There have been some fascinating discussions about Ten’s character arc recently, particularly some of his darker aspects like his behaviour at the end of FoB. This sparked off a train of thought rather too lengthy for a comment. It includes quotations and discussion of School Reunion and Family of Blood, among others, but no significant spoilers beyond The Eleventh Hour and even those are of a very general nature.
My problem throughout S5 was I simply couldn’t reconstruct the process in my mind by which Ten become Eleven. He went out fighting to stay exactly as he was, and the assumption seemed to be that he loved his life too much to let it go, though that was barely tenable by the end of EoT. We certainly didn’t see any sense that replying the end of the Time War brought him closure, or signs that he was primed to become the person we see Matt Smith pretending to be.
So, this got me thinking about short-term and long-term memory, and the mechanism we human apes have for filing away memories when we’re done with them, and it isn’t helpful or desirable to have them hitting us on a daily basis. What would it be like if we could live for centuries and have many different bodies and personalities? If we’d evolved those physical powers, how would our brains have adapted to accommodate them?
And this took me back to something the Second Doctor once said to Vicky about remembering his family: I have to really want to, to bring them back in front of my eyes. The rest of the time they… they sleep in my mind and I forget. What if, instead of just two types of memory, Time Lords had numerous levels, maybe even one for each incarnation, and possibly with much more control than humans over how and when their long-term memories are retrieved? Suppose that the default setting, as it were, was that upon regeneration they locked away the memories associated with their previous incarnations somewhere relatively inaccessible. So, if a Time Lord is remembering his past with the immediacy and emotional involvement of a human, it is atypical – pathological even?
What kind of circumstances might disrupt healthy long-term memory processing in your average Time Lord? Severe trauma, perhaps, or a voluntary decision to retain memories that would be better archived. Ten has several strong motivations for doing this. One could be guilt – that he feels he doesn’t deserve to forget his people. Also, of course, if he does take that road, he loses them forever. If he doesn’t remember them, who will? But there’s also the human factor that he falls in love with Rose. When we love someone, we want to become like them, or at least to understand them. I think we can see this developing all the way through S2 – he really wants to give Rose the gift of himself. He wants to love her the way a human would (or so he thinks). In School Reunion, he tries to explain why he doesn’t keep returning to his past companions, but he can tell Rose is shocked by the emotional implications of this. And so he tries to change, to meet her on her level:
This is really seeing the future. You just leave us behind. Is that what you’re going to do to me?
THE DOCTOR (abruptly)
No. Not to you.
Ten is always making promises he can’t keep. All through S2 he continues along the blind alley of trying to be human for Rose’s benefit. You can see it in his blocking and his inner struggle when Rose mentions living together and getting a mortgage. He’s still fantasising about it when he asks, “How long are you going to stay with me, then?” He already knows the answer to that question, but he wants to delude himself a little longer. Isn’t that what people do when they’re in love?
Sadly, this is probably the worst thing possible for Ten’s emotional health at this point. By passing as human he finds a temporary relief from his demons, but only by forcing his mind and memories into a mould they were never designed to fit. It’s very familiar to anyone who has experienced grief to be torn between moving on and forgetting, and clinging to what little we feel we have left of the person we have lost. Ten ends up doing this twice over, because he’s already primed to cling to memories of Gallifrey rather than deal with them in the appropriate way, and now he’s holding on to memories of Rose as well, still struggling to be the man she could understand and dream of staying with for ever. If he stops trying to please her, he’s admitting that he’s lost her forever.
It’s not surprising that we see him suicidal and genocidal in The Runaway Bride, spilling out his memories to Martha in Gridlock, and then expressing a clear death wish when he encounters the Daleks again. In The Shakespeare Code he says that Rose is the name that keeps him fighting, but who is he fighting – the baddies, or himself? Already two of his adversaries have recoiled from the darkness within him, and it’s only the second episode. It’s even less surprising that a more serious moral crisis is precipitated when he inhabits a human body as John Smith. He is exposed to the full force of human emotions and memories – perhaps, for the first time, experiencing for real all that he struggled to understand and feel when he was with Rose. And it hurts, again. It hurts to wake up and find you’re still a Time Lord, that the people you love just don’t get you, and maybe fear or despise you. Joan is older and wiser than Rose was, and she says the hard things Rose didn’t or wouldn’t say:
What must I look like to you, Doctor? I must seem so very small.
No. We could start again. I’d like that, you and me. We could try, at least. Because everything that John Smith is and was, I’m capable of that, too.
Please come with me.
John Smith is dead and you look like him.
But he’s here. (walks to JOAN) Inside. If you look in my eyes.
Answer me this, just one question. That’s all. If the Doctor had never visited us, if he’d never chosen this place on a whim…would anyone here have died?
