3 years, 10 months ago
|Detonate... the disco bomb!|
It’s June 28th, 2008. Coldplay are at number one with “Viva la Vida,” which lasts a week before Ne-Yo’s “Closer” unseats it. Sara Bareilles, Rihanna, Busta Rhymes with Linkin Park, and Jordin Sparks with violent abuser Chris Bown also chart. In news, Bill Gates finishes his full time work at Microsoft, the US Supreme Court rules that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to own firearms and that the Exxon Valdez damages were excessive, and Spain wins Euro 2008, beginning their rather long winning streak of major international tournaments.
While on television, the biggest thing is, in fact, Doctor Who. So let’s start with Journey’s End, as it is in many ways the centerpiece of the Russell T Davies era. There are two narratives of the Davies era - in one the show peaks with Rose’s departure in Doomsday. This is the view offered by Tat Wood in About Time. But Doomsday, for all its supposed cultural cache, pulled in 8.2 million viewers and was the 8th most watched program on television that week. Impressive, but beaten out by Rise of the Cybermen, which got 9.2 million and finished 6th. Doomsday was only the fifth most watched episode of its season. Journey’s End, meanwhile, pulled in a mind-wrenching 10.6 million viewers - the most a non-Christmas Special episode of Doctor Who had pulled in since Rose, which can hardly be called a normal episode. It’s the only time in the new series that a season finale bested the premiere in ratings. And it pulled off something that Doctor Who had never done in its entire history: it was the number one program on television that week. “Ah,” a certain line of argument goes, “but ratings don’t indicate how much people liked it.” This is true. For that we need to turn to the episode’s unfathomably high 91% AI score.
From empirical data, at least, this is the zenith of Doctor Who’s cultural capital. It’s also part of a larger cultural narrative of the transition from Davies to Moffat, a cultural event that includes Tennant’s Hamlet performance being the hot theater ticket of the year, the massive success of The Next Doctor, the Matt Smith announcement, and, finally, the massive event that was The End of Time. Doctor Who may have exited its imperial phase after Doomsday, but its moment of greatest success - the moment where it was the biggest it had ever been - was this.
What jumps out, then, is the self-confidence of it. There’s always been an “everything plus the kitchen sink” feel to Davies’s finales as they each scramble to be bigger than the last one, but the sheer and sweeping scope of this one is still impressive. A three-show crossover with five companions listed in the opening credits that also features Luke, K-9, Mr. Smith, Gwen, Ianto, Jackie, Mickey, Wilf, Sylvia, Francine, as well as loads of Daleks and Davros. It’s not just that there’s a lot going on, but that everything that’s going on is internal to Doctor Who. This isn’t big name guest stars or something designed to bring the not-we on board. This story is selling itself entirely on the basis of being a really massive Doctor Who story packed to the gills with Doctor Who stuff.
That this works can hardly be called a surprise after four seasons of massive success in the ratings, but equally, there’s something that’s still a little startling about the realization that the anoraks have won so completely that it’s not even meaningful to talk about them. The “not-we” aren’t a meaningful concept when 17% of the country is tuning in to see Sarah Jane Smith team up with Captain Jack against Daleks.
Which makes the story’s narrative collapse structure all the more interesting. This is one of two stories with a credible claim to being the definitive narrative collapse. Its narrative collapse is perhaps not the most definitive - there’s not a point at which it seemingly becomes completely impossible for the narrative to progress at all. But what is interesting here is just how quickly the narrative collapses. The story starts, in effect, with the Doctor already defeated. The Earth has been completely subjugated by Daleks and there doesn’t actually appear to be anything he can do - he spends almost the entirety of The Stolen Earth puttering about attempting to actually find his way to the plot. It is perhaps not quite as horrific a collapse as the situation at the start of Last of the Time Lords, but the speed of it is still impressive.
And even when the Doctor gets to the plot, he’s effectively blocked from doing anything. He’s killed by Daleks, captured by Daleks, and shoved in a force field such that all he gets to do for most of an episode is stand around and talk to Davros. Or, really, get talked to by Davros, as Davros spends the entire time gloating about his having the upper hand and taking cheap swipes at the Doctor. (Normally this would be the sort of thing that would annoy me, but in this case, with the Doctor so roundly beaten, it would feel wrong for him to make the obvious retorts.
