Philip Sandifer is the creator and writer of Philipsandifer.com, an expansive grouping of sites including The TARDIS Eruditorum, a blog featuring critical essays examining Doctor Who as a cultural phenomenon, which he’s adapted to a book series that’s currently on the fourth volume. He is also the co-author of Flood, a book of essays focusing on They Might Be Giants 1990 album Flood and its place in geek culture and A Golden Thread: An Unofficial Critical History of Wonder Woman, which focuses primarily on the Amazon’s book appearances. He’s currently running a Kickstarter to fund his blog The Last War in Albion, a critical epic history of the rivalry between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison.
Here he discusses Doctor Who, comics, Kickstarters, and more with FanboyNation’s Jessica Greenlee.
Jessica Greenlee You have named your Doctor Who blog TARDIS Eruditorum. Can you explain the name for us?
Phillip Sandifer Sure, although I worry it’s going to be terribly anticlimactic. My father is a history of math scholar, and so I happen to have heard of the 18th century German scientific journal Acta Eruditorum, which roughly translates to “acts of the scholars.” So when I was casting about for names TARDIS Eruditorum popped into my head, and I liked the sound of it. Plus I figured that a title that was a joke about an 18th century German scientific journal set the right mood for the blog. Start as you mean to go on, they always say.
JG People often assume that one has to choose between enjoying a work of art and criticizing it. You clearly enjoy Doctor Who but also slice it into tiny pieces for analysis. How do you maintain a balance between the two? Or is analyzing part of the enjoyment?
PS I take a terribly dim view of the idea that critique and analysis are in some way opposed to enjoyment. I mean, and take this as the potentially deluded ramblings of someone who thinks puns based on 18th century scientific journals are funny, but for me analysis and critique are absolutely part of enjoyment, because they’re what goes on after the act of watching something is done.
For instance, a month or so ago I rewatched The Eleventh Hour so I could cover it on the blog. This is an episode of television I must have seen a dozen times now, because for two years it was my go-to starting point when introducing someone to Doctor Who. It’s long since past the point where I just idly recite the dialogue alongside the episode. And this is not a problem, because I love it dearly and think it’s a marvelous piece of television. I mean, really, we can say what we want about the Moffat era, but for me, personally, it made me love Doctor Who like I was eleven again. There is nothing close to ironic detachment going on here – this is just flat out one of my favorite hours of television ever. But the point where its jokes and surprises can land is long since gone for me, and probably never coming back, precisely because I love it so much.
But through criticism I can keep experiencing my love of the episode. I can ask questions like “why is this bit so good” and “what is this episode trying to do in the first place.” And I can answer them, and study the episodes, and not only sustain my enjoyment but deepen it. I mean, it’s really strange to me that we have this strange idea that understanding how art works somehow means it stops working. It’s not like people imagine biologists like pictures of kittens less because they happen to understand a bit more about their inner workings. But art we have this bizarre idea that if we try to understand why it makes us feel the way we do then we’re going to ruin it somehow.
And, I mean, for me at least, as soon as someone starts to suggest that a type of knowledge is something we oughtn’t know about, it’s immediately what I want to learn about. I’d last half a page in an H.P. Lovecraft story.
JG Out of all of the shows possible, you picked the one about an eccentric alien man who travels through time and space to use as a lens for examining British history and current events. What makes Doctor Who particularly appropriate for your purposes?
PS Well, it’s really long for one thing. You don’t have a ton of things that have been continually produced in some form or another in a half-century. And that gives it a peculiar power to track cultural history. The fact that it has an imaginative premise that causes it to constantly depict the past and the future helps here as well – you can always tell what Britain is thinking about at a given moment by looking at Doctor Who. Its entire narrative, from where it came from to where it’s going, is inevitably on display.
JG You have a quite thorough explanation of psychochronography on your site’s main page. Could you give a brief summary here? What does the approach offer a viewer of Doctor Who? How does it help to historical and contemporary British life?
