The Big Red Button

Christmas Invasion 13

A great big threatening button which must not be pressed under any circumstances, am I right? Let me guess. It’s some sort of control matrix, hm? Hold on, what’s feeding it? And what have we got here? Blood? tastes it. Yep, definitely blood. Human blood. A positive. With just a dash of iron. But that means… blood control! Blood control! Aw! I haven’t seen blood control for years! You’re controlling all the A positives. Which leaves us with a great big stinking problem. Because I really don’t know who I am. I don’t know when to stop.

The Christmas Invasion is probably my favourite Doctor Who episode ever. It’s so full of hope, confidence, positivity and humour. Oh, and David Tennant, which always helps. The kind of telly that cheers  you up, and boy do we need a bit of that right now.

Funnily enough, I found it popping into my head yesterday when I read a Matthew Parris piece in the Times yesterday (I would link to it, but it’s probably back behind a paywall). He pointed out that actually Article 50, which actually sets into motion the process of Britain leaving the EU, will have to be invoked by Parliament which, I think most of us would agree, is barely in a fit state to keep the country ticking over, let alone deal with a decision of that magnitude at present.

Of course, the people have spoken, and turned out to be idiots in at least 50% of cases (I’m allowing a little wiggle room for those who actually….y’know…..thought about Brexit before deciding they would take their country back. I could find it in my heart to respect, and in some cases, even like those people).

It was my son who pointed out in a phone call, just before both of us came close to tears, that while delivering his so-called victory speech, Boris Johnson looked white as a sheet. Might just have been lack of sleep, I suppose, but it also occurred to me that that is the look of a man locked in a room with a Big Red Button and the people outside (looking, I can imagine, a little like David Tennant 10 years ago, in his dressing gown and jim-jams and that expression on his face which could turn on a sixpence from jocular pop-cultural references to ice cold, dangerous fury) saying, “Well, go on then. You’ve had your cheap voodoo. Worked like a dream, didn’t it? So, are you gonna press it?”

And suddenly, it hits him, what would actually happen if that finger went down on said red button. We would probably need the Doctor to sort it out, and unfortunately he’s turned out to be a fictional character.

Most big-name politicians are gamblers at heart. They tend to be remembered for their last and worst decisions, the gambles that didn’t pay off. With Blair it was Iraq. Once the IRA start bombing us again, maybe a few of us with long memories will remember how hard he worked to broker the Good Friday Agreement that has now been so casually imperilled by people who aren’t racists, honestly, they just have a problem with brown people living next door.

Cameron threw the dice once too often, and yesterday saw where that gets you. He bowed out with dignity and at least the semblance of statesmanship, I’ll grant him that.

What are we left with? Boris and the Big Red Button, that’s more or less it.

And already the Cornish are saying, “Excuse me, we are still going to…er….get all that money the EU used to give us, aren’t we? Because you promised….” The first of many such hopeless pleas, no doubt. And Farage didn’t even wait for the final result before he started backpeddling on the notorious money that would be diverted from greedy Brussels bureaucrats straight into the coffers of the NHS. Turkeys, meet Christmas. A long German word beginning with “S” comes to mind (it was also a rousing number in Avenue Q, that’s the kind of pointless digression the magpie-minded Tenth Doctor would have relished).

I’ve already heard of a couple of people who voted Out and are now having second thoughts. Both intelligent and principled, as a matter of fact. And I wonder, did we just want to strut our stuff a bit, and say, “You just wait until we press the big red button, then you’ll be sorry.” Sounded so good, didn’t it?

A long time ago, my marriage hit a very rocky patch. Things festered and deteriorated until my husband said, “Go on then, leave. Go upstairs now and pack. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”

I stayed. And I’ve never regretted it. We raised two fine, clever, decent young people, neither of whom can contemplate a long-term future in in this country any more. Even as my heart breaks a little, I admire them for that.

And meanwhile, the EU waits for the finger to fall that final centimetre, to connect with that BRB and give us the new dawn that we were so sure we wanted.

In that brief distance lies our one and only hope. It isn’t much, but since the TARDIS isn’t at our disposal right now, it’s all we’ve got.

