So, it’s four days now and I’m still waking up in the night with the feeling that a crab called Grief is tearing chunks out of my innards. I’m still trying not to go out to the shops in case I start to cry unexpectedly. Crazy, isn’t it? I was in better shape than this four days after my mother died (admittedly over 20 years ago).
And I’m trying, like everyone else, to try and figure out what’s happening here.
For a start, there’s that word “impossible”. Absolutely nothing is impossible in DW. The word’s been utterly devalued now and rendered completely meaningless. Any prophecy – “You can’t,” or “I’ll stay with you forever” or “The walls are closing” or even, “I’m always all right” is suspect. We’re in a postmodern nightmare universe where everything we see is possibly an illusion, absolutes don’t exist and we don’t know whether we’re tripping out on the red pill or the blue one.
Yeah, if there’s an unhappy ending there’s always the hope that it’ll be overturned – remember how Rose could never, ever, ever come back from the AU and we had the Doctor’s word for that (and if you’re looking for a higher authority than that, there isn’t one). But it stands to reason that happy events are equally fragile. Don’t smile now, you’ll pay for it later. Don’t cheer because the Doctor’s found Jenny, she’ll be dying in his arms by the end of the show. So we invest in nothing and nobody, because if that applies to the tragedy it applies to every moment of happiness too. And that means we’re at the mercy of our emotions, which are easily manipulated by skilled people like David Tennant, RTD or Murray Gold. I’m not knocking them for that, it’s what they are paid to do. But feelings aren’t always the whole story. I have a loving family who are worried about me right now. That’s real. But it doesn’t stop me bursting into tears in the middle of B&Q.
And I think the nub of the matter is the suspension of disbelief. We’re meant to buy into a fantasy where the TARDIS can tow the Earth back home. Talk about anything being possible. But the emotional landscape is as stark as a Greek Tragedy, which it quite frequently resembles. The change of gear at the end of JE is utterly bewildering and I can’t be the only one struggling to process it. One minute everything is possible. The next there is no hope. None, no matter how virtuous you may be or how much you deserve a little happiness.
Oh yeah, it’s all terribly ironic, this tragic hero who can save the Universe but not himself, yada, yada, yadda. But the difference between Journey’s End and – say, Hamlet or The Trojan Women is that we accept those fictional works as the definitive narrative and we know what we’ve signed up for when we start to watch. We don’t expect Hamlet’s old dad to show up at the end of ActV and say, “Oh, you were just in a parallel world, son. I’m not really dead.” We know that our emotional investment in the performance is leading to a definite place – a dark and gloomy one, maybe, and fairly inconclusive, but at least Hamlet is on a pretty downward spiral from the start and we don’t keep getting cliffhangers where he might – just might – get Ophelia back and cheer up.
So there’s only one certainty in DW – that the people who make the show have a perfect right to fuck with our heads. One minute character is completely handwaved (where was the heart-to-heart between Rose and Jack?) the next it’s everything and Tennant is breaking our hearts. The only certainty is that although we’ve a perfect right to create as many AU’s and different outcomes as we want, the cards are all stacked in favour of the people who make the show because they have vast emotional and artistic resources at their command and, inevitably, the picture in our mind that sticks is what we saw on TV, like it or not.
Unless RTD pulls a Doctor-like eleventh-hour solution out of his backside, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the show works better if the same artistic laws govern everything in it – if emotions and character are treated as superficially as the inconvenient issues of what is actually, scientifically possible. Which, of course, used to happen in Old Who. Maybe they think they can handwave science for the kiddies and put in emotional realism for the adults, but that overlooks the fact that there’s a child in all of us, a child that wants the world to be more orderly and hopeful than it really is, even if that means we ignore reality.
It wasn’t Ibsen and Chekhov that got people through the Great Depression. It was Hollywood and Broadway.