Bad Wolf / Parting of the Ways in Perspective
David Selby looks back over the Series 1 finale.
I’m passionate about Doctor Who episodes which bring more to the series than just what meets the eye. These are episodes like The Girl in the Fireplace, The Family of Blood, Forest of the Dead, The Waters of Mars, The Girl Who Waited, Vincent and the Doctor, and perhaps more than any of the others, Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways. It’s a story about the Doctor; about his attempts to keep social balance and their brutal ramifications, about his almost agape love for his companions and their love for him, and, more than anything, stories to remember and celebrate for decades.
“You’re a housemate. You’re in the house!”
Bad Wolf begins in a curiously surreal scenario: the TARDIS crew have each been transported to their respective game shows, which at first, appear to be unaltered from the ones on Earth. It’s a clever setup because it helps us to connect with an understand the characters; we begin abruptly with the Doctor as he stumbles to the floor in the Big Brother house, and as the episode progresses, we slowly find out how he got there, beginning with a flashback to the moments before. We’re in the same situation as the Doctor where we’re just as equally confused by the fact that 21st century reality TV mock-ups have somehow drawn the universe’s most complex time machine off-course.
Likewise, the superficially cheerful locale masks the horrific truths behind The Game Station; a perfect way to juxtapose two very diverse themes, and make the darker of the two acceptable for children’s TV.
“She’s been evicted… from life.”
Once again, disturbing themes are ingeniously conveyed by the still somewhat amusing nature of the Game Station. Yet this time, it does so in a way that the darker motifs are somehow even more sinister than before, by even using comedy to reinforce the savage actuality of what the human race have become (“Rose, you leave this life with nothing”/”now it’s time for the face-off”/”Please say your goodbyes… and then we’re gonna get you!”/”You are the weakest link… goodbye”).
The totalitarianism of the distant future is in fact depicted as having a shocking likeness to present-day; another one of Russell T. Davies’ efforts to illustrate what is in his opinion a corrupt government (if you wonder what I’m talking about here, take a look at Torchwood: Children of Earth). As well as the relatable imagery, the audience are presented with an all-too-familiar sense of media manipulation, and proof that humanity, despite its undying survival instinct, will walk willingly into the slaughter-house.
The climax of Bad Wolf is one of the show’s strongest ever cliffhangers (highly-observant classic series fans will also notice the reference to the Lunar Penal Colony), and has a number of excellent moments. One to consider is the Doctor’s discovery that he actually “made this world”; another one of the Doctor’s failed attempts to save mortality, once again resulting in an even worse world taking its place.
“Rose… I’m coming to get you.”
What’s so brilliant about the opening to The Parting of the Ways is that it completely changes the direction of the story. One would assume that, judging by the ending of Bad Wolf, the story would revolve around the Doctor freeing Rose from the clutches of the Dalek menace; the crux of the narrative being the Doctor ‘giving his life’ for her, thus causing his regeneration. This, it seemed, was not the case. The Doctor and Jack valiantly rescued Rose within the first five minutes of the episode, and demonstrated clear superiority above the Daleks. It exemplified the power the Doctor can have when he needs it; how he is capable of flying into a fleet of a fully-fledged Dalek empire, fearless, to affront them with insults and blasphemy.
This also gave a chance for more of an exploration into Rose’s character, and how she copes independently with people who are now intellectually weaker than her. This is, in my opinion, the best part of the episode. Rose has always been an optimistic yet equally flawed individual, and these qualities still remain with her for the larger part of the story (Rose openly lowers Mickey’s self-esteem by essentially implying that she feels nothing for him, entirely unaware that he’s been upset by it). But she’s using her experiences with the Doctor and her certainty that she will succeed to help her, and she’s not yet prepared to let go of him. She feels obliged to help him because of how he’s changed her; she’s become a tenacious, selfless soul, and will do anything in her power to save him. Though some may argue that Rose’s decisions are frequently egotistical, she’s more than happy in this situation to put her life before the Doctor’s if it means saving him. As the opening embodied the Doctor’s devotion to Rose, this does the other way round, via Bad Wolf.
