This piece originally appeared on Live Journal, January 2012.
CHAPTER ONE: WEEPING FOR ATTICUS, or THE TENTH DOCTOR’s TRAGEDY
Should such a man, too fond to rule alone,
Bear, like the Turk, no brother near the throne…
…Who but must laugh, if such a man there be?
Who would not weep, if Atticus were he?
From The Epistle to Doctor Arbuthnot, by Alexander Pope
In response to elisi ‘s excellent meta here on the Christmas Special, and its place in the overall story of the Doctor’s progress through his Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh incarnations, I’ve finally begun to organise some of my own thoughts. So often with this franchise, patterns emerge over the long run, making sense of much that has gone before. It’s difficult to pick out any specific themes without getting drawn into a very far-ranging and lengthy analysis, and that’s probably why my original intention to point up a couple of contrasts between the Tennant and Smith eras has grown to a lengthy, multi-part discussion. I’ll begin by talking about the very atypical vision that RTD had of the Doctor, and how that was shaped by his own scepticism about religion in general, and particularly the organised, monotheistic variety. I’ve argued earlier that the overall story of Ten’s arc was that of the Doctor attempting to become human. But this progress is complicated by the fact that, since he is unable or unwilling to voluntarily abandon his superhuman powers, the Doctor ends up on a very dangerous path, committing the ancient sin of hubris, as he turns into a “very bad God.”
Memory is an interesting recurring theme, both in Eleven’s era and RTD’s. Out of the four complete series RTD was involved in, three had finales with elements of the Doctor controlling perception of reality by selectively removing human memories. In POTW, Nine takes away Rose’s awareness of the moments she spent as Bad Wolf and then (as Ten) continues to keep her in ignorance of her actions and their consequences. In LOTTL, the Master rewrites time and the Doctor erases it, leaving the few humans who remember the truth with an almost unbearable burden – and very little emotional support, since he’s totally preoccupied with his own loss of the Master. S4 introduces River with an alternate timeline for Donna, followed by a contrasting one for Rose – and in JE all the qualities that were released in Rose in Turn Left are negated by her behaviour in the Doctor’s presence, and his perception of her. It’s as if Rose’s potential compels him to force her back into the human, dependent character that feels more comfortable to him, and that, of course, is just the trial run for what he eventually does to Donna – an action that deservedly destroys him.
The Tenth Doctor has a compulsion to control people’s experience of him, to the point of denying them the information they need to develop and learn, to become more complete people through their travels with him. Because he has done a terrible (albeit necessary) thing, and as a result is the last of his kind, he knows that he will be remembered for generations. And because he is a narcissist, this prospect fills him with horror and fear, so self-hatred drives him to censor his companions’ perceptions and memories, all the while protesting that this is for their benefit. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, if his acolytes discover the truth about him, they will have to be cast out and returned to a state of ignorance and daily toil. All this is going on in parallel with his desire to become completely human, not so much as an act of identification as a way of escaping his past and his self-assumed responsibilities. Every time he is prevented from doing this, he reacts with rage and violence (most clearly in FoB).
If the Bible is the product of divine revelation, then we can argue that God actually wrote it. Or at least, that he transformed the library of people’s stories about him with some very selective and heavy-handed editing. Given RTD’s jaundiced view on organised Christian religion, it’s hardly surprising that this is what Ten repeatedly attempts to do.
RTD’s tenure on DW was tightly focussed on the power that the Doctor has over his companions, and his abuses of it, particularly in the Tenth Doctor’s lifetime. Although we don’t see Nine directly engaged in the worst excesses of this behaviour, his decisions in POTW set up the patterns that will characterise his next incarnation. The apparently joyful beginning of S2 shows the Doctor casually destroying Harriet Jones, betraying Jack and setting up an unhealthy and unequal dynamic in his relationship with Rose, one where the true nature of her power and autonomy is kept hidden from her. Rose has provoked a great deal of hatred from fans who are particularly attracted to the Doctor of the Classic era. In fact, the problem is not so much Rose herself as the way that the Doctor relates to her in S2. There are two aspects to this. Firstly, he both idealises and emotionally abuses her (a toxic combination all too common in real life). Secondly, there has never been an era of the show that was more completely based on the Doctor’s own perceptions, and he’s very much in love, a state that’s hardly conducive to seeing the beloved as they really are.
I Believe In Her
I’ve seen a lot of this universe. I’ve seen fake gods and bad gods and demi gods and would-be gods – out of all that – out of that whole pantheon – if I believe in one thing… just one thing…
I believe in HER.
And with that, he picks up the rock and smashes the vase.