PS Imagine going on a really long walk through a city. Like, a nice thirteen mile hike straight down Manhattan, from Broadway Bridge right down to Battery Park. Or, if you prefer, from Whitechapel to Chiswick. And imagine just taking the walk slowly, not sticking to the major roads, and just watching as you move from neighborhood to neighborhood, looking at all the apartment complexes and tourist traps and obnoxious chain restaurants, and just trying to get a feel for the city and how it’s put together.
What you’d be doing is called psychogeography. Psychochronography is the art of doing the same thing, only taking a path through cultural space – a particular route through history, for instance. So, for instance, telling the story of the tail end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st through the lens of one particular and persistent television show. And just like taking a meandering route across a city, you get a weird set of snapshots of the culture, all out of order and with idiosyncrasies aplenty, but still giving a sense of something that’s a real route through the territory.
PS At the moment I’m planning on eleven books – ten on Doctor Who proper, and another on Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures, and Sherlock. The books contain all the essays from the website revised and expanded (or, occasionally, contracted or rewritten entirely), as well as some extra essays. The books are basically the definitive edition – I do a rough draft in public for free, and then charge for the finished version that more accurately captures the whole of my views. The books are just a little more polished – they have the advantage of me having already written the last essays on a given era when I’m writing and revising the first ones, so there’s a little more coherence and consistency to my arguments and more ability to set up and develop themes.
JG You occasionally have guest authors on TARDIS Eruditorum. Who are some of the people who have written essays? What sorts of topics do they cover?
PS They’re generally people whose work I admire who can write about a given topic better than I could. You’ve got Alison Campbell, who’s a regular commenter on the blog and whose ability to do mystical readings of science fiction absolutely blow me away – she’s done stuff on Lost and The Time Traveler’s Wife for me. Jack Graham has done a post on Merlin and did another that took a more critical take on the Moffat era than I’m going for. He’s a Marxist Doctor Who blogger and the great polemicist ofDoctor Who fandom – I read his work and I’m just jealous of him. And there’s a lovely and brilliant guy named Richard who’s a fan of both Doctor Who and Big Brother did a guest post on Big Brother that went right before Bad Wolf/Parting of the Waysthat’s, for my money, one of the best Eruditorum entries ever. The guest posts basically exist to let me showcase stuff I think is cool that I could never have written myself, and to occasionally let me get a bit of a break. I’d love to do more with shepherding other people’s work into the public eye – it’s some of the most fun I get to have. I remember Jack’s Merlin essay coming in Christmas morning, and I put off opening presents so I could read it, I was so excited.
JG You say TARDIS Eruditorum will run “roughly into the summer of 2014.” Why then?
PS Well, it’s probably actually going to go to the end of 2014 or so, but basically, because that’s when I’ll hit the end of the Matt Smith era, and that seems a good place to draw the line. If I continue past that I’m likely to end up running out of new Doctor Who midway through Series 8, or partway through the Capaldi era. I mean, maybe not – it’s tough to say. But the end of the Matt Smith era and the 50th year seems like a good stopping point, so I figure I’ll take it. It’s an easy ending to write well. Or, at least, it’s an ending it’s easy to see how to write well. Actually doing it is the trick.
PS Much like Doctor Who, there’s a really long history for Wonder Woman that lets me talk about a really big range of stuff. You start during World War II, and go all the way up to the present day, which is a huge range of time to be able to cover through one fairly narrow lens. On top of that, Wonder Woman has such an interesting cultural origin – she was designed by this Harvard-educated psychologist named William Moulton Marston as propaganda for his theories that the world would be a much better place if men just submitted utterly to women. Which is a fairly radical theory now, and yet became a mainstream cultural success during World War II.
The approach is a fairly straightforward history – I just follow the publication history of Wonder Woman comics from the beginning to the present day, looking specifically at the way in which Marston’s strange utopian vision haunts the narrative. After his death in 1947, DC Comics basically spends the next six decades trying desperately to get Wonder Woman to appear less weird, and yet somehow the character keeps being much weirder and more challenging than it feels like the people publishing it would like. So that’s a fun little story.
JG In addition, you now write the blog The Last War in Albion, which focuses on comic books and which you say will replace TARDIS Eruditorum. Why make the switch?
