23There are a million things to LOVE about SyFy’s Van Helsing series, currently in its second season. The character of Doc is NOT one of them. She’s whiny and pathetic from the start, tedious to watch, and really quite vile, and yet she’s also the damn dirty coward needed to give the show depth, and one of the reasons the show is so darn good.
It is, but let me explain….
WARNING: CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS UP TO THE END OF SEASON 1
The character of Doc is introduced in the first episode as part of the mysterious setup. She’s a vampire, in a cage, and for some reason our heroic action guy is keeping her alive with his own blood.
Even as a vampire, she’s pathetic.
As the series unfolds we discover Doc got turned while shamelessly trying to save her own arse by sacrificing men she’s been living with for years. Once she’s bitten and realises she’s turning, she begs and pleads for her life, refusing to let Axel (the aforementioned hero) put her down, despite the fact they agreed to do it for each other.
Doc then spends over a year locked in a cage drinking poor Axel dry, a frustrating existence to be sure, but nice and safe. When Axel realises Vanessa’s abilities to turn vampires back into human he tries to restore the humanity she begged him to save, she’s happy to be human again for all of two seconds at the end of episode three, Stay Inside, but by the start of the next episode she’s crying in the shower and complaining about the tremendous trauma she’s endured.
Yes, the whiny thing actually has the gal to complain about the trauma of being kept safe and alive, not having to kill people, and then being cured, to the guy who just admitted to murdering his own children and tearing them to pieces simply to torment his wife.
Flesh points out (very rightly) that she was lucky.
She’s human again, and doesn’t have to live with the unspeakable things he and other vamps have seen and done, because she was safe in a cage. So yes, it was traumatic, but it could have been so much worse.
Is she grateful? Not in the slightest. Doc mocks Flesh for even suggesting she’s luckier than he was, and is clearly disgusted because she was locked in a cage all that time and hungry.
Even though she was getting fed regularly and the alternative was death.
So, just to be clear, we’re only on episode four by this point and Doc has already got several people killed in a futile attempt to save her own life, chose to turn rather than die, drained the life out of a good guy and genuine hero to keep herself alive, and then immediately did nothing but bitch about being saved.
Her complaint is that being in the cage was unbearably traumatic and nobody should live like that, not because she was a vampire, but because she couldn’t kill people while being a vampire.
She’s a cowardly, whiny, infuriating wretch who is not happy in any state.
Prior to being turned she’s whiney and pissy because she’s alive, and safe, with a squad of marines defending her, while the rest of the world is falling apart.
As she’s turning she’s whiny about the fact she doesn’t want to turn, and she doesn’t want to die, and she doesn’t want to be locked in a cage.
Clearly she wants what everyone wants – for the world to go back to how it was before. But rather than face the reality that this isn’t not going to happen she bucks against every single turn of events. No matter what it is, how it benefits her, or who has to suffer in order for her to continue preserving her life, Doc complains about it.
She berates Axel for keeping her alive, despite the fact she begged him not to kill her in the hope they would one day find a cure.
She further complains that he then succeeded in finding a cure.
The reality is that Axel made the very best he could of a bad situation, all for her benefit, and she’s an ungrateful wretch.
As the series progresses she only gets worse. No matter what course of action anyone suggests, Doc complains about it.
In any given situation, Doc is out for herself first and foremost. Whether it’s stealing a dead girl’s shoes without any hesitation or remorse, or slamming a door in someone’s face and sentencing them to either die or turn. The latter she did not one, but twice.
So why exactly is Doc she written like this?
It’s so incredibly annoying! Yet it’s also entirely purposeful, for Doc is the Dirty Coward, a popular and often vital trope in fiction, and particularly fantasy.
The Role Of The Dirty Coward
How is it that we can utterly despise certain characters and everything they do, yet still require them for great stories?
Doc is one of those characters who nauseates me.
Whenever she’s on screen, unless she’s actually doing her job and being medical (and sometimes even then), her every word and action infuriates me. I dislike watching her, I have frequently been rooting for her to be killed off, and yet…
If she wasn’t in the show, it wouldn’t have anywhere near the depth it does.
Van Helsing is another is a recent string of amazing revamps (pun intended) of the genre. From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, The Strain, and Van Helsing (to name but three) have all taken long-running tropes and tipped them on their heads. Even FDTD, which is based on an existing film and quite closely mirrors it, offers us a lot of depth and new ideas beyond the superficial and infuriating nonsense the genre is capable of serving up..
On the other side of the spectrum, we have the likes of Midnight, Texas, a pale imitation of True Blood.
True Blood itself was only such an epic series because of the ways in which it deviated from the source material, providing us with something new. Anyone who has read the books will know they’re riddled with trite and tropes galore. The show still has a fair few, but there are a lot of great things about it too, that weren’t present in the book.
Shows either embrace the uglier elements of humanity and provide us with heroes and protagonists who are deeply, deeply flawed, and characters with genuinely complex personalities and depth, or they play it safe, sticking to the tried and tested formulas that proved successful for the vampire genre decades ago.
