Thursday, March 13, 2008

Star Trek vs Doctor Who

I have been thinking about the distinction between Star Trek and Doctor Who as emblematic of two kinds of sci-fi. I think this distinction already exists in science fiction studies, but I have been thinking about it myself for a specific reason I will get to.

In Star Trek the universe is essentially rational, and humanistic. The technology is basically believable. The anti-matter engine is a real thing you can create in a laboratory -- though at this point it is nowhere near cost efficient. The way the warp drive works has been thought out ahead of time by writers with a knowledge of hard science. The science has not been imposed after the fact, as it is in a book like The Science of the X-Men. People who major in science like Star Trek because they can get their heads into the technology and expand the basically sane ideas into whole books with charts, and blueprints, and all kinds of stuff. The world is basically human -- aliens are basically human, and on Star Trek are actually analogues to human racial stereotypes: The Klingons are war-like, and have a lot of wicker things on their homeworld; the Romulans are acetic, minimal designers, the Ferengi have one over-large body part and are obsessed with money; that race Diana Troy is from is emotional and are thus all kind of effeminate. There is always a non-human character who wishes he were human (Spock, Data, Odo, that hologram doctor guy on the ship run by Katherine Hepburn), because humans are the BEST. Kirk's grand embracing humanism will solve anything. It is all very American.

Doctor Who on the other hand does not even play at making sense. The ship looks like a police call box and flies through space. The Doctor is not at all human -- his whole human look is a facade -- and his assistant is thrown into an alien world (although, for budget reasons, the apocalypse is always centered in, like, Manchester). Opponents are vastly inhuman, like the Daleks, who only talk in spondees. Science makes no sense. The difference between the anti-matter engine on Star Trek and the sonic screwdriver on Doctor Who is really telling. This is also, for the most part, the world of comic books. I think the "British Invasion" of superhero comics can be traced back to Doctor Who fans invading a country of comic book people who grew up on Star Trek. They were just unprepared for that onslaught of insane madness, and people still debate whether Grant Morrison comics make any sense. Anarchy rules the day. But the British creators were tapping into something already there in comics, something many Americans had worked with and invented. As comedian Daniel Tosh put it -- "I can suspend my disbelief and accept that Superman can fly. But how does he fly FASTER?" Comics won't tell you.

Obviously I prefer the Doctor Who style sci-fi, because I prefer a focus on imagination and storytelling with characters, over realism, science, humanism, and allegory.

What has been on my mind lately is J.J. Abrams. Lost appears to be a show of the Doctor Who type, anarchic sci-fi featuring spirituality, magic and technology in conflict -- as opposed to a Dungeons and Dragons idea of magic as just a different kind of rational science with its own operating parameters (this is what Ellis says magic is in Planetary), or a spirituality that turns out to be nothing but a straw man for science to knock down (see the "Satan" episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, or Stargate Atlantis, where religion turns out to be a big cynical scam like all the Star Trek fans were always saying in high school).

But with J.J. Abrams directing Star Trek I have started to wonder -- is it possible that LOST will end with a very rational explanation for everything? Will it turn out to be a show that only played with being a Doctor Who style thing, with Star Trek's mechanical heart underneath? I think that would bother me a lot. I miss Mr Eko. He was the voice of irrational spirituality, and a foil for Locke's paganism and when he died the show really lost something.


Jason Powell said...

Just curious because I've never seen "Lost" but will love "Alias" till the day I die ... how involved is J.J. Abrams in the story of "Lost"? I've got the impression -- from a distance -- that the answer is "not very much." That the other guys credited as creators are really the ones in charge of the ins and outs of the story, and Abrams is more kind of an overseer.

At any rate, "Alias" never really explained itself in the end, for what that's worth.

David Golding said...

You lost me at "the technology is basically believable". I see what you're trying to get at, but your glosses of the two shows are just wildly innaccurate. I'll leave Star Trek (original series), which I am only passingly familiar with, and write about Doctor Who, which I have watched most of repeatedly.

First, Moore and Morrison may be fans, and have even written comics for Doctor Who, but that is not their only source of influence; British comics have a long and proud tradition that predates Doctor Who, and Doctor Who itself is part of an older tradition that includes things like Quatermass, Hammer Horror, CS Lewis, and HG Wells (as well as comics).

