Mission Accomplished: The Regeneration of Doctor Who

(Some thoughts on the Russell T. Davies era after finally watching series four – contains spoilers. It’s rushed and incomplete, but this is a blog, not an academic journal. I probably will write about the contrasts with the excellent new Doctor once I have finished watching series five, but that’s for another time…)

I should begin by saying that I was never a big Doctor Who fan before the revival of the show in 2005. I had seen a good number of the old episodes, and I think I enjoyed both the Tom Baker and Peter Davison versions of the Doctor, but I didn’t consider it ‘must-see TV’. I was interested in the brief appearance of Paul McGann in the TV movie in the mid-1990s, but I can’t remember much about it and when it became clear that it was a one-off and unlikely to lead anywhere, I forgot all about it. When the series returned in 2005, with Christopher Eccleston – an actor who, despite his occasional pained hamminess, I really admire – in the lead role, my interest was rekindled. I was certainly sceptical about the merits of Billie Piper, but the trailers built up a good level of anticipation and once the familiar music began (in a belting new orchestral arrangement) I was thoroughly hooked.

Before I go any further, I’ll state that I don’t think Doctor Who really constitutes a genre-defining piece of creative art – but often it is just about as good as popular television gets, sneaking reality into our lives disguised as fantasy. For comparison, I think it’s much better than (for example) the constantly-lauded West Wing, which perversely portrays fantasy as reality. By occupying a similar cultural/storytelling space to some graphic novels and science-fiction literature, it is able to ignore the idea of the impossible. Being a show designed for all ages, its possibilities are both limited and enhanced, benefitting from the opportunity to hide parables and allegories in fantastical whimsy. There can be no resort to blood, sex and swearing for ‘edge’ – the drama has to come from relatively simple narrative and emotional portrayal. Given these apparent limitations, the work of the creators and actors is that much more impressive.

At the end of series four, the Doctor tells Rose that she was the one who reined in his more unpalatable tendencies. At first I thought this meant since he (the Tenth Doctor) had known her, but I realised that he is referring to his time as the Ninth Doctor. This made me wonder whether the single series starring Christopher Eccleston – which seemed an odd relic almost as soon as David Tennant arrived – is best seen as a transitional period which turns the whole franchise from what-it-once-was into what-it-is-now. I think there are two main reasons why this works as an interpretation. First, after a long absence from the screens, series one had to teach the audience all the ‘rules’ associated with the Doctor all over again – fixed points in time, not interfering with your own timeline, not using time travel for personal gain etc. This is important because so much of the Tenth Doctor’s persona is tied up in subverting these rules – without the Ninth Doctor having established them, this would be largely ineffectual. The associated gruff, aloof, detached and sometimes silly persona cultivated by Eccleston bring to mind a sort of Platonic ideal of the late-modern schoolteacher.

Second, the Doctor himself was transformed from a fairly insular, travelling observer into a beacon of hope for what is purportedly all that is good about humankind. The irony that such a beacon cannot be a human himself but must reflect what he admires in humans is not ignored, but is sometimes skirted around. This development was not obligatory by any means, but is, I gather, the personal legacy of Russell T. Davies, who left the Doctor as a kind of modern, liberal, tolerant superhero (while recognising the ambiguous nature of his commitments both to pacifism, and to multiculturalism in a crude sense). Reinette calls him a “lonely angel” and in a secular way, that is very true. He has become a guardian of his “beloved Earth”. This is very appealing of course, and taps into precisely the same bits of our million-year old consciousness as does religion – the idea that somebody is watching over us and that ‘it will all be fine’. This sentiment is returned to again and again throughout, eventually being deconstructed completely in “Turn Left” where the Doctor, having died in an adjusted timeline, cannot act as guardian angel for Earth. This leads to all manner of catastrophes and degradations which cause Earth to sink into an apocalyptic chaos. Our having seen them averted previously makes this all the more alarming.

Over the course of series four, I grudgingly came to admire Catherine Tate. I hadn’t enjoyed her previous work, and the Donna Noble character is pretty close to a couple of her most grating comedy creations. There were moments right until the end of series four when I recoiled as her voice cut right through me. However, she played the character very well and was completely believable, perhaps moreso than any other companion in the new series. Her family was also entirely plausible – the dreamer of a grandfather, shutting out miserable reality by imagining far-off worlds; the harpy mother whose bitterness and disappointment is always offered undiluted; and the absent father, an era-defining trope. The final episode of the regular series had me in floods of tears, beginning with the debarkation of Rose and the part-human Doctor onto Bad Wolf beach on the parallel earth. Billie Piper, who hadn’t really convinced me with her initial run as Rose, was excellent in all her cameos in series four. She had acquired a ghostly presence and sadness which was completely right for the role, given her salvation-through-imprisonment in another universe. The completion of the story arc of her romance with the Doctor is handled nicely – yes, it’s perhaps a little too convenient but it’s hardly an ideal situation and Rose had suffered two years of ‘purgatory’ in order to earn her own Doctor, or half-Doctor. I wonder if she would get sick of him speaking like Catherine Tate after a while. (Incidentally, I read that originally Tennant’s Doctor was meant to have a much more pronounced cockneyish accent, having ‘imprinted’ from Rose).

