...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Day 4360: DOCTOR WHO: The Wizard Versus the Aliens


Happy Advent!

“Doctor Who” is a series about TIME TRAVEL, so it makes sense to celebrate the series’ Fiftieth Anniversary by spending it travelling BACK IN TIME to all those futures it’s been to in the past.

Daddy Alex is doing ALL SORTS of INTERESTING things on his diary, but here I’ll be getting Daddy Richard to write reviews for stories from each of the first twenty-six seasons, two stories each, to last us through to November 23rd 2013.

Why the first twenty-six seasons? Well, because we have ALREADY done reviews of all the Twenty-First Century Stories. Or ALMOST…

In 2010, in the run-up to the new Coalition of Matt Smith and Steven Moffat, we tried to review all of Mr Dr Christopher Eccythump’s brilliant 2005 season. We tried… and failed, missing out on the first ever season finale… “The Evil of the Daleks”… no, hang on, that’s not what it says on this card from Mr Russell T Davies…

Previously… Russell is very much one for making each part of his two-parters very much its own story, never more so than here. So, as I said under "Bad Wolf", this is really a half hour story satirising television followed by an hour-long epic battle with Daleks that just happens to have the first fifteen minutes in the previous episode.

“The Parting of the Ways” is the first of three (so far) Dalek Invasions of Earth in the revived series. All of them have strengths and weaknesses: “The Parting of the Ways” cannot, for example compete with the huge staging of “The Stolen Earth” where we get to see from the ground up what a Dalek War would mean – compared with the announcement of Earth’s continents being bombed, presented on a screen as outlines being distorted, is far more visceral, more satisfying and of course more expensive. Nor does it have the fan-pleasing smackdown to finally settle who is better “Daleks or Cybermen” (like the side that came a close second in the Time War was ever going to be threatened by the hot-dog people). What it does have is a point.

Terrance Dicks – it’s always Terrance Dicks – wrote that the Doctor is never cruel or cowardly, a quote that has had people like Paul Cornell and Steven Moffat posting purple prose ever since to try and better it, so far without success. But what do you do if you are faced with a choice of cruel or cowardly?

“The Parting of the Ways” is full of variations on this moral dilemma: whether it’s Rose faced with a life of chips or trying to return to a future she knows is doomed; or the refugees of the Game Station – including Paterson Joseph’s deliciously narked Roderick (“It’s not fair! I won the game!”) – who have to decide whether to fight or hide; or, in a very Russell moment, Davitch Pavale who has to decide whether to ask the woman he fancies (Nisha Niyar’s “female programmer” – thanks, Russ) out on a date (while in the middle of a doomed fight for their lives against the invading pepperpots).

Only two characters do not face a moral dilemma, and both of them are, in their own ways, extremists. One is the Dalek Emperor. Who is insane. The other, though, is Captain Jack, who never doubts the Doctor, never doubts the need to fight the Daleks. Alex, reasonably, points out that this is because Jack has already had his own moment of enlightenment, faced his choice and moved on. No regrets, just a kiss goodbye.

Not that it helps you to make the “right” choice. Everyone’s going to get dead, whether they’ve been naughty or nice. But of course if you only have an inch to live – as Richard puts it in “The Lion in Winter” – then what matters is how you live that inch.

Nor is the Doctor’s dilemma an easy or obvious one to resolve.

To stop the Daleks, he would have to kill an awful lot of people: everyone on the station, regardless of whether they chose to stand and fight or to run and hide; everyone on Earth, whether they had too much or too little or just sat watching the cruel games that flooded out from the Gamestation; and even everyone on the Dalek fleet. Because, yes: Daleks are people too.

But if he lets the Daleks survive, it will inflict pain and suffering on countless billions of lifeforms, not least the benighted Daleks themselves (who he already knows are being driven insane by their own blasphemous, half-human genetics).

It’s not even clear which choice is “Cruel” and which is “Cowardly”. The Doctor clearly believes “Cowardly” is to surrender to the Daleks rather than launch an attack that will kill them and everyone else.

But I might make a case that it’s using the Delta Wave that’s being “cowardly” because killing everyone means taking the choice onto himself and away from every other thinking being within range, means not trusting that some of the humans might survive, or escape or defeat the Daleks. To let the Daleks live takes hope and hope requires courage.

The importance of the decision that the Doctor faces makes itself felt as the centre of one of the major set-pieces of the episode: the Doctor's second confrontation with the Dalek Emperor, and the way that their dialogue is juxtaposed with Rose's equally important debate with Jackie about leading a life that matters.

Alex raises the concern that so big is this clash that it renders all other characters unimportant: see, for example, the way that Rose is not going to be given a year to spend in post-traumatic stress because of her genocide of the Daleks. (Although, I suggest that "Rose" ceases to exist from the moment she looks into the heart of the TARDIS until the moment she recovers just before the Doctor's regeneration.) Does this add evidence to the theory that – as representatives of the two sides in the Time War – only the Doctor and the Emperor have "free will" in this Universe?

