Posts Tagged ‘Doctor Who’

As keen readers of this blog will have had occasion to notice, the most recent season of Doctor Who has not exactly met with my approval. That being so, and with the marvelous advent of A Doctor World to inspire me, I decided to rewatch the whole new series – Eccleston, Tennant and Smith – with an eye to understanding the show’s development. Right now, I’m midway through Season 3, and in keeping with the seriousness of my self-appointed task, I’ve been taking handwritten notes on the structure, themes and byplay of every episode. Specifically, I’m interested in the depictions of female characters. How much agency do they have? Are their odds of survival comparable to that of their male counterparts? How do they die, and under what circumstances? Are they villains or allies? Do they rescue other characters as often as being rescued? How many episodes pass the Bechdel test?

It’s this latter question which has occupied most of my thoughts. How heavily should I rely on it? Though undeniably useful, the Bechdel is far from being the ultimate arbiter of narrative – or even feminist – success. Passing it does not, for instance, guarantee that the female characters in question are three-dimensional, believable human beings, nor does it protect against thematic sexism. Pass or fail, however, the results are always interesting – not just because of what they say about particular stories, but because of how the test itself reflects our culture of storytelling. At first glance, it’s utterly trite and obvious to point out that every day, everywhere in the world, human beings pass the Bechdel: after all, half the human population is female, and in accordance with the fact that we are all (as it were) named characters, the overwhelming majority of our conversations, if transposed to a narrative context, would pass. And yet, despite the obviousness of this fact, a disgusting number of movies, TV shows, books and plays all fail. Looked at as a purely narrative problem, it’s a disconcerting dissonance with reality. Looked at as a human problem, however, it’s a travesty.

As per Gail Simone’s observations on women in refrigerators, there are any number of reasons why individual writers might choose to structure a story such that there are no female characters, or only one female character; or why, given the presence of two or more such women, they don’t have occasion to speak to one another; or why, if they do, it’s only about a man. The limit of the Bechdel is the ease with which its detractors can argue – correctly – that the inclusion of women characters who talk about things will not automatically improve a story: not on a thematic level, if the point is to allay concerns about sexism, and not on a narrative level, if the point is to fix a plot. The failure of this objection, however, is that it willfully misconstrues the inclusion of women to be meant as a panacea. It’s not about instituting what amounts to a storywide affirmative action policy, because the suggestion has never been that women, by themselves, make stories better, or fairer, or anything other than stories with women in them, just as stories which lack women, or contain few of them, aren’t innately inferior. Rather, the point has been to ask why, if we believe our society, culture and ethics to be egalitarian – and, more, if we personally support these ideals – our stories say something else.

Consider the following hypothetical instance of a film centered on the adventures of a male lead, Guy, and his female love interest, Gal. Already, Gal is defined by her relationship to Guy: because the narrative fulcrum rests on Guy specifically, Gal’s presence is justified by her participation in his story. (There’s no reason why this scenario can’t work in the reverse without changing the genre – and yet, how much more common is it for stories with female love interests to be action-oriented adventures, while stories with male love interests are billed as romantic comedies?) Thus, Gal’s only investment in the plot comes through her association with Guy, making it much more likely that he, and not she, will take the lead in future plot-oriented conversations – after all, it’s Guy who needs answers, while Gal is just there for the ride. Obviously, that’s a simplification of matters: in save-the-world plots, for instance, the ultimate stakes affect everyone, while personal survival is a pretty strong incentive for even the most reluctant, dragged-along love interest to sit up and take an interest. Assuming Guy and Gal encounter other women in their travels, either as villains or comrades, there’s every reason why Gal might talk to them, and they to her.

Except, more often than not, they won’t – which is where we hit the gender snag. Because in instances where Guy is the protagonist, Gal’s character development matters less than his: not because she’s a girl (or at least, we hope not) but because it’s his story, and any conversations which don’t include or mention him are going to be viewed as extraneous to the plot. Ignoring the false economy of a storytelling style which jettisons secondary character development in the name of streamlining – and ignoring, too, the fact that female love interests are so deeply ingrained as an action movie archetyps that their very presence can feel like last-minute shoehorning – this puts considerable pressure on any fem/fem conversation to be relevant to the action; and if the writer wants to really showcase Guy’s intelligence, strength and resourcefulness, then having two other characters think up a plan, chart a course of action or otherwise save the day will only serve to undermine his specialness. Throw in the necessity of keeping Guy and Gal together for most of the plot – you can’t kindle sparks if the flints don’t touch – and just like that, you’ve practically eliminated any opportunity for Gal and Gal2 to have a conversation. Trying to force them together would just be another sort of shoehorning; and anyway, what does it matter? It’s just a story.

All of which is, frankly, bullshit. Characterisation shouldn’t be the sole privilege of protagonists. Male heroes don’t require a monopoly on good ideas and snappy dialogue to be viewed as heroic – and if you think they do, you’re probably part of the problem. Women shouldn’t be token characters: I love a good, sassy romance as much as the next person, but there’s a profound difference between a love interest whose only investment in the plot is their attachment to the hero, and a fully functioning character who develops into a love interest. As for the age-old argument about some eras, professions and settings being necessarily male dominated, I put it to you that if Deadwood, a well-researched, historically anchored show about life in a lawless town on the American frontier can pass the Bechdel test with ease, then any film the sole premise of which is Shit Gets Blown Up should be able to do it backwards and upside down, particularly if the setting constitutes a departure from everyday reality in any way, shape or form. Which is another way of saying that if you’re willing to break the established laws of physics and human endurance such that the male hero can get blown up, tortured and beaten shortly before running approximately ten miles at top-speed during a thrilling laser gun battle, you can probably stretch to having a female character whose capabilities extend beyond the rigours of looking decorative.

