Friday, July 15, 2011

Doctor Who 2011, Part One: Postamble

I don't know if anyone else noticed it (either consciously or, as I did, in a way that fermented in my mind for a couple of weeks and then burst out fully formed one fine morning), but there was a bit of a theme running through the demi-season. Not an intentional theme, perhaps, but definitely there. Consider this: The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon, The Doctor's Wife and The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People all feature characters using other sentient characters as tools. And I don't mean in the old-school DW sense of downtrodden workers or oppressed serfs, I mean literally as tools - as objects being put to a purpose. In all three cases, this is specifically presented to us as abuse. Let's just take a look at the Doctor's response to the situation in these episodes.

In the Silence two-parter, the Silence are getting humanity to do all their work for them through mind control - the Doctor defeats them by getting humanity to do the job for him using the Silence's own mind control. In The Doctor's Wife, House uses Idris as a receptacle for the TARDIS's soul (for want of a better word) so that he can possess the TARDIS - the Doctor defeats House by allowing Idris to die in exactly the same way that would have suited House, except that he makes it happen in a place that suits him.

The Ganger two-parter is a somewhat different case, because nobody's presented as an outright villain (until one of the victim characters turns into a CGI effect, anyway), and the Doctor doesn't use the Gangers as tools against their human templates - rather, it's his job in this story to point out to the human characters that they're objectifying, exploiting and even causing suffering to the self-aware Flesh. However, in the arc-related bit at the end he does treat Ganger Amy as a disposable tool - not a tool he's used, granted, but a tool to be discarded nonetheless. We could work around this if we made the same speculative assumptions that would allow us to reconcile that scene with the story leading up to it - in other words, it's the editorial bungle that makes the Doctor zapping Ganger Amy look like a complete contradiction of the story's apparent message that also makes it part of my argument here.

So in the first two instances above, the Doctor strikes back at his opponents by using their victim-tools against them. Again, I don't mean in the old-school DW way that the Doctor would encourage and empower the oppressed characters to express their own independence, or otherwise convince them to act against their oppressors, but by exploiting them as tools in the exact same way that the villains have exploited them. In the third instance, which I think of more as supporting than as prima facie evidence, he treats a character in an unpleasant, objectifying way in the same way that Madame Eyepatch has, although there's no suggestion that this will harm Eyepatch or undo her schemes.

(In this light, the little sick joke in The Doctor's Wife when the Doctor lands the junk console on top of Nephew and quips that that's "another Ood I failed to save" starts to look more sick than joke, since the whole set-up of the Ood was that humanity was exploiting them as tools, and it fell to the Doctor first to get the humans to regard the Ood as sentients in their own right, and second to bear witness to the Ood revolution.)

(I might also reiterate my objections to the treatment of Abigail in A Christmas Carol at this point. Where the hell is this series going?)

It's typical for the Doctor to use an enemy's tools against them, and I think this is how this sort of thing might slip under Steven Moffat's mental radar and find its way into an episode (or several episodes in close succession, as it turns out). But of course, in these cases it does involve the Doctor callously treating sentients in a way that doesn't cast him in a great light by comparison with the people he's fighting. I think what we're dealing with here is basically an inability to see the boundary between the Doctor hoisting villains with their own petards and the Doctor committing some of the same ethical crimes as the villains. These deeply queasy moments could easily be mistaken for more typically Doctorish activity, which makes them doubly insidious.

So whaddya know, it turns out that I do have one more positive thing to say about The Curse of the Black Spot - it's the only story out of the four and a half presented thus far this year that unquestionably falls outside this worrying pattern. It may see the Doctor consorting with pirates (although they're not a very bloodthirsty mob, and Wikipedia suggests that the historical Cap'n Avery was actually quite a nice pirate, relatively speaking), but there aren't any real ethical gaffes on display.

A Good Man Goes to War isn't in the clear yet, though. Until we see the episode currently billed as Let's Kill Hitler, we won't know whether the Doctor ends up using Amy's daughter in some way in order to defeat Madame Eyepatch, but we know Eyepatch was planning to use Amy's daughter as a tool, specifically as a weapon against the Doctor, so we're already halfway into the pattern as well as the story. It's possible that Moffat has been building this up deliberately, and that, with his own putative future love interest at stake, the second demi-season might see the Doctor stop, think for a bit and acknowledge the error of his ways. (A bit like the end of Resurrection of the Daleks, only with more than one story's build-up.) We shall see. I'm inclined to say that the damage has been done.

And that's where Series 2011, Part One leaves me - staring down once more into the pit of the Gaping Depths of Horror. It's getting crowded in there. Series 2011, Part One also leaves me still waiting for a real sock-knocking-off humdinger of an episode, but that's no cause for concern - I've often found my favourite episodes of New Who in the second half of the season. According to the spring trailer, there's an episode still to come that involves a hotel, a Minotaur, a clown and a restaurant full of ventiloquist's dummies, and I've tentatively pinned my hopes for this year on that one.

Let's close with some predictions for the second half of the series. Rumours and spoilers about these episodes are surprisingly few at time of writing, so we can have an honest punt at second-guessing the shock twists that Steven Moffat believes are the very essence of storytelling. It'll be interesting to compare notes in four months' time.

