An Inescapable Shadow, Doctor Who: Death in Heaven III: 13/11/2014

The vision of the Doctor as a character that I discussed yesterday is as an ordinary person who has accomplished ever more extraordinary things throughout his life, who is always learning, growing, and moving forward. 
“I am not a good man. And I'm not a bad man. I am not a hero. I'm definitely not a president and no, I'm not an officer. You know what I am? I am an idiot! With a box and a screwdriver. Passing through, helping out, learning.”
Doctor Who can last potentially forever because no element
of it is essential for it to be what it is except the agent of
change itself.
This conception of the flawed hero who is nonetheless heroic because he pushes against his flaws through his relationships with people who matter to him is a common character arc throughout Steven Moffat’s career. I consider it the best approach to the Doctor in the history of the show, precisely because it undercuts the arrogance that can all-too-often creep into the character. But it also emphasizes the immanent utopianism to the character as well: the Doctor’s ethical goodness lies in openness to learning and change. It isn’t that he’s always right, because he'd then be too much of an authority to be a revolutionary, but that he is always open to progress. 

Just like the show, really. Doctor Who would never have become the globally popular folk heroism story it is today without having opened almost every aspect of its premise to radical change. Really, only the parts of the premise that open the show to radical change — the TARDIS — remains the same. Even then, the Barry Letts era saw the TARDIS sidelined for a few years, so even that is open to change. 

The constant presences on the show — the Doctor, the Daleks, the role of the companion, other recurring monsters — are always open to variation. Given the long history of Doctor Who, and how so many of these elements have been introduced not at the beginning but contingently throughout the last five decades, some variations are better than others, but none is the primary. The different versions of icons in Doctor Who are all variations upon variations, with no thematic paradigm. 

Gilles Deleuze is not the Doctor, but he
developed the concept of difference as
variations of variations, without a primary
theme, that best describes Doctor Who's flux.
Even the role of the Doctor no longer exists this way. William Hartnell is the most obvious case for having set the theme of the Doctor as a character because he originated the role, but he was eclipsed as the definitive Doctor by the charisma, visual distinctiveness, and long tenure of Tom Baker. David Tennant could also have become the primary thematic image of the Doctor, since he was the face of its popular revival as a modern sci-fi show, and the first Doctor actor to top Tom Baker as the fan favourite in official polls. But Matt Smith later eclipsed Tennant with his character’s personal and visual distinctiveness, and for being the face of Doctor Who as it exploded internationally.

All this is a prelude to the biggest creative challenge that Steven Moffat faced when he took over Doctor Who, and that he still faces. More than the Daleks, the Master, or Cybermen, right now the greatest villain that Doctor Who faces is the shadow of Russell T. Davies. Not Davies himself, of course, just his shadow.

I wrote in my review of the 50th anniversary special about the Time War as a yoke around the characterization of the Doctor. This was a creation of Davies, the underlying driver of all the character drama of his era. I’ll just refer you back to that review if you want the full argument, but the basic idea is that the Time War and the destruction of Gallifrey was such a huge trauma on the character of the Doctor that it would always dominate how any actor dealt with the part. That trauma had a gravity weighing down the character. Moffat had to get rid of it if the Doctor was to return to his genuine nature as a transformative figure.

Pictured above: The anxiety of influence.
He succeeded, but there were subtler inheritances from Davies that hung around the show. Some of these were innovative in that they opened up potentials for the show that never existed before. A productive inheritance from the Davies era was his key development in the companion concept: that they’d have a life on Earth which was integrated into adventures in the TARDIS. We wouldn’t have the wonderful story this season of Clara’s relationship with Danny Pink if we hadn’t first had Rose Tyler’s continued ties to her mother Jackie and boyfriend Mickey on Earth. This innovation opened up countless narrative possibilities that Doctor Who will probably still be exploring by the 100th anniversary.

A character innovation that Davies introduced which we have now, thankfully, moved beyond is his conception of the Doctor as god-like. The lonely god was a recurring image that Tennant’s Doctor often articulated in dialogue and narrative, Davies’ integration of the mythic power of Doctor Who into the show’s own expression. But the Doctor is not a god, and many of his ethically problematic moments were the result of Tennant’s Doctor following through seriously on his imagery as a god. 

The show condemned this explicitly in The Waters of Mars, but Jill Burrato insightfully made the point that the show condoned this in Journey’s End, when the Doctor explicitly denied what amounted to Donna Noble’s DNR order, a moral violation of his best friend. Moffat has since moved on from this conception of the Doctor, conceiving him instead as a regular person thrust into an amazing narrative, always learning and progressing.

Davies’ sense of the epic is another narrative inheritance that has continued to put pressure on the show. Davies crafted his season finales as events, which in our current era of serialized television through short seasons is inevitable. But all these events had a tone of rollicking blockbuster action, where every event in the adventure was amped up past 11. The overstuffed action of a Davies finale had its best example in Journey’s End.

Doctor Who really can mash any genre into itself, even
Kathryn Bigelow camp-tacular buddy adventure.
Death in Heaven has just such an epic action plot as the typical Davies finale, up to a point. Dark Water ended with a multifaceted cliffhanger that had been Davies’ specialty ever since Aliens of London: Danny on the verge of deleting his own emotions, the reveal of the Cybermen threatening Clara and emerging onto the streets of London, and the reveal of the Master to scare the pants off of the Doctor. Then the plot picks up through a series of UNIT set pieces, a Cyberman shoot-out, the simultaneously campy and uncanny imagery of epigenetic Cyber rain building its army, a climactic action sequence with lots of gratuitous murder and the destruction of UNIT’s plane, the Doctor escaping to the TARDIS in a free fall that was straight out of Point Break!

