Christmas Is This Friday, So Here's Another Post About Death

(48 comments)

A guest post by Jill Buratto

I’m not quite sure what more needs said about this. The episode rather says it all. Maybe discussing the differences between the death of Donna and the death of Clara made sense after Face the Raven (when Phil first asked if I would write this) but, let’s face it, Hell Bent was just such a lovely and succinct “fuck you Russell, that was fucked up” that I’m not sure there is much ground to cover. But this is a thing I am passionate about so forgive me a little redundancy. 

Because, ultimately, Hell Bent is an overt challenge to Journey’s End and the horrific violation of consent contained. It explicitly nods to the Donna mind wipe incident and challenges the very premise of it. “Tomorrow is promised to no one, Doctor, but I insist upon my past.” And, this time, the Doctor agrees, backs down, acknowledges that right. And in that nod to the Donna debacle, implicitly acknowledges the past mistake. 

And it’s not just Journey’s End. Davies doesn’t have a great track record with agency at the end of stories in general. It’s not just Donna, though the forced mind wipe is the most egregious example. Ignoring her informed consent and performing a procedure she flatly stated she did not want was nothing short of reprehensible and still makes my skin crawl. But it happens with Rose too. Both times really. In Doomsday, her decision to stand by the Doctor is first ignored by the Doctor himself, slipping the teleport medallion on her without her knowledge and sending her to the parallel universe. Once she finds her way back, her decision is once again undermined by her own father, pulling her with him through the closing Void. Both times, her choice was overridden by Those Who Know Better. And, to a lesser degree, this happens to her again in Journey’s End. Having finally reconnected with the Doctor, all she wants to do is stay with him and, instead, she is given the consolation prize/baggage of a newly formed Donna/Doctor clone (a hybrid, you might say). Instead of continuing her adventures, she is saddled with a dark, angry and unpredictable new life and essentially told to figure it out because the Doctor says so. It happens to Jack the first time, when he is left alone on a decimated space station with the dust of corpses and a new immortal life to figure out without any guidance or explanation. Again, none of these moments are quite as stomach churning as watching Donna beg and plead to keep her memories to no avail but still contain remove any element of choice from the companions who are exiting.

And it has been said before, but the biggest problem with the scene is that you are supposed to empathize with the Doctor. He made a hard choice for someone he cared about, he is the hero and his actions are justified. His motives and actions are not questioned by the narrative, it was just the thing to do and we know he is tortured by this decision because he spends some time crying in the rain. So, obviously, he is forgiven and redeemed. In this way, the depiction of the mind controlling tendencies of his doppelgänger Kilgrave, from the Netflix series Jessica Jones, is decidedly better. Kilgrave is never the hero, you are never supposed to view him as the protagonist of the piece. At best, viewers are expected to understand how this very, very fucked up man formed but we are still meant to cheer when Jessica delivers the pitch perfect “smile” and snaps his neck. 

It is worth pointing out the mildly terrifying similarities between the Doctor and Kilgrave. Tennant himself seems to draw from the same well for both of these characters, playing them as classically handsome, charismatic and charming. Kilgrave easily be played at creepy and off-putting, it doesn’t matter the actual impression he gives to people, he can implant a more positive one on a whim. There was no need to play him and personable and largely easy to talk to and yet he clearly is a charmer underneath it all. He understands how to manipulate people, which buttons to push, as does the Doctor. Consider the deft undoing of Harriet Jones with the little, vicious comment “doesn’t she look tired?” But, despite this acute understanding of how to manipulate people, both Kilgrave and the Doctor lack insight and empathy with regards to others. Neither knows quite what it is like to be a human. Kilgrave points this out explicitly, explaining to Jessica that he never knows if people are doing what they want or what he told them to do. He has no idea what a normal, adult, human interaction is like. Neither does the Doctor really, as a Time Lord, his frame of reference is vastly different. While he is perhaps not as obvious with his discomfort in human interactions as Smith’s Doctor (consider him flailing about Craig’s apartment attempting to immerse himself in human life) and certainly not as obvious as Capaldi’s Doctor who can’t actually tell when people have changed their clothes, he is fundamentally an alien being. And, maybe, the explicit discomfort is preferable to the attempts to gloss over the differences and, in the process, manipulate those around them. 

Back to the subject at hand, interestingly, Davies’ single best on screen death, the one that haunts me to this day, also creates a situation in which the character dying lacks any agency. The thing is, the man bludgeoning his would-be lover to death with a golf club in Cucumber is no one’s protagonist, no one’s hero. In a larger scale sense, Davies appears to want to investigate the ways in which we lack control over our own demise, which is a valid fear to explore. However, the clumsy use of the nominal hero of the piece to remove that control is a problem in a number of departures under his purview. What is most striking about Lance’s death in Cucumber is the unexpected and unwarranted brutality of the scene from a nominally supporting character. The clear message is “you never know what is going to happen.” You never know who you are going out to dinner with, who you meet on the bus or who you are interacting with at your job. Death is anywhere and it can be brutal and violent and senseless and that is the world we live in. It is striking and haunting and left me speechless. There is a reason we fear death and, in some cases, there is a reason we should fear death.

This is in stark contrast to the deaths (or ends in general) that we see from Davies in Doctor Who and this contrast is where my frustration arises. Violent deaths, deaths due to sudden accident or attack, are a different category entirely from those that allowpersonal agency to the end. In an accident or violent incident, there is no choice, the situation dictates the terms of the death. These are not the deaths we see in Doctor Who. Yes, it was a sudden incident that caused the Human/Time Lord Metacrisis but there was time to save the world, drop off all the companions and visit a parallel universe. Any point in this stretch, by the way, would have been a spectacular time to discuss the plan with her and maybe get some input. And even with this waiting, Donna maintained her ability to make decisions until the end. Instead of respecting her wish to die with her memories, to maintain the person she had become into death, the Doctor decided that this was not a situation he could live with and made a choice for her. This wasn’t the circumstances removing choice from Donna, it was her friend and the hero. The narrative supports him in his decision and he is given the freedom to walk away believing he did the best by her. 

