...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Day 3585: THE SCARY JANE ADVENTURES: Death of the Doctor


Before we get to Scary Jane Smith (yes, it's a running joke now) I thought it was worth a mention of the return of the Eleventh Hour Podcast, with our favourite crazy-people-called-Joe-and-Chris, Joe and Chris, and special-guest-starring Auntie Jennie.

As a ten-year-old baby elephant [R: nine, obviously] the PROFANITY FILTER renders most of it as UNINTELLIGIBLE MORSE CODE, but Daddy tells me it's very good really.

And we promise that Daddy wrote at least HALF his review BEFORE listening to what they had to say!
So there you are then, "The End of Time" could have been even longer as Doctor Who's heroic Welsh bard, Russell Davies, writes in to say that the dying Doctor David actually visited all the previous companions from Ian and Barbara through to Ace (and Benny and Charlie and Lucie and all the others), as well as the Millennium-edition companions we actually see on screen.

I can't help wondering whether this means Tennant materialising on the space freighter and hollering: "come on then, Adric. All aboard allons-y!" or materialising in a Cretaceous glade and watching a rather good meteorite show with a sad shake of the head.

(Not to mention doing for Katarina that thing that he later does for River Song. No, that other thing, that thing with the TARDIS in space and the extended air corridor.)

And one way or another it's quite hard to pop in to visit Leela and Romana. And Sarah Kingdom ought to be a definite gonner… if it wasn't for the clever "out" written into his trilogy of Companion Chronicles by Simon Guerrier.

("Home Truths", "The Drowned World" and "Guardian of the Solar System": well worth a listen, even if Alex and I are killed off in the first one.)

And then there's Sarah Jane's closing valediction, and it's happy endings all round: Ian and Barbara in Cambridge, Ben and Polly in India, rather marvellously Liz Shaw (not dead) on the moonbase (wearing a purple anti-static wig?), the Brigadier perennially stuck in Peru, Tegan (not dead) in Australia, and the Dorothy "someone" who has to be Ace (not dead/not dead/not a bitch and probably dead) having founded the charity "A Charitable Earth".

(And if it is Dorothy for Ace not Dorothea for Dodo that still leaves Ms Chaplet missing-presumed-brainwashed between episodes of "The War Machines". Also, odd that Sarah failed to mention Victoria Waterfield who was fostered "sometime in the late Twentieth Century", not least because Sarah met her… albeit in spin-off "Downtime" aka – at least in our flat –The World-Wide-Web of Fear. Yes, we did tick off all the other companions: Susan, Stephen, Zoe, Nyssa and Mel are all in the future; Vicki née Cressida and Jamie are in the past; Turlough and assuming-she's-alive-god-help-her Peri are on alien planets – so all of them are out of range of Google.)

Really, I ought to frown on this sort of thing, as it is rather naughty, bulldozing all the spin-off lines left and right. But it brings such a warm glow to my heart that I can't help but forgive him. And anyway, the whole premise of The Sarah Jane Adventures is based on bulldozing spin-offs or she'd have been killed off in "Bullet Time" (the Past Doctor Adventure) or "Dreamland" (the Big Finish audio, obviously, and not the Tenth Doctor cartoon!) and more subtly erasing her meeting with the eighth Doctor in Lawrence Miles' "Interference" or the seventh in the comic strip.

So it's all rather lovely, but also rather fannish. They all lived happily ever after, not only belying all those "gritty" and "grim" novels and audios, but also the spirit of "School Reunion" from Russell's own version of Doctor Who. And are we not in danger of carelessly suggesting that best friend Sarah is actually the weakest link, if absolutely every other companion has made a brilliant life for themselves?

Russell has all sorts of mixed messages about optimism (the Doctor makes people better, except when he doesn't; life gets better, except when it doesn't) and about whether Jo is an idiot – or, more hurtfully, a child (except when she isn't). In contrast to the 'Sarah Jane becomes a lonely old spinster' of "School Reunion", he's carefully shifted Sarah's backstory out of the way, and given us 'Jo and all the rest have fantastic lives (don't mention the dead ones)'.