Unless you think women shouldn’t really have key roles in action movies, in which case, see above, re: being part of the problem.

All of which brings me to my sudden inability to think of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth as a realistic fantasy world (which sounds like a non sequitur, but bear with me). I’ll be brutally honest: watching the How It Should Have Ended clip for The Lord of the Rings has not done wonders for my perception of its plot, such that when I sat down this evening to watch the extended version of The Fellowship of the Ring, I found myself wanting to yell at Gandalf to just GO GET THE FUCKING EAGLES. But as I tried to settle into the narrative, I kept asking myself: where are the women? I don’t mean Arwen, Eowyn and Galadriel, who are all wonderful characters despite their lack of screen time: I mean, where are the wives and sisters and mothers? Why, when the succession is so important, is neither Faramir nor Boromir married? Where are the wives of Denethor and Theoden, the mothers of Arwen, Eowyn and Frodo? Why are so many races – the Ents, the Orcs, the Uruk-Hai, the Goblins, the Dwarves – drawn as if they were all male? For a setting which is otherwise so rich in cultural and historical detail, this reads as a serious problem. It’s not just that the trilogy fails the Bechdel test; it’s that the lack of women means we have very little idea of how that society treats them, beyond the basic, obvious knowledge that there must be wives and sisters and mothers of some sort, even though almost every woman in a position to occupy such a niche is either conveniently dead or mysteriously absent. And when, in The Silmarillion, Tolkien does venture to write female characters, it’s almost always in a romantic, devotional context: women who died to support their brothers or husbands, or who were pursued against their will, or who tragically fell in love with someone they shouldn’t (or couldn’t) have.

Which is where I start to wonder if the absence of female characters in Middle Earth is less a species of exclusionary sexism than it is a tacit acknowledgement on Tolkien’s part that, for all he was trying to write a magical, romanticised version of the medieval period, he didn’t know how to do so in a way that would benefit his women the same way it did his men. The happy resolutions to the lives of Luthien, Arwen and Eowyn all hinge on partnerships with men of their own choosing, men with whom they are genuinely in love; and yet a scholar of Tokien’s standing can’t have been unaware of how rare an occurrence that would have been, historically speaking. Perhaps, then, the wives and mothers of so many characters are absent as a preventative against the acknowledgement of exactly that problem; of the fact that one can believe in the restorative magic of feudalism and the aesthetic stylings of chivalry for only so long as one either postpones the question of women’s happiness or takes its existence for granted. As compassionately as Tolkien paints Eowyn’s desire for glory, and as determinedly as he makes Luthien the saviour and rescuer of Beren, the latter stance seems less likely than the former. But in dodging the issue, he undermines the story – because while his male characters are allowed to ask questions about their purpose in life, expressing bitterness at their circumstances and feeling haunted by unwanted duty, he cannot dare let the women do likewise, or else the whole myth of Middle Earth’s glory would come crashing down around him. The elves, conveniently enough, are exempt from this dilemma, presumably on the basis that if everyone in a given society is granted magical supremacy, immortality and eternal beauty as a matter of course, then unhappiness as a result of imposed gender profiling probably won’t be an issue. But humankind are not, which is why, despite how well-drawn she is, Eowyn’s fears are masculinised: her biggest concern is being denied a chance at battle, and not that Theoden or Eomer will see her married off, even though the structure of Tolkien’s society dictates that one must be at least as distinct a possibility as the other.

And that’s why I’ve lost my faith in Middle Earth: because I cannot reconcile Tolkien’s aesthetic mood of beauty, nobility and contemplation with the necessary ugliness and bias of male-dominated feudalism. Which explains why I’m such a fan of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, adapted recently to the HBO series A Game of Thrones: all the history and pageantry is still there, all the chivalrous words and noble aspirations, but we still get to see the women – their desires, struggles, success and persecution – without recourse to either convenient absenteeism or rosy-lensed love. Call it gritty fantasy or nihilism if you must, but no matter how pure and glorious your ambitions, it’ll take a lot to convince me that a standard medieval setting will lack the problems of forced marriage, rape and battery – or worse, that these things don’t matter – just because you choose to emphasise chivalrous conduct.

So, to recap: if you find yourself steering clear of female/female dialogue because:

a) women have no place in your story;

b) it doesn’t feel plot-relevant;

c) you don’t want to develop your female characters; or

d) the women might question the logic of a world you want your male characters to enjoy,

then I would humbly suggest that you are, in fact, part of the problem. Which is why the Bechdel test matters: not because all stories need women, but because the manner of their absence shouldn’t contribute to a culture of inequality.

Warning: total spoilers, much rant.

I just finished watching A Good Man Goes to War. I was not impressed. In fact, my unimpressedness is such that I’m close to declaring it the Worst Episode Ever. I mean, even the one with the Ikea Darleks wasn’t this bad – or maybe it was exactly this bad, and only a sudden rosiness of hindsight is making it seem otherwise. Either way, unless the series manages to execute a pretty fabulous face heel turn, I’m going to call shark jump from this point onwards.

So, look. The idea of the episode – the significance of Amy and Rory’s baby, why she’d been stolen, how the Doctor set about getting her back – is a good one. Ditto the reveal about River Song, although seeing as how I already picked this a few episodes back, it was less of a big surprise than a confirmation of fact. Even so, the laboured business of waiting to see her name spelled out really bugged me: the only time the TARDIS has struggled to translate written language was back in Season 2’s The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit, with the given reason being that the script in question predated Timelord civilisation – so seeing a sudden, convenient time-delay trotted out for the sole purpose of garnering a few seconds’ extra anxiety over River’s identity felt like retconning at its cheapest.