Compare this not only to Clara’s death that but also Amy and Rory’s and Danny’s as well. Rory who died from one of these sudden, violent incidents and Amy who sacrificed her present life to the Weeping Angels so that she could be transported back to him and spend the rest of her life with her love. Her choice. Amy’s choice. Danny gets the same respect, gets his redemptive moment as the guilty, reluctant soldier. His death is his own and, in his death, he is able to save another whose death haunts him. 

But Phil asked for this before Hell Bent aired and there is a reason for that. Because Face the Raven was such a deft, beautiful piece on death, loss and grief, entirely separate from the comparison to the rather dismal end of Donna’s story. Even before Hell Bent, we had a story of a woman accepting the consequences of her actions, accepting her death and attempting to help counsel her friend through the trauma. Not only does she take agency over her death itself by refusing to let the Doctor attempt some ill-advised plan to correct the situation, she takes agency over the impact her death has. She acknowledges all of the feelings of hurt and guilt and rage that make the Doctor prone to mind-wiping people he cares about in order to “save” them and confronts all of them, tells him that her death ends with her, that revenge will not make this better for either of them and orders him to not insult everything she has been and asks him to be brave with her. It is beautiful and poignant and a conversation I have been present for in real life. It is the way deaths happen, a true and heartbreakingly accurate depiction of acute loss and overwhelming grief. 

And, honestly, so is everything in Heaven Sent and Hell Bent, every single action is done out of loss. The five stages of grief over four and a half billion years. Because, in the end, the Doctor is a Time Lord and, of course, it would take him so much longer to grieve. And he never quite makes it to acceptance. Death of those he loves is not something he accepts, River even goes so far as to warn Amy not to let him see her age, to hide the damage. His lifespan is nearly infinite, rather than see the deaths of those he loves, he would rather see them leave. Keep the memory of them as young and vibrant and vital, he simply cannot cope with the finality of death. 

We see this denial in the universe-be-damned destructive tendency of the Doctor when he loses someone. We see him make questionable decisions in order to save someone he cares deeply for but, this time, his actions are questioned, and loudly, by the woman he means to save. And, knowing that Clara will object, during the whole bloody episode he tries to downplay it, tries to not tell her exactly what this rescue mission means, what he went through and what he plans because he knows. He doesn’t like endings and he knows she loves stories and she will fight for hers. Fight in a way that Donna and Rose never could. Fight in a way only a bossy control freak could manage. And that is what makes the mind wipe conversation such a punch the air moment. It explicitly calls back to Donna but, this time, he always intends to tell her. And there is no way to tell Clara this plan and not expect push back. There is no way she is going to accept this solution without question. Yes, she is the companion who actually will listen when she is told to stay put, but this is because when she decides to argue and fight back, even the Doctor is no match for Clara Oswald. 

In the end, I absolutely adored this sequence of episodes because a death like this, a death with dignity and agency and choice is exactly what Ashildr says; sad and beautiful. As someone steeped in it, who lives to care for those dying, more correct words cannot be spoken. Death, when done well, is beautiful and sad. When given the expansive reach of narrative and the nostalgic bent of Doctor Who, there is no reason death cannot be both these things. And to see a death like this, a death accompanied by deep grief and rage and loss but also one done with grace and dignity, in popular culture is all I could ask for. 

“She died for who she was and who she loved. She fell where she stood.” That is the ultimate story of Clara: brave and bold and fighting for what she cares about. But it is also the ultimate story of the Doctor. Finally, at the end of Hell Bent we see him reach stage five of grieving. He accepts his errors, accepts the memory loss he had sentenced others to (which, for him, is just as final as death) and accepts the loss that he has fought tooth and nail for two and change episodes. He accepts that this story, one way or another, is over. And, just like the dying of the stars, just like the death of Clara, it is beautiful and sad. 

Comments

Tom Marshall 1 year, 10 months ago

*applause*

(forgive my lack of anything else to say just this moment)

*keeps applauding*

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taiey 1 year, 10 months ago

Rose does sort of accept 10.2—well, she kisses him. It's staying in that universe that she never, ever accepts. 10(.5?) and Donna leaving while she's distracted is the ugh.

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MDavison 1 year, 10 months ago

As Moffat has retroactively decided that the events of "Journey's End" occurred just after a regeneration, you really shouldn't be at all surprised that the Doctor acts erratically in that episode.

Peri forgave the Doctor for his post-regenerative trauma, and he tried to choke her to death. Similarly, I am sure that Donna would have likewise been forgiving of the Doctor. I understand that it is popular sport to get down on what happened to Donna in that episode, but I don't want my show to always sit comfortably with me. "While there's life, there's still hope." Donna's story continues.

My problem with Clara's 'death' is how completely lacking in drama it was. I think that continually asking your audience to buy into the idea that one of your main characters is dying/near death/dead, but then continually finding ways to show that it wasn't real or lasting - well, it made it incredibly hard for me to be invested in her fate. Everyone lives doesn't make for great drama.

Finally, I just have to say that I simply don't get how the show has been unable to let a companion leave the series without concocting an elaborate scheme to prevent her from accidentally showing up in the future. With the notable exception of Martha, it is as though there is concern that the audience will be confused why Rose/Donna/Amy aren't in the Doctor's life anymore, so let's create a parallel universe/mindwipe/bizarre rules saying her entire life is fixed in time and can't be encountered by the Doctor. Sheesh. I never got bent out of shape that Ian & Barbara, Jo Grant, and Tegan stopped appearing in the narrative of the show. We move on - stop creating overelaborate barriers.

On a final note, and returning to this idea that the Doctor in a post-regenerative state may not be in the most stable of minds - it only makes the Doctor's reprehensible action in 'Hell Bent' of murdering a fellow time lord all the more disturbing. Aside from the sheer evilness of stealing a life away from someone else to selfishly try and bring back Clara, it wasn't even done to someone who you might be able to argue was a baddie. No, he 'killed' someone else so that Clara could unnaturally extend her lifespan, and while he glibly tried to hide this evil from Clara by saying it is nothing worse than the 'flu' - we all know better. We know how traumatic a forced regeneration can be.

So, our hero is deeply flawed, and I did not find 'Hell Bent' a fist in the air moment at all, but rather, more evidence of just how screwed up he is - and he is still taking away choices from others.

