It’s November 3rd, 2008. The X Factor finalists are at number one with “Hero,” which lasts the entirety of this story. Beyonce, Kanye West, Girls Aloud, Britney Spears, and Pink also chart. In news, the US Treasury Department starts spending money bailing out banks, Viswanathan Anand retains the World Chess Championship, and Lewsi Hamilton wins the Forumula One Championship. Barack Obama is elected President, while Lindsay Roy is elected MP for Glenrothes. And €750 million of cocaine is seized off the coast of Ireland, or, for comparison, fourteen times the annual net income of HMV.
On television, as opposed to drugs, it’s The Sarah Jane Adventures again. Although The Sarah Jane Adventures has been consistently between watchable and rather good, it has not previously punched dramatically above its own weight. It has been a perfectly serviceable children’s show, generally protected by the absurd ethos that things made for kids don’t have to be as good as things made for adults. But it has never served up an episode of such quality that it can be called a classic of some sort. It is not a show that has a Midnight, a Human Nature/Family of Blood, a The Girl in the Fireplace, a Dalek, or even, for that matter, a Small Worlds or an Out of Time. It has been a show of remarkable consistency, both for good and for ill. With The Mark of the Berserker, however, that changes. The Mark of the Berserker is a phenomenal hour of television – a story that, on its own merits, ranks among the best of the Russell T Davies era.
We have noted before that fear makes for powerful children’s television. It’s just as true for children as for adults that stories and art are where we grapple with demons we cannot face in reality. But even the best children’s television that we’ve had cause to look at makes the larger world scary. It has traded on statues and children’s games, or on monsters and shadows. But here we get something more material – a story based around the horror of an absent or abusive parent.
That is, after all, what The Mark of the Berserker is about. It’s about introducing Clyde’s family, namely his single mother, and then introducing his absent father as a figure of fear and horror. And it really doesn’t shy away from that. Indeed, it repeatedly goes further than one might expect. Clyde’s father becomes genuinely scary as he realizes that he has the power to force people to do whatever he wants, and the increasing starkness of his abuse is unnerving in a way a Weeping Angel can never possibly be. It’s not just the ordering Clyde to forget Luke and Rani, nor even to forget how his father left him, but the moment when Paul orders Clyde to forget his mother entirely. Equally horrifying are the little side bits – Paul making Rani’s father do pushups forever is disturbing despite, on the surface, fitting perfectly into a harmless children’s program.
More important than the degree to which the episode is disturbing, however, is the degree to which it is honest. Clyde’s father really is a largely awful and abusive person. No effort is made to avoid that conclusion, or to suggest there is some obligation towards reconciliation. Clyde is, at the end of the story, allowed to deliver a stinging verdict against his father, saying bluntly that he does not need him, and that his mother is enough. It’s difficult to overstate just how important this is. I’ve not done any sort of broad survey of children’s media, but the uncompromising message that you owe your abuser nothing is an important one. Even if it is not vanishingly rare in children’s media, it’s too rare in the larger culture. Too many of our stories create the fantasy that mom and dad might get back together again, or that the abuser might have a change of heart. The Mark of the Berserker doesn’t, while still legitimizing all of Clyde’s conflicted feelings and desire for a father. It even manages to hint at the cycle of abuse, showing that while Clyde is strong enough to throw the alien pendant away, he’s enough like his father to use it to mindwipe his mother first. It’s a morally unnerving scene, and it’s supposed to be, because it’s the point where the story acknowledges just how deep the scars of abandonment and abuse run.
And this is a real and important balance. The Mark of the Berserker makes it clear that Clyde both wants his father back in his life and realizes that the abusive monster that is his father cannot possibly have a role in his life. It acknowledges the emotional truth of absent or abusive parents while simultaneously giving voice to the truth: that you owe nothing to your abusers, and that getting out is the only real option. That matters, and it matters in a real, immediate sense. There are people – including no shortage of children – who live with the hard realities of divorce and abuse for whom this story has the potential to actually be life-changing, and even life-saving. This is material social progress in a more immediate and direct way than Doctor Who has ever managed before.
Which makes it interesting that Sarah Jane is basically not in it. This is the Sarah-lite episode – The Sarah Jane Adventures’ equivalent of Blink or Love and Monsters. She makes a brief appearance at the beginning, turns up to help resolve it, and appears in a delightful scene at the start of the second episode in which Luke and Rani try to contact her and fail. (In it, she’s engaged in a ridiculous-looking adventure in a hospital – the scene ends with a pan to a “no cell phones” sign on the wall, and then cuts back to Luke and Rani failing to reach her. It is difficult to pick what the best part of this is – the suggestion that Sarah Jane would obey the no cell phones sign while alien hunting, or the way in which the sign speaks on its own, the real message being that Sarah Jane is, like the Doctor and Captain Jack, simply not available for this adventure.) It is tempting, perhaps, to make a muttering comment about how The Sarah Jane Adventures is, troublingly, stronger without Sarah Jane, but that would be unfair, not least because for all her absence Sarah Jane is integral to this story.
What is important to notice about this story is how the adults are carefully pared out of it. Haresh is removed from the equation early on, as is Sarah Jane. Clyde’s mother is similarly sidelined. And so the central intervention of the story comes when Luke and Rani desperately get in touch with Maria and her father. And, more specifically, when Maria’s father, in addition to providing a bit of handy UNIT hacking, tracks down Sarah Jane, who shows up to save the day. Again, there’s real and materially useful things here. The underlying message – made explicit by Alan – is that adults can help, and that the teenage characters are not alone in facing this.
And, of course, adults do help. Sarah Jane shows up and saves the day, turning up after Clyde’s father is too possessed by the alien artifact to be cruelly manipulative, but before everything is ruined forever. She is in many ways a trick – the story carefully suggests that Clyde’s father has made him forget about everybody who could possibly help him, but has also kept Sarah Jane so far from the story that the audience also orgets that Clyde hasn’t forgotten her. So she’s able to save the day, cure Clyde’s father’s possession, and still only appear in a couple of minutes’ worth of scenes. It is admittedly the one moment where the story even comes close to “you can fix your abuser with the power of love,” but crucially, that’s averted. The alien possession might be fixable with the power of love, but Clyde’s father is still an awful person who doesn’t belong in Clyde’s life.
What’s really important is the fact that Sarah Jane saves the day by, in effect, listening. She understands what Clyde is going through, and understands the story from his perspective, including his disastrous decision to try to impress his father. In the end, that’s her only contribution to the narrative – to listen and to understand. But it’s enough, and what real support looks like. She creates a space where Clyde can talk and feel safe, and in it Clyde comes to his own conclusions. And this is true not just in terms of the resolution, but in terms of the story’s buildup. The sense is that knowing Sarah Jane, Rani, Luke, Maria, and the rest of the cast has made Clyde a better person, and that it is this that gives him the ability to deal with the wound his father has left on his life.
The result is not just a story that is well done, but one that does good – that seems to concretely make the world a better place. It is not merely morally sound, but morally active – working consciously to improve the world. Perhaps it is overstating the case to suggest it as the best Doctor Who story ever. But it is, perhaps, Doctor Who’s greatest alchemy ever.