It’s interesting, though, that what we get here is in effect a reassembly of the cast of Turn Left, only with the addition of Martha. We’ve already seen what happens when the Doctor’s companions have to fight without him, and the answer was concentration camps. Here, however, that transition is directed inwards. In the face of an alien attack and an absent Doctor the companions succumb to moral rot, becoming monstrous in their own right.
This is, however, an odd moment. Both Martha’s scheme and Sarah Jane and Jack’s are ultimately just versions of the same moral problem faced by the Doctor and Donna in The Fires of Pompeii. It’s a trolley problem - do you destroy X lives to save Y where X < Y. The show has already, this season, issued its moral judgment here, and ruled that yes, you do. And yet here we have a pair of trolley problems where the moral solution is apparently “no you don’t.” That’s maybe all right in the case of the Osterhagen Key, which is after all an outrageously stupid idea, but we’re really meant to decide that blowing up the Crucible is unacceptable in order to stop, and I quote, “THE DESTRUCTION! OF REALITY! ITSELF!”? But even here Davies just about gets away with it on the aesthetic shock of having Sarah Jane be involved with it. (Of course, Sarah Jane favored nuking the Daleks way back in 1975, but the new series Sarah Jane with her own children’s show is not supposed to be quite so bloodthirsty.)
And beyond that, the point isn’t really an ethical one but an aesthetic one. It’s not that what Martha, Jack, and Sarah do is wrong, but rather that it sets up Davros’s claim that the Doctor fashions people into weapons. In this regard it’s more of a restatement of Midnight - the idea that the Doctor’s power comes from words and his ability to persuade people, and that when this power is subverted trouble follows. But another way to put this is that the Doctor turns people into what he wants them to be. Davros’s statement, after all, is nothing Donna didn’t say several episodes back. “Is that what you did to her,” she asks of Martha. “Turned her into a soldier?” And it’s an accusation the Daleks have been hurling back at the Doctor since Jubilee. And this is the real reason the companions’ schemes fail. Because in the face of the Daleks, the purest implementation of militarism and violence imaginable, the Doctor’s quasi-army truly is powerless, at least inasmuch as they’re presented as the Doctor’s quasi-army.
And it’s important to recognize that this is what’s going on here. What we get is not quite the bland and cliched “the hero and the villain are mirror images of one another” that it appears. Although, of course, it is worth remembering that Davros was always a mirror image of the Doctor - he was the scientific advisor to a military organization, appearing just after the end of the UNIT era. That the Doctor and Davros are paralleled is not a revelation; the revelation is the comparison of their works. Davros makes this explicit: “I made the Daleks, Doctor. You made this.”
The issue is not that the companions and the Daleks are morally equivalent, but rather a comparison of Davros and the Doctor’s creations. And as it happens, in a world where the Daleks have already conquered everything, the Doctor’s weapons are inadequate. Not just morally, but practically - all of their threats and schemes are trivially deflected by the Daleks. In a story where the Doctor has already lost the companions are not able to stand up to the Daleks. If the question is phrased that way, at least, then Davros wins - the Doctor has made inadequate weapons at the high cost of a depressing montage of dead characters.
But, of course, that’s an awfully big if. And that’s the basic concept underlying the narrative collapse. Yes, it’s true that if Doctor Who attempts to function in a world where the Daleks have already won and all that’s left is the detail of completely annihilating the universe then Doctor Who has very few narrative outs. Certainly the companions aren’t going to cut it. But the narrative collapse works by, in the final stages, switching the narrative logics around. The Master loses because his narrative logic, in which the Doctor is a house elf and everybody is dead, is fundamentally less fun than Doctor Who is. The Dalek Emperor loses because ultimately the Doctor with Rose is a better character than the Doctor as an angsty post-traumatic war hero.
So when we have a world in which the Daleks have already won and the ultimate in ranting insane villains is warbling on about the Reality Bomb, what narrative logic do we have to replace it? The answer is possibly the most brazenly cheeky that Davies ever attempts: straightforward comedy with Catherine Tate spinning the Daleks in circles.
