...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Day 2013: DOCTOR WHO: Doomsday


Another day when I am SOGGY from a snuffling Daddy. I will go and wring myself out, and leave him to tell you all about it.

This was terrific.

Russell always promised that he knew exactly how Rose's story would end and he hasn't disappointed. Nothing less than the walls between Universes could keep her from the Doctor's side after the life that he's showed her and the choices that she made after meeting Sarah-Jane and Madame de Pompadour. And although she thinks of her life as over – the trip of a lifetime was her lifetime – she didn't die.

Billie Piper is, let's say it for probably the last time, absolutely tremendous. She gives Rose both fear and bravery when the Daleks emerge to threaten her, and she shows she's learned how to face them down. And the she has all the determination she needs when – nice thematic echo of "The Parting of the Ways" – the Doctor tries to send her to safety and she's having none of it. Her heartbreak when she loses the Doctor – the price of living is living without him – is totally believable, and her numb half non-acceptance in the epilogue scenes as she and her family make their way to Bad Wolf Bay (where else!) makes us feel the poignancy of a life lived on in the shadow of such a loss.

The Doctor manages to get a message to her "from the other side" – another echo, this time to Victoria in "Tooth and Claw" – and he appears as a ghost. Symbolic death upon symbolic death. These scenes are not in any way "tacked on" like the over-extended endings of "The Return of the King"; they are the very heart of this story, Rose's last story, because the truth is life doesn't just come to a convenient ending and stop, there's always something after – look to a lot of Russell T Davies other works, in particular "Second Coming" for similar "life goes on" codas.

The preceding forty minutes didn't disappoint either. While taking us on an emotional marathon of hope and loss and hope again, Russell still found time to do exactly what was asked for on the tin: the war between the Cybermen and the Daleks.

With remarkably few scenes, Graham Harper manages to convey an enormous war for the world – the view from the window of Torchwood Tower really helps to sell this – in a way that the Auton Invasion on "Rose" really didn't, and that the Dalek Invasion of Earth in "The Parting of the Ways" rather ducked out of showing. The view down on burning London makes it feel not just real but widespread, so seeing Cybermen marching round one street corner, or humans defending one bridge becomes – in our minds – part of something larger and infinitely more terrible.

The arrival of the Daleks (if you'll forgive the pun) adds a whole new dimension to the story. To start with, Mr Tennant must be pleased to have received his Doctor's "blooding", that sense that an encounter with the Daleks makes you a "proper" Doctor.

Fans of the Cybermen: I apologise, but it was entirely right that the Daleks – the ultimate threat to the Doctor's universe – should kick serious Cyber-bottom.

"We do not need four Daleks, we only need one Dalek!" was a brilliant line, although Alex was deeply disappointed that the Black Dalek didn't raise its rant level to "ONE DALEK IS CAPABLE OF EXTERMINATING ALLLLL!!!!!!"

But then these Daleks are much more interesting than any shenanigans with Torchwood or Cybermen. They might take over the Earth in passing, but really they have bigger concerns – picking up where they left off during the Time War being the main one; resurrection of the Dalek race being another. Daleks with an agenda – and names, no less – and a piece of the Time Lord homeworld in a Dalek shaped box make for immediate "upgrade" to epic status.

Their defeat – sucked into a hole in the world; strangely reminiscent of the magnetised fate of the Daleks at the end of the second Peter Cushing movie – might have been a little too easy, but this year it came with a proper price: Rose falling into "hell"; and this year they remembered to give themselves a better get out clause, with the Black Dalek's war cry of "Scarper! Scarper!" Okay, the "emergency time jump" was in fact cool and appropriate. No excuse for them not returning next year then, is there.

It seems very mean to be critical of these episodes, but if there was a flaw it's a more general one of this season and it's that the current production team – who perfectly understand the Daleks – don't seem to get the Cybermen.

The Cybermen's mission statement in 2006 seems to have changed from survival at all costs to inflicting "upgrading" on anyone and everyone like some demented sect of tele-salesmen determined to push their product on us all. Sadly and perhaps curiously this left them oddly motiveless. If they were a bit more evangelical about it there might have had a satirical point to make.

Why are they conducting this campaign? It seems a bit… illogical, really.

The Cybermen can hardly want to upgrade people because they feel sorry for us… they don't feel anything at all, by definition. Imposing conversion leads to conflict which is wasteful, hence illogical.

Far more sensible to convert volunteers – Cybermen are immortal, but organic humans reproduce so you get far more Cybermen over time that way as generation succeeds generation and on getting close to death a goodly percentage chose to upgrade rather than perish. Forcible conversion only makes sense once conflict has begun, so the Cyberleader would have been better to have offered peace, freedom and the opportunity of immortality rather than just telling the Earth it was all for the scoop and serve treatment.

It's a bit sad that we missed the opportunity in "Rise of the Cybermen" to play with the whole idea of people going willingly into this conversion not even for survival, but for the bling of it. And this time we lost the chance to have the Cybermen really selling themselves as an opportunity:

"Have you had an accident at work? It would never have happened if you were made of metal like us!"

