Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Doctor Who, the final four episodes

(I know this is astonishingly late, but I just started college, which is a pretty good excuse. I had given up on writing anything about Who, but last night I got a sudden urge and I put these thoughts down. I've had no time to edit them properly, so excuse the length.)

With the final four episodes of Doctor Who’s fourth season, Rusell T. Davies seeks to leave us in no doubt that we will miss him once he’s gone. At this point, it almost goes without saying. Davies’ scripts haven’t always hit the mark – I’m looking at you, “Aliens in London/World War Three” – and his season-long mysteries were not, on reflection, very mysterious at all. But in the grand scheme of things, these quibbles go nothing towards dismeriting Davies’ legacy. This is the man who brought the show back in the first place, the man who has guided it through four years of consistent growth, and (perhaps most importantly) the man who attracted such other fine writerly talents as Steven Moffat, Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss, Rob Sherman, Tim McRae…the list goes on.

Not that I believe Davies’ main achievements were as a producer. As season four’s final four episodes (mostly) show, Davies is first and foremost a writer of tremendous quality and versatility. ‘Midnight’ is a low-budget horror; ‘Turn Left’ a character study disguised as a What-If? tale; ‘The Stolen Earth’ a sprawling action extravaganza; and ‘Journey’s End’ a hodgepodge of every idea Davies had yet to use. To pick a favorite out of these four would be ridiculous – they’re so wildly different, it’s hard to even believe they were all written by the same guy.

Thematically, however, the episodes share some similarities. Davies loves to occasionally question the righteousness of the Doctor’s actions, a theme he tackled most effectively in season one’s ‘Boom Town.’ That episode debated the issue calmly, having the Doctor dine with a Slitheen he was about to send to an execution. (It’s possibly the best scene Davies has written for the show.) In ‘Midnight,’ the characters possess no such decorum. The Doctor’s efforts to take control of a dire situation, typically so effective, here fall flat, his fellow passengers uninterested in being bossed around by an arrogant know-it-all. “Oh, like you’re so special” scoffs one character at the Doctor’s fear of the monster inhabiting him. His response: “As it happens, yes, I am.” Yet for all this Time Lord’s vast banks of knowledge and power, he has yet to learn a little humility.

In certain ways, the Doctor is really just a man. In ‘Midnight,’ he’s arrogant when he should be self-aware. In ‘Turn Left,’ an alternate timeline sees him drown himself at the end of ‘The Runaway Bride,’ and it’s entirely believable. Without Donna there to stop him, the Doctor lets his lonely anger take hold of him and loses all reason. Does that sound closer to a Time Lord or to a person? The Doctor needs a companion around to steer him right – like the old saying goes, behind every man is a great woman. Here, however, we discover the tragic paradox. The Doctor needs to have someone with him, but whenever he does, they tend to get screwed up for life. As Davros rightly points out in ‘Journey’s End,’ the Doctor has turned Martha, Jack, Sarah Jane, Mickey and Jackie into self-operating machines of destruction. Rose, meanwhile, is in love with the Doctor, a man she can never be with. Donna, too, is struck by tragedy at the close of ‘Journey’s End.’ Nobody seems to come out of the TARDIS better off than when they went in. Don’t think about it too much, or it’ll depress you.

Which is why, despite the tragic nature of Donna’s final fate in ‘Journey’s End,’ there is an argument that she’s better off. After absorbing the Doctor’s consciousness (or half of it – I couldn’t keep track) and saving the twenty-three stolen worlds, Donna finds that her human brain can’t handle a Time Lord one. So, in an upsetting scene beautifully played by Catherine Tate, the Doctor is forced to wipe her mind of all their adventures – “All those wonderful things she did,” as her grandpa Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins, heartbreaking) puts it, gone from Donna’s memory. Now obviously this is a sad, sad fate for someone who has displayed capability for such brilliance. But just playing devil’s advocate, at least this way Donna avoids the post-Doctor depression that hit Sarah Jane, Rose, and all the other companions forced away from the TARDIS.

After a season’s worth of mostly cheery stories, these last four episodes are a kick in the teeth by Davies. In ‘Midnight’ he presents his bleakest view of humanity yet. The other passengers ignore his sound advice, descend into panic at a second’s notice and are quick to condone ruthless murder as a means of staying alive. At one point, the Doctor asks the rabble if any one of them could really kill another person. As each gives their response – a resounding “Yes” from most present – they sound an awful lot like the ruthless Toclofane from ‘Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords.’ They used to be human too – but somewhere along a very dark path, they lost their way.

The Doctor never really loses his way. He always remains committed to good, to doing what’s right, to saving the innocent no matter what the danger. It is in pursuit of these goals that he inevitably suffers loss. There’s Donna first and foremost, but also Rose – curiously backgrounded in ‘Journey’s End,’ though fantastic in the prior two episodes – who he returns to the parallel dimension with a copied version of himself. This version, the real Doctor explains, will live life as a normal human. (He neglects to mention that this other Doctor is technically half Donna Noble. Let’s not go there, shall we?) The scene itself doesn’t work, for several reasons – chief among them, ew? – but the central concept of the Doctor selflessly sacrificing his own happiness (even though he foresees the loss of Donna) is strong.

Davies clearly loves this shit. Gleeful romps through Agatha Christie novels aside, he clearly considers the heart of Doctor Who to lie in the theme of loneliness. (No wonder the new Who has been compared to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) As central tenants go, it’s a hearty one. It pulls the heartstrings, yet it is grounded in reality, in real emotions we have all felt. In the final scene of ‘Journey’s End’ the Doctor stands alone in the TARDIS, heading off to some new territory. One journey ends, another begins. It’s not all doom and gloom – there’s sure to be plenty of good times ahead, whether with River Soong or some new companion.

In the mean time, the past four years companions’ each get their moment in the sun. Rose and Donna, together at last, save the world in ‘Turn Left.’ It’s Donna’s story (and Tate owns the episode, without a doubt) but Rose is the one behind the scenes dipping in and out to set things right. In an episode almost entirely devoid of David Tennant, she is undoubtedly the de-facto Doctor of the hour. Rose also plays her part in ‘The Stolen Earth,’ but there she shares the burden with Captain Jack and his team, Sarah Jane and her son Luke, Martha of UNIT and even Donna’s lovable family. It’s a real team effort alright, and though the team ultimately breaks apart in ‘Journey’s End,’ that’s not before they together pilot the TARDIS (apparently intended for six pilots) as it drags Earth back to the Milky Way. It’s a heartwarming scene, perfectly scored and grandly uplifting. We Who fans should learn something from it. Sure, we have a lot to thank Davies for, and sure, it might never be the same without him – but let’s not forget that the making of Who, like the adventures themselves, rely on the whole team. So as one team exits and another waits to shine, Davies’ script is a keen reminder that as long as the team sticks together, we can’t go too far wrong. And make no mistake – we fans are a part of that team. So don’t let the side down.

(Screencap from


Michael said...

With Steven Moffat, I think the show is in great hands.

The one thing the new series needs to do--create a new, memorable adversary for the Doctor.

Dan said...

The Family Of Blood were pretty cool. Hey, they forced The Doctor to take drastic measures and become human, remember. And Harry Lloyd was superb.

doctor excuse said...

well this whole excuse thing is really very sick

doctor excuse said...

well this excuse thing is really really weird.