The United Self – How the Tenth Doctor Healed Himself (2/2)

This piece originally appeared on Live Journal in January 2012

Part One – Weeping for Atticus

Below you’ll find the second part of myanalysis of the Doctor’s decline and fall as Ten, followed by his rehabilitation as Eleven. We’ve now reached Part Two, where I trace his moral and emotional journey through the Specials.

Thanks are in order to [info]elisi whose own meta has so often inspired me, to Sonic Biro for all those wonderful screencaps, and to all the people who have patiently transcribed DW scripts, particularly [info]katherine_b for her marvellous illustrated guide to The End of Time, which you can find on her journal here


You’re called ‘the Doctor’?


Yes I am.


That’s not a name, that’s a psychological condition.

Planet of the Dead


In this desert that I call my soul

I always play the starring role, so lonely.


The Doctor has always been a self-fashioner, taking a very active interest in his own mythos. As he travels alone throughout the Specials, interacting with various people who have different perceptions of him, he is reflected in a series of mirrors. Narcissists are always fascinated by what other people see in them – that’s perhaps why they cultivate an aura of mystery; it’s such fun watching them working it out. By rejecting offers of companionship, the Doctor is able to reinvent himself in every episode.

“That man on high!” – THE NEXT DOCTOR

Since Jackson Lake is posing as the Doctor himself, he naturally intrigues him. The Next Doctor shows him at his best, compassionate and, by Ten’s standards, meditative and approachable, although there are already warning signs of trouble ahead. Jackson’s surname, Lake, is not only the introduction of a theme continued by the names of future companions – Brooke, Pond and River, but also a verbal acknowledgement of the metaphor of reflection that runs through the Specials and emerges more overtly in the Fifth and Sixth series with the Eleventh Doctor.

Jackson Lake is a decent, likeable man whose predicament has uncomfortable echoes of the Doctor’s own. The Battle of Canary Wharf is referenced, though not by name. When he finds and examines Jackson’s fob watch, the Doctor really does think he might be in the presence of a Time Lord, or even a future version of himself. He realises that Jackson has suffered a terrible personal tragedy and has acquired some maladaptive coping strategies, but whether that insight includes any self-awareness is a moot point:


What you suffered is called a fugue. A fugue state. Where the mind just runs away, because it can’t bear to look back. You wanted to become someone else, because Jackson Lake had lost so much.

All this sounds very similar to Davros’s observation in JE:

The Doctor. The man who keeps running, never looking back. Because he dare not, out of shame. This is my final victory, Doctor. I have shown you… yourself.

The Tenth Doctor is at his gentlest and most likeable here, revealing Jackson’s state with sensitivity. Jackson responds by instinctively recognising the Doctor’s need of companionship, saying as Ten rushes headlong into danger:


The Doctor needs help. I learnt that much about him. There should be someone at his side.

His words become prophetic, though not quite in the way he intends. Two strands are woven together in this story – the growing trust between Jackson and the Doctor, as Jackson realises how alone the Doctor is and intuitively works out his real motivations, which contrast strongly with the God-like aspirations of the abused Miss Hartigan. Miss Hartigan believes that by allying herself with the Cybermen she will achieve power and transcendence. The wintery weather, graveyard scenes and the presence of the emotionally deadened Cybermen  are metaphors for Ten’s own frozen emotional state. It’s never explicitly stated, but Jackson and Miss Hartigan both offer possible ways forward for the Tenth Doctor and it’s part of his tragedy that seeing the disastrous outcome for Miss Hartigan doesn’t prevent him from choosing the wrong path.

Shortly after Jackson is reunited with his son comes an emotional beat that sets the tone for much of what follows in the rest of Ten’s narrative arc. Jackson offers to assist the Doctor again in his final battle with the Cyber-King:


I should be with you!


Jackson, you’ve got your son. You’ve got a reason to live.


And you haven’t? (the DOCTOR only looks at him) God save you, Doctor.

