Thursday, July 22, 2010

Fish Custard [17]

"Maybe the universe can't bear to be without the Doctor."
When we first met him, the Doctor was a wanderer in the fourth dimension; an exile. He had a Time Machine, but there was no sense that he was, in other respects, a particularly important individual. His insignificance in the grand scheme of things was part of the Elusive Magic: an old man and a little girl cut loose and lost in the vast cosmos. We know now that the original production team had a number of different ideas about why the Doctor embarked on his Flying Dutchman like wanderings through the Time and Space: but none of them involved him being a particularly important being. He was assumed to be on some personal quest: for an ideal time and place; for scientific knowledge; for his long lost home world. There was a certain bathos when the truth was finally revealed: Patrick Troughton shamefacedly blusters that he left home, like some cosmic teenager, "because he was bored."
"Maybe the universe can't bear to be without the Doctor."
Oh, he had been to lots of strange places and met lots of interesting people, but it was his possession of a Time Machine that made him unique. "No one else in the universe can do what we're doing" he tells Victoria "That's the exciting thing." But it was always inevitable that, if the series lasted beyond the first dozen or so episodes, the "crotchety old man" would move closer and closer to the center of the stage. Not merely a doddery old fool with a Time Machine, but a gentleman adventurer with a collection of fast cars and gadgets and knowledge of a special martial art that allows him to win every fight he's in. Not merely a gentleman adventurer, but a weird charismatic figure who talks about "homo sapiens" from the outside, and takes control of every situation he's in by virtue of some innate charisma. Not merely a charismatic alien but a Dark Doctor at the center of a web of time of his own creation, endlessly tripping over plans he made centuries ago and has forgotten about.
"Maybe the universe can't bear to be without the Doctor."
We know that when Old Who was canceled, the final script editor was at the beginning of what would have been a multi-season story arc, which would have repositioned the Doctor as a more central figure in the universe which he inhabited. It doesn't matter a great deal how this "Cartmell masterplan" would have developed if the show had not been canceled; neither does it matter how writers other than Cartmell interpreted it after he wasn't involved any more. What's important is that Seasons 26 and 27 25 and 26 took for granted a universe in which the Doctor was a fantastically important and significant person: "far more than just a Time Lord." And this gave the final months of the show a new and unique atmosphere which marked it out as different from what had gone before. You may or may not think that Silver Nemesis and the Ghost Light work: but you can't imagine them as Jon Pertwee stories.
"This time there will be a reckoning with the nameless Doctor who's power is so secret. In good time I will speak it."
The novelisation of Remembrance of the Daleks opens with a prologue in which three Time Lords – Rassilon, Omega and Someone Else -- discuss the future of the universe. I couldn't tell you, without looking it up, whether Someone Else turned out to be the Doctor or, er, someone else. But I like the scene. It's mysterious and dramatic and suggests that the well of the past is very deep, even on Gallifrey. The scene in Silver Nemeiss, where Lady Penfold asks the question "Doctor who?" and threatens to reveal his Dark Secret isn't quite as good. It's too in yer face: oy, the Doctor is special, right, but we aren't telling you why. Curse of Fenric did a much better job of making the Doctor's Time Lordness relatively unimportant and his Doctorness central. By virtue of being the Doctor, he has played chess with the embodiment of evil since the beginning of time.
"Maybe the universe can't bear to be without the Doctor."
Lawrence Miles complains that the modern series has fetishised the Doctor: made him "the subject, not the medium" of the series which is named after him. He has a point. But this process didn't start with The Pandorica Opens (which we will get to eventually, I promise.) It didn't start with The Girl in the Fireplace. And it really, really didn't start with Lawrence's novel Alien Bodies. It's the logical conclusion of a process which has been underway since the series started.
The Doctor is a guy who rattles round the universe in a broken down spaceship. But he's also the most important person in the Doctor Who universe, because it, the Doctor Who universe, it has got his name on it. And he's also been allowed to become the personification of the television programme he appears in. The Doctor represents Doctor Who and Doctor Who represents every good memory anyone ever had of Saturday teatimes in November, of queuing for autographs on wet Sundays in Blackpool, of watching scary monsters from behind the sofa with a sense of wonder. It's an almost Trinitarian conception, and one that hardly any fictitious character could be expected to live up to. Hamlet was never asked to personify school English lessons and Oxford scholarship and the history of the Royal Shakespeare Company; Winnie the Pooh the bear was never a metaphor for Winnie the Pooh the book.
It is sometimes said each writer only has one story to tell, particularly by writers who have only one story to tell. Season 5 of Doctor Who unashamedly revisits the themes of Girl in the Fireplace. And the season finale spends 90 minutes re-stating ideas that were first presented in a silly sketch in which Joanna Lumley tried to use the sonic screwdriver as a vibrator.
Well, wasn't it Chekov who said that if you do it slow, it's tragedy, but if you do it quick, it's farce?


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