"Are your debts getting out of control? Why not consolidate them into one simple repayment by selling us your body!"

Done dispassionately it only makes it seem that they are just following pre-programmed orders like just another bunch of boring robots.

Jumping dimensions also seems a particularly odd thing to do for Cybermen sealed up in their factories. Wouldn't building rockets and blasting off to invade, er, Telos have been more likely, especially given the technology to which they probably had access? I suppose we have to presume there is a little more to the backstory that Pete didn't or wasn’t able to tell us: Torchwood probably broke into the Cyber-factories in order to obtain the technology for themselves, but instead tipped the Cybermen off to Torchwood's own existence and hence the existence of the Dalek-created hole between universes.

If they were escaping from the parallel Earth in order to escape disassembly – in order to survive – then that might have made more sense, and reconnected them to the original Cybermen in our universe.

There is a (mildly) interesting debate going on on Outpost Gallifrey as to whether there exists an alternative Doctor in the alternative universe.

They site as evidence that an alternative Torchwood exists – so it must have been set up by Queen Victoria after meeting an alternative Doctor. Counter theorists have suggested, no, either she set it up after encountering the werewolf and surviving, or it was set up by her successors because she didn't survive, or – most entertainingly – it was set up by a bunch of royalists hoping to restore the crown after the New Republic began in a hail of silver bullets.

The suggestion inherent is that the Doctor and indeed the Time Lords stand apart from this multi-verse of infinite parallels. It's an idea that has been put forward before by Lawrence Miles (who else) and Tat Wood in "About Time 3" suggesting, based upon "Inferno" that only the Time Lords have free will, as only they get to choose which universe they live in rather than existing in all of them.

At this point, I am going to have to protest (again) about writers misunderstanding physics – in particular the "Many Worlds" interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.

In the first place, the Doctor Who Universe self-evidently does not operate the many worlds interpretation because the Doctor is able to return to places and his actions have made a difference. The Earth is not run by WOTAN post 1966, nor is it under the iron plunger of the Daleks post 216something.

(If you are uncertain whether these statements are true before the Doctor's adventures in "The War Games" or "The Dalek Invasion of Earth" take place, can I recommend to you Mr Simon's book.)

But in the second place, the universe does not "split" in two for every decision. Think about it – where would all the energy come from? Shall I have sugar in my tea – yes or no and half the energy in the Universe gets diverted into an alternative continuum!

No, the many world interpretation requires that all the infinite parallel realities are all created at once in the Big Bang. They remain identical up to the point of decision and then diverge afterwards. Our choices determine which universe we are in, but they do not, cannot "split" the universe into yes/no components.

In that sense, answers that employ the "Back to the Future" style diagrams are just wrong.

Showing the Doctor and Rose travel back in the TARDIS to 1879 leading to Queen Victoria founding Torchwood and then returning to the relative future down one "branch" while the alternative Earth takes a different turning somewhere in the early 20th Century might look as though they make sense, but think about all the (infinite) other branch lines that aren't shown on the diagram!

(Actually, the "Back to the Future" comparison is unfair, because in those movies, alternative universes are only being created by exceptional events: i.e. the intervention of time travellers which is distinct from the "every decision splits the universe" proposed here. "Bank to the Future" is still scuppered by the energy problem – not to mention the way that events seem to take a while to work out they have been negated(!), which is plot handy but weird science – but at least the diagrams make sense!)

Personally, I prefer to believe that there is one "true" universe (ours, obviously) with only a limited number of parallel worlds, that are reflections or shadows or echoes of it – there may be billions but they are still finite.

The important thing being that not every possible choice exists because, for me, dramatically that is such a wrong answer. Essentially, if every choice and outcome exists then when we see a victory for the Doctor then that is only because the director has chosen to show us his victory rather than the defeat which must also have happened.

In a finite Universe, the Doctor's victories mean something. And the price that has to be paid means something too, because he cannot just console himself with yet another alternative Rose.

Finally, I'm going to be bold and say that the tag scene at the conclusion was completely right.

One thing this new Doctor Who series is not about is leaving them weeping in the aisles. Pitching the audience a curve ball at the end, regardless of whether you think Catherine Tate is funny or not, regardless of whether you are going to give her the chance to show us what she can do, this is just what is called for. It says: "life goes on, even if it's the Doctor's crazy helter-skelter life" and it reframes the series back on the Doctor and the TARDIS now that Rose has gone. It would be entirely typical of the Doctor's alien-ness to go instantly from sorrow to the next problem that presents itself – but when we're shown that handbrake turn, we're left with a much more interesting cliff-hanger.

"What IS going on, HOW is it going on, who is SHE and what IS he going to do now" are all much better, much more "Doctor Who" questions than "how will he cope on his lonesome."

Overall, "Doomsday" knocks you off your feet. Quibbles about Cyber-motivation are meaningless compared to the real story, the emotional impact of what is going on here.

Just… am I alone in thinking "The Parting of the Ways" and "Doomsday" should have swapped their titles around?

Next week: Once More With Feeling!.

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