It’s a touching moment, all the better for being underplayed. Unfortunately, the solution Jackson comes up with to show the Doctor how much he is loved plants a craving for adulation in the Doctor’s mind, which had largely been absent before. Even at his most arrogant, the Doctor has until now generally preferred to retreat quietly and move on after saving humanity. Jackson decides that this is wrong, and although he means well, the fact that the Doctor finds himself cheered by an admiring crowd leads him down the dangerous road of substituting worship for genuine emotional connection:


Ladies and gentlemen, I know that man! That Doctor on high! And I know that he has done this deed a thousand times! But not once, no, sir, not once, not ever, has he ever been thanked! But no more! For I say to you, on this Christmas morn, “Bravo, sir! Bravo!”

The crowd begins to cheer and applaud.

What really matters is not that the Doctor is glorified, but that a broken family is partially reunited. At least the Doctor is persuaded to join Lake, Rosita and Frederic for a celebratory meal, though the tone is darkened by a reference to “those we have lost.” The next time we see the Doctor change his mind, the effects will be more serious and far-reaching.

“We’re aristocrats for a reason” – PLANET OF THE DEAD

In Planet of the Dead the Doctor is offered a very different companion, one that appeals not to his compassion but to his recklessness and pride. Christina recognises the Doctor as a fellow aristocrat and interprets that this explains his natural command of a situation (which she challenges) and his compulsive risk-taking. She recognises a kindred spirit, someone with a very low boredom threshold who does morally questionable things simply for the hell of it.

The Doctor and Christina are both refugees from the ordinary, so it is fitting that when they meet in the most everyday surroundings imaginable, a London bus, they are both delighted when a wormhole catapults them into adventure. They’re running away, not only from the police in Christina’s case, but from moral accountability in general. Like Voyage of the DamnedPlanet of the Dead rummages cheerfully through the cliché chest of holiday action movies and it’s possible just to sit back and enjoy it as a romp. But even this light-hearted story has plenty to say about the way we avoid our emotional needs by assuming masks, and about dysfunctional ways of interacting with other people.

Although the Doctor plays his customary heroic role and gets everyone home, his cavalier attitude and trite response to people’s feelings paint him in a distinctly unflattering light. (It’s also suggested, though he denies it when challenged, that it was his experimental activity that created the wormhole problem to start with). Ten is well on the way to separating out the people he meets into those who are exceptional and worthy of his attention, and those who are insignificant and get talked to in patronising clichés. When he needs some gold to solve the problem, one of the passengers offers him his watch – a significant material sacrifice freely given. “They saw you coming,” he sneers, before turning eagerly to the priceless Anglo-Saxon artefact Christina has nicked. He’s hanging out with an arrogant aristocrat and it’s not doing his character any favours.

We get the feeing that he’s become something of a loose cannon, unpredictable, out of touch with reality and more than usually self-centered. One critic described David Tennant’s performance as having a “phoned-in” quality, and Tennant mentioned that after playing Hamlet for months with the RSC he did struggle to get back in character. Whatever the reason, the Doctor comes over as someone on autopilot, utterly in retreat from his growing psychological difficulties, and less and less able to relate to people in a satisfactory way.

Malcolm, the UNIT technician who fan-boys the Doctor to the point of risking his career and possibly his life by disobeying his commanding officer, is an example of another variety of unhealthy adulation. Besotted by the Doctor’s legend (a theme that Moffatt takes up later), Malcolm is only able to babble “I love you!” when they finally meet, and for once the Doctor doesn’t bat an eyelid – it isn’t the kind of life-changing love that threatens his autonomy.

Christina almost begs to be allowed to remain on the TARDIS, but gets a cold dose of reality when, in his first real sign of self-knowledge in the whole story, the Doctor refuses to take her with him. He enjoys enabling her to escape her thoroughly deserved arrest and, in an admittedly amusing moment, mocks the police by offering to go into the TARDIS and arrest himself. The Doctor is still on the side of the angels, but his moral standards are getting murkier and more quixotic. His dislike of authority threatens to burst the bounds of eccentricity and become a serious threat to the human social cohesion – a tendency that reared its ugly head as long ago as his attack on the Harriet Jones premiership – and there’s no companion around to restrain him, as Donna would certainly have done. Storm clouds are gathering around the Doctor, and not just because of Carmen’s prophecy.