Which, you know. It was.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, here: let’s start at the very beginning, wherein Amy Pond spends a good few minutes telling her newborn daughter about the wonderful and magnificent man who’ll always, always look out for her. So far as I can see, this monologue was designed to do two things:

1) tug our heart-strings about her having to hand over Melody; and

2) pull a big ‘surprise!’ moment when we realise she’s been talking about Rory, not the Doctor.

Fine. Whatever. I get that, though at this point, the joke about confusing the two men in Amy’s affections is wearing very, very thin. Ship Tease a love triangle once, I thrill to it. Ship Tease a love triangle every single episode, and I start to get stabby. More practically, though, this exposition serves no narrative purpose other than the above: it doesn’t move the plot forwards, it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, and it goes on longer than is strictly comfortable. Cut to Rory in a Cyberman base, dressed as a Centurion and issuing Manly Directives while the Doctor blows shit up outside.

I’m sorry, what? The Doctor, that is to say, the man who has spent the better part of forty years trying not to blow shit up and interacting very sternly with those who do, is blowing up an entire base just to make a point?

Sorry. You’ve lost me.

Oh, wait, right – but Amy is special, so she gets a special rescue! Very, very special, although as Cat Valente and Stephen H. Segal pointed out on Twitter this week, that specialness is looking less earned and more forced the longer the series goes on. Or, to put it another way: the Doctor has a time machine that can go anywhere. Even if he really did need to call in all these amazing debts across the universe and put together a crack team of aliens to help him break into Demon’s Run, blowing up the Cyberman base was just gratuitously violent. I don’t care that River sort of, almost, indirectly calls him on it at the end; that we’re meant to worry about the sort of man he’s becoming because of this one, out-of-character incident. Bullshit: we were worried already. This is the big contradiction of the Doctor, the subtle line that Moffat and Davies before him have played from minute one of the reboot: that the Doctor is a wounded soldier, recovering from his unwilling genocide of the Timelords and Darleks, battle-forged and fighting the violence of grief, power and loneliness as the last surviving member of an all-powerful species.

All of which says to me that the Doctor does not, will not wipe out a whole Cyberman base just to make a fucking point. If such a heinous act really is his tipping point, a sign of character slippage that signals an end to everything he’s tried to be, we should see him at that pivotal, damning moment, and not just be pacified with a shot of Rory looking all badass before the credits come up.

From this point on, what fast becomes notable about A Good Man Goes to War is how little screen time the main trio actually gets. The Doctor himself is conspicuously absent from the first half hour: instead, we follow innumerable secondary characters through various disparate locations. This is meant to give us a sense of grandeur, and to some extent, it works, in that each individual setting – the Battle of Zarathustra, Victorian England, a skeezy alien bar, Demon’s Run itself, even River’s prison block – is somewhere we’d like to be; or rather, a place where we’d like to see a story told. Instead, we skim into each one for about three minutes: just enough time to introduce a new character, a vague sense of context and their debt to the Doctor before we’re whisked away to the next one. This is, to say the least, dizzying. And then there’s River herself, who declines to show up only because she has to be there at the very end, when the Doctor finally finds out who she is. She says this in such a way as to intimate, backed up by ominous music, that he will be angry at the truth, shocked or betrayed or poisoned, that she must stay away in order to savour these last few moments of anonymity, when of course – as it turns out – he’s delighted. This doesn’t surprise her at all, though: the earlier, melodramatic scene with Rory was a bluff.

Which makes no sense: because now there’s no good reason why River stayed away. Conceivably, it would’ve been awkward to have her there – except that there’s no narrative reason why this should be so, no mention of the don’t-cross-your-own-timeline directive (which, frankly, would have made more sense). The only reason River refuses to go, it seems, is because Moffat wants to tease us with the prospect of finding out who she really is, and feels her revelation will have more impact if she doesn’t show up until the very end. That’s an obvious ploy I don’t appreciate, and one that serves otherwise to ensure that an episode full of oneshot characters doesn’t accidentally stray towards meaningful development of the regulars.

Then there’s a bit which just plain doesn’t make sense: the introduction of a married, gay marine couple who talk to Lorna, yet another oneshot,  and to each other, about the Headless Monks, the Doctor and various other sundries. Then we see one of the couple get taken away by the Monks, whose ranks he is forced to join. At the time, this is set up as an emotional thing: we’re meant to feel sorry for the chosen man, and briefly, we do – right up until it becomes apparent that neither he nor his partner have anything else to do with the rest of the episode. That is to say, we never see them again, and the five minutes we spent in their company are wasted. Lorna, at least, is important, though her scene with the couple isn’t: she sews the name of Amy’s daughter onto a prayer leaf and gives it to her, sympathetic because she, too, spent time with the Doctor as a child, and has only joined the army in order to meet him. This is, alas, an emotionally borked scene: in yet another hideous, long-winded display of telling rather than showing, they talk about how awesome the Doctor is, how worth it and wonderful, by which point both my husband and I were shouting at the episode to get on with it!, sadly to no avail.

Because then we have the army itself (no, we don’t ever find out why they’ve decided to fight the Doctor – he’s just the Big Bad as far as they’re concerned, and we have to take River’s nebulous word for it that possibly, maybe, somehow he deserves it, or is in danger of making himself deserve it) getting geed up by their commander. More Headless Monks emerge; we get another long speech about What The Doctor Is And Is Not, followed by more speachifying about how, just this once, the papal authority in charge of the Monks – who wear big, voluminous hoods – are allowed to show people what they Really Look Like, even though doing so is normally a heretical offence. This is, I mean, um. Because the Headless Monks? The big reveal about them? Is that they are headless.