The Doctor’s Precious Creature – “Hell Bent” reviewed

capaldiOne of the pleasures of fan fiction is the opportunity to rework the conclusions of story arcs that we find deeply unsatisfactory. Stephen Moffat gets to do this in canon, and very publicly. He’s particularly fond of re-imagining some of Russell T Davies’s most enraging storylines, and does so with audacity and style. The most memorable example of this was retconning the destruction of Gallifrey two years ago in The Day of the Doctor. And in last night’s finale he turned his hand to the other great tragic narrative of the RTD years – what happens when the Doctor loves one of his companions too much to let them go without a fight.

In The Winter’s Tale, faced with a dangerously paranoid king convinced that he’s being cuckolded, Polixenes remarks,

This jealousy
Is for a precious creature: as she’s rare,
Must it be great, and as his person’s mighty,
Must it be violent

So ’tis with the Doctor, but for jealously read grief. This spectre always hung over the love story of the Doctor and Rose – what on earth would he do when he lost her? In Hell Bent, Moffatt follows that line of reasoning to its logical conclusion; we see a vengeful Doctor teeter on the abyss of madness, shoot one of his own people in cold blood and effectively stage a coup on Gallifrey. Those expecting Star Wars space opera were to be disappointed, however. In the second act, with the reappearance of Clara, the epic became a chamber piece. To the Doctor, the destruction of the universe was merely the means to an end; he wanted Clara back from the dead.

The change of tactic was probably the biggest weakness of the finale, and the cynic in me suspects that budget constraints also played their part (the Matrix set had a very reused look). With a bit more build up, filling in the situation on Gallifrey that gave the Doctor such confidence in his supremacy, the switch might have been less jarring. But ultimately, the Doctor tends to check his altruism at the door when he hits home turf. He might like the trappings of guerilla resistance in the badlands, but consolidating regime change isn’t really his thing.

So Clara is snatched from the jaws of death. The Doctor is going through something of an “it’s all about me” phase – that’s natural, if you’ve been banging your head on a very hard wall for billions of years on your own. He’s extremely scary, and Jenna Coleman’s acting conveys her fear overcoming relief, combined with a certain anger at the violation of her parting wishes and the Doctor’s habit of objectifying lesser species. Clara is not the type to become a player in the Doctor’s personal drama. She demonstrates compassion, but demands self-determination.

It’s impossible to view what follows without recalling the fate of Donna Noble, the point at which many of us, even his most ardent fans, turned against the Tenth Doctor. Indeed, the way that Clara turns the Doctor’s planned mind wipe back on him was one of the most strongly feminist scenesI’ve ever seen on Doctor Who. Physician, heal thyself. The world is full of men objectifying women and wearing blinkers, and probably almost as full of women enabling them to do just that. Clara’s having none of that shit, and shows how far Moffat has come since creating the wish-fulfilment fantasy of River Song.

I understand the charges of misogyny levelled against Moffat, but I don’t endorse them. I think he might well be the first to admit that he struggles to write nuanced, compelling characters, particularly female ones, which isn’t the same thing. We live in lazy and strident times when people tend to confuse the inability to convey all the complexities of human diversity with the personal endorsement of prejudice. Moffat under pressure falls back on lazy stereotypes and well-worn tropes – he’s not alone in that. There were times in the 2009 Specials when RTD seemed to be capable of little in the way of dramatic development other than showing David Tennant looking sorry for himself.

Moffat has the ability to recognise his weak points and surround himself with talented people who can do a better job. Series Nine has been particularly strong in female participation, both on and off the screen. Many show-runners would have balked at giving the plum job of a major character exit to another writer; not only did he do that, but he then gave Rachel Talalay a free hand directing the finale.

He also places enormous trust in his actors. Moffat’s scripts sketch in character, so their role in fleshing out is particularly crucial. In Series 9 I think he’s been well-served in having a leading man of Capaldi’s experience and stature. Not every Doctor could have carried so much on his shoulders as silently as Capaldi did in the opening scenes of Hell Bent. (Loved the Morricone callback in the line-in-the-sand scene, by the way). This should go down in legend as the Heinz-Tomato-Soup Western of Doctor Who.

For all his warmth and moments of utter brilliance, Matt Smith never quite nailed it for me. I know he has his fans and I can see why, but I wonder, in hindsight, if he was a little too lightweight to wrest character and presence from Moffat’s sometimes formulaic scripts. Peter Capaldi has become a towering presence, inhabiting the role and showing a deep vulnerability without mawkishness and sentimentality. He also pulled a stellar performance out of Jenna Coleman – it got better and better as the series went on, and I’m sure she will remember her time with him as a career-defining masterclass in the craft of acting.