When people give their lives for the Doctor so that he will have time to build a device he ultimately choose not to use, is that a betrayal of their choices? Although, in so many ways, the ninth Doctor is the one who does most to "make people better" in the way he steps back and lets them get on with doing the right thing, sometimes that makes him more of a master manipulator even than Sylv's seventh Doctor. And yet this is where I think Russell has actually plotted this very carefully, to make sure that all of those people are dead before the Doctor completes the Delta Wave. The populations of Earth are being massacred. In almost every way the Daleks have made it easy for him.

The Emperor Dalek, the god of all Daleks, wants to see the Doctor become “the great exterminator”.

The Dalek from “Dalek” told the Doctor: “You would make a good Dalek”.

(In fact, the strongest evidence for them not being the same individual is that the Emperor doesn’t take the opportunity to say “I told you so”.)

But they’re wrong. To be a good Dalek is to be without remorse, to kill and not to think about it afterwards. The Doctor has done nothing but think about it afterwards.

The Doctor, in his ninth life, has been trying, and largely failing, to find a way of living with one terrible wrong choice. Yes, he ended the Time War, but at what cost? Not to the Universe – though the price of a Universe without Daleks was a Universe without Time Lords, one where, as he says in “Rise of the Cybermen” everything is just a bit less kind – but the price to himself.

Killing cuts your soul, as J K Rowling might have it. Genocide even more so.

And now I have to talk about “Wizards vs Aliens”.

For the uninitiated, this is a series made by the people who would have been out of work because the untimely death of Elisabeth Sladen meant the untimely end of “The Sarah Jane Adventures”, and as such it is the (massively dumbed down) inheritor of the true spirit of Doctor Who. Certainly it has its problems (many direct from the Russell era of the, what, grandparent series): the same inadvertent leaning to “alien = bad” xenophobia stemming from Russell’s conviction that the audience-identification must be with humans/Earth and by extension the antagonists will always be the alien; an occasionally alarming looking-down-on attitude to science, at the same time perversely worshiping a “geek ethic” that it doesn’t entirely understand; “hilarious” gunking of the hero characters when alien critters explode (I blame the movie “Men in Black” for that, actually). The fact that the series format – Tom the hero is a “jock with a secret” who forms a close friendship with Benny a “despised outsider” – lends itself to gay subtext (or indeed text) ought not to be a bad thing but it’s a bit… well… “Merlin”. Especially since the only female characters are Annette Badland, best thing in it as batty gran Ursula, and Lexi, who’s alien. And evil. Ish. But at its heart are two very important concepts: a love of wonder and the idea that you should not kill people, even if they’re yellow scaly people.

The (first) series is bookended by slightly faltering episodes from Phil Ford (who is usually better), strong on sci-fi ideas, weak on character. But in between there were good stories from Joe Lidster (touching on peer pressure, bullying and substance abuse without getting too unsubtle); Clayton Hickman (Tom and Lexi bond when placed in shared jeopardy, unintentionally setting-up the possibility of a love triangle between Tom, Benny and Lexi – yay for bisexual visibility. Er.); and Gareth Roberts, showing again the paradox of why he ought to write brilliant TV Doctor Who (but seemingly can’t) with a story about Benny trying to make the aliens leave by infecting their ship with a computer virus and accidentally very nearly killing them all.

The extraordinary thing is that in the current series of Doctor Who, this would be passed off by the Doctor as “Well, you had your chance but you were stupid enough to ignore my warning”. (Or – worse – doesn’t River look cool as she shoots them all!) Ursula even gets to make the very powerful point that the aliens came here and have been destroying wizards (they eat magic, effectively aging the wizard to death – we’re shown a scene where this is done to a young Japanese wizard, to remind us what the aliens do and to imply that they’ve been carrying on doing it all season while we’ve been enjoying Tom and the exploding muppet larks he’s been up to); death, it makes clear, is no more than the aliens deserve.

And the episode makes it flat out clear that this is wrong.

As Alex very wisely put it: this shows the harm that killing does to the killer better than any nonsense about Horcruxes.

The idea that he might have killed the aliens nearly destroys Benny, so much that Tom is willing to sacrifice his life so that his (boy) friend can have the chance to save their enemies, to set things right.

Somewhere between “The Christmas Invasion” and “Day of the Moon”, “Doctor Who” has lost that, lost its way. Perhaps it was the number of people who took Harriet Jones’ side when she committed her war crime; perhaps it was too many people thinking it’s okay to just kill Solomon in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”; perhaps it’s something missing in the hearts of the production team; perhaps it’s something we’ve all lost since the War on Terror made “killing the bad guy” justification enough. And between Season 2005 and Season 2010 the scripts very much swapped sides in the “War on Terror”.

Some of what comes later can be laid at the feet of “The Parting of the Ways”. The impact made by the visual spectacle of this finale is certainly a driver towards the “bigger, bolder, brighter” ethos of each year that follows (and presumable the application of appropriately escalating budgets too).

It’s certainly true that Doctor Who had never looked this good before.

The CGI Daleks in space are astounding, and unforgettable, so good that they kept doing the same trick for “Doomsday” and “The Stolen Earth” and “The Pandorica Opens” and the rest. Whether they need it or not.

