|The lengths people will go to in order to get License to Kill|
written out of canon…
A bombed out husk of imagined Londons, all the dead and abandoned futures piled up alongside each other. All the things that could have been, united by their shared experience of a moment where it became obvious that they actually never could be. Futures that have run out, been spent, boiled away to ruins, our cultural memento moris, reminding us all of the looming and inevitable death that is nostalgia. “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings. I don’t want to go.”
It is tempting to end on a more positive note. It is not as though I don’t enjoy The End of Time, or the Davies era. I quite love both. Really, I do.
But the Davies era has long since ended. We have parted the ways, and faced doomsday. We have seen the journey end and long since seen the next Doctor. We’ve praised it, buried it, critiqued it, and disinterred it several times to do it all again. And now we have The End of Time, an ending so absolute that it does not so much cut off the Davies era as it cuts off the abstract possibility of anything. With the Davies era refusing so spectacularly to die, few other options seem to exist but cutting off the very possibility of time’s advancement. End everything and you might just manage to kill it off too.
If, in fact, there’s even any time left to have. By this point the contours of the last Davies episode are self-evident. It is going too far to suggest that all of Davies’s season finales (and this clearly counts) are the same, but there is a structure to them: a whirling mass of conceptual quotes, flipping channels endlessly until it resolves by declaring the permanence of Doctor Who as a narrative fixture. A regeneration story is going to be no different. A shell game – where in the narrative is the trap that kills the Doctor? Inevitably, the point will not be what kills the Doctor but the fact of his ongoing narrative role: a story that never ends. The justification for this lack of resolution will, as always, be populism. Doctor Who is loved, so it is not cancelled.
Underneath all of this, very low in the mix, is a very different sort of story. In every season after the first, the most interesting moment in terms of Davies’s own scripts has been the inevitable spiky and difficult story – the one where Davies stops trying to be quite so populist and throws something a bit ugly and unnerving on the screen. (And the only reason this can’t be said of the first season is that practically every Davies episode that season does it.) Love and Monsters, Gridlock, and Midnight are all cases where one can see a very different sort of Davies: an angry one clearly considerably more skeptical and cynical about the world. Even in the specials season this exists, as Davies finally has time to tackle Torchwood properly and delivers Children of Earth.
Deep within The End of Time there’s this sort of story. There’s an angry joke running through it about Barack Obama and the prospect of ending the recession, with Tommo’s bitter line about how any solution won’t reach folks like him and Ginger. The Master “deletes” the plan, but this seems in practice astonishingly unfeasible (surely the plan is, you know, written down somewhere). And yet there is no evidence that the plan ever pans out. Or, perhaps, it pans out as it really did – inadequate half measures. The prospect of saving the world from a crisis of late capitalism via what Tommo describes as “some big financial scheme” is, after all, absurd on the face of it. It always was.
But much as Davies wants to write working class drama for the post-Great Recession age, he doesn’t. The glimpse of Donna and Shaun’s marriage that Wilf provides speaks volumes: “He’s on minimum wage, she’s earning tuppence, so all they can afford is a tiny little flat. And then sometimes I see this look on her face, like she’s so sad, but she can’t remember why.” All the escape from the drudgery of the world, the promise initially offered by Rose and its triumphant explosion of the dead-end shop in favor of a universe of terror and wonder, finally collapsed. There is nothing but scraping by and an inescapable sorrow for futures that never were. But Davies can’t end there. No matter how much he adds that approach into the buildup, there’s still the populist end to reckon with.
“Sometimes I think a Time Lord lives too long,” the Doctor says at one point, and we’re meant to disagree. And yet why? When the Doctor puts the principle of not being willing to shoot someone over the fate of all of humanity, what are we meant to do with him? For the second time in the Davies era, the Doctor’s vain insistence on not being the one to pull the trigger is set to become the doom of humanity. We are all to be the Master, our worst impulses, the rot that sets in as the universe finally goes black, and the Doctor refuses to save us because of a moral point centering entirely on the question of propelling pieces of metal at high speeds via a controlled explosion at the base of a rifled barrel.
Even at the end, the question is arbitrary. Somehow shooting a diamond and consigning Rassilon to death in the hell of the Time War is acceptable, but shooting Rassilon himself is not. Letting the Master walk into the Time War is acceptable, putting a bullet in him is not. Apparently “how the Master started” has everything to do with projectiles and nothing to do with an actual system of ethics. Wilf’s military service renders him noble, but the use of a gun is wrong. There is no substance to this, just a mess of would-be principles masquerading as a moral.
What we have, in other words, is the substitution of any reasoned system for one of ideology. The Spectacle writ large: “what appears is good; what is good appears.” The consideration of material reality is beside the point, rendering poverty and the inescapable totality of the Great Recession nothing more than one more image that happens to be on the channel between Time Lords hurling lightning at each other and June Whitfield. Hooray.
