Monday, 27 May 2013

'THE NAME OF THE DOCTOR' (PLUS SOME SPECULATION OVER HIS RANK AND SERIAL NUMBER)

”... on the interweb, at the close of season 7B, when no blogger can speak falsely or fail to post comments, a question will be asked — a question that will very belatedly be debated: 'what was that all about anyway?' “


Trenzalore (Don't Go There!)

Truth to tell, reader, this isn't the way I planned it. I meant to write an overview of the most recent season in general but somehow ended up focusing on the final episode. I shall post this now and perhaps get back to the rest later, though I'm not exactly a lord of time right now.

Perhaps it's a good up-point to start on. For given that I wasn't over-enamoured by this series in general, and given that the much-heralded 'event episodes' normally disappoint, I was surprised to find so much to enjoy in 'The Name of The Doctor'. It was inventive, fittingly atmospheric, allowed the high drama to overlap with the comedy without jarring, contained genuine surprises and even made some sort of sense. (Note the qualifier there.)

True, the Great Intelligence is hardly a major villain. The Yeti episodes are chiefly remembered for... er... the Yeti. The fuzzy background bad guy is less of an eternal foe, more a tiebreak question in nerd quizzes. After all, disembodied brains manipulating brainless bodies like remote limbs, they're a sort of a staple. There's probably plenty of them in the Whoniverse alone. (The Animus in 'The Web Planet' for one.)

We've tolerated his somewhat sketchy nature in both 'The Snowmen' and 'Bells of St. John', despite the two episodes not seeming to have much in common with each other. 'Bells of St. John', though the lesser episode overall, probably used him the best by giving him a fresh twist. The old Great Intelligence mastered robots. The new one uses people as machines.

The last word in the division between mental and manual labour becomes a kind of skit on contemporary corporate capitalism. White collar drones have their mentalities tweaked up and down by handheld devices, a combination of the way companies give their employees feelgood motivational sessions while treating them like extensions of the software they use. His henchwoman/ avatar Miss Kizlet even gets to sound like Baudrillard: “The farmer tends his flock like a loving parent. The abbatoir is not a contradiction. No one loves cattle more than Burger King.”

We tolerated this sketchiness because we fancied it to be foreshadowing. Our fancy however was forlorn, for this time round he's different all over again. The Whisper Men are neither robots nor human slaves, they're more like extensions of him. Ir should be said that symbolically, this works rather well. It's a story which focuses on the Doctor's life and hence on his many identities. “Bodies”, he says, “I've had loads of them.” A bodiless antagonist is therefore quite fitting. And while they're not greatly dissimilar to the Silence the Whispermen do feel like the sort of foes which should be showing up on 'Doctor Who.' Not aliens, not even really monsters, but appearing without explanation like they stepped out of some truly twisted nursery rhyme.

But whatever was his motivation supposed to be? Suddenly, the great manipulator's entire purpose in life is to rid the universe of the Doctor. When did that ever come about? And he's even willing to sacrifice himself to do it, showing great selflessness in service of the greater bad. Maybe he's called the Great Intelligence for the same reason Woody Allen got dubbed the Brain in 'Small Time Crooks.'

The clue comes with his reference to the Doctor's “bloodsoaked history” and having “other names before the end.” In this series, which recycles enough plot ideas to keep the Green Party happy, we are back at 'The Pandorica Opens', just with a tomb instead of a trap. The stars go out again. And River saves the day by doing something supposedly only the Doctor can do. Again.

Except of course the pieces are being forced. Before, all the Doctor's major adversaries had gained good reason to see him as “a goblin... a trickster... a warrior... the most feared being in all the cosmos” and so were willing to unite against him. This time, the Great Intelligence getting all vengeful over Solomon the Trader? Excuse me? Nuh-huh.

Then again, as they say in the old rhyme “Do not look for plot holes/ For plot holes there will be/ If you look for plot holes/ Then plot holes you will see.” The Great Intelligence is of course merely a panto villain who turns up to get the show on the road to Trenzalore. So let's start our way down it...


What's In a Name?

The ending... well, of course it wasn't one. However much they with-held then telegraphed that title, it was obvious from the outset that they were never really going to name the Doctor. He already has the name he needs to make the show happen. The Doctor isn't Superman or Spider-Man, with some secret identity to be kept concealed from foes. He's more like the Spirit or the Lone Ranger, his old Gallifreyan identity 'dies' the day he heads off travelling and he's reborn as someone else – a change deeper than any reincarnation.

He says himself “my name, my real name - that is not the point. The name I chose is the Doctor. The name you choose, is like... it's like a promise you make.” We're talking about the crucial distinction between names and titles. As I've said before, “the epitome of the emblematic hero is the Vow... The mask and costume don't just disguise the old identity but replace it – depersonalise the figure, make it into a symbol.”

But of course Moffat isn't just playing with misdirection. Even if it doesn't out him, speaking his name still has the same sting as would unmasking Peter Parker. Symbolically, reciting his name doesn't just open his tomb, it enables his tomb. Speaking his name turns him back into his name, stops him being the Doctor. Like weather vanes, the two cannot coexist.