Second, for most of the axes you mention, ST and DW occupy similiar positions. Doctor Who has rationalism at its heart and throughout its history. It's intended to (according to production team interviews) and does (to me and everyone I've ever talked to) make sense. Science is prized, religion is panned, magic is rationalised. There's allegory aplenty and for every Dalek there's lots of aliens who are humanoid and stereotypical. (Also: the "apocalypse" is often in London or worldwide or on other planets, despite the budget.)

For me, the key differences between ST and DW would be that: ST occupies a single genre, whereas DW is genre-(not time)-travelling; and, in terms Samuel R Delany uses to distinguish romantic fiction from science fiction, ST privileges the subject, while DW privileges the object.

I don't know enough about Lost to comment on the latter, but it certainly sounds like it is a genre-travelling show too.

James said...

A problem with New Doctor Who is that while it sticks to the "science makes no sense" approach, it utterly fails to make the nonscience interesting.

The TARDIS is a flying Police call-box because it's supposed to blend in seamlessly with any environment, but is broken, and stuck on a previous disguise. That, while possibly unexciting for MIT graduates figuring out Warp Coils, is AWESOME. Rose being able to understand any alien language because "the magic of the TARDIS sort of gets into your head" is lazy, and dumb.

As for Abrams on Trek, maybe he'll debut a delightful marriage of allegory and grounded sci-fi concepts with imaginative stories and great characters (Simon Pegg! John Cho!). That's what I'm hoping for, anyway.

sara d. reiss said...

i don't care about any of this stuff. just keep giving me yummy david tennant mugging it up in his tweeds and chuck taylors. purrrrrrr.

hcduvall said...

Star Trek's no good since the women stopped wearing miniskirts as a uniform.

I'd say both shows share a sense of humanism as a responsibility, and as James and David said, some notion of rationalism. Star Trek's faith in technology as the expression of progress is deep, obviously, but Doctor Who has some of it to. What's interesting between the shows I think is that both also mostly set their characters as explorers. Star Trek is just more upfront about promoting their slightly fudgy utopia than anything else, and Doctor Who expresses the wonder of exploring more (though he's a soft touch too ).I dunno, Planetary?

If anything the contrast is with Star Wars, which with all its Campbellian heroic arcs and all is both feudal and elitist in its universe, with some vague anticapitalism now thrown in. And if you want to talk about racial types, at least ST was built in the 60s and the Cold War, (Klingons/Romulans I think were Soviet/Chinese, and Ferenghi means foreigner in Arabic), Star Wars has a much more recent dubious history with that.

James said...

hcduvall: I was pretty much just arguing for Old Doctor Who over New in terms of imaginative nonsense vs. lazy writing; personally I think the Star Trek/Who divide holds up.

Star Wars is a mess politically though, huh? Episode III takes this crazy left-turn into anti-Bushism, even though the saga (and especially the prequels) is riddled with painfully overt racial stereotypes.

Prof Fury said...

How does an antagonist like Q fit into Star Trek: TNG's supposed rational/hard-science framework? This I think is a problem I have with the show, not with your characterization of the differences between the shows. I was but an occasional viewer of TNG, so maybe Q was explained away in a story that made sense of him in the context of the show, but still for me it felt like they were injecting a 70s-Marvel-style omnipotent cosmic villain into a show they wanted us to believe was something more like science fiction than space opera fantasy.

Steven Taylor said...

An interesting comparison, and one worth further exploration.

I do, however, agree with David above, who notes that rationalism is at the heart of Doctor Who.

Beyond that, I think that you are dismissing some of the deep humanism in Who. The Doctor, especially in the new series, is constantly waxing poetic about humanity and their specialness. And, indeed, did so in the old days as well.

James said...

Happily, when it came up in the old days it was without Eccleston/Tenant's horrific, tortured gurning. Mark put it best: "Every time David Tennant goes into his nauseating paean to 'indominatable 'uuuumans, gor blimey, ain't they marvellous, surviving 'ere at the end of the yewwwniverse, god bless 'em', I think of commercials for BUPA."

(Sorry for all the New Doctor Who-hate, but it's a God-Damned sacred cow in this country and it drives me nuts.)

sara d. reiss said...

but. he's just so darn kyooot. send him here, i'll put him to better use.

James said...

And that's the thing! I've nothing against David Tenant! It's just that New Doctor Who is wrong, all wrong...

hcduvall said...

James: I do think there's a connection with ST also wanting solutions in science. I see what you mean (my knowledge of old Who is hazy and melds with old Wonderworks shows that would've aired at the same time).

