What my last post boiled down to, essentially, was that I’m old enough now, with around three and a half decades behind me, to have become aware of some of the ways that values and norms of acceptability have shifted just during my lifetime, such that people (of whom I am one) see the world differently now, when I’m thirty-four, than many of the same of us did back when I was, say, fifteen. That time, I was talking about sport, but I recently came upon the same phenomenon again in a different context during my family’s multi-year Doctor Who rewatch.
We’ve reached season nineteen in the rewatch, Peter Davison’s first season as the Doctor, and recently we watched “Black Orchid”. It was first transmitted on 1–2 March 1982, and there’s simply no way the same story in the same way could be told now, in 2014.
(Ten-year-old David Tennant was probably still excitedly watching his future father-in-law’s time as the Doctor when “Black Orchid” premiered, though twenty-three-year-old Peter Capaldi is more likely to have outgrown the programme by then. And, literally, no one had even conceived of Matt Smith yet.)
There are spoilers ahead for “Black Orchid”.
In the story, the TARDIS materialises in the 1920s at the home of Lord Cranleigh, who lives in a huge country manor somewhere in the Home Counties with his fiancée, Miss Ann Talbot, and his mother, the dowager Lady Cranleigh. (I apologise for referring to a mother-and-son pair as Lady and Lord Cranleigh, because I know that’s confusing, but it’s how they’re continuously referred to throughout the story, except for when the local police commissioner once addresses Lady Cranleigh as “Madge”.) Lord Cranleigh is the younger brother of George Cranleigh, a famed botanist who was killed by natives during an exploratory expedition in the Amazon rain forest; Ann was engaged to George before she agreed to marry Lord Cranleigh after the elder brother died.
The TARDIS team (at this time consisting of the Doctor, Adric, Nyssa and Tegan) have arrived on the day of an annual masquerade ball at the Cranleigh residence. At Lord Cranleigh’s insistence, they agree to attend; Cranleigh and Ann provide them with costumes from the house supply.
What neither the TARDIS crew nor Ann know, though, is that George Cranleigh is not dead; during his expedition to the Amazon, the natives tortured him in a way that left him physically deformed and mentally unbalanced. Once George was returned to England, Lord and Lady Cranleigh decided to keep his survival a secret, and have been holding him captive in a secret room deep within their manorhouse in order to save both him and themselves the embarrassment of being made a public spectacle.
While the masquerade ball is going on, however, George manages to escape from his captivity, killing one of the household staff in the process. He then sneaks through the secret passages that riddle the house until he arrives in the Doctor’s bedroom, where he dons the harlequin costume the Doctor is to wear to the ball.
The Doctor does not see George, but he does find the secret passageway that George used to get to his room. He follows it back to George’s room, where he finds the body of the murdered servant. He summons Lady Cranleigh and shows her the body; she express shock and mystification at the murder, but fails to tell the Doctor about the existence of George. She promises him that she will call the police immediately, and asks the Doctor not to tell the other guests about the murder so as not to upset them. The Doctor is reluctant but agrees and returns to his room.
George, meanwhile, with his face covered by the harlequin mask, has infiltrated the masquerade, where he brutally attacks Ann Talbot and murders a second servant. He then escapes back into the depths of the house, where, after he politely returns the harlequin costume to the Doctor’s room, he is secretly recaptured and returned to captivity by Lord and Lady Cranleigh. The Doctor, meanwhile, has returned to his room, where he puts the harlequin costume on and arrives at the masquerade just in time for Ann to identify him as the man who attacked her.
This is followed by a fairly predictable twenty minutes in which Lady Cranleigh refuses to help the Doctor and covers up the fact that she knows it was her son George who is in fact the culprit, leading to the police arresting the Doctor for murder. Matters come to a head when George escapes once more. He sets fire to the house, then kidnaps Nyssa and retreats onto the roof with her as a hostage. Lord Cranleigh redeems himself (apparently) when he and the Doctor follow George onto the roof of the burning manorhouse and persuade him to release Nyssa. Lord Cranleigh, realising the error of his ways, steps forward to embrace his brother, but George instead hurls himself off the parapet and falls to his death. I think we’re meant to take George’s suicide as demonstrating just how far his mind had gone, but it more feels to me like he was simply terrified of the man who has kept him tied to the bed in a darkened room for the past two years.
But it doesn’t matter why George has killed himself; he has, so now that’s cleared up, the TARDIS team and the Cranleighs can all be friends again, and there is much smiling as our heroes bid farewell and depart through the TARDIS doors.
Which, of course, points up the biggest problem with viewing “Black Orchid” nowadays—that this ending is considered happy. The conflict has been resolved, and so everyone can move on with their lives. This necessarily implies, then, that the conflict in “Black Orchid” is that George Cranleigh has survived his torture in a deformed and unbalanced state, and not—as I think any viewer in 2014 would expect—that his brother and mother are so monstrously inhumane that they have secretly kept him imprisoned in a tiny room with no natural light because admitting that he is still alive would embarrass them.
(You can make the argument that George Cranleigh might have been so proud a man that he would rather have the world think him dead than be exposed to public scrutiny in his present state; but his repeated and violent attempts at escape would seem to give the lie to that idea.)
It’s important when we look at “Black Orchid” to distinguish between ideas that the story thinks are A-OK by 1982 standards and ideas that the story presents as A-OK by 1920s standards. We’re obviously not meant to think it’s all right for the Cranleighs to so callously imprison George, or for Lady Cranleigh to allow an innocent man to be arrested for murder rather than admit the truth, but the problem is that our reaction is meant to be one of disapproval rather than condemnation. Once they stop engaging in their objectionable behaviour—ideally by seeing the light and setting George free, but, you know, I guess him throwing himself off a building and thus removing the dilemma works just as well—then there don’t need to be any consequences for what they’ve done, and it shouldn’t even occur to us that they’re morally responsible for their son/brother’s death. So incongruous is the ending that I was certain that in my previous viewings of “Black Orchid”—on TV in the mid-90s and when the DVD first came out in 2008—that the Cranleigh brothers had fallen to their deaths together at the story’s climax.