The Satan Pit
When we say we believe in someone, what does that actually mean? That we’re absolutely confident that, whatever situation they face, they’ll find the resources to overcome difficulties and survive? That’s heart-warming, but hardly sensible or realistic. Or are we saying that, out of the messy reality of the object of our faith, we can construct some kind of absolute being that will inspire us to do the right thing? Faith, whilst appearing beautiful from a distance, is actually a highly dangerous concept. It sets itself up against reality and truth, and one man’s inspiration is another’s suicide bombing (the perpetrators of 9/11 hardly lacked faith).
So, when the Doctor says in TSP that he believes in Rose, what he might well be doing is articulating the problem with their relationship, and his own vulnerability to it. It’s a lot easier to have faith in that which we cannot immediately see – the Apostle Paul recognised that. I always felt that the conclusion of The Satan Pit, where the Doctor and Rose describe themselves as the stuff of legends, was the true happy ending that we were denied at the end of S2. Both David and Billie found it an emotional final scene together when it was filmed. Sadly, as with most big, Hollywood-style emotional beats, it’s pretty much all downhill from there. In Fear Her he’s eager to impose the roles of a DI and his assistant on them, and for all the hugging that goes on he’s avoiding eye contact with her at all the points that matter. His biggest smile comes at the end, not when he’s finding out about the way she sorted out the problem and saved the day, but when she’s reduced to a cutie offering him a cupcake. Their ‘marriage scene” at the beginning of AoG is a shared delusion that can only make the eventual parting more painful for them both (compare with Eleven’s gentle explanation of why Amy’s conception of him is fundamentally wrong in TGC). Jackie is uneasy about what she sees going on, without being completely able to identify it, and the last few minutes that Rose and Ten spend together as a couple are very much in a context of his frustration with her for her refusal to let him dictate her destiny.
None of the above negates Ten’s very genuine grief at losing her. It is very easy to idealise the people we lose after a tragically short time. Most relationships eventually shake down into quotidian reality, or worse. Of course, this doesn’t happen in the case of Ten and Rose, leaving him free to idealise her while he puts even more intense and ruthless controls in place in his treatment of Martha.
Cheap Tricks – The Seduction of Martha Jones
The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate,
contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive, and
unrealistic. Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the
discomfort of thought.
John F Kennedy
RTD is on record as saying that Martha’s unrequited love is a beautiful thing. If so, it has some ugly consequences, particularly for her. It also allows RTD to express some trenchant and arguably very cynical views on the nature, and the uses, of religious devotion.
It’s an unfortunate fact that, whilst we may run to religion in the hope of escaping the situation we are in and its apparently endless demands on us, what tends to happen is that those demands are shortly reproduced and intensified by the religious institution we end up in. Martha’s story is an instructive one. Rose had the disadvantages of youth and inadequate education, but smart, well-qualified people can be just as vulnerable.
Martha is a problem solver and she’s learned lots of techniques for doing just that, both in her complicated family life and in her professional role. She believes that she can fix the Doctor and just for a while, at the end of Gridlock, that seems to be the case. But modern counselling techniques for post-traumatic stress have their limitations. They depend on a neat, easily reproducible view of relationships. Although the Doctor opens up at the end of Gridlock, he battens down the hatches even more in subsequent episodes, walking straight into a situation that pushes many of his buttons but revealing none of that to Martha.
It is a great pity that the first scene of Daleks In Manhattan was cut. It shows the Doctor acknowledging privately that he needs Martha along, and that he’s a mess whose forced cheerfulness doesn’t fool her for a moment, but she’s become infatuated and plays along. Her body language has changed by now – she’s subservient and almost simpering rather than a confident, slightly chippy professional woman. This process reaches its nadir in the somewhat creepy scene at the end of 42 where she receives the key to the TARDIS like a devout Christian accepting the Sacrament. In fact, it wasn’t until I went back and re-watched it that I realised how closely the Doctor’s action at this point is linked to his unacknowledged sexual attraction to Martha and his jealousy of the man she has just kissed. Ten is nothing if not manipulative, and his painful loss of Rose has added a streak of ruthlessness to his actions that borders on cruelty.
In a familiar pattern of RTD’s era, what follows only serves to underline this potentially unhealthy dynamic. In HN, FoB and even Blink, Martha carries the Doctor practically and emotionally. In Utopia she meets someone else who’s worn that T-shirt and there couldn’t be a starker example of where worshipping the Doctor gets you. Yet they both buy the myth totally, just to be near him, and in fact it’s Martha’s devotion to the Doctor myth that saves the world. Later, the Doctor complains to the rescued Mars colonists that they don’t say thank you, but as Owen Harper would have said, “Pot, kettle, black.” All the Doctor can think about when Martha’s diligence pays of is that he’s lost his opportunity to control the Master as well.
The key scene is not the only time RTD plays with religious iconography to make a point….
