4 years, 7 months ago
One of the enduring mysteries of Doctor Who is how, in 2001, Death Comes to Time made it to the air and, more to the point, did so with as solid a cast as it did. That Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred, and, in a late-story cameo, Nicholas Courtney signed on for this is not surprising - all three of them, after all, have a long legacy of doing work for various fan projects and low-end Doctor Who stuff. And I suppose Anthony Stewart Head’s appearance can be explained by the fact that it can’t have taken him more than an hour to record. But good God, what the heck is Stephen Fry doing in this thing?
I’m hard-pressed to come up with much of an argument for being anything other than honest about this one. This is an absolutely terrible story. Virtually everything about it is completely misconceived. For those unaware of it, it’s the first of four attempts at a webcast Doctor Who during the wilderness years. It was successful enough to do more, but not nearly successful enough to justify the same approach - the next two attempts would be farmed out to Big Finish, and after that, attempted their online continuation of Doctor Who in the form of Scream of the Shalka, which we’ll get to in due course. All of which said, what is it about this story that’s so mind-wrenchingly bad?
Back on Friday, in the comments, there was a discussion about the importance or lack thereof of continuity. Which is convenient, because one of the most obvious and often-raised objections to this story is that it is a complete and utter departure from all established continuity. That it kills the Doctor in his Seventh incarnation, thus apparently attempting to relegate the McGann movie into the abyss might fairly be taken as charmingly cheeky by some fans. That it does so in a way that discards the entire New Adventures line would have sacrificed points with many of those fans, but no matter. But that it does so along with completely redoing the Time Lords, turning them into magic sorcerers with no shortage of clear inspiration from Highlander, is pretty tough to swallow.
Why is this? After all, for the most part I’ve been pretty vocal in support of a “there’s no such thing as canon/continuity” approach to Doctor Who. Why not throw major strands away and start over? Continuity, after all, just endlessly and eternally limits what you can do. So if you’ve got a better take on the Time Lords than the series’ - and let’s face it, given that the series’ Time Lords went out with Trial of a Time Lord, itself following the Arc of Infinity/Five Doctors version of Gallifrey, this is not a high bar to clear - why not scrap them and replace it with a new one?
One line of thought is that this is OK, but that it has to be done deliberately and consciously. I largely disagree with this. I think it’s more accurate to say that if you want to ignore continuity completely and go lark around with new ideas, feel free. Destroy Atlantis for the fourth time. Provide yet another explanation for how human evolution progressed with alien influence. Destroy the Earth again. Go for it. To insist that Doctor Who not revisit ideas like these over the decades is just silly.
But what’s notable about this set of continuity glitches is that they’re ones that can come up from writers who just aren’t aware of what one another are doing. OK, it’s admittedly a little weird that Sloman and Letts nuked Atlantis twice in two seasons, but the fact that they contradicted Gregory Orme from five years earlier is almost completely uninteresting. The phrase “back in The Underwater Menace” was, one can almost guarantee, never uttered anywhere in the course of making The Time Monster. This category - things where two writers independently come up with similar ideas within Doctor Who that then jar with each other somewhat - is just about the least interesting category of continuity error imaginable. And I have little regard for any account of the series that thinks consistency in these things, or even attentiveness in these things, is worthwhile for anything other than pub conversation.
But first of all, continuity is separate from reference to the past in general. The fact that it is closing in on a half-century of history is a substantial part of what Doctor Who is at this point, and in that context making reference to the history of the program can be, and indeed often is, worthwhile and interesting. And it shouldn’t be too controversial to suggest that, if you’re going to reference the past of the program, it might be a good idea to get it right. This is separate from a suggestion that continuity matters in general. For the most part a writer for Doctor Who can get away with ignoring almost everything that has gone before beyond the broadest outline of what the series is about and what its general ethos is. But if you start engaging in continuity then, well, you’re engaged in continuity and stuck dealing with its implications. Invoking continuity and getting it wrong can be an error even if ignoring continuity entirely is not.
That said, even within this there are two versions of continuity, which we can roughly call cultural continuity and textual continuity. Textual continuity is the sort that people usually talk about when they talk about continuity - the actual, material stuff that was in episodes of Doctor Who. It tends to be detail-oriented. But there’s a second version - cultural continuity - that is, in most cases, more important. To use an example from the new series, textual continuity is what points out that Sarah Jane did, in fact, meet the Doctor again in The Five Doctors, and in several spin-offs to boot, and that her whole “you left me and never came back for me” routine is at least arguably unsupported by the series’ history. Cultural continuity, on the other hand, holds that almost anyone in the audience who is aware of Sarah Jane’s history with the Doctor will remember The Hand of Fear better than they remember which companions returned in The Five Doctors, and that the status quo as presented in School Reunion is the one that will be most familiar to the most viewers.
