The Anne Droid purifies a leaden contestant to gold.
We play the contest again, Mr. Whitaker.
|It’s June 11th, 2005. Crazy Frog is at number one with “Axel F.” Foo Fighters, Coldplay, Gwen Stefani, the White Stripes, Akon, and the Gorillaz also chart, the latter with “Feel Good Inc.” News, fittingly, is a near-total blackout. Seriously – I can find next to nothing in the news for this week. ||It’s June 18th, 2005. Crazy Frog’s “Axel F” is at number one. U2, The Gorillaz, Jamiroquai, Foo Fighters, and the Black Eyed Peas also chart, the latter with “Don’t Phunk With My Heart.” The only real piece of news is John Sentamu becoming the first black Archbishop when appointed Archbishop of York. |
|I guess there’s The Guardian running a Pass Notes on the whole “Bad Wolf” idea, which technically happened after this episode, but which is ultimately more related to the episode called Bad Wolf than to the finale where that concept is revealed in full. (After all, following Bad Wolf the meaning of the phrase seems apparent – it’s a trap laid by the Daleks. It’s not until next episode that this gets complicated.) But its existence reflects the degree to which “in the news” in fact, this week, consisted of this episode itself. Doctor Who was the news, not just televisual background radiation, but a massive, central part of British television. What happened in Doctor Who was considered news. For anyone who had lived through the wilderness years the very idea is completely ridiculous. ||So, television then. For all that The Parting of the Ways is a grand bit of “event” television – an episode self-consciously crafted as a Moment, if you will, it remains the case that, ironically, this got the lowest ratings of the season. Its attempted event – the shock regeneration of Christopher Eccleston – flopped, revealed three months ahead of time in the papers such that this episode led to inevitable climax instead of the most giddily impish shock of all. It’s completely wrong to suggest that Parting of the Ways fizzled – it didn’t at all. But it’s also wrong to suggest that it’s the climactic moment of Doctor Who’s first series is, in a cultural sense, simply wrong. The climactic moment was Rose, with everything else just being the consequences of that success. |
|But it’s actually even stranger than it seems. It’s not just Doctor Who being a big deal – it’s the particular nature of what the deal was. “Bad Wolf,” after all, is as culty as cult can be – a bit of television designed only for obsessives. And not obsessives of the sort at whom Boom Town was aimed, but ones who are going to obsessively analyze episodes for fleeting lines and visuals. “Bad Wolf” was bait for cult television fans, and its emergence in the mainstream culture was in some ways a more definitive confirmation of Doctor Who’s arrival in that mainstream than the ratings themselves. ||Simply put, there wasn’t anything the finale could do to add to Doctor Who’s success. It was already essentially as popular as it was possible for a British television show to be. There have only been five episodes since Rose that hit its ratings. And so the finale never really had a way it could be the size it wants to be. It wants to be the biggest episode of Doctor Who ever, and all it can actually be is the conclusion of an inevitable process that was initiated three months earlier. This may be self-consciously structured as an event, but it can only ever be an aftershock. |
|But a large part of this has been the way in which Doctor Who has found space in the mainstream. Doctor Who’s challenge, from day one, was to establish itself as something with more than a niche, cult appeal. And so every single episode has made sure to include something that feels unexpected within Doctor Who, but that is utterly normal by the standards of British television in 2005. Doctor Who reverted to what it began as – a show about strangeness lurking on the edges of mainstream culture. But even by those standards Bad Wolf and its profusion of reality TV and game shows is absolutely bizarre. It was possible to imagine Doctor Who as a successful television show – it had been before, after all. A stretch, perhaps, but possible. Imagining Davina McCall contributing to Doctor Who? Completely and utterly impossible. ||Even as an aftershock, though, there’s an odd sort of power to it. What really jumps out about The Parting of the Ways is how aggressively Doctor Who it is. After a season in which Doctor Who contextualized itself in terms of the larger sweep of British television, framing every single story as an invasion of some other series, we finally culminate in an episode that is just a bloody sci-fi war. Doctor Who’s last great trick, in other words, is to be an episode of Doctor Who. Having squeezed into the margins of existing show after existing show, Doctor Who now calmly demonstrates that the aggregate of these margins is, in fact, a space of its own on television. After twelve episodes of hiding in other shows, Doctor Who suddenly declares itself to be the subject of inquiry in its own right, instead of merely being a tool for exploring other shows. |