And yet this has been carefully set up. The Doctor may be kept powerless in the narrative, but Donna is kept completely outside of it. She never even encounters a Dalek until the denouement, and other than two moments of giving the Doctor inspiration at the Shadow Proclamation and one moment of tripping and falling into his hand she contributes nothing to the plot at all. Donna versus the Daleks is the one configuration the story never tries.
Instead we get Doctor Blue, who is a terribly effective distraction. Everything in the story looks like he’s going to save the day and like the story’s cheat is the creation of a second Doctor. But instead he goes down at the first hurdle, a total red herring. But he serves to carefully mask the actual resolution - the possibility that Donna is what’s going to save the day.
Careful attention, however, makes it inevitable that it’s going to be Donna. And not just because of all the foreshadowing that she has some great tragedy yet to befall her and the stressing that she’s the most important thing in the story. No, both of the last two stories stressed the importance of Donna. Midnight was a story that could only happen in the absence of Donna, and Turn Left highlights Donna’s ability to fix a narrative space broken by the lack of the Doctor. It’s a case of hiding in plain sight.
And so of course, in the end, the Daleks are defeated when Donna shows up and does a bit of wacky comedy. Because this is the milieu in which the Daleks are vulnerable. They only work if conceived of as a big, epic threat. This is why the return of Davros is such a carefully worked thing. On the one hand, it is, appropriately, a big returning villain for the finale. This is an integral part of the logic of the finales. And it’s one with just enough mythic weight to feel significant.
But equally, it’s slightly empty. Nobody is surprised to discover that Davros went down early in the Time War. Davros has a mythic role, but he is, in the end, inessential. The Daleks existed and functioned before him. He’s not so much mythic to Doctor Who as he is mythic to the Daleks. It’s a subtle bit of misdirection, but his role in this story isn’t actually to be mythic, but rather to be the absolute archetype of the mad ranting villain. He may be playing the narrative role of the Big Mythic Villain, but he’s played and written in the same tradition as Soldeed, Professor Zaroff, and Morbius. He’s actually here because he’s an entertaining villain to have gloating over the Doctor - he basically gives the Daleks someone like the Master to do villainous ranting at the Doctor while the Daleks get their standard “be an overwhelming and unstoppable force” duties.
As we’ve noted before, almost all of these attempts to angrily and bitterly deconstruct the underlying moral premises of Doctor Who are hollow, and depend on the Doctor not making very obvious responses. In this case the “you created a race of genocidal mutants who slaughter billions in an indiscriminate campaign of racial purity, whereas I have on occasion not been able to save everybody” argument, which would be a good refutation to most of Davros’s lines. “You seem to be confusing me with my half-human, blue-suited clone” would cover the “I name you forever’ bit as well.
But in this case that’s the point. The Daleks and their plan is ridiculous. There’s an odd tendency with people responding to this story to consider the TARDIS towing the Earth back home to be terribly silly while not being at all bothered by a weapon called the Reality Bomb that uses “Z-neutrino energy, flattened by the alignment of the planets into a single string” transmitted by a set of twenty-seven planets stolen through space and time so that “people and planets and stars will become dust, and the dust will become atoms, and the atoms will become nothing” resulting in, as previously noted, “the destruction of reality itself.” This is, to say the least, an idiosyncratic aesthetic judgment. To say nothing of some of the Daleks’ previous schemes, like the “drive Earth around like a gigantic space car” plan of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, which even gets a shout-out in this story. The Dalek Invasion of Earth is apparently “serious” and “classic,” however, whereas this is “silly” and “rubbish.”
Which gives away the game, really. It’s only because the story opts to give the Daleks the privileged position of being Massive Epic Threats that they have any sort of narrative power at all. Absent that narratological decision they’re just salt shakers with plungers and whisks. And so Donna’s move is, in the end, to reject that aesthetic in favor of an aesthetic of giddy joy, in which K-9 helps tow the Earth back into place. If you would seriously prefer a show in which reality itself is destroyed by genocidal tyrants, you are kindly invited to reexamine your priorities in life. Meanwhile, the rest of the world will be having a grand old time without you.