“Nobody should have that much power.” – THE WATERS OF MARS

In The Waters of Mars, the Doctor solves his identity problem – for a while – by creating a much bigger one.  Goaded beyond endurance by the pain of seeing good people die, he discovers the hard way that his people’s policy of non-interference had something to recommend it. Once he’s interfered with a fixed point, nothing stands between him and the capriciousness of godhead. Oblivious to the terror of the traumatized people he’s rescued, his first words when he returns them to Earth are a demand for thanks; then he appals Adelaide by dismissing Mia and Uri as “little people”, barely worthy of his notice. He’s now in the full grip of the nervous breakdown and megalomania that has been threatening him for months, if not years.


Adelaide, I’ve done this sort of thing before, in small ways, saved some little people. But never someone as important as you. Oh, I’m good!


Little people? What, like Mia and Yuri? Who decides they’re so unimportant? You?


For a long time now, I thought I was just a survivor, but I’m not. I’m the winner. That’s who I am. The Time Lord Victorious.


And there’s no-one to stop you?




This is wrong, Doctor. I don’t care who you are. The Time Lord Victorious is wrong.

So much meta has been written about this wonderful episode: I’m not going to add to it, other than to point out that the doomed Martian colonists show the Doctor a side of being God that he’d rather not think about. Sooner or later, a god will have to look into the eyes of his subjects and tell them they are ordained to die – that he can, and will, save himself, but he can’t save them:


Help me. Why won’t you help, Doctor, if you know all of this? Why can’t you change it?

DOCTOR: (onscreen)

I can’t.


Why can’t you find a way? Tell me.

DOCTOR: (onscreen)

Adelaide, I swear, I can’t. I’m sorry, but I can’t. Sometimes I can, sometimes I do. Most times, I can save someone. Or anyone. But not you. You wondered all your life why that Dalek spared you. I think it knew. Your death is fixed, in time, for ever. And that’s right.


You’ll die here too.

DOCTOR: (onscreen)



What’s gonna save you?

DOCTOR: (onscreen)

Captain Adelaide Brooke.


(presses a button to start depressurization) Damn you.

This quiet little scene is full of ironies. It’s significant, I think, that it takes place over a video link. That’s the only way the Doctor can get through it with his morality intact.

His first speech to Adelaide is full of a quiet and beautiful humility, recognising her autonomy, her importance to history and her moral authority. (It’s the kind of thing that Eleven does supremely well). But Ten takes all of these away when he returns to impose his will on the surviving colonists as Time Lord Victorious. But I think the beginning of the Doctor’s collapse is her devastating question, “Who’s gonna save you?” The irony is, of course, that in a way that’s exactly what Adelaide does. She saves him from himself, because her suicide halts his trajectory of moral decay while it’s still at a reversible stage. And yet, that question also causes his meltdown, because unknowingly she refers to the terrible act he has never forgiven himself for – that he condemned his race to death, and survived to walk away. Like the Ninth Doctor recoiling from the right but ghastly choice of using the Delta Wave in POTW, the Doctor simply hasn’t the stomach to cause and then escape another annihilation.

And this time, there’s no Rose or Donna to save him.

No wonder he runs away and has a midlife crisis:

“Even if I change it feels like dying” – THE END OF TIME 

Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength, mastering yourself is true power.



I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big success. I am for those tiny, invisible loving human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of pride.

William James (1842-1910) American philosopher and psychologist.

The Doctor has always been caught between two identities, two species and two cultures. It’s fitting, therefore, that his final adventure brings him face to face with representatives of both. He now has virtually no human family left on Earth. Only Wilfred Mott stands between him and complete isolation. And it’s Wilf, and the wonderful heart-to-heart they have in the café, that provides practically the only watchable scene in Part One of The End of Time, possibly the least satisfactory and coherent episode RTD ever wrote.

It didn’t help that in the UK, at least, the departure of Tennant was massively over-hyped, or that the bleak and doom-laden storyline was completely unsuitable for a Christmas special. An awful lot was riding on it. Would it turn out that the whole of New Who had been happening in a bottle universe and now it would be back to business as usual? Would it turn out that the Time Lords weren’t dead after all? Would Donna’s memories be restored, or the Tenth Doctor reunited at the last moment with Rose?