There’s something really ghastly about that final farewell scene, with all the smiles and hugs goodbye. Tegan, as the only human amongst the Doctor’s companions of the moment (and as a pretty outspokenly judgemental character), is the voice of the 1982 viewer, but the only emotions she displays here are excitement and gratitude when the Cranleighs let the TARDIS crew keep the costumes they wore to the masquerade. (Read in a broad Australian accent: “D’ya really mean it? We can keep them?”)
And then there’s the deep creepiness of Lord Cranleigh’s relationship with Ann Talbot—and when I say creepiness, that’s definitely something that we bring to it as 2014 viewers, because the script doesn’t expect the 1982 viewer to have any problem with it whatsoever. Lord Cranleigh, a man in his mid-thirties, lumps his fiancée in with a group he refers to as “the children”, by which he means the teenagers who are too young to be served alcoholic beverages. And yet not only is Ann, who we might therefore guess is twenty-one at the oldest (actress Sarah Sutton was twenty at the time the episodes were taped), old enough to be engaged and live with her fiancé, but she’s apparently old enough to have been engaged to an even older man, George Cranleigh, several years ago.
(I think we’re meant to conclude that Ann is the Cranleighs’ ward, which makes the idea of her living with them totally fine at the cost of making her engagement to successive Cranleigh brothers much, much skeevier on the men’s parts.)
And if we the viewers find it impossible to forgive the Cranleighs for what they have done, how much worse is it that Ann seems to forgive them in no time at all? Sure, she has a tearful exclamation of, “How could you!” when first she finds out, and flees from the room, but her disgust with them seems to last approximately six or seven seconds. The next time we see her in the sort of context that allows her to show us her state of mind, during the goodbye scene, she is snuggled comfortably in the arms of Lord Cranleigh, the man who knew that her fiancé was still alive but kept that knowledge from her, imprisoned her beloved and used that pretence as a cover to allow him to woo her himself.
That final scene isn’t the be-all and end-all of the story’s problems, but removing it would go a long way to rinsing out the bitter taste that “Black Orchid” leaves in the mouth. In my last post I wrote from the perspective of being left behind as society changed around me; this time I’m glad that it is I who have changed with society and left behind the outlook that would have allowed us to think of this story as having a happy, or even an acceptable, ending.
On Friday, we passed the fifty years since the deaths of two of the great names of early British fantasists; and then a day later, Britain’s greatest television fantasy reached its fiftieth birthday, and threw itself quite the party.
I’d been somewhat worried about the fiftieth-anniversary special. Despite my best efforts, I’d been unable to avoid spoilers about all the elements from the last fifty years of Who history that it would be giving screentime to: Daleks and Zygons and Cybermen (about which … um … ?) and David Tennant and Billie Piper. Combined with the cliffhanger that had ended “The Name of the Doctor”, with the Smith Doctor and Clara trapped in the deepest depths of a vaguely defined “Doctor’s Timestream” in which all his memories and past adventures could haunt them, that had got me really worried that the special would take place in some sort of fantasy dreamland in which gratuitous continuity references could be hurled at us for eighty minutes as placeholders for an actual story or dramatic tension, a la “The Five Doctors”.
But I will happily admit I felt a lot better after seeing “The Night of the Doctor“. That reassured me that the special was going to approach things in what I think is exactly the right way: more self-indulgent than we’d expect of a typical Doctor Who story, to be sure, and with some continuity elements that were going to be baffling to audience members who didn’t understand their history, but with the needs of the story still supreme and with every allusion and reference and onscreen recurrence having an actual, legitimate justification for appearing.
As a piece of nostalgia and as a celebration of Doctor Who, I think “The Day of the Doctor” does its job wonderfully well. By its end I was grinning with happiness. It was full of love for the programme it was honouring, it was funny, it was dramatic. It gave us a climax that I think we all have known was inevitable, in one form or another, for many years, and because of the occasion it was able to give us that climax in a way that made it as special a moment for us as it was for the Doctor.
(And I will freely admit that I spent much of the episode thinking, “See? This is exactly what I was talking about!”)
Billie Piper was excellent. I loved the banter between the three Doctors, which I honestly felt was written better than in any of the previous multi-Doctor stories, and I particularly liked the Smith Doctor’s habit of commenting on allusions to Who history: “Nice scarf!”; “You never do”; “He always says that.” And was that final cameo by Tom Baker widely known about? Because I certainly managed to stay unspoilt for it, about which I’m very glad; that wonderful little surprise at the end really made my day.
As a work of storytelling, an episode of Doctor Who and a contribution to Who continuity, “Day” is a lot more mixed, I think. Of course we all knew from the moment the Moment (hehe) chose to present herself as Rose Tyler that the episode would end with the Hurt Doctor having his memory wiped of events. But I think that by using that memory loss to allow him never to have destroyed Gallifrey, never to have pushed that big red button, Steven Moffat struck a real blow at the character of the Doctor as it’s been constructed over the last eight years.
The Doctor pushed that button. The Doctor murdered every Time Lord and every Gallifreyan. Throughout the RTD and Moffat production eras–particularly the RTD era–that has been who he is. It’s not just a matter of him thinking he once did it, it’s a matter of him being someone who did do it–a matter of him having been the Doctor, as the Smith Doctor so wonderfully puts it, on the day it was impossible to get it right. There are so many times over the course of New Who when the Doctor opts to once again push that button or this time not to push it, and the dramatic impact of those moments is very much informed by our knowledge, as the viewer, that he is a man who has pushed that button before, knowing that there would be no escape, and who could choose to push it again in the same circumstances: when he refuses to unleash the delta wave in “The Parting of the Ways”, when he drops the impossible planet into the black hole in “The Satan Pit”, when he shows Miss Hartigan what she has become in “The Next Doctor”, when he flirts with megalomania in “The Waters of Mars”, when he sacrifices himself to seal the cracks in the universe in “The Big Bang”.
All those moments now have been altered. The Doctor no longer is someone who definitely can get it wrong, because he no longer is someone who definitely did get it wrong when it mattered most and there was no right way to get it. He is a less fallible and therefore less compelling character.
I don’t object to Gallifrey coming back; indeed, I welcome it, as long as it’s handled right–and the writers of the programme for the past eight years have consistently shown me that they can indeed handle potentially tricky continuity morasses like this. But I object to the Hurt Doctor never having had to press that red button, and I object to him coming out of the situation knowing that he found a way to avoid pressing it, even if that knowledge did then get locked up in his head for four hundred years.