Wow.

Let’s ignore the fact that if Moffat wanted anyone to be astonished by this, he could quite easily have called them, I don’t know, anything other than the Headless Monks. Their lack of heads, for all its obviousness, isn’t the biggest problem. No: it’s that he’s introduced a cowled, hooded order of Mystery Mystics, established that looking under their hoods is heresy, then lifted their hoods in a one-time special offer all in the space of fifteen fucking minutes. Which, you know, tends to kill the mystery pretty quicksmart.

Also, they fight with red lightsabers, like headless Sith Lords. LIGHT. FUCKING. SABERS.

And then, finally – FINALLY – the Doctor shows up. We don’t see his oh-so-carefully gathered compatriots at this point; instead, he talks a bit about himself (because nobody else has done that yet, oh wait), some stuff happens, he disappears, and then we get the whole army chanting WE’RE NOT FOOLS over and over again, somebody please kill me, Rory shows up and rescues Amy with their baby, the Doctor’s secret army (not his chosen few, who are doing things elsewhere at control panels, but some other random guys) show up and surround the enemy, and then we have an excruciatingly saccharine ten minutes of Everything Is Over And Yay We Won, Look At Our Cute Baby. Which, OK, I get that babies are cute, and I know the point is that everyone is happy and safe, but you’re trying to make me feel relived at the cessation of what is, in fact, a total lack of tension. Because up until the very end of the last episode, we didn’t know where Amy was, or that she was actually pregnant; we don’t see the birth, we don’t flash back to her capture, she isn’t threatened at all, Melody isn’t harmed, and the most menacing thing that happens in the whole episode is when Amy has her baby taken from her in the opening scene. The rest has just been strangers and oneshots talking, talking, talking – and so, to return to the point, when you follow half an hour of dialogue up with two minutes of something almost happening and then celebrate a bloodless victory with ten minutes of schmaltz, I am not feeling relieved that the characters are safe, because so far as I can see, they were never actually in danger. Telling the danger is not showing! Show. Me. The danger!

Which, of course, eventually comes. There’s a small trap, in that the Monks come back and attack the Doctor’s chosen guardians, one of whom dies, and Lorna, who also dies, but not until she’s had a tearful farewell in the Doctor’s arms. (Of course he remembers her. Apparently, he remembers everyone, even though he’s been known for forty years as an irascible, absent-minded professor. But I digress.) Oh, and the flesh copy of Melody that Rory thought was his daughter dissolves, thus putting the real baby well and truly beyond rescue. Except she’s not, really, because then River Song shows up, castigates the Doctor a bit, then reveals herself to be Melody Pond grown up, regenerated (because she’s sort of a Timelord, but not quite) and with her name changed via translation into an alien language.

Oh, and the name of the next episode is Let’s Kill Hitler.

I’m not making that up. Believe me, I wish I was.

There were other things, too, small gaffes and glitches that niggled. Where did the photo of Amy and Melody come from in Day of the Moon? I can’t see eyepatch lady stopping to take one. Why were the Headless Monks and their order so heavily invested in a battle against the Doctor, when we’ve never seen or heard of them before? The music, too, was desperately OTT, swooning and sugary well beyond what the situation called for, making this the first time since Eragon that I’ve actively wanted to mute a soundtrack.

So, yeah. I wasn’t impressed with A Good Man Goes to War. Not because it didn’t work, but because, despite all the problems, this should have been a good episode. There’s so much potential there, I can just about rewrite the episode in my mind. In fact, despite the probable arrogance of doing so, I can and will. So here’s my version of how things should have been.

Picture this:

In the opening scenes, Amy poses for a photo with her newborn daughter. Her smile collapses as soon as the flash dies. She tries to talk bravely to Melody, but three sentences in, she’s rudely interrupted by the army officers. The eyepatch woman declares how little patience she has for sentimentality; Melody is taken forcibly from a crying Amy, cuffed to the ground when she tries to snatch her back. They don’t need her alive any more, she’s told, but maybe she’ll be useful as bait. They leave, and we are left uncertain about Amy’s future.

Cut to Rory and the Doctor at the TARDIS controls, talking about a Cyberman base. It’s the only place they can go to get the information they need, but dealing with Cybermen is always tricky: without a show of force, they won’t tell them anything. Rory goes in, but keeps in touch with the Doctor by comm. We see the moment when the Cybermen refuse to speak; we see the Doctor’s face as he realises that violence is his only option. He tells Rory to brace, and then we see him go cold and hard, blowing up an entire base to make the remainder reveal where Amy is being kept. Later, he looks to Rory for absolution, but Rory says there’s nothing to forgive. They weren’t innocents, they were Cybermen. They needed to die.

While the Doctor picks up everyone else, the same as before (except he also grabs a regiment or two), Rory goes to River. She tells him she can’t come because she can’t cross her own timeline; that she’s already been to Demon’s Run. Rory assumes this means she’ll show up during the fighting and help, which perspective River lets him believe. We see her face as he walks away, though, and know that she’s lying – but not why. Back in the TARDIS, the Doctor asks Rory where River is, and he tells him she’s already there; and the Doctor says, of course she is. Now, we see the strike team all together in the TARDIS, listening as the Doctor explains the situation: what’s happening, what they have to do to save Amy, and why there’s an army after him. Cut this with slice shots of them actually infiltrating the base in real-time, sneaking through to their positions, fighting their way in. End with the Doctor telling them cheerfully not to die, then smash cut to Amy blank in her room as Lorna comes in, proffering the prayer leaf, which she puts down on a table when Amy won’t take it. Their conversation is different this time: it starts out with Lorna telling Amy that she used to know the Doctor as a child, but when she describes him, it’s as a great warrior, held reverential in her eyes for the violence he did. It’s why she became a soldier, to meet him in battle – an almost Sontaran glory – and Amy becomes furious, yelling at her to get out. She throws the leaf at Lorna, but the other woman won’t take it. Close the scene on Amy picking it up, trying to rip it, failing, then crying over it, all while trying to pull herself together. This she does – but just then, the lights go out.