In fact, there's almost a sense that the story is lying to kids about death, especially in the way that the Doctor most treats Jo as a child and does lie to her about the death of the Time Lords. Obviously, the Doctor was never going to be dead, but there's a message here that if you really, really don't believe that someone is dead, then it'll turn out that they're not, and that rather undoes all the good work put in at the start of the episode where Rani's dad tries to explain to her about grief and denial and what Sarah is going through.

So, even though Jo's life has been a fantastic adventure, and she's been so successful, all of her children have followed her example, the moment she steps back into the Doctor's orbit she reverts to "helpless girly".

Why didn't she just punch him and say: "how dare you pretend to be dead! I've got too much to do to be travelling half way round the world just because you aren't dead!"

Or as Sarah ought to have said: "there's nothing 'helpless' about being a 'girl'."

All of which means that although it would be nice to see this as an exploration of what the Doctor means to his companions after he leaves their lives – a sort of, forgive me, companion piece to "School Reunion" – it's not really.

What it is instead, and who can blame it, is a celebration of all things dotty in the person of the irrepressibly wonderful Katy Manning as Jo Jones née Grant.

At times it seems like a pastiche of the old Jo Grant – she knocks something over on her entrance; she plays up the "dumb blonde" – at times it's almost more about the real Katy – the business with the glasses; the other business with the glasses…

What I felt was nice was that Jo wasn't demeaned by this. If anything, she's shown to be acting up because she's actually covering up for being smarter than people take her for, and – in spite of the streak of self-doubt about the Doctor never coming back for her – she shows that she's made a good life for herself succeeding in raising a happy and engaged family with no compromises.

Emphasising the contrast with "School Reunion", Jo and Sarah share a "compare the monsters" conversation like the one between Sarah and Rose in the earlier story. But this is comparative not competitive, more of a shared greatest hits.

Likewise, Russell gives each companion reason to be jealous of the other: Jo has had the life that Sarah lost out on wasting her time waiting around for the Doctor; but equally Jo has never had the Doctor come back for her (or even so much as a robot dog) to say that he didn't forget her. But it doesn't last. It's more of a brief sting quickly healed than a real emotional core to the plot.

And it is delightful when they realise he took them both to Peladon. And Jo mentioning Karfel… what a wicked Bandril Ambassador you are, Mr Russell; all those kiddies going out to snap up copies of "Timelash" on DVD.

I did, incidentally, between watching parts one and two, listen to Big Finish's Companion Chronicle "Find and Replace", staring Katy as both Jo and the irrepressible Iris Wildthyme. In many ways it covers very similar ground – Jo in the present day, looking back and revisiting her time with the Doctor. It takes a very different route (there's a time travelling Number 22 bus involved) but arrives at a similar place emotionally: Jo has had a happy life, but the best of it was with the Doctor and she loves him and misses him, but loves her life too.

That ambiguous blend, that it's possible to regret and not regret at the same time, is very human, very Russell.

Of course, most of the other Russell tick-boxes are on show too.

The plot is moderately perfunctory and full of holes. And there's pizza in it. The human villain's characterisation ("Earth has nothing for me") is borrowed from Lance in "The Runaway Bride" (though with even less reason – I mean, she works for UNIT; how much excitement do you want?). The alien menace looks a bit like an Earth animal (Muppet vultures, in this case) and has an overworked naming convention (the Claw Shansheeth of the Fifteenth Funeral Fleet). Paint the Graske blue and you get a completely different alien… and then call it a Groske. Tee as they say hee. His place names are wacky too, here with the Doctor "dying" in the Wastelands of the Crimson Heart (is that anywhere near the Silver Devastation? Or is it part of the Jaggit Brocade, affiliated to the Scarlet Junction?) And Jo's jailbait grandson Santiago plays the "gay agenda" when he mentions his dad joining the "Gay dads across Antarctica" (not to mention Jo and Sarah snuggled up in bed, er, coffin together!). Santiago refers to the Falklands as Las Malvinas too; this is apparently controversial (like anyone brought up in Peru would call them anything else).