Back In The Box (or, the Doctor Deified)
The Unicorn and the Wasp doesn’t get a lot of critical attention, probably because it’s fluffy and undemanding and a delight to watch, but in fact Ten behaves extraordinarily badly in that episode. He’s clearly relishing solving the mystery with a casual disregard for the human lives that are being squandered in the process, and Agatha Christie herself rebukes him for his cavalier attitude:
Right then! Solving a murder mystery with Agatha Christie, brilliant!
How like a man to have fun, while there’s disaster all around him.
I’ll work with you, gladly. But for the sake of justice. Not your own amusement.
Nor does he show any compassion for the alien organism that causes all the trouble, and the apparent subplot of Agatha’s memory loss mirrors Donna’s eventual fate. What is most noticeable, however, is how aware he is of his charm and charisma, and how ruthlessly he insists on being the centre of attention. His behaviour is very similar to Tooth and Claw, with the exception that in the earlier episode we see him and Rose reinforcing one another’s excesses; here, he needs no such enabler.
Of the Doctor’s three companions in the RTD era (four if you include Jack, who idolises him the most and probably pays the most severe price for doing so), Donna is the one who comes closet to challenging him and becoming his equal. His respect for her is genuine, largely based on her refusal to idolise him, and she is able to lead him further out of his comfort zone than either Martha or Rose. Part of the reason is that Donna is mature enough to recognise when they are straying into emotional no-go areas and not to demand full disclosure from him. She says what needs to be said and has the uncanny ability to recognise when to stop, a process clearly visible in FoP.
It is frustrating to many viewers that Donna’s positive effect on the Doctor is diluted throughout S4 by the reappearance of previous companions, a process that begins as early as the fourth episode with the re-introduction of Martha, continues with the appearance of Jenny in TDD and intensifies with the introduction of River Song in the Moffatt two-parter. Donna is almost completely deprived of agency in this story; the focus of attention is the power struggle between Ten and River. He is infuriated by her superior knowledge of his timeline and her informed serenity as she accepts what cannot be changed. Though he doesn’t yet know it, Ten is seeing a Time Lady in action, and the unspoken awareness of this both infuriates and fascinates him. But what challenges his autonomy must, ultimately, be contained until he can see it as an extension of himself. Ten is a very monotheistic deity.
In all RTD’s series the second two-part story (written by someone else to his specs) sets up important themes for the finale. The Library story is no exception. Ten ends FOTD with the trappings of victory; he has apparently denied River the agency to control her own death by interfering with it in a way that will force attention back to himself, reinstating his role as saviour and locking his female rival away in an alternate reality. And River has seeded the very myth that she will later challenge and interrogate in AGMGTW:
RIVERWell… yes, the Doctor’s here. He came when I called, just like he always does. But not MY Doctor. Now my Doctor… I’ve seen whole armies turn and run away. And he’d just swagger off back to his TARDIS and open the doors with a snap of his fingers. The Doctor… in the TARDIS… Next stop: everywhere.The Doctor appears suddenly.DOCTORSpoilers! Nobody can open a TARDIS by snapping their fingers. It doesn’t work like that.RIVERIt does for the Doctor.DOCTORI am the Doctor.RIVER
Yeah. Some day.
You could almost argue that once River said those words to Ten she was doomed. It’s possibly only with hindsight that we can see the subtlety of their criticism. She seems to be comparing him to her own warrior-like Doctor, and finding him wanting. Ten falls for it hook, line and sinker. But with the benefit of hindsight, things look very different:
THE DOCTORYou think I wanted this? I didn’t do this! This wasn’t me!RIVER
This was exactly you. All this. All of it. You make them so afraid. When you began all those years ago, sailing off to see the Universe, did you ever think you’d become this? The man who can turn an army around at the mention of his name. “Doctor.” The word for healer and wise man throughout the Universe. We get that word from you, you know. If you carry on the way you are, what might that word come to mean? To the people of the Gamma Forests, the word Doctor means “Mighty Warrior.” How far you’ve come. And now they’ve taken a child. The child of your best friends. And they’re going to turn her into a weapon just to bring you down. And all this, my love, in fear of you.THE DOCTORWho are you?RIVER:Oh look! Your cot. I haven’t seen that in a very long while!THE DOCTORNo, tell me who you are.RIVERI am telling you. Can’t you read?A Good Man Goes to War
What delicious irony on Moffatt’s part! Ten assumes that River despises him for not being a holy warrior. In fact, he’s completely wrong. She despises him because he already presents himself as one, and she’s grown to love a Doctor who has passed through that stage of his story and become humbler and kinder. The more frantically the Doctor tries to unravel the enigma, the more it leads back to River herself and, the ultimate image of vulnerability, a baby in a cot – both himself (his cot) and River (the occupant).