Then the true climax of the story is in Clara and Danny’s quiet moments of reconciliation and love, and the confrontation of the Doctor and the Master. Fascinating characters in a high-concept narrative talking with each other in a haunting cemetery. The epic forms of a Davies finale fall into the intense personal scales of a Moffat finale. 

The most important of Davies’ unfortunate inheritances requires the 


tag before discussing it. The departures of primary companions, which were always integrated with the epic adventures of the season finales, likewise carried a sense of overwrought (some would say overdone, eventually) emotion to match. Here, Rose Tyler’s departure in Doomsday is the paradigm case: a long epilogue, tears on all sides (of both the characters and the television screen), operatically yearning music, bawling emotion. The companion departure was a catastrophe played even bigger than the destruction of whole worlds. There’s an argument, which Sandifer makes, that the nature of Rose ontologically in Doctor Who makes this appropriate for Doomsday. I respectfully disagree, but I understand how this makes sense for his conception of Rose’s role in the narrative and meta-narrative structure of Doctor Who. 

Theirs was a love for the ages, a modern folk tale.
No matter where you fall on the issue of Rose, the overpowering emotionality of the companion departure became all too much by the time Amy Pond cried her way out of Doctor Who. However, Moffat indicated that this approach to companion departure could go no farther in The Snowmen. And I’m not here referring to Victorian-Clara’s death, meta-fictionally lampshaded as provoking so much emotion that the tears of her surrogate family literally melt the Great Intelligence’s snow creatures into defeat.

The Snowmen was actually River Song’s departure.* River, the Doctor’s wife, was the companion whose story unfolded on the margins of the show, whether in the wrong order as a puzzle to rearrange into a chronologically sensible narrative, in a collection of sketches scattered across multiple seasons’ dvd extras, or outside any text of Doctor Who at all. River being dead by The Name of the Doctor implies that between Amy and Rory’s departure and the Xmas Special, she went to the Library and died in her adventure with Tennant’s Doctor.

* I’m actually a little disappointed that Phil never remarked on this in his TARDIS Eruditorum post on The Snowmen, but no undeclared mentorship in blogging is ever perfect.

The Snowmen finds the Doctor mourning not only his separation from Amy and Rory, but having caught up in his timeline to the death of their daughter, his wife, River. And his mourning over her was so deep that he literally stopped adventuring. Instead, he moped about in his TARDIS with the Paternoster Gang guarding him for so long that he grew out of practice at adventuring. So he made the amateur’s mistake of not shutting the TARDIS door during Victorian-Clara’s entrance and getting her killed just as she was about to embark on her companion run.

The Snowmen saw a bigger threat to the Doctor than
even the prospect of his own death in Time of the
Doctor: that he'd stop being a hero.
This is the most catastrophic development that could happen to Doctor Who: the Doctor stops travelling, stops growing, stops learning, stops changing. He stops. The emotions of a companion departure can’t go bigger than actually breaking the show like this. Clara’s would need another tack.

Quietly, discreetly, and more emotionally devastating than all the tears that Davies could have distilled from the clouds fuelling Noah’s flood, Clara refuses to join the Doctor again. Appropriate to her arc this season, which saw her continually endanger and take for granted her relationship with Danny through her lying, she lies to the Doctor to make him feel better about her leaving. And he lies to her for the same reason. 

In an ordinary conversation on a lunch break at her work, as they sit in the staff cafeteria, Clara lets the Doctor believe that Danny escaped the dying Matrix hard drive where his mind was imprisoned,** and the Doctor falsely tells Clara that he found his homeworld Gallifrey and was returning there to help rebuild its society. Their last moments as co-leads on the show were spent in the quiet dignity of two old friends doing everything they could to cover up heartbreak. Hiding their pain was more powerful than cathartic tears could ever have been.

The most moving sequence of all of Death in Heaven.
** My girlfriend and I watched Death in Heaven together last night, my second viewing and her first, and Danny’s sacrifice to save Clara and the rest of humanity from the Cyber army almost brought her to tears, as I predicted. But she was incensed at Danny for sending back the Afghan boy he shot years ago, leaving his own mind to be wiped away as the Matrix hard drive died. Destroying the Cyber clouds, Danny sacrificed himself for the sake of love. Sending back the Afghan boy and staying behind to die in oblivion, Danny cared more about his personal guilt than his love.

Then Moffat let himself have one last trope from Davies, which he had already discarded in his first season, when he ended it keeping the Doctor and the Ponds together instead of having a suitably intense cast change. It was his interruption of that heartbreak at the last moment, with the incongruously wacky intrusion of a piece of the Christmas Special. Who better than Nick Frost as Santa?

In this last little gesture, Moffat overcame the heritage of Davies more completely than even this long catalogue shows. He no longer needed to react to it, finding alternatives, but played one of his predecessor’s motifs when the story found it appropriate. The heritage of Russell T. Davies, at least in this small case, was no longer a shadow, but a dusty tool that could be useful again.

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