More thoughts on Doctor Who

A few weeks ago, just before WoM aired in the UK, I wrote about genre – which is absolutely huge if you study Shakespeare. What makes a comedy a comedy and not a tragedy, and what expectations do we bring to each form? Virtually all Shakespeare’s comedies end with multiple marriages (I know there are exceptions, such as Love’s Labour’s Lost, but that’s a clear example of working within the convention to subvert it by a shock ending, a process that’s actually referenced in the text when Berowne complains, "Jack hath not Jill.")

Marriages in the context of Shakespearian comedy symbolise the passing of life from one generation to the next – they hold echoes of the early fertility rites which were the origin of comedy in performance – possibly of all drama. The specifics of whether a particular relationship has a promising future in realist modern terms take a back seat to the symbolism of restoration, reconciliation and renewal. The outcome, the overwhelming statement, is one of hope. We are called on to invest in the future, to believe in the rightness, if not the day-to-day pleasures, of the unions we witness.

I don’t have time to go into the "problem plays" like All’s Well That End’s Well or Measure for Measure in any detail here, merely to acknolwedge that Shakespeare pushed the convention to its limit, and beyond. The point remains that convention takes precedence over realism, or at least it did to the Bard’s contemporary audiences – we are asked to accept, for instance, that a man is incapable of recognising his beloved in disguise, even if he has sex with her in the dark. If we want to interrogate the Duke of Vienna going into hiding and watching his deputy disastrously try to enforce the draconian laws on personal morality that he shrank from implementing himself,  then coming in as a deus ex machina to claim one of the women who suffered most as a consequence of his behaviour for his bride, we will find it easier to do so if we realise this was a popular conventional dramatic form at the time.

Anyway, genre got me thinking a lot about Doctor Who (as most things do, in fact) – and this crystallised when I read a beautiful story on Paul Cornell’s blog that showed that, even in the most desperate situations, the Doctor always exists to bring hope – that, in essence, the show is conceived as a comedy. This is not quite the same as saying it’s funny, though it often is. It’s saying that it moves towards hope and healing, that this is important enough to demand of us that we accept some unrealistic conventions to get there.

We’re very close now to the end of RTD’s tenure and it’s interesting to consider his conception of the show and the character. My personal view is that it’s untenable, because when RTD made the decision to treat the Doctor’s emotional life the way he did, to reveal his inner pain and conflict, to dispense with Gallifrey and give him a romantic interest, he violated the conventions of comedy.

Realism is relative and may seem ridiculous when we’re discussing an alien in a blue box, but Ibsen and Chekhov deal with characters differently from Shakespeare (at least in his comedies) because they give them psychological complexity and depth. Once you start applying this to comedy, it opens up a can of worms. Would Hero happily marry the bloke who denounced her as unfaithful in church the day before? Would Hermoine ever be reconciled with Leontes? And if you watch a production of Twelfth Night where Orsino pulls a gun on Viola in a fit of fury because he thinks she stole Olivia from him (as I did in the Donmar Warehouse one a few months back), how confident are you that they’ll be happy together when he finds out she’s a girl after all?

The point is, you accept the conventions and you don’t ask the questions, or at least you accept that early modern audiences would have seen them very differently. And in a comedy you don’t ask whether, say, it’s okay for Ten to dump Rose with 10.5 and scarper, whether the science really stands up and whether the Doctor would really have left Jack on Satellite Five. It’s a comedy, and the destination matters more than a realistic journey. But RTD rejected that concept as soon as he gave a companion a family that had a view on the Doctor’s actions, and as soon as we saw the Doctor as damaged and flawed. From there you start a journey that takes you well away from the territory of comedy.

That journey, in my view, came to its natural conclusion (or at least the start of Act V) in the last few minutes of Waters of Mars. The Doctor is now a tragic hero, fatally and fundamentally flawed, lost in contradictions that deprive him of lasting happiness in any terms we would recognise. It’s too late to say he’s an alien – he’s one of us now. In those last minutes of WoM we saw an actor capable of playing the Doctor as Hamlet or Lear, with that same intensity and sense of impending doom.