Red light flickers on; we follow back to the Doctor’s posse, watching them put the finishing touches on their infiltration. Soldiers in chaos during a drill; Lorna rejoins them, excited because she knows what this means. But when the lights come up, there’s an army there instead of the Doctor, surrounding them: all weapons must be laid down. Elsewhere, we see Rory and the Doctor split up, looking for Melody. The Doctor reclaims her from eyepatch lady after a tense confrontation; he pulls a weapon,says he’ll spare her if she gives him the child, then prepares to shoot anyway when Melody is handed over. Eyepatch lady expects him to do it, which is all that stays his hand; and then Rory arrives, desperate for his daughter, in which moment of distraction eyepatch lady flees. The Doctor hands Melody over, gets word on the comm about what’s happened with the army, then leaves Rory to be the Amy-rescuing hero while he goes off to take charge of things on the ground.

Back to Amy, who’s actively trying to break out of her cell rather than waiting passively to be rescued. Just as she finds something to prise open the door, Rory opens it from the other side. Reunion! They go to the window and watch, tense, as the Doctor negotiates the final stand-down of the other army’s troops, sending them out with only a few casualties on either side. All three reunite; Rory explains to Amy what’s been happening while the Doctor goes to check the records with his Silurian sword-master. The scene about Melody’s genetics happens mostly as before, except that, when the trap is revealed and eyepatch tells him about the Monks’ involvement, they’re a new threat, one he recognises as deadly when their name is spoken. This time, we actually see the fight between them and his motley crew, including Lorna joining fight, the disintegration of the false Melody, and then the death scene of the Sontaran. A difference with Lorna’s death, though: the Doctor doesn’t remember her at all, and the last thing she sees is his face, stricken with apology, as he tries – and fails – to recall her name.

Only then, into the silence, does River emerge; she’s been watching from the shadows. The Doctor shouts at her: where has she been? She argues back, bitterly, about how rich this is coming from him, who’s forever swanning about and showing up where he pleases, never a care for those left behind, like the dead girl whose name he couldn’t remember; the Doctor retorts that he, at least, is always where he needs to be, to which River calmly replies that she is, too. Both reside a bit: he says she told Rory she’d be here; what did she mean? At which River breaks a little and says, I was, but you missed me. He understands the truth, then – heavy with the weight of what it means – but Rory and Amy don’t. The others are curious, but know this isn’t their business: he leads the survivors back to the TARDIS, giving the trio privacy. River tells Amy to pull the prayer leaf, forgotten until now, out of her pocket. Amy can’t understand how she knew it was there at all, and Rory is totally baffled, but both stop talking when they see the name on it: River Song, translated by the TARDIS. Lights, curtain, exeunt all.

Aaaand now I’m done. But seriously, is it so hard to throw in a little danger, to show us the conflict and tone down the melodrama, so that the emotional moments actually mean something? Apparently. And yet also, to my mind, not.

Warning: spoilers ahoy!

I’ve just finished catching up with Doctor Who, watching  The Curse of the Black Spot and The Doctor’s Wife back to back. The former was depressingly unoriginal: not only did we have to listen to hackneyed, unironic pirate dialogue, but for at least the third time in recent memory, an alien medical program turned out to be responsible for everything. (More of the latter later.)

Now, I didn’t grow up with Doctor Who –  the reboot served as my introduction to series. My husband, however, was a childhood fan, and at his recommendation, I’ve watched a large number of Tom Baker episodes as well as the two movies. Setting aside obvious points of comparison like special effects budgets, modern technology and so on, what distinguishes the classic episodes is the fact that the Doctor really does just travel about randomly. He has personal moments, yes, and he inevitably saves the day wherever he ends up, but the scope of these adventures is almost always local – by which I mean, the fate of reality itself does not hang constantly in the balance. So even though I disagree with the rest of his argument, I’m inclined to side with Pete May of the Guardian when he says of the new series:

“The Doctor should be a maverick wanderer, a rebel with a Tardis console, not a superhero. Now every plot seems to centre round the Doctor or his companions as being crucial to the very fabric of the universe.”

It’s a valid criticism, and not just in terms of actual plot content. The one thing I’ve found offputting in the new series is the melodrama: David Tennant’s absurdly long farewell, the regularity with which sidekicks are imperiled, put through the wringer, wangsted and woobied. Look: I love heart-wrenching decisions, tragic endings and emotional baggage as much as the next person. In fact, they’re pretty much my favourite narrative tools! But if you’re going to keep upping the ante week after week, season after season, in such a way that there must Always Be More And Bigger Drama, then in order to ensure that the strings of my heart are tugged rather than hardened, your story must meet three very simple requirements. They are:

1) Internal consistency, because nothing harshes the vibe of an emotional climax quite like the sudden realisation that the plot makes no sense;

2) Good writing, because if all your secondary characters are cardboard cutouts and all the leads are lumbered with cliched dialogue, I will swiftly cease to be in a mood for lovin’; and

3) Humour, because tragedy leavened by laughter is both more powerful and uplifting than the regular kind, and also, paradoxically, sadder.

