The Impossible Dream of a Thousand Alchemists (The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances)

(119 comments)

Ouch.
It’s May 21st, 2005. Akon remains at number one for the week, though the next week Oasis takes it with “Lyla.” The Black Eyed Peas, The Gorillaz, Jennifer Lopez, and Kelly Osbourne also chart, the latter with the surprisingly non-awful “One Word.” Since the last story George Galloway, recently elected as an MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, testified in front of the US Senate over the Oil-for-Food program. On the 21st itself Arsenal celebrates the Glazer takeover of Manchester United by beating them on penalties in the FA Cup final, the first time that cup was determined by penalties.

Penalties, of course, mean that the final ran long, which nearly led to it crashing into Doctor Who, which had been moved forward half an hour to accommodate Eurovision (it was Greece with “My Number One”), and the result led to The Empty Child getting pummelled in the ratings. Actually, the entire tail end of the first season slumped in the ratings, without even a bump for the season finale. But The Empty Child, though not the series low, bore the brunt of it, becoming the only Doctor Who episode of the first three seasons to fall out of the top twenty.

These days, of course, we know it as a classic and the high point of the first series. Everyone knows that. Even still, there’s something odd about its popularity. The watershed moment for it was probably its winning of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award, although its triumph in the Doctor Who Magazine season poll has to be taken as meaningful. But we should highlight how strange it is that the episodes won the Hugo given that they hadn’t even been screened in the US, which dominates the Hugos (which are presented at Worldcon, an international con that is nevertheless typically held in America). And there’s something indicatively weird about the nominations, where Doctor Who got three nominations, none of them for Russell T Davies’s episodes (which admittedly also, save for the finale, lined the bottom of the Doctor Who Magazine poll).

And, of course, we have the irksome problem of Moffat lurking. Because let’s be honest, this is Doctor Who by the current showrunner, and there’s no way that the gravity of “let’s analyze the series as it is now” can be avoided entirely, especially four days after a season finale. But what’s interesting is less comparing this to Moffat’s future time on the series and more to his past. Because this is in no way the pair of episodes that anyone expected Moffat to turn in. He may be known as the master of horror in Doctor Who, but that’s not at all what his past career pointed to. He was a sitcom writer who’d had a successful children’s show way back (and Press Gang played into him getting Doctor Who as much as Century Falls did for Davies).

More to the point, the reason Davies hired him for these two episodes wasn’t to do creepy horror. It was because Davies, based on his work on Coupling, thought he’d be perfect to introduce Captain Jack. In other words, Moffat got hired because he writes good sex comedies. And that influence shows heavily in this story. The fact that he’s very good at creepiness is in many ways a bonus on this story - it’s not what he was asked for. And while he is very good at it, he also in many ways got terribly lucky here, hitting both “creepy children” and “zombies” right before both trends in horror hit over-saturation. (Compare how much better “are you my mummy” works than the nursery rhyme at the end of Night Terrors).

The other thing to note about the horror within The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances is that it extends out of the medial concerns of the episode. “Are you my mummy” is a snatch of sound that worms its way out of physical objects - phones and speakers and typewriters. (This is a phenomenally common trope for Moffat. It’s not, as people usually suggest, a fascination with repeated phrases, but rather with glitchy technology.) In one sense this picks up on a discarded concern of Rose, or, more accurately, of Rose’s invocation of Spearhead From Space, namely the transformation of mundane objects into sources of fear. But there’s a larger issue going on with it - a willingness to craft horror out of the materiality of Doctor Who. The refrain of “are you my mummy” emerges, in theory, from “anything with a speaker grille” (plus a typewriter because Moffat had to write a scene very quickly when the episode was underrunning), which is to say, from anything with the characteristics of a television. “Are you my mummy” is medial - something that comes out of the episode itself.

This ties to another major concern of these episodes - something that does distinguish them from anything that’s come before. More than any other episode of Doctor Who to date, this is one that luxuriates in its structure. There’s a willingness to just spend time enjoying the basic format of Doctor Who throughout this story. This isn’t just true in Moffat’s obvious love of lampshading tropes and slipping in off-handed references to absurdities like the Doctor secretly being Father Christmas, but in a larger sense of the story being willing to spend time enjoying its premises.

In this regard it’s one of the best arguments for the utility of two-parters. Curiously it’s not because of the space for worldbuilding - we’ll eventually get to a two-parter that focuses on worldbuilding, but that’s not The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. This story doesn’t worry about worldbuilding, instead relying on an extremely familiar milieu - World War II. Instead this story needs two episodes so that it can enjoy the space to linger in its dramatic beats. Whether it be the scene where Nancy talks her way out of getting caught by Mr. Lloyd, or the extended sections of fear and dread as the Doctor, Rose, and Jack are chased around the hospital by gas mask people, this is a story that revels in having the time and space to enjoy being Doctor Who. And it does. More than anything else this season, this is a story that just drips with its own love of being Doctor Who. Down to the tiniest details, like Richard Wilson’s delightfully macabre delivery of “don’t touch the flesh,” this is a story that is just giddily thrilled to be a Doctor Who story.

This is reflected in part in the fact that this has by far the most complex plot of anything we’ve seen this season. Let’s briefly attempt to summarize the plots of every story, shall we? Aliens invade Earth by controlling plastic, and the Doctor stops them with anti-plastic; someone tries to destroy a space station to make a profit, and the Doctor catches them; evil gas aliens possess corpses, and the Doctor blows them up; aliens take over Britain to run an elaborate con, and the Doctor blows them up; the Doctor discovers a Dalek in an underground bunker, but it blows itself up,; the Doctor overthrows an evil news station; Rose tries to change history to save her father, and her father sacrifices himself to fix the problem. All pretty easy and, dare I say it, movie poster.

But what do we have with The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances? People grow gas mask faces and look for their mothers because an alien spaceship has released little robots that heal people but have misunderstood humanity, and the Doctor saves the day by getting a teen mother to admit that she is patient zero’s mother. It is, as plots go, considerably more complex than anything we’ve yet seen. One of the things The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances luxuriates in, in fact, is its own exposition. It’s a strange thing for Moffat to be good at, but the fact of the matter is, and I suspect even his fiercest critics would have to give him this, he writes the best exposition scenes in the world.

Much of this comes from his sitcom training. Moffat is very good at making exposition scenes where the exposition is just the subject matter of a series of jokes or character moments. Look at the final explanation in The Doctor Dances, where the Doctor explains the plot to us. It starts with the Doctor asking Rose to explain obvious details of the plot, namely that a Chula warship would include nanogenes. Then we get Jack realizing the what’s going on and reacting in horror, then leaving space for the Doctor to fill in an explanation. In every case the audience is carefully prodded to realize what’s happening almost in sync with the characters, so that the explanations are confirmations of what the audience already suspects. From there we go to Nancy obviously understanding more about Jamie than the Doctor does, and the Doctor being a bit dense, so that, again, we start to realize what Nancy knows that the Doctor doesn’t. So again, when we get the explanation that Nancy is Jamie’s mother, it’s something we’ve already started to suspect.

It’s terribly, terribly well done, and is something that Moffat has remained excellent at throughout his career. It’s very much a writerly trick, and I suspect it is largely writers of various stripes who look at scenes like that and are really in awe of them. Because they’re very, very hard to structure. Moffat has always been a bit of a show-off of a TV writer, whether with the nonlinear structure of Joking Apart, the tightly formatted Press Gang episodes like “Monday-Tuesday” and “The Last Word,” or the eccentric Coupling episodes like “Split” and “Nine and a Half Minutes.” He’s always liked baroque structures of storytelling, and he’s always been good at them, taking advantage of them to carefully manage the order in which the audience learns information. But The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances is different. It’s not that Moffat has never done “straight” storytelling - it was still the bread and butter of his writing. But he’d never done anything quite so utterly complex and convoluted in its structure that wasn’t based around farce. And in its own way it’s just as show-offy.