When dealing with the past of the program this is a very important distinction to draw. And when looking at an invocation of the program’s past one has to figure out if one is dealing with cultural continuity or textual continuity, and read it properly. The trouble, when it comes to Death Comes to Time, is that the story seems to be trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, bringing McCoy and Aldred back seems to position the story as a direct successor to the end of the television series. Similarly, the fact that it was explicitly positioned in the “cult” section of the BBC’s website makes it clear that this is meant to be pandering towards fans, not towards lay memories.
And yet Ace is almost unrecognizable (both visually and in terms of her character), and McCoy’s Doctor is little better. Worse is the appearance of the Brigadier in the final episode, where he shows up in the following exchange of dialogue, which, I regret to inform you, I quote exactly:
General Tannis: Enemy craft! You have the honor of being addressed by his excellency General Tannis, supreme commander of the defense forces of…
Brigadier: Enemy craft, you have the misfortune of being addressed by the Brigadier! Now get out of my solar system!
At which point the incidental music switches to Dvorak’s “New World Symphony,” although, frankly, I recommend thinking of it as “My Humps” simply because it’s about the only entertainment that it’s possible to wring out of this atrocity. Even if this dialogue were well-written - and it isn’t - it would fly in the face of the entire basic premise of the Brigadier post-Pertwee era, who is manifestly not some sort of superhero who goes around identifying himself as the Brigadier as if nobody else in the military has ever attained the rank. And completely flying in the face of the basic concept of a character is kind of exactly what you don’t want to do with a moment that exists only to nod towards an informed and savvy bunch of fans. (Even if you want to try to treat this as a return to the Pertwee-era Brigadier it's miles off-base. There's no way out of the fact that the character is defined by an understated unflappability, not by a tendency to strut around and tell alien emperor's that he's the biggest badass on Earth.)
But equally, much of Death Comes to Time seems to belong to the cultural approach to continuity. Taken broadly it fits firmly in the tradition of “reboots” of series. Freedman is pretty clearly taking the basic idea of Doctor Who - that there’s this man called the Doctor who travels around in a blue box that’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, and he’s a renegade Time Lord - and taking it in a new direction. The problem is that he’s half-assing it. If that’s the direction you want to go, hire a new Doctor and actually start over. The approach Death Comes to Time takes, whereby it tries simultaneously to be the climactic end of the McCoy era and the start of a new take on the series doesn’t work.
But even if we give Death Comes to Time maximum credit and decide to read it purely as a reboot there’s a catastrophic problem. Generally speaking the benefit of a reboot is that it lets you clear away the bad decisions of a previous take on a concept and to return to first principles. So, for instance, the 2005 version of Battlestar Galactica takes away the badly dated glam space opera of the original series and maintains its most interesting concept, the idea of the last vestiges of humanity trying desperately to escape extermination. In other words, if you’re going to reboot something, you kind of have to actually improve on the original.
The problem is that Freedman’s script fits firmly into the long line of attempts throughout the 90s and early 2000s to reboot Doctor Who along the standard issue lines of epic science fiction in the Hollywood tradition. These attempts are, generally speaking, all staggeringly ill-advised. In order to get an idea of just how terrible most of these ideas were, consider this: the Paul McGann movie was made largely because it was the best of them. And so we'll deal with this little trainwreck as a nice bit of metonymy, whereby we don't have to touch any of the others. Because people were actually stupid enough to spend money making this, it gets to stand in for a dozen equally crap things that were avoided. That said, let's briefly mention the worst of the things that did not come to pass: the so-called Leekley Bible, an overview of the series based on the quest of the Doctor to find his father, Ulysses, in order to stop his half-brother the Master. Because it's the one that gives us the clearest way into understanding what is so staggeringly wrong about this.
The Leekley Bible, like all Hollywood science fiction of the era, doesn’t even pretend to have inspirations beyond rote execution of the Joseph Campbell playbook. My disdain for Campbell has been discussed in detail previously
, but the short form is this: he carelessly shoehorns a ton of mythology into a paradigm that is blatantly patriarchal and strongly favors western mythologies over eastern ones. The metastasis of his crank literary theory into a straitjacket for all of Hollywood science fiction is, in this regard, inevitable. The valorization of white men, the uniformity and mass production of a narrative product, and the tacit message that you too might be the chosen hero who wins the lottery and changes economic classes over the course of his life - sorry, that fulfills some prophecy or another - are perfect for mass production capitalist entertainment.