And speaking of Santiago, did anyone else feel that the story was setting him up to join the regular cast? All that heavy business about him never settling down or his parents never being in the same place for long enough for them all to be a family together – did it not seem to be leading up to the obvious "I'm going to stay put for a bit, Sarah Jane's offered me Luke's old room"? Not that I'm not cool with Clyde and Rani pairing. But with Tommy Knight's Luke removed to Oxford, they could have been looking for another pretty young man lots-of-answers-but-doesn't-fit-in, fish-out-of-water character. And it would have been an opportunity to bounce some new ideas around the old team.

Anyway, none of that really seems to matter because, as usual with Russell's writing, he somehow seems to bypass conventional drama and go straight to intravenous emotion.

There is also all the evidence that Russell is having a great big laugh.

Referring to Ace as Dorothy "something" clearly references the fan arguments between those who say her surname was supposed to be "Gale" (as in Dorothy Gale from "The Wizard of Oz", rather missing the point that her being whisked "over the rainbow" by a time storm in "Iceworld" is an allusion, one among many in that story) or those who say it should be McShane as used in the New Adventures and later adopted in the Big Finish Audios (or even more clumsily Dorothy Gale-McShane, which pleases nobody).

Likewise, the idea that Ian and Barbara haven't aged since the sixties. I quite like the idea voiced by some that this refers to their immortality on DVD, but I suspect that it's more of an allusion to Russell's own oft-stated description of Lis Sladen herself.

He even takes the rise out of his own Doctor-worship when Doctor Eleven delivers a very Doctor Ten-ish "the whole universe would shudder…" and then undercuts it with a "gotcha!" (Itself the mirror of Luke's gotcha on Clyde at the opening of the story.)

And do we really have to go into an analysis of the "507 lives"? (508, actually, as it would be the first one plus one more after each of 507 regenerations – the same mistake the TV movie made before redubbing Mr McGann.)

It's a joke. It's a joke! It's not a retcon; it's not a revision; it's not complicated numerology (5+0+7=12=the same as the original number of regenerations, have pity, please!); and it's certainly not a declaration that he's now immortal!

Obviously the series is going to have to do something when we get to Doctor number thirteen because, as Russell admits in interviews, that "thirteen lives" rule has stuck in the public imagination. And obviously whoever is showrunner when the time comes would be mad not to use it as a springboard for storytelling.

Holmes and Hinchcliffe introduced the idea of a limit to the number of regenerations precisely because immortality made for bad drama. Obviously it was a plot device for "The Deadly Assassin" (the Master running out of lives drives the whole story), but additionally the idea was to make it seem that the Doctor could run out of lives too, in order to invest him with a real sense of having something to put on the line in his adventuring rather than merely risking no more than just another "face lift". It makes him less than a god; it makes him a better hero.

And anyway, I don't subscribe to the thesis that twelve regenerations is itself a "retcon": it's not a contradiction of "live forever barring accidents", and in fact the new series has gone some way to smoothing this over, with all that "curse of the Time Lords" and the Doctor repeatedly saying that he does not age but does regenerate. Clearly the idea is that a Time Lord can live forever if… and only if… they stay home quietly minding their Ps and Qs. But if they have an "accident" they've got regeneration as a Plan B to get them out of that too.

Now that's not perfect either – the Doctor is seen to age to advanced years in both "The Leisure Hive" and "The Sound of Drums"/"Last of the Time Lords" – but let's make allowances.

The point being: the Doctor is not going to sit around in an ivory tower for all eternity; he's going to keep putting himself in the way of "accidents" and he knows it.

So are we stuck with thirteen?

Well, in "The Deadly Assassin", Coordinator Engin, the doddery Time Lord in charge of the APC net and dispensing general exposition, states that "after the twelfth regeneration nothing can stave off death" and as I say the entire plot of "The Deadly Assassin" (not to mention the Master's subsequent motivation in "The Keeper of Traken" et seq.; not to mention the entire plot of the TV movie which does this whole Master/Eye of Harmony/planet in peril shtick again; and especially not to mention the entire plot of that famously-reliable continuity-soother "Mawdryn Undead") depends on this strict limit. Though of course, the plot of "The Deadly Assassin" also relies on the fact that this simply isn't true: the Master, after all, believes he can break the rules, and nearly succeeds (as his subsequent longevity attests).