So his name... his true name, well of course we knew it all along. It's the Doctor. By the time you get there, it doesn't feel like a let-down so much as a re-establishment of the character. We'd have been reasonably happy for it to end there...


The Anti-Doctor

...at which point we get the twist. Skeletons get put in the closet for a reason. The figure we encounter at the end - he's not the non-Doctor, the anonymous stay-at-home Gallifreyan. This figure is something else. The anti-Doctor.

Which is why, despite incessant speculation in some quarters, he's not going to turn out to be the Valeyard. His defence “what I did, I did without choice... in the name of peace and sanity,” accepted by the Doctor, that hardly sounds like something the Valeyard would say. (Besides which, the Valeyard doesn't have the cachet of the Master. Only the fans have the faintest idea who he is. And the fans don't like the episodes he appeared in very much. Which sounds like two pretty clear indications that bringing him back would be ratings suicide.)

A slightly more sensible suggestion is the Time Lord Victorious. Towards the end of the Tennant era, there arose hints of an emerging Annakin-like Dark Doctor. Though these were swiftly served away from, the notion kept bubbling under the Eleventh. (For example, with the Dream Lord.)

This is the view noted Who sage Andrew Rilstone seems to be taking: “Are we actually getting the pay off on five years of hints about the Dark Doctor and setting up mysterious man at the end as a new ongoing baddy.”

But I don't think that's it either. The same “peace and sanity” quote which ruled out the Valeyard would seem to work equally against the Dark Doctor. This guy seems less like the Doctor's Nemesis (a role already filled by the Master), and more the embodiment of a suppressed memory. While the other Doctors scuttle about the place, saving this and rescuing that, he is still and glowering. That thing you did... that thing you had to do... which you now don't want to admit to. That's him.

So I'm going to go with Cavelorn and say this is all about what the Doctor did in the Time War. (Which, as we all know, was to commit genocide.) And rather than “a new ongoing baddy”, as the Zygons will appear in the next special, my guess would be they give the anti-Doctor his chance to redeem himself. He'll reorient around the gravity of the two already-Doctors and will get welcomed back into the family just in time for Christmas and cracker-pulling.

Overall, a fresh twist and a genuine surprise. In many ways it's effective, ingenious and displays an understanding of the DNA of the show. But part of me still thinks – the Time Lords are dead now. Get over it. They were boring buggers anyway, wasn't that part of the point of ditching them?

In a show that prides itself on it's ability to reinvent itself, it's still a surprise found from within the existing parameters. The series is circling a set of ideas rather than advancing or developing them. The Time War. The Doctor having some kind of shadow side. The Dark Doctor... of course he won't finally be unleashed at all, this is just another feint at it until the next time.

In fact the show seems caught in this. Its underlying premise has always been that the ordinary and extraordinary coexist, and one instance of that is its insistence that ordinary people have something extraordinary within them. Ian and Barbara were two schoolteachers who blundered quite randomly aboard the Tardis, and a few weeks later were toppling Dalek empires. The implication was that any other schoolteachers, any other decent English sort, would have taken to the adventuring life the same way.

But with Rose, with Donna, with Amy, with Clara, there had to be something special about them. (The one companion who didn't have this, Martha, was the one whose backstory didn't seem to take off at all.) The companion is no longer the average person, with whom we're all asked to identify. The companion is now someone pretty special, with which you're asked to identify. The companion was waiting for stardom to strike all along. This is the old show rewritten for the 'X Factor' generation, and is a pretty direct violation of things in itself. But worse, it infects what's around it by upping the ante on the Doctor. If the companion is now someone pretty special, the Doctor then has to become very special indeed.

Andrew Rilstone (who, as I may have mentioned, is a noted Who sage) has pointed out: “Increasingly, what [the Doctor] pulls out of his pocket is himself: the very fact of his Doctorness defeats the enemy... The Doctor doesn't have a deus ex machina: the Doctor is a deus ex machina.”

There was nothing in the old show to suggest evil wasn't being fought elsewhere, quite possibly successfully. There wasn't even anything to suggest there weren't other Doctor-likes, wandering space at the same time as him. We were just seeing a section of infinity each week. Things could have been really hotting up on Metebelis 2 for all we knew. Now he is not only unique but we're supposed to suppose that he's needed by the universe, or all those stars just cease to twinkle.

This specialness feels like the way you'd structure a story told to tots. “And then the goodie turned up, and he was so good that all the bad stuff just kind of withered away. Now sleep tight, and don't forget to tune in again next week.” The same story, told to adults or even older children, will do nothing but dull the senses.

But more, it feels like a violation of the character. The Doctor should be part mysterious stranger, part everyman. Though the Tardis is being made more and more a character in it's own right, it still signifies him. And, just like he is both human and alien, he is both big and small. In the (actually very good) prior episode 'Family of Blood' Joan comments “I must seem very small to you.” To which of course he answers “no.” It's not that he chooses not to see her that way, but that he doesn't. It's simply not the way his perceptions work.