Look, for instance, at that opening sequence of Rose on the barrage balloon - a sequence that exists in part because Moffat was pulled aside and reminded that he has a budget now, since he’d only ever worked on sitcoms. And so, laughing the whole way, he decided to test the limits of that. And so what we get is a sequence that exists just out of the pure joy that it can - that Doctor Who can have such an outrageous set piece, and that it can do it for no reason other than the traditional separating the Doctor and Rose and getting Rose to meet up with an important supporting character. It’s indulgent, just like the “sonic screwdriver mends barbed wire” sequence, just like the complex plot. But it’s joyfully so.

But this would be an empty masturbation of an episode if all it had was the successful introduction of exceedingly complex plots to Doctor Who. It’s the fact that this sort of luxuriating in the fact that it can be Doctor Who and have a plot this mad is used for so many other purposes. The first and most obvious of these is what Moffat got the commission for - the introduction of Captain Jack. I don’t want to peek too far ahead, but since this is the only time Moffat writes Captain Jack, I may as well suggest that the nagging problem with the entire remainder of Captain Jack’s story is that Russell T Davies was dead right that Moffat was the best person to write Jack, and, more to the point, that Davies never manages to write him with quite the excessive roguish charm that Moffat brings to it.

In essence Captain Jack, at this stage of the operation, is a square-jawed American action hero who is played to be the campest thing ever. It’s worth reflecting on the fact that it is Moffat, not Davies, who is responsible for introducing a raftload of queer content to Doctor Who. You can scour the first eight episodes to your heart’s content, but save for the off-handed “she’s gay and he’s an alien” joke in Rose there’s nothing. Then Moffat sweeps in suddenly the whole show is as queer as folk. And it’s not just Jack, who was, after all, created by Davies originally. The queerness is reflected throughout the story - in Mr. Lloyd’s secret, in Algy, and, of course, in the Doctor’s bit about how the future of humanity involves going out into the stars, meeting all sorts of new species, and… dancing.

Because this is the underlying metaphor of the story. Underneath all the creepy horror, what we have is Moffat writing a story about sexual freedom. The worst thing in the world - the thing that will absolutely kill each and every one of us - is if we are sexually repressed and dishonest about our sexuality. It’s Nancy’s need to hide the shame of her sexual activity from everyone, Jamie included, that causes all of this. Sexual repression, including, crucially, self-repression as in Mr. Lloyd is shown to be cowardly and destructive. And the futuristic, utopian vision of humanity is as the great sluts of the universe.

And all of this is done with a sense of real, ecstatic joy. Which parallels it nicely with the sense of joy the episode takes in its own structure and Doctor Whoness. This is not an entirely incidental metaphor either. We’ve skirted several times past the intersections of gay culture and Doctor Who fandom in the UK, and why that was the case. We’ll do it again too, but for now let’s just take it as basically axiomatic that “being a Doctor Who fan” and “being gay” are culturally related experiences. And by writing a story about the joyousness of sexual freedom that is simultaneously a giddy love letter to being Doctor Who, Moffat closes the circle.

But there’s more to the story than that. It’s not just a hymn to sexual freedom in which it’s treated as a metaphor for geekiness. It’s also a story that is unabashedly and unhesitatingly patriotic. This is almost necessary given the World War II setting. It’s interesting, in many ways, that the series has so rarely done World War II - it took until 1989 for it to ever do a story set in the World War II era. And yet The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances waltzes in like this is as normal a setting for Doctor Who as Victorian England or the present day. Part of that is that the story creates a viable aesthetic very quickly. The tension of the Battle of Britain, at night, with the gas mask children is a very sharp, compelling visual aesthetic.

But it leaves Moffat in the odd position of doing the definitive version of World War II Doctor Who. And unsurprisingly, he turns on the patriotism, because, well, that’s the national mythology here. The bit about a damp little island saying no is particularly straightforward. But let’s look deeper at that patriotism. Because there are other bits that stand out - the Doctor’s praise of the welfare state, for instance (and as Moffat delights in pointing out on the DVD commentary, watch Richard Wilson’s facial expression at that line as he, in Moffat’s words, takes credit for it), or the episode’s best line, describing Nancy and her gang as between Marxism in action and a West End musical. This is an episode deeply concerned with social justice and with the material.

So to sum up, what we have is a story about sexual freedom and its links to other kinds of joy and pleasure. One in which that - our pleasure and our joy - is treated as the thing that humanity can aspire towards. Towards dancing - a beautiful metaphor for sex that stresses the exuberant joy of it. And one in which the reasons to love Britain are pop music and the welfare state. It’s one of the most unabashedly and beautifully utopian moments in Doctor Who, joined with the heartbreakingly beautiful “everybody lives” moment. For my money, incidentally, the single best moment of Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor is the choked begging, “give me a day like this. Give me this one,” and how it couples with his ecstatic, triumphant joy as “just this once, everybody lives.” It’s one of a handful of moments in Doctor Who that I reliably choke up at. Death is stopped and reversed because we accept ourselves and our desires and just decide to dance.

And, of course, it’s done in a deliciously creepy episode that worms its way into your head. When last we talked about Doctor Who and childhood we noted that the one period it’s really easy to connect them is the Hinchcliffe era. And no surprise, because it’s the era where Doctor Who was reliably good at horror - when it did stories that stuck in your head. Moffat was thirteen for The Ark in Space, and its impact on him is well documented (he wrote the intro for the reissue of the novelization, in fact). And I can relate to that vividly - I adored The Ark in Space (my third Doctor Who story ever), but found it sufficiently disturbing that I never actually rewatched it until adulthood. Because it was just too disturbing. And was, accordingly, the most remembered bit of Doctor Who I ever watched. Because as I’ve said, the best children’s media is the stuff that sits at the edge of what they can handle - that leaves a bit unresolved that the viewer picks at for years and decades later, trying to understand what it was they saw and were entranced by. The Hinchcliffe era was a masterpiece of this. And that is what Moffat brought to the table that nobody, based on his prior work, would have expected: the ability to make Doctor Who that will lodge in the minds of children for decades after. The ability to use horror well.

Maybe it wasn’t watched by as many people as other things this season. It didn’t have to be. This is the story in Series One that is made to be remembered. To lurk in the memories of people who, twenty, thirty, even forty years from now, will make the art of the future. A generation of kids remembering vividly their joyous terror of a story that tells them that love and sex and joy are good, that death can be fought against meaningfully, and that we are sustained by our relationships and kindnesses towards each other.

And this is branded, inexorably, in the psychochronography of a generation - one of the most lasting marks the series has ever or will ever make. And for my money, the single most beautiful. A sublimely well-done story that could only be Doctor Who, with one of the most pristinely beautiful moral centers of any Doctor Who story. It is perhaps not the best Doctor Who story ever. But it is, I think, the best work of alchemy the series has ever produced, and if it never soars to these heights again, that’s fine. That it even approaches these heights is enough to justify it.

But it doesn’t just approach them. Not always.

Because some days are special. Some days are so, so blessed. Now and then, every once in a very long while, every day in a million days, when the wind stands fair, and the Doctor comes to call…

Everybody lives.

Comments

David Anderson 4 years, 2 months ago

Captain Jack's a great character. They should give him a spin-off series: a sort of cross between Firefly and Hustle.
(Hustle, for those who don't know it, is to Leverage as Leverage is to gritty crime drama.)

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dm 4 years, 2 months ago

I think another Hinchcliffe parallel is that, IIRC, this is the first time the new series was Mary Whitehoused- they were forced to remove a particular skull-cracking sound effect from the transformation scenes so as not to frighten the kiddos.

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Jack Graham 4 years, 2 months ago

What was it Dr Johnson said about patriotism?

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Spacewarp 4 years, 2 months ago

I don't know that the word should be "forced." More like "decided to". Doctor Who's production team appears to have a greater awareness of it's audience than 30 years ago, and the decisions to tone things down are generally taken by the team themselves, not some external governing body.

Reading "The Writer's Tale" about the making of "The Waters of Mars" you can plainly see that the decision to tone the Flood Zombies comes from RTD, not from his studio bosses.

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Spacewarp 4 years, 2 months ago

"Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel". However he probably meant that scoundrels take refuge in false patriotism, rather than "all patriots are automatically scoundrels."

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elvwood 4 years, 2 months ago

This is, on most days, my favourite Doctor Who story. I can't really explain why, but I'm closer to it after reading to this essay. So thanks for that.

