|My god, there really is an action figure set based on “Children
of the Revolution.”
It’s September 24th, 2011. One Direction are at number one with “What Makes You Beautiful,” while Pixie Lott, Example, Calvin Harris, and Maroon 5 also chart, the latter continuing to just hover at #2 with “Moves Like Jagger.” In news, the US policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is finally repealed in favor of letting gay and lesbian service members serve openly, the NBA lockout results in cancelling a bunch of preseason games, and Occupy Wall Street starts getting some press coverage.
While on television, it’s the sequel to The Lodger, namely Closing Time. “You know that absolutely brilliant thing you did? Do it again” is, as assignments to creative people go, something of the biggest nightmare imaginable. Almost certainly, after all, you used the best ideas you had for the concept on the first go-around. Especially in the realm of something comedic, where you’ve almost certainly done a winnowing process the first time around, since the way being funny tends to work is that you try about five to fifty times as many ideas as you actually need so that you can cut the 80-98% that aren’t actually good enough. So the comedy sequel is an absolutely brutal thing.
And that applies very well here. So much of why The Lodger works is that it gets in, it executes a couple of great gags about the idea of the Doctor trying to live with a perfectly ordinary person, it throws in a romantic comedy plot, and then it finishes up and makes way for the Pandorica. It doesn’t need five minutes more, little yet forty-five. And in a real sense, a sequel is a terrible idea, because it cannot possibly live up to the original. All it can be is “the next best forty-five minutes of Craig/Doctor jokes.”
And so from the start, Gareth Roberts makes an extremely sensible decision and makes this a different premise. This isn’t “the Doctor moves in with Craig again.” Indeed, in many ways Craig is a completely different character such that, other than a single scene in which he pouts at the Doctor, he’s a basically functional companion who broadly speaking understands how Doctor Who stories work. Given that the entire premise of The Lodger was that the Doctor was living in the spare room of a romantic comedy and mucking everything up, the change to a setup in which the primary guest star is now good at being in a Doctor Who story is such that it barely seems to count as a sequel.
So instead, the story focuses on the fact that Craig’s a father now. What’s interesting here is that this really doesn’t follow from The Lodger in any particularly logical sense. Fatherhood is not a logical follow-up to any of the issues there except inasmuch as sometimes when people fall in love there are babies. Craig isn’t out of character as such, but precisely none of the concerns that defined him in The Lodger are still in play here. Ultimately, the connection between Closing Time and The Lodger is that they both feature everyman characters played by James Corden, which creates a sort of de facto continuity between the two characters.
So what we have in Closing Time is an exploration of fatherhood, or, perhaps more broadly, parenthood, although there is, within it, a particularly male anxiety about the intrinsically closer bond between child and mother than between child and father. So yes, actually, let’s say clearly that it’s about fatherhood, in a way that plays off of and expands the exploration of masculinity that the series has been engaging in since Moffat took over, and particularly with Rory.
Ah, right. Rory. I’ve been kind of avoiding Rory, for pretty much the exact same reason that I avoided talking about death much in Miracle Day, but since we’re now on an episode in which he has exactly zero lines, this is obviously the time to talk about him. Because I think he is in many ways the most important character in the Moffat era. We’ve already seen, at somewhat considerable length, the way in which Moffat is very focused on changing and improving the stories we tell about women. He is an ideologically feminist writer, a point that can trivially be demonstrated by trawling interview quotes. His feminism may be imperfect (in fact it is imperfect, in ways that are not entirely different from the ways that William Moulton Marston’s feminism is imperfect, but as anyone who has read the book where I talk about that will know, feminism is an ongoing process of making new mistakes, and Moffat accomplishes that with aplomb), but anyone who attempts to argue that Moffat is not consciously attempting to write feminist television is simply and factually incorrect.
