|Shooty daughter thing|
It’s May 10th, 2008. Madonna and Justin Timberlake are at number one. Pendulum, Flo Rida, and Usher also chart. In news, the Federal Reserve notes that banks are increasing standards on loans as the subprime mortgage crisis gathers steam. Bertie Ahern, Taoiseach of Ireland, resigns after nearly eleven years as head of government, and Dmitry Medvedev becomes President of Russia. Barack Obama thumps Hillary Clinton in the North Carolina Primary, leading Tim Russert to declare that it is clear who is going to win, and turning Clinton’s campaign into a strange sort of zombie, which, to be fair, anyone who was looking at the numbers realized was true months ago.
Commemorating her stubbornness, Doctor Who airs The Doctor’s Daughter. The definition of insanity, or, at least, the one trotted out for rhetorical purposes, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. In Davies’s defense, he does not actually repeat the exact same stretch of episodes four through seven as he did in Season Three; he goes to Gareth Roberts instead of Chris Chibnall. Nevertheless, it’s tough to see why Davies decided to go with a Helen Raynor monster two-parter followed by a Stephen Greenhorn script for the second season in a row. And unsurprisingly, it works about as well as it did the first time, which is to say not really at all.
The Doctor’s Daughter is interesting in part because it’s the most sci-fi story the new series has done in some time. This is a story that hinges on an entirely sci-fi riddle based purely on the interplay of imaginary concepts. One has to not only follow the good old “science concepts become mythology through generations of oral folklore” premise from stuff like The Face of Evil, one has to get the secondary realization that all of this has happened in a week. These are not hugely difficult and advanced concepts, to be sure – I doubt a significant portion of the audience was confused – but it’s still focused on sci-fi concepts in a way the new series rarely is. Certainly it’s difficult to think of another Davies-era story that works like this.
In many ways it’s a throwback to the classic series, although it’s tough to pin down a specific bit of the series. The aesthetics of the story are all very Saward-era – lots of military people shooting lots of stuff and the Doctor thrown in the middle of it. But under the hood this is the sort of thing you’d find in the Williams era – a morality play framed around the interplay of sci-fi concepts – something like Underworld or The Pirate Planet. In terms of those concepts, it feels most like Christopher Bidmead, albeit not in his “let’s play with mathematics” phase of Logopolis and Castrovalva, but rather in terms of the stuff he oversaw like Full Circle, or his later Frontios. But even this is part of an older tradition going back to stuff like The Web Planet and The Space Museum where the story is structured around answering the question “what are the rules of this world?” Like The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky, in other words, this is the sort of story that ought to appeal to people who bemoan the way in which the new series has fallen away from how the classic series worked.
Instead it’s widely hated. As with the previous story, there are sensible and easily identifiable reasons why the approach fails. Stories about figuring out how a world works work best when the world works according to striking and interesting images. The Face of Evil – one of the best examples of this sort of thing – hinges on the weird juxtaposition of scientific technology and primitive tribes, bound together by the supremely gripping spectacle of a giant stone face of the Doctor that’s being worshipped by the Sevateem. Frontios – another classic – hinges on the horrifying body horror and eccentric, twisted spaces of the planet’s interior. In all of the classic series stories like this that work, in other words, there are hooks that get us invested in the world.
Here, however, the world is… rather drab. The idea of cloning soldiers to deal with the massively high death toll of a war isn’t bad, but there’s not that much mystery to it. How the world works is fairly obvious, and, crucially, the revelation that it’s only been a week since the ship crashed isn’t actually that revelatory. It doesn’t change anything significant about how the world works. The resolution would have been identical if it has been a week or a millennium since the ship crashed, just so long as you still have a functioning ship. (And there’s no reason you wouldn’t, since it’s all made up and thus the ship can last as long as you want.) The concept never gets developed in an interesting or unexpected direction.
I’m not inclined to blame the forty-five minute format for that. Yes, it has half as much time as a traditional four-parter to establish things, but the new series also abandons many of the padding techniques that plague the classic series and, within any given scene, moves considerably faster. It’s not like the new series can’t flesh out a reasonably complex concept in forty-five minutes. Look at how detailed the puzzle in Blink is. No, the problem is that the central spectacle of this episode is Jenny, not the sci-fi concepts. They don’t have any room to breathe because the story is so caught up in its titular premise that the sci-fi mystery that’s advancing the actual plot only half-registers.