The clear dramatic development now is for that journey to take him to his death. The demands of genre require nothing less. Othello can’t come to his senses, kiss Desdemona and make up. Hamlet can’t show up at Elsinore and do a deal with Claudius. It’s gone too far for that to feel appropriate. But the narrative curve of RTD’s Who is incompatible with the thrust of the show as a whole. Its long-term future is that, no matter how hopeless, no matter how far, the Doctor will strive to reach the unreachable star. The Doctor cannot die – he can flirt with tragedy but the trajectory has to be hopeful. Ultimately, the show is a comedy, celebrating life, the human race and all its ingenuity. To generalise massively, in comedy our human preoccupations are less important than the unrolling story of renewal in the universe as a whole. In tragedy, the reverse is the case. The chaos of the universe reflects the conflicts raging in the hero’s psyche. We identify with him and his journey becomes our own. When the Doctor faces a moral dilemma – whether to save Pompeii, for example, the tragic conception asks us, "What would we, as human beings, do?" The question behind this question is, " What makes us human?"

Moffatt, however, never forgets that the Doctor isn’t human. The question he asks is, ‘What would the Doctor do?’ And the answer, such as ‘He’d forget about Rose and worry about Reinette,’ is often not what those of us bred on RTD’s Who are comfortable with. For all the rhetoric about epic stories, we watch DW to see what’s going on inside the Doctor’s head. We know he’ll save everybody because that’s what the Doctor does; the dramatic tension lies in whether he can save himself.

Moff’s stories restore the classic Who perspective – that relationships are transient and fleeting and everything fades into insignificance against the march of time. What matters is the values that the Doctor embodies. When Moffatt has expressed this view  – in the closing moments of FOTD, for example it has tended not to go down well with fans who have adjusted to the emotional depth we’ve come to expect from RTD. Introducting River Song just before the big build to a reunion with Rose would be fine in a comedy, but in a tragedy it rings false. Moffatt tries to pull the Doctor out of the coils of emotional realism and return him to his iconic status – someone with definite barriers put up against us getting too close to him.

All this is leading up to my prediction (very general) for the regeneration narrative. There has to be a reset – I think the easiest solution will probably be that Ten is consigned to some kind of bottle universe that operated under different rules. Whether Blue or Brown Ten gets Rose is a relatively minor issue – what really matters is whether the story ends with the death of the tragic hero, or whether that turns out to be a detour, marvellous to write and to watch, but ultimately irrelevant to the story as a whole. I think under Moffatt we’ll probably see a return to business as usual, and we won’t see the Doctor’s inner life examined to that extent again.

Some fans will stop watching. All of us will feel a sense of loss, and a part of me wants to join the chorus and say it will destroy the show. But that would be wrong – it would be more consistent to argue that RTD did that by changing it out of all recognition and, let’s be honest, making is acceptable to a mainstream modern audience. The show, ultimately, goes on. Like the British people themselves, it’s a thing of great resilience and can survive numerous redefinitions. The report of its death is always an exaggeration. This isn’t jumping the shark. It’s just moving to a different beach.

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18 thoughts on “More thoughts on Doctor Who

  1. My personal view is that it’s untenable, because when RTD made the decision to treat the Doctor’s emotional life the way he did, to reveal his inner pain and conflict, to dispense with Gallifrey and give him a romantic interest, he violated the conventions of comedy.
    I hadn’t looked at it in this particular light, but I’ve certainly been unhappy with the increasing nihilism and cynicism of Who as it spirals towards the end of RTD’s run, and this puts it in a new and fascinating perspective.
    I agree with you about Moffat moving back to business as usual and moving to a different beach, but I’m not entirely sure there’s going to be an express reset outside of the regeneration itself – IMO, RTD kept with the original conventions of Who-as-comedy fairly well in the first season with Nine: even having added the darker emotional dimensions, there was the sense that the Doctor would always fix things, would always make it right. It wasn’t until Ten’s coming that the romance became explicit and the cynicism bubbled to the fore, and the only herald of that was “Weird. New teeth.” So I think that the era is going to pass the same way, with whatever handful of words Matt Smith is going to get as he dusts himself off.
    I think I’d feel cheated if Ten ends up somewhere rather than flat-out dies and regenerates. His song is ending. It needs to actually END, for the purposes of the larger Whoniverse (all the other Doctors have a definitive death, even Six) and for the fandom, because if Ten’s still out there, people are going to be going on and on and on for years about now he’ll be coming back any minute now and undoing whatever Moffat (and his successors) does/do. This fandom is worse than a dog and its bone; I’m surprised at the vehement loyalty to the ancient (and already discredited by the BBC) notion of limited regenerations.

