Doctor Who: ‘Sheffield Steel: Volume 1’ reviewed

❉ Paul Driscoll reviews Maleski’s musings on the Thirteenth Doctor.

“It is Maleski’s reading of the thirteenth Doctor as a whole that is the real highlight of the book. That’s the glue that just about ties the various blog pieces together.”

Sheffield Steel was born from the unregulated, diverse, and seemingly infinite world of the blogosphere, where anything can be passed off as critical analysis, and any views, no matter how bespoke, unfair, or warped, can carry the illusion of legitimacy simply by having been published online. But a host site is not a publisher, at least, not one who cares about the work and its author. It exercises no editorial control over content, unless there’s been a complaint or a breach of terms.

These days, anyone can gather together their personal blog and put it in print. There is little risk involved, but there is no guarantee of reward either. Will people pay to read what has been available for free online, will the author gain increased exposure and critical acclaim, and does a change of medium necessarily up the legitimacy stakes in any meaningful sense?

The proof is in the pudding, as they say. But the nature of the original blog is important too. Some stand out from the crowd because they unashamedly reach out to the most vocal defenders of their cause or interest. There are a sleuth of extremist blogs, of all political persuasions, that preach to the converted and feed off the offence of their opponents. Other’s gain notoriety, without their owners having to make a song or dance about them. They are driven by extraordinary personalities with a unique style, or have hit the jackpot with a celebrity endorsement, even if it’s just a share or a like.

Maleski’s blog wasn’t meant to do any of this pandering to the biggest possible audience, indeed its stated intent was to be for “voices that were marginalised in more mainstream spaces.” The fact that Maleski’s musings on Jodie Whittaker’s debut season as Doctor Who are now available in print, published through Arcbeatle Press, is an interesting political choice. It is one to be applauded, especially when trees are being needlessly pulped to support countless vanity projects. Maleski has plenty of on-the-nose observations to make about mainstream Doctor Who and its centrist agendas.

This is the kind of perspective that needs to be heard, beyond the immediate circles in which it usually operates. But it’s a voice that does not need to shout to get its point across. There are times when the text almost slips into a rant, betraying its original form. It might make sense if the reader is aware of the context of the original blog post, but detached from that immediacy, it comes across as an interruption to the logic of the argument. On a blog, it’s possible to get away with the odd sweeping statement, or even veer towards the personal, not so much here.

That said, there are some stand-out essays in this collection that could each form the basis for a Black Archive, and it’s no surprise to find out that Maleski will be developing his thoughts on Arachnids in the UK for the Obverse Books range. But don’t be fooled, whilst Maleski brings to the table a wealth of theoretical knowledge, from politics to literature, this is a hugely entertaining read. We never get lost in the theories. They are expertly distilled and applied in an accessible manner. Some of the more engaging parts of the book are when the author unexpectedly changes voice. The essay on The Demons of the Punjab, for instance, is framed with a beautiful narrative piece about his Grandfather’s wartime and post-war experiences.

Maleski is no apologist for Chris Chibnall’s first series. Indeed, one gets the impression that there is very little he finds commendable about it. This is another reason for this book’s publication, for whilst there has been much criticism of series eleven, the loudest voices of dissent have come from those fans and members of the wider audience who wanted it to fail because they cannot accept a female Doctor. This book will be especially beneficial to those champions of the Whittaker Doctor who struggled to like the series, but couldn’t quite put their finger on why.

The easy get-out is to blame it on Chris Chibnall’s writing, but Maleski isn’t quite so dismissive of the writer’s skills in his analysis. He praises Chibnall’s ability to focus on the small and the personal, bringing the extraordinary into the ordinary. The magic of Doctor Who is found in “the immensity of the universe meeting ordinary human lives.” The alien and the weird mingle with the mundane, giving an otherworldly quality to what, for both Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat, would have been the background to the action. Sheffield is part of the magic and the Doctor becomes part of Sheffield. That doesn’t mean the showrunner gets an easy ride. Maleski suggests, for instance, that Chibnall is a writer who finds purpose in incompleteness, who doesn’t know how to tie a plot together.  He also argues that Chibnall has misunderstood one of the fundamental building blocks of the show, mistaking fantasy for science-fiction: “The shows says alchemy and he hears chemistry.” Maleski excels at pithy phrases such as this, making his book eminently quotable.

