Monday, January 24, 2011

Doctor Who and the Healing Of Death (Dr. Chaos, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dr. Mario)

Those who are interested in more extended thoughts on the subject of Doctor Who than this single post can offer may be interested in the Nintendo Project's new sister blog, TARDIS Eruditorum, in which I watch every episode of Doctor Who, and then some.

Standard practice, as argued for by Miss Manners, is that the title "Doctor" should be reserved for actual medical practitioners, and that those whose doctorates are academic degrees ought not be referred to with the title. As the increasingly embittered holder of one of these degrees, I have mixed feelings about this. The ostensible reason for the rule is to preserve a sense of egalitarianism. Given that my PhD seems to have, at present, put me below the poverty line, unable to afford health insurance, and apparently unemployable, I am largely of the view that the situation might be a little too egalitarian.

Indeed, with the increasingly disturbing rise of the class of the intellectual poor - those with advanced degrees and no meaningful prospects - the concern seems almost quaint. With all the talk of liberal indoctrination at universities, who'd admit to being a doctor?

Except, of course, me. But that's mostly due to quirks of childhood. 18 years now watching Doctor Who will drive anyone a bit mad, and let's face it, I wasn't Captain Sanity of the HMS Normal to begin with. So yeah. I taught my one class today (all I was able to get hired for this semester) in a brown-based button-down shirt, red suspenders, maroon red bow tie, and a brown sports jacket. There may have been a replica Sonic Screwdriver in my pocket. Because, look, I've basically spent my entire life aspiring to be the Doctor, so I'm bloody well holding onto the title.

What is, to me, most interesting about the Miss Manners rule is the exception for medical doctors. The idea that the word denotes both an intense expertise and a qualification to heal is a strange one, and the two meanings are rarely well-unified. The three games for today all feature doctors, and about a 50/50 split on their nature between academic and medical doctors (with Dr. Jekyll being the somewhat liminal 50/50 figure)

Dr. Chaos is clearly not a medical doctor, but a mad scientist - annoyingly the most common cultural use for the academic doctor. In it, you play the brother of a mad physicist exploring his haunted mansion and trying to save him. Even without reading the manual to learn this, though, it's pretty clear that your avatar, who appears to have brought a knife and nothing else to the haunted mansion, is not exactly a doctor-grade genius. He spends most of the game tediously searching room after room with an incredibly awkward and ill-conceived control scheme (enjoy the five minutes it will take you to learn to do anything other than open things). Occasionally, in improbable places, he finds a warp to a proper action level. The rest of the time, he finds bullets. Or monsters. or both. The game is certainly innovative, but it turns out that point-and-click adventure and side-scrolling action game are a poor mix.

As, to be fair, are madness and science. Though part of this is due to the lack of cachet mad post-modern theorists have in a cultural context, the fact of the matter is that mad science involves significant alterations both to notions of madness and of science. The mad scientist is mostly just a proto-steampunk figure, a sort of bizarre fusion of garage-based tech visionary and serial killer that's mostly only cool for the excuse to do lightning effects and shout "Igor" a lot. There are numerous successful literary examples of the mad scientist, but let's face it, they're kind of paltry after the 19th century. One of the most famous, however, is Robert Louis Stevenson's creation of Dr. Jekyll.

For our purposes, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is notable for being widely recognized as one of the worst NES games ever made. To my surprise, it actually avoids making the now-legendary Seanbaby list, but all the same, it's pretty staggeringly bad. The plot, so far as I understand it, is that as Dr. Jekyll you are trying to walk to church with the significant barrier that the townspeople are arbitrarily trying to murder you. This includes occasionally running up to you and setting off a bomb at your feet. All you have to defend yourself with is a walking stick that appears to have the effect, basically, of hurting you whenever you hit something with it. As you are savagely beaten by the townspeople, you steadily become angry until, without so much as a "What a terrible night for a curse," it suddenly turns to night, you turn into a monster, and you have to begin punching brains with legs to death.

For most people, however, the title refers to a classic horror novel. Its most recent major flare-up came in 2007, when Steven Moffat created a modernized version titled simply Jekyll. Posed as a sequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's original novel that is set in a world where the novel has come out, the six-episode TV series is a masterpiece of contemporary horror. Its genius is that it is relentlessly inward-focused. For all the big and epic mysteries it builds, in the end, Jekyll is a six episode TV series about a man whose family is coming apart at the seams. Which is, increasingly, the most interesting way to do so-called genre television - in a departure from the moody realism era (which, frankly, was largely an aesthetic failure), the norm of the best sci-fi and horror of late has been to use genre trappings to tell relatively small stories on an epic scale.