And Star Wars is a mess in lots of ways. I think it's very much a pulp serial that's messily accrued attempted explanations beyond its basic story. It was something, and its fans and creators in the ensuing years have tried to give it more than it might bear.

Prof mentions Q, who’s probably one of the most popular parts of the shows, is art and parcel of what Trek. It’s always had it's Utopian viewpoint in the outset--Roddenberry had an agenda from the start, and an edict that all conflict must be external, that everybody in the Federation gets along. They’re always encountering some cosmic being that tests them, and they solve issues with moral virtue. But those morals? They’re a rational bedrock too. Faith in science is just a chunk of those.

The first two ST series actually play like twilight zone episodes with the same cast. Realism per se came in with until Deep Space Nine (which added better continuity). I’ve never seen it as particularly realistic till then and never hard science, actually. Science and exploration are important to ST, the first movie had Vger and so on, and techno babble in every episode, but dude, one of the movies has Cosmic Whales. In other words, the allegory part has always been more important than all the other parts in Star Trek. Which, while Who has a different approach to resolving conflict, the two shows seem related to me. Who isn’t terribly conflicted either, just more eager to entertain, in the end, the Doctor tries to solve it. Trek likes to express it’s faith in progress in it’s crew (the human bit being a consequence of low budgets, which has since been incorporated to Trek philosophy as a statement about humans), rather than a been there, done that being. I kinda like the populist secular humanism myself. All this is probably compared just to new Who though.

Sorry, I think about Trek a lot, it's a work thing.

Streebo said...

This is a great post, Geoff. I think your Doctor Who/Star Trek comparison mostly applies to the new Doctor Who. In the old series, there was always an attempt to work hard science into the explanations of everything. For instance, the Tardis does not "fly" through space so much as fold through space - or something like that.

And damn all of you with your Star Wars hating. May the Sith take you in the night.

Geoff Klock said...

JP -- You could be right about Abrams. I don't really know. I stopped watching Alias halfway through four and recently have added the rest to my netflix account, though I am not expecting much.

David -- of course you are far more familiar with the show than I. I dabble, and I suppose I am really thinking of new Doctor Who and Star Trek Next Generation. These are long running properties probably not well served by my broad and not that well researched generalizations. I also should not have cited Dr Who as an origin -- I meant more that it was emblematic of a type. But does it really make sense to everyone you know? I mean -- the sonic screwdriver. It is just silly. It might as well be a plot device want for all the stuff it does. Don't get me wrong -- I find it charming at times, and everything David Tennant does and wears is charming, but it is really silly, I thought. Is it more rational than I was lead to believe?

James -- I sci-fi that is uninteresting to MIT graduates but it awesome, and I do love the absurdity of the visual image of the call box in space.

HC -- good point about recent Star Wars.

James -- and they are weird racial stereotypes. OLD HOLLYWOOD stereotypes, more from racist movies than from racist people if that makes any sense.

Prof F -- But Q doubles back to the human thing again because, like Tennant's doctor who (and probably others) he is always waxing on about how great humans are in spite of their not being all powerful like him. When Doctor Who makes these speeches well parodied by Mark (thanks James) I don't really take them very seriously, because unlike Star Trek Doctor Who still has all the charisma. He says humans are the best but we can see that is not true.

James -- having no investment in the character, I, with Sara, remain charmed by David Tennant. I even bought off-white converse all stars to wear with my suits, and a pinstripe suit when I get one.

HC -- see I do not have any patience for secular humanism. Give me charismatic aliens a little off center and I am all set.

Streebo -- I just cannot see any way for Star Wars to be anything but awful.

I should say to everyone here that I caused trouble where none needed to be caused by playing fast and loose with a distinction that might not really hold up and is hardly backed by an encyclopedic knowledge of the shows. I feel very much lately like I just want to say stuff and see if it works, and if it does not, so be it. Not super-responsible, but I feel like blogs are good for this kind of thing.

Anonymous said...

ST was originally introduced in our country as a place-filler for Doctor Who, IIRC.Although some images scared my impressionable best friend (Balok), in general ST just didn't have the same "watching from behind the sofa" frisson.The show is best remembered for its characters, enshrined in our popular culture as "Dr" Spock and "Beam-me-up" Scotty.
Do people really enjoy tv shows more if they're scientifically accurate? I don't think Gil Kane's Atom would be spoiled for me if Fox got the atomic weight of Europium wrong.

Christian said...

Let's not forget that the Doctor is, despite how well he covers it, completely insane and doesn't give two shits about anyone unless it furthers his own causes or gives him a reason to get upset and destroy someone/something.