Ultimately finales are about style as much as substance, and this one delivered. Ironically, for a man accused of misogyny, it was strongest on the traditionally feminine virtues of grounded compassion, comfort and the kind of intimacy that makes it possible to say what must be said without fear or favour (a quality demonstrated by Paulina in The Winter’s Tale, particularly when played by Judi Dench). Plus a subversive little dash of girl power. The universe is filling up with powerful women willing to take the Doctor on, and some of them have their own TARDIS.

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The Ordeal of the Doctor

heavensent

“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” – Hamlet, II.ii

****

The Doctor: [last words to sleeping Amelia Pond] It’s funny, I thought, if you could hear me, I could hang on, somehow. Silly me. Silly old Doctor. When you wake up, you’ll have a mum and dad, and you won’t even remember me. Well, you’ll remember me a little. I’ll be a story in your head. But that’s OK: we’re all stories, in the end. Just make it a good one, eh? Because it was, you know, it was the best: a daft old man, who stole a magic box and ran away. …..
The cracks are closing. But they can’t close properly ’til I’m on the other side. I don’t belong here anymore. I think I’ll skip the rest of the rewind. I hate repeats.

Doctor Who is a strange beast. If you try to explain the plot of the latest episode to a non-viewer their jaw will slacken and they will probably roll their eyes, wondering how such bullshit could appeal to an apparently intelligent and critical person. Yet occasionally it throws up a episode of such complexity and poignancy that it gets under your skin completely, keeping you awake at nights and haunting your waking hours. Such epsiodes are usually the ones where the Doctor suffers deeply. Peter Capaldi recently observed that the character is steeped in melancholy, and he’s spot on. The Doctor is perpetually on the run, from himself, from his past, from his powers and his memories. To be trapped alone with nobody to bounce off would be his ultimate nightmare.

In last Saturday’s remarkable episode, Heaven Sent, that’s exactly what happens to him. Mourning the death of his beloved companion – itself a remarkable departure for the show – he finds himself teleported into a castle haunted by a hideous, silent enemy, bereft of all his usual supports – companion, sonic screwdriver, the TARDIS. His grief is raw and initially expressed as vengeful, furious bravado. He finds strategies to help him survive, such as reconstructing the TARDIS control room, and his lost companion, in his mind. That helps, up to a point. But ultimately, he’s completely alone. If hell is other people, then the Doctor’s is the opposite.

And hell it is. But this realisation only creeps up on us slowly and horribly, and therein lies the episode’s power. Because the worst thing about hell is not the wheels of fire and vats of boiling pitch, it’s the idea that it never, ever stops. Most of the Doctor’s problems, no matter how overwhelming, are solved within 45 minutes, or 90 at most. The viewer unconsciously imposes that template on his predicament. He’ll find a way out. He always does. We crave that release, when the Doctor wins and we can switch off the TV and make a cup of tea. But I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers nights in childhood spent working my way up into a state of existential terror at the thought of eternity – the scary thing about it being that it is eternal, and if it ever ended, what would come after it?

Eternity – we use the word so casually, don’t we? When the Doctor was trapped and tortured by the Master for a year, that was bad enough. But that was a walk in the park compared to this nightmare. In a stroke of scriptwriting genius reinforced by some remarkably chilling and creative camerawork, Moffatt slowly steers us towards the unthinkable; the Doctor has already been in this prison for 7,000 years. And it gets a lot worse before it gets better.

What would that do to a human, or even an alien being? We think we can imagine it, but we can’t, we really can’t. We are talking God-like timescales here, as the Doctor endlessly repeats his ordeal, rebooting himself again and again, each time chipping away with agonising slowness at an impregnable wall barring his escape. The Doctor’s old friend Winston Churchill had a famous saying, “Never give up. Never, never give up. Never, never, never give up.” And for all his intellect, courage and fierce restlessness, that’s the only possible hope of release from torment for the Doctor here.

It’s not just agonising, it’s unthinkably dull. Even though he doesn’t apparently remember each Groundhog Day – unlike Bill Murray, he can only learn through cryptic clues left behind and hope he’s bright enough next time around to decode them – the Doctor is left in endless stasis, solitary confinement with no-one left to celebrate or mourn him. We don’t realise until we see this how totally he defines himself through the responses of others. In this respect, he’s analagous to the Christian God, who would rather expose his beloved child to human cruelty than exist in an echo chamber of solitude.