  2. Ten will still be out there in the sense that 10.5 is with Rose, and I’m sure the movie rumours will continue unless he’s killed off somehow.
    I think the likeliest scenario is that Ten has to end the universe he’s in, and that will involve him ceasing to exist. It’s significant, I’m sure, that the next series will be numbered One, not Five. It seems likely that the precise nature of his aborted regeneration will come up, even that it could somehow be fuelling the rebirth of the Master.

  3. It wasn’t until Ten’s coming that the romance became explicit
    I think I’d feel cheated if Ten ends up somewhere rather than flat-out dies and regenerates.

    Would you feel satisfied if the romance was dealt with so there was no need to drag it back into the show? For me, Brown Ten is the one that loves Rose and pines for an ordinary, mortal life. He’s a dead man anyway, as the show always moves on with what comes out of the regeneration. In this instance, that’s Blue Ten trapped in another place.
    What if, the Ten’s swapped their minds between their bodies? Say, using a Gallifreyan fob watch that we know can store Time Lord consciousness and move it between human and Gallifreyan bodies. Brown mind would get his love and his mortal life, so would have no reason to come back to the show.
    Blue mind is part human mentality because of his inner-Donna, meaning there is a clear distinction between the Doctors that have gone before and from 10.5 onwards. Hence season one rather than five.

  4. It’s significant, I’m sure, that the next series will be numbered One, not Five.
    I know a lot of people think that, but I’m not convinced that it’s indicative of something definitive story-telling-wise. I put more into the aborted regeneration and the way that RTD smashed his toys in Torchwood that there’s going to be something equally “deal with THAT, Moffat!” on the way out.
    I’d say universe-ending would be a bit drastic, but until recently I didn’t think that they’d go so far as to torture a child to death onscreen either.
    I’ve heard speculation that I rather like – that it’s not so much universe-ending as a time loop being closed somehow, although how I don’t know.

  5. Would you feel satisfied if the romance was dealt with so there was no need to drag it back into the show?
    I thought it *had* been dealt with by giving Rose her own mortal Doctor, although how happy a resolution that would be I’ve never been sure, given that Rose was obviously as enamored of the lifestyle as the man himself. The man she has isn’t traveling between the stars having adventures, and I think that was as important to her. If Ten gives his mortal alternative anything, I’d hope it would be a TARDIS. (I know about the cut scene but cut=not counting.)
    If, OTOH, there is a full Time Lordly Doctor walking away (with or without Rose, in any universe) and be it Ten or Ten’s memories in a different body… I would feel cheated. I would feel that it was RTD’s way of saying that *his* Doctor was somehow too special to truly end. And that seems unfair to every other Doctor.

  6. I rather like the idea that the original Ten is given a break, a chance to live a normal life with Rose until she dies and then returns, grieving but fulfilled and rejuvenated, to his work. A sabbatical, if you like. The message I think the present solution gives is that the commitment of loving someone is never worth the pain it exposes you to. Maybe I disagree with that because of my family history – my father dropped dead, out of the blue, at 34, so I’m very aware that any real emotional commitment can involve making that calculation, that you might outlive your beloved. I’d like to see DW, as a supposedly optimistic show, endorse the fact that it’s worthwhile to do that, it makes you emotionally whole in a way I don’t think RTD’s Doctor has ever been.
    I’d be very surprised if it happened on TV, though. I think the urge to write out Ten as tragic hero will be all-consuming.

  7. The message I think the present solution gives is that the commitment of loving someone is never worth the pain it exposes you to.
    And that yet at the same time, if you don’t have love, you don’t have anything (looking at how it’s somehow a “failure” that Sarah Jane – who never expressed an interest in getting married – didn’t get married.) RTD’s idea of love (and drama) is seriously messed up. *All* his love stories are tragic and hopeless, not just in Who, but the nihilism that Torchwood turned into.
    I think the urge to write out Ten as tragic hero will be all-consuming.
    Agreed.

  8. Well, I hope Steven Moffatt doesn’t just abandon all the emotional stuff. I think all of that is a major part that got me hooked on the show. I think I can pinpoint the moment — at the end of “End of the World” when Nine takes Rose back to 21st Century London and they go for chips. That whole scene has a poignancy that just sucked me in.