This once again comes perilously close to “don’t let emotions get into my sci-fi show,” but in this case there’s a fairly straightforward refutation to that claim, which is that it’s really just “don’t let poorly written emotions get into my sci-fi show.” Because, of course, the Doctor’s daughter is a blatant feint. There’s no substance to it. You’d be more than slightly hard pressed to identify a single regard in which Jenny actually resembles the Doctor. She’s not a character set up to extend from him – she’s not clever and prone to questioning everything. She’s slightly less violent than the other soldiers and she can do cool backflips, but the only way in which she resembles the Doctor is that she’s got special powers, essentially. All she does throughout the story is ask questions that seem to challenge the premises of the series, but that have weight only because the Doctor never gives any of the perfectly sensible replies. “You’re using it to fight back,” Jenny says. “Yes, but I’m actively trying not to kill people,” the Doctor inexplicably doesn’t. “You fought and killed? Then how are we different,” she demands. “I regret it and stopped killing people,” he fails to reply. And so on. It’s an argument that only works because one side isn’t allowed to give any of the stunningly obvious responses available to them.
And, of course, in the end Jenny exists only to get killed. This is a point so drably predictable that Steven Moffat called Davies out on it, pointing out that introducing major new character who alters the status quo of the series and then immediately killing them off at the end of the episode is very Star Trek. Davies proceeded to change the ending so that Jenny survived. But the result is just a cheap “introduce a major new character and then kill her off” episode with a resurrection tacked onto the end, as opposed to something that actually addresses the problem, which is that Jenny is neutered by her very inability to have any impact on proceedings.
Which is not to say that stories like this can’t work. In giving the brief to Greenhorn, Davies wanted, it seems, a story in the vein of Human Nature/The Family of Blood or The Girl in the Fireplace – a character drama in which the Doctor has to respond to different things than usual. But Greenhorn didn’t write one. Instead he wrote a superficial morality play that gave Tennant virtually nothing to do beyond be cranky a bunch, and that had the same basic ending as Last of the Time Lords, only with a horrifyingly bad speech about “a man who never would.”
The result is a story that’s bad in the same way that 70s Terry Nation stories that weren’t heavily rewritten by Robert Holmes are bad, which is to say, because the writer just doesn’t seem to be very good at writing Doctor Who. Greenhorn’s scripts are both sci-fi cliches with a handful of emotional scenes shoehorned in. In neither case do the emotional bits actually have anything to do with the sci-fi. They’re just sci-fi scripts where characters emote. He’s a writer who just didn’t work out. And unlike Helen Raynor, who proved her writing chops on Torchwood and then got given a pair of Doctor Who scripts that played to none of her strengths, there’s no real evidence that Greenhorn has a wheelhouse the scripts were missing. Greenhorn asked in an interview for a story that would allow the Doctor to change instead of just changing the world around him. He got given an opportunity to write exactly what he wanted. And he whiffed it.
Perhaps the story could have been made to work with a Davies rewrite. But Greenhorn is one of the writers who’s run his own show and who thus doesn’t get rewritten by Davies. And even if he had, the problems are pretty deep-lying, in that the emotional content and the plot don’t have any obvious connections. The supposed point was to give the Doctor a new perspective on the Time War, but…
Well, actually, this becomes apropos following The Day of the Doctor. It’s often been observed that one of Davies’s real innovations in bringing the series back was destroying Gallifrey and having the Doctor be the last of his kind. Which is true; that was a major improvement, especially given how poor Gallifrey-based stories historically were. It gave the Doctor a new way to relate to Gallifrey, and gave the show some real energy for several seasons. The problem is that Gallifrey remained in the form of its absence. There was just a Gallifrey-shaped hole in proceedings. And all the Doctor could do with relation to the Gallifrey-shaped hole was be upset that he was the last of his kind. It was a new direction, but it was a fundamentally limiting one.
And in the end that’s where The Doctor’s Daughter really falters. Because it conceives of the idea of the Doctor having a daughter only in terms of him being upset about the Time War. And in the end, there are so many more things to do with the idea of the Doctor having a daughter than having him angst further about being the last of the Time Lords. But when you have the overwhelming weight of the Time War going on there’s no other way for the story to play out. The Master has similar problems in this period – any story he’s in has to be about his status as the other Time Lord. There becomes only one story to tell.
Which is to say that in many ways The Doctor’s Daughter is the point at which the necessity of restoring Gallifrey starts to become obvious. Because as bad as the allure of the stupid Gallifreyan epics that plagued the wilderness years was for the show, this is limiting too, and in just the same way. The Doctor gets stuck in one form of reaction – post-traumatic guilt. It’s not that there’s nothing more interesting to do with the Time War after this point – there are at least two more properly good Time War stories between this and The Day of the Doctor. But it does mean that the problems with the Time War as a concept are beginning to show, and that it’s beginning to cause harm as well as have benefits. You can’t blame the Time War for this story’s problems – it has plenty of others without it. But at the end of the day, even if you’d matched the sci-fi premise to the emotional premise, even if you’d gotten rid of the dumb pseudo-moralizing, even if you’d fixed every other problem with this story, you’d still end up with a story that thinks the most interesting thing about fatherhood is angst about being the last of your kind.