In fact, as the thousands of years stretch into billions, each day adding a new copy of his own skull to the pile on the seabed around the castle, the resemblance to Dante’s Inferno seem to deepen. At the deepest level, that netherworld was composed not of fire but of ice – an eternal adamantine place of stasis. The fiery torments on the upper levels are reserved for lesser sinners.

After hell comes purgatory, the long upward spiral of redemption as the sins of the flesh are burned away. There seems to be an echo of this as the Doctor repeatedly drags his dying body up flights of stairs to the teleporter where the cycle will begin again. To keep the monsters at bay, he must confess his sins, and each time the relief is temporary. The Veil will still get him in the end.

Is this ultimately a redemptive narrative? Time will tell, because when the Doctor does break through and discover his long-lost home world on the other side, he’s out for blood. And his endless, eternal torture chamber shrinks to a disk he can close up and hold in his hand. It’s impossible to believe that so profound an ordeal hasn’t affected him. And us, indeed. Everything about this strangely beautiful, yet deeply disturbing hour of television, invites sober reflection, from the echoes of Hamlet and the slow-motion dream world of Inception to Murray Gold’s Beethoven-influenced, funereal score.

If you poke the plot too hard, it will probably collapse like a house of cards into impossibilities. But the same could be said of the mythos underpinning most major religions, yet the power of such stories shapes billions of lives daily. Sometimes what matters most about stories is not how possible they are, but how deeply they affect us. This particular one will haunt my dreams for many nights to come.

Time’s Arrow – The Doctor and Robin Hood.

 

Not this shit again
Not this shit again

 

I nearly didn’t bother watching Robot of Sherwood, having found Mark Gatiss’s DW writing very uneven in the past. But that would have been a pity, because it was a delight. I don’t think I’ve been so consistently entertained by a light-hearted episode since The Shakespeare Code, which it resembled, probably intentionally. I loved the arrow moment (whatever the Doctor uses to heal the TARDIS, I wish I could get hold of some for pruning my fruit trees), revelled in the scatter-shot anachronisms and punched the air like a vindicated academic at Jenna Colman’s “You can take the girl out of Blackpool…” since I was raised on the Fylde Coast and my husband, a Londoner, has baited me with those very words for years.

I think I may look back on the reigns of Tennant, Smith and Capaldi as a Gallifreyan version of the Three Bears – Tennant was too full on, Matt left me with little to hang any emotional response on (though many disagree). Capaldi is just right. It’s as if the events of Day of The Doctor has allowed the Doctor to assert his identity as a Time Lord, instead of pretending to be human or capering around it. I am going to quietly ignore the ridiculous notion that he hung around on Trenzalore for over a thousand years; for me, this series has followed on directly from the last scene of the Special, as the Doctor comes home not only to Gallifrey, but also to himself. To use a Celtic term, he has come home to his house of belonging.

I can totally buy the Doctor as technological Luddite, using blackboard and chalk and real books to occupy his mind. Interestingly, only a few days ago I read an interview with David Mitchell, the Booker-nominated novelist, pointing out that humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels extends to the curation and transmission of culture, which is increasingly digitised and therefore reliant on electricity, and very poorly future-proofed. The Doctor has seen so many civilisations come and go, and what seems like the white-hot technological frontier to us is just another ripple on the sine wave to him.

The things I like best of all about Capaldi’s Doctor are his intelligence and his lack of manufactured charm. I love it that he can be petulant, irascible and fresh out of ideas. After a long walk around a very big block, we seem to be back to the grandfather/grandchild relationship. He’s a private person, modest about trumpeting his virtues and stating his needs, but not pathologically so. The penultimate scene, when he is able to hear Clara call him the Time Lord of Gallifrey without flinching, and the tacit acknowledgement that he was wrong about Robin Hood, with its unspoken subtext that the universe is no doubt full of people being similarly wrong about him, his postulated existence and his reputation, was a breath of fresh air after some of the fevered posturing of previous incarnations.

One of my favourite Matt Smith moments (yes, there were a few) couldn’t help but come to mind as Clara told the Doctor that he, too was the subject of myth. At his best, Eleven had a gentle, quiet and even humble acceptance of the power of stories, and his own place in them:

We’re all stories, in the end. Just make it a good one, eh? Because it was, you know, it was the best: a daft old man, who stole a magic box and ran away….