Because the other point that "The Deadly Assassin" makes repeatedly is that the Time Lords do not understand their own technology. (This has been ridiculed, but even today on Earth no single human actually understands all of the programming in Microsoft Windows, so roll that forward ten million years.) The Master is the only one to work out what the Eye of Harmony is and where it is and how to work it – even the Doctor himself only guesses most of this based on the Master's plans. So Engin could be just plain wrong.

Though in fairness, while you can use that to say Engin is wrong about the twelve regeneration limit, it's much harder to explain why the Master would behave the way he does if he doesn't believe that the limit is at least difficult to break.

But there are plenty of ways out of it: fans at the moment are very fond of "something to do with the Time War". After all the Master was resurrected (having previously fallen into the business end of a portable black hole), and the Doc may or may not be carrying around the Matrix in his head, stuffed with the spirits of every Time Lord who ever lived and died. Any number of technobabbly explanations could be used from the "Retcon of Rassilon" to "it's part of the TARDIS; without it I couldn't survive". The simplest approach is just to have a successor take over the role (yes, like all those Arnold Rimmers); the opportunity was missed with the car-crash ending of "Journey's End" of course, where you could have had the Doctor live happily ever after with Rose and DoctorDonna regenerate into a new (say it) female Doctor and take off in the TARDIS. Or there's even the "Curse of Fatal Death" approach – it's a miracle!

Of course, taken with the (much more controversial) "earlier Doctors" aka "those faces in the mind battle with Morbius", although also alluded to by the "secondary" control room containing props and costumes for more than just the Doctors we have known, Hinchcliffe and Holmes were contriving to suggest that Tom was in fact something like the twelfth Doctor so the whole limit was blown to pieces in "The Caves of Androzani" anyway!

(And now all we need is River Song to respond to one of his "I'm nine hundred and a bit years old" speeches with: "Doctor, you're seventeen hundred and seventy two and no one cares that you're into four digits except for you!")

Oh, and the business with the TARDIS key – Sarah and Jo both ought to remember it as the "Twerpee spade" and not the Eccleston Yale – just wave your hands and use the words "perception filter". It's not like the TARDIS really looks like a 1960s Police Box. Why should the key look like a key? And yes, the key does have its own perception filter: the Doctor uses that fact in "The Sound of Drums" for his personalised "somebody else's problem fields". So the Shansheeth's memory weave is having the girls remember the TARDIS key exactly as it is… including the perception filter that makes it look different. Will that do?

By the way, it was quite nice that Matt Smith was in this. But, in spite of his usual top quality performance, he was somehow almost entirely irrelevant (in a way that Mr Tennant really wasn't when he guested last year). In a way he's actually overshadowed by the clips. I mean hooray for the clips, hooray for a rubber dinosaur and hooray for the Three Doctors and an especial hooray for having actual wonderful non-Doctor Who clips of Jo's fabulous life-after-the-Doctor.

But making it a show about the celebration of memories, and the power of memories, the actual right-up-to-the-minute living-in-the-moment Eleventh Doctor is diminished, reduced to guest presenter in his own tribute show, second fiddle to past glories which manage to defeat the bad guys for him.

The focus was always on Jo and Sarah. And maybe that's right.

But maybe that's where "Death of the Doctor" falls down: if you're going to do a cross-over story then it ought to be something huge – a confrontation with a pan-dimensional dark lord, a face-off with the creator of the Daleks; this isn't. At its heart, for all of its alien planets and Muppet-vultures, this is really a "little" story about Jo and Sarah sitting down with the man they both once loved and saying: "why didn't I get what she got?"

So it is a lovely little drama. But for the return of the Doctor into Sarah's life, for the return of Jo Grant, for the return of Russell Davies to Doctor Who… we expected something a little bit more.

Next Time… Clyde and Rani find themselves with an intriguing mystery, a pair of rather stylish robots, and an awful lot of vacant real-estate when they're left on "The Empty Planet".

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