These should not be impossible things! But as keen readers of this blog may recall, I was not impressed with the start of Season 6, primarily because they failed at hurdle number one. The Curse of the Black Spot was likewise felled by its recycled plot, and took a second stumble in terms of writing. Sufficed to say that, when the time came to watch Neil Gaiman’s episode, provocatively titled The Doctor’s Wife, I was very, very nervous. I like Neil Gaiman. I like Doctor Who. The idea of disliking the effective combination of these two things did not sit well with me – and yet, I was fearful, because while I still love the show, the first three episodes have left me apprehensive about its future.

And then the awesome started.

Because Neil Gaiman, among his many talents, does language. Part of what made The Curse of the Black Spot so very disappointing was the fact that Matt Smith’s dialogue lacked the flair and craziness synonymous with his character. Not only was the Doctor wrong about everything several times, he wasn’t even interestingly wrong. But from the very first moments of The Doctor’s Wife, we have secondary characters whose speech patterns and vocabulary set them apart. We have rapid-fire exchanges and glorious mad oracle ramblings from Idris. Just as importantly for my inner fangirl, we have references to Douglas Adams, author of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and several episodes of classic Who. Throughout the episode, Gaiman riffs on a memorable dinner conversation between Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, and finishes it up by having the Doctor tell House, “Brain the size of a planet, but still so small on the inside!” – a reference to the constant refrain of Marvin the Paranoid Android. Even the villain – a sentient planet – recalls Adams’ classic The Key to Time episode, The Pirate Planet, whose villain captained a moving planet he used to destroy or shrink other worlds.

Yes, we can pick the resolution ahead of time, but it doesn’t actually matter, because let’s face it: you pretty much always know the Doctor will triumph, some sciencey-sounding words will be trotted out to explain whatever has happened, and a slice of the future mystery will be hinted at in passing. Very few episodes of Doctor Who are designed such that the audience is given regular clues and encouraged to solve the mystery before the characters do, primarily because solutions involving alien technology and unknown cultures cannot sensibly be inferred without the use of a plot-spoiling infodump. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun to try, of course, nor that we’re unable to make narrative leaps based on our knowledge of the kind of show we’re watching rather than sticking solely to what we’re shown. But if you start judging the success of individual episodes based on how little you understood of what actually happened, as seems to be the case with fans of the first three installments, you run the risk letting actual gaffes go through to the keeper just because they didn’t make sense, in the mistaken belief that therefore, somehow, they must do. All of which is a way of saying that, in this instance, being able to pick the ending was a good thing. After so many stories that begged more questions than they answered, it was frankly a relief to encounter an internally consistent episode, one where everything you needed to know – and wanted to know – was provided.

I loved Idris, too: not just the idea of the TARDIS in a human body, but the recognition of the fact that she really is the Doctor’s one true love – his ‘wife’, in the way that all great captains are married to their ships. We’ve heard the TARDIS referred to as a ‘she’ before; we’ve seen the Doctor talk to her – pleading, praising, admonishing, laughing – and watched as the other characters tease him for it. In the last moments when her matrix simultaneously inhabits the ship itself and the dying body of Idris, allowing her to say a first and final hello to the man she stole nearly a thousand years ago, the communion between TARDIS and Doctor is oddly reminiscent of the last episode of Firefly, when River Tam speaks for Serenity, addressing the crew in her voice. It’s a resonant concept: ship as lover, as mother, as friend – a silent, unchanging character, and the vehicle for stories without which there could literally be no vehicle.

When, in the closing scene, Rory asks the Doctor if he has his own bedroom on the TARDIS, he doesn’t answer, because there’s no need: the control room is his, the room of his heart, and that’s where we leave him, communing with a ship he now knows is listening – has always been listening – and who alone of all creatures left in the universe shares his backwards/forwards perception of time. The Doctor’s Wife is a gorgeous, clever, funny, touching episode that embodies everything I’ve come to love about the show. I only hope that the rest of the season lives up to it.

Warning: spoilers! 

There’s several things I’ve been wanting to blog about these past few days, but in light of just having watched the first two episodes of Season 6 of Doctor Who, I’m going to put them on hold in favour of performing a narrative vivisection. It’s been a while now since Season 5: long enough that many of the small, crucial details hinting at Steven Moffat’s arc for Matt Smith’s Doctor have doubtless slipped my mind. What I do recall, however, is that the final episodes didn’t make a lot of sense to me at the time. Or, wait: let me rephrase. I don’t watch Doctor Who because it makes sense, and I’m fairly sure that’s the case for most viewers. I mean, when your basic premise is a species of open-door, case by case worldbuilding with full retconning options and an ad-hoc magic system masquerading as science, continuity and inherent logic are always going to be, to paraphrase one Shepherd Book, a mite fuzzy.

I say that with love, of course. After all, if you want to watch a witty Brit poncing about the multiverse in a police box, Doctor Who is pretty much your only option. But there’s a difference between nonsensical plots and plots which literally make no sense, and while I appreciate that Moffat is very much a creature of the long game, Day of the Moon comes perilously close to falling into the latter category.

But first: The Impossible Astronaut. Good premise, nice creepifying vibes, though I could’ve done without the prolonged image of Amy sobbing over the Doctor’s body. Also – and yes, I do realise that it represents a significant portion of the setup for Season 6 – I wasn’t keen on using his eventual death as a plot device. For one thing, it’s an annoying way to start an episode: the Doctor was always going to reappear again via some miraculous means, and in the interim, we waste time watching the characters grieve for a loss we already know isn’t final. For another, and more importantly, it’s a problematic means of garnering emotional investment in the series. If the death we’ve seen is truly an irreversible event, then Matt Smith must be the last Doctor – which, yes, is possible, but given the show’s popularity and the sheer length of its reign, I just can’t see that fact being flagged with such canonical finality so early in his tenure. Which means it’s probably going to be reversed at some point, or prolonged, or altered, or changed, or whathaveyou, and while I’m certainly interested in seeing how that happens (probable answer: Timelord magic!), I can’t feel any uncertainty about the fact that it will happen. Which makes it something of an empty threat, particularly as it’s been left to hang over the whole season.

