The Rise of the Intellectual Superhero
Having watched the second episode of the new BBC Drama based on Sherlock Holmes, it struck me powerfully that there is a particular phenomenon emerging in BBC dramas which exemplifies a shift in popular consciousness and preference ‘heroes’. The real issue was the striking similarity between the characterisation of Sherlock Holmes and that of Doctor Who, particularly Doctor Who played by David Tennant. This kind of characterisation of the flawed hero is interesting. Instead of someone who is somewhat intelligent and capable of bravery and bravado, saving the world using almost magical powers, this new kind of superhero uses a superior, almost supernatural form of intelligence as his main characteristic. This kind of intelligence combines extreme logic and rapid processing of multiple types and pieces of information or data, excellent memory, intuitive reasoning, and creative, inductive reasoning.
The attempts to exemplify these processes in the latest BBC Sherlock Holmes drama are for someone like me, fascinating even if they do not go as far as I would like. But in both Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who, we see essentially flawed characters whose tragic dimensions make them all the more attractive. What is it that has changed in our cultural consciousness to make the manifestation of such a hero successful at this point in time? I raise this question because, as a writer, I am constantly engaged in trying to understand the popular cultural icons that are emerging, and attempting to see how this can work in my own writing. Is this just something that I notice, or are we at last tiring of heroes and characters who are action oriented, and instead, are leaning more towards a new intellectualism? The fact that such characters are socially flawed is another issue. They are represented as dysfunctional to the point of almost being disabled in a social sense, whilst being intellectually superior to the ‘common man’ as it were. And yet people enjoy this. In fact, the almost sociopathic tendencies of Cumberbatch’s Sherlock seem to be some of his most attractive and entertaining traits. The same is true of the three recent incarnations of Doctor Who.
What does this mean for writers? Does it mean that we are free to explore the characterisation of our protagonists as something other than the standard trope of hero and heroine? Or does this represent a reinforcement of the various standard models of character, and demonstrate that, like Doctor Who, they can have vast intelligence and great heroism, but never, in the end, ‘get the girl’? How would such characters work if they were female rather than male? I can think of one example of a female character who exhibits similar asocial, unemotional tendencies combined with intellect and superior reasoning – Dr Brennan in Bones, where her extreme rationalism is often viewed as affectionately strange because it is not something usually associated with female characteristics. Yet by series seven she has succumbed to the charms of her male ‘partner’ and is bearing his child, and the viewer is amused by her struggling to come to terms with standard female behaviours such as being overly emotional and non-rational. Is this yet another form of gender stereotyping in on-screen fiction? Or is there scope for difference here? Reading Scarlett Thomas (ANYTHING by Scarlett Thomas), I am inclined to hope that there is the potential for writers to embrace women who are vastly and scarily intelligent and capable of great things. I would like to see a female Doctor Who, and a female Sherlock, and then see whether people could in fact embrace similar characteristics in a woman. It certainly would pose an interesting challenge for a writer.
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