I mean, great piece you wrote, and I see where you are coming from, but I feel that leaving out that the Donna incident occurred shortly after the Doctor's regeneration or forgetting to mention his 'murder' on Gallifrey needed airing.

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Joseph 1 year, 10 months ago

But the Doctor was explicitly in the same position we were in - unaware that it "counted" as a regeneration, thinking that the use of the regeneration energy of his spare hand let him cheat the rules...

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Phil Sandifer 1 year, 10 months ago

More to the point, while Moffat may have written in the means of a retcon by which it could be explained (never mind that it would be the only regeneration trauma demonstrated in the story), Davies blatantly did not. Davies, as Jill points out, wrote a story where the Doctor is praised and treated as thoroughly sympathetic for casually violating someone's consent on a fundamental matter like this.

Similarly, nothing in Hell Bent really suggests "murdered another Time Lord." The Doctor makes sure he'll survive. The General, knowing what's coming, wishes the Doctor good luck anyway. It's not a moment of the Doctor being nice, certainly, but comparing it to the way Journey's End goes "hooray for ignoring advance directives" is ridiculous.

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MDavison 1 year, 10 months ago

I will concede the point that the Doctor's choice to save Donna's life was not the result of post-regenerative trauma. In fact, as you point out, the Doctor managed to do a tremendous amount of good for the universe during the course of this episode. I guess I am just rebelling against this idea that we should ignore all of the good that he does, and instead focus on the one act that might be seen as less than noble, and frankly, this is a bit too much even.

The Doctor saved Donna's life. There was a cost. She lost some of her memories, but we have seen this Time Lord gift used throughout the series going back to the 1960's. The Doctor himself has manipulated memories, and/or condoned it throughout the series. So, why has it that this particular time he used it, he gets attacked for it?

I disagree with this bizarre idea that it would have been better for the Doctor to allow Donna to suffer and die, than to find a solution that allowed her to live. Sometimes, you have to make choices for someone, particularly when that someone is not in a clear minded state to make an informed choice.

As to the other point - we will just have to disagree. Shooting someone, thus causing them to regenerate, is a cause for concern when done by the hero of the show. Did the Time Lord give his consent to be shot? I found that far more disturbing than the heartwrenching but life-affirming way that Donna's story resolved.

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Phil Sandifer 1 year, 10 months ago

He gets attacked for it because she's literally begging him to stop while he does it, and the story finds nothing whatsoever wrong with that.

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MDavison 1 year, 10 months ago

The story finds nothing wrong with it, because she is not Donna any longer. She is not in the right frame of mind to be able to adequately determine what is best for her. She is quite literally losing her mind and the way to make her better is to remove that which is causing the pain.

The Doctor made the most morally ethical choice, even though it cost him so much. He mourns the loss of his friend, while knowing that he made the only decision he could have.

While there is life, there is still hope. Donna is saved. We are sad, because the Doctor has lost his friend, but we feel uplifted that by making that choice, he has saved Donna.

To disparage the fact that Donna reverted back to the state she was in pre-Doctor is to say that she was worthless before she met the Doctor. That is the very sentiment that she herself seemed to believe, but what "Journey's End" so beautifully shows, Donna is a remarkable person - full stop. Her adventures with the Doctor let loose her awesomeness. Now, with a more supportive family environment, she can discover this again.

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Jill 1 year, 10 months ago

Donna always meets the qualifications to make medical decisions for herself. She understands the situation and what it means to say she doesn't want intervention. Separate from anything else that is happening, she understands before the Doctor even explains it what is happening and knows before he answers what his plan is. And she says she does not want it. It is a consent violation of the worst order. She deems that her experience and who she is now is more important than her life. That is *her* call, not his.

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Phil Sandifer 1 year, 10 months ago

As Jill points out, there's literally no evidence that Donna is incapable of making the decision she makes. That's not in the episode at all.

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MDavison 1 year, 10 months ago

The Doctor-Donna hybrid does not have the right to destroy Donna for its own sake. Donna should be allowed a chance to live. The Doctor saves Donna.

Donna's family, including her new husband, would no doubt take issue with your willingness to let the Doctor-Donna hybrid kill Donna. The Doctor made the choice for Donna, because Donna was not in a position to make the choice for herself. Donna wasn't even present in the scene. She had disappeared, and been replaced by someone else.

Donna trusted the Doctor implicitly, and would have approved of him making a choice to save her, even at the expense of her memories.

If you must put it in terms of consent, the Doctor had been granted the right to make this choice in Donna's absence. The Doctor-Donna didn't see value in plain Donna pre-Doctor, but the Doctor knew that Donna was amazing to begin with, and it was his duty to save that remarkable woman so that she could have a chance at a full and satisfying life.

For the record, I am a firm believer in the right to die and people having the right to determine how they choose to exit this mortal coil. I just think its putting something on the episode that isn't there to state so matter-of-factly that we are looking at a right-to-die scenario.

I mean, I guess I just got a very different vibe from watching the episode, but I admired and respected the Doctor for what he had to do and why he did it, and I loved him to pieces for doing it. "Journey's End" is one of the most life-affirming episodes of the series for me. Sorry you don't see it.

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Jill 1 year, 10 months ago

You call the end of Donna's story life affirming but, in reality, life is not the ultimate good. Death is a fact of life for all of us and, for Donna, death was better than losing who she had become. Imagine people who suffer spinal cord trauma, those who choose they would rather be off the ventilator and die peacefully than live the rest of their lives bedbound, paralyzed and dependent on those around them. For those people, death is better than losing the people they were. That is their choice. This was Donna's choice. Ignoring her explicit wishes about her memories and forcibly entering her mind to wipe them clean is something you expect from a villain, not the hero. Just because you would make a different choice does not invalidate hers.

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MDavison 1 year, 10 months ago

I respectfully, but completely, disagree with you on this point. To assume that Donna's life was meaningless without the memory of the Doctor in it is something I find wrong on so many levels. She lost a few months of her life, but gained the rest of her life. She is happy. She gets married. She wins the lottery. She may well go on to have kids, or travel the globe, or start a business, or any number of avenues which are open to her - thanks to the Doctor choosing what was best for Donna.