(The Big Bang)

Or, to put it another way, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be in Edinburgh and have brunch at The Elephant House. Not only is it a great coffee shop with a view of Edinburgh Castle to die for, it has become a shrine to Harry Potter because it’s where JK Rowling worked on the first book of the series. If you ever need confirmation of the power of stories to shape lives, go for a pee at the Elephant House. It’s the only graffiti-covered toilet where I’d want to linger; every surface is covered with wonderful, heartfelt tributes to the creator of Harry Potter. Stories matter. They shape our reality. They give us confidence, and hope. They make us the people that we are, and help us to become the ones that we want to be.

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I Got Soul But I’m Not A Soldier – Violence and Morality in Doctor Who

The Tenth Doctor grandstands like crazy in The Doctor's Daughter
The Tenth Doctor grandstands like crazy in The Doctor’s Daughter

Many years ago (well, it wasn’t really, but it feels that way) I toyed with the idea of writing a Doctor Who fanfic called The Moral High Ground, centred around the Doctor’s discomfort when a reformed Dalek rocks up and asks for asylum in the TARDIS. It never get written, which is rather a shame.

Primarily it would have been a response to a theme that was clumsily raised and inadequately explored in David Tennant’s last (2008) series – his extreme repudiation of all kinds of violence, accompanied by a visceral disgust towards anyone in military clothing, when in fact he was steeped in sufficient blood to make Macbeth look like a dolls’ tea party. Beginning with his self-promotion as “the man who never would” in The Doctor’s Daughter, it reached a typically RTD melodramatic full expression in Journey’s End, when Davros taunted him with a roll-call of the many people who had sacrificed their lives while he maintained his illusion of moral purity:

Davros: The man who abhors violence. Never carrying a gun. But this is the truth, Doctor. You take ordinary people and you fashion them into weapons. Behold your Children of Time transformed into murderers. I made the Daleks, Doctor. You made this.

It’s always the people from way back who know how to deliver the killer blow. It’s a melodramatic and simplistic moment, and it generates a simplistic solution; the Doctor transfers all his shadow self onto his doppelgänger and locks him away in a parallel world. Even before what happened with Donna, that was the moment I started despising Ten, and I don’t think I was alone.

Daleks are a constant of Doctor Who, the stuff of a whole generation’s childhood memories, which they (we?) transfer onto their own children. Daleks are a nostalgic throwback to the binary moral judgements of our early years. If the Daleks go, then with them goes the charming illusion that Doctor Who is a kids’ show, the stuff of playground battles (it’s a truth beautifully realised in Mark Gatiss’s Adventure in Space and Time, when Verity Lambert is overjoyed to hear kids yelling “Exterminate!” on a bus). But it’s more complicated than simply recalling the certainties of childhood. There’s a part of every adult, even the most liberal, that craves an unredeemable, totally merciless enemy that deserves nothing short of our guiltless annihilation. Because life is so bloody complicated, and sometimes we just want a break from reading The Guardian and agonising over the least worst solution.

So the Daleks persist in the DW universe, while the Doctor develops, matures and nudges towards moral accountability. The Time War, originally conceived as remaining entirely offscreen and unimaginable, pushes its way up the agenda and is eventually realised, at least in part, in the 50th Anniversary special. Moffatt openly articulates his uneasiness at the Doctor committing genocide and, being Moffatt, retcons it – because he can. The Doctor is reborn, with a second set of regenerations, grey hairs, a frowny face and the ability to confront at least some of his past.

"Am I a good man?"
“Am I a good man?”

Can anyone seriously imagine the Tenth, or even the Eleventh, Doctor, looking his companion in the eye and asking her to tell him, honestly, if he is a good man? Heck, Ten spent an entire series not looking Rose in the eye, and she was meant to be the love of his life. He turned lack of meaningful eye contact into an art form. But Twelve is made of sterner stuff. Clara’s final rejoinder that he is a man that tries to be good – or at least one that recognises the necessity of trying, and can accept the need to up his game, is a sign of Doctor Who‘s new moral sensibility. Morality is too important to be presented as melodrama, which is what RTD’s Who largely was, even if Tennant had the skill to spin it into Shakespearian tragedy. The shades of grey are not only visible in Capaldi’s curly hair; they are the foundation of a grown-up moral consciousness. And very welcome they are.