Where civility is a veil in the Doctor Who universe, in Star Trek it's the core.

hcduvall said...

Geoff: Ha! I don't think this was too much trouble. Both Trek and Who are long lived, so depending how long you've been with them, they show different things, and as I said, work.

I like secular humanism and all that, but I don't actually like Next Generation too much now, bit blah really--but what else was on with any SciFi? If anything, I think the Doctor pulls the humanism stuff too, and the difference is a more pronounced populist/harmony shtick part with Trek, and that could simply be an affect of having bigger casts that they have to spread the solutions among.

Have you watched Battlestar Galatica, new shiny edition? Though if you thought the allegory was obvious in Trek, yeesh. There's certainly more soap though.

I will say this, much as I like the show (despite the filler): Grace Park is the worst actress I have ever seen. She successfully never gets better too.

Christian: So the Doctor is like Q? I mean, he cares in general about humanity, but not in particular (except for the companions).

Streebo said...

Geoff: Lightsabers.

Marc said...

"the Daleks, who only talk in spondees"


David Golding said...

Sorry to respond to this late, I've been away. I (and Plok) have more comments on my own blog. But most of what I have to say runs with the idea of Star Trek (1966) and Doctor Who (1963) being different, rather than Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987) or Doctor Who (2005).

Since the latter seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the franchise has become largely about magic spells (technobable). At least the new Doctor Who has a wand (the sonic screwdriver, or what we call the "magic pointing stick"). :-)

Kirk said...


Interesting thoughts, but I think you might be overlooking the degrees to which the two shows' respective nations of origin color their perspectives.

In Classic Trek, James T. Kirk is the White Man's Burden personified, and yet, for every episode in which he Civilizes some vaguely offensively stereotypical alien species with his Superior Western-European Manhood, there's almost always a matching episode in which he and his crew are held to account by some other, Godlike Father Figure alien, until a) Kirk acts out against the Big Daddy in the Sky like a rebellious teen, and b) the now-benevolent high alien power says, "You have proven yourself worthy of self-determination by standing up to me. Good for you. Now, off you go."

By contrast, in Classic Who, the Doctor is the prodigal runaway son of an immeasurably old culture of traditionalist Caucasians whose Byzantine bureaucracy and massive power advantage over all the other races in the universe has made them, by turns, either hopelessly impotent or hopelessly corrupt, to the point that the Doctor's entire relationship with his own people is defined by him rejecting everything that they stand for, even when they ultimately decide that they want him to be their leader.

Which show sounds like the product of a former colony, and which one sounds like the product of a former empire?

Gene Phillips said...

Hi, first-time commenter to the blog.

I think I get what you're saying in the opposition of "rational" STAR TREK to "irrational" DOCTOR WHO, and there is enough of a divide between the two to jusify a rough duality of that kind. ST is, as David Gerrold said, Johnsonian democracy in space, while classic WHO is all about humorless aliens being whimwhammed by That Darn Time Lord-- much like the setups of all the major Marx Brothers films, where the good guys win by guile and cleverness rather than by force of arms.

But I have to say that though I do enjoy WHO, it's often seemed to me that there wasn't a whole lot of difference between one plot and the next. Evil alien comes across primitive humans (either on Earth or on some other planet), and enslaves them, usually setting himself up like a god until the Doctor finds a way to outsmart him. That this theme remains popular can be seen in every episode of STARGATE, which is, even more than TREK, a rationalist SF-adventure.

Classic TREK, however, allowed for a lot more variety of stories than the assumption of the White Man's Burden. Yes, they had the insufferably-allegorial OMEGA GLORY, but they also had a number of episodes that celebrated the pleasures of the irrational-- pleasures that could be as far apart as SHORE LEAVE is from AMOK TIME.

Just my twenty cents.

Anonymous said...
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Head-to-Head Matchup said...

See a head-to-head match-up of these two franchises here:

Anonymous said...

Since when was humanism an solely American condition?

tonyon said...

Humanism (wheat)...religion (darnel). The Evil Empire: religión, armies, monarchies and politicians...are the causers of all wars. For what purpose have served all the wars that the World has had?: absolutely for nothing more but for enrichment of the "leaders" (see History).Before the wars People lived relatively well, after the wars People in rags in long lines for a bowl of hot soup...while the causers of those wars: monarchs, politicians and of all religions pontifex in their golden palaces were eating partridges...