There are times throughout Sheffield Steel where Maleski is arguing a case for the series, despite its writer. He sees his mission as rescuing the episodes from the mistakes and flaws of its creators. The much maligned The Tsuranga Conundrum, for example, he says is “a patient in need of a little redemptive reading.” Playing devil’s advocate, readers might want to say the same about Sheffield Steel. Since Maleski believes that criticism is a form of creation, we must assume he is happy for us to do that, if we so wish.

I struggled with series 11, for many of the same reasons Maleski did. Like Maleski, I found Kerblam! to be the antithesis of what Doctor Who should be about. It is to his credit that he tries to find hope even in a story which sets the Doctor up as an apologist for economic liberalism, where she is untroubled by human misery, and instead gets a thrill out of riding a conveyer belt or receiving a Kerblam package. Damningly, there is no challenging of the Doctor’s stance or morality. Maleski rightly finds an explanation for this odd choice in the avowed intention to move away from the Moffat era, when the question mark was firmly put back into Doctor Who, repeatedly and unashamedly. But in its place, the character has become a marketing mascot, devoid of all the contradictions and paradoxes. The thirteenth Doctor is a voice of hope – a representative figure – but only in the most superficial sense. The progressiveness is tamed by a centrist agenda.

Maleski is a helpful voice in the debate on representation in Doctor Who, he deftly exposes the series’ failures to embrace difference, and the missed opportunity of the Doctor’s gender reassignment. Dig deeper into the episodes, and Kerblam! is not the only one with a questionable moral compass. Even the much acclaimed Rosa comes under scrutiny. By focusing on the personal, Maleski suggests the episode is something of a cop-out. It “should have been…an open, angry, political screed, a call to revolution.” The fact that the Doctor’s coat now includes stitching from a member of a black underclass, and that she isn’t even seen paying for it, certainly leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Krasko’s presence in Rosa is also a concern to Maleski, because it means the future is pretty bleak and the struggle in vain. He’s right to be troubled. There’s a very protestant and conservative Christian ethic on display here, one that, indeed, Maleski has noted elsewhere in series 11. One of the most damning lines from the New Testament, at least in terms of how it has been misinterpreted is, “You will always have the poor among you.” We can supplement it here with, “You will always have the racist among you.”

Each episode, and indeed all the officially licenced thirteenth Doctor novels and short-stories are covered on their own terms, but it is Maleski’s reading of the thirteenth Doctor as a whole that is the real highlight of the book. That’s the glue that just about ties the various blog pieces together. The Doctor is supposed to have fallen from a privileged position, but rather than bring her down to Earth as one of us, and one with us, it is clear that the same privilege is there, albeit coded in different ways and hidden in plain sight. The Doctor’s conservative faith is key to understanding the dilemma, and perhaps this is one area worthy of further exploration in the light of Maleski’s political commentary. She embraces spirituality and appears to champion diversity, but a degree of white privilege remains. She prefers the New Testament over the Old (The Witchfinders – noted by Maleski as veering on anti-semetic), she quotes from 1 Corinthians 13 in a Muslim/Hindu wedding ceremony, and rather than be a voice of liberation, she advocates a non-interventionist kind of love in the midst of human suffering.

Sheffield Steel does not resolve all the issues with series eleven and occasionally makes some quite left-field claims – I am unconvinced, for example, that Gareth Roberts has anything to do with this iteration of the series. But it will make you look at the episodes in a new light, it will give you pause for thought, and will leave you with plenty of questions. Whether that’s enough to redeem the episodes you might have struggled with, is another matter.

❉ ‘Sheffield Steel: Essays on the Thirteenth Doctor, Volume 1: Series 11 (2018-2019)’ by Samuel Maleski is out now, published through Arcbeatle Press,  on Kindle and in Paperback!

❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Paul Driscoll is a freelance writer and author across a range of subjects from Cult TV to religion and social policy. He is a passionate Doctor Who fan and has conrributed to the critically acclaimed Black Archive range by Obverse Books, and its sister range The Silver Archive. He is a regular writer for the fan site Doctor Who Worldwide and has contributed several essays to Watching Books’ You and Who range. Recently he has branched out into fiction writing, with short stories in the charity Doctor Who anthology Seasons of War, Iris Wildthyme collection and Chinbeard Books’ collection of drabbles, A Time Lord for Change. 

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