But for me the important thing about “The Day of the Doctor” is how wonderful it was to be a Doctor Who fan yesterday, and how much the episode helped that wonder along. When we reached the fortieth anniversary ten years ago, the idea of having anything like this for the fiftieth would have been laughable. But we’ve had a fiftieth-anniversary special that now holds the Guinness record for largest international transmission in history; we’ve had a TV movie about the programme’s genesis; and we’ve had days of national and international celebration. “The Day of the Doctor” was certainly a worthy entry in all that, and rewatching it in the years ahead is something I will always do with joy.
To conclude, I’ve got a list here of all the little shout-outs to previous Who, both classic and new, that I’ve noticed, omitting obvious plot-integral things Captain Jack’s vortex manipulator or the appearance of all thirteen Doctors in the climactic sequence. This is from two viewings, during neither of which did I take notes, so I welcome any other additions people have:
–The opening shot, the policeman’s silhouette on the I.M. Foreman’s Scrapyard gate, is a recreation of the original shot from the programme’s first episode, “An Unearthly Child”.
–Clara is teaching at Coal Hill school, where Ian and Barbara are teaching and Susan is a pupil in “An Unearthly Child” and which the Daleks invade in “Remembrance of the Daleks”.
–We see a portion of the Tennant Doctor’s (or as I like to call him, D-Ten) encounters with Queen Elizabeth I, alluded to in “The Shakespeare Code”.
–River Song’s high heels are held by the Black Archive.
–The Tennant Doctor’s line, “You’ve redecorated! I don’t like it,” a quotation of the Troughton Doctor from “The Three Doctors” and “The Five Doctors”.
–The Brigadier’s old file on the events of “The Three Doctors” being named Cromer. Nicholas Courtney was very pleased with his ad-lib about Cromer in that story, and I think giving the file that name was lovely.
–The refusal, as in “The Sontaran Stratagem”, to pin down whether the UNIT stories took place in the 70s or 80s.
–The Tennant Doctor’s last words being, “I don’t want to go.”
–Osgood wears a Tom Baker scarf.
–I did rather wonder if the Smith Doctor’s monologue at the end was meant to allude to the McCoy Doctor’s closing monologue in “Survival”.
–I really loved that the Brigadier got explicitly namechecked and his photograph on the companions’ bulletin board got a lingering closeup. Nicholas Courtney is, I think, the most loyal servant Doctor Who has ever had, and to acknowledge his passing in “The Wedding of River Song” and then to pay tribute to him again on this day of days have both been perfect moments.
–On the subject of that bulletin board, I also really liked that we saw the different faces of UNIT over the decades pictured alongside the companions they were apparently checking on: Captain Yates and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and Brigadier Bambera and Captain Magambo and Kate Lethbridge-Stewart. Nicely done.
Spoilers for the seven series of New Who, concentrating on the plot and character arcs of the five primary companions
Saturday night I saw Star Trek: Skyfall, then came home and watched the Who finale, “The Name of the Doctor”. So I spent a lot of that night watching loving homages to Classic Who and Original Series Trek that had clearly been made by people who care about those things as much as I do, and I loved every second of it. A lot of effort obviously went into crafting things designed to bring joy to longtime, old-school fans, and I appreciate that. Especially with Doctor Who–the technical achievement we saw in “The Name of the Doctor” was clearly a longtime coming in both conception and execution, long enough that it was already in a pretty advanced stage by the time that worst of Who episodes, “Let’s Get Hitler”, was produced back in 2011.
But there was something else that really struck me about “The Name of the Doctor”, something troubling. I’ve been noticing bits and pieces of it at least as far back as “School Reunion” in 2006, and it’s always bothered me.
When Doctor Who repremiered in 2005, much was made of the new attitude the programme would now have toward the Doctor’s female companions. They would be intelligent, active, independent and competent, not the ditzy, over-terrified sexist stereotypes that we were assured they had been throughout the programme’s first twenty-six seasons. I long ago debunked the idea that ditzy, over-terrified companions were ever a common thing on Doctor Who, or that capable, confident companions were any sort of departure for the programme. But this is more than that. The more I look at it, the more it’s a central message of New Who that the Doctor’s female companions–women who we’re regularly told are special, unique, transcendent individuals in a way we never were in the classic programme–are of value only insofar as they submit themselves to the Doctor.
Much got made during the RTD era of the effect the Doctor had on his companions, of how he made them flourish, capable of more than they would have been otherwise, whether we saw that as a good thing (“But she was better when she was with you!”) or bad (“He fashions his friends into weapons.”). Three of RTD’s four series finales turn on the companion saving the universe (and the Doctor) by achieving some feat that shouldn’t be humanly possible.
First you’ve got Rose, cracking the TARDIS open and taking the time vortex into herself; then Martha, who spends a year wandering the post-apocalyptic Earth, spreading word of the Doctor. Rose refuses to accept her separation from the Doctor and goes to any lengths, including physically impossible ones, to return to him, as she will later do once again with the dimension cannon. Martha, on the other hand, walks away from the Doctor. She sacrifices him, as she sacrifices her family, as she sacrifices at least a degree of her own humanity–when she returns to England at the beginning of “Last of the Time Lords”, she is a visibly harder, less merciful, less empathetic person. Rose rips apart the fabric of space and time to satisfy her own desire to be with the Doctor, whereas Martha spends a whole year in a literal hell on Earth, surviving entirely on her own, telling everyone she meets the importance of having faith in the very man who failed to save her, her family or her world.
And yet of the two, who is routinely treated as the example of the perfect companion, the one who surpasses all others? Whose sacrifice is considered greater? Even the Master laughs at Martha’s trauma, derisively citing Rose as her better, because Rose stared into the time vortex in order to return to the Doctor. The Master, who never even met Rose, thinks immediately of her when trying to come up with an example of companions superior to Martha, rather than thinking of, say, the companion whose brain had such a capacity for mathematics that the Master actually kidnapped him and wired him into his own TARDIS, then was able to harness that mental capacity into constructing solid illusions capable of invading the Doctor’s TARDIS.