But it’s equally wrong to suggest that this amounts to a rejection of the epic. The impact of Donna’s salvation of reality only works because of the massively epic buildup. Frivolity on its own is as hollow as the epic. Doctor Who’s alchemy comes from its ability to braid them. Given this, at least some discussion of the larger mythic ramifications of this story is worthwhile. First, it is the story where it becomes clearest that Martha has simply become a problem. She has what is by far the least sympathetic arc of anyone in the story, ending up as the companion who the Doctor doesn’t quite approve of. It’s an odd shift - just a season ago she was the most capable companion ever, and now she’s one that’s held at arm’s length. In practical terms, it seems to be a matter of not quite knowing how to do a companion who departs but remains in the story without becoming a lead character in their own show. In any case, this is the point where Martha firmly becomes the other Tennant companion - the one sandwiched in between Rose and Donna.
Then, of course, there is Rose, whose presence in this story turns out to have been an elaborate feint. She is there simply because her absence would otherwise be tangible and disruptive. If everyone is going to come back, then everybody has to come back. But once Rose gets through her two episodes of not actually coming back there’s no more for her to do in the narrative than there is for the Doctor. All that’s left is successfully getting her back out of the story, which means contriving to shove her in an alternate universe again. The means Davies uses to accomplish this remain contentious, but on the whole it’s the best solution. Doctor/Rose shippers, of which there are no small number, get their desired ending in a way that no longer threatens the ongoing narrative. It loses the scarring tragedy of Doomsday, but equally, frees the Doctor from having to mope about Rose forever and gives Rose a happy ending instead of a tragic one. After two seasons worth of Rose looming inevitably over the series, this is, while not exactly some stunning triumph of the series’ history, at least an adequate solution to the problem.
And there is Donna. That she would be the price paid for the narrative collapse is as inevitable as everything else. There are serious ethical questions involved in her fate, though they’re ones that I know a guest blogger intends to tackle. Although that post’s a ways off, I shan’t touch the topic. Instead I’ll simply note that Donna is flat out one of the great companions in Doctor Who history, and that no other companion could have provided the resolution that she did - not just saving the day, but passionately confirming the fact that joy and fun are crucial values of Doctor Who.
Finally, it is worth discussing the Daleks. There are odd hints of what is to come here, after all. The Doctor’s throwaway line about someone trying to move the Earth before is intended, as mentioned, as a continuity shout-out to The Dalek Invasion of Earth. But, of course, there’s a second instance of someone trying to move the Earth in The Mysterious Planet, which provides an entire second, implied narrative. Tellingly, this narrative collapse, complete with whole-series reunion, is going to play out again in Tennant’s regeneration story with exactly the swap that line implies (complete with the Master playing a role akin to that of Davros in this story). It is in hindsight fitting that Dalek Caan looked upon the Daleks just as we (much) later find out that the Doctor looked upon the Time Lords and made the same decree: No More. Where this story, however, is an unabashed triumph of Doctor Who, that story is the flip side - the story in which the hubris that animates the Tennant era is finally explored to its full extent.
But we are ahead of ourselves. This is the triumph. The moment Doctor Who completely and unequivocally wins the culture. Not on a desperate and shocking gambit of success like Rose, but with absolute and cool confidence. Doctor Who waltzes onto the air with the conviction that it is the biggest and best show on television. And everyone agrees. This is not the imperial phase, where the show could do no wrong. It’s something altogether more impressive. Journey’s End set the highest possible bar for itself to clear, and then calmly soared over it.
The end point of any narrative collapse is to demonstrate that the series cannot collapse - that it can, in fact, run forever. In a purely practical regard, at least, Journey’s End is the ultimate in narrative collapse stories. It is the one that establishes that Doctor Who is not merely a hit series, but something that is outright beloved by the general public. It establishes that Doctor Who is a fundamental part of the British cultural landscape and collective psyche. To remove it from Britain’s psychochronography is as absurd as removing the Chilterns from its physical geography. Entirely on its own terms and within its own mythology, it deonates its narrative, brings it back, and asks the audience to judge whether its comeback is worthy.
The verdict was unequivocal.
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