The old formulas no longer work, because they are no longer even remotely original. And the difficult elements about these tropes that are so tough to stomach in modern television only worked in the first place because of the presence of other, strong elements, that shored up the weak parts.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel both had kitsch aspects to them and setups that ran to the cheesy, predictable, and foolish. But it worked. Because the characters had depth, flaws, and weren’t a bunch of Mary Sues and Gary Stus.
Cordelia was arguably as whiny and self-serving as Doc when Buffy first aired. She was as hateable, although thankfully possessed enough humour and charm to make up for it and be the character we loved to hate.
Doc is simply a character I hate.
The Other Dirty Coward On Van Helsing
We actually get a doubly whammy of dirt cowards on this show, as there is a second, unreasonably outraged bitch in the rival group who enters the hospital part way through the first season.
Catherine is inexplicably hostile, bitchy and pissed off from the second she appears on the show. She’s snarky and constantly sniping at the people she and her group inflicted themselves upon.
Nobody invited them in. Quite the contrary, Catherine and her crew forced themselves in.
They entered a tense and complicated situation they knew absolutely nothing about and proceeded to throw their weight around. This culminated in their taking control of the hospital and locking up the people already there.
While Catherine wasn’t the only one who did this, she took a distinct pleasure in it and seemed to actively relish every opportunity to throw shade and kick shit over (or out of) the people whose refuge she’d invaded.
When a little girl Catherine is responsible for is almost killed by a booby trap, because Catherine chooses to ignore a very clear ‘keep out’ sign, she totally flips. Axel (that rhymes with asshole, don’t you know?) is dragged out of the cage and beaten. She blames him for her own irresponsible stupidity, and is both self-righteous and egotistical in her conviction that she’s better than everyone else.
When Axel’s put back in his cage, Catherine attacks him again through the bars with a knife on a stick, screaming that she will kill him for having the audacity to protect his own stuff, and a mission far more complicated than she is capable of grasping.
So what’s the function of these two damn dirty cowards in the show?
Doc exists to remind us that heroes are (and should be) flawed.
Catherine exists to diminish the sympathy we would otherwise feel for a group of frightened, terrorised, traumatised survivors, whose actions would otherwise be completely understandable.
Pour All That Hate Down The Sink
In addition to functioning as dirty cowards both Doc and Catherine act as hate sink.
It’s impossible to like Catherine, even a little. As she’s dying she’s still blaming Axel for everything. Even though their situation came to a head due to her own actions, nobody else’s. Had she not antagonised, beaten, and stabbed Axel through the bars, injuring Sam, it’s likely Sam would not have lied about their intentions in order to get them out.
Instead, they would have talked it out more and found an amicable way to coexist eventually. Both Axel and Brendan are reasonable men, and with Vanessa’s return the chances of figuring it out as she had already sacrificed herself to save Brendan’s group.
Were it not for Catherine, her friends wouldn’t be dead, she and the survivors wouldn’t have been exiled, and Callie (the little girl) would never have had to leave the safety of the hospital.
Yet, as Catherine’s bleeding to death after being torn apart, the only thing she can do is continue to bitch and complain about Axel.
Who is a good guy that never did anything wrong to her, and was only forced into violence by Catherine’s own actions.
Meanwhile, Doc just whines and bitches. She realises they’re all dying of radiation and flips out. She’s a total bitch about it when she breaks the news to everyone else, acting so little like a doctor it’s really difficult to remember that’s actually her function. She’s so busy crying over the fact she’s sick, she doesn’t give a crap about everyone else.
When Susan accuses her of being ‘a bit vampire’ and Doc spazes out and runs off to cry. Axel comes in to check if she’s okay and she yells at him, telling him she didn’t get bitten trying to save people, and finally admits she’s a coward.
This could have been a redeeming moment for her, but the way she does it is really screwed up, so that even as she admits her cowardice, the audience can’t actually give her a break or any kind of sympathy.
She just blurts it out in the heat of her anger at Axel, who is annoying her and she wants to hurt him for it. She’s shocked when he immediately tells her she’s done nothing wrong (even though she did) and she’s not a coward (even though she is), or a liar (even though she is).
So she has a hug and feels better, because she no longer has to feel bad about herself and her abject cowardice and all round awful nature.
As if this isn’t bad enough, she decides she has to prove Axel right and be a better person, and rather than leaving with everyone else she runs off trying to be a hero. She drags Axel with her, and then the second, the second it gets a little scary, she leaves him for dead.
She literally shuts the door on him and runs away.
Even though she could very easily wait for him to get through said door, and shut it behind him before the vampires reach either of them.
There is literally no need for her to do what she does. Saving him isn’t a huge risk. Even when he’s at the door and the vampire still hasn’t reached him, she won’t open it!
He’s two steps from the door and she closes it in his face. Had she just yelled to tell him the vampire was moving, he could have run through and she could have closed it behind him.