And what was best for Donna was not what the Doctor-Donna hybrid was saying in a state of considerable mental anguish and confusion. Had there been more time, and more understanding of the choices, and had Donna been in a clear state, then they could have had a discussion of what her options were, and I have no doubt that the Doctor could very well have sold her on choosing to live, even though it meant giving up her recent memories.

The Doctor knew, as we the audience came to understand, that Donna was not an unremarkable and worthless person before she knew the Doctor. Her travels with the Doctor made her better, because she came to understand her potential. It is sad that all that character growth was erased, but the essence of who Donna is remains, and she can and will rediscover how awesome she is in time, just by living on the Earth.

I think we are having a fundamental difference of opinion on Donna's mental state at the time she was pleading not to have her mind wiped. There just wasn't time for Donna to understand the stakes, and the Doctor had to act and act quickly.

I daresay, Zoe and Jamie were likely not all that in favor of having their memories wiped, and they weren't on the verge of dying at the time, but they made the correct choice, and the Doctor, while saddened that they would not remember the bulk of their time with him, was overjoyed that they were back home none the worse for wear.

Now if you want to talk about mentally violating someone - we could talk about poor Sarah Jane!

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Jill 1 year, 10 months ago

It was Donna who decided that she did not want to return to her previous state. That was her call. And it wasn't done quickly, as I pointed out in the piece, they had plenty of time to pop around and drop everyone off. At any point in time, he could have discussed this with her.

Distress or no, she is competent to make decisions. She understands all the factors, that is made clear. It is unfortunate, but sometimes we have to ask people who are in distress exactly what they want for treatment, do you want to be intubated, do you want compressions. We try to have these discussions when people are not in critical moments but it happens and as long as they can give informed consent. She was informed but did not give consent. That should be the end of this discussion.

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MDavison 1 year, 10 months ago

The actual breakdown came very quickly. All signs seemed to point to the hybrid actually stabilizing and surviving. Once it fell apart, it fell apart quickly, and the Doctor, who had the power to save her life, did so - because she was not in a clear enough state of mind to know what she wanted, and the Doctor made the best choice he could in the limited time he had. Letting her die, when there really was no need for it, would have been reprehensible and wrong. Donna was not speaking from a place of serenity, but in anguish and terror and panic. Had the Doctor disregarded what he knew to be the best course of action because Donna was saying all sorts of nonsense in a delirium would have been utter malpractice.

If you truly believe that the Doctor made a mistake and should have gone with whatever Donna was saying at that moment over what his heart and mind were telling him was the solution - then so be it. I'm not going to change your opinion on this.

However, I'm not exactly sure what could be done to 'fix' the error. Killing Donna now would be wrong - wouldn't it? I mean, she's happy, as is her family, as is her husband... and I don't think anyone involved wants her dead now... so whatever the Doctor-Donna may have wanted at the time - at this time, she wants to live, so I think that should be respected as well, and perhaps, give the Doctor a break on this, because I'm sure he has agonized over it a fair amount... and more than he did over Zoe and Jamie - that's for sure!

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Jill 1 year, 10 months ago

Well, first, he wouldn't be killing Donna. He would be letting her die which is an important distinction.

She's not actually delirious. She has some word salad but, critically, she is able to articulate what is happening and what the Doctor is proposing. That is the basis for competency in medical decision making. It was, in fact, malpractice to ignore her wishes and not just malpractice but completely unethical.

And she was in anguish and panic over the thought of losing her memories of her time with the Doctor. So he was causing that terror and anguish by forcing a mind wipe on her against her will.

The Donna/Doctor *is* Donna. She is not a different person. She is just as capable of making decisions for herself as she always was. She doesn't want to go back to her normal life, she doesn't want to go back there without the memories of the Doctor. She wants to stay with him, even if that means death. She makes that perfectly clear. Whatever happens after (notably, without the memories that impacted her decision in Journey's End) at that moment, she wanted to be allowed to die. With her memories. As the person she had become through travels with the Doctor. She wanted to stay herself. That is what she was asking for. And it was her mind, her death. Her wishes should have been respected. Saying that the Doctor should make this decision for her is indicative of the paternalistic, dictatorial form of medicine we have developed beyond. He doesn't get to make this decision for her. Her consent was necessary for this to be an ethical choice and he did not have that.

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MDavison 1 year, 10 months ago

Well, in all fairness, she also never explicitly says that she wants to die either. She doesn't want to go back to who she was - she makes that clear - but is perhaps hoping there might be a way to save her and keep her memories. Granted, the Doctor never explicitly asks her the make a choice, but Donna also never makes explicitly clear that she would prefer death over life. I would argue that Donna has not consented to dying, only in saving her memories... somehow.

Perhaps in time the Doctor will find a way to restore her memories. As long as she lives, there is still hope for that, and as that was Donna's ultimate wish, then the Doctor is in fact, respecting Donna's wishes - making the only choice he could to preserve the hope that she could keep her memories and travel with the Doctor.

I have never seen this as a right-to-die story, though, which is why I have struggled with this interpretation.

If you insist on going by what is said by the patient, though, then I must be pedantic and point out that at no time does she ask to die, so a healthcare provider would not have sufficient permission to let her die.

It would also be really hard to claim that Donna was in her right mind, honestly, as when she is saying things like: "I'm fine. Nah, never mind Felspoon. You know who I'd like to meet? Charlie Chaplin. I bet he's great, Charlie Chaplin. Shall we do that? Shall we go and see Charlie Chaplin? Shall we? Charlie Chaplin? Charlie Chester. Charlie Brown. No, he's fiction. Friction, fiction, fixing, mixing, Rickston, Brixton."

Well, she doesn't seem right in the head to me!

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MDavison 1 year, 10 months ago

I would just add that Donna is explicit that she doesn't want to go back, and I would argue that the Doctor respects that wish. While Donna does lose her memories of her travels with the Doctor, he works behind the scenes to change her life for the better, most notably in his pointed words to her mother.

When we catch a glimpse of Donna, she is not a carbon copy of the Donna pre-Doctor, but rather, a more confident and happier person. You may still find this distasteful if you dislike the idea of the Doctor as a meddler in people's lives, but then if you are, you are seriously watching the wrong program, because that is who the Doctor is!

So, to summarize - Donna does not explicitly ask to be allowed to die, only that she be allowed to keep her memories and an insistence that she doesn't want to go back to who she was before meeting the Doctor.