One other thing I liked was the cheekiness of having the WW2 story being the one where nobody dies...

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Jack Graham 4 years, 2 months ago

It was a rhetorical question actually. But thanks anyway.

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Ross 4 years, 2 months ago

and the result led to The Empty Child getting pummelled in the ratings. Actually, the entire tail end of the first season slumped in the ratings, without even a bump for the season finale.

Which, in turn, led to this guy on rec.arts.drwho posting the first of 94* posts wherein he crowed about how the ratings clearly showed that the public had finally wised up and rejected this garbage, and how could there be any doubt now that cancellation would be announced any day now. Though he started setting the X-no-archive header on his posts so that no one could call him on it later.

(* Well I'll be hornswaggled. Nightmare in Silver was the 100th episode of the new series.)

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Prole Hole 4 years, 2 months ago

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Prole Hole 4 years, 2 months ago

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Scott 4 years, 2 months ago

True dat.

(Instead, they went with "Angel" meets "This Life". Oh, "Torchwood", what you could have been...)

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Froborr 4 years, 2 months ago

Alternate caption for that picture: "I speak Qbertese. Uh... '@*!&^!'"

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5tephe 4 years, 2 months ago

Yes. Just, Yes.

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Lewis Christian 4 years, 2 months ago

My only issue with this story is the second part's title.

I get why it is what it is, and it does work. But it just sounds so lame.

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Anton B 4 years, 2 months ago

For many years my birth mother and I maintained the pretence that she was my older sister. So for personal reasons, whose messy attempted resolution neatly co-incided with the ressurection of Doctor Who, I have a similar relationship with this story as some of you had with 'Fathers' Day'. It affected me on a fundamental level on first viewing and is one I find difficult to revisit. Which is unfortunate because as Dr. S suggests it is a stone cold classic. The gas-mask child is a potent image on a number of levels. In Britain we are used to seeing wartime photos of children, some wearing gas-masks, playing in the bomb-site rubble. The London of my childhood (and of early Doctor Who) still contained such landscapes until redevelopment turned them into problematic urban housing tower blocks or financial sector City skyscrapers. These two episodes then, take place in a half remembered playground containing shared cultural signifiers of immense potency. The dance hall containing American servicemen is the first location we are shown. This first jitterbugging alien intrusion into the social landscape of Old England will give us Rock n Roll with its concurrent loosening of sexual mores, spawning the Beatles, The Stones and eventually the Sex Pistols whose 'No Future' use of the ripped up safety pinned Union Flag would find a later, more cheeky, echo in Ginger Spice's iconic Union Flag mini-dress which is echoed here by Rose's Union Flag T-shirt which ends up being ironically flown via barrage ballooon over Blitz ravaged London until she is rescued (for the second time) by a time travelling alien . Captain Jack, as well as being the 'square-jawed American action hero who is played to be the campest thing ever' that Phil describes is also set up as the alternate Doctor. The one the Americans would have if Doctor Who was Star Trek. It's even lampshaded in the dialogue when Rose teases the Doctor about Jack's better equipment (nudge nudge) being more 'Spock'. The alien threat also turns out to be another 'Doctor' while the real doctor in his hospital and his patients become monstered.
Moffat is having great fun here playing with all these tropes but the reason it works so well is that none of the references and multiple echoes and reflections are allowed to get in the way of the simple plot, (which in itself is its own post- War soap trope) an unexploded bomb causes disruption and uncovers secrets in a closed community. It's a base under siege where the base is England's Dreaming. And the threat is 'No Future'.

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Prole Hole 4 years, 2 months ago

True, though it was restored for the DVD - it's chillingly effective and a great shame it's absent from the broadcast version.

(sorry about the deleted posts below, having posting issues today)

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Jesse 4 years, 2 months ago

Another connection to the Hinchcliffe era: This story continues the Hinchcliffe tradition of stealing from the best. In this case, from Philip K. Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

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Christopher Haynes 4 years, 2 months ago

"This is a phenomenally common trope for Moffat. It’s not, as people usually suggest, a fascination with repeated phrases, but rather with glitchy technology."

Does that explanation extend to the Ice Governess?

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Simon Cooper 4 years, 2 months ago

Of course all these years later "Everybody Lives!" has been totally devalued by Moffat Who's near-total absense of permanent death.

I sat there on Saturday counting the seconds until Jenny poped back to life and had even less time to wait than I was expecting.

Still I'm sure someone will be along in a minute to point out how wonderful it is that there's no real danger or threat in the series anymore and nothing bad that can't be undone with a wave of the Timey-Wimey wand.

I laugh when people call the current series a Dark Fairytale since it pretty much lacks one of the defining characteristics of (unbowdlerised) real fairytales.

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Assad K 4 years, 2 months ago

Hello from the AVClub, Prole .. have I seen you posting here before...?

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Darren K. 4 years, 2 months ago

I love that title - it's just so ... not Doctor Who. I found it far more evocative and exciting than the traditional 'The X of Y'. It was new and exciting and ludicrous. But my reaction is very much tied to the anticipation of 2004/early 2005, as we waited and speculated and dreamed a whole magical series waiting to appear.

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Assad K 4 years, 2 months ago

There is still plenty of death, but Moffatt doesn't seem to revel in large scale massacres of the sort we saw in Davies' era. I was actually a little surprised at the slight nastiness of the workmen getting killed and the governess' death being pretty much unmourned in 'The Snowmen'. I may comment more on it later, but I recall Davies once saying that Doctor Who is about Death (not just about death, before anyone calls me out, but as a very major part of it). And a lot of his scripts reflected that, to say nothing of 'Damaged Goods'...

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Froborr 4 years, 2 months ago

Personally, I can't wait for the episode "The X of Y." It's up there with "Spoiler-Title of the Daleks" on the list of titles I want to see the new series use.

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Froborr 4 years, 2 months ago

The other thing is that the Moffat era has had some very nasty, permanent, but technically nonlethal things happen to people--the old woman from "Bells of St John" who gets regressed to childhood comes immediately to mind.

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David Ainsworth 4 years, 2 months ago

Another interesting aspect to this story is the way in which it places the Doctor squarely in the middle of a larger narrative about sexual liberation and the embrace of life within a setting of death and conflict. Not only does this allow Moffet to address the dynamics of the love between Rose and Nine in ways the series hadn't quite faced before, but it lets him set Jack up as a romantic rival (for both the others, ironically, which renders the traditional love triangle into either a square-like Jack's gunshot holes-or a threesome) and on a larger scale, makes an elegent point about the Doctor's relationship to life and death. Moffet's continued exploring that, but I think here he manages to capture something profound he loses sight of later: the Doctor stands apart from sex in ways he stands apart from death. His dancing is as much about dancing along the edge of death, which is where he needs to be to save the doomed. That fits his regenerative cycle (life-from-death) and accounts for the ways in which he's strangely diffident about both his own sexuality and about personally killing people, while being casually willing to indirectly push others towards death or life.

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David Ainsworth 4 years, 2 months ago

Isn't the main focus on the Doctor's death, and on Oswin's deaths? If someone writes a piece of variations on a theme in C major it seems odd to complain that there's not enough sharps being deployed.

Moffat likes killing characters; it's them staying dead that's the problem. But if he's exploring the boundaries, the borderlands between life and death, between places in time, between memory and event, then one would expect to see characters passing both ways with some frequency.

If anything, the real complaint is that we haven't seen enough crossing over from the Other Side, unless entities like the GI and the Silents represent that. They may well; that's yet to be made clear.

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Ross 4 years, 2 months ago

After 'The Snowmen', if they'd had Jenny be Really Truly Dead due to having her heart momentarily stopped, anyone who was paying attention should have called shennanigans. It'd be as bad as the episode of Star Trek Voyager where an unnamed ensign is standing too close to a console when the ship hits a bump, and is declared dead with only a cursory examination by THE EXACT SAME CHARACTER who in the PREVIOUS EPISODE cured a regular from THE EXACT SAME KIND OF DEATH with her Borg Medical Technology

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Ross 4 years, 2 months ago

I always loved that scene in "...ish" where the Doctor rattles off a list of sentient words he's faced before, and one of them is "The Adjective of Noun"

(And another is "The Simile known only As" Fantastic.)

