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.