We Are Who We Pretend To Be

This is a Doctor Who post. Those who aren’t into the show can look away now.

I’m not a Doctor Who authority. The internet is FULL of people who know more about the show than me. Part of being an Australian is that it’s been on television here for longer than I’ve been alive, broadcast to the public on a major free-to-air network. It doesn’t have the cultural ubiquity it does in Britain, but it’s always been part of the general background. NewWho hit big, but the show had never been out of circulation here, old episodes of the serials repeating effectively every day. Doctor Who was hard to miss.

That being said, I was never the biggest fan of the show, until the relaunch. Until you’re primed for certain elements of Doctor Who, the old series, particularly, can be difficult to engage with. The budget is non-existent. The scripts are often clunky. It’s a special kind of magic to learn to love it.

I didn’t really start to become invested in the show until ‘Dalek‘. This was a 9th Doctor episode, in which, post-Time War, the Doctor found out that a single representative of his greatest enemies had survived. The Doctor ran the gamut of emotions, from literally murderous rage to desperate, lonely begging, hoping either way to be afforded some form of closure to the Dalek feud, to a fresh start. He didn’t get it.

From that moment on, I was hooked. I’ve devoured every episode of the new series, and they gave me a fresh appreciation for classic Who, which I went back and looked at with a new perspective. I’ve written scads about Doctor Who around the place, including episode and arc analyses, companion pieces, reviews, etc, etc, etc. As I said, I can’t hold myself out to be a legitimate expert (that would be this guy), but I will say that, at least in as far as the new show goes, I’m involved enough to notice trends, and in as far as the old show goes, I know enough to make comparisons.

So, with that borne in mind, the trend about which I presently feel compelled to write has to do with the Doctor’s companions. In the mid-season resumption episode The Bells of St John, new companion Clara Oswald (introduced in the Christmas Special this year) came, effectively to travel along with the Doctor full time. During the course of that episode, due to the nefarious plans of the villains backfiring, Clara gained the powers of a superlative hacker. Not, it should be noted, merely someone who is good with computers, but someone capable of hacking on an equal playing field with the Doctor himself, someone capable of outwitting and to a certain extent at least out-hacking, an evil organisation devoted to the increasing and management of their computer skills. She had, in essence, gained a skill to such degree that, at least in a specialised field, she ceased to be the Doctor’s audience and became the Doctor’s peer. Indeed, she took over a task from him, and completed it with equal or greater efficiency. Once she had done that, I realised how much I didn’t want to see that upgrade go away.

When the series relaunched, the show decided that the Doctor’s companion needed to be the “everyman”, the figure who represented the present and who would translate the Doctor’s adventures into an appreciable context for the modern age. Thus was born Rose Tyler. And for the time, on the back of a decade’s absence, it was probably the right call to make. Part of Doctor Who’s magic is its broad spectrum family appeal – someone needed to represent the voice of the familiar in order to ensure, at least at first, that the show didn’t just reach out to the niche audience that followed genre shows. It succeeded, and NewWho is bigger than Ben Hur.

In that success, however, lay the seed of the failure. The proverbial worm i’ the bud was that Rose became so successful (she’s back shortly for the 50th Anniversary Special, for example) that her archetype came to overwhelm the companions that followed. Martha Jones and Donna Noble were both defined by their axis of Rose-ness, one attempting to fill that role, and the other explicitly attempting to reject it. Nevertheless, Rose’s shadow loomed large over the show as a whole – after all, the Doctor had (potentially) loved her.

I’m not one of the purist crowd who thinks that there is no circumstance in which the Doctor can fall for a human woman. I didn’t even mind it in the case of Rose, because part of the early elements of Doc 9 and Doc 10 were that the Doctor was incredibly lonely, and the last of his kind. It seemed reasonable enough that he’d fall for the girl who shared his adventures with him, at least in one instance. The issue was skirted, playfully, including providing the Doctor with some elements of the adventurer, hinting at non-human partners and some degree of sexual ambiguity. The Doctor could fall for Rose because she was part of a broader experience of 900 years, where sex and romance entered in and out of the equation in different ways.

Prior to Clara Oswald, Doctor Eleven’s (who in many ways is my favourite Doctor, partly because of the excellent acting of Matt Smith, and partly because of Moffat’s writing chops, which, when on form, are second to none) primary relationship was with Amy Pond, the companion from his first appearance until the season break at the end of last year. Sexual tension between them was established, bandied about and became an issue, but ultimately it became a story about a girl’s imaginary friend, and how much that friend needed to be imagined about by someone. Fine, and in many places touching, as there’s a real value to that concept which has appeared in media from Peter Pan to Drop Dead Fred. It works, and is known to work.