After They Leave the Doctor
It is true that time with the Doctor seems to leave his companions more capable, more accomplished individuals. New Who has shown us Sarah Jane, Martha and Donna all excelling in their independent lives–in Donna’s case, even after just a few hours and a single adventure with the Doctor. Of course, Donna turns herself into a professional, perceptive investigator of suspicious situations not because the events of “The Runaway Bride” opened her eyes to the dangers Earth faces constantly and awakened in her a desire to be involved in foiling those dangers; no, she’s simply going to places she thinks she’s likely to find the Doctor so that she can hopefully run into him again. And, in fact, her veneer of accomplished professionalism is just a charade; she’s actually empty and deeply unfulfilled so long as she can’t find the Doctor.
But that’s okay, right, because after she does finally reunite with the Doctor, she and we discover that she’s the Most Important Woman in the Universe? Donna, of course, believes that’s impossible–she believes she can only be important because she’s associated with someone of real importance, the Doctor. But the Doctor assures her that no, the importance is hers and hers alone. So what is that importance? Why is Donna the Most Important Woman in the Universe? Because she happens to be the one who’s there to give the Doctor a hand (literally) when he needs it. If it had been Rose or Jack who were the last ones out of the TARDIS aboard the Dalek spaceship, we’d be talking about the DoctorRose or the DoctorJack.
Yes, Donna then saves the day during the final confrontation with Davros, but critically, it is only the Doctor part of Donna that does so. It’s the new intelligence and perception that the addition of Time Lord genetics has given her; there is, again, no reason it had to be Donna involved here rather than anyone else. And if we really want to get all feminist-critical-theory over this, there’s the very obvious subtext to the idea that what makes Donna special, what allows Donna to fulfill her potential, is that she serves as a receptacle for the Doctor’s genetic code.
At least Sarah Jane achieves for realsies what Donna was only playing at: she’s an actual investigator and defender of Earth. Which is not to say she ever got over the Doctor; it’s important that former companions never get over him. She waited for him, pined after him–clearly she felt a romantic love for him that she did a remarkably good job of hiding, since she showed nary a single sign of it during her actual time in the TARDIS.
Still, she’s overcome being abandoned by the Doctor and has made a life for herself as a truly exceptional person. She’s never found the right man to settle down with, of course, but that’s a perfectly reasonable choice for a character like Sarah Jane–she’s simply not someone who’d necessarily need a romantic relationship at the centre of her life. Which is all fine, until Sarah states outright that the reason she never found the right man is because no man could ever measure up to the Doctor. Sarah Jane Smith was introduced to Doctor Who as the explicit representative of feminism, a driven, focused, professional woman; a woman who took it upon herself to lecture the Queen of Peladon on the women’s lib movement. But when New Who gets a hold of her, we find out that the reason she never got married is not because she simply didn’t need a man to make her life complete; it is, rather, because being friends with the Doctor ruined her for all other men.
Come. The fuck. On.
Which leaves only Martha. Martha is the only companion of the RTD era, and possibly of New Who as a whole (I’d consider Amy a borderline case), to make the conscious choice that she has outgrown the Doctor, that she is ready to face life after the TARDIS. She leaves entirely under her own steam at the end of series three in a scene that’s a neat parallel to her walking away from the Doctor in the cliffhanger at the end of the prior episode and heading off alone to face whatever the Earth has to throw at her. She forges her own path–and the Doctor absolutely despises her for it.
Martha chooses to make a difference in the world by joining an organisation that the Doctor himself devoted six seasons of his life to, an organisation built by his closest friend–and yet he regards Martha has having placed herself under suspicion by having joined the organisation. And we as viewers aren’t directed to take issue with the Doctor’s reaction, to see him as some sort of emotional predator who demands adoration and complete submission from the women he takes with him on his journeys–no, it would seem we’re supposed to agree with him for being disappointed with and suspicious of Martha for joining UNIT.
The Women With the High Concept Nicknames
The Most Important Woman in the Universe. The Girl Who Waited. The Impossible Girl.
(Why is Clara infantilised as the Impossible Girl instead of the Impossible Woman? Is it possibly for the same reason that the Doctor–the fucking Doctor–, when trying to distill the sheer, fascinating impossibility of her into a single sentence, actually devotes more words to how eyecatching her ass is than to the fact that he keeps meeting iterations of her scattered throughout his timeline and watching them die— “A mystery wrapped in an enigma squeezed into a skirt that’s just a bit too tight.” I am going to puzzle out this impossible womangirl, puzzle out what the universe is trying to tell me through her very existence, and defeat whatever profound danger she represents. And then, Jesus H. Christ I’m gonna hit that.)
Amy, the Girl Who Waited. Her nickname is a regular reminder of her deeply creepy origin story. The Doctor meets her when she’s a child, promises he’s about to admit her to a universe of wonder and adventure, and then vanishes for twelve years. Returns, shows her that that universe of adventure is real, that he is real, and then vanishes for another two years, before ultimately returning to bring her aboard the TARDIS. The Doctor is grooming her. He grooms her to regard him as the most wonderful person possible, as her only gateway to an escape to the life she dreams of. He grooms her to respond to his sporadic arrivals in her life by dropping any other priorities she has so she can place herself at his disposal. And he grooms her not to expect anything from him in return–not even his presence, or the idea that he’s under any obligation to keep promises he makes for her.
And now we come to Clara, the Impossible Girl. Whose impossibility, we discovered on Saturday, exists purely so that she can save the Doctor, over and over again, all throughout his life. Even if we assume River’s line about “millions” of Claras being created is hyperbole, there must still be, at a minimum, thousands. Thousands of Claras, through all of time and space, whom, it would seem, are all born, live only the first twenty or twenty-five years of their lives, and then have their encounter with the Doctor–a few minutes, a few hours, a few days; the whole purpose of their life. And then, apparently, they die.
And Clara is fine with that. She’s fine with the idea that on a thousand different worlds in a thousand different times, she has lived a thousand different lives, each of them to help the Doctor on one of his adventures. More than that, she’s proud of it. “I was born to save the Doctor, and the Doctor is safe now. I’m the Impossible Girl, and my story is done.”