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Seeing_I 4 years, 2 months ago

I adored "...ish"! Great use of the 6th Doctor, very clever stuff. Too bad that author, to my knowledge, never wrote another BF.

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Adam B 4 years, 2 months ago

So, I was hoping for an epic exploration of this, being the absolute pinnacle of Doctor Who imho, but as usual, you delivered perfectly, Phil. Maybe a longer treatment in the book though?

Anyway, my personal psychochronography of Who begins here. I caught 'The Doctor Dances' on repeat on PBS probably in 2007 or so, and even without catching the setup, was absolutely floored by everything happening on screen, especially the 'Everybody lives' scene. I still think it's the best thing I've ever seen on television, and I'd put it up against a lot of my favorite films as well. It took another year or so to finally start catching up via steaming on the Internet (the way I've viewed almost all Who, which I think is worthy of a separate discussion, perhaps on another post), but I was hooked here.

So my entire experience of the show, past and present, is filtered through these two episodes. That this story represents Doctor Who's alchemical peak (and again, I would argue its peak, full stop) explains why I so enjoy your work on this blog, Phil. When I think of what I want from Doctor Who, the answer is this. It also helps me understand why some are underwhelmed at times by Moffat's tenure as showrunner (and I'd put myself in that camp provisionally; I think Matt Smith is a phenomenal Doctor and there's been a lot to like and even love overall these past four years). It's because Doctor Who has become a consistently entertaining fairy tale (and I'm ok w that), but it's not quite alchemy the way this is, and the way at least one other Moffat story from the RTD era is.

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jane 4 years, 2 months ago

So I've been talking about how each story does that Buffy "thing" where the action and specifically the monsters stand as metaphors for the underlying psychology of the characters. Here, Moffat takes it a step further, and uncovers the repression of the show itself, and so many of its fans.

The resolution to this story is the revelation of Nancy, overcoming her sexual repression and admitting to the truth of her relationship with her child. And this, importantly, is a metaphor for Doctor Who itself. Oh, the outrage in 1996 that the Doctor actually kissed a woman! And enjoyed it! The flat insistence that he's asexual, the desperate attempts to paint his granddaughter as someone other than a familial relationship.

So here we have a story of repression, and how stripping away that repression is cathartic and healing. And in the end the Doctor dances, embracing the metaphor, a sign of what's to come.

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Adam B 4 years, 2 months ago

Also, it probably goes without saying after the above, but Eccleston is My Doctor now and forever because of this. I'm not one of the mindless haters of the few details we've received on the anniversary special; I actually think Moffat will deliver some real cracking surprises, and that the Tennant/Smith/Hurt 'trinity' will reveal new aspects of the Doc and have a blast doing so. However, the fact that Chris (likely) isn't appearing will always be a lingering disappointment, no matter how good the story itself is. (Unless he does of course appear, at which point I will explode w pure joy.)

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Adam B 4 years, 2 months ago

Well said, Jane. The asexual crowd of anoraks will never make sense to me.

And I don't mean to infer that asexuality isn't a legitimate way for some to live, but this insistence on projecting it onto a show like Who is just baffling to me.

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Lewis Christian 4 years, 2 months ago

I just have a thing against "the Doctor" in titles. We know he's going to be in the damn thing, so go for something else.

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Daibhid C 4 years, 2 months ago

Come to think of it, I'm not sure RTD would have killed Jenny either. Vast massacres of extras, sure, tragic deaths of Significant Characters In This Episode, certainly, but semi-regulars? They tended to be traumatised by the Doctor's presence in their lives but never actually killed.

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storiteller 4 years, 2 months ago

This was the episode that led me to fall in love with Doctor Who. I had it recommended to me by so many people and just didn't get around to watching it for the first few years it was aired in the U.S. I even lived in the UK while it was being aired and didn't watch it. So my entire experience was turning on Netflix and trying to decide if it was worth the investment to watch the whole series. I wasn't impressed by the first episode (I remember thinking "Killer mannequins, really?"), Dalek was good but had much less of an impression than if I was a Classic Who fan, and the others were good, but not great. Plus, the ninth Doctor seemed like a bit of a jerk. But these episodes? These were great. They made me realize what Doctor Who could do, both in terms of plot and character.

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 2 months ago

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 2 months ago

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 2 months ago

That line definitely didn't crack me up at the end. Nope. I'm not crying at my desk...

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tantalus1970 4 years, 2 months ago

He was also talking about the Army, which in those days was where all the scoundrels ended up when they had nowhere else to go. It was their equivalent of the French Foreign Legion.

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Anton B 4 years, 2 months ago

I love the way it took you three goes to say it too.

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jane 4 years, 2 months ago

I love it when critics completely devalue their own arguments with gibberish hyperbole like "the near-total absense of permanent deaths." What could be a measured argument against the exploration of resurrection ends up being sidelined by cynical absurdity.

Moffat's Who has plenty of permanent death. Reinette dies at the end. Billy Shipton and Kathy Nightingale die. River's entire expedition to the Library dies. The doctor and nurses at Leadworth's hospital, they all die. The Anglican Marines -- dead. Van Gogh is not saved, and is still tormented. White House aide Joy is blown to smithereens. Lorna Bucket kicks the bucket. Zimmerman gets "rectified." Gantok's devoured by living skulls. The crew of the Alaska, wiped out. Amy and Rory, dead of old age, confined to New York. The workers in the Snowmen. The countless souls downloaded from the Cloud, with no body to return to. The Doctor's future entombment, a ghost River who's really a ghost, a dead TARDIS as a coffin.

That's not counting all the permanent deaths in the stories he didn't write. In all, nearly two-thirds of the stories under Moffat's tenure have an unambiguous permanent death, several more have permanent deaths implied or off-screen. This is nowhere close to a "near-total absence of death."

There are 7 stories, out of 37 in Moffat's run, where everyone's resurrected. This is certainly significant, and worthy of discussion -- because they all play with overcoming repression, and yet more often than not hinge on self-sacrifice. So in these stories, most vividly (and really, for all of the Revival) the emphasis is on metaphor and not the cheap "verisimilitude" or "realism" touted by so many old-school fans.

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 2 months ago

These aren't tears. It's sweat. Because I'm working so hard.

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 2 months ago

"The Dance of the Doctor"

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jane 4 years, 2 months ago

This is also the episode that hinges on an emotional resolution that doesn't involve self-sacrifice. They played the sacrifice-note emotionally in Dalek and Father's Day, but here it's solely the overcoming of repression that turns everything around -- and confers a mass resurrection in the process; the implication being that repression is a form of living death, on a societal level.

It's fairly rare in the Science Fiction genre, which tends to bend towards an application of violence, technology, or cleverness -- not Relationship -- as a means of resolving the climax.

And Adam, I think asexuals have a point, that it's rare for a mainstream show to feature characters who aren't motivated by sexual relationships, and who made the Doctor their hero for precisely that reason; they are not in an easy position. But at the same time, I don't think the show was designed with this in mind, it really was a case of sexuality being repressed in its long history. And sexual repression is not an authentic expression of asexuality, I don't think.

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Ross 4 years, 2 months ago

@Adam B: The thing is that asexuals are so under-represented in the media* that asexuals in the real world have good cause to cling hard to any character that seems to qualify.

(* With the possible exception of children's programs, though even those tend to be at least subtly heteronormative)

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Ross 4 years, 2 months ago

One of these days, I need to get a picture of a Zarbi and the giant rat printed on a posterboard, so whenever someone complains about the lack of "realism" in the new series, I can hold it up and say nothing.

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jane 4 years, 2 months ago

Phil makes a redemptive reading of "patriotism" -- wow.

It's so easy to bandy it about as a reactionary concept, but there's a social materiality to it that's just as apt for the left. First, it's a way to stand for something bigger than one's self. A nation is nothing if not a collective, a very large social group, a place where we can be in community and work for the public good, not just egoistic self-interest (egoistic self-interest being the heart of capitalism.)

A "nation" is a fiction, of course, but it's motivated by local culture. Britain's culture is not the same as the culture of Papua New Guinea's. Respect for national sovereignty confers respect for local culture, and hence for diversity. And to the extent The Empty Child revels in British culture, it's on the positive end of patriotism, a hard turn left against the forces of self-hatred.

