A new look to reflect a new phase in my life. At first, I thought that since I’m now an important, serious postgraduate student I would purge my journal of all obvious associations with the fandom that once obsessed me. Then I thought again. If it wasn’t for the Doctor, I probably wouldn’t be a postgraduate studying in Stratford-upon-Avon. I’m not just into Shakespeare. I’m into Doctor Who, and I don’t see why I should be ashamed of that.
I’m spending time writing academic essays now. They have a particular tone and make certain demands on me. But here on my journal it’s playtime – a thoughtful playtime, but a place, nevertheless, where I can relax among like-minded friends. Rather than fiction, which has a home elsewhere, I’ll be sharing some of my thoughts, analyses and impressions here. Often a development in DW fandom will lead me into a train of thought and result in a critical piece, and it would be nice to have a home for such things. They probably reveal more of myself than the dryer stuff I have to write to deadlines.
Last week I saw The Tempest and it’s taken me a while to process it. As has happened before, the stimulus to write about it came from DW fandom. I’m modestly satisfied with the essay that resulted – in fact I may even pluck up the courage to send it to David Tennant as a birthday gift and a thank-you for his inspiration. Here it is – comments invited, but if you’re avoiding spoilers to the extent of not looking at any on-set pictures or other speculation concerning the Specials, I’d advise you to stop here.
Last week, about to board a train for Stratford and immerse myself in Shakespeare for three days, I decided to take a break from the Bard, picked up the first “Darksmith Legacy” story at the bookstall – and came face to face with a chapter called, “The Way to Dusty Death.”
My mind is super-primed to see connections between Doctor Who and Shakespeare and most of my LJ scribblings chart that journey, but that seemed a particularly pointed coincidence. The Doctor and the Bard tower over British culture like two twin Collosus figures – one officially high culture, the other low, a distinction that would have baffled people in Shakespeare’s time, when his works were so popular that printers rushed out shoddy pirated editions of them. It was also a period when audiences were prepared to listen carefully and pick up references to the classics, admire rhetorical flourishes and spot contemporary parallels. Oh, the Elizabethans had their mindless entertainments. Theatres were used for bear-baiting as well as challenging drama, and at the beginning of his career the Bard was called an “upstart crow” by one jealous contemporary because Shakespeare lacked a university education.
I once heard someone at a panel say that while Trek encourages people to study the sciences, DW draws scholars of the humanities. The Doctor has sometimes been compared to a Renaissance man and he has clear affinities with Shakespeare. In TSC he collaborated with Will to change the world through words. It’s something they’d both understand, a point made more poignant by the brevity of the human lifespan compared with our intelligence as a species – that what guarantees our lasting influence on future generations is the record that we leave behind. Possibly our own, possibly other people’s stories about us – both susceptible to distortion. The most dangerous practice of all is to reconstruct a biography of someone by claiming to infer the truth from his published works. Academics work constantly to challenge the perception that the products of such a process are established truth (unless they’re postmodernists, in which case there’s no such thing as the accepted truth – it’s different for everybody).
“The Tempest” is a good example of this. It’s about an old man who can do just about anything on the little island where he’s ended up. He was a failure, an outcast in his home world, usurped as the Duke of Milan by his brother because he couldn’t get his head out of his books to do his job as ruler. But here on the island, free to pursue his magic and assisted by the local spirits, one enslaved and one reluctantly bound to him by obligation and an uneasy truce, he can influence the wind and the waves to create a storm – just like a mini-Time Lord. Eventually his machinations bring about the outcome he’d hoped – he’s in a position to exact revenge on the brother who wronged him. But, in a significant dramatic moment, he realises that such a course of action is less potent than forgiveness, reconciliation and the voluntary surrender of power.
I’ve never seen this performed better than in the recent Baxter Theatre/RSC production, where Anthony Sher moved me to tears as the reality hit him that he’s no demigod, but a frail old man dressed in the trappings of a power that will damage him if he does not surrender it. It’s the moment when he has to stand back and let someone else tell his story:
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep
Act IV scene 1 Ll87-99
Anthony Sher as Prospero – picture by Tristram Kenton
It is the speech of an old man, one who recognises that his power is an illusion and yet the ability to create illusions is in itself powerful, and people often link this aspect of The Tempest to its status as Shakespeare’s last play (give or take a few collaborations). From such words, all kinds of things are inferred about Shakespeare’s state of mind and his circumstances, widely accepted as fact when in fact they are as much a fiction as the play itself. All we can say for sure is that the reality of Shakespeare’s last years and the world created by the play are self-reinforcing.