For what, though? What is the ultimate act of evil and horror that underlies this story? What is the sprawling plot, worse even than the Master, that the Doctor dies to stop? It is a scheme on the part of the Time Lords to “ascend to become creatures of consciousness alone. Free of these bodies, free of time, and cause and effect, while creation itself ceases to be.” And yet what is wrong about this? The Lords of Time undone, removed from time itself, causality itself unwound, while creation is finally allowed to go. We do, after all, know the fate of all things: the Master showed us that back in Last of the Time Lords. There’s only blackness and the final crumbling of humanity into decay and rot. Not just oblivion, but a dark so hellish that it turns us all into monsters.
And the Doctor opts to consign us to this. The Time Lords offer at last to shatter the lens of history, to free us of a fixed endpoint and let us at least have the oblivion of creation itself being unmade. It is death, yes, but not the death the Master offers – the annihilation of humanity in favor of his vision. It is a simple death. A real death. One that opts to walk away from a universe bounded on each end by inconceivable horrors; by devils at the start and finish. But the Doctor says no, insisting instead on nailing the universe to the rotting corpse of history once again.
The story must go on, after all. And to do that, its hero must be a feckless narcissist who endlessly spares only a few. Who preaches to others about how “Every now and then, a little victim’s spared because she smiled, because he’s got freckles, because they begged. And that’s how you live with yourself. That’s how you slaughter millions. Because once in a while, on a whim, if the wind’s in the right direction, you happen to be kind.”
And so he is. He’ll let one old man live. He’ll let one woman struggling with poverty win the lottery and thus become one of the lucky few whose social mobility provides moral justification for the poverty of the rest. One mother gets her son scooped from in front of a car, one broken hearted man meets a pretty boy, and yes, one shop girl gets to see the heights of the universe.
But the rest of us? We remain yoked to the wheel of history. Dead Time Lords are, after all, still Lords. The death of the author does not free us from the tyranny of the text. This is the odd horror of Davies’s atheistic universe. He is so determined to unseat every god and give us a universe where after death there’s nothing at all, and yet he insists on the absolute fixity of history. Absent any god the fixed points in time where what happens must always happen are the ordering principles. And it is forbidden to rewrite those. And so the ultimate sin within the Davies era stands revealed: deviation from the prescribed arc of history. Because the world loves Doctor Who, and so Doctor Who can only reassure the world that its love is justified. And thus the sense of history and memory upon which the world’s psyche rests must never be disrupted. It must never change. Even if the Lords of Time die, their vision and laws must be respected and upheld. Consider one of the earliest consequences of their death that the Davies era declared: there are no longer even any alternate realities to speak of. There is only this singular vision: the arc of history.
That arc, of course, is written within late capitalist Britain. There is no other alternative. The arc of history is not some alien concept – some Enemy with a new and inexpressible vision of history. It is the ideology of capitalism. Davies is open about it – billions of years in the future, there is still just early 21st century humanity with funny skin colors. The same social system echoes throughout eternity. And within it, everyone has to “get by” and muddle through a hostile and painful world. A lucky handful will be elevated, and life on the bottom for Tommo and Binro and all the rest will remain unchanged. There is no way out. There is no alternative. Revolution is not permitted – only small, tiny acts of kindness whose mercy is inevitably twisted into a defense of the status quo. The only thing absent is mercury.
And so we get the nightmarish final image of the Davies era, so twisted by its own hubris that it is mistaken as a reward. The Davies era has always existed within television. And its final sequence is, in effect, channel surfing – short clips of various television shows and premises. Except that the Master’s scheme has come off again, only this time it’s not that everyone has become the Master, but that every television show has become Doctor Who. Every story can be a Doctor Who story, and Doctor Who never ends, and so at last the inevitable happens: Doctor Who becomes the only thing on television.
This is the dank hell of the neverending adventure. To sustain such a narrative there must always be the suffering of the world in which the adventure is crafted. There can be no posthuman ascension, no moment of blinding mercury that shatters the world and lets it change. Putrefaction is never allowed to end. Instead history will rot and fester and the story will uphold its degradations just so that its hero can, every week, save a tiny fraction of infinity. There is no ending. There is no release. Nothing ever changes except the iconography. Because change is death, and the show refuses death. This is the true mantra of the Davies era – the awful consequence of the narrative never being allowed to collapse. Doctor Who has emboited the whole of existence, and has then chosen to be stuck in one single form – a box of late capitalist authority. Its sole function has become to police a single vision of history. Time cannot be rewritten. Not one line.
It is January 1st, 2010. “Killing in the Name” has been killed off by the X Factor track it was made to try to block. Nothing of substance has changed in the charts. A blue moon and a lunar eclipse occur on the same day. There is no news to speak of.
Doctor Who has stayed on television.
History marches on.