Unless the death does stand and the show really is slated to end with Matt Smith. In which case: well played, Mr Moffat! Well played.

Monster-wise, the Silence were genuinely freaky, and a very well-seeded threat from Season 5, though as has been pointed out elsewhere, Day of the Moon was rather rough and ready when it came to how their powers worked. It’s a fridge logic problem, the sort of thing that only niggles in retrospect without really altering the fabric of the narrative: an omission of some facts and a blurring of others, rather than an outright contradiction. What I’m less forgiving about is the idea that an alien species, capable of space travel, who have demonstrably menaced multiple worlds and who, by River Song’s reckoning, have access to at least eight different types of alien technology while on Earth, had to engineer the moon landing because they needed someone to invent the space suit. Because, seriously? No. Even if they’re incapable of creating things on their own, they still have access to alien technology. I’m pretty sure there are alien space suits, you guys!

And while we’re on the subject of continuity being carried over from Season 5: haven’t we already established that there are colonies of lizard people living under the Earth? You know – another technologically advanced race that’s been sharing the planet with humankind since the dawn of history? Possibly I’m just being picky, but seeing as how the Silence also live in a network of tunnels running beneath the surface of the entire planet, it feels kind of odd to think that the two have never encountered one another. Oh, and if the Silence really are responsible for all those strange jitters people feel in empty places, the sensation of being watched – all that stuff – then can we assume that they’ve been working in tandem with the Vashta Nerada? All right, maybe that last one’s a stretch, but the point is, for a race of villains whose coming has been foreshadowed for some time now, the Silence feel underdeveloped to me. Yes, they’re frightening, but how do they fit into the wider Whoniverse as a species? (And why do they look curiously like knock-off copies of Joss Whedon’s Gentlemen?)

The other problem is Amy’s pregnancy-that-isn’t, though maybe that’s only a problem for me, given my stated position on Magical Pregnancies of any kind. Right now, it looks like Amy’s eventual daughter will kill the Doctor (somehow), steal his regenerative powers (somehow) and be reared in an abandoned orphanage in 1969 (somehow) by a creepy caretaker under alien control. With a photo of Amy on her dresser (somehow). Though when she does see Amy face to face, she doesn’t recognise her (somehow). Also, she’s not quite human (the TARDIS effect?) and super strong – strong enough to rip her way out of the space suit (somehow). Except, if she could do that, then why didn’t she do it ages ago? And how, if she is Amy’s daughter, was she stolen away? I’m struggling with all these things. I know it’s the long game, or rather, I really, really hope that it’s the long game, and the only reason it doesn’t make sense is because there’s more to come. But so far, it doesn’t feel like it.

That being said, I love River Song, I love theorising about the possible arcs and reveals of awesome TV shows (theory: River is Amy and Rory’s daughter!) and because I embrace the senselessness, I love Doctor Who even when it appears to make no sense, if only because Matt Smith is so magnificently daft. So despite my doubts and wonderings: bring it on!

So, it seems that 2010 – the dawn of a new decade which may or may not be called the tens, teens, tweens or tweenies – is finally upon us. Huzzah! This was the first New Year’s Eve I’ve ever spent overseas, and the only one where it’s been cold. Toby and I put forward a few suggestions as to how we might celebrate, but in the end, a 24-hour virus/flu on his behalf saw us stay in by ourselves and have a pleasant, if very quiet, evening of geekery. I bought us a box of Indian food from Sainsbury’s, which actually wasn’t bad, and courtesy of our hosts – or, more specifically, their DVD collection – we watched Stigmata, which was very 90s, but not unenjoyable, paused to have a discussion about the apocryphal Gospel of St Thomas, and then watched The Lawnmower Man, which was sort of hilarious, but which made up for it by featuring a young, sometimes shirtless Pierce Brosnan wearing hot glasses and an a gold earring as the Rogue Scientist. Then we caught up with a bit of the classic Doctor Who we’ve been watching recently – Tom Baker in Pyramids of Mars – and went to sleep. Also, I may have done some writing.

Speaking of which: the first draft of the Ambush Novel is now complete. There’s one more scene I want to add in, a made-up word I want to change and a conversation to be fixed, but these are all little things, and otherwise, I’m extremely happy with the results. So if nothing else, I’ve managed to achieve my crazy goal of finishing it before we returned to Australia. Yay!

Finally, re my predictions for the second part of Doctor Who: The End of Time, I was right about some things, and wrong about others. I’m happy with that. It was, by and large, a good episode, although in all honesty, I’m keen to move on from the schmaltz of Russell T. Davies and see what Stephen Moffat can achieve – especially given that he’s been responsible for all my favourite episodes.

Rock on 2010!

Warning: absolutely giant massive spoiler alert!

OK, so: part one of the final David Tennant episode of Doctor Who, The End of Time, has now aired in the UK. The fact that I’ve been predicting the return of the TimeLords ever since Tennant first announced his retirement has left me with a warm, glowy feeling of narrative vindication. (The fact that said glow has undoubtably been heightened by the large glass of eggnog sitting to my left is by the way and nothing to do with it.) As soon as the Ood declared that ‘they are returning’, I knew it was game on, which view was ultimately proven correct when Timothy Dalton appeared mid-episode wearing the unmistakeable red and gold of Rassilon. It makes perfect sense that the Tenth Doctor’s exit would in some way be tied to the return of the denizens of Gallifrey, as his tenancy (hah – pun!) has been entirely characterised by their absence. In terms of mining the original show, the other TimeLords are the single facet yet to be brought back, and as the Daleks have turned up numerous times despite their supposed destruction during the Time War, finding a means of resurrecting their enemies is an act of natural balance. In the trailer for the final act, it has also been revealed that the drumming tune in the Master’s head – the inspiration for the four knocks which are prophecied to preempt the Doctor’s death – is representative of the double beat of a TimeLord’s heart. Armed with this knowledge and a glipse of the final episode, therefore, here are my predictions for the final ever episode of David Tennant’s term in Doctor Who.

