Monday, March 23, 2009

From the mind of a black woman

I am really becoming a fan of the Doctor Who series that Glenn and I have been watching. Tonight's episode was of particular interest to me because one of the main characters, who had a pivotal role in the final scene, was a journalist.

In tonight's episode (Episode 7, Series 1, "The Long Game") the Time Lord and his sidekick Rose Tyler land 200,000 years into earth's future, specifically on a space station known as "Satellite 5". The Doctor is telling Rose's "boyfriend" (acquired in the previous episode and who doesn't last beyond this episode, by the way) how to find information about places you land through their time travels. He informed them you just have to open your mind and ask questions. He said, "You can't just read the guide book. You've got to throw yourself in, eat the food, use the wrong verbs, get charged double and end up kissing complete strangers..."

They're going along and eventually get themselves caught in the middle of the action as usual. The Doctor is becoming increasingly skeptical and asking a bunch of questions, not necessarily to the people they're with. Something about a group of humans in the year 200,000 who by all appearances look as if they've never made it past the 21st century, is not right and the Doctor and Rose are bound and determined to get to the bottom of this anomaly.

Their guide meanwhile, a black woman named Cathica, is growing increasingly anxious by the Doctor's poking and prodding. She follows them, but it's clear she is torn between obedience to her employer and her own growing curiosity as the Doctor debunks more and more of what she's always accepted as her moral code. At one point the Doctor admonishes her for not using her brain to ask questions. He puts her down for just accepting the status quo and not using her powers as a journalist to get to the bottom of some of the things she may have questioned in the past but has over time just grown to accept.

Eventually the Doctor and Rose make their way to "Floor 500" which, to the inhabitants (read: slaves) below is known as being a room with "walls made of gold". Getting to Floor 500 is only done by means of "promotion" (read: execution), and everybody below knows that once you make it to Floor 500 you never come back. The Doctor was particularly troubled by that bit of news.

Once there it doesn't take long for the Doctor and Rose to get shackled, facing imminent death. It doesn't look good for them at all; me as the viewer, even though I knew very well they would get out of it and live to make episodes for another 4 or 5 seasons, I still had to ask: how will they get out of this one? I had no idea. That's part of the brilliance of this series that I'm growing to love so much, even though I know the main characters are going to get out of whatever pickle they get into, the means by which they escape is never obvious.

Well at one point the Doctor notices Cathica found her way up to Floor 500 on her own. His captor, the "Editor", hasn't noticed her yet. The Doctor uses this bit of knowledge to his advantage to further spur Cathica to action to free them...

Earlier in this episode we are shown how she gathers information to disseminate into "news" - she has a mechanism implanted into her forehead that, with the "click" of her fingers (we say "snap" here stateside) opens a gateway to her actual brain. She is laying in a dentist's office-type chair and at her verbal command, "Spike!", a machine mounted to the ceiling above her sends a laser beam of streaming information directly into her brain through the gate that opened up on her forehead. Other journalists surround her in a circle sitting cross-legged on the floor, and with their hands placed on metallic moldings in front of them which are connected to the machine in the ceiling, they all send information to her brain simultaneously. It's quite a sight to see, quite an idea to comprehend.

Back to Floor 500 - in the room adjacent to where the Doctor and Rose are being held is a room with a chair much like the one we saw Cathica using earlier. But instead of live journalists the seats are filled with decaying bodies, unfortunate souls "promoted" to Floor 500. Inspired to action by the Doctor's words, Cathica flings the corpse off the chair where she would normally sit, sits herself down and gets to work.

There is another bit of trouble going on, which is what got the Doctor and Rose shackled in the first place. Adam, Rose's "boyfriend", wandered off and got himself implanted with the same gateway that Cathica has in her forehead. As the episode progresses he makes his way back to the room where they first saw Cathica do her thing and, moved by a greedy desire to have as much information as he can, and also probably to be the first to launch it back home on 21st-century Earth, he engages the ceiling-mounted machine on himself, and before anyone knows it he is both learning everything about 200,000 year-old Earth and putting his own knowledge into the system. That is what spells disaster for the Doctor and Rose, because that is what enables the Editor and his boss (a giant, gelatinous mass with shark-teeth that hovers from the ceiling above in Floor 500 and speaks in growling utterances) to learn who the Doctor and Rose are. Stupid, greedy Adam; suffice to say he is ejected from the Doctor's and Rose's good graces by the episode's end.

Cathica found the courage to act upon what the Doctor prodded her to do, which was the "right thing". She subverted the flow of information coming from Adam's brain and also began subverting the flow of hot air coming from the top down (that's what was keeping the Editor's boss "Max" cool and therefore alive) ...

The visual significance of this final scene was quite profound for me: I don't know if Doctor Who's producers/writers had any specific intention with using a black woman for that particular role or not (I, of course, would like to think they did), but what it boiled down to for me was this: the black woman opening her mind is essentially what saved not only the time travellers, the Doctor and Rose, but also all of Satellite 5, and by even further extension humanity itself in the year 200,000. Because the toothy, gelatinous mass that the Editor affectionately referred to as Max was apparently in control of all of humanity - not just that which was enslaved on Satellite 5, but all of "The Fourth Great and Bountiful Human Empire ... Planet Earth ... at its height, covered with megacities, five moons, population 96 billion, the centre of a galactic domain that stretches across a million planets and species." (from Episode 7, Series 1, "The Long Game").

And I thought that was cool. It was also so very well done! I am impressed and encouraged by what this show has to offer. The episodes keep getting better and better. I still have to write about Episode 6 which we watched earlier today, which showed the machine-with-personality character ... a Dalek. That deserves a journal entry too; hopefully I'll be able to get to it before my weekend is over.

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