‘Doctor Who,’ ‘Community,’ and the Legitimacy of Genre Fiction

In case any of you haven’t seen it yet, I wanted to call your attention to Emily Nussbaum’s New Yorker column on Community and Doctor Who, which is really a stealth argument that it’s time for those who look down their nose at genre fiction to reconsider, in part, perhaps, because genre fiction itself has changed:

The original “Who” dwelt on pure sci-fi obsessions, abstract questions of how society is organized and the line between humans and machines. But, as deeply as fans loved the show, its themes were rarely emotional. Instead, it jumped from Aztec civilization to Mars, as much an educational show for children as an adult narrative, with a British-colonialist view of the universe. (So many savages, so little time.) The series’ most striking feature was the Doctor himself: in contrast to “Star Trek” ’s Kirk—the Kennedyesque leader of a diverse society—the early Doctor Who was an alien iconoclast with two hearts and a universe-wide Eurail Pass. For a certain breed of viewer, this was an intoxicating ideal: the know-it-all whose streak of melancholy—or prickly rage, depending on who was Who—had to be honored, because he actually did know everything. Though that show had its charms, I was surprised, and delighted, to find that the modern “Doctor Who” has a very different emphasis: it’s a show about relationships, in an epic and mythological vein.

“It’s so much larger when you’re on the inside,” she writes of science fictional shows, though it’s worth remembering that emotional complexity and attentiveness to relationships aren’t the only thing that validate science fiction. There’s plenty of value in well-executed silly gadgets and drivebys to distant civilizations. The Daleks may be low-effects “Nazi-ish pepper pots,” but shabby exteriors and crude mechanically can be a vehicle for totalitarianism as well as glitz and glamor. Dropping in on a planet or a time per week can read like a survey of the Empire, but early Star Trek made those encounters melancholy, and strange, and sad (and occasionally silly) from the outset—those visits were less an affirmation of control but a reminder of how much there is out there. It’s not less worthwhile to dream about how we’ll interact with the strangenesses of the future than to ruminate on how we might have interacted with people we already know in the past. The world is changing rapidly, and even outwardly silly thought experiments may yield useful lessons and parallels. How we’d behave under siege may be a question that fluctuates only slightly if the invaders are orcs, or medieval humans, or Nazis, or cybermen. How we define humanity is a question that can be extended and expanded by science fiction in a way that realism or historical fiction may not allow us to access. Execution is one thing, but ambition itself is not inherently laughable or dismissable.

Genre fiction may become respectable when it’s seen to be answering the same sorts of questions as literature, and if it meets certain standards for prose or artistry. But judging fiction on the former rather than simply the latter says more about the gatekeepers of respectability—the New Yorker a week earlier banged the guilty pleasure drum to no particular effect or insight, saying “part of the pleasure we derive from them is the knowledge that we could be reading something better”—than about the fiction that’s up for judgement.