Back in The Sound of Drums, it was revealed that what originally sent the Master mad was the TimeLord ritual of staring into the Time Vortex through the Untempered Schism. From this point on, the drums in his head were always calling to him. We know, too, that the Doctor can sense the presence of other TimeLords alive in the galaxy – but there are exceptions to this ability. Consider that creator Russell T. Davies, much like Joss Whedon, has a habit of planning his storylines long in advance, such that he is in a position to drop hints as to their eventual conclusion. One such notable clue is the Medusa Cascade, a place the Doctor was reported to have sealed off during the Time War, but where Davros and the Daleks were later proven to be hiding, along with a number of stolen planets, at the end of Season 4, by being a second out of sync with the rest of the universe. I won’t venture an explanation as to how, but my speculative guess, after the Ood announced that ‘things which have already happened are happening now’, is that those TimeLords who survived the Time War did so by a similar trick of temporal displacement; perhaps even utilising one of the Nine Gallifreys of old. Which is why, when the Master gazed into the Vortex all those years ago, the sound of drums was embedded in his head: he could hear the future/present of the timeless TimeLords, and was irrevocably altered by their (which is to say, Timothy Dalton and his prophetess’s) call to war. The Ood can sense this displacement at a psychic level, and now that the Master has turned everyone on Earth into copies of himself, the fact of this will allow the rest of the TimeLords to return: because of what he is, and of what was originally done to him.

Which leads us to Wilf, who appears to be having visions of a female TimeLord council member, and to Donna Noble, who is no longer quite human, and who has been forced to remember everything she was made to forget. This is somewhat interesting, as the Doctor has explained that Donna can’t remember without dying; but if she can, then what does this say about her deeper nature? Perhaps – one might speculate – her survival has something to do with those Huon particles she imbibed so long ago, given their relationship to TimeLord technology. We were told ealier that there was no coincidence in the Doctor meeting Donna more than once, and now we know that there is no coincidence to Wilf’s continued appearences, either. Why is he the only man to remember his bad, precognitive dreams? Perhaps this is an example of cyclic time: due to the Doctor’s protection, he was never going to turn into a copy of the Master, and was therefore able to remember in the present what his future self would eventually learn. Wilf is a stargazer, a soldier who has never killed a man; alternatively, his significance might lie in the fact that he is human – wholly human, unlike Donna – and therefore represents a viable template from which the human race might be restored. But he also has a choice to make, a life to take: the Doctor’s, the Master’s, or perhaps Timothy Dalton’s.

So, to wrap up all these vague speculations, I’ll end on a more solid, if perhaps more obvious note: Timothy Dalton’s character will die; Gallifrey will return; the Doctor will be offered the mantle of Lord President (again) and refuse; the Master will escape to fight another day, as per his speciality; and Donna’s memories will be restored.

There. How’s that for a prophecy?

When it comes to spending money, the LSH* and I have two core weaknesses: books and DVDs. Back in Melbourne, there’s a Swirling Vortex of Fiscal Doom between JB Hi Fi and the comic shop guaranteed to extract a minimum of $40 on an average day, which is why I avoid that street unless all bills are paid. But holidays – ah, blissful holidays! – are a different matter. Where other people spend vast quantities of moolah on spas, luxury accomodation, souveniers and exotic locations, we buy books. Lots of them. (To give you a rough idea, we bought upwards of thirteen – each – on our honeymoon. Sufficed to say, our luggage was several kilos heavier on the return trip.)

Our current jaunt has proved no exception. Being a philosopher and, more particularly, a logician, the LSH tends to buy books with scintillating titles like Logic, Logic ang Logic (seriously), and is possibly the only person ever to be wildly excited by a 40% discount on Cambridge University Press textbook editions. Meanwhile, my own papery hoard has been enriched by the aquisition of no less than 11 titles:

– The Midnighters Trilogy (Scott Westerfeld);

– The Last Days (also by Scott Westerfeld);

– The Kingdom Beyond the Waves (Stephen Hunt);

– Perdido Street Station (China Mieville);

– The Book of Dead Philosophers (Simon Critchley);

– Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt ( R. T. Rundle Clark);

– The Alchemyst (Michael Scott);

– City of Saints and Madmen (Jeff VanderMeer); and

– Cairo Jim and Doris in Search of Martenaten (Geoffrey McSkimming). 

Thanks to a saved wedding voucher, we’ve also gained a rather large quantity of Doctor Who DVDs from the Tom Baker era – and for those who might protest the usage, really: we’ve got all the household stuff we could possibly need, and in any case, the giver would approve. All in all: a most satisfactory harvest. (And just to dispel the image of the LSH and I as a pair of sedentry layabouts, we’ve been out to Taronga Zoo, walked around the Blue Mountains and caught up with friends, too. We just love us some books.)

The Blue Mountains, speaking of which, were spectacular in just about every respect – we even got snowed on, which is a novelty in most of Australia and particularly for us. It was even cold enough to justify the purchase of what shall hereafter be referred to as the Coolest Hat Ever (which, given that I actually collect weird hats, is no small boast). Behold!

Nifty, eh?

 

* Long-Suffering Husband