|Whatever you think of this facial expression, just remember –|
it’s a photo of David Tennant watching the 50th Anniversary
Special in 3-D.
It’s July 1st, 2006. Nelly Furtado is still consuming men at the top of the charts. Shakira and Wyclef Jean unseat her a week later with their ode to the veracity of hips. The Pussycat Dolls, Pink, and Muse also chart, the latter with “Supermassive Black Hole,” which is both apropos for this story and later used as background music for the opening scene of The Rebel Flesh. In news, England beat Ecuador 1-0, moving into the quarter finals. Three members of the Tongan royal family die in a car crash in California. Internet usage overtakes the television as the primary leisure time activity of young British people, and a wealth of mess flares up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But let’s go back to July 1st itself, at about 5:00 in the afternoon, as England play Portugal in the World Cup Quarterfinal. England’s eternally frustrating great hope, Wayne Rooney, is sent off at the hour mark for maybe stomping on Ricardo Carvalho’s crotch more than is entirely appropriate within the Laws of the Game. The game ends 0-0 after extra time and, as ever, England go out humiliatingly on penalties.
This squad is by convention deemed a “golden generation” – a particularly fine crop of players who were supposed to be the team that could finally return the World Cup to England after forty years of inspired mediocrity. Instead… inspired mediocrity. The final tournament for David Beckham, who slouches off to Los Angeles a year later. As for the audience, those who don’t turn off their televisions in disgust are treated to the information that Rose Tyler, Billie Piper’s great everywoman, so accessible and loveable that her presence renders even that shit old sci-fi series Doctor Who watchable, has died.
Russell T Davies himself could not have dreamed up a better run of television drama – the ego blow of England’s golden generation flopping ignobly to pathetic defeat is followed up promptly by the long elegy for Rose Tyler. But within Army of Ghosts is a larger issue – that of Britain’s golden age, smothered idly in its crib in Tennant’s debut. We should note the terms on which Britain’s supposed golden age unfolds. The Christmas Invasion tells us that Jackie Tyler is “eighteen quid a week better off,” while Doomsday establishes Pete’s World’s “Golden Age” as “a world of peace” after the defeat of the Cybermen. This is, inevitably, a material golden age, defined by apparent social progress. But lurking unsubtly behind the concept is the idea of making Britain great again.
Davies will become progressively blunter about this as the series unfolds, steadily converting the latter portion of his run into an increasingly adamant attack on New Labour. It is a fact not often remarked upon that Tony Blair is almost as large a cartoon villain to a particular flavor of the political left as Margaret Thatcher was. His list of sins is perhaps diffuse – especially if you, as is these days popular, decide to pin any economic failings on Gordon Brown. Much of it focuses on the Iraq war, and, more broadly, the extent to which he allowed the UK to become a client state of the Bush Administration due to the friendship between the two leaders, a friendship that, legendarily, extended out of their mutual preference for Colgate toothpaste. It was this chumminess that Russell T Davies invoked in giving Harriet Jones her air-punching moment of awesome in The Christmas Invasion as she tells the President that “he’s not my boss, and he’s certainly not turning this into a war.”
The reasons for Blair’s elevation into a cartoon villain of the left are ultimately not the most relevant part. What is most important is simply the fact that he became one. His villainy, in the end, is one of disappointment – of the great things his election and the end of nearly twenty years of Tory rule seemed to herald, and the more modest things that ensued. The primary charge, at the end of the day, is that he was a sort of crypto-Tory who ceded so much ground in the name of triangulation and electoral strategy that he might as well not have run as a Labour politician.
Within Army of Ghosts, all of this is bound up within that idea of a golden age – of recapturing some past moment of Britain’s glory. Yvonne Hartman is an aggressively drawn character in this regard, mixing the rhetoric and style of management culture fostered by New Labour’s business-friendly economic boom with a stark Victorian imperialism that would make Nigel Farage blush. But note also the way in which the Cybermen are employed, first as ghosts animated by our own desire for them to be real – by our own illusions that we can hold back death. By our own desire for the golden age.