There is, in other words, something horrifyingly conservative about the Campbell structure as practiced. It creates a drab monoculture, governed by its monomyth, always presenting the illusion of the heroic individual while tacitly positioning the vast majority of the world as the people who sit and passively watch as the heroic individual saves them, and, ideally, pays for the privilege. In its modern configurations, where far too many otherwise intelligent people are duped into breathlessly proclaiming that superheroes or Star Wars or whatever are modern mythology, inevitably pointing to Campbell as their evidence, it becomes downright sickening. Even the most staggering banalities of reality television pale in comparison to the cultural bleakness implied by the idea that our mythology is now corporate-owned and bound up in perpetual copyright. And yet academic fans of popular media take on an almost post-coital afterglow as they proclaim just that.
What’s interesting about Doctor Who is the extent to which, over a fourteen year stretch in which people were actively trying to feed it to Campbell’s blunt engine, it stubbornly resisted. And of course it did, since the mercurial anarchism that is written in Blakean fire on the very heart of the show’s concept is diametrically and vehemently opposed to the Campbell approach. This is why so many of the Campbell approaches just sound horrible. Because turning Doctor Who, as Leekley does, into a drab quest to restore the family unit (or, sorry, as Campbell calls it, "Atonement with the Father"), or, as many of the other proposals mooted during the wilderness years do, a story about a man scarred by a love triangle just cheapens it. Doctor Who is so much larger and weirder than the hero’s journey can ever hope to encompass, and these Campbell-inflected treatments of it all just feel pathetic. This is, in many ways, the joyous trick of Doctor Who. In Doctor Who fighting a giant licorice allsort feels tremendous and momentous, while fighting to save the universe from your evil half-brother and searching for your father feels like the most dull and mundane thing imaginable.
And Death Comes to Time takes the cake in this approach. It exposes the real reason that the “Ace becomes a Time Lord” plot idea is idiotic - because it just steamrolls Ace into a Campbell-by-numbers joke. She spends the entire story walking the Campbell road, while the Doctor gets shoehorned into the Obi-wan Kenobi role without a second thought (hence the absurdly dumb idea of killing him off in your big online launch of a new Doctor Who story - because he's the supernatural aid, and that's what happens to supernatural aids). And it’s just dull. There’s nothing remotely interesting about the Time Lords as guardians of some ancient order of things and the balance of good and evil and they have great power that they must never ever use and oh my god just shoot me now please. It’s all the most cliched epic sci-fi drek imaginable, without an ounce of creativity or soul to it.
And, unsurprisingly, it becomes an ethical trainwreck of the worst sort. The over-arching message of the story, reiterated explicitly at multiple points and levels, are that rules are the only things that matter and that even if they are completely arbitrary they must be obeyed because the alternative is catastrophic. The very act of breaking the rules is always morally depraved, no matter how good one’s intentions are.
I’d really like to stress this. Because I know there are people who drift past my blog, reading, say, the entry on The Celestial Toymaker or the one on The Twin Dilemma and, seeing me take an anti-racist or anti-misogynist position, immediately curl into a defensive crouch of “he’s reading too much into the story.” I’m really not, for what it’s worth, and virtually every version of these arguments I’ve seen (and I’ve seen them a lot, because they show up in my referral logs once a month or so) tend to be of the form “I disagree with this one small point so the entire thing is invalid,” or, even better, “but X” where X is something I actually already acknowledge in my argument. But lest there be any mistake or confusion, this is not me reading into the story. This is unambiguously and explicitly reiterated as the moral of the story over and over again. Rules are rules and must be followed absolutely even though they are arbitrary. Any breaking of the rules is evil.
To put that message out under the title Doctor Who is, frankly, sickening. No, it’s not as basely vile as The Twin Dilemma or The Celestial Toymaker, both of which have a material component to their moral failings that make them more immediately odious. But it’s still a complete rejection of everything that David Whitaker or Malcolm Hulke or Robert Holmes or Patrick Troughton or Graham Williams ever did with the program, and an appalling insult to all of their memories.
All of this, however, makes Death Comes to Time seem rather larger and more self-important than it deserves to be. Let us instead put it in a more straightforward perspective. After demonstrating that the UK has the military power to fight back an intergalactic conquerer where the US can only cower impotently, the story has UNIT picking over the alien technology and talking about how it will bring about a new age of prosperity. The story’s ethics are, in other words, exactly what Russell T. Davies skewers just four years later in the form of the Yvonne Hartman-led version of Torchwood. So let’s just take that image of Death Comes to Time: stupid, evil, and thoroughly defeated.
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