Other characters whose arcs lie mainly in the Davies era are also crucial to the overall philosophy of the show. Harriet Jones, the politician, undergoes a transformation from virtuous and upstanding critic to amoral human-chauvinistic leader before redeeming herself through self-sacrifice. This is a nod to the corruption of power, of course, but does it also imply a pseudo-religious necessity of redemption? This would fit somewhat uncomfortably with the treatment of spiritualism throughout the rest of the series – the Doctor is certainly a humanist. I think a better interpretation of Jones (and other characters such as Luke Rattigan) is the importance of a forgiveness, not an exclusively religious concept. The Doctor likes second chances – remember when he said “it’s never too late, as a wise person once said; Kylie, I think.” In this case, the Doctor’s forgiveness is a big deal – the decision of Harriet Jones to destroy the retreating Sycorax ship is an allusion to Thatcher’s order to sink the Belgrano. His own second chance is never far from his mind, as he spends his life trying to atone for his actions in ending the Time War – actions he views as akin to genocide.

Captain Jack is another character who defines the Davies era, a crafty, vain, reckless, libidinous bisexual immortal. He represents the Dionysian conception of humanity, and even when his urges lead to disaster the Doctor is always ready to embrace the dandy adventurer. Rose and Martha were obviously key figures, offering somewhat competing images of an ‘ideal’ contemporary companion. Each is implied to be in love with the Doctor at some stage, and this is handled a bit mawkishly in my view, especially when compared to the relationship between the Doctor and Donna Noble. Rose gradually evolves into a mystical figure, part-Amazon, part-prophet, but never quite losing her roots. Martha is the rational left-brain counterpart, sacrificing her idealism to the realities as presented in the U.N.I.T. war-room. The Tenth Doctor displays a great deal of emotion when dealing with both relationships, though it is strongly implied that he developed human-like romantic feelings for Rose, which in turn meant that her story arc had to ensure these could never be reciprocated (not quite, anyway).

Finally, just a word or two on regeneration. Tennant’s Doctor is special in this regard. While most of the incarnations see the regeneration as a natural process, the Tenth Doctor – as the most ‘human’, and certainly the most human-loving – gains an almost mortal mentality, and confronts regeneration as if it is death. He doesn’t want to go before his time (despite the patent absurdity of this attitude if you look at it rationally). But surely that’s the point – he is the irrational Doctor, the most homo sapien of all. It is no accident that the half-human Doctor who ends up with Rose Tyler is a Tennant clone; the creation of that hybrid must have been partly facilitated by his own kinship with human mentality.

Just as I was finishing this I read that Stephen Fry, host of Q.I., had dismissed Doctor Who as children’s TV masquerading as something more worthy, and filling the ‘serious’ slots which should be reserved for grown-up programmes. His definition of the latter is as follows: “something surprising, savoury, sharp, unusual, cosmopolitan, alien, challenging, complex, ambiguous, possibly even slightly disturbing and wrong.” In answer to this ill-informed, misplaced and pompous attack, I will simply offer a list of a few highlights from the Russell T. Davies series, intended to satisfy the characteristics of ‘adult’ television as pronounced above:

– The Devil as an ageless human psychological creation in “The Impossible Planet”

– Suicide, sacrifice, and the relationship between one person and history in “The Waters of Mars”

– The subtle handling of the concepts of slavery and free will in the whole Ood story arc

– The continuing dialogue between pacifism and confrontation; its one exception for the Doctor, the Daleks, and his apparent use of torture

– The recurrent theme of miscegenation (and genetics more generally), especially in “Dalek”

– “Blink”, just an incredible, grown-up, ingenious, terrifying idea

– Agatha Christie, Shakespeare, Queen Victoria, free history lessons for all, and almost always with an irreverent twist

– The sheer number of great actors and writers involved (Carey Mulligan, John Simm, Lindsey Duncan, David Morrissey, Peter Capaldi et al)

– Farewells handled beautifully and brutally – “Doomsday” and “Journey’s End” in particular

So there you go. It’s not just for kids, nor is it just for grown-ups. It is subversive, progressive, sometimes overly-sentimental, but always thoughtful television which is in stark contrast to much of the slick, amoral garbage we are fed these days. What ambition that is, to create something that could teach every single viewer a lesson in humanity on a weekly basis. Of course it sometimes misfires, and series one really took a while to work out how seriously to take itself, but my admiration for the intent is enormous. So, as series four ended, handing over what had become ‘his’ show to writer Stephan Moffat, Russell T. Davies can surely have earned the right to declare his mission accomplished.

Published in: on June 23, 2010 at 2:22 am  Leave a Comment  

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