Likewise, the Dalek Emperor, in all his madness, is a superb creation. Kudos to Mike Tucker and his model-builders for the physical construction and of course to Nick Briggs for bringing the Emperor to life as a sadistic, twisted, dribblingly bonkers, boiling blob of hate character.

All the little details are just right: from the look of the saucers, to the black domes on the Imperial Guards (yes, just like “The Evil of the Daleks”), to the pyroflame adaptation on one Dalek’s utility arm, to Lynda Moss getting officially Best. Extermination. Eveh!

But Doctor Who was never about the way that it looked, at least not entirely. Spectacle could never before be guaranteed to live up to hype. Which is why story always mattered more.

That is so true here, as we reach the concluding chapter, the climax and dénouement, of the “Trip of a lifetime”, the ninth Doctor’s lifetime.

It’s been called a deus ex machina, and of course that’s what TARDISes are: a goddess wrapped in a bottle, kept in a box that is bigger on the inside; a machine able to go anywhere in time and space, see the turning of the worlds, and capable of love…

And of course it’s love. Rose and the TARDIS both clearly love the Doctor. Love is the affinity that lets the TARDIS in, lets her soul meet Rose’s, but unquestionably it is the TARDIS speaking when she destroys the Daleks, to save “my Doctor”.

And she does save him. Not from Daleks, any old deus ex machina could do that; she saves him from doing the right thing, from the outcome of defeating his dilemma, from facing the consequences of refusing double-genocide a second time.

What does “deus ex machina” really mean? The cliché of Ancient Greek drama was that, when the hero had exhausted all possible actions, a “god” would be lowered into the scene by a crane “machine” and resolve the plot with a divine wave. The modern interpretation is that this is a “cheat”, introducing an element at the last minute that saves the day, pulling an answer out of the metaphorical arse.

But that’s not what the Greek dramatists were doing. For them, the conclusion of the play was the philosophical punch-line, not the cleaning-up afterwards. The god would not emerge until the hero had reached the proper moral conclusion.

Is it really a cheat when “god” has been all through the episode like a stick of Blackpool Rock (to be eaten at the Doctor Who exhibition, of course)? “The Parting of the Ways” opens with the reveal of “the god of all Daleks”, and the Doctor spends most of his time in the story debating with the demented deity.

“God” after all is only a word meaning “an idea too big to fit into our heads”, something that the Emperor Dalek is reminded of when a real goddess turns up. “You are tiny!”

And the TARDIS/Bad Wolf/Goddess/deus ex machina does not appear until after the Doctor has made his choice, made the right choice, this time. Better to die than to kill, better coward than cruel, better every time.

The climax of the story is nothing to do with golden fairy dust and exploding Dalek saucers. It’s the moment when the Doctor can destroy them all... and chooses not to.

And so he is redeemed.

The ninth Doctor has been haunted, hounded, plagued, destroyed by the knowledge that he killed them all, Daleks and Time Lords alike. He’s not lonely when he meets Rose: he’s annihilated; he’s looking to die. Rose gave him a reason to go on living, to live long enough that, over the course of this year, he could come back to the point where he’s ready to try to face that choice again. And this time get it right.

He takes the fire of the Time Vortex from Rose knowing that it will kill him because he’s at peace at last.

The extraordinary serenity that Christopher Eccleston brings to the part as the Doctor steps up to save Rose and the TARDIS from each other, even though – or perhaps because – being a conduit for the time energy will kill him, lifts the lid on his portrayal of the Doctor, reveals the layers of artifice that the Time Lord has been sheltering beneath. It’s reminiscent of Colin Baker’s sixth Doctor who concealed his huge heart under all that bluster and bombast, only letting it break through when it was breaking, when – “you killed Peri...” – he was most utterly betrayed by his own people. The reason that “The Parting of the Ways” is a triumph and “Trial”, er, isn’t, is not because one of them is the “better” actor, whatever that might mean. It’s because Eccleston is given the chance to do his extraordinary work completely supported by the script, direction, lighting, editing, even the music butts out of his way rather than everything tearing itself apart.

And “The Parting of the Ways” is a triumph.

If Doctor Who’s return had only lasted this one series in 2005, still it would be remembered and talked about as a bright and shining thing, one glorious year of television made out of farting aliens and lost dads and gas masks and Billie Piper and Christopher Eccleston and Russell Television Davies.

But it went stratospheric instead.

Next Time... (going forwards) “New Labour... That’s weird!” Harriet Jones shoots herself in the foot (and the Sycorax in the back); Captain Jack gets a winning hand; and listeners to the Audio Visuals rediscover the power of A Nice Cup of Tea. Set the oestrogen to Warp Factor Ten as the Doctor falls in love... with himself! It’s David Tennant in “The Christmas Invasion”.


Next Time... (going backwards) “It’s a laboratory. Or a nursery. But the kids would have to be pretty advanced.” Ace solves the Doctor’s initiative test in her first line, but can she evolve into a ladylike or does his surprise have a sting in the tail? There’s a god in the cellar and bats in the belfry and the Reverend Ernest Matthews wants a word about this blasphemous theory of evolution. Welcome to Gabriel Chase and the “Ghost Light”. Don’t have the soup!

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