(I’d forgotten, until I went back to the transcript, that this conversation actually takes place after we’ve seen what he does to the Family. It says a lot about Joan’s strength of character that she can infer the kind of things we’ve just been told).
It’s no wonder that the events of 1913 affect the Doctor so badly. He’s thrown, once again, into the front line of a war, this time as a human, affected by the Doctor’s memories but unable to understand them (Presumably, the Chameleon Arch changes the biological structure of his brain, but what if there was some overspill when he changes back, so that he experiences the Time War afresh, but as a human, with a Time Lord’s powers but human emotions?) He’d have no mechanism for dealing with it, none of the objectivity that the Time Lords developed over generations. Just the raw power, and the rage of a thwarted human being. He understands, finally, what Rose wanted from him, he’s experienced it. But it’s all too late.
Soon he’s facing another crisis. He’s seeing Jack running towards him, and he recoils. In a reaction against recent events, he’s swung right back to the opposite pole of his alienness; he’s found out how dangerous it is to deny his identity as a Time Lord so he lets his natural revulsion dictate his actions. Of course, little does he know that by fleeing Jack he’s running right into the Master, but the Master, for all his faults, feels like home. That’s why Martha and Jack both desert him after The Year That Never Was. They’ve seen how alien he really is.
By now it’s pretty obvious to everyone except the Doctor himself that passing as human is a dead end. He’s tried the hybrid existence but blood will out; he’s tried offering a relationship to the only remaining Time Lord, but the Master is nobody’s pity project. In an exquisitely painful irony, he warps his next regeneration to give Rose her human partner when, arguably, she’s just grown up enough not to demand one any more, and then he sees Donna faced with the situation he’s battled with himself, and he can’t bear it. He can’t bear to see her suffer, but also he can’t bear to have someone else around with his very specific issues. He’s something of a narcissist and there’s a kind of perverse pleasure in keeping that agony unique to himself. Yes, he did it to save her life, but with Ten on so many occasions, saving someone is on his terms and according to his agenda.
Why does he feel he will die when he regenerates? Because it will be the end of his futile attempt to be a Time Lord with a human’s emotions. He knows, deep down, that he can’t sustain this particular metacrisis, but he’s a stubborn bastard and he wants to be the first person to prove the pundits wrong. So he fights it, and the more it tears him apart the more he fights. (All this makes what he does to Donna even more horribly ironic than it already was). Not only is the struggle bad for him – it’s killing him. In WoM we see him totally at the mercy of his two warring identities, the human who wants connection and the Time Lord who sees the big picture. The Time Lord Victorious is his last, and most dangerous, attempt at metacrisis.
Looked at like this, Ten’s feelings about his death, that a different man will go sauntering away, are entirely accurate. And, like us 21st Century humans wanting to control everything, particularly our own ageing process, our fierce belief in our own individual selves and their cosmic importance, he fears annihilation, because having lived as a human, he will die as one, too – with an atheist writing the script.
I still feel that many opportunities were missed in TEOT, and one of them was to show Ten reaching acceptance of his fate – not only to die, but to fail at the impossible task he’d set himself. The vindication of his original choice to murder his people, complied with the old warrior’s wisdom of Wilf and his interactions with The Master, would have been a perfect opportunity to show Ten at a place where he could credibly reclaim his Time Lord birthright, put his memories into sleep mode, and make peace with himself. If there’s one thing about ourselves we can never change, it’s our species. In some ways, Ten increasingly resembled another icon we lost in 2009, the little boy-man who lived in Neverland, adored by many but ultimately unsuccessful in his struggle to turn his black skin white. Both were damaged children and, though brilliant and loved by millions, evidence of the dangers of too much emotional self-indulgence. Princess Diana, who was hailed as a saint as much for presenting herself as a victim of adultery as for comforting the sick, was another iconic figure of the ninties and early 21st C.
Times change, however; Princess Diana’s boy has grown up, decided to wed his nice girl friend and begun to show a receding hairline that looks uncannily like his youngest uncle’s. The new slogan is “Keep Calm and Carry On”, the mood is retro as baby-boomers fondly recall a rose-tinted version of their childhood, stuffing each other’s Christmas stockings with facsimile Eagle annuals and Ladybird Books. Finding our inner child can wait, these days; most people would just settle for a regular income.
And the tweedy Eleventh Doctor steps into the spotlight, his painful memories filed away, in the true spirit of the command-and-control generation. He’s content to let governments rise and fall without telling the Prime Minister how to do her job and he saves the day with an impersonation of Fireman Sam rather than Errol Flynn. Trinity Wells has retired and the Doctor has both bigger and smaller things on his mind; a crack in the universe and a child who needs sorting out. It’s inevitable, and it’s healthy, but it makes many of us feel a little sad. It would help if RTD hadn’t been rather too like his own volatile creation, the Doctor whose final words were a howl of thwarted entitlement:
I don’t want to go.