It’s not there in Classic Who. In Classic Who, the Doctor is the leader, yes, and he inspires his companions’ trust. But the companions (generally) leave of their own free will, either because they have outgrown their need for him or because they have found another calling that compels them more. But in New Who, the message is clear: these exceptional women have tremendous potential, but they fulfill that potential only by pledging themselves totally to serving the Doctor.
This weekend we headed down to Williamsburg for MarsCon. I can’t do a pictorial overview like I did for DragonCon, because there’s much less spectacle and therefore fewer pictures. But everyone had a great time. Lisa, I think, liked it especially because it’s such a smaller scale than DragonCon–there were about twelve hundred guests–and therefore she didn’t have to deal with crowds, of which she’s no fan.
We went to a few things we wouldn’t have gone to at DragonCon, like the bellydancing show and the charity auction (both at Boy’s instigation), and really enjoyed ourselves. Girl especially enjoyed herself at the auction–she figured out the game and started raising her hand every time a new bid was called for. And the kids’ programming we went to–a kids’ science activity session and a how-to-draw Star Wars characters session–were small enough that the kids actually got to interact with the presenters.
I was gratified at the profile Doctor Who had around the con. The most common costumes were zombies, because that was this year’s theme, and steampunk, because that’s the trendy fashion nowadays. But once we get into the specific franchise costumes, there were about four or five Star Wars costumes, four or five Star Trek costumes, and at least two dozen Doctor Who costumes. Who was also the only TV/movie franchise to get its own dedicated panel, albeit one that was rather dampened by the one attendee who shouted down anyone who mentioned the programme’s current production era without expressing hatred for Moffatt’s approach to Doctor Who.
So we’ll be heading back again next year–and hopefully we’ll have the sense to book a hotel room when we pre-register for the con, in which case the hotel won’t be sold out by the time we go looking for a room. As it was we stayed two miles up the road from the Holiday Inn where MarsCon was held, and yet somehow there two more Holiday Inns between us and them. Seriously, three Holiday Inns in a two-mile stretch on one road.
I’ve had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Doctor Who season 32. I was intrigued by the decision to abandon the highly-structured season-long arc format of the Russell T Davies era, and I think ultimately the season benefited from that, developing a freewheeling narrative feel that recaptured a part of 60s and 70s Who that had eluded the revived series at least since Christopher Eccleston left.
It also allowed far more cliffhangers than we had during the RTD years–by my count, seven of the season’s thirteen episodes ended with cliffhangers.
But as far as the individual stories themselves? I’d been unimpressed. Apart from the gem of “The Doctor’s Wife“, the first seven-episode half-season, transmitted in the spring, was deeply average, with a couple of competent stories and a couple of sub-par but not horrible ones. That’s not a condemnation–it means, of course, that the season could have been far worse. But it could also have been far better.
(Even “The Doctor’s Wife” relied for its gem-ness on the viewer already having a familiarity and an emotional investment in the programme; in that respect, it was far more of a “Remembrance of the Daleks” or “School Reunion”–though better than both those–than a “Caves of Androzani”, “The Empty Child” or “Blink”, whose brilliance I’d expect to shine through even to the casual viewer. I don’t know how the not-we reacted to “The Doctor’s Wife”, but I’d be curious to find out.)
And then the second half-season picked up at the end of August with “Let’s Kill Hitler”, which was, in this reporter’s opinion, the single worst story Doctor Who has ever done in the 48 years since it first began transmission. Really, just absolutely horrible. Every creative choice made in the writing, direction and editing of that episode made a bad situation worse. We’re still in 1967 with our Doctor Who rewatch, and already I’m dreading the day when we get up to “Let’s Kill Hitler” and I have to watch it again.
After that nadir, though, the second half-season picked up for me, with four stories that were all solid and enjoyable (one of which was outright excellent). Only with the last, “Closing Time”, did I really find anything to spoil it for me, borne out of an inability really to successfully marry the episode’s dark menace (Cybermen really are at their best when they’re a desperate, final remnant of their race) with the attempt to recapture the happy-chappy bromance atmosphere of the Doctor’s relationship with Craig (James Corden) from “The Lodger”, to which this episode serves as a sequel.
(Ironically, I thought the dynamic between the Doctor and Craig in “Closing Time” was far more successful than it had been in “The Lodger”. All this time I’d been thinking “The Lodger” failed because of the way it contorted itself to serve as a vehicle for its celebrity guest star, but now I’m having to conclude that its problem is one of execution rather than conception.)
But even as I was enjoying those four successive stories–and even as someone who was sympathetic to the abandonment of the RTD narrative-arc-by-rote format*–I confess that that succession of standalone episodes making up the body of the second half-season caught me by surprise. This is exactly the period when we’d normally expect the buildup to the season finale to be ratcheting up, but what we instead got were four entirely self-contained episodes that moved away from that completely (apart from the last five minutes of “Closing Time”).
That’s a choice that’s going to take some thinking about before I can evaluate whether it’s a choice I would have made. On the one hand, I think Peter David’s quite right when he observes that a consequence of this approach has been the absence of the I-need-to-see-next-week’s-episode-now tension that the programme often achieved at the tail end of the Davies seasons. (Though it’s important not to overstate that; even during much of the Davies era, that feeling was only achieved following episode twelve of the thirteen-episode season; only two of New Who’s six series have had a cliffhanger leading from episode eleven to episode twelve, turning the finale into a three-episode event rather than a two-episode one.)
On the other hand, I once read Lawrence Miles make the excellent point that the problem with arc storytelling is that it places all the focus on what might happen in future episodes rather than on what’s currently happening in the episode that’s on right now. That’s bad for a number of reasons, and happily, for the first time since Christopher Eccleston was playing the Doctor, it managed to be largely absent from this second half-season. That was both refreshing in and of itself, and also–yes–gave the half-season a strong Classic Who feel (which was only helped along by all the classic-era callbacks and thematic links in “The God Complex” and “Closing Time”.)
All of which is a very long preamble to say–I was trepidatious going into “The Wedding of River Song”. I’d been simultaneously impressed and nonplussed by the four stories since “Let’s Kill Hitler”. And I knew that status of “The Wedding of River Song” as the Big Finale Episode would herald a return to all the things that were responsible for the depths that “Let’s Kill Hitler” plumbed, the very things that the ensuing four episodes had been able to move away from: the poor handling of a complicated (and in places, frankly, uninteresting) arc storyline, and the need for supposed Grand Spectacle to justify all the hype surrounding the episode as a Big Event.