To return to the Doctor, the Tenth Doctor is now something of a Prospero figure himself, still powerful and forbidding, still with the ability to be a control-freak if it suits him, still someone who seems more powerful in his adopted society than he ever was back home. He’s also haunted by his coming death and rebirth, prophesied by the Ood back in POTO (RTD’s claim, not mine – see the latest SFX magazine interview). He’s had a rough ride, not always been a nice person, and back in the “Human Nature/FOB” story many of us despaired of him and thought we’d lost the man we loved for ever, just as Joan Redfern did. We’d had the comedy of his love for Rose, followed by more tragedy than he deserved. Will he be allowed a final chapter marked by the movement to reconciliation that distinguishes Shakespeare’s strangely magical last plays?
Well, I think he might. The evidence is here:
He’s in a bookshop talking to a lady called Verity Newman, played by Jessica Hynes. There’s a very clear connection: the shop is promoting a book she’s written, “The Journal of Impossible Things.” Speculation’s rife, as usual in fandom, regarding the precise identity of Verity, but it’s clear from the picture that there’s a strong connection to the two material objects the Doctor left behind from his brief time as a human being – his journal and his fob watch.
That’s an irony in itself. Most of the time the Doctor moves on and isn’t brought back into contact with the things he’s changed. Like Prospero, his general modus operandi is to “leave not a rack behind.” But this is an exception – out of a combination of guilt, fond remembrance and possibly an urgent desire to move on he has left behind something that has persisted through a couple of generations to change the future that has now become the present.
When we first met him as Nine the Doctor was trying very hard to be a man without a history. “What matters is here and now!” he snapped when Rose asked him quite reasonably who he was. He dismissed humans as “little apes,” just animals who lacked the ability to make a lasting difference, bound in a nutshell by their butterfly-like life expectancy. Most of this was a strategy to protect himself from the unbearable pain of his own history, of course. As his love for Rose grew he appeared to get happier, boasted in fact that he was a “brand new man”, but as far as we know he never really shared his story with her. Martha got closer to that – in “Gridlock” he told her about the Time War, in “Utopia” he confessed the truth about his feelings for Rose to Jack, and we even saw flashbacks of Gallifrey as he discussed the background to his feud with The Master. He’d become a man with a context, a history that explained at least some of his behaviour, though most of that was still mysterious to Rose unless she found it out by other means.
But the thing about stories is that if we aren’t prepared to tell our own, the chances are that some creative person will make it up out of the bits and pieces we leave behind. That happened with Shakespeare, of course – people write all kinds of things about his marriage, his possible Catholicism, the way the death of his son made him write “Hamlet”, and we can’t possibly know whether they’re true or not. Now that is starting to happen to the Doctor. He’s left things behind and Verity has been making up stories about them.
Even if someone knows us really well, their account of our life will be biased and partial and it may do a great deal of harm. In JE, the story that Davros told the Doctor damaged him more than an army of Daleks. It broke him and made him turn away from all the people who cared for him. He robbed Donna of the most important story in her life, arguably with her best interests at heart, but still raising the question of how much of our life story shapes our identity. He gave Rose a blank sheet, a sort-of new man to have a second attempt at a happy ending, but he couldn’t unravel his own story from hers, so the source of his greatest grief remained unaddressed. (It didn’t help that he fobbed her off with a highly subjective story about 10.5, one that applied to him rather than the new man, and one she probably saw right through). Nevertheless, he knew Rose well enough to know that her natural emotional reaction to that story of a man who needed her, born in war and blood, would give him the time to do a runner.
Shortly afterwards he met Jackson Lake, whose whole life was a story based on incomplete information about the Doctor, a distraction from the pain he wasn’t able to face directly. Our Doctor healed him, made him functional again and repaired some of the damage by reuniting Jackson with his son. That’s the story so far.
The Doctor has always been able to do the impossible, at least in the eyes of his human admirers. But RTD’s Doctor, and the Tenth Doctor particularly, has also defined “the impossible” – not always correctly. It’s become a truism in fandom that everything he says is impossible in the last series will surely come to pass in the next. It’s a very postmodern approach to the concept.
Shakespeare made the impossible happen on stage all the time – absurd things like statues coming to life after sixteen years, strangers turning out to be long-lost relatives and wild bears being too busy pursuing shepherds offstage to notice a newborn baby left lying around. He was the writer and he could do whatever he liked. After the fashion of his time, he was even confident enough to draw the audience’s attention to the fact that they weren’t seeing anything for real. In “Henry V” the Chorus comes on at the beginning to apologise for the limitations of the theatre. “Hamlet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” are both cheeky enough to include an entire play-within-a-play, and he never forgot that the verb “to act” means not only to pretend to be someone else, but also to make things happen:
“A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene.