We should consider briefly the role Torchwood plays within the series. Torchwood itself is a parodic mirror of Doctor Who – its original function was as a decoy name for shipping film of Doctor Who, the name, Tremas-style, an anagram of Doctor Who. (Consider the near-miss universe where Doctor Who’s spinoff is instead a reality show about owl impersonators called Hoot Crowd, or the downright alarming show Hot Cow Rod) The declaration that Torchwood would be playing the Bad Wolf role for the second season was notable in part because there was, in fact, a declaration – an announced theme that would further lead in to a Captain Jack spinoff. The nature of Torchwood is established in the second episode, and thus the question that hung over Series Two was not “what is Torchwood” but rather “how the heck do we get from Queen Victoria hating the Doctor to a Captain Jack spinoff,” a question that Army of Ghosts only partially answers, in that Torchwood remains thoroughly villainous here.
The idea that Torchwood mirrors Doctor Who is telling, as Torchwood is tacitly presented as the answer to the question “what happens when the Doctor doesn’t show up.” They are defenders of Britain, and, like the Doctor, quintessentially Britain, stemming out of a long British tradition and particularly from the iconography of the Victorian era. But where the Doctor is the eccentric gentleman inventor and the old man guarding the gates to fairy, Torchwood is the militaristic ambition of glorious empire. That these two myths are separate is, in the end, an even bigger fiction than either myth itself.
But this mirroring opens a host of problems. There is nowhere in the new series where the gulf between it and the classic series feels quite as uncannily wide as the end of Series Two. By Series Three blatant shout-outs to the past became relatively normal, with past Doctors making pen cameos in Human Nature and Roger Delgado being sampled in for Utopia, and in Series Four you start getting consecutive stories with obscure shout-outs to the Hartnell era. (I’d tell you which two, but it would spoil some people’s fun in the comments.) But Series Two features the continuity-muddling “half a dozen times” line in School Reunion and Torchwood, a concept that jars spectacularly with the Pertwee era.
I’ve actually got an entire essay on this in the Pertwee book, so I don’t want to get too far down the rabbit hole of trying to completely account for the often convoluted game of reconciling Torchwood with Doctor Who. It’s not that Torchwood opens up any overt continuity errors so much as that it opens up a lot of questions that require convoluted answers like “how is it Torchwood is so incompetent that they missed the UNIT era happening” and “how is it UNIT is so incompetent that they missed Torchwood happening.” When I say that the classic series is, in Series Two, treated as a source of anxiety I mean it not just in the thematic sense of the Beast being explicitly linked with the classic series, but in the sense of the classic series simultaneously being identified as what the new series continues and as something the new series has killed off in favor of its own approach. The status of the past is ambiguous, and so the past haunts the program.
Notably the monsters brought into symbolize this haunted past are the Cybermen, themselves twisted mirror reflections of humanity. This further cements the idea of Torchwood as a dark mirror of Doctor Who – the qlippoth of the Pertwee era, if you will. We might recall that Inferno has been invoked twice this season, once with the parallel universe concept of Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel, and again with the drilling towards unfathomable horror of The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit. Within Inferno the great lack is any notion of what the parallel universe’s version of the Doctor might be. Here, at last, we have it – the alternate version not of the Doctor but of Doctor Who itself, twisted into imperialist glory and horror, our nostalgia made monstrous.
The Cybermen, however, are not the point of Army of Ghosts. As with Bad Wolf, the episode is structured as a buildup to a fake reveal. All appearance is that the climactic moment is the arrival of the Cybermen, but this reveal is spoiled by lesser reveals, much as the appearance of the Daleks is in Bad Wolf. As before these lesser reveals themselves form the build-up to the true reveal. In Bad Wolf it was the impossible vastness of the Dalek fleet, whereas here it’s the Daleks themselves. We might note, as others have before, that this is actually just the cliffhanger from the penultimate episode of Dark Season reworked, but Davies is one of those great packrats of writers who is never going to waste an idea that good on a single use.
The use of the Daleks is telling, not just because it opens up the Time War and the series’ cancellation, but because it opens up a new front in this expanding metaphor. The Daleks are death in its purest form – the absolute single-mindedness of it, collapsing all existence into the simple fact of its skeletal end. memento internecare. The imperial vision writ large. The Daleks, of course, outdo the Cybermen by a considerable margin, slaughtering them viciously, forever establishing them as the lesser monsters. Our dark mirrors are nothing to the darkness itself.