So I was gratified to spend an hour watching an engaging and entertaining piece of television. Really, it was pretty decent. Not a timeless addition to the pantheon of great Who by any means, but nevertheless fun, and smart enough for the kids, and dumb enough for the grownups–which is, in the end, all I think we should ever be asking of Doctor Who.
It’s worth noting that it was exceptionally uncreative, basically a mishmash of formulae from Moffat’s previous big episodes. It opens on a peaceful alternate Earth filled with storybook oddities, brought on by a paradox surrounding the Doctor’s death; as opposed to Moffat’s other season finale, “The Big Bang”, which opened on a peaceful alternate Earth filled with storybook oddities, brought on by a paradox surrounding the TARDIS’s death. Like the mid-season finale, “A Good Man Goes to War”, it spends its opening third showing the Doctor popping up in a progression of seedy science-fictional settings, seeking out a series of ruffians and ne’er-do-wells. (I must say, I love how Farscape the programme looks when it does that.) And like “Let’s Get Hitler”, it’s built around a succession of “Ooh, now look at this cool bit!” set pieces, but critically, it strings them together to form a plot, rather than using them in lieu of a plot like “Hitler” did.
Of course, formula is not stranger to New Who finales. In RTD’s four finales, three of his opening episodes (“Bad Wolf”, “Army of Ghosts” and “The Sound of Drums”) were all constructed to a single formula, and three of his part twos (“The Parting of the Ways”, “Doomsday” and “Journey’s End”) were all constructed to a single formula. Which didn’t stop any of them from being enjoyable stories.
But really, there were two moments in “The Wedding of River Song” that turned me from “Yeah, it was fairly good,” to having an outright great time. The first was the lovely, sweet farewell to Nicholas Courtney, a moment made all the more poignant by it being thematically integral to the storyline. It’s something I want to devote a few paragraphs to in a post of its own tomorrow, because it’s resonant with my own family situation right now.
And the second was that ending. “The oldest question, hidden in plain sight.” Goodness me. You know how much I love post modernism, right? Well, I’m telling you that right now we can pretty much stop post modernism from this moment forward. There’s no point to it anymore. With “The Wedding of River Song” it reached its moment of sublimity, and any further instance of post modernism won’t be able to measure up to what’s come before.
(As some fans of message boards seem to have failed to notice, it works so well because it’s just as legitimately “the first question” in-universe as it is to us, watching the programme–Who am I? is the most basic of philosophical questions.)
So, yeah. “Let’s Kill Hitler” was still awful, so for me “The Wedding of River Song” wasn’t good enough to redeem the season as a whole. But it was a lovely cap to the sequence of solid episodes we’ve had throughout September.
*I want to state for the record that I don’t think the RTD formula for a season-arc is a bad thing, just that after doing it five series in succession, it was time for a change. The one constant of Doctor Who is change, in every aspect of its storytelling, and I think it would have been no more advisable for Moffat to stick to the RTD format once a new era of the programme began than it would have been for RTD to pick up in 2005 with the Cartmel Master Plan (or, egads, to have pursued the idea of the Doctor being half-human) and have had episodes be 25 minutes long. And for that matter, of course, there’s the obvious point that Moffat didn’t want to replicate what RTD had been doing any more than RTD wanted to replicate what JNT and Andrew Cartmel had been doing during their own tenure.
It’s been a hectic couple of weeks for me. Earthquake one day. The next day, I left on an unexpected trip to England, which then got unexpectedly protracted by two days. I finally did get back, at ten p.m. Tuesday night. Then, at nine a.m. Thursday, we headed out again. First, we spent the morning at Boy’s orientation for kindergarten, meeting his teacher and seeing his classroom.
Then we set out directly for Atlanta, driving eleven hours that afternoon and evening and two hours the following morning, and by ten o’clock Friday we were at Dragon*Con.
This was our second year at the con, and I deliberately set out to make sure that we had a chance to have some experiences this year that we hadn’t had last year. The first of those was getting Boy down there to take a look around. (Last year, he spent the weekend touring Atlanta with his grandparents. We’d planned for him to come down one afternoon, but he never made it. I’m genuinely unsure whether his decidedly non-geek grandparents simply never found the time, or whether they were somehow trying to shield him from the geekery.)
So Friday afternoon I headed back to our hotel in Dunwoody, picked Boy up and headed into the city with him on the subway. He was excited about going, but I was worried that once he got there in amongst the crowds and the cosplayers that he’d freak out.
I needn’t have been concerned–he loved every second of it. To the point of walking right up to Darth Vaders and Godzillas, tapping them to get their attention and asking to have his picture taken with them. (We’d run into an Eleventh Doctor and River Song on the train, so I think that primed him on what to expect.) Star Wars characters, Doctor Who characters, Disney characters–he got excited any time we saw any of them.
Saturday morning, I took him to the DragonCon parade. The crowd in front of us let him through to the front so he could sit on the kerb, and again, he had a great time–especially when a pair of Ghostbusters in the parade mistook him for a poltergeist and attempted to set their trap for him.
Then Lisa took him with her to a Phineas and Ferb panel where, after initially being somewhat shy, he apparently not only started raising his hand to offer his own comments, but eventually refused to put it down, raising his hand for his next question or comment as soon as he had finished his last one. After that, we took him to the lightsabre training for kids programme, where he had a blast learning how to whack other kids with sticks.
(In retrospect, maybe that wasn’t the best panel to take to him to three days before the first day of kindergarten.)
On a trip to Kings Dominion a couple of weeks ago, we got Boy a double-ended lightsabre. I told him I wanted to take a picture of him wielding it, and he so perfectly dropped into character for the photo that I was convinced then that he’d enjoy cosplaying at DragonCon.
We therefore got him a gas mask, and though he wore it around the house all week (really creeping Lisa out by asking, “Are you my mummy?“), he proved entirely unwilling to don it once we got to the con. I think perhaps next year we’ll try him with a costume that doesn’t require covering his face–I don’t know whether he felt like he was missing too much with the gas mask goggles on, or he was simply too aware of the fact that he was in fancy dress, but I do think the facemask was the root of his problem. Friends have suggested he should dress as Harry Potter, but I’m inclined to wait on that until he at least knows who Harry Potter is. Perhaps we’ll see about making him a miniature Doctor costume.