|And yet here we are. Much of this can be explained straightforwardly: Russell T Davies. Bad Wolf is, more than anything else in the entirety of his time on the series, seemingly a depiction of what the interior of Russell T Davies’s brain must look like. Davies is an absolutely voracious consumer of television. Just listen to him on the commentary track of this, as he enthuses passionately about the brilliance of The Weakest Link and its structure, and how hard it is to write good game show dialogue. Davies eats and breathes television, obsessing over its structure and rhythm like nobody else save, perhaps, for Julie Gardner. For him, Doctor Who has always existed in the context of everything else on television. ||It can hardly be called a surprise. Many people have commented on Davies’s supposed reluctance to bring back old Doctor Who concepts, but this is, let’s remember, the person who brought back kronkburgers. His withholding of key bits of Doctor Who’s lore – the long wait before “Gallifrey” is uttered, for instance – is not reluctance so much as an understanding of the structure of events. Davies has made it so that the past of Doctor Who is something to be savoured. That he’s a hardcore devotee is obvious – just listen to him enthusing about how Nisha Nayar, playing “Female Programmer,” was one of the Kangs, or about how the Dalek spaceship uses the same Radiophonic Workshop soundscape as it did in The Chase. |
|But that statement is more compelling than it sounds, and it’s what this episode exists to prove. Doctor Who is, after all, the only show on television where you could do a far future version of What Not To Wear with added dismemberment. All television exists in the context of other shows. Doctor Who is unique in existing in the context of the entirety of television. It’s the one show that can comment on absolutely anything else. That’s its power, and it’s a power that’s been steadily accumulated over the entirety of this season. ||Because for all that Doctor Who is the great chameleon, there is such a thing as Doctor Who’s own identity. It has a mythology and an ethos unto itself. And, of course, the Daleks are part and parcel of it. Their emergence as the big threat of this two-parter isn’t just the comeback of the big monster from earlier in the season, it’s the return of Doctor Who’s entire mythology. On the one hand this is sweepingly epic – a proper season finale of the sort that Doctor Who has never had before (and I include wilderness years equivalents like The Ancestor Cell). |
|But it’s worth noting the importance of Rose to this. Doctor Who can be terribly clever about Big Brother, but the Weakest Link segments only work because of Rose. The plot of the Doctor on a game show is utterly empty. “The most clever man in the universe plays a game show.” Short of being vaporized as a danger because he’s too good, there’s no threat. But Rose is perfect, because it’s a threat that’s organic to her character: the uneducated shopgirl is publicly humiliated for her ignorance. It’s the basic terror of a game show, and it’s only Rose’s presence that allows the series to have anything to say about game shows. ||But it’s also terribly brutal. It’s worth specifying that this happens after Rose is removed from the narrative. Once we get Doctor Who without Rose the show turns aggressively, shockingly violent. All the promise of Lynda’s safety is rejected, and she dies horribly. Everybody does, in fact. And what’s really shocking is how sadistic it is – how much the Daleks seem to relish in killing people, and killing them in painfully ironic ways. Without Rose Doctor Who becomes outright teatime brutality – a cynical show in which a massive cosmic war snuffs out life after life without a hint of remorse, and where the Doctor fails outright to stop it. |
|And while the Doctor could function interestingly on Big Brother without Rose, it’s her presence in the show that allows him to. Note that the Big Brother plot gives the Doctor a quasi-Rose in Lynda, and the Doctor turns on the charm, promising to save her life. But Lynda isn’t Rose; she can’t be. She wasn’t there for the initiation back in Rose. And tellingly, the Doctor’s promise that she’ll live turns out, in the next episode, to be one he can’t keep. (There’s a hint that this is down to her failure to evacuate – i.e. that the Doctor did his job but she failed at hers – but it’s telling that the Doctor’s promise is that she’ll be safe if she stays with him, and that evacuating appears to be pretty dumb too. The sense of the Doctor’s failure is inescapable.) ||We should deal with the Doctor’s choice at the end – “coward, any time.” It is unambiguously the wrong call on his part. Without Rose, it seems, he’s unable to be a hero anymore. It’s easy to treat this as the end choice of the Time War played out again, with Earth replacing Gallifrey, but the suggestion that the Doctor was wrong in the Time War is a dubious one. (Certainly the episode sides against the Doctor: consider Jack’s use of the word “coward” in backhandedly thanking the Doctor, the fact that in declining to use the delta wave he dooms humanity not just on Earth but probably across the galaxy as the Daleks spread outwards, and the fact that most of humanity is already dead by the time the Doctor makes his choice.) |