The moral sucker-punch delivered by Into The Dalek – that the Doctor is capable of mindless, prejudiced and irrational hatred –  is familiar enough to followers of the show. But what is refreshing is that it is restrained and low-key, and nevertheless powerful. It makes a welcome contrast, perhaps even a kind of companion piece, to The Waters of Mars, the last Phil Ford-authored DW episode, which showed the Doctor at his most dangerous, deluded and narcissistic. And there are intriguing signs that we’re building up to a meaningful interrogation of the Doctor’s inconsistent posturing on the subject of violence. Danny Pink is presented to us as a soldier, bruised by his experience in battle but still prepared to drill the school cadet force (just as the Tenth Doctor was as John Smith, in a story that revealed him at his cruellest and most vengeful). It seems more than likely that there will be some grown-up discussion of the ethics of putting boots on ground within the TARDIS before too long. More than that, it seems that some malign intelligence is plucking the Doctor’s victims (or collateral damage) from their deaths and saving them to put the Timelord on Trial at some future date – the taunts of Davros made flesh.

And I, for one, welcome our new morally nuanced overlords. It’s about time.

Hopelessly Devoted to Ten

The Fifth Doctor meets the Tenth Doctor.
The Fifth Doctor meets the Tenth Doctor. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Oh, my giddy aunt! I had forgotten how much havoc full-on fandom can play with your daily life. Yesterday was a bit of a write-off, devoted mainly to surfing the web for any mention of The Day of the Doctor and experiencing the emotional whiplash of the day after a good party. At least there wasn’t any washing up to do.

It’s rather sobering to realise how easily I could return to the state I was in from July 2006 to July 2008. Yes, the overlap between those dates and the Tenth Doctor’s tenure is no coincidence. My hard-core engagement with Live Journal fandom started after I watched Doomsday and needed somewhere for all those emotions to go. I knew my family would fear for my sanity and roll their eyes if I inflicted it on them.

I held out for about three weeks before I committed fanfic. I couldn’t have felt more ashamed if I’d been caught downloading porn. I seriously wondered what on earth had happened to me. Mercifully, I had the sense not to share that first literary outing with the world, but by Christmas 2006 I was posting regular chapters of a Christmas Invasion fixit that had the Doctor apologising to Harriet Jones and going back to Satellite Five to rescue Jack. I find most of it unreadable now, but the first chapter isn’t bad. Just as well, since one of my oldest RL friends admitted to having read it.

Over the next couple of years I produced thousands of words, 99% featuring my beloved Ten. Only Journey’s End stemmed my flow, and even then I came up with some nice Donna fic. But I never resolved RTD’s train wreck solution to my satisfaction, and in fact I became quite startled by the dark tone that some of my little vignettes took. Particularly the one where Ten sends a message to Jack that he has to sort out his mistake saving Adelaide Brooke et al, and when he opens the TARDIS door Jack pulls a gun, shoots him and says, “That’s for Ianto. Too bad he wasn’t blonde.” Yep, I was feeling nihilistic enough by then to assume that Children of Earth had happened in the same ‘verse and the Doctor had stayed well away for reasons of his own.

I guess RTD does have that effect on you.

Most of my vintage fic had a much lighter tone. In fact, light comedy with a side order of angst became my preferred voice. Like Moffatt, I really didn’t like it when people died. A few of my chapters can still reduce me to tears, particularly the one where a rather battered Ten proposes to Rose after several weeks camping out in the Powell Estate flat just after a reworked Battle of Canary Wharf. I look back and realise that I put so much of my own life and experiences into that scene, particularly the loss of my own widowed mum (like Rose, I was an only child who never knew my father). Going back to read it now, for the first time in years, I’m rather horrified by how much I humanised the Doctor. At the time I couldn’t see how out-of-character that really was.

In a sequel to that tale, I even took them to an AU Gallifrey ruled by an ageing Romana (she cropped up in a lot of my fic, as did Sarah Jane – I liked experienced older women licking Ten into shape and had a lot of fun with it). I had a reunion with the Third Doctor in Sarah Jane’s front garden and was astonished how naturally I slipped into writing Pertwee dialogue – some distant place in my memory must have filed it away, untouched since the 1970s. And I remember writing a fix-it just after Time Crash that involved Five getting Ten and Rose back together. I think that was probably my best.

Probably my mission statement in those creative times was Jane Austen’s line from the end of Mansfield Park: “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit these subjects as soon as I can.” The apparently unstoppable flow of stories started to peter out after Journey’s End, but it was the arrival of Eleven that finally ended it. I just couldn’t write him. Simple as that.