The Doctor does not technically return Donna to who she was. Her memories are still gone, but Donna has many years ahead of her, and perhaps one day the Doctor can meet that request as well.

Thanks for allowing me to share my point of view on this matter.

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Tim B. 1 year, 10 months ago

The whole 'Regeneration trauma' thing has never really sat well with me. In biological/evolutionary terms it makes little sense (I assume that the Gallifreyans have sexual reproduction as opposed to asexual because it just makes sense - it's the most successful method of reproduction we know [admittedly this is only in a sample size of 1 planet] and evolution is an emergent property of sexual reproduction. It seems to me the effort required to envisage developing a technologically based system of asexual reproduction that avoids the pitfalls that occur around it naturally strikes me as an incredibly futile cul-de-sac that I couldn't comprehend a society that reaches that kind of situation - what kind of super-super existential crisis did they face or how are they sooo alien in that single fundemental facet of their psychological make-up yet utterly human in pretty much everything else? ) So having the level of disorientation that results in Castrovolva or The Twin Dilemma episode one would surely have been evolved out of the Gallifreyan genome by now(Or genetically screened out).

That the other on-screen regenerations (Romana in Destiny& The General in Heaven Sent are the only examples I can think of) haven't then necessitated the character to then act like a dick or to levels of cosmic incompetence we tend to expect of the post regeneration story seems to support my view.

It looks like to me as something that is completely extra-diegetic. It can be used to good effect as a story telling trope that is unique to Who however using it as an explanation for the Doctor's actions in Journey's End just strikes me as some awkward post-hoc rationalisation for a corner that the production team had painted themselves in it appears - They didn't want to kill off Donna/Have a situation that Catherine Tate is irrevocably written out of the show. I've not read The Writer's Tale or any other source/interview/article so I don't know if this is their explanation or if it's a fan theory but it does seem as a way to hand-wave away a particularly nasty episode in the Doctor's story.

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encyclops 1 year, 9 months ago

Regeneration trauma seems to be pretty specific to the Doctor. Partly it's because he typically seems to regenerate under extreme circumstances -- you gotta figure Gallifrey is not a place where violent death is common -- but you could also speculate (as some have) that he's just very recklessly bad at it.

Romana is good at everything and she's apparently chosen to regenerate, and is in complete control of the process, as the Doctor never appears to be. With the General they do alert emergency services, so there does seem to be some risk that things might go awry.

I'd agree it's not a great explanation for his choice in "Journey's End." I think a better explanation is: he's not perfect, and sometimes he does really awful things. I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that maybe destroying Gallifrey was slightly more awful than wiping Donna's memory. RTD's Doctors are fundamentally good people who sometimes make shockingly cruel choices and veer into grand power trips which sometimes (but not always, as is the way of life) backfire on them. I think this is far more interesting than demanding that he always make the correct choice in every situation, and that it's possible to sympathize with a flawed character, but what do I know.

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Camestros Felapton 1 year, 10 months ago

That was an excellent essay. Thank you.

By having Clara's departure comment on Donna's departure Hell Bent makes Journey's End retroactively better.

There is a big distinction between the Doctor's action being understandable and those actions being ethical. What he did was wrong as portrayed but also a decision that an otherwise good person would make. I don't think RTD intended it to signal the start of the arc that peaks with Water of Mars and the Time Lord Victorious but by highlighting the arrogance of it Hell Bent makes it fit with that arc. The Doctor has enormous power and he thinks he knows what is for the best but benevolent dictatorship even at a micro-scale is still dictatorship.

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Ashley 1 year, 10 months ago

The Doctor healed Donna. He did it out of love and concern for her well-being. That saving her life could only happen at the expense of her memories of the past few minths spent travelling the universe is heartbreaking. It is supposed to be. However, would you rather he had let her die? Really? I'm frankly disturbed by this new interpretation that the Doctor was somehow a monster for saving her life!

Now you may want to talk consent, but I would argue that Donna wasn't of sound mind and body. This is a real life dilemma faced by real families... having to make choices in the best interest of the person we are responsible for when that person lacks the clarity of judgement to decide for themselves what is in their best interest.

Go back and watch again the manic behavior exhibited by Donna in that scene. She is no state to decide her fate. She is not well. She is in many ways not even Donna. She has become, dare I say it, a hybrid and it is killing her.

Though the price is high, the Doctor was forced to make the best decision he could in the limited time he had... and he chose a path that would cost Donna memories but save her life. Not only her life, but save the essence of who Donna was.

So yes, it is painful to watch, and the loss is heartbreaking, but to dismiss Donna reset beck to her factory settings is to say that there was nothing about that Donna worth saving... to which I say no. Hell no! Just rewatch the scene when her mom finally stands up for the remarkable woman Donna has always been in her eyes, and the way the Doctor insists that Donna needs to hear that.

All the growth Donna went through in her travels, but she never learned that she didn't need to be a time and space traveller to become somebody. Now she has a future.

I just can't criticize the Doctor for such a selfless act of love for a companion as he showed Donna, and I don't think Donna would want her best friend called a monster for making the best choice he could in a bad situaution.

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Jill 1 year, 10 months ago

He didn't heal Donna, he destroyed the person she had become over the time traveling with him. He destroyed her growth and knowledge and experience. He forced her to regress to someone she explicitly states she did not want to become again. He invaded her mind while she pleaded with him not to in order to make himself feel better. I'm not saying earlier Donna is not worth saving, I am saying that she did not want to become that person again and her desires about her own mind were summarily ignored. It is far from selfless, in fact it is possibly the most selfish thing the Doctor has done. He chose the path that he could live with, regardless of what she wants.

The whole point of the Metacrisis is that she understood everything the Doctor understands. Of course she knew what this situation meant and what the Doctor's proposed solution meant for her. She absolutely does not lack clarity of judgement.

DONNA: Oh, my God.
DOCTOR: Do you know what's happening?
DONNA: Yeah.
DOCTOR: There's never been a human Time Lord metacrisis before now. And you know why.
DONNA: Because there can't be. I want to stay.

What there displays lack of mental clarity? The medical standard for competency for medical decisions (and I work in healthcare, I know this) is whether or not the person understands the situation and understands the available treatments, including what will happen if treatment is forgone. That exchange up there certainly shows understanding of the situation and the Doctor's proposed treatment plan.