Which is not to say that patriotism isn't problematic -- but then, everything's problematic. Everything. And it plays out here: the spread of Nazism as an expression of German patriotism, but extended beyond its own borders. This is the genesis of imperialism. Again, the Empty Child serves as a metaphor, threatening to spread his own (superficial) characteristics to the whole world.

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Froborr 4 years, 2 months ago

Interestingly, over on my own blog I'm engaged in this debate from the opposite side.

I am firmly in the "Yes, the Doctor dances," camp when it comes to Doctor Who. Or, more accurately, some Doctors do--if other personality elements can change between incarnations, why not sexuality? (For my money, One is hetero, Four is asexual, Five is gay, Seven's asexual, Nine's bi, Ten's Rosexual, 11 is hetero. I don't know about the others.)

But as I mentioned, over at my blog I'm finding myself in the position of arguing that the entire main cast of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is asexual. I'm justifying it to myself on the grounds that part of the original series bible was that none of them would have romantic relationships or love interests at all ever.

But mostly it's just because, while I have no problem with shipping in general, I find the idea of shipping these characters with anyone or anything inherently squicky.

And while I don't feel that way about the Doctor myself, I can see why some people might, and I'm sympathetic. (Especially since it's not that hard, albeit rather crass and maximally uncharitable, to read the entire New Series as being about Davies and Moffat getting to play out their adolescent Doctor Who-themed fantasies. Davies wants to be the companion and shag handsome Doctors; Moffat wants to be the Doctor and have beautiful companions throw themselves at him so he can demonstrate his superiority by rejecting them, because Moffat has Lady Issues.)

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encyclops 4 years, 2 months ago

Hmmmm.

I dunno, you guys. I think this is pretty good. I don't love it like everyone else seems to, and I'm beginning to think I'm the only one.

"And all of this is done with a sense of real, ecstatic joy." I think this is the sticking point for me. I don't get that sense at all. I think I'm meant to, but I don't.

The thread I see connects characters through secrets and lies, but I don't see that as the same thing as repression.

Mr. Lloyd isn't repressed, he's getting busy with the butcher on the DL, and it's the Forties, so of course he is. Even in 2013 this guy would not be living a glorious open gay life. The dirty secret isn't that he's getting it on with a guy, it's that he's almost certainly cheating on his wife.

Nancy isn't repressed; she's quite frank about sex with Mr. Lloyd, at least, and she's clearly had it. Perhaps she didn't want to, but I don't get that sense. Instead I get the sense that she did what she had to do given the mores of the time (not her own mores) and keeps her lie because she doesn't trust her young child to keep her secret.

So maybe the repression that will kill us is society's? But there's no social change in evidence; the solution to the problem hinges on Nancy being pushed into telling her secret to her son.

And the thread begins with Jack, the most sexually liberated character on the entire show, who caused the whole problem in the first place...because he lied about who he was, pulled a con game that unleashed the nanotech, and of course didn't let the Doctor in on this until much later.

Secrets and lies. I can see how you'd connect that with queerness, but I'm not really comfortable with that equation, and I certainly don't feel joyous liberation in this story, except in that it is, as you point out, the debut of Captain Jack, and that certainly isn't bad.

Sorry to be a downer. Hopefully we'll sync up more on "Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood".

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Picklepuss 4 years, 2 months ago

You're conflating special effects with writing though, aren't you? Unless your point is the presence of giant insects and rodents mean the story itself shouldn't be taken seriously.

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years, 2 months ago

He has been, actually; I also come from the A.V. Club. Quite a good commenter/poster, he is. :-)

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Adam B 4 years, 2 months ago

All points well raised, and I really don't want to come across as being unaccepting of asexual folks. I can see why they would come to feel that way about the Doc, and be protective of it. I just think there's enough subtext to support Three/Jo and Four/Sarah and Four/Romana shipping, at the very least. Probably Six/Peri too, but that's something I'd rather not touch w a ten foot pole. Five/Turlough, on the other hand... Obviously, subtext is more overt in nuWho for Ten/Rose and Eleven/River (still undecided on Eleven/Clara).

Anyway, I'm off being slutty, but that's at least a small part of how I personally watch the show. I wish the sluts like me and the asexuals could each validate each other's readings, but I rather scuppered that w my tone in the first response, didn't I?

Oh dear. Apologies.

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Triturus 4 years, 2 months ago

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 2 months ago

Perhaps today Lloyd wouldn't have the need for a "beard" in the same way. He could be happily getting it on with the butcher and not having to worry about criminal proceedings against him. He's repressed and as such has styled himself an elaborate deception. The lies grow out of it.

Nancy is playing at being younger than she is, with a little brother because society is unwilling to accept a young woman being sexually active out of wedlock, never mind the fact that she has a son. She is ashamed because society has told her to be ashamed. When she makes her peace everything is resolved. Yes she has to tell Jamie the truth, but she has to accept herself first.

As for Captain Jack...well yeah. Secrets and lies are bad. They make life worse for everyone. Whether they come from the willful attempt to do harm, or they comes from the fact that society will not accept you and forces your life into a shape that is not natural to it. The secrets and lies aren't presents as naturally growing out of the fact that these characters are not free to be themselves. After Jack admits what he has done he reforms to be a more heroic and noble figure.

It comes down to the old mantra "Be the Change you want to see in the world" or as I prefer "Live as if the world is as it should be, to show it what it can be". These characters need to change themselves before they can begin to make material social progress.

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jane 4 years, 2 months ago

The Ice Governess is a magical technology -- the Snow is a glitchy mirror of the subconscious.

But I think you're right, Christopher, that Moffat is interested in repeated phrases -- not for themselves, though, but out of the literary aesthetic of Repetition. Because he does it in all kinds of ways -- in theme, in image, in recurring phrases and motifs.

Repetition is a powerful tool. Hell, it's hugely important in Music, for starters.

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James V 4 years, 2 months ago

"The Dance of the Doctor":


"The Dance I did, I did in the name of phat beats and funky fresh jams"

"But not the Dance of the Doctor!"

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jane 4 years, 2 months ago

No, the point is that "realism" as a value and a mode of storytelling has its limitations. There are things Metaphor can do that realism can't, and it's equally true for special effects and writing alike, not to mention every other aspect of discourse and story in narrative.

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 2 months ago

I was going to come in here and make a bold declaration about patriotism but Jane's last paragraph is what I wanted to post only more less bombastic and more concise with a much less aggressive tone.

So...basically: What she said.

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jane 4 years, 2 months ago

Captain Jack's very interesting -- his repression isn't sexual, it's "spiritual" or emotional. He doesn't have a long-term relationship; he keeps company with his ship's computer. And he doesn't want to admit responsibility for the harm he brings to other people, which is the repression of every con-man.

Jack has confused sexual liberation and self-aggrandizement. It's only in an act of self-sacrifice, motivated not by his sexual feelings towards anyone but for his emotional commitments to other people, that he Ascends.

There's also the matter of Jack's having two years of his own memory wiped. This is a metaphor for -- yup, you guessed it, repression. Memories so awful they're blocked out, excised from conscious view, intended or otherwise.

And the thing about being repressed is that it isn't a blanket -- there are things I repress, and other things I don't repress, and sometimes there's leakage. Repression doesn't operate under the logic of mutual exclusion or "set theory."

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James V 4 years, 2 months ago

I'd say Three's definitely hetero (look at the way he mopes when Jo and Cliff hook up), Six is probably asexual. Eight swings all ways. I'm torn on Two; there's a reasonable amount of Frazer Hines-shaped evidence to suggest gay, if you're inclined, but I've always read that as less of a romance and more of a bromance.

Oh, and Four is asexual only as far as "The Invasion of Time." I loudly and proudly ship the hell out of Four and Romana. :)

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Nyq Only 4 years, 2 months ago

This was my kid's episode - the one that generated the "behind the sofa" (not quite literally) reaction that makes Doctor Who stay with you. From here they went from liking the series to being completely hooked.