We end on a memorable image, both ominous and laughable, of Ten looking forward to an heroic future as he practises opening the TARDIS by remote control (I love to imagine River and Sexy having a giggle together one day about the way they humour him). It is only in retrospect that we can appreciate how well the images of these concluding scenes anticipate what is to follow in subsequent series. In TPO we will see the Doctor himself confined in a trap that, visually, is strikingly similar to River’s final moments. But more of that later.
Back to Series 4. In Midnight we see the Doctor’s inability to interact successfully with humans and rein in his own excesses land him in serious trouble, from which he is rescued by the actions of two women – the unnamed cabin attendant who sacrifices her life, and Donna’s wordless comfort in the final frame. And in Turn Left there’s a similar message; the universe needs the Doctor, but he can’t function without his companions.
He needs Donna to prevent his self-absorbed suicide and he needs Rose, not simply to mirror and comfort him but to assume a role very similar to his own. The autonomy we see in Rose here is glorious. Many people have complained that it isn’t sustained into the finale, but now I think that’s probably intentional. Much of TSE is fan service, with the added subtlety that the Doctor is his own biggest fan, and we see the action through his eyes. He’s reduced himself to a comic book superhero, and BAMF Rose with her big gun is a part of that distorted view of the universe.
What happens in JE needs little rehearsal here, and is only relevant insofar as it mirrors and anticipates the Doctor’s final collapse and restoration in his eleventh incarnation. It falls to Davros, a fellow monomaniac, to articulate the Doctor’s inability to work on equal terms with his human companions, and the shaky moral foundation of his self-appointed role as guardian of the human race. The Doctor has often reminded me of a scholarship boy, unable to compete with his peers in a leading independent school and much more comfortable leading the pack at the local comprehensive. RTD’s examination of the psychology of deity is so compelling because it comes from within. God, by definition, is Other and therefore only knowable through his actions. But RTD sweeps aside this barrier and asks why any God would choose to have a relationship to inferior beings – and the psychological cost of finding that the universe was populated with beings vastly inferior to oneself.
JE is a very bleak look at the dangers and consequences of romance. The Doctor has moved on from Rose, though not from his contained and constrained memory of her. Philip Larkin expresses this quite beautifully in his poem, Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album:
In short, a past that no one now can share,
No matter whose your future; calm and dry,
It holds you like a heaven, and you lie
Unvariably lovely there,
Smaller and clearer as the years go by.
Such romantic idealisation is almost always an extension of our self-image, coupled with a refusal to acknowledge the reality of human growth and change. In breaking off a part of himself, growing a second self from it and sealing that self in an unreachable alternate universe, the Doctor gives us one of the most vivid representations of that process ever seen in a work of art. It is absolutely consistent with the traditions of courtly romance, in which the beloved is always an unattainable goal and perfect union exists only in a walled garden of the imagination. It also allows us to indulge ourselves with a vision of what, we claim, once was and now is no more, and can never be regained. It’s no coincidence that The Lord of the Rings and Doomsday both end with tears on a beach.
Donna’s fate, much discussed elsewhere, is starker and more painful. The Doctor projects his self-loathing on to her, unable to see her resemblance to himself and his people as anything other than a disaster. Donna is the failed trial run for all that River Song will later achieve. The only hope for the salvation of a god is that of an equal who will rule by his side and temper his excesses by her own virtues; that is why the marriage of a king and queen and their ushering in of a new Golden Age is the conclusion of so many fairy tales and myths.
The anti-religionist would argue that all worship diminishes the worshipper by ensuring that they collude in a deity’s distorted view of reality, by force if necessary. This is painfully visible in Donna’s case; she is virtually blinded to her potential and to the wonder of the universe she lives in, reduced to a banal everyday reality that the Doctor sentimentally praises but would never want to share.
It’ll just be a story. One of those Donna Noble stories, where she missed it all again.
But she was better with you!
Don’t say that.
No, she was!
I just want you to know there are worlds out there, safe in the sky, because of her. That there are people living in the light, and singing songs of Donna Noble, a thousand million light years away. They will never forget her… while she can never remember.
Once reduced, her power neutralised, Donna may be worshipped, praised in memorial hymns, represented on alters (I’ll come back to the ancient Romans later) and mourned, just as Rose was before her, in a safely sealed box.
The price of total control is cosmic loneliness, and the only real antidote humanity can offer to it is wisdom, experience and serenity. Wilfred Mott possesses all these virtues and it’s fitting that he offers the Doctor a benediction as they part, and later becomes the Doctor’s companion on his final journey and the catalyst of his death and rebirth.
In my next essay I’ll continue to examine Ten’s decline, demise and rebirth as Eleven through the Specials and beyond. In so doing, hopefully I’ll begin to highlight some of the images and themes that Moffatt develops, particularly that of the forest and the act of storytelling and remembering, the last of which is a particularly fascinating contrast between RTD’s vision and Moffatt. And I’ll also be looking at why, despite this apparent paean of hatred, I still love and miss the Tenth Doctor so much.