They would both have been fine.
She gets out and then refuses to let Vanessa go back for him. Even though she’s a kickass fighter and can turn him human again if he’s been turned. She sees vampires, screams her head off, and guilts Vanessa into abandoning the guy she just left for dead saying, ‘We can’t make it without you!’.
Axel is in a radiation-soaked hole fighting for his life alone. She is free and clear and has a whole other group of people to look after her worthless behind, but that’s not enough for her.
She needs Vanessa too.
She is out and out the most selfish character in the show. She’s utterly abhorrent. Sam, who turns out to have been a serial killer long before the Rising, is more sympathetic and likeable!
The woman is utterly reprehensible.
She’s a horrible, horrible person, who goes on to whine and complain some more, before deciding she’s better off as a vampire.
Because at least then she won’t get hurt.
To hell with all the people she will drain dry to ensure her own survival.
She doesn’t care.
When she tells Vanessa the truth about trying to get herself turned and generally getting everyone else killed, and V is utterly disgusted with her, Doc tries to justify it, saying ‘please, you don’t understand’, and ‘I did what I had to do’, and is then once again inconsolable and crying when Vanessa tells her to shove it.
Clearly she was expecting her to react as Axel did, forgive it all and tell her she’s done nothing wrong, so she can feel better.
The thing to note here is that both Catherine and Doc were not only written to be cowardly, they were purposefully designed to be a drain for all your hate.
The more you make your audience hate certain characters, the better other characters look by comparison. And when you have three dimensional heros and supporting characters, who all have positive and negative traits, it’s easy to lose sight of the hero as the undisputed ‘good guy/gal’.
If you stick them beside people who say and do things that are utterly abhorrent, it makes your heroes appear shiny and perfect by contrast, even though they’re not.
That way, you get the best of both worlds: deep, nuanced heroes who are still somehow perfect.
The Down Side Of Van Helsing’s Dirty Cowards
My issue with both Doc and Catherine is not that they are annoying. People, in general, are annoying, a show without irritating characters would not only be dull but completely unrealistic. No, my only problem is that they are both caricatures more than they are characters.
There is nothing to them but their negative traits.
Doc’s saving grace is her medical training which adds some balance to her character, most of which is negated by the grudging manner in which she does her job and the fact she always puts her own safety ahead of being a doctor.
Catherine is kind to a little girl, but beyond this does nothing but snark. When she’s not snarking at our heroes she’s snarking about them.
So while Dirty Cowards are essential to adding depth to the show, the show has let them down by making them so shallow.
Cordelia is irritating in Buffy initially, but she simultaneously funny to watch, likeable, and demonstrates potential. Even in the pilot, we see there’s more beneath the surface when she relents and dances with Jesse. She’s not quite as shallow as she seems. As the show progresses that depth is explored and expanded. She shows extreme growth as a character.
Wesley is likewise the same. He’s whiny and cowardly and very annoying to begin with, but amusing to watch and demonstrates a vulnerability that is driving his behaviour. It’s explored and he grows as a character.
Other characters in the series like Harmony, and even Dawn, are purposefully written to annoy you initially but develop until they have real depth. Even the ones who get little screen time or function as supporting characters have more to them than their ability to snark or whine.
Buffy is an example of foils and fodder used well in the genre. These characters add great depth to the show, but they are conceived as real characters, rather than caricatures embodying a particular flaw of humanity. And they are not abandoned to that state once they’ve served their purpose.
At the same time, the heroes of the Buffyverse have a lot of their own flaws. From Buffy herself (who is gloriously riddled with them) to her friends, allies, and enemies. The bad guys have likeable traits, the good guys can be annoying, whiny, cowardly, irritating, selfish and (on occasion) murderous and completely insane.
So while I applaud Van Helsing for embracing the full spectrum of human behaviour, and even creating an extremely well balanced heroine in the form of Vanessa, their supporting characters need work.
More than that, though, it bothers me that all the characters I have an issue with are women.
On the surface the show seems to have a good gender balance. A great female heroine with a strong but not overbearing male lead, and a fairly even mix of genders for both the good guy and the bad guys, as well as the various others they meet along the way. Random deaths occur to women and men in equal measure, and even the supporting women are capable.
There are no women hiding in a corner screaming helplessly while other people die trying to protect or save them.
And yet, Flesh is as cowardly as Doc but completely well-rounded. John is as uptight, self-righteous and whiny as Catherine, yet he has understandable motivation in the form of his wife, and isn’t like that all the time.
He develops, he grows.
Catherine, on the other hand, is the only woman in her group and she is the one chosen to be Uptight Bitch.
When Mohamed’s sister turned up I wasn’t even surprised to discover that she was also a self-serving whiny bitch.
Overall the show did exceptionally well through the first season, and I have high hopes for season two, which recently dropped on Netflix. I haven’t had time to watch it yet but I’m hoping it shows some character development in the likes of Doc so we can have the dirty coward needed to give the show depth, but with a little more balance.