|This gets at a more fundamental and in many ways more interesting moral debate within the episode. The episode is, after all, in part an aesthetic debate about the value of these reality shows versus Doctor Who. On one level it’s a firm assertion of the comparative equivalence of Doctor Who and other television shows – a declaration that one sort of mass entertainment doesn’t get to look down on another. But on another level there’s a different sort of critique. Does anyone watch Bad Wolf and not come to conclude that Big Brother would be enlivened considerably by disintegrative eviction? The fact of the matter is that the sick and twisted versions of these shows are terribly entertaining, and that Doctor Who’s influence enlivens anything else on television. And Bad Wolf provides a terribly cheeky bait and switch on that by having the force underlying the deadly reality television be the Daleks, Doctor Who’s aggressive death drive. There’s an admission here that Doctor Who works according to the logic of the spectacle, both in a visual and Marxist sense. At the end of the day, Daleks slaughtering everyone is just fun. ||Equally, however, we should deal with the portion of this episode Rose is in. What’s crucial about these sequences is, of course, that they’re firmly EastPowellStreet again. And more to the point, that they finally tackle the class issue that’s been lurking around the background of the whole series as Jackie and Mickey get to lay into Rose for the basic presumptiveness of the series’s premise. Rose argues for the fundamental inadequacy of a life of food and work and sleep, and argues that, yes, life traveling with the Doctor is better than a working class life on a council estate. And Jackie and Mickey respond how you’d expect, which is to accuse her of saying that she’s better than them. But theres a subtlety here that is easy to overlook. Rose in fact denies that she’s better, and says instead that the Doctor’s life is better. Which is true. No amount of respect for the working class erases the fact that everybody in the working class would like a better life for themselves or their children. There’s a thin line between valorizing the working class and fetishizing their lack, and the exploitation of that line is better known as The Daily Mail. |
|It’s further revealing exactly how the Daleks are treated as spectacular. The big reveal isn’t the Daleks themselves – their presence is spoiled in the trailer, and, more to the point, with two separate shots that establish that the Daleks are the villains without actually showing them We’re back in classic Dalek territory here, ironically, with the practice of building up to a visual reveal of things we already know are coming. But the real reveal isn’t the Daleks; it’s their scope. There’s a double reveal – the story first relishes in the fact that it could actually afford an entire six Daleks, a luxurious spend that puts most of the classic series to shame. But this is just a lead-in to the actual big reveal: an entire Dalek fleet said to consist of half a million Daleks, followed by a shot of an unfathomable number of them. The real twist isn’t the Daleks, but the fact that the series can actually show an army of them. At the end of the day, in other words, the Daleks’ power doesn’t come from their status as quasi-Nazis, but from a far more troubling place: the fact that they’re fun.||What is perhaps most interesting is the re-equation of Pete with the Doctor, as Rose points out to Jackie that Pete would keep trying to save the Doctor and Jackie, after getting over the shock of Rose claiming to have met Pete, admits that this is true. Pete, of course, is portrayed as a somewhat inadequate wide boy – a working class grifter of better intentions than ability. This is, of course, a terribly likeable sort of character, and one that the reworking of the Doctor into a more working class Mancunian character consciously evokes. The result is the dismantling of an implied hostility between Doctor Who and EastPowellStreet, with the Doctor serving as a particular character type familiar within those shows, only with ontological hyper-competence and perfectly idealistic morality. This gives the Doctor power not just within the story, but within the medium – observe, for instance, how he’s able to look straight at Rose even when he’s a recording on the TARDIS, an ability that is presented as stemming from his basic charm. |
|This is the “drive” portion of the death drive – the fact that we desire it. We want to see the Daleks unleashed onto the narrative, knowing full well the effects. The veil of fiction becomes a strangely unsatisfying membrane here, not quite fit to hold the consequences back. We want Big Brother with disintegrations because it’s fun, but that fun only exists because Doctor Who allows disintegration without death (in more ways than one). And yet the Daleks stalk the margins of the narrative, insisting on the fun of giving into the perversity within Doctor Who. They are inexorable from it, but, equally crucially, require that we find some sort of counterbalance – something that stops the narrative from descending inexorably into Dalek brutality. ||And when cut off from Rose he loses all of this, becoming not just ethically vacant but spiritually and emotionally. The Doctor ends the story suicidal, seemingly desperate to sacrifice himself for anything, be it his own martyrdom or, more productively, Rose. The narrative collapse is the default position of the Davies era in season finales, but in future stories will assume its traditional structure as a whirling kaleidoscope of story elements. Here we have a simple pair: the Doctor at war with the raw homicidal might of the Daleks, and Rose. Separate them and the entire narrative frame collapses. Just this once, everybody dies. Reinsert Rose into the narrative and some salvation is attained, albeit at the traditional great cost. |