Because I’m going to run out of Doctor Who, mainly. I’ve got to switch to something within the next year. So the question is why Last War in Albion, which… it’s a project I’ve always wanted to do. The first notes about it and attempt at writing a bit of it actually predates TARDIS Eruditorum, but I wasn’t really ready for it yet. It was too hard a project, and I wasn’t a good enough writer yet. So it had to spend some more time gestating and cooking. But around a year ago it really started rattling around in my skull and telling me that I wasn’t going to be allowed to write anything else until I started it, and so I gave in, because that’s how it works. Eventually your ideas grow up and hold a gun to your head demanding to be set free, and you either let them or suffer the consequences.
This is probably also a good time to mention again that I’m right now doing a Kickstarter to fund production of The Last War in Albion. It’s hit goal, so at least the book version of the first chunk is going to happen, and I’m committed to blogging at least through Watchmen in the history, but there’s stretch goals where I’ll commit in advance to going further and further into the project, so if it’s something you’re interested in, please check it out.
PS Because there’s a hook on the surface that’s really interesting. You have two British writers in a kind of niche medium, both of whom became famous within a few years of each other, who came up through many of the same publications, and who went on to have enormously successful careers and tremendous influence on the broader culture. On top of that, they are both practicing magicians and occultists. Which is really, to my mind, a kind of strange set of coincidences. I mean, it’s not as though comics writers or occultists are hugely rare categories, but to have two major and influential British figures appear in the culture just a few years apart from each other who are both comics writers and occultists is, on its own, kind of weird.
And then, on top of that, they absolutely hate each other’s guts. They do not get along at all. To the point where Alan Moore has publicly asked that people who buy Grant Morrison’s work just stop buying his entirely. And perhaps more to the point, for all their similarities, there’s a legitimate disagreement between them that goes far deeper than the arguments over who plagiarized who and all the boring gossip that surrounds that. So I think that’s interesting – what it is that makes these two clearly mostly very similar people end up so very different.
JG You mention that it will deal primarily with these two authors. Who else have you included or do you plan to include. Why?
PS Well, Moore and Morrison are really just the beginning of a huge wave of British comics writers who made the jump to the US market and who became big in any number of ways. You’ve also got Neil Gaiman and Warren Ellis, who are going to enter the story later and get quite a bit of focus, and even today people like Al Ewing and Kieron Gillen are breaking into US comics from the UK. Gillen’s a really interesting writer who has some cool stuff to say about magic, so he’s going to eventually get in there as well.
Those are just the starting points, though. All sorts of writers and artists who collaborate with Moore and Morrison, or who are doing important things around the same time get a bit of focus. Moore and Morrison are the core of the narrative, but it’s a case of a core that you can build a whole lot up around.
JG You are again using psychochronography for your analytical lens. Why? What makes it so useful?
PS In some ways it’s an even more important lens for Last War in Albion than it is for TARDIS Eruditorum, just because Last War in Albion is set up to wander through so many other topics. Indeed, Last War in Albion is just as much about the culture surrounding the historical moment in British comics that it’s interested in as it is in the comics themselves. It’s not just about what Watchmen and The Invisibles and Sandman are like, it’s about how and why those comics came to be written when, where, and by who they were written. So the sort of meandering “walking tour of culture” approach that psychochronography brings is in many ways the only way that such a self-consciously sprawling topic could be handled.
PS Hmmm. A bit less cryptic, perhaps, but this is still a book I’m probably a year or more out from starting, so not a lot less. It’s very much related to my old and defunct blog The Nintendo Project, which attempted to go through every game for the original NES in alphabetical order and make strange and slightly mystical readings of them. Ultimately I feel like it ran aground because I just ran out of interesting things to say about this narrow slice of video games, but I have in mind a way of approaching video games with the same writing style, but a more carefully picked set of subjects that’s not going to run dry in quite the same way. I hope. But I’m not quite ready for it yet. I know the idea, and I have maybe three paragraphs of one chapter written that I was just playing with a bit, but it’s just not quite a project that feels ready to do right now. It still needs to spend some time cooking in the immateria. I’ll probably start working on it in earnest once TARDIS Eruditorum wraps up, assuming something else doesn’t grab my interest.
JG Thank you so much for taking the time to do this!
PS No problem – it was a good time.