Obviously the main thrust of this, and it’s something we saw very clearly in the subversion of the rape/revenge plot in A Good Man Goes to War and the subsequent story of female spaces and healing that is Let’s Kill Hitler, is telling different stories about women and giving girls a different set of narratives to absorb about their place in the world, specifically ones that highlight the fact that they are entitled to have stories of their own. A secondary thrust of this is the treatment of the Doctor, which fits into a career-long pattern on Moffat’s part of interrogating the ethos of clever men/authorial self-inserts (which, as Joking Apart and Coupling both demonstrate are, for Moffat, basically the same thing), although ultimately, as with any of Moffat’s interrogations of that, after diagnosing a number of ways in which clever men are problematic, this quickly turns into an unabashed “but aren’t they wonderful” of the sort that, while probably true, is nevertheless comically self serving. And for the most part, this is how Moffat’s Doctor Who (and almost everything else he writes) works – it repeatedly and aggressively interrogates and renegotiates the relationship between a particular type of male hero and the female characters who exist in the space around that hero.
All of which leaves Rory, who is neither female nor a brilliantly clever man who delivers witty dialogue. Indeed, Rory is astonishingly normal and mundane. But this means that he’s also the one who gets what is possibly the most important ethical point of the entire Moffat era: “not all victories are about saving the universe.” Which is to say that in a series that’s about negotiating the space between brilliant and fundamentally mad heroes and women, Rory ends up being a strange but necessary side point, which is an idealized depiction of masculinity. In this regard there’s a lot of parallels to draw between Rory and John Watson, but let’s save those for Sherlock and for now just try to make a vague and broad sketch of what Moffat’s idealized masculinity consists of.
The best definition probably involves popping back to Press Gang and grabbing one of Moffat’s best episode titles, “At Last a Dragon.” Which is to say, Moffat’s idealized masculinity is still based on a fundamental sort of heroism, but it is a heroism of necessity. One of the most fascinating things about Rory as a character is that he does not particularly want to be on the TARDIS. He is only there because his wife does. But equally, given that his wife wants to be on the TARDIS, he does as well, not so much because of what the TARDIS offers, nor out of jealousy or fear that he’ll lose Amy, but because being on the TARDIS is self-evidently dangerous as all hell and if his wife is going to be there, he will be too in order to take care of her. Perhaps the most Rory line of all comes in The Impossible Astronaut, where, looking at the Doctor’s body and the need to burn it, he calmly declares that if they’re going to do this, they should do it properly.
There’s a huge thread within Moffat’s later work along these lines – you can also see it whenever he starts interrogating the concept of what a soldier is. Moffat is fascinated by the heroism of necessity – by the idea of people who can be trusted to do what is necessary, even in enormously trying circumstances, and particularly by those who, because of that, put themselves in situations where they’ll be called upon to do just that. But equally important in this is a certain measure of restraint. What is important about Rory is not merely what he can do, but the fact that he does not seek to be a hero. He doesn’t want to do dramatic things, but he also refuses to avoid situations where he’ll have to. He, not just as an authorial conception, but in his own personal mythology, is a supporting character in someone else’s story, but at times a vital one.
Which finally brings us back to Closing Time and its interest in a particular anxiety of fatherhood – one that’s been analyzed ad nauseum, but that comes down to the basic fact that mothers have a variety of biological functions for embryos and infants that fathers simply don’t, and that this results in a fundamental asymmetry in child-rearing. And this is the basic problem of Closing Time – Craig having to find out and define for himself what “being a dad” means. The Doctor’s role in this is oddly wonderful – he perfectly understands Stormageddon/Alfie, to the point of “speaking baby.” Equally, however, he’s manifestly not a father figure, but instead a strange alien hunting Cybermen. His role within the narrative is to help teach Craig what it means to be a dad. And what it means to be a dad, quite compatibly with Moffat’s larger ethos of masculinity, it that when your son is crying because of the Cybermen, you get your shit together and blow them up. And, of course, within all of this is an impeccable Gareth Roberts script long on humor and warmth and humanity.