Ah, happy days. It wasn’t all bad. I probably wouldn’t have done an MA in Shakespeare Studies if it hadn’t been for David Tennant. (I once sent him a birthday gift of the story of Ten and Rose in Series Two in verse format, paralleling the Proclaimers song, That’s when he told her. I hope he liked it. Surprising how neatly the final line, “He may be a Time Lord but when all is said and done he’s still a bloke,” fitted the original tune).

Seeing Tennant as the Doctor again has brought something into focus for me. A lot of people have an enormous crush on Tennant. I don’t. It’s Ten that I’m hopelessly devoted to, and this weekend brought it all back. And I rather hope it goes away again. My family outed me one Christmas by buying me a life-size stand-up Ten. I was livid. But they had a point. I still think DT is one of the hardest working and probably nicest people in show business, and I wouldn’t have missed his RSC work for the world. But I confess that DVDs of Casanova and Blackpool sit unwatched on my shelves and, worst of all, I have yet to discover Broadchurch. Nope (see how I popped that P?), for me it’s all about Ten. And one day I’ll get over it. Yes, I will get over it. Until that day comes, you continue in your fantasies and I shall, with a little embarrassment, go forward in mine.

http://catsfiction.livejournal.com

Male vanity, sonic screwdrivers and the elephant in the room: Further thoughts on The Day of the Doctor

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“But I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now”

Bob Dylan

We were asking our children to trust a mass murderer. Ever since the reboot was first planned in 2004, that has been the elephant in the room at the heart of Doctor Who. Last night, Stephen Moffatt faced it down and dealt with it, once and for all. He had probably been planning it for a very long time. Certainly, when in The Beast Below, the Doctor furiously contemplates the near-inevitability of putting the space whale out of its misery:

“Look, three options: One, I let the Star Whale continue, in unendurable agony for hundreds more years; Two, I kill everyone on this ship; Three, I murder a beautiful, innocent creature as painlessly as I can. And then, I… I find a new name, because I won’t be The Doctor anymore.”

In 2004, making the Doctor the killer of his own race and another one besides made a kind of sense. Weighting the fragile new reboot down with a raft of Gallifreyan backstory would have strangled it at birth. Plus, the budget back in the day didn’t stretch to the kind of alien planet production values that a post Star-Wars audience would have required.

It undoubtedly had vast dramatic potential too. To make the Doctor dark, conflicted, haunted by survivor guilt and morally ambivalent didn’t just chime with Russell T Davies’s dark view of saviour figures. It also happened to be extremely fashionable. Before the 2008 financial crash blew the cold winds of economic meltdown our way, we could afford the luxury of heroes getting lost inside their own heads.

But over the long haul it turned out to be unsustainable. Recognising this character as the Doctor was only possible if his past atrocities were kept away from critical examination. While it was true that no recreation of the Time War could equal our own imaginations, this wasn’t just about the mechanics of showing whole cities collapsing. The moral universe wouldn’t have survived it either.

Eccleston and Tennant, in their different ways, both took the conflict as far as it could go. It opened up the dramatic possibility of Rose reawakening the Doctor’s cauterised conscience, as far back as Dalek in 2005. It gave Tennant endless possibilities for mercurial melancholy, and increasingly daring peeks over the edge of the abyss. Episodes like The Waters of Mars made gripping viewing. Yet the Doctor we ended up with in The End of Time, facing death with a furious rant and a last line that basically boils down to a whine of entitlement, was more like a terminally ill pet waiting to be put out of its misery than a Time Lord saviour of the universe. The show would not have survived another season of RTD’s nihilism.

Moffatt took another tack. Rather than struggling to blend in as a human, Matt Smith played the Doctor as bonkers, unpredictable alien. There was a childishness in his performance that was both winning and unpleasant. He was openly needy, collapsing into anguish when parted from his beloved Ponds. He pushed all the bad stuff away into a place where he could almost, with the passage of years, claim he’d forgotten it had ever happened. That approach involved very different dramatic choices to those of the Tennant years. Tennant wallowed in angst and melancholia, playing the big dramatic moments for all they were worth,with RTD frequently building up to them at the expense of rational plotting. Moffatt, by contrast, never let messy, human emotions get in the way of a neatly mythic scenario. It earned him a lot of criticism, particularly when Amy and Rory recovered improbably rapidly from the abduction of their baby. But Moff was playing the longer game. The end of the Dark Doctor was coming, but the moment had been prepared for – way, way back.

