Monday, January 7, 2013

As Others See Us

SmartGirl and I have been watching a lot of Doctor Who episodes from 2005 and 2006.  Doctor Who is a legendary sci-fi series in Great Britain, and you can learn a lot about how the British think by watching it.  For example, SmartGirl and I have been particularly intrigued by the portrayal of Americans, who normally appear as wealthy bullies or silly adventurers.  But the episode we watched last night, "Gridlock," really gave me something to think about.

In this episode, the Doctor and his companion (a young woman from Britain named Martha Jones) have traveled billions of years into the future to visit "New New York."  Once they get there, they are soon separated as Martha is kidnapped by two people who desperately need a third so that they can get into the "fast lane."  The Doctor jumps into a different car trying to find Martha.  The Doctor and Martha each learns that they are trapped in an enormous traffic jam -- it can take years just to go a few miles.  In fact, some of the cars have been stuck in traffic for 23 years.  Calls to the police go unanswered.  The government seems to have left the New New Yorkers to their fate.  Still, the motorists travel on, hoping to eventually reach their destination.

Up to this point, I thought Doctor Who was playing to the typical British view of America -- a place where, as the Brits see it, the average person is worked to death for the benefit of a selfish few at the top.  But just as the Doctor is railing at the the two people in his car (a cat-man and his humanoid wife) about the foolishness of the endless traffic jam, the cat-man interrupts to explain that the Doctor doesn't really understand the motorists at all.  They don't see themselves as abandoned.  And at this point, all the people, in all the cars -- millions of them -- start singing "The Old Rugged Cross."  The Doctor, for once, is stunned into silence.  Martha breaks into tears.  But the New New Yorkers have peace and comfort.

Eventually, of course, the Doctor sorts out the cause of the disastrous traffic jam, the traffic jam breaks up, and the New New Yorkers stream through the city to the strains of "Abide With Me."  The Doctor and Martha head home, moved by their experience.

I thought this was all quite good.  The United States is beautiful country, and wealthy, but it is often unfair and even brutal.  People here work harder than they do in Europe.  They get less help from the government.  They are often alienated from their neighbors.  It is easy to see Americans as naive dupes, stuck in their cars, rushing through a rat race that never ends.  And this viewpoint is very popular in much of the world.  But to understand the country, and to have any sense of its true strength, it's important to remember the remarkable fact that most Americans don't see themselves as victims.  Instead, like the folks in the story, they are pressing forward with their loved ones, hoping for a better future.  And many of them, as they do the countless jobs that make the United States such an impossibly rich nation, are singing.


  1. Very great.

    Do you think Doctor Who intended for you to feel the way you felt about its portrayal of the singing Americans?

  2. I don't know; it's hard to tell. Certainly the Brits think of Americans as religious fanatics, but they don't usually treat American religiosity with so much respect.