Goodnight, sweet prince.

On 16 August 2008 RTD went to Stratford for the first time in his life (or so he claims in DWM 400), to see "Hamlet", in the company of Jane Tranter, Julie G and Phil C. He seemed to enjoy himself:

"It’s bloody brilliant. Surprisingly funny. Amazingly clear….David is just dazzling. He seems young, he seems old, he’s fast, he’s wild, he’s detailed, he’s honest, he’s heartbreaking. I don’t need to have seen Hamlet before: I cannot imagine better than this."

For someone who’d previously said, "Who could sit through three hours of Hamlet?" that’s pretty high praise. Afterwards the DW people met with David for dinner and a long chat. The Specials – at least up to WoM – were already at the stage where RTD could drop teaser words from the scripts – they’ve turned out to be correct, by the way. I don’t know what stage the finale was at – hopefully the reissue of "A Writer’s Tale" will tell us more about that, so from here on it’s mainly conjecture on my part.

It would be fascinating to know how the two-parter would have turned out if RTD hadn’t seen David’s Hamlet that night. My guess is that it had quite an effect on him. He’d always intended to give DT a big finish, but I’m not sure he meant it to be a Shakespearean tragedy. I’ve written elsewhere in my journal about genre and how it affects the way we read DW. I certainly wouldn’t claim that RTD had planned a happy ending for Ten before he saw Hamlet – I think that’s very unlikely. And I wouldn’t presume to say that he set out to out-write Shakespeare, though knowing RTD that’s not impossible. I don’t say that in any hubristic sense. What RTD probably discovered (or perhaps rediscovered) that night in Stratford was that Shakespeare done right is as pacy and compelling as a good TV script. He was, after all, at the very top of his game in the dominant popular entertainment format of his time. I could imagine Shakespeare’s working life being pretty similar to the stress and chaos of "A Writer’s Tale" – no wonder he burnt out and died at 52.

So, what are the parallels between EoT and Hamlet? First, we have a man who doesn’t want to die. He fights it to the extent of coming over as arrogant and obnoxious at times. That’s always been a strand in the Tenth Doctor’s character. He doesn’t let go of things quietly. Neither does Tennant’s Hamlet. A lot of people have mentioned that we seem to be getting a take on regeneration in RTD’s era that hasn’t been there before. The idea that it really does feel like death, and in many ways that’s what it is. Maybe RTD’s atheism, which presumably includes a lack of belief in an afterlife (a point Greg Doran made in his commentry on Hamlet), found that an easier template to work with than the idea that the Doctor’s soul and personality survives the process. Anyway, we get a Doctor who really does feel he’s hurtling towards his demise and acts accordingly.

It probably takes a Shakespeare to create a tragic hero who is also very funny at times. I think that’s what RTD attempted to do – I’m not sure he quite brought it off. I kept seeing little parallels with EoT in the Hamlet movie – there’s a brief scene of David restrained in a bondage chair, the pivotal scenes take place in a stately home, a palace-like room with a marbled floor. It’s an unusually contained finale – almost everything important happens in one room. That reminded me, a lot, of Hamlet on stage.

Let’s look at some of the other figures in Hamlet’s life. There’s a mother, idealised and adored by Hamlet, but always slightly out of reach. There’s a deeply conflicted relationship with father figures – both his real father, now the Ghost, and his uncle/stepfather (a relationship Hamlet mockingly defines a couple of times in the play, in the prickly way young people in blended families do). There’s Ophelia – ‘I loved you once’, but now he keeps pushing her away. Actually, when he played the nunnery seen at Stratford I felt he was being the Doctor more than the Prince at that point. They didn’t have the bit where he realises he’s being filmed, and it came over very much as a rather narcissistic ‘Don’t love me, I’m horrible, I’d ruin your life’ – very Journey’s End. There’s a rather more benevolent father figure, Polonius, who ends up dead by Hamlet’s hand. And there are two contrasting foils to Hamlet, men of his own generation – Laertes, in many ways his mirror image and Horatio, his friend, the only person he trusts.

I think both Laertes and Horatio feed into the way RTD wrote the Master/Doctor relationship. Maybe – though it’s something of an over-simplification – the Master is his Laertes in Part 1 and becomes Horatio in Part 2. First his nemesis, his rival (as Laertes is for Ophelia, since he tries to keep them apart), a more violent version of the Doctor. But breaking through that is the Horatio bond – by the time the Time Lords show up the Master is all the Doctor has left, the only one who can really know what he’s going through. What would they do without each other – indeed.