Fresh soldiers are being brought in to battle because this is a show at war with itself. The Big Doctor, the sheer embodiment of good in the universe, is such a violation that the scripts themselves cannot help but produce antibodies which try to dispel it. His foes gang up, River tell him he's become a warrior, he tries being dead for a bit, he flirts with badness... this time a whole suppressed incarnation turns up. When they appear, which is the moment we're in right now, we become hopeful. But by precedent this will be another wave of antibodies whose efforts are dashed, a medicine long worn off. The Doctor used to ask “have I that right?” Now the scriptwriters ask “should we even be doing this?”


Behind Every Great Time Lord...

In other news, what of Clara's impossible thing? The blogsphere used up many gigabytes pondering that one. Except, like “Doctor who?” it wasn't really the question at all. The real question was – which old ending is due to be recycled this time? As it turns out, the first season. Where Rose became Bad Wolf, lived out of time for a bit and created ontological paradoxes which sorted everything out, especially Daleks. Oh, and nearly died doing it. Except Rose's main contribution to foreshadowing was to stick up loads of graffiti over the past season. Clara ups this by going back not just to her Doctor's beginnings but the Doctor's beginnings.

Which admittedly throws a twist on things. Bad Wolf was no longer really Rose, but an entity as or more powerful than the Doctor. (The meaning they went for the first time they recycled it, by making Donna temporarily smarter than the Doctor.) But Clara isn't an ex-companion who gets promoted. Instead, she gets stretched - symbolically, she becomes every companion in the Doctor's history, all at once. When she enters the Doctor's timeline she notably sports appropriate companion clothing for each incarnation. It's Moffat being metafictional again. She's not the soufflé. She's the recipe. She's the archetypal companion.

Now this doesn't... wait for it... really make a lot of sense. Clara is able to turn up visibly three times, to give useful help and advice. The rest of the time... perhaps she's supposed to be giving individual nudges, like a guardian angel, but it's not really explained. Except the first time she meets him is at the very start, when he first steals the Tardis. Of which he seems to have no recollection. And the Clara of 'Asylum of the Daleks' was no guardian angel, but her own person living her own life with no knowledge of an outside timeline. (Some of it as a Dalek, but no-one's perfect.) While the Clara of 'The Snowmen' seemed to be some sort of secret agent, investigating events within the episode and so running into the Doctor by accident. One doesn't match the other, and neither fits with the retcon explanation.

(Neil Gaiman has given away that Clara's impossible status was decided fairly late on in the day. Presumably the Clara of 'Asylum of the Daleks' was originally a standalone character, retro-fitted into her story arc. Even if it meant forcing the pieces.)

Perhaps this doesn't matter too much. This is pretty much a fairy story, where we're better off looking for the symbolic sense. Besides, some fan somewhere will be reversing the polarity of it all until there's some convoluted explanation. Or until everyone regrets asking, whichever comes sooner.

What may be more concerning is that a storyline seemingly devised to big up the companion role, to promote her from the ankle-twisting screamer and explanation-receiver, makes her into such a dutiful, self-sacrificial female. “The real you will die,” she's warned. In fact the Doctor's carefree adventuring now seems to be enabled by the self-sacrifice of two invisible women, River and now Clara.

All the talk, all the times the series has boldly coded the companion as a new, sassy, assertive person in her own right. Girl power, yeah! And yet it always seems to end up here.

And, while it's true the new series has taken this further than the old, what's interesting is that this has always seemed the case. Starting with the very first companion, Susan, they were always intending to this time develop a stronger companion character and never carrying through with it. Clara says...

”I’m born, I live, I die. And always, there’s the Doctor. Always, I’m running to save the Doctor, again, and again, and again. And he hardly ever hears me. But I’ve always been there.”

...which, now I come to think of it, sounds a pretty good potted history of the show.

2 comments:

  1. The Great Intelligence would have been more plausible, if, instead of seeing revenge, he had announced his intention to prevent his original defeat via the timeline, and then conquer the universe. A showdown between him and Clara might have helped.

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  2. That would indeed have been something a little more befitting his name. Perhaps it could be argued that it would only have taken us back to the Second Doctor when Moffat wanted to get the whole span in. But then any manipulating brainless body might have done just as well, so it could as easily have been the Animus or insert-other-trope-of-choice.
     
    But the more I think about it, the more Moffat needs to bump the GI off at that point. The GI is just a means to get Clara to jump in the Doctor’s timestream so she can become everycompanionwhoeverwas. He has to be swept off stage to make way for the next act, so he dies by sleight of hand.
     
    There’s a similar swerve in the finale of ’Big Bang’, which goes from the end of everything there ever was to Amy’s wedding – when most people were expectinga big bash-up with the Silence which never actually occurred. It’s like the two things they really want to marry up in New Who, the cosmic battles and big emotional hits, are never really made to adhere. It makes even less narrative sense this time, though.
     
    Or the other possibility is that he’s still blundering around in that cave thing at the end. “Bloody hell, I’m supposed to be so smart but I didn’t even think to bring a torch.”

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