But, like the need to sweep Rose up in magic to rescue him from PTSD, the need to have Amy believe in him effectively drove the Doctor to allow the companions to set the agenda. We’ve now seen the familiar refrain of the “bigger on the inside” introduction to the TARDIS, and from there the critical question: “where do you want to go, companion of the moment?”

The Doctor has been swept up in all kinds of adventures in visiting hither and yon, and each season of the new series so far has involved a meta-arc of some kind. Pausing for reflection though, we can see that a great deal of those meta-arcs (Rose and the Bad Wolf; Rose and the Doctor and the Parallel Universe; the Return of Rose As Warning To Donna and the Doctor; the Doctor Has No Companions, Oh No; What Is The Mystery Of Amy Pond?; and What Is The Mystery Of Amy Pond’s Child?) have all been driven by the Doctor’s specific interaction with those companions, their “special” status, and how he approaches them. The Doctor’s been heroic, and brave and noble in many circumstances, but at the same time…the Doctor doesn’t do much of anything for himself.

At first this seemed like part of an arc that would play out – that the Doctor’s adventures with his companions would bring him out of his self-imposed exile and funk and bring him back into involvement in the world. I’m still waiting for that to happen. If the most recent Christmas special is to be believed, it’s only getting worse. Really, only Professor Yana and the Prime Master has been an arc of that magnitude – about the Doctor and his enemies, but also about what the Doctor wants and needs to do.

The Doctor’s “audience of companions” have come to form the moral and practical axis of the show, and I think that has begun to represent a problem. As we move into a new arc of the show, we’re again confronted with a mystery involving his companion that the Doctor is driven to solve. You can make a chicken-and-egg argument that she becomes a companion because of his desire to solve the mystery, but that’s ultimately artificial, as the writer’s chose to fundamentally make the adventure about her and her nature.

I think that’s a problem, because it robs the Doctor of some of his appeal and drive, and converts him somewhat into a guy performing for people who are, effectively, part girlfriends and part science projects. Doesn’t the Doctor have anything better to do with his time? Doesn’t the Doctor want things for himself?

This isn’t a dig at any of the companions specifically, but I think that the skill levels (and agendas) of the companions come into it. The more the Doctor travels with someone who is effectively a peer, the more his decisions are subject to challenge, and the more tension can be derived from what he’s doing. Television has in many ways come to realise that its great strength lies in the appeal of competing agendas, but right now, all the Doctor does is prestidigitation for funsies. It’s starting to make him feel a bit small.

To some extent both River Song and Jack Harkness have played counter to this type, because they’ve all been established as playing at somewhere close to the Doctor’s level. If they were the Justice League, they might not be Superman, but they’d certainly fall into Batman and Wonder Woman’s slots, and they’d form the backbone of an argument that (1) the Doctor might not always be right, and (2) the Doctor might need to account for what he’s doing. There have been some great scenes which respond to this challenge, but although they theoretically fall into the category of companions, none of them have formed a permanent part of the basic ensemble of the show the way that core members of the cast have done since the relaunch. Adam, the companion who wasn’t, also falls into this lens, because he offered an alternative way to behave in the context of the wonder and power of the Doctor’s adventures – one that was wrong, but was understandable. Adam had an opposing goal to the Doctor, and that required the Doctor to make decisions and stand for principles beyond dealing with what his companions wanted.

Companions like Zoe, Sara Kingdom, Leela, Adric, Romana (of course), Vislor Turlough, Kamelion and even K-9 offered something different. Different choices to be made and different agendas operating. Some of them even specifically bargained with the Doctor, had things they wanted that he could provide and in return had things they could provide to him. The present companions offer companionship, but don’t really offer much else except loyalty and a captive audience. This doesn’t, contrary to the shows stated ethos, make humans feel particularly “big” to me, it makes us feel small. The Doctor exalts the nobility of the average person, but in so doing promotes a philosophy that the best thing a person can be is a passive receptacle for the Doctor’s magic. Where are the scientists who are trying to out excel him? Where are the companions who say that they don’t just want to ride in the TARDIS, for want of a better metaphor, they want to drive? Once people start demanding things of the universe and the Doctor that he isn’t offering, he’ll need to take a position on what he does want based on the position that he doesn’t want. For a long time now, the Doctor’s primary tension with his companions has been how they’ll interact with him romantically, but it’s:

  • (a) not that interesting a question to begin with;
  • (b) robbed of tension because a will they / won’t they relationship can only function that way until the fiat clock determines that they either won’t or will; and
  • (c) already been asked and answered now several times.