And then there’s the white lady – though her precise identity is kept vague, she’s clearly a mother-figure of some sort. She’s out of reach – she still cares for him, still tries to influence the outcome of events in his favour, but she’s become  identified with the oppressors and, in true Freudian style, she has to die.

To identify Wilf with Polonius is mroe of a stretch. I think it’s unlikely that RTD consciously did so – I expect he was planning to use Bernard Cribbins as a key player in the finale as soon as it was clear he’d gone down a storm in S4. However, I do see parallels between the character portrayed so wonderfully by Oliver Ford Davies and Wilf, here very much elevated to a father figure to the Doctor. And there’s even a kind of closet scene where it’s Wilf, hidden away on the sidelines, who turns out to influence the whole course of events.

Most of all, though, I think that, almost in defiance of the overall tone and character of DW, RTD gave his leading man the chance to be the Doctor as tragic hero. It’s made explicit in the closing stages of WoM, it’s reiterated in the heartbreaking cafe scene with Wilf and in the series of "goodbye to all that" type cameos where the Doctor revisits his past companions. The closing moments break our hearts, more than Hamlet does, because the Doctor never does arrive at the place where he can accept his death. He goes on fighting it, raging against the dying of the light. I think that’s one of the things that makes RTD’s world-view very different from Shakspeare’s – or at least, his conception of tragedy. In Shakespeare’s time, you didn’t leave a play with empty hands and a broken heart. There was an idea, prevalent since classical times, that tragedy had to be uplifting, it had to cleanse you with pity and terror and leave you a better person. Tragedy didn’t leave you bummed out and feeling that there was no point to anything (Okay, Lear gets pretty close).

Maybe it’s self-insertion, RTD feeling compelled to write in his own feelings about letting go of DW (which must be intensely emotional for him), and our grief for David Tennant. I’ve read the arguments in favour of the Doctor’s last words, but I didn’t care for them myself. I much preferred Nine’s regeneration, done with much less brouhaha and more grace. Ten’s is another of those examples that bedevil New Who – it’s excessive, indulgent and manipulative. I’m not saying Shakespeare never did any of those things – but I think he did them better. But anyway, we eventually get the ultimate death scene, complete with choirs singing our sweet prince to his rest. And finally, in comes Fortinbras, still not ginger, and the story goes on.

And next time, I rather hope we get a comedy. But maybe others disagree. 

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14 thoughts on “Goodnight, sweet prince.

  1. I think we will get a comedy. I very strongly suspect that Moffat-Who will be plotty, pacy, clever, funny, and that while there will be emotion and possibly even character development, it will be at the service of the plot rather than the other way around.
    I’m hoping that we won’t get too predictable a series of monsters which are all variations on the “empty shell” theme (clockwork automata, gasmask zombies, stone angels, empty spacesuits inhabited by disembodied voices…) because although MoffMonsters are great, they do get a bit samey after a while. I am hoping for Moffisodes which are as intricately and beautifully designed as fob watches, with every bit of movement interlocking perfectly with the whole… but am hoping there won’t be a complete absence of emotional resonance as a result. Moffat can be just as close to the clever-clever, emotionless end of the spectrum as RTD was to the “Plot? What’s a plot?” emotional-indulgence-fest end. (RTD=Abba to Moffat’s Bach, I think and I decided once!)
    Gorgeous analysis, btw, especially of DT-as-Hamlet (not so sure about the supporting cast, I suspect RTD of going full on for the tragic hero at all costs…) I hadn’t thought of the marble floor and the stately home, but you’re absolutely right. Brrr.
    I think DT’s last line is both an RTD- and a DT self-insertion, and I can forgive them both for that.

  2. If only Rose/Ophelia had died in front of the Doctor because he pushed her away. I feel in Hamlet that Ophelia’s death is what makes him resigned to his own, because he’s lost what matters most to him in this life.
    I’ve toyed with writing an AU of Journey’s End where it’s Rose that gets shot by the Dalek instead. The strongest urge I have is the Doctor marching into the Crucible as a suicide bomber, so everything in the Time War ends.
    My endearing memory of August 16th 2008 is meeting RTD and him having heard of me as ‘the girl in the costume.’ A pity perhaps that two months later he didn’t understand/remember why I wanted the book dedicated with that.

  3. a brief scene of David restrained in a bondage chair We watched Hamlet Sunday. I wanted to say, “‘Worst rescue ever!'”, but the moment flashed by too quickly… And of course you saw my reaction at the time to the end of EoT.
    They didn’t have the bit where he realises he’s being filmed What, in the screen Hamlet? Yes they did. He looks into the CCTV camera just before he asks Ophelia where her father is.
    The new chapter in the paperback edition of The Writer’s Tale includes statement from Davies that the Woman in White is the Doctor’s mother.
    Moffat is more likely to give us comedy. His Doctor always wins.