The Blitz and patriotism: The Blitz is a national founding myth - which may seem odd given the amount of British history that preceeds it. The difference is this is about Britain as a small country and defined in terms of Britain rather than the British Empire (and also, despite the focus on London, given in terms of Britain rather than England). In post-War/post-Empire years Britain needed to define what it was and the Blitz/Battle of Britain/Dunkirk-spirit et al was central to the new kind of country that was begining. Salman Rushdie said that British history was something that happened abroad (I may be misquoting him) but the Blitz was different and in which the hero could be the under-dog (fitting modern sensibilities).

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encyclops 4 years, 2 months ago

Theonlyspiral: We still have plenty of guys with "beards" today. I think Lloyd would still be one of them, but that's just my intuition, spurred by the other characterization we get of him. He's hoarding food and supplies, and that's the reason we're really supposed to feel negatively about him, and I think it would be a stretch at best to link that to his sexual orientation. It's more the "have your cake and eat it too" mentality of the cheating spouse, or perhaps it's linked to Jack's greed and selfishness (more gently described in Jane's comment).

I guess one thing I might be overlooking is how far the show's come since this point, and where it was prior to this. I'm racking my brains to think whether the show had ever intimated this clearly that anyone was "messing about" with anyone before, or brought up single teenage mums; certainly Moffat deserves credit for introducing (if not quite creating) the first openly bi character on the show. So maybe the euphemism "dances," which still makes me gag a little to think about, was far more daring and less awkward than it seems to me now, in hindsight.

I see where you guys are coming from. I guess I would just like to think of this as a starting point, not in itself a full celebration of sexuality but an opening of the way for one, which I'm not sure we've really seen yet. I hope we do. Maybe this is just not a show where that can happen.

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encyclops 4 years, 2 months ago

I'm trying to remember the context in which I was trying to work out which Doctor would be the most willing to go for a threesome with himself, and for some reason I felt certain it was Six.

A gay Five would never have treated Adric that way. No, it's Nyssa for him.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 2 months ago

Any discussion of Doctor Who as an asexual figure also has to run into the problem that for a long and very important part of the show's history it was also seized upon by gay fans because its combination of camp and asexuality served as a metaphor for the closet. And, more to the point, gay fandom was real and large.

I have trouble with any argument that, deliberately or not, amounts to saying that queer fandom shouldn't have had their triumphant closet-shattering moment.

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 2 months ago

I can see that view of the character for sure. I have a cousin who has a beard right now. It's hard because with the Blitz going on, the fact he's a repressed homosexual and the fact that we see him for 3 minutes combine to make a comprehensive reading difficult. The cheating this especially because who knows if he's just the cheating sort, or if he'd be footloose and fancy free in a more accepting culture.

I think in general one thing we do have to keep in mind is that this is a television program aimed at children, and like Gatiss said in the confidential episode dealing with "Victory of the Daleks": I'm not sure this is the right stage to be exploring that fully.

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Adam Riggio 4 years, 2 months ago

I actually just made my 17th convert to Doctor Who fandom last night watching Blink, but we also discussed how hilariously covered in gay iconography and signification the Davison era is — I had my copy of Castrovalva lying around, and I gave her a rundown of the whole story: Nathan-Turner's insistence that the Doctor not suggest any sexual feelings toward female companions just opened up reams of possibility for gay subtext in the Doctor-Adric and Doctor-Turlough relationships. Plus the unfathomable amounts of Fifth Doctor-Ainley Master slash fiction on the internet. She asked me how involved the Doctor was in romance, relationships, and sex, and I had to give her the whole weird story of it. Fourth Doctor-Romana shipping to the extent that it's practically become canon, Davison's gay subtext, Tennant's following among female fans, Pertwee's following among elderly female fans, the fact that the Doctor has a granddaughter, but the only explicit example being Eleventh Doctor-River.

Part of what we discussed was how insufferable people can be talking about their identity politics (sexual and otherwise) on the internet. And it's unfortunate from my perspective, that so much vitriol has been poured on Moffat and Davies over the years for explicitly introducing sexual concerns into Doctor Who. Yes, asexuality is part of life. But so is sexuality, and despite the pressure of being a children's television character at his origin, the Doctor was never a purely asexual being. He may not have always given much of a crap about sex, but I think those aspects of his character were always there, and those aspects of the show were pretty continually present too. Why else would there have been ground for Alan Moore's joke about the whiff of the pedo post-Hartnell?

She was really amused by my description of the opening scene of The Romans, though, of Ian and Barbara's clearly post-coital lounging around in their casually occupied villa.

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Assad K 4 years, 2 months ago

Indeed he is. :)

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Jesse 4 years, 2 months ago

"Dance of the Daleks"

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 2 months ago

"Cybermen Dance The Dance of the Dalek Doctor"

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encyclops 4 years, 2 months ago

Why else would there have been ground for Alan Moore's joke about the whiff of the pedo post-Hartnell?

Is there ground for that joke? I've never been sure.

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Matter-Eater Lad 4 years, 2 months ago

The Doctor's ecstatic joy in the "everybody lives!" sequence is made all the richer by the context of the preceding episodes. It's not that we've never seen him have a moment of happiness before this, but we've clearly seen how much pain and sadness he carries around with him. To see someone with that much baggage have -- and prove capable of -- such a triumphant moment of joy was incredibly moving.

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years, 2 months ago

"The Tomb of the Nameless"?

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years, 2 months ago

Indeed; no wonder it's both Colin Baker's favorite New Who moment AND Christopher Eccleston's favorite episode that he worked on. :-)

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Jack Graham 4 years, 2 months ago

Jane, I think you're almost totally wrong... though in clever and interesting ways, as I'd expect. ;-)

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inkdestroyedmybrush 4 years, 2 months ago

"bodies are rubbish. I've had loads of them."

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inkdestroyedmybrush 4 years, 2 months ago

for those of us who had acquired the series via dubious means over the interwebs, we didn't know anything about the ratings... it was just clear that, following Father's Day, that the new Doctor Who had turned a corner and produced three great weeks of stories, back to back, that were interesting and inventive, powerful emotionally in ways that the old series could never have attempted, and solidly entertaining from start to finish. This one was a wow, an unabashed classic from first viewing for me, and continues to be one of the endlessly repeated ones by not only myself but by my two daughters who follow Who each week.

my reaction is the same as Philip's: Eccleston's "just this once, everybody lives!" carried so much weight for those of us who had lived with the body count piling up during Pyramid's of Mars or Robots of Death, but this time, following the trauma of the Time War, the Doctor could finally have the one special day. It is one of the most significant scenes in Who, ever, and even more so for us older fans. Catharsis personified for 40 years of watching others die from the first Thals on up.

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 2 months ago

"The Tomb of Doom on the Moon of Judoon"

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jane 4 years, 2 months ago

I'm not wrong. Incomplete, perhaps, but not wrong.

What's missing in The Empty Child is a look at the dark side of British nationalism, a conception which visited atrocities on people across the world. That it came home to roost in its most virulent form is regrettably apt, for all concerned. WWII doesn't erase Britain's own culpability; at the same time, that it marked a change in its position in the world -- a change for the better -- is progress.

What makes patriotism good or bad isn't the love of one's homeland, in of itself, but when it's set up in a dualistic framework -- that love of country necessarily entails hatred of others.

But this is how capitalism works: it establishes that value not inherent, but relative, and hence needs to be measured and judged by setting people against each other, using the logics of dualism and mutual exclusivity. This is, basically, "the free market" as applied to people.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 2 months ago

This is something that Victory of the Daleks, for all its flaws, introduces rather well.

(Also, I disagree on capitalism/the free market, but that's a whole other discussion.)

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Ununnilium 4 years, 2 months ago

Bits and bobs, but frankly, much less than any other sexuality, including asexual. It's a pretty weak comment, and although I wouldn't fault Moore for genuinely feeling that way, it feels like a cheap joke.

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Froborr 4 years, 2 months ago

Whereas I agree with you completely about capitalism, jane, but couldn't disagree more about value. The value of a thing is almost entirely a function of what it signifies, and there is nothing inherent in the signifier-signified relationship. Value is always in the mind of the observer, not inherent in the thing observed, whether that thing is an object or a concept or even a person. I might value people quite highly, and therefore inevitably find myself in conflict with people who don't, but the justification for that conflict is the difference in values, not any imaginary inherent value.