The other thing I wanted to do this DragonCon was sample a more varied array of programming. This largely came about because of the con’s new smartphone app. There’s so much different programming going on all the time at DragonCon that last year, using the huge, unwieldy paper grid, I basically just ended up going to most of the BritTrack panels, with a few big celebrity panels thrown in.
But with the app, I was able to see every panel for a given time in one place (critically, I was also able to see every panel’s description), and I could tag all the different ones that caught my eye. So I ended up at the Star Trek track, the American Sci Fi Media track, the SF/Fantasy Literature track, the Alternate History track and a couple of others.
And it highlighted to me how Dragon is really about a half-dozen cons all coexisting side by side. (Which is, obviously, the secret of its success–it attracts so much enthusiasm because of its huge population.)
Like on Sunday night, when I went to Michael Stackpole’s panel on Robert E. Howard’s original Conan the Barbarian stories (a panel that convinced me I finally need to crack open that copy of The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian I’ve had for several years). I’d never been to any programming down in the Lit track’s little cave. It turned out to be on the fourth floor down in the Hyatt.
The first floor one enters in the Hyatt has the hotel bar, the street entrance, reception, and the bridges to the Marriott and the food court/subway station, so it’s packed with con-goers and hotel guests and cosplayers. Only the Marriott is busier or louder or more crowded or slower moving. Then you go down a floor, and you’re in a big lobby giving access to another street entrance, to one of the con’s big ballrooms, and to the screening room for the con film festival. So it’s almost as busy as upstairs.
The third floor down has some gaming tables and the comic book Artists’ Alley, so it has some much smaller, dedicated crowds for those two things, plus a bit of overflow from the two floors above.
And then you get down to the bottom floor, where the lit track is, and it’s honestly like stepping into another world. Emptier. Quieter. Much older, with almost no one under forty. And with many fewer cosplayers. From one perspective, it’s a quiet retreat where people are celebrating the roots of where almost everything else at DragonCon comes from. From another, it’s a bunch of people who are actually missing what most of us think of when we think of DragonCon.
Two last good bits I want to make sure to mention. The first was Sylvester McCoy’s panel on Friday morning, where I got to hear Sylvester both play the spoons and do a dramatic reading of Matt Smith’s speech from “The Pandorica Opens”. And the other was at the small Red Dwarf panel on Sunday morning, where the closest thing to a celebrity was the guy who voiced the toaster on the programme (actually, he was only on for three episodes, so it would be more accurate to describe him as the guy who originated the voice of the toaster)–who actually turned out to be one of the funniest, most engaging panelists I’ve ever encountered at a convention.
And in closing, an Ariel cosplayer. These pictures were taken, respectively, Friday night and Saturday night, and I didn’t realise they had been of the same girl until yesterday. Well-played, Ariel. Well-played.
The Doctor Who rewatch posts are heading on out to their own blog. With a book coming out in May, one purpose of this blog in the near future is going to be outreach, and I really don’t think it can be at its most effective for that if half of the posts any new visitor finds on the front page are in-depth summaries of forty-year-old televised science fiction.
Of course, everyone’s welcome to follow us on out to the new digs at The Great Doctor Who Rewatch. (This also means the rewatch posts will no longer be automatically imported to Facebook, though I might still post links to them.) Back here, we now return you to your regularly scheduled blogging.
(I originally moved the rewatch to Doctor Who Rewatch dot Blogspot dot Com, until I saw the string drwhorewatch.blogspot.com appear on the screen.)
Over on the Livejournal Doctor Who forum, a New Who viewer has asked for recommendations about how to introduce themselves to Classic Who, and I responded with my customary observation that “Revelation of the Daleks” makes a great starting point because, in my opinion, it has so much in common with New Who (or rather, Davies-era Who). pbristow asked me to expand on that, but rightly pointed out that it could be a bit spoilery and that that thread might not be the best place for it.
So I figured here was as good a place for it as any. Correlations between “Revelation of the Daleks” (1985) and the RTD era of Doctor Who (2005-2010):
*It’s an exploration of the funeral parlour of the future!, just as the RTD era gave us the TV studio of the future! (twice in one series), the hospital of the future!, the traffic jam of the future!, cruise liner of the future! and the library of the future!
*Alexi Sayle’s radio DJ who spends all his time playing rock and roll music to dead people. To me, he’s a pure RTD story element, both because of his ridiculousness and because he’s from the deep space in the far future (I don’t remember if it’s even established that he’s definitely human), and yet he’s obsessed with twentieth-century or twenty-first-century Earth–in this case, rock and roll music. Just like the iPod-jukebox in “The End of the World”; just like two-thousandth-century Earth being caught in the grips of Big Brother, The Weakest Link and What Not to Wear hysteria; just like the legalistic devotion to disclaimers in “New Earth” and non-disclosure agreements in “Silence in the Library”.
*The direction. There are vanishingly few Classic Who stories that I’d describe as stylish–“The Web Planet”, “Earthshock”, “Caves of Androzani” and Revelation are the only ones I can come up with off the top of my head. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that half of those are the stories directed by Graeme Harper, or that Graeme Harper subsequently became the only Classic Who director who showed up in New Who. It’s such a joy to see the director actually using the camera as a mode of artistic expression rather than just as a way to transfer the script into recorded pictures–the most obvious instance of that is the pedestal pan (not actually a pedestal pan, but achieved through post-production) showing us a whole series of shots of various identical corridors (actually the same corridor set, obvs) scrolling past the camera like stills on a reel of film.