That’s not to say that Bogey and Bacall/Nick and Nora Charles style spunky sass from sexy twenty-somethings isn’t challenging, but it’s a petty kind of challenge that’s why it’s usually played as amusing and fun, and secondly it’s a kind of challenge he’s been receiving in spades since 2005. Give him other things to contrast with and the Doctor will be shown not to be a granter of wishes, but an explorer and world-saver with an agenda of his own.

One of my favourite moments of the show has been in “A Good Man Goes To War” when the Doctor assembled a strike-team of his friends. Suddenly, the show wasn’t about a guy showing off the world to impress his latest squeeze, it was about a seasoned universal traveller, with eons of debts to call in and a ruthless willingness to do so in pursuit of something. Madam Vastra, Dorium, even Strax felt like they were adding something, that suddenly the Doctor knew he could do with assistance on a practical as well as moral level. The strike-team started in some senses to outshine the Doctor because of what they were doing. Why isn’t the Doctor an all-knowing savant information broker at the heart of the universe, exploring a new wonder each and every week because he’s driven to know about it? Why isn’t the Doctor actively taking on cases and fighting evil like a galactic Sherlock Holmes? He could do all these things and remain well within his current ouevre of time-and-space travelling superhero. Vastra and Dorium still care enough about the world to want things from it, but the Doctor seems now to have done it all and seen it all. Sure, he makes the appropriate noises when he sees, for example “Dinosaurs On A Spaceship“, but where is the drive to discover the unknown? Now all he seems to do is take people to places he’s already been, like a tour-guide. Easily the stand-out episode of last year, “The Doctor’s Wife” by Neil Gaiman, suddenly shuddered the Doctor out of his companion context. The companions were there, and important (the haunting mad Rory sequence was particularly effective), but the episode focused on the Doctor’s hope of finding another Time Lord, and then an encounter with someone completely knew and at the same time intimately familiar. He had something new that he wanted, for himself, and someone knew to challenge him in ways he had not been challenged before. Suddenly the Doctor had a defined personal motivation, and didn’t the script just crackle because of it?

One of my other favourite moments of the show happened, effectively, entirely in my head. In “Daleks In Manhattan“, Dalek genetic engineering transformed Dalek Sec into a human-Dalek hybrid. The special effects were a little bodgy, but the critical elements of that story were that Dalek Sec realised that being a Dalek was probably not the best way to go, and strove to ally with and learn from the Doctor. I hoped against hope for the portion of the episode where that were possible, that Dalek Sec might get to be a companion. That in addition to the Doctor’s audience insert/manic pixie dream girl of the moment, there could be a character trying to create a moral compass out of whole cloth, who knew things the Doctor didn’t and who wanted some kind of journey beyond the excitement of a tourist destination. I didn’t get it.

I appreciate that this sounds like I don’t like the companions listed, which isn’t true, I’ve liked almost all of them in my way (I’m not too fond of Martha Jones), or that I think the show is on a steady decline, which I also don’t – at least not yet. I just think that the premise of the Doctor needing someone from the here and now to draw him out of his shell has grown a little stale. I don’t really want to experience the adventures of a guy who mopes in a box for decades until he decides he wants to date again. To draw a parallel with Moffat’s other show of the moment, Sherlock, Sherlock Holmes likes to mope and needs Watson to keep him off the cocaine bottle when he’s bored, but once the game is afoot, Sherlock wants to solve cases because Sherlock thinks cases are worth solving, and Watson can either follow along or get out of the way.

I think a change in the choice of the companions would be an easy way to change the trends in this dynamic. Who the Doctor chooses to travel with both reflects his state of mind and influences the kind of story the writers want to tell. There would, however, be other ways of doing it. What I want is an acknowledgement by the Doctor that it’s time to come out of his shell and start thinking about what HE wants out of life again. As he’s fond of saying, there’s the whole of time and space out there, somewhere there should be a place where he can be challenged, where he can face the unknown by design, not by coincidence, where he can pick a battle instead of a battle picking him. I hope future trips in the TARDIS can take us there.

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