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 2 months ago

To paraphrase what Gatiss says in the Confidential episode for "Victory of the Daleks" - "There is a time and a place to discuss the pitfalls of nationalism and patriotism and it's not children's TV. I can't fault Doctor Who for not taking Churchill to task over his racism or not exploring the dark side of British nationalism.

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Froborr 4 years, 2 months ago

The Doom of the Tomb of the Doomed Moon Baboon of Judoon

Also now that I'm working my way through BF I cannot WAIT to get to "...ish." So far I've had a few "eh, not bad stories," then met Evelyn, who might be favorite companion ever, and just finished Silence in the Library with Daleks, which had Ace in it and was therefore excellent.

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encyclops 4 years, 2 months ago

Surely that is EXACTLY what "children's TV" is for. Maybe you get there through metaphor, or set the story on an alien planet, or make it about aliens -- say, squiggly aliens in armored tanks that want to kill everyone who isn't them -- but of course you do it on children's TV, because after that it's probably too late.

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Froborr 4 years, 2 months ago

I've actually always meant to ask: IS this the first Doctor Who episode in which no one dies? It's certainly the first I saw, but there's large swaths of the classic series I haven't seen

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 2 months ago

Edge of Destruction, The Savages, Fury From the Deep, and Terminus all have zero fatalities.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 2 months ago

(And there are a few more that have questionable fatalities in the same way the Library two-parter does. Kinda and Time Flight spring to mind - both have a death, but the person is reincarnated.)

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Lewis Christian 4 years, 2 months ago

What about Snakedance? And The Celestial Toymaker?

Castrovalva, too, if you don't count the people since they're figments of the Master's imagination. (The policemen at the start, according to the novelisation, are just stunned.)

The Ultimate Foe, if we count the Trial segments seperately. The Time Lords are under attack at the end, but none die. Although the Keeper of the Matrix might make it questionable - does the Valeyard do him in to become him?

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mengu 4 years, 2 months ago

Well, no one dies in An Unearthly Child.

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 2 months ago

Yes but we use metaphor. A discussion on Churchill or Briitish imperialism in particular is better left to things other than TV. I am fine with a metaphorical exploration. But the specifics of certain countries and people are more complicated than a single 45 minute episode can do.

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Froborr 4 years, 1 month ago

This discussion makes me think of the episode of Teen Titans when the awesome new sort-of mentor-ish alien helping the team keeps calling Starfire this alien word... which turns out to be a racist slur.

I mention it only for the wonderful moment where Cyborg (who is black) tells Starfire, "I know what it's like to be a victim of prejudice." *beat* "I'm half-robot."

You can get away with a LOT in a fantasy setting that you can't when talking about real cultures. Avatar the Last Airbender starts with genocide and spends quite a bit of time on child soldiers and parental abuse (though rarely in the same episode). The most recent season of the sequel series ends with a murder-suicide. On the network that airs SpongeBob!

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Bennett 4 years, 1 month ago

Lewis Christian - I just have a thing against "the Doctor" in titles. We know he's going to be in the damn thing, so go for something else.

I let Doctor Who get away with a lot of things due to the APOTHY test. And by APOTHY I mean A Part Of The Hartnell Years. Being both my first era of the show and the first era of the show, I feel it safe ground to use as precedant to justify any apparant creative leap. (And so useful it is too - covering the romance of the Doctor, The Unicorn and the Wasp, Dalek stair jokes, 'Doctor Who?' jokes, and...well...anything less crazy than The Web Planet).

So The Doctor Dances is covered both for naming the Doctor and for being a pun by the glorious title A Holiday for the Doctor (and note this was part of the last classic Who story with individual titles before 2005).

Oh, and also, any world where the latest episode wasn't called The Name of the Doctor would be a poorer place indeed.

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Scott 4 years, 1 month ago

"River's entire expedition to the Library dies."

Minor point of pedantry that shouldn't detract from your otherwise excellent point -- there is actually one survivor in this episode. And perhaps ironically, it's the pompous corporate tagalong lackey guy (cf. Paul Reiser's character in "Aliens") whom the audience has been guided towards openly praying for his death until they learn that his motives for getting into the library aren't as venal and self-interested as the audience has been led to believe.

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Anton B 4 years, 1 month ago

Rule one. The Doctor lies. Why? poetic licence. (Warning! I might be overeacting here I'm feeling crabby). The line isn't meant literally guys. Did Wordsworth really see one thousand daffodils at a glance? Let's check by counting them. Sheesh! It's poetry (or as Hartnell would say 'sheer poetry'). Maybe the Doctor has had other days where no-one died, the point is this is a notable one. Still let's not let artistic expression prevent us from making a list.

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Daibhid C 4 years, 1 month ago

Hmm. I personally would agree that the entire expedition (except Steve Pemberton) died, but the episode itself explicitly presents the fact they were all backed up onto the library systems as an "everybody lives" moment, emphasised by SPOILERS! the fact River can still get involved in the story after this point in her timeline.

Of course, that's getting into the big philosophical question about an exact copy of a person, who thinks its the original.

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Wm Keith 4 years, 1 month ago

Of course, the Doctor died in "The Empty Child" - on stage, as a stand-up.

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Jack Graham 4 years, 1 month ago

David Cameron says that the murder in Woolwich will make our damp little island stronger. Well, hooray.

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Lewis Christian 4 years, 1 month ago

I think we all know it's not a line to take literally. We're just seeing in which stories prior nobody died, for fun.

(We can take it literally if he means post-Time War, mind.)

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Lewis Christian 4 years, 1 month ago

There are some exceptions, in my view. "The Name of the Doctor" deserves that title for being so epic and attention-grabbing.

But titles like "The Doctor Dances" and "The Next Doctor" are just poor. (Moffat nearly called Matt's debut "Return of the Doctor" - how lame would that have sounded!)

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Jesse 4 years, 1 month ago

Moffat nearly called Matt's debut "Return of the Doctor" - how lame would that have sounded!

Time Wars
The Time Lords Strike Back
Return of the Doctor

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jane 4 years, 1 month ago

The Library is a metaphor for remembering. People die. They live on, as imperfect copies, in our memories. We don't get over it -- rather, they become a part of who we are.

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jane 4 years, 1 month ago

Oh, I almost forgot: rampant esoteric symbolism in this story.

We have an Upperworld -- Big Ben, where Jack's tethered his ship, functions as a World Tree. It's marked with the Circle in the Square, the Masonic symbol for Ascension, and this is where Rose and Jack first Dance. There's Flying Fish -- the barrage balloons. Up here, the nanobots function normally, as Healers, on Rose's hands -- hands have been an important icon throughout the series (and still are today) and symbolize the importance of touch, of relationship.

The Hospital is shot in alignment with a Tree and its shadow -- this is the "Centre" of the World Tree, and a microcosm of what will happen to the world if The Empty Child goes unchecked. We have a "surrogate Doctor" here.

There's also a Wheelchair -- back in The Long Game, the Chair is indicated as vehicle for Ascension, and in the Hospital it's Jack who first sits in the Chair -- he ascends at the end of the episode, when his act of self-sacrifice grants him salvation and passage on the TARDIS. (Rose sits in the Chair, too -- her Ascension is forthcoming.)

Ground Zero is the Underworld -- Doctor descends a series of steps to get there. This where the subconscious issues of our characters are revealed: Nancy's relationship to Jamie, Jack's realization of his responsibility, and of course the Nanobot reveal. This is also where the mass resurrection takes place.

The episode is filthy with X motifs -- on all the windows, the door to Jack's ship, the speakeasy's microphone, even in the crossing pattern of the spotlights. The X motif, like the Circle in the Square, indicates the union of opposites, the principle of non-contradictory contradiction.

For example, there's the union of the Healer/Warrior dichotomy -- the nanobots are a healing technology used in war, they can confer living death or resurrection; the "ambulance" is described as a "war ship." Likewise, so much of the story plays out at a hospital, in the middle of a war.