I still maintain, unpopular I know, that the last solution would have felt right. It was, in fact, what RTD intended to do until he wrote himself into a corner with the S4 finale and needed two Doctors to get out of it. Ten’s story was that of the Doctor who longed to be a Jesus figure, to come down to Earth, sacrifice his godhead and become human. Rose was the symbol of that longed-for life, and I would have liked to see him isolated in another universe, then returning renewed at some later date to his next incarnation. I think that would have said something powerful about love and what it is worth sacrificing to experience it.

But the Doctor is, ultimately, unknowable. He appears, he vanishes, and we don’t know anything about the bits in between, though that doesn’t stop us creative types speculating on them. He could be gone for two minutes or for two hundred years, and that very alien-ness, that unknowability, which came close to vanishing in Tennant’s tenure, is what makes the character unique. The Tenth Doctor’s story isn’t typical of the whole DW mythos – it’s an aberration, a fugue state that he wasn’t able to sustain.

Or maybe he sustained it so well that the day came when, with a lurch of panic, he realised that those who live as a human will have to die as a human, surrender control and be born as something quite different.


I can still die.  If I’m killed before regeneration, then I’m dead…Even if I change it feels like dying. Everything I am, dies. Some new man goes sauntering away and…I’m dead.

“Even if I change it feels like dying.” Ten is stuck. He’s a character with nowhere left to go. Once, he was able to tell Rose “Everything has its time, and everything dies.” But now he’s reached the point where he clings desperately to the familiar, even though he’s utterly wretched. He can conceive of nothing else. And when our hero reaches that point, something has to give. Tragedy could be described as the tale of a great man who would rather die than change, and who is ultimately faced with death, only to find it gives him the opportunity to make sense of things and recognise his rightful place in the universe. He may accept it gracefully, like Hamlet, collapse into nihilistic despair like Lear, go out fighting but knowing he’ll lose, like Macbeth, or find some dignity by recognising, too late, what was obvious to us in the audience all along:


I pray you, in your letters,

When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,

Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,

Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak

Of one that lov’d not wisely but too well;

Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought,

Perplex’d in the extreme. . . .

Othello Act 5, scene 2, 340–346

For all its possible ambivalence, such a speech invokes both pity and terror, and seems to impose a kind of harmony and order on the chaos of the human condition. Sadly, the Shakespearian quotation that seems most apt for The End of Time is, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Possibly, that really is how RTD sees the world. Or maybe it’s just bad writing. I’ll leave you to be the judge of that.

When he was discussing which version of “I don’t want to go,” to eventually choose, David Tennant rejected the most tearful one as being out of keeping with “the stoicism of the character.” But Ten was anything but Stoic in the true sense. The Stoic philosophy accepts what cannot be changed. It does not rage against the inevitable. Ten was more Byronic than Stoic.

Death has a way of reuniting us with our families, however estranged from them we may have become. Ten can’t die as a human, because he isn’t one. He’s a Time Lord. At the merest suggestion that the Master has been resurrected, he runs – and not just to save the universe. Every other person who deeply matters to him, the Doctor has gone out of his way to avoid. With the Master, the opposite is the case. But this journey changes his perception of the Master, too. He discovers that both of them are, in different ways, victims of the Time War, abused children who have betrayed by their culture and their people. In the end, the Master becomes more like the Doctor, and thus resolves the deadlock when the Doctor can’t make up his mind. It’s the Master who reacts in fury and disgust, his emotion leading him to break the time portal and consign the Time Lords to oblivion. You can almost regard it as an act of restitution; nobody knew the Doctor better, and in the end the Master saved him, once again, from having to repeat the most unbearable act of his life.

The Master gave the Doctor life; it was Wilf who unknowingly took it away. In the end, the Doctor had a choice and, albeit with a rant that did him no favours, he made the right one. There’s more than one way to die as a human. One is to realise that, even if you can take out galaxies, every humble human matters enough to die for. But I don’t believe he ever really accepted it. Ten was all about charm. Eleven is ungainly and awkward, but his character is full of grace.

I’d have liked to see more closure in The End of Time. It was a wasted opportunity I think. I hoped that, once the full horror of his people’s behaviour in the Time War was revealed to him, the Doctor would finally feel vindicated and manage to move on from his postwar guilt. But perhaps that was too much to ask. Such wounds are never really healed, they just retreat to a level that doesn’t prevent normal day-to-day function. As Jack once told Gwen, “We all have ghosts. You just have to learn to live with them.”