Jackie also begins to trust the Doctor more than ever. Arguably, her decisions in Parting of the Ways are irrational and ridiculous; you know how much she lacks a trust in him and refuses to believe in his ostensible prosocial actions, yet, when he sends Rose home because he knows he can’t keep her safe, she willingly sends her back. It all seems a little odd. But really it’s because Jackie is suddenly aware of the Doctor’s (ironic) humanity and God-like capabilities; of what he can offer Rose (Rose’s mention to Father’s Day is what triggers this realisation). It’s a lovely scene and marks an important development for both characters.
“I reached into the dirt and made new life. I am the God of all Daleks!”
The Daleks in this story are, in my view, the best they’ve ever been. In fact, I’d even argue that they’re the best monster ever in Doctor Who in this episode, for the reasons I list here.
The Dalek Emperor is undeniably the best he’s ever been. He’s an insane but scarily potent being with a fixation that he is God (discussed further below). The Daleks he created are driven mad by their inner humanity (the Daleks’ hatred for humankind is mentioned a lot in this story, particularly when it’s said that only one cell in a billion was ‘fit’ to be nurtured to create the new Daleks); they hate their own existence, and as the Doctor says, that makes them more dangerous than ever. It’s the horrific truth of the Daleks: they just kill, conquer, and continue. They seek no satisfaction or selfish urges; they simply destroy because they believe that everything else is wrong (this is why the Asylum could have been such a good concept; sadistic Daleks who take pleasure in their killing and perpetuation of their victim’s deaths – but, alas, no).
The Emperor Dalek’s obsession on being a God brings the Time War to some very extreme new heights, becoming an almost paradigmatic piece of mythology. You’ve got the Dalek Emperor and the Doctor, two sides of good an evil (it’s up to you which is which), and those innocents who have perished because of it (i.e. Lynda Moss). Then you’ve got the divine figure that intervenes, wipes out evil and restores peace. It almost makes the Time War look slightly simplistic – which, of course it isn’t. But it means that we get to leave the worst part of the Time War to our imagination, yet still see how it ends. To me, that’s a real stroke of genius.
The use of ‘Gods’ in this tale makes it what it is. ‘Elevating’ a character to a God-like status shows you, by extending it to great (and somewhat unrealistic) lengths, their true morality. The Dalek Emperor was portrayed as a mad, furious ‘devil’; influencing civilisation for centuries, whilst the Doctor was depicted as a ‘vengeful God’, seeking punishment for those who forced him to commit genocide (in many ways like his behaviour in The Flood and The Waters of Mars). Rose, on the other hand, was an epitome of virtue, goodness, and a hopeful light; the dawn of an age of harmony. It made you feel sympathy for both characters (you finally understood why the Doctor did what he did), and truly understand their relationship: The Doctor, an ancient veteran of war, brought back to his true potential by a metaphorically fledging spirit. It’s actually got a lot of fairy-tale aspects to it.
There’s also a resemblance to the Nazis in the Daleks, due to their nationalistic attitudes and desire for supremacy, all hailing the ‘mighty’ Dalek Emperor. This means that the ending, when ‘good beats evil’ is still fitting to the allegory of World War Two. It similarly means that to fully complete the symbolism, there must be a sacrifice. And there was….
“You were fantastic. And do you know what? So was I!”
The final moments of this episode, as well as tying up the Bad Wolf arc perfectly by using it to bring the Doctor and Rose closer together, in essence clarify exactly what the episode was all about. They’re moments of self-discovery for the Doctor and Rose as they both realise their abilities and how perfect they are together. There’s still humour in there; they still bond as they normally would. They’re an unbreakable pair, so in many ways, it’s a figurative regeneration, as the Doctor grows from being shrouded by darkness and regret to almost becoming his former self. It’s my favourite regeneration because of this.
In summary, The Parting of the Ways is an underrated masterpiece. It’s thrilling, poignant, and contains layers and layers of meaning. The characterization is the minimal yet effective, the events all have respective implications, the conclusions are strong (even if the ending is a literal deus ex machine) and the pace is superb. In my opinion it’s the best Dalek story, the best regeneration, and, in fact, the greatest Doctor Who story ever. It’s been an honour to have the chance to write an article about it.