  9. My personal view is that it’s untenable, because when RTD made the decision to treat the Doctor’s emotional life the way he did, to reveal his inner pain and conflict, to dispense with Gallifrey and give him a romantic interest, he violated the conventions of comedy.
    I’m not an English major, but I’m not sure I agree that it was RTD’s decision to make the Doctor more relatable—more human, for lack of a better word—that turned Doctor Who into a tragedy. There are too many stories with both characters I can relate to and happy endings for me to believe that.
    I’m not sure I agree that comedy and tragedy are the only two choices when it comes to genre, either. But if they were, I think RTD could easily have had his story end with a wedding. If he’d continued telling the story I think he was telling in season one, about the Doctor finding a home to replace the one he lost in the Time War, that would’ve been the natural conclusion. (And, after all, the Doctor’s been married before.)
    He chose not to. And I think that’s when Doctor Who became a tragedy. Odysseus isn’t a tragic hero. But Lucifer is.

  10. That’s an interesting idea. When the definitive guide to RTD’s tenure comes out the question that I’ll be most interested in is whether he intended to make the Doctor angsty right from the beginning, or whether he saw CE and Billie together and couldn’t resist the idea of shipping them.
    I think it’s very telling that in one recent interview he said he hadn’t expected the show to run more than one series, so he piled everything into Series One. It does seem that once he had Tennant on board his main concern was to keep giving him acting challenges. Most actors love tragedy and the chances it gives them to emote – and after people reacted so positively to “Doomsday” I suspect RTD couldn’t resist giving them more of the same.
    I also agree that comedy and tragedy aren’t the only genre choices. A happy ending to DW would put it more in the category of romance, in the same sense as Shakespeare’s last plays, where again he completely abandoned realism to give a message of grace and reconciliation. But that’s another post.
    You’re bang on the money with you Odysseus analogy. Tragedy is made up from attitudes, not circumstances. “The Time Traveller’s Wife”, for example, is a terribly sad book, but I’d still define it as a comedy because in the end Henry and Claire are both certain that their love was worth the pain, and that certainty is communicated to us. It’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that TTTW references Odysseus explicitly, and is in turn referenced by Moffatt in his last two-parter. He and AN are on exactly the same page.

  11. Thank you. Your story about the Doctor meeting Martha after he’d had a long happy life with Rose showed that there’s a meeting of minds between us. I’ve felt this at gut level for a few years now, but it took my Shakespeare studies to bring it into focus.

  12. Thank you for syaing this I think this is also why I always had so muh trouble enjoying any of Five’s stories. More often than not they seemed to end on a down note (“This isn’t un anymore, Doctor”) with the Doctor standing on top of a pile of bodies, not having accomplished much or saved anyone outside of his companions (and not even then, once).

  13. I’ve been operating under the theory that RTD’s era is like the “Year that Never Was” writ large, that when all is said and done it all “unhappens” in some fashion. I’m not happy with this theory, but the signs are there, hints spread through the four-and-a-half seasons that history itself has gone off the rails, and “Last of the Time Lords” is like Chekhov’s “gun on the mantle” that time itself can be reversed.
    I suspect that Dalek-Caan’s breaking of the Time Lock is letting “real” history seep through. Imagine the Time Lock as a giant dam. There’s a crack in it, the water pressure is building, and it’s going to wipe everything out when it goes. My prediction for “The End of Time”: the tenth Doctor will give up his life to save history itself, and that when it’s all said and done we’ll be back in a pre-Time War history.

  14. I love reading your analyses and I broadly agree. I actually really disliked WoM for being too “un-Who”ish and I think the distinction between comedy and tragedy does have something to do with it. I only appreciate angst if it’s got a happy ending. WoM was simply bleak and I don’t think that showing a suicide practially on screen is suitable (at least not in that context.)

  15. I didn’t have a problem with Adelaide’s suicide in the context of that particular episode, though I think they could have made it clearer that it shocked the Doctor out of his God complex. In a way the clip shown on CIN a few days later cheapened it by implying he hadn’t learned anything.
    I expect with your classical background you’re the person to consult on Aristotle, Seneca, Plautius et al and the original definitions of dramatic genre?

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