  4. Interesting comparison! It really is very Shakespearian.
    I agree that Ten’s last line was something of a self-insertion for both RTD and DT. I also preferred Nine’s regeneration. It was a much more graceful exit.
    Hey, where’s the next chapter of your story?

  5. Really – you were in Stratford for the same performance? I didn’t realise that. In the DWM article he talks about lots of ladies sensibly asking for his autograph as a DT substitute (I assume he’s not entirely serious).
    I saw him in the flesh a couple of weeks later at the Cheltenham Lit Fest, having a fag outside the Town Hall. I didn’t have the nerve to introduce myself. I’ve been equally close to DT and JB at the stage door, but again I held back. Ah well.
    Re Ophelia – don’t you think he’s already a different man when he shows up in the graveyard? He’s much calmer and less interested in showing how clever he is. I feel that something happened while he was away, when he saw the futility of war going on around him. But the text allows for different interpretations.

  6. Nope, sorry, I mean that when I saw Hamlet on stage – very early in the run, so maybe they changed it later – it wasn’t made explicit in the Nunnery Scene that Hamlet realises Ophelia is part of the set-up. In the movie the way he turns on her makes a lot more sense, because he spots the camera. I found it really hard to sympathise with Hamlet in the stage version, but I was with him 100% in the movie.
    I know RTD has admitted that Claire Bloom was the mother. But RTD tends not to make statements like that until quite a while after transmission dates. He deliberately leaves loose ends for fans to play around with – like the “You’re not?” moment in Doomsday. I read one press interview with Claire Bloom that said the BBC were so anxious to preserve her character’s mystery that they sent along minders to steer the conversation in the right direction!

  7. Yes, I was at the same Stratford performance as RTD (skip down to the LJ meet up photo of 30+ people). I also saw him at a great distance at the Cheltenham Lit Fest with John Barrowman.
    I do think Hamlet is a changed man when he gets to the graveyard. He’s murdered two people and learned that people are dying for a worthless piece of land. He’s clearer in purpose now he’s gleamed information from others, and calmer for acting out his task. There’s the inevitability of death and he’s kind of accepted that (compare it to JE and Ten telling everyone they are brilliant before stepping into the Crucible). With Ophelia’s death, he doesn’t deceive those around him about his affections for her because he’s got nothing left to lose. I could easily imagine Ten lamenting over Rose’s corpse after being shot by a Dalek; crying out that he loved her, and then resigning himself to dying in the Crucible but taking all the Daleks with him.

  8. I’ve toyed with writing an AU of Journey’s End where it’s Rose that gets shot by the Dalek instead. The strongest urge I have is the Doctor marching into the Crucible as a suicide bomber, so everything in the Time War ends.
    That would be a hell of a story, and I’d be very interested to read it.

  9. Yeah, well, I usually follow up the statement, “Rusty says she was his mother,” with the observation, “Rusty lies, changes his mind, and isn’t in charge any more,” because a) that’s not who I want her to be and b) I don’t mean to stifle the debate. The point I was making here, though, is you’re probably right about her inclusion in the story.

  10. I never said (because I often read posts at a moment when I have little time to formulate my thoughts and leave a comment) that I’ve really enjoyed your posts on DW and Shakespeare. The parallels really are there, and now that you’ve pointed them out I keep mulling them over.
    If you could write a dissertation (or thesis or whatever it’s called in the UK–sorry I can’t remember) on these kinds of threads, I’d read it in a heartbeat. 🙂

  11. “it’s excessive, indulgent and manipulative.” yes, I agree… a bit much, and it marred an otherwise wonderful finale. I quite like your Laertes/Horatio parallel to the Master. The doctor/master story was the best part of the finale… far better than the overlong end, which tried too hard to manipulate our feelings. I also much preferred Nine’s end, which showed the duality in regeneration… it showed it, how it was a loss, like a death, but also not a death. It showed it so well it did not have to TELL it. It was far more moving, and it contained, through the sorrow, hope. “I quite like hope” said the doctor at one point, and I agree. I think with Moffat, we’ll get more hope.
    Last line would have been fine if we’d not had so much excessive ‘stuff’ before it. A little does go a long way. A friend of mine compared RTD to the doctor… he’s wonderful but sometimes he need someone to stop him. 🙂 A little less would have resulted in a lot more.

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