Last night the moment finally came. It was time for the Doctor to come home. And while he was about it, he had to get his pathological past selves on board. It was a deliciously audacious plan, executed with both style and substance.

Doctor Who has never just been about the kiddies. This anniversary was for their mums and dads, maybe even further back – the people who had been kiddies themselves, believing in a man who was never cowardly or cruel, and who shared with Winston Churchill the simple British motto, “Never give up. Never, never give up.”

One of the many faces of nostalgia is the way that it brings us face to face with our past selves, and with possible future ones. The basic premise of Doctor Who offers an irresistible opportunity to flesh this out. A lot of the humour in The Day of The Doctor stems from that kind of encounter. When John Hurt, fresh from the battlefield and somewhat shocked by the apparent frivolousness of the childlike Eleventh Doctor and the romcom antics of the Tenth, exclaims, “Am I having a midlife crisis?”, we older viewers recognise the dramatic irony behind the situation because we’ve witnessed seven series of equivocation and denial as Nine, Ten and Eleven all struggled in their different ways to come to terms with horrors beyond their contemplation. And we see a little of ourselves in such dysfunctional coping strategies. It’s an element of the Doctor’s character that’s always been present. He may be very old now, but at some point in his past he rejected his home and family and ran away, and he’s been running ever since. You could call him the original Baby Boomer, at a pinch.

Moffatt gets a lot of stick for his reductive portrayal of woman. Some of his jokes at their expense go down like lead balloons in these post-feminist times. But in Day of the Doctor his target was male vanity, the kind of one-upmanship that makes three Time Lords move atoms and molecules around rather than check if a door is actually locked. The ladykiller, the buffoon and the nihilist contemplating the ultimate statement of alienation; all are different prototypes of male vanity.

Every cliche of simplistic heroism was gloriously deconstructed, generally by the ironically named Warrior Doctor who was still close enough to the action to recognise the veils that his future selves had drawn over it, legitimising it with the passage of time. Moffatt is not only extremely quotable in his own right; he also knows a few things about the unreliability of soundbites as a guide to reality. When Hurt intones, “Great men are forged in fire. It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame. Whatever the cost,” we’re still punching the air when Jenna Coleman intervenes and stops the men doing the unconscionable. Who wants the tedium of a negotiated solution when they can have an inspirational poster moment? What appears to be banter can become a matter of mass life and death on the turn of a sixpence and it takes enormous confidence on the part of writer and actors alike to judge that kind of dramatic flip-flop moment.

What happens if the Doctor ceases to be the Doctor? Well, for a start, he gets a lot of other names – the Oncoming Storm, the man of fire, and rage, the Warrior, to name but a few. We’ve been seeing that particular timeline play itself out since 2005, but the Anniversary brings it slap bang up against its limitations. How can you celebrate a Doctor who isn’t the Doctor anymore?

Middle age tends to bring us back to where we started from. We realise how arrogant and certain of ourselves we sounded once. How empty many of our grand gestures were. We find ourselves contemplating reconciliation, forgiveness, perhaps a little humility. We look at ourselves in the mirror one day and see our parents staring back.

We develop a new respect for the quiet arts of negotiation and compromise. We realise that we don’t have the right to destroy people simply because they don’t make the cut according to our uncompromising moral standards. If we are the Doctor, we stop trying to pretend to be human and we see the part out ourselves that is forever Time Lord, whether we like it or not.

The Day of The Doctor begins in a school, just as DW originally did, and ends with a quiet, powerful and deeply moving conversation between a wise old man and an even older one who, by the strange mechanics of timey-wiminess, is finally about to grow up. The three Doctors we’ve just seen all recognise that, like it or not, a lot of the big red button stuff way back when was all about them. And that isn’t a good enough reason to deny innocent children their future, no matter how dark that future might turn out to be. It remains their legacy, and their possession.

The Doctor always hated bullies. The show has been a beacon of hope to bullied children for 50 years – it’s remarkable how many of the people involved with its creation and development began as outsiders and remember being persecuted at school. Since 2005 we have seen the Doctor resort to the tactics of his tormentors more often than we would have liked. But now, in this glorious episode, he’s finally put both Gallifrey and The Daleks on the naughty step until they figure out how they are going to get along together.

But if that flash in Peter Capaldi’s eyes is anything to go buy, they won’t be allowed to get off too lightly.

Meanwhile, welcome back, Doctor. We’ve missed you.

http://www.avclub.com/review/the-day-of-the-doctor-105925