will see a greater spirit of rebellion and rejuvenation once it properly begins in 2017.

That’s the real strength of Doctor Who.

No comments:

Post a Comment