It is gross and offensive. Donna fully understands the situation and expresses a clear desire and it is overridden because the Doctor feels guilty, the Doctor doesn't want her to die, in his schema, erasing an important time in her life is preferable. But those are the Doctor's feelings, not hers. Her development over her time with the Doctor is vitally important to her and she would rather die with that time in her mind than live her normal life without it. What is done in this episode is tantamount to ignoring a DNR/DNI order and it makes my skin crawl. There is no justification for it.

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MDavison 1 year, 10 months ago

It would seem to me that Donna's story could stand to have another chapter or two added. I'm sure Catherine Tate would be game to return to the show, and frankly, I think there is a lot of mileage that one could have if somehow Donna were able to regain an understanding of what happened to her... and then have to weigh what she said she wanted then against the woman she eventually becomes.

Would she be mad at the Doctor for violating her wishes at the time? Probably! However, she would also have the experience of having lived on, with a husband who loves her, perhaps kids, maybe in a job she finds satisfying - so then she has to wonder if maybe she had made the wrong choice, and perhaps ends up thanking the Doctor for having chosen to save her, even though she did not want it at the time.

Donna had no way of knowing what woman she would become if allowed to live. The Doctor and his Tardis were the end all-be all of her existence, and she could not imagine life without that.

The reason I discount what Donna said at the time, is that she did not have all the facts, and could not make an informed decision. The Doctor knew who Donna truly was, and knew that she could have a long and happy life, if given the chance.

So, mark what he did down as a sin, if you must, but out of that sin, Donna got to live for years afterwards, and create new experiences. She also became a different Donna, because we are all shaped by our experiences.

I guess I just keep coming back to the "While there's life, there's hope" sentiment that encapsulates so much of what the Doctor and this show is about.

Death is sometimes the right option for an individual - but I can't see it being right in this case. Donna went on to lead a better life than she had prior to the Doctor, or so we are led to believe.

Well, thanks for letting me yammer on. I don't think your insights are necessarily wrong. Your piece was very well-written and thought-provoking.

I just really loved the Donna series and particularly "Journey's End". I suppose you didn't see it as uplifting a story as I did, and that is certainly your right. I'm thankful for the opportunity to share why I love it so though.

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Phil Sandifer 1 year, 10 months ago

I think the key flaw in your perspective is the idea that death is an option. It's not. Death is an absolute and ontological certainty. Life is the option. And while its presence may indicate hope, Ohilia is not exactly wrong about hope on the scaffol.

Put another way, a key part of Jill's perspective is the brutal reality of seeing people kept alive in a purely autonomic sense out of some idea that "where there's life there's hope," which in practice tends to mean medicalized torture for the sake of someone - often not the patient - who can't let go. And, of course, the instances where that someone doesn't end up having to let go anyway are zero because, as mentioned, death isn't an option.

God will bury you. Nature will bury you.

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MDavison 1 year, 10 months ago

A fair point, and thank you for allowing me to go on so. I didn't mean to go on and on about it, but I do appreciate the opportunity to share my views on the matter.

It is all rather strange, because I am a huge believer in right-to-die initiatives and the issue of consent. I just never saw "Journey's End" in this way.

Maybe I am just too much of an apologist for the good Doctor, as I always try and see him as a hero, so I didn't interpret his actions with Donna in such stark terms as being a right-to-die issue. I don't think that was necessarily the intent behind the scene either, but I didn't write it so I can't say that for certain.

As I mentioned upthread - when you actually look at the transcript of the episode, at no time does Donna request that she be allowed to die. She spells out two things that she does want, however. She wants to keep her memories and keep travelling with the Doctor 'forever', and she doesn't want to go back to who she was before she met the Doctor.

Well, letting Donna keep her memories will kill her, and so she won't be able to travel with the Doctor if she is dead. She won't be able to travel with the Doctor if she lives either, so that option is pretty much off the table.

Okay, so Donna is very insistent that she doesn't wish to lose her memories, and that she doesn't want to go back to who she was before the Doctor. So, faced with this choice, and it is the Doctor's choice, because he is the one with the power to make a choice. He chooses none of the above. Such a Doctor-ish way to go!

Donna loses her memories, but the Doctor refuses to let her go back to who she was. He tells her mother to be better, and give Donna the confidence she needs so that she can once again become the amazing person she is inside. Wilf hears this too, and while he was never negative as her mother, it nonetheless helps Donna to have the two people closest to her on her side. They know who Donna can be, and they help shape her to be that woman again.

Donna does not return to who she was. She becomes a different Donna. A better Donna. The Doctor has kept his promise to her. Okay, so the memories are still gone (and hey, Zoe and Jamie lost their memories and seem okay), so maybe that isn't all that big a deal after all. In any event, while there's life, there's hope - she could get them back one day if the Doctor can find a loophole.

If anyone can, he can!

Thanks for suffering through this with me! Love the site, and the article is really great, truly. It got me engaged and that's a good thing!

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billytea 1 year, 10 months ago

For me, the part that displays - I wouldn't say lack of mental clarity, I think she understood in a cognitive sense - but that she hasn't come to terms with her choices, is her "I want to stay". That isn't an option. She can go by losing her memories of travelling with the Doctor, or go by dying, but she can't stay. She isn't making an informed choice to die instead of losing her memories; she's still at "There has to be another way". At no time does she say anything like "I'd rather die".

Not that I think this absolves the Doctor. As you point out, he could very easily have raised it earlier, and Donna would have had more than enough time to come to terms with her options and choose one, rather than reject both. (And by extension, nor does it absolve Davies, for the same reason.) Either the Doctor ignored her choice or he denied her the opportunity to choose at all.

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UrsulaL 1 year, 10 months ago

She wants there to be another way.

So does everyone facing a life-or-death decision where "life" doesn't mean a return to an ideal life.

But even when there are no good choices, it's still important to determine who is the right person to make a choice, and to do your best to help them be informed for that choice.

Donna's choice was clear. Her first choice was to remain as she was and travel with the Doctor. But she also clearly knew that wasn't an option. And knowing that it would kill her, her second choice was still to live with, and even die from, the consequences of traveling with the Doctor, rather than loose all of what happened to her and go back to how she was before.