*The character-driven drama. I don’t want to hang my hat too much on this, because too often in New/Classic debates we end up caricaturing Classic Who as all plot/no character and New Who as all character/no plot, which does a disservice to both. But in Revelation, plot is secondary to character in a way that’s rarely true in Classic Who (or the Moffatt era, for that matter) but that we see over and over in the RTD era. What engages the viewer isn’t what’s happening, but rather the interaction between the various characters, so much so that it’s almost surprising when all the different threads weave together at the end. Closely related:
*The cast of outlandish grotesques. The Don-Quixote-and-Sancho aging knight and his squire. The creepy, womanising funeral director who refuses to pursue only one woman, the unattractive girl who’s devoted to him. The Laurel and Hardy workers who turn into quietly gleeful sadists when given the opportunity. This isn’t the only time Classic Who hung its stories on oddballs like this, but unlike certain other attempts (I’m looking at you, seasons seventeen and twenty-four), Revelation doesn’t promptly descend into pure farce. Instead (and this is to me what makes it dark comedy, rather than simply “comedy”), it continues to treat these oddballs as real people, fully capable of either tragedy or menace. Just like the blue people in “The End of the World” or Cassandra or the farting Slitheen or the CEO in “Planet of the Ood” or the working class couple in “Voyage of the Damned”.
I’d seen Revelation long before, but when I watch it again when it came out on DVD, now having seen however many series of RTD Who, I found I couldn’t escape the parallels.
Via the always magnificent Megan, “The Embarrassment of Fandom”:
“I’m gonna get a t-shirt that just says, ‘I’m Mysterious,’ so then I’ll have everyone fooled.”
(If you’re reading this somewhere you can’t find the embedded video, you can see it at the original post.)
Whenever a new actor is cast as the Doctor or as James Bond, one of the comments that invariable gets made is that now, that actor knows what the first line of his obituary will be. And it’s true–Matt Smith is twenty-nine years old, but he knows that no matter what else his life holds for him, his obituary will introduce him as, “the eleventh actor to portray the title role in the BBC television programme Doctor Who“. There are really only two actors across the two roles who’ve accomplished enough else in their careers that most people don’t automatically think of the Doctor or 007 when they see their faces–Sir Sean Connery and Peter Davison–but even both of them still know that those relatively brief periods of their early lives will still be the first thing that shows up in their obituaries.
Similarly, sportsmen and sportswomen have moments that define their career in much the same way. It’s pretty much impossible to run a news story about Joe Namath without showing the footage of him jogging off the field of Super Bowl III with the single finger raised over his head in victory. Brandi Chastain will for the rest of her life be the player who whipped her shirt off after scoring the goal that won the shootout against China in the final of the women’s World Cup. Whenever Michael Phelps gets mentioned on TV, we’ll see his one hundredth of a second victory over Milorad Čavić. Gordon Banks’s save against Pelé’s downward header at the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico, when his body seemed to defy the laws of physics, is the signature moment for both players, as Pelé ruefully admits: “It’s amazing because it was 35 years ago, but people ask me about that save all the time–not just in England, but all over the world. You know, I scored a lot of goals in that World Cup, but people don’t remember them. Sometimes I watch TV and before games they show this save. I say, ‘Why don’t they show the goals?'”
There are several things I find interesting about these career-defining moments. The first is that we don’t know they’re coming. There was no reason, until it actually occurred, that the finish to Michael Phelps’s seventh final of the 2008 Summer Games should have been any more significant than the dozen or so races he’d already swum those Games (counting both qualifiers and finals), during which he’d already won six gold medals, or the following race, in which he hoped to win an eighth gold medal. There was no reason to expect that that one particular shot from Pelé would result in what most football analysts believe is the single greatest save a goalkeeper has ever made; indeed, it’s precisely because it was unexpected–that it looked, at the moment Pelé struck the ball, impossible–that it’s so great.
The second is that it’s not necessarily the player’s greatest moment. Phelps’s win was the first time, in seven attempts, that he failed to set a world record in a final race in Beijing. Brandi Chastain’s bra-bearing celebration came after she scored a penalty kick, probably the most routine and pedestrian thing a goal scorer can do. Indeed, sometimes it’s a really low moment that becomes the first thing people associate with a sportsman–the blood trickling down Greg Louganis’s forehead; Paul Gascoigne’s blubbering tears upon receiving a yellow card in the World Cup semi-final against West Germany.
So if it’s not necessarily their most brilliant moment, then what makes that indelible instant that will come to define a player’s career in the years ahead? It ends up being combination of factors. The spectacle of the moment is certainly important. But so is the importance and visibility of the context–who knows how many other acrobatic, apparently impossible saves Gordon Banks made, that happened to be in league matches for Leicester City against Blackpool or Burnley rather than for England at a World Cup finals?
Or there’s the possibility of the moment running against expectations. Like Pelé having his shot saved. Or Dennis Law, who scored about two hundred goals for Manchester United (his record as United’s most prolific scorer in European competition stood into the twenty-first century, when it was broken by Ruud Van Nistelrooy), but the goal that always gets mentioned is the one he scored against United, when he moved on to a season at Manchester City at the twilight of his career, for that was the goal that condemned United to relegation to the Second Division.
Wayne Rooney’s winning goal in Saturday’s Manchester derby has been getting reshown in sports coverage ever since he scored it. How big has it become? Big enough that it got discussed here on Washington, DC, talk radio, on Tony Kornheiser’s local show. And it didn’t even need to be introduced or given context–“Did you see Rooney’s goal?” was all Kornheiser was asked, to which he responded, “Yeah, I did.”
I think Rooney’s goal has a strong possibility to be that signature moment of his career–to be the first line of his footballing obituary, if you like; the one moment most likely to be referenced, to be replayed, every time Rooney is mentioned following his (eventual) retirement from football. So many factors are aligned in its favour.
It came against Manchester City. It came thirteen minutes from time, shortly after City had equalised. The eyes of the whole world were on that match; with United in first and City in third, it was the most significant Manchester derby since that 1974 meeting when Dennis Law scored for City. For Wayne Rooney personally it’s come after a very tough season–his controversy in the tabloids, his declaration (subsequently retracted) that he wished to leave Man United, and of course his ten months dry of goals scored in open play, a period he really only ended a couple of weeks ago with his two goals against Aston Villa.
And the goal itself is spectacular enough on its own that, even if it had come against Luton Town in the fourth round of the League Cup, it would still have made any Top Ten Goals of the Season list.
What it really depends on is how the rest of the season plays out. Should Man United lift the title in three months, then that goal will be cemented as the key image of Wayne Rooney’s career; only scoring the winner in a World Cup semi-final or final will be able to dislodge it.