But let’s pause to look at the Cybermen a bit. There’s a conscious difference in texture and feel for the Cybermen scenes and the rest of the story, with the Cybermen being shot in Season Six’s trademark low/cold lighting, far from the warmth and naturalism of the everyday world sequences. And so for all that the Cybermen really are just standing in as the generic Doctor Who monsters here, they retain a certain whiff of their old qlippothic horror. They are the horrible nightmare lurking below the surface of the world – a terrifying otherworld that wants to consume our world and drain every ounce of humanity and value from it until it is just an empty, deleted husk. This isn’t particularly played up, but it’s a clear part of the story, and, more importantly, a major thematic component of the story, which is after all equally largely about the Doctor preparing himself to confront his own death.
Which brings us to the end of the story, in which the Silence finally come for River Song and set up the inevitable death of the Doctor that has been teased since the start of the season. In many ways, the Cybermen are just thematic placeholders for the Silence, who are arguably the ultimate in qlippothic monsters. Even their name feels qlippothic, focusing on absence. They are unstory. Everything that is substantial about them is gone, to the point where they cannot even be remembered. They are nothing but a rotting absence and abscess, a textual wound that manifests in real and literal wounds to people, most notably Amy and River, who they torture and abuse just to further their monstrous decay of the narrative. The Doctor’s death is, of course, their visible masterstroke – the point where they ensure a true and proper narrative collapse so that there can be no more stories at all. And Closing Time walks an odd line between this, paralleling the acceptance of death’s inevitability with an acknowledgment of the horror of what the Silence killing the Doctor actually means, a horror that’s shown in the actually quite upsetting and awful scene where it appears that Craig has succumbed to cyberconversion.
But in many ways it is the final scene that speaks loudest here. That’s not a knock on the episode, which is quite wonderful, and has the “Stormageddon” gag, which is demonstrably one of the most beloved funny bits in all of Doctor Who. Nevertheless, it’s an episode that exists to finally bring about the awful moment where the abuse suffered by River/Melody comes to a head. This was, after all, always partially overlooked. Let’s Kill Hitler demonstrates the healing of River in one sense, but that’s in the sense of turning her from a villain into a hero. Here, even if only for a scene, we go back to the elided truth: that Kovarian and the Silence kidnapped a child and tortured her, causing irreparable psychological damage. And in the final images, as River is captured and drugged, left powerless and fading to unconsciousness as she looks in terror both at her captors and at the knowledge of what awful fate is about to take place for both her and the one she loves, and finally abandoned, thrown in the water to rot like she’s a victim in some awful cop show, are genuinely among the most awful and upsetting that Doctor Who has ever contemplated. This on top of the horror of stealing her from her mother, of the bodily violation that was her birth, and of every other awful thing to happen in this plot.
In a story framed by two qlippothic horrors, then, it is River who serves to show us the awful face of a world in which all positive aspects of the narrative are removed, and where all is left is degradation and misery. Yes, this is a problem the arc has already set up with A Good Man Goes to War, but that, at least, posed a question of how to rescue Amy. Here the misery is so much bleaker, tied as it is in the declared-to-be-inevitable death of the Doctor. A Good Man Goes to War opened a door, looked at the consequences, and ultimately rejected that sort of narrative as fundamentally incompatible with Doctor Who. But here that sort of narrative actually happens. It’s a narrative collapse far bleaker and more fundamentally disturbing than any the series has contemplated before – one in which, for however fleeting a moment, Doctor Who gives up all hope and becomes a qlippoth of itself. A show where these sorts of things happen to people – that focuses on the degradation and abuse and torture of women in the way that the final shot of River in the astronaut suit, submerged in Lake Silencio does – is not a show that should exist in the first place. This is the death that the Doctor has chosen to go willingly to: a death not only of himself, but of the entire system of values and ethics that his show embodies. One in which Doctor Who is finally, decisively deconstructed and shown to be a story about the horrors of the world. And as the episode closes, there is ultimately only one question: what possible rescue can there be from this fate?