|Nothing in this episode presents an alternative, although, of course, the fact that Rose is marginalized for a large swath of it helps with that. Rose is in no way the sole representative of material social reality – the porting of the broad televisual landscape of 2005 ensures that. But nothing else in this episode offers an alternative to its thundrous, ecstatic conclusion. There’s so much thrill in seeing the vast Dalek fleet and the Doctor’s wonderful fearmongering of the Daleks, threatening them with his very lack of plan. The Daleks unnerved response – “what is the meaning of this negative” – says all there is to say. The audience wants to turn the narrative over to the Daleks just to watch the Doctor overthrow them. ||The joke of the narrative collapse, of course, is that it’s what we think we want. The return of the Emperor of the Daleks, unseen (quite literally, since the episodes are missing) since 1967, the last battle of the Time War, and a bunch of other epic bluster that is, let’s remember, the ostensible content of every failed quasi-season finale of the wilderness years. And as the story hurtles inexorably towards the thunder of the Oncoming Storm it deforms, only brought back to sanity by the intervention of Rose, at which point we learn that the series has a built-in way of averting a narrative collapse: a way of cheating death. The epic war this story builds to is a feint, a carefully chosen wrong alley. |
|But look at what we turn away from. After all, Lynda is a reasonably interesting character in her own right, and gets the “companion” treatment for a few scenes. Why is she unable to provide a backstop against the story’s descent into the realm of the Daleks? One could attempt to raise a moral point – that Lynda is complicit in the Gamestation’s televisual brutality and thus cannot actually be saved, but the Doctor’s promise that she will be surely constitutes moral absolution. Similarly, the argument that Rose alone chose to travel with the Doctor doesn’t wash; Lynda made that choice too. The reason she can’t stop the Daleks – and thus tacitly the reason she dies next episode – is ultimately more cynical. Because she doesn’t. Because the Doctor, for all his force in the narrative (and look at how he even has medial force – he knows instinctively where the Big Brother cameras are so he can make direct addresses) can’t save everyone. Because moral standing is not a magical armor that protects people from harm. The only thing that can do that absolutely are the conventions of the narrative. It doesn’t matter how nice Lynda is; she’s not a fundamental force within the narrative. ||Why, though? After all, Rose is hardly the only example of ordinary humanity in this episode. Lynda, the nice white collar quasi-couple that Jack fights with, Roderick – there are loads of ordinary people who should be able to provide the needed backstop to this descent into Dalek epicdom. Why are they unable to? Or, put another way, why does it have to be Rose? We already hinted at the answer – that Rose, or, at least, Rose is the start point of this new version of Doctor Who, granting her absolute power within the narrative. This is the story where Davies makes the comment I’ve cited several times before about the possibility of children thinking Rose is actually dead, and refuting Phil Collinson’s suggestion that he hopes children wouldn’t be that cynical, saying, “that’s not cynical, that’s wise.” This quote establishes firmly the sort of show that Davies is writing here – one where genre awareness is a prerequisite. Rose is the only person who can stop the narrative collapse because the audience knows, intrinsically, that Rose is the only person who can stop the narrative collapse. It doesn’t matter how nice Lynda is; she’s not a fundamental force within the narrative. |
|Rose and the Doctor are. Doctor Who is. This delicate balance between all that the Daleks represent, this strange sci-fi mockery of everything we are, and EastPowellStreet is what sustains the narrative. We asked at the beginning of the series if Rose constituted its own perimeter or the perimeter of the entire world around it. But the real secret is this: it’s the same thing. There’s no difference. The world of mad ideas and the world of people are the same exact world, and narrative collapse arises only when you try to sever them. The Doctor’s sole failure in this story is to forget that – to think that he could ever send Rose Tyler away to die on his own. In fact they’re inseparable. The Doctor and Rose Tyler. The biggest show on television. ||Rose and the Doctor are. Doctor Who is. This delicate balance between all that the Daleks represent, this strange sci-fi mockery of everything we are, and EastPowellStreet is what sustains the narrative. We asked at the beginning of the series if Rose constituted its own perimeter or the perimeter of the entire world around it. But the real secret is this: it’s the same thing. There’s no difference. The world of mad ideas and the world of people are the same exact world, and narrative collapse arises only when you try to sever them. The Doctor’s sole failure in this story is to forget that – to think that he could ever send Rose Tyler away to die on his own. In fact they’re inseparable. The Doctor and Rose Tyler. The biggest show on television. |