Then shall the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars…”
(Chorus, Henry V ll 3-6)
In Shakespeare’s fictional universe, the powerful people are the most constrained, the greatest pretenders. How many happy, contented kings are there in the First Folio? Kingship is coveted by all, but once attained it condemns the hero to living a lie. The last thing he can be any more is “like himself”.
Like himself? Kenneth Branagh as Henry V
Image Renaissance Films/www.branaghcompendium.com
I recently watched Branagh’s film of “Henry V”. There were moments that screamed Tenth Doctor to me. The way his shoulders sagged in relief when the French surrendered and he didn’t have to do all the horrible rape and pillage stuff he’d threatened to enact on Harfleur. The resigned inner conflict and loneliness on his face as he watched his old mate Bardolph hang. He could have pardoned him but military discipline had to be maintained and the old rascal had been looting. I don’t know whether David Tennant ever saw the movie, though it seems likely. But certainly I saw signs that he and Branagh were borrowing from the same concept of Lonely God-style heroism, the same vocabulary of gesture.
So when could the Tenth Doctor be “like himself”? With Rose? Not really. With the only other Time Lord left? Who knows? Alone in the TARDIS, his shirt wet through, gutted by the loss of Donna? That came just after old Wilf had recognised him as a fellow soldier, not someone able to emote.
Back to the “Journal of Impossible Things,” and the ironies in that title. Maybe the only time the Doctor really felt he could be himself, acting naturally and unselfconsciously, was when he was John Smith – yet that was exactly when he was pretending to be someone else. All the impossible things he wrote about had really happened. We knew that but of course the people around him at the school did not.
So the narrative of the Doctor’s life that has survived and come down to future generations is a false one from the viewpoint of the person writing it at the time, but in fact it’s much truer than most of the stories he’s told about himself. The writer’s name is significant. As well as being a tribute to the spiritual parents of Doctor Who as a show, the name Verity is a synonym for truth. Newman points both backwards to TCI and the Doctor’s giddy claim that he was a completely new man and forwards to the new person he will shortly become through his next regeneration.
Why did Joan preserve John Smith’s journal? Almost certainly it was an act of love in memory of the man she lost. She could have become his companion but perhaps, at a deeper level, when she told him “I can hardly bear to look at you,” she was recognising the hollowness of his assumed authority and seeing beyond it to John Smith who had, unknowingly, revealed so much about the Doctor’s unacknowledged dreams. By a quirk of fate and a certain dedication, that account has survived, elaborated no doubt in ways beyond even the Doctor’s control. Similarly, it was the decision of two people in the early 17th Century, Hemmings and Condell, that helped shape Western culture by preserving Shakespeare’s works for posterity.
I’m not going to speculate on the plot of the final Specials here. Personally, I’m very much looking forward to hearing how that conversation between Verity and the Doctor turns out. The publication of the Journal will raise all kinds of important issues for him, not least the potential danger to Donna should she come across a copy of it. He may go all Oncoming Storm and pulp the lot, or he may invite Verity onto the TARDIS and discover she’s Jenny in disguise. That would be fun! But one thing seems inevitable – that the discovery of her book (with its cover so reminiscent of that other contemporary fantasy written by an athiest steeped in the Western Christian worldview, Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials”, a work that draws on Milton as deeply as DW references Shakespeare), the Doctor will be jolted into some unwelcome self-reflection. I rather hope that he discovers, once he’s got over his annoyance, that some of the fruits of his interactions with his companions are benign and that Davros was not a completely reliable narrator.
Our little lives are indeed bounded by a sleep. Prospero articulates a Time Lord’s perspective there. But even Time Lords will ultimately be remembered by the stories told about them. People will always love stories, whether they’re told on telly or on the stage of the Globe Theatre. The narrator will always have more power than the hero of the story. RTD could decide that everything we’ve seen since the Time War has been a dream, a timeline that never was. Then the Ninth and Tenth Doctors would disappear in a puff of postmodernist smoke and Matt Smith would be born directly from Paul McGann. But even that won’t be able to change the reality of our emotional investment in the story we’ve been told. It could be outed and its very existence denied, except in our hearts and the fruits of changed lives. The Doctor has changed lives. He changed mine. I wouldn’t be studying at the Shakespeare Institute now if it wasn’t for the inspiration of David Tennant’s performance. Stories make up our reality and even the Doctor can’t change that. He’s as subject to that universal law as any superhero, all the way back to Hercules and beyond.