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.