And Donna was, by far, the companion who went into travel with the Doctor best informed. She had an adventure with the Doctor, saw the risks, and backed off. And then, knowing the risks, she rethought things, decided the risks were worthwhile, and sought out the Doctor for more adventures.

An advance directive, if you will. She knew the risks, and accepted them. The Doctor was not just rejecting her choice in the moment, he was rejecting her entire choice to to travel with him.

As Clara later pointed out, she was an adult who accepted the risks, and the Doctor did not have a "duty of care" to her as she had to an underage student. She didn't ask for safety, she asked for adventure, knowing the risks. And so did Donna.

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TardisTales 1 year, 9 months ago

That's awful!

Good God, think about what you are saying. She was distressed, sure, but she wasn't crazy! he had no right to take those memories from her! They were hers! He didn't heal her, he robbed her! I get why he did it, but it was WRONG!

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Francis 1 year, 10 months ago

There's one thing missing from this discussion. The time and manner of Ten's death. It was suicide in a death trap that a smart six year old with a rock could have avoided. He did not actually want to survive that - especially not with Wilf in front of him. Which speaks to a pretty deep guilt.

I believe he knew after the fact exactly what he had done.Hence the depression and suicide.

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Justin Cawthorne 1 year, 10 months ago

I'm with you 95% of the way on this, but unless we've been explicitly told otherwise I also have to consider the (admittedly unlikely) possibility that this is all part of a grand, pre-planned character arc for Doctor 10 and that Davies has deliberately and consciously presented these departures as part of the that arc.
There's also the dramatic desire to do something different each time. The only way Rose would ever leave the Doctor was if she had no choice, so she was given no choice (i.e. removing her agency here is the only convincing way to get Rose to leave). Conversely, Martha has complete choice - and complete agency. With Donna the Doctor is given the choice between (her) life or death - and I completely agree here that it wasn't his choice to make, but we've just had Martha making her own choices. With Wilf, it's now the Doctor who has to make the sacrifice. Each departure is a mirror of the previous one.
Dramatically speaking, there's an elegance to this structure. That said, I'm sure the Donna departure could have been handled better. However, one of the beauties particularly of modern Who is that we get to revisit and re-evaluate the past, so without Donna's terrible treatment, would we have gotten the near-perfection of Clara's eventual departure?

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Justin Cawthorne 1 year, 10 months ago

And, oh my God, please ditch the CAPTCHA! I had to try five times with that comment and at one point it nearly got wiped as thoroughly as Donna's mind ...

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Ciaran M 1 year, 10 months ago

i think all this is mighty unfair on RTD, who seems to have been positioned here as somebody who was unaware that his Doctor was a self-righteous dickbag. And despite the text maybe positioning you to empathise with Ten wiping Donna's brain, it also provides you with everything you need to condemn and hate him for it.

Like, the Time Lord Victorious was the same arrogant Doctor who wiped Donna's brain, just framed in more dramatic terms. Torchwood was born out of the Doctor being arrogant and callous. The depostion of Harriet Jones lead to Saxon. Even Nine's desire for self-martyrdom almost destroyed the Earth. All this is oresent and correct in the narrative.

A difference between RTD and Moffat, I think, is that RTD embraces the beautiful and horrible contradictions of peopl, whereas Moffat is very keen to condemn 'bad behaviour'.

Also, the whole 'don't let him see you age' thing is heaps fucked up.

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Ciaran M 1 year, 10 months ago

Sorry, I should clarify:

the flaws in RTD's Doctor stem from the premise Doctor Who, which is an immortal man who travels through time and space, doing what he thinks is right. Which is what we love about him, but is also the source of a lot of his awfulness.

Whereas when Moffat has the Doctor be awful, it is generally within the bounds of little morality plays. The behaviour that is condemned, such as Eleven's big rampage in A Good Man Goes to War, or Twelve's big rampage in Hell Bent, is specific to the story, not a necessary truth of the Doctor.

Of all things, this has gotten me thinking about James Bond, but another time, I think

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Justin Cawthorne 1 year, 10 months ago

I love this reading of RTD's tenure. I've often suspected that most people who dislike Moffat do so because he's spent a lot of time dissecting what it means to be the Doctor and some 'fans' don't like to see their institutions being questioned in this way. But, what if - as you suggest - RTD was doing that right from the start?!

(and I know this was very overt by the time we said goodbye to Ten, but I like the idea that RTD had an endgame in mind when he was busy presenting the 'doctor as Jesus' motif earlier in Ten's career)

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encyclops 1 year, 9 months ago

I'm glad I'm not the only one who sees it this way. I think Jill's right that Ten's choice is problematic, but I think she gives RTD too little credit for deliberately writing him as a flawed character.

Put another way: RTD wrote both the Doctor's and Donna's sides of that dialogue. If it's traumatic to watch her plead to make her own choices, I don't think that's an accident.

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UrsulaL 1 year, 10 months ago

When considering Donna's (or Clara's, or really any modern companion's) consent to the Doctor interfering in their life, it helps to look at the whole of the character, not just the moment.

So when considering the morality of the Doctor wiping Donna's memory, the question is not merely if she consented in the moment. There is also the question of, if she had time to think about it, would she consent?

Donna accepted the risks of travel with the Doctor. So did Clara. They never asked for safety, or for life at any cost. They did ask for adventure, to live a bigger, more interesting life.

What Donna could articulate in the moment is important, but even if you consider her incapacitated, anyone who knew her would know that she asked for adventure, not safety, and it would violate her spirit to take away her adventures for the sake of her safety.

But this is why you make advance directives - so that, in a medical crisis, people know what you want even if you can't articulate it. (If you don't have one, get to it! https://agingwithdignity.org/shop/product-details/five-wishes )

And it is also why the Doctor should be discussing risks with companions (even if off-screen.) Yes, he offers them wonderful adventures. And yes, there are many things he can do to keep them safe. But what do they want? Do they understand the risks?

Clara was clear on several occasions that she wasn't asking for the Doctor to keep her safe, which probably made it easier for him to accept her demand that he respect her choice in the end - he knew already what she wanted. With other companions, the Doctor seemed to avoid talking about risks with them.