I think it's extremely likely that the Ganger Doctor will make a return, specifically to resolve the Doctor's apparent death - why even suggest that he could be brought back from his slushy disintegration at the end of The Almost People, if it's not significant? To mention the possibility at all is to make too much out of it for me to ignore. I'd be surprised and amused if the Ganger Doctor didn't do the actual dying. Well, anyway, that's the most obvious thing that Steven Moffat could do.

The second most obvious thing would be to have the Ganger Doctor take over after the real Doctor's death. But I'm inclined to go with Plan A, because...

...I think if we are going to see a genuine, no-bluffing lead character death this year, it's going to be Rory - it's now pretty much a running joke that he keeps dying-but-not-really, so properly killing him off with no returns would potentially have shock value. The single image teaser for Series 2011, Part Two shows us a skeletal hand clutching the sonic screwdriver - and who had the most use out of that in A Good Man Goes To War? Rory, that's who. I'm not sure, but he might even still have it at the end of the episode. (And while we're led to assume that the Good Man of the title is the Doctor, it might just as well be Rory. River Song's supposedly going to kill "a good man", isn't she?)

One thing that does seem to be on the cards is that Moffat will address the problem of the "celebrity Doctor" that's developed in recent years, with species all over the place fearing him as a great warrior and trying to lock him up or develop weapons to use against his possible attack. It seems obvious that the Doctor's "death" has been staged to allow him to sink back into obscurity. Presumably the lone Silence on the hill is supposed to bear witness to this, and then pass word down through the magic grapevine that keeps the entire universe up to date with DW's latest plot developments.


John Toon said...

In fact, it occurs to me that this series is on the verge of turning into Doctor Who's Greatest Unethical Hits. We've had the Doctor committing genocide by proxy (Day of the Moon, Remembrance of the Daleks), the Doctor mistreating his companion (The Almost People, The Twin Dilemma), the companion pointing a handgun at a friendly character to get information out of them (A Good Man Goes to War, Attack of the Cybermen)... All we need is the Doctor psychologically breaking his companion in order to outmanoeuvre the villain (The Curse of Fenric) and the Doctor openly shooting an alien dead with a gun (Day of the Daleks) and we'll have the full set. Can't think of any examples in Old Who of the Doctor profiting by the death of a terminally ill character (The Doctor's Wife).

Christopher Pittard said...

Interesting analysis, Tooners, but I'm not convinced that "The Doctor's Wife" quite fits, for the reason you hint at in your addendum. In the original post, you mention the Doctor killing Idris in exactly the same way as House would, but this seems a little harsh; it's fairly clear, as I recall, that there's not an awful lot the Doctor can actually do to save her (which you then imply with the terminal illness metaphor in your added comment). Maybe I've overlooked something from that episode (and it was a couple of months ago now), but I don't think the Doctor was ever presented with a viable choice of Idris alive or Idris dead that would make his actions unethical in that respect.

Likewise, I'd defend the Doctor against the charge of 'profiting' from her death, in the strict sense that while her death is necessary to defeat House, such a defeat only really gets everyone back to where they were at the beginning of the episode (the Doctor 'breaks even' from her death, perhaps). I suppose the Doctor does gain an added insight into the purpose of his travels, but this isn't extracted by any kind of exploitation on the Doctor's part.

Oh, while we're compiling the Doctor's greatest ethical gaffes, the end of Love and Monsters also surely deserves a mention. As does the episode where the Doctor firebombs a paediatrician's house because of a tabloid fuelled misunderstanding.

John Toon said...

Hmmmm... I think it's a grey area re Idris' death. Ask yourself this - what if the story had presented the option of her staying alive?

I mean, it didn't because clearly that's just not the way it was going down, but that almost plays into my reading of it. I'd stand by my suggestion that her death benefits the Doctor. Status quo be damned - DW has rarely had much regard for status quo (although I understand that they like it, they like it, they like it, etc etc).

Granted, the end of L&M is iffy, but it's still up in the air whether or not it's all in the narrator's deranged head. Are there any better (or should I say worse) examples from RTD Who? He did seem to play it very much for safety, but I'll be bound there's a gem or two to be found...

SHourahine said...

It seems that Steven Moffat had the idea of explore the ethics of whether it is right to use a tool if it is senitent. In my opinon there is a difference between 'exploring' and 'battering to death'. It is a theme you'll find again in 'Lets Kill Hilter' in that the Doctor uses the enemies tool for his gain. That's all I'll say without giving away the episode.

John Toon said...

But is he actually exploring the ethics of it? Is he exploring anything?

See, it's my belief and my contention here that he's just banging this stuff out with a view to nothing deeper than the most immediate second-to-second amusement value he can produce*, and as a result this frankly horrible subtext is creeping in. I'm not convinced that it's an idea he's had at all - I think it's the unfortunate result of his unwillingness as a writer to actually take control of the meaning of what he writes.

I'm prepared to be proved wrong if Series 2011 Part Two actually addresses any of this business, but I'm not holding my breath on it.

*Arc-stuff notwithstanding - even that, to my eye, looks more like superficially cool moments piled on top of other superficially cool moments with an underlay of "I'll explain later" to give the semblance of a long-term plan than any kind of actual development of the narrative, characters or themes (if any).