(Video games remain trapped on the wrong side of that divide, in no small part because there are very few game designers making a serious effort to work on emotion in gameplay. Which is why licensed games are so often crap. Adapting a story across media is hard and requires a really good understanding of how both media work. Since storytelling in video games is still understood poorly, unsurprisingly we can't adapt things to the form very well.)

It is a different sort of doctor, however, where Steven Moffat has made his more enduring mark, taking over in 2010 as the twelfth show-runner of Doctor Who, a series he first wrote for in 2005 with the Hugo-winning two-parter The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. This two-parter has an interesting conceit, in that it is essentially a misguided and renegade doctor, in the medical sense. Basically, some medical nanotech confuses "dead boy with a gasmask" with "what humans are supposed to look like," and proceeds to helpfully rewrite humanity into dead boys with gasmasks who walk around creepily asking "Are you my mummy?"

Thematically, what is interesting here is that it contrasts the Doctor - who is most often portrayed as an academic Doctor, not a medical Doctor (in fact, he has on several occasions said he's not a medical doctor, but is instead a doctor of "practically everything") - with a sort of dark mirror. He is confronted with, in essence, healing gone wrong. Those who are fond of Derrida will recognize this as a thematic instance of autoimmunity - the idea of the body itself becoming the pathogen, which is a powerful motif.

Dr. Mario uses a similar theme as the basis for the entire game. In it, the pills Dr. Mario throws to destroy the viruses are in fact the major threat. The viruses in the bottle can never actually do any harm. In fact, it is the pills that can do harm, causing the player to lose the game if they obstruct the neck of the bottle. Thus Dr. Mario is, as a game, one about bad medicine.

What is further interesting, then, is that it is very difficult to construct a reading of Dr. Mario in which Mario is not, as with Donkey Kong Jr, a villain figure. He's the one throwing the capsules that destabilize the situation. And, I mean, the viruses are in a bottle. They're contained. There's no reason to be throwing pills at them except to tempt fate.

In Doctor Who, much of the action of Moffat's two-parter is centered on the fictional Albion hospital. The name harkens to the mythic origins of Britain, but also, necessarily, to William Blake, who positions Albion as the embodiment of a pre-serpentine, Edenic creation. On Television Without Pity, Jacob's excellent recaps of Doctor Who focused, with The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances, on the metaphor of the healing of Albion - the idea of healing as a holy restoration. But this ignores a darker side of the notion of healing, and indeed, of the healing of Albion - one that is exemplified in both the Doctor Who story and Dr. Mario, as healing is the basis for an odd inversion in which the character is darkly mirrored.

What about healing lends itself to this odd inversion? The problem is that healing is in many ways a negative act. I mean this not in the sense that it's bad, but in the sense that it is an act of negating and restoring. Healing is wound-removal. Thus we must come to terms with the notion of a wound. Properly speaking, a wound is an injury that results in breakage of the skin. It is thus a destabilization of the body - a point where inside and outside are confused. Oral fixations, vagina dentatas, and gay panic defenses suggest that we are paranoid enough about these border points in our own bodies when they are supposed to be there. Thus the idea of a wound, which violates the integrity of the body not only without permission, but at an aberrant point, is scary.

But scarier is healing. Because to re-establish the boundary, the boundary must be transgressed repeatedly. Healing, by its nature, breaks in and out of bodily integrity. That it does so, necessarily, when we are helpless and wounded makes it all the scarier. The doctor is one who transgresses the boundaries of our body. Which is, in the end, the entire root of the horror of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - that Jekyll, the doctor who transgresses bodily boundaries, ultimately transgresses his own.

But oddly, healing is an excellent metaphor for the death experienced in video games. If, as I have repeatedly argued, the video game is based on a monstrous and unworkable tension between the body and the controller, and on the repeated frustration of the desire to fuse them, then a wound is an all-too sound metaphor for the act of playing a video game. When we play games, we turn our bodies against themselves, taking what was functional and mangling it into the tension of gameplay. In this regard, death is healing - the restoration of proper bodily boundaries.

It is no wonder, then, that the Doctor, one of the great fictional heroes of the 20th century, would repeatedly refuse to be recognized as a doctor of medicine. Or that Mario, when wearing a lab coat, becomes oddly sinister. The healing of Albion, in the end, destroys us all. To restore the pre-Edenic is, for anything existing now, a death sentence.


  1. obligatory:

  2. My desire to see you teaching in that outfit is overpowering.

  3. Death is both a restoration of boundaries, and since all signs always already contain their opposites, death is also disintegration of those boundaries as ashes return to ashes, dust to dust.

    A videogame death is most certainly a restoration of the boundaries, though, as we are warped from out of the game-world, and the game-consciousness, the game-identity, and roughly deposited on our workaday bodies once more, safe and sound, whole, reborn, redeemed.

    Fascinating stuff.

    This project, your blog is genius. Keep writing.