And he should know.

But part of the process of living with ghosts is realising that’s what they are – ghosts. They aren’t alive, they hover, with their power to cripple you limited by your receptivity to their whispered messages. And the process of moving on can’t be hurried by any artificial means. In a way, I salute RTD for not going for the quick fix, the Hollywood solution. Ten ends, the way he lived – a self-pitying mess, remarkably resistant to learning anything about himself. The nearest he gets to an epithany is when he realises that humanity also carries the responsibility to return to the creed he so casually espoused right back in Series One (before he was Ten) – that there’s no such thing as an unimportant human being. And if you say you are proud to call one father, then you should be prepared to die for them. It’s fitting that Ten is denied the epic closure he craved. He never did really know what was good for him. That was why he needed companions and the unassumingly wise, compassionate old soldier Wilf, who knew when to talk and when to listen, was exactly the right person to see him out.

Wilf begins by having faith in the Doctor, just as Malcolm did, and the cheering crowd delivered from the Cyber-King. But he isn’t just there for the good times – when he realises how completely empty of strength and ideas the Doctor is, he doesn’t offer him an empty fan’s “I love you!” or the patronising cliché’s that the Doctor tends to come up with under stress. He can recognise the end of the road when he sees it, but he doesn’t jump ship.

WM: [trustingly]: Yeah, I know you, though. I bet you’ve got a plan, haven’t you? Eh? Come on! You’ve always got a trick up your sleeve! A nice little bit of the ol’ ‘Doctor flim-flam haa-ha’ sort of thing! Hey? [becoming anxious, as the Doctor simply glances at him] Oh blimey.

It’s the quiet conversations between the Doctor and Wilf that offer what little hope there is in The End of Time. When Wilf offers the Doctor his revolver, it’s a pathetic gesture in material terms, but it silently expresses the all-important question, “Do you love someone enough to die for them?” And is he worthy of that love?


The Master is gonna kill you.


[softly, accepting]: Yeah.


[offering gun again]: Then kill him first.


[raising eyebrows]: And that’s how the Master started.

[Wilf lowers the gun again, realising.]


It’s not like I’m an innocent. I’ve taken lives. [tearful] Then I got worse – I got clever. [bitter at his own actions] Manipulated people into taking their own. Sometimes I think the Time Lord lives too long. [eyes the gun and shaking his head] I can’t, I just can’t.


[helpless]: If the Master dies, what happens to all the people


[shaking his head]: I don’t know.

It’s an unpalatable fact about Ten that he is aristocratic even in death. He can deal with the Master sealing his fate, but not a silly old man. Yet that is the attitude that has to break in him, the change that must come. The Master, ironically, is the one who delivers the Doctor from the epic solution that has been slowly destroying him ever since. He breaks the template, allowing the Doctor to become someone new, or perhaps to go back to the way he used to be. All passion spent, it’s fitting that the Doctor acknowledges his human adoptive father and, perhaps, his mother (it’s never made explicit) as the moral centre he’s been lacking all along.

The End of Time begins with a symbolic marriage – something I haven’t thought of until now. The Lady in White meets Wilf in a church, and that scene establishes them as the parents who will guide the Doctor on this perilous journey out of a humanity that can never be truly his.


And so the Doctor is reborn, an older, wiser and more innocently childish man. And it hurts. I still grieve for Ten. I loved him, with all his idealism, his arrogance, his coldness, his flashes of enthusiasm and his radiation of emotional intensity. He was, and will always remain, the most compelling character I can ever imagine seeing on television. He transformed my life. If Eleven is the solid, dependable husband type, Ten was the blazing, high-maintenance, comet-like lover of my misspent youth (I wish!). He tried so hard, he blazed so gloriously, he cared so terribly much. And yes, he was a bastard in many highly significant ways. But, from the moment he took Rose’s hand at the end of The Christmas Invasion, I was lost, and prepared to forgive him far too much.

That snow is really ash. It’s the dust of Harriet Jones’s career and the ash of a chain-smoking atheist who just happened to be able to create the most wonderful, unforgettable characters. And Rose and Ten never stood a chance; she’s a shop kid and he’s an alien.

But I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to. It’s a story, after all.


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