The Night of the Doctor – Women as angels and temptresses while the men sort it all out

SPOILERS! The Doctor Who people have really pulled off quite a coup….

At a stroke, and in less than eight minutes, they’ve reminded us just how brilliant Paul McGann was, slipped in a line making it canon that the Doctor could be female and affirming the canonical reality of all those lovely Big Finish companions.

Plus, it was fantastic telly. Please, please, can we have an Eighth Doctor spin-off? I think I want it even more than a TenToo/Rose series set in Pete’s World. I’m expecting sales of the Eighth Doctor Big Finish adventures to go through the roof.

So, kudos to Moffatt. Except…you can always find something to worry about. Here we have poor old Eight basically nagged into a regeneration by a bunch of those weird witchy Sisters of Karn  Quite amazing that nobody at the Guardian has mentioned this yet, considering the level of their DW coverage. Are they scared of the dreaded word, “Spoilers”?

I speak as someone who’s incredibly excited about The Day of the Doctor and will probably enjoy every minute of it. However, the pictures from last week’s Telegraph Magazine article, lovely though they are, do worry me a little. All multi-Doctor stories are an exercise in mutual joshing and competitive male bonding, by definition. But in this one the leading ladies seem particularly sidelined. Billie has been Bad Wolf-ed to the hilt – all glowing eyes and a costume that mysteriously references the Hurt (Warrior?) Doctor, as if she exists as a projection of his imagination. It doesn’t auger well for those who were hoping to catch up with the TenToo and Rose romance. I can’t see this Rose pushing a trolley of bananas around the supermarket. And Clara is, quite literally, on the edge. Just check out the body language here:

Image taken from the Telegraph Magazine
Image taken from the Telegraph Magazine

Telegraph 001

So what is the story about? Well, it’s all guesswork at the moment but my prediction is that we’ll somehow see the three Doctors rewrite history so that they press the Big Red Moment Button simultaneously, thereby saving each individual a lot of angst and survivor guilt. That could be very moving and beautifully handled. What’s my problem, then?

I’m not sure I even have a problem, except that a story that began with a woman tempting a man to reject his better nature does have form in Western culture (Paradise Lost, anyone?) – and I don’t like the idea that an apocalyptic war, (which tends to be a predominantly male activity) is being presented as a fantasy temptation scene complete with creepy crones and bubbling cauldrons, and its resolution looks likely to be seen as a trio of blokes getting together to put right what the ladies began. All very mythic, but not in a good way.

Okay, so you shouldn’t overthink Doctor Who. Relax and enjoy the ride. I’m sure I will. But the messages encoded in the show are fascinating to unravel. And I don’t always care for the places where they end up.

Having said that, I’d like to mitigate it by defending Moffatt. His personal prejudices and hang-ups may colour the way he tells his stories, but their overall thrust has a powerfully redemptive quality. That’s something that was lacking in the RTD’s tenure, though it seemed to me that Phil Collins and Julie Gardner used to rein in his excesses somewhat. Ultimately, as I’ve written elsewhere, the gloom of RTD’s vision became too much to bear. He gave us a Doctor who was traumatised, in denial and at war with himself. Various relationships – Donna, Jack and most notably Rose provided him with diversion and temporary relief, but once those supports were withdrawn he went rogue in a pretty big way.

It would be simplistic to claim that in Classic Who the Doctor lacked darkness and moral complexity. But what has been striking about the reboot in general, and Moffatt’s tenure in particular, has been the emphasis on how the Doctor’s moral flaws have fed his legendary status, with tragic consequences. We shouldn’t forget that Melody/River’s abduction was a direct result of the Warrior Doctor’s notoriety. Patchy, slapdash writing has sometimes thrown up inconsistencies in the Doctor’s character – cruelty, a predisposition to genocide even, that sit uneasily with his stated moral position. He’s even been accused of privileging the human race over others in what we might call species-ism. Undeniably, he detests himself much of the time. And “The Night of the Doctor” shows us where that comes from. Possibly it isn’t from the use of the Moment itself, but more generally a consequence of the Faustian bargain we saw the Eighth Doctor forced into making last night.

Towards the end of Tennant’s era, I rather hoped that we’d see a reset, a return to the Doctor’s original values, as if the rebooted series represented a pathology, a prolonged post-traumatic nightmare. It didn’t happen. As early as The Beast Below, Eleven revealed in a telling remark that if he had to kill the space whale, he wouldn’t deserve to be called the Doctor anymore. Moffatt often has an endgame in mind right from the start. All three of his series finales have brought up the contrast between the original moral character of the Doctor and the skewed legendary monster he has become. But while RTD excelled in setting up binaries with little hope of resolution, Moffatt prefers to work towards a more optimistic conclusion.

I’ve wondered for some time where Queen Elizabeth fits into the schematic of DOTD, other than as attractive heritage eye candy for an overseas audience. Her introduction in TEOT1 comes at a point when the Tenth Doctor’s personal morality is at an all-time low. He’s in denial and retreat from everything decent about himself. At the end of the last series, we left Eleven at a simlar point, though at least he had Clara’s benign presence. And it looks as though the Hurt Doctor was born loathing himself and has stayed at that point ever since.

I now think this might be intentional. Moffatt has hinted that the Special will begin with three interlinked adventures, one for each of the trinity of Doctors, and it’s my bet that we won’t see any of them in a very good light. The binary River described between rising so high and falling so far will begin at rock bottom. I hope that somehow, forced into co-operation, all three of them will work through their layers of bluster and denial and finally hit pay dirt. I don’t know where the women will come into this, and I don’t trust Moffatt to handle them awfully well, but I’m going to try and see past that, just as I tried to look beyond RTD’s nihilism, sentimentality and occasional toilet humour and celebrate what he is trying to achieve.

If I’m thinking along the right lines – and a lot of the clues have been there for a while – what we may end up with is the long-overdue healing of the physician. McGann reminded us poignantly of the goodness and nobility of the Doctor – the contrast between some of the excesses of his successors was telling. The term “Christ figure” is probably overused, but I was reminded of the Suffering Servent passage in the Book of Isaiah, “He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” Surely his Biblical parting line wasn’t a complete coincidence? I think Moffatt is too clever for that. Maybe this wounded saviour will need a trinity to save him.

So, while I continue to groan inwardly at Moffatt’s misogyny, I’m excited and intrigued by his general direction of travel. He wouldn’t be the first British writer to create a great epic that was clueless about women, as readers of LOTR know. So let’s have a moan by all means, but also applaud his courage, his willingness to tackle big stories, and the things he gets right about their execution.

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