These monsters mulch up out of the series’ past, but also out of the void. We’re told that the void is hell, a point that tacitly parallels The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit. The Doctor reiterates it several times, both explicitly and subtly. (Note that he tells Rose to set all the coordinates to six.) Consider, then, the nature of his solution – to create a black hole within the immaculate white room of Torchwood Tower’s heart. This is, as discussed on Monday, often accused of being a deus ex machina, but the symbolism in fact extends perfectly from everything we’ve been told. Hell and Satan were allied in the void of the series’ past. The Doctor created a black hole, already associated with both the Time War and hell, and it swallows the monsters whole.
A more accurate complaint is that this event renders most everything before it irrelevant. Though, no, not quite irrelevant. Secondary. The tightly wound nexus of symbolism that constitutes the Daleks, Cybermen, and Torchwood get pushed to the sideline, unresolved. This is not a problem as such – Davies will return to these themes repeatedly, and he has an entire show to explore the implications of Torchwood within, which we’ll get to after a quick pair of side posts and a Pop Between Realities.
Especially because his solution is ultimately to walk away. To turn our backs on the machinery of death and empire and instead to live. And so Doomsday, having built to an impossibly epic premise, reveals itself to in fact be a story about the Doctor restoring a family, bringing both Pete and Jackie their lost loves back and giving Rose her parents back. As with the saving of Ursula this comes in an odd and strange shape – the world is, after all, an odd and strange place. Nevertheless, this is what the Doctor does – he turns back death and heals a broken family. All the howl and bluster of Daleks and Cybermen and Time War, the deathly single vision of empire’s sleep, is in the end drowned out by the task of giving one tiny little ordinary shopgirl her father back, giving a well-meaning wide boy his wife back, and giving Jackie Tyler, the most everyday person in the world, the one character untouched by the void, her husband back.
In other words, the Doctor faces down the great fannish match-up of the classic series, the most ludicrously playground fanfic idea in Doctor Who history, and turns away in favor of giving the cast of EastPowellStreet a happy ending. But notably, this ending excludes him. This is the other reason that the ending of Doomsday gets away with plotting so thin as to almost be transparent: because in the end the story isn’t about getting rid of the Daleks and Cybermen. By the time of the climax they have become little more than window dressing for the sundering of the Doctor and Rose. That’s the real story – the Doctor loses Rose.
But what’s key is how he loses her: by being the force that can open a black hole that will consume the Daleks and Cybermen. By being a character who belongs in their world. This is hammered home with delicious cruelty – the Doctor mocks the Daleks for their inability to touch, which is in turn the exact fate he’s condemned to as he cannot reach Rose to save her, and cannot touch her to say his goodbye. Of course his last words are cut off, rendered unspeakable. Because in a world of love and monsters, the Doctor is in the end a kind monster. He belongs in the world of death and empire, as the kindest edge of it. He is death’s mercy. He’ll never have a life like Rose’s, real and material.
So in a fight between the epic sweep of death and the everyday of love, the Doctor cannot side with love. Not really, and in the end. He is a creature of death, trapped on the wrong side of the wall that separates the worlds. Note that cheeky shot where the Doctor and Rose are portrayed as being on opposite sides of the wall. The wall is meant to be the same wall in the equivalent room of each Torchwood, but it’s shot so that Rose faces to the right and the Doctor faces to the left, rotating one of their rooms to mirror the other. What was once parallel is now mirrored and reversed. The Doctor collapses from the epic to a sad, small man, with Rose’s world reflecting out from one side of him and Torchwood from the other, his own self reduced to a speck, a tiny point that is nothing more than the point of contact between them. Note how Rose lingers at the wall, ensconced in her world, while the Doctor turns away and walks off alone, back into the world of Torchwood.
The story ends unresolved, the Doctor still caught in a web of symbolism that includes Daleks and Cybermen, Torchwood and empire. This is the price of his hubris – his sundering from that which he lives to protect. He doesn’t get the luxury of an ending because he’s already had one, and is now trapped. Falling out of the world has become a fallen world yearning for the dead past of a golden age that never existed. Nothing is resolved save the everyday – the fact that Rose has her parents and her better life. Beyond that there is only the cruelest thing of all: a song that continues.