Doctor Who And The Exercise Of Authority


I have only recently gotten into the British television show, Doctor Who.  I have always been repulsed by the older shows, but I found myself enjoying several of the 21st century productions.  In fact, I’ve been watching them at a fanatic’s pace the last month or so, probably averaging an episode per day.  My favorites so far include Weeping Angels and Asylum Of The Daleks. [update 29 Jul 2014: I just watched The Angels Take Manhattan, which is now at the top of the list, too]

I found the Doctors of David Tennant and Matt Smith equally entertaining, though for different reasons. Tennant’s Doctor is extremely likable and played as an often intentional comedian, whereas Smith’s Doctor is more distant, and perhaps because of this, a bit more fascinating.  My favorite companions are Karen Gillan and Jenna-Louise Coleman, and I’d be hard-pressed to chose between them if I was looking for my own time-travelling bud.  I also saw an episode in which companion Billie Piper had to act as if her body had been taken over by someone else, and she really did an excellent job of it.

Because the show smartly references its own history often, the more episodes I watched, the more I grew curious about the old shows which I had dismissed as unwatchable. So, to catch up a little, I checked-out the book, Doctor Who: A History by Alan Kistler, which for my level of fandom (beginner, not yet showing signs of being rabid) was pretty much exactly the introduction I was looking for.

One thing that I have begun to pay more attention to concerning the Doctor is his exercise of NATURAL AUTHORITY.   Authority, in general, both fascinates and frustrates me.  Always has.  I am an anti-authoritarian by nature, and perhaps relatedly, I am also uncomfortable whenever I need to exercise (or should perhaps exercise) authority. The Doctor is the polar opposite of me here, taking control of any room he enters. And this is why he’s my new hero.

The Doctor does not obtain his authority via some rank or insignia– and certainly not by the way he dresses.  Yes, the Doctor has power… he is “in charge” of the situation– but his power, I’ve come to realize, stems not from his toys (his TARDIS or Sonic Screwdriver) or even his rank (despite the fact that his race has arrogated the species title, “Time Lords”), but rather from his ability to solve problems. People grant the Doctor authority because they either intuitionally sense that he brings some serious skillz to the table or because they (often begrudgingly) learn to trust his judgment and abilities.  The man (well, Time Lord) is a problem-solver.  He can get them out of a jam (albeit, often a jam he gets them into in the first place).

I think people the universe over will grant an entity authority if that entity engenders confidence in its skill-set.  This is natural authority, the authority that even Anarchists recognize, the authority of the EXPERT. All other authorities lean in varying degrees toward the artificial or superficial.

Everywhere we turn in life, we are confronted by authority. But most of that authority is not “natural”– at least no fully so– but is instead based upon a combination of: 1) official position, 2) wardrobe & symbols of power, and 3) physical threat.

I suppose one could argue that physical power is about as “natural” of an authority as one can imagine, and I reckon that’s true in its own way, but it’s not the sort of authority I’m talking about.   Leadership based upon the threat of violence is forcedleadership, power not given but taken, demanded by those who insist upon having their way. What I mean by “natural” authority is that sort of authority granted willingly to someone who can improve the situation.

I find it hilarious –and sad– how much authority we give to someone merely by the way he or she dresses… the man in the business suit, the woman with the clipboard and mien of judgment, the worker with the orange vest gesticulating the way to go. There are also examples where all three types of artificial authority are combined into one grand personage… the judge in his robes on his throne on high, the police officer with his badge and gun and screaming, flashing vehicle, et cetera.

One of the scariest authorities of all is the nebulous authority of peer pressure or social norms.   For instance, I almost called the lead character of the show upon which I’m basing this post, “Doctor Who,” but refrained– not because I was afraid the reference would be unclear, by because I knew that there are those out there who would pummel me for calling the main character by that name when, technically, he is not referred-to within the show as “Doctor Who,” but as “the Doctor.”   The rebel in me will sometimes go against the grain in these situations (such as when I call science fiction “sci fi” despite the fact that I know it irritates the bejeezus out of many, or when I insist upon putting “A.D.” after a date instead of before it)– but just now, I have to admit– I was indeed swayed by the censorship of social pressure (by the way, this sort of authority also shades into the authority of the “expert” since those who would call me out on such a faux pas would be basing their power over me upon their [assumed] greater knowledge of the show and its culture).

The authority of social pressure is the most overwhelming authority of all.   It so surrounds us at every turn that it is usually as invisible and downright unknown to us as water to a fish.  Rarely do we recognize any of the thousand ways society dictates how we should spend the minutes of our days– how we dress, how we speak, how we carry ourselves… the authority of society over us can hardly be overstated.

I’m not saying we do not need to grant some authority to society… In fact, I bemoan the recent loss of that old sentiment,when in Rome, do as the Romans do.  Nowadays, it seems that we –almost militantly– expect to elbow our own sub-culture into whatever culture we are visiting, and we consider anyone who passes negative judgment on our alien behavior or dress as intolerant and closed-minded… whereas, tolerance should be a two-way street– the host society respects the culture of the visitor, but the visitor should also respect the norms of the host society.

But finishing-up here on authority…  I consider myself a very courteous person– And what is courtesy but the granting of power to the expectations of society?   The hard part for me has always been finding that balance between courtesy and self-expression, between caring what others think– and not giving a hoot.  I am not a person who craves authority, nor do I like to be told what to do by others.  But I’ll tell you this… if the Doctor ever comes running into the room and yells to me, “Come with me!  Hurry!”– you better bet I’ll be right on his heels.



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