This principle of the union of opposites also plays out in the story's treatment of "emptiness." The Chula ambulance at Ground Zero has an 8-spoked wheel on the Hatch (mirrored in Roses's Union Jack.) The Wheel is a symbol of Buddhism, and one of the central ideas of Buddhism is "emptiness" -- ??nyat?. One seeks the dissolution of ego -- to be an empty child -- and this confers enlightenment, that there is no "self" and no "essence" in the world. (And yes, this is a terrible simplification of the concept, I know. Go watch Planet of the Spiders again.)

We see the fear of Emptiness play in the horror of the Empty Child, who confers Emptiness upon everyone through the power of touch (the marked hand.) This is the "negative" reading of Emptiness, an immortal living death driven solely by the id.

But this isn't the Emptiness of ??nyat?. For the positive reading comes in the form of Jack's act of self-sacrifice, his compassion for others, and his responsibility for his actions, acknowledging he's been wrong. Same for Nancy -- overcoming the social stigma of teen sexuality and motherhood (stigma is a concern of the Ego) to embrace a relationship she brought into being.

There is always A Way Out.

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Nyq Only 4 years, 1 month ago

Smiths fish finger debut should have been called "Doctor Who and the Timey Wimey Tea Time"

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Travis Butler 4 years, 1 month ago

I think Philip (I admit, I still feel a bit uncomfortable putting Our Host on a first-name basis ^_-) nailed it with his description of what the extended time for this story gives us. 'Time to relax and enjoy being Doctor Who.' That's something I feel the new series was (and is, all too often) missing (along with plots that aren't subject to Elevator Synopsis) in the one-episode stories.

Were far too many of the classic stories padded, and could they have stood editing? Certainly, and I'll claim that without reservation; the old format wasn't perfect, and I'd prefer something with better editing. (And for that reason, I admit I've never been that fond of Pertwee's first season; as neat as some bits of Inferno were, the story dragged on for far too long.)

But if forced to choose between overly-padded in the classic series and overly-skimpy in the new, I'll take overly-padded every time. If nothing else, in the home video era you can always skim through padded sections; there's no way you can go back in and add detail that was never filmed.

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Travis Butler 4 years, 1 month ago

I admit, I've rarely been fond of Captain Jack; where some see him as a celebration of sexual freedom, to me he all too often comes across as the arrogant Big Man On Campus type who's sure he's irresistible to his targets-of-choice and doesn't get that some people just want to be left alone. Juvenile. Wanting his own pleasure without consequences or commitment. This is admittedly one of my hot-button character tropes; it really, really irritates me to see it used, especially since it's so often combined with overtones of 'he's absolutely right, and the heroine is wrong to resist him.'

To be fair, that's a big point to his character, especially in this story - he has to deal with the consequences for once, to realize what he's done. To make a commitment. And it makes him a better person. Unfortunately, the arrogance never really goes away...

(And he also *uses* his sexuality to take advantage of others; witness his charm offensive against Rose, following up - as soon as she's smitten - by badgering her about her (presumed Time Agency) partner. Again, a hot-button trait that really irritates me.)

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Froborr 4 years, 1 month ago

Speaking of hands as a symbol of connection, part of the horror of the Empty Child plague is that it strips the victim of a sense of Self, without which the victim cannot recognize or connect to the Other. Thus the first symptom is a symbolic severing of the hand, the scar.

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Froborr 4 years, 1 month ago

I feel exactly the opposite. I find it easier by far to interpolate details as I watch than to sit through padded or poorly paced scenes, and as such I prefer the majority of the new series to all but my favorite episodes of the classic series.

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Travis Butler 4 years, 1 month ago

"I think asexuals have a point, that it's rare for a mainstream show to feature characters who aren't motivated by sexual relationships, and who made the Doctor their hero for precisely that reason; they are not in an easy position."

This, so very much, except I don't limit it to asexuals.

Sometimes I'm interested in sexual content, sometimes I'm not. When I'm not, I'd like to have the OPTION of good stories without it. Is this so hard to understand or agree with? I'm not demanding sexual content be left out of all stories, or some kind of puritan ban; I'm asking for variety, some shows without to go with the overwhelming flood of shows with.

Because while sexuality is a part of being human, it's *only* a part; there's plenty of our life that goes on without it. It's considered unhealthy for a person to obsess about sex 100% of the time; shouldn't the same standard be applied to popular media?

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jane 4 years, 1 month ago

"there's no way you can go back in and add detail that was never filmed"

Only if you view a story as something to be passively absorbed. Me, I like the plentiful opportunities afforded by the current techniques of narrative compression to participate actively in the construction of the text.

And the truth is, we are always adding in details that were never filmed. It's in inherent to the language of film, to fill in the gaps between cuts, conjuring up interstitial ghosts without a second thought.

Brevity, however, does not entail compression. Compression works by folding several layers into the mix (like egg whites into a soufflé) and trusting the implied readers to recognize all the shorthand in the discourse. The Doctor and Amy flit from one part of New York to another without a break in conversation; the distance traveled is taken for granted. Recurring iconography evokes previous stories -- and the emotions we experienced -- and this even works backwards: Silence in the Library takes on more shades of meaning for what's come after it.

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Anton B 4 years, 1 month ago

Yeah sorry, I said I was feeling crabby. I feel like a right Macra Terror now. Put it down to recovering from flu virus and the personal link I feel with this episode. Also I just hate lists.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 1 month ago

No problem. I'm usually not a huge fan of lists. Though I do think this one is a bit interesting, just because it is such a short list. The question of what sorts of Doctor Who stories don't "need" death is an interesting one, just because it seems so many of them do. (It's notable, for instance, that two of the three undisputed zero-death stories that actually feature a supporting cast are quite dark, as is this one. Whereas a seemingly harmless romp like The Monster of Peladon has 47 or 48, depending on whether you count Aggedor. (To be clear, I look these up in About Time, as opposed to actually pretending I know this offhand.)

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Triturus 4 years, 1 month ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Triturus 4 years, 1 month ago

jane
"Repetition is a powerful tool. Hell, it's hugely important in Music, for starters."

I was rewatching Tooth & Claw last night, where the Dr starts off intending to take Rose to an Ian Dury concert, and it occurred to me that the Dr's music tastes aren't referred to that often if at all.

My feeling is that the Doctor should be into all the "right" types of music, but whilst I can imagine Matt Smith playing a mean blues guitar solo, its damn hard to imagine Pertwee bopping to the Sex Pistols.

But if it's repetition we're interested in, maybe those people who really hate the new series should look to John Cage for inspiration. If something is boring once, repeat it over and over again; eventually you'll find that it isn't boring at all :)

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Anton B 4 years, 1 month ago

Don't spoil your carefully constructed mystique Dr. S!

On reflection there is a wider issue here. The Doctor's line here, unless intended as a fourth wall breaker on a par with "Merry Xmas to you all at home" surely refers to the wider issue of of life's drama in general. There can be few tragedies where death does not play a part. Doctor Who has always trodden a line between Tragedy and Comedy and a totally redemptive fatality free denoument is rare in narrative theatre as the Doctor's friend Shakespeare knew.

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encyclops 4 years, 1 month ago

Actually, he unintentionally killed, so same difference, really.

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encyclops 4 years, 1 month ago

I see plenty of room for pleasure in the pace of the new series, but I'll support Travis here and say I appreciate the pacing and atmosphere of the old series as well. I'd say if you can fast-forward through it, if you're even tempted to, the pacing isn't doing its job, but just because "nothing's happening!" doesn't mean nothing's happening.

I'm sure someone must have tried editing some of the classic stories into shorter, tighter versions. I'd be interested to see which ones worked.

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BerserkRL 4 years, 1 month ago

Welfare state = we steal your stuff, give a little of it back to you, and expect you to be grateful.

Austerity = we steal your stuff, then say sorry, we spent it all and there's none to give back to you.

I can see the case for preferring the first to the second. But to celebrate it? No thanks.

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elisi 2 years, 9 months ago

I discovered this blog a few weeks ago, and have been voraciously reading ever since. Will probably jump in and join the discussions in one of your posts about the current season, but when I read this I was unable to just 'walk by'. And not just because the ending nearly made me choke up, but also because it confirmed one of the truths I hold self-evident about Moffat's era: Everything ties back to the Library.

Elisi

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