(And is there anything that can be done about the indent on replies? Some comments are being squished into near-unreadable single word columns.)

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billytea 1 year, 10 months ago

I think that concerning the Doctor's morality, it's even simpler than that. If Donna had had time to think about it, perhaps she would've chosen to die with her memories intact, or perhaps she'd have chosen to have them wiped and return to her old life. (Perhaps with additional stipulations as to what the Doctor should and shouldn't do.)

But the reason she didn't get the chance to do so is because the Doctor decided not to open the discussion until it was too late. Whether she actually was weighing a memory wipe against death or just noping to both of them, the Doctor denied her agency either way. I think one doesn't need to second-guess what she would choose with a little time and space (so to speak) to acknowledge that it's the ownership of that choice that matters.

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UrsulaL 1 year, 10 months ago

My point is not so much about second-guessing what she might choose, but rather respecting what she had already chosen. A life of adventure over a life of safety, knowing and accepting that it involved risks to her life.

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David Anderson 1 year, 10 months ago

I get the single column reply thing on an Android phone, but not on my laptop browser (firefox), for what it's worth.

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Lambda 1 year, 10 months ago

Pre-arranging things may be a good idea in general, but it's a little difficult to apply it to this specific example. "Death or memory erasure" is of course far too weird to be specifically predicted beforehand, and "adventure vs. life" is different to "adventure vs. safety", certainty of death is worse than danger of death.

What complicates this further is that we don't even know how much danger of death a companion is accepting, because it depends on how self-aware the narrative is being at the time and in what ways. Do they know monsters or something are bound to turn up regularly because it's a TV show? Do they know that they can do dangerous things with astonishing probabilities of success because it's a TV show?

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sengoku nadeko 1 year, 9 months ago

Donna's story isn't directly applicable as a framework for discussing treatment of medical conditions - there isn't anything in the material realm that would have the equivalent mechanisms of the mind-wipe scenario.
It could still look a lot like it's promoting actual unethical interventions.

Arguments for preserving history don't seem to hold up. Whichever choice is taken she's not going to have an opinion on her personal narrative, since from her point of view it doesn't exist.
Her acquaintances have their own versions of her personal narrative, which they are ethically entitled to have ultimate control over, since they exist in the respective acquaintance's head. Some of these acquaintances may want to act in ways that align with what they think she would have wanted or what she used to want.
She is going to have an opinion before she has died. It appears she wasn't even allowed to express it in complete as described a few posts above - as a scheme to avoid her physically stopping him in some way perhaps, if he really had made up his mind on violating her agency in her last moments being ethically preferable to not preserving a full life.
You could be against violating agency in any situation, but that kind of moral absolutism wouldn't lead far.

Aesthetically Donna's exit was the most satisfying conclusion to a companion's arc - perverted, as Zizek would say. I found the iconography of Clara's exit incoherent - a ghost in a flying diner?

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Richard Pugree 1 year, 9 months ago

Beautiful piece, thank you!

I disagree about this reading of Cucumber though:

"What is most striking about Lance’s death in Cucumber is the unexpected and unwarranted brutality of the scene from a nominally supporting character. The clear message is “you never know what is going to happen.”"

For me it's not at all that it's unexpected (although perhaps it is unexpectedly brutal). It's rather that it's been crushingly inevitable from pretty much the first moment that Daniel is introduced. It's in having seen Lance get himself in this situation over the course of five episodes and willing him not to at every step because this brutal moment is the only place it can go, and yet understanding and believing each decision he makes along the way.
Experienced this way, the message I got was far less "you never know what's going to happen" but a far more bitter and cynical engagement with gay narrative - namely that you do, even with the recent social and legal progress in the UK, still know what's going to happen.

It's heartbreaking both ways, but rather differently so.

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Amiee 1 year, 9 months ago

Any discussion of consent as it concerns the Doctor should take into account that the Doctor constantly makes decisions that affects the lives of those he encounters. This 'help' is frequently done without the consent of the individuals he is 'helping'. I rather think the show would become rather static and unwatchable if the Doctor didn't have this character trait.

I'd be curious whether or not you think the Doctor violated Ashildr by bestowing eternal life on her without her consent. If nothing else, I would say that this action is much more worthy of contempt than what the 10th Doctor did hundreds of years earlier in his life.

Giving an individual the opportunity to live a full life I can respect. Forcing someone to live forever is pure evil.

So add that to the list of serious character flaws in the current Doctor, along with shooting the Time Lord on Gallifrey.

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Richard Pugree 1 year, 9 months ago

It's very significant though, for this discussion, that his bestowing that eternal life upon her is a direct result of his remembering the 'just save someone' plea from Donna, and how his speech in The Girl Died references the Timelord Victorious speech.

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Richard Pugree 1 year, 9 months ago

It's very significant though, for this discussion, that his bestowing that eternal life upon her is a direct result of his remembering the 'just save someone' plea from Donna, and how his speech in The Girl Who Died references the Timelord Victorious speech.

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Lambda 1 year, 9 months ago

I would say that, since "is it better to die or live forever" is not a question with an obvious right answer, it's a matter of opinion, and since it wasn't possible to find out her opinion in this case, either choice would have been defensible.

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UrsulaL 1 year, 9 months ago

Another interesting point about the Doctor's decision to mind-wipe Donna is that he just had his first/last adventure with River. And it ended with River choosing to die rather than loose her adventures with the Doctor.

So the Doctor cannot be said to be ignorant of how much the people he travels can value their experiences in time and space.

It's also worth noting that River had to physically restrain the Doctor in order to have her choice. She knew she could not rely on this version of the Doctor respecting her desire to keep her adventures.

Probably because she knew that in just a little while, he'd be wiping Donna's memory, taking away her adventures, when Donna clearly valued those memories and adventures immensely.

It's also telling that Donna knew about River's choice. And respected it. Dying rather than loosing adventures with the Doctor is a concept that Donna is aware of, and had to have thought about in the aftermath of the library. Would she choose as River did, to keep her past?

***

And, from a Doyalistic perspective, it's a Moffat/RTD conversation on the Doctor respecting the choices of the women he travels with, and the women in his life asserting their autonomy. Moffat's River had to physically restrain RTD's Doctor in order to keep her adventures.

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