Series 7: Part 1 in Perspective
Adam James Cuthbert gives his overview on the first half of Series 7.
“The Doctor has been listening to them. He can also hear the monsters down there, millions of them at home in the darkness. […] Soon, unless stopped, they will emerge and bring the darkness out with them. There are countless more like them all across the universe – those that have destroyed more than they have created. They must be fought. A man cannot fight them all, though, not without becoming the worst monster of the lot. One day, the Doctor knows […] he will fall.”
– Lance Parkin, The Gallifrey Chronicles.
It’s fair to say that Steven Moffat’s ongoing storyline pivots around deconstructing the show’s eternal enigma: “Doctor who, exactly?” It’s a tactic not wholly dissimilar to the Cartmel Masterplan, itself a ground-breaking attempt to redefine, and clarify, the show’s self-contradictory mythology. However, instead of evoking the image of the Doctor as an inscrutable demigod, burdened by the inexorable gravity of his self-imposed responsibilities, Moffat’s approach is to depict the Doctor as a flawed, emotionally sensitive figure.
The Eleventh Doctor has been characterised as denouncing his reputation, his temperament clouded by a simmering sense of self-loathing. He’s painfully aware that his actions endanger his companions’ lives (as epitomised in The God Complex), yet seems to display a perverse delight in terrorising his greatest enemy – the Daleks. Again, it’s not unreasonable to draw comparisons with the Seventh Doctor. (“I am far more than just another Time Lord”; “Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, you looked up and saw the face of the Devil himself. Hello, Dalek.”) The Doctor’s earlier paroxysms have been replaced with a subtler, cold and calculating demeanour. He’s conscious of the superiority of his intellect, yet the youthful bravado and ‘alien’ idiosyncrasies veil an ancient persona emotionally exhausted by the unrelenting evils of the universe. It’s interesting to speculate if the Doctor’s self-loathing has ever resulted in his meditation of suicide/regeneration of his eleventh incarnation. Would he become a ‘good man’ again, untainted and pure (similar, perhaps, to the Eighth Doctor’s ‘rebirth’ in The Burning?); or will the shadow of the Time War forever stalk him?
The purpose of this article is, quite simply, to give a sequential presentation of my thoughts. Hopefully, it may illuminate the reader where possible.
If the Doctor had earlier transcended into myth, strengthened by his return to the shadows, then A Town Called Mercy, ideally, could have witnessed the first stages of the Doctor variously adopting, or role-playing, as archetypes of classical filmmaking over the course of standalone adventures. This would culminate in the film noir mid-series finale with the Doctor becoming Dashiell Hammett’s ‘Continental Op’, even incorporating first-person narration. (“My name is my peregrinating profession. I’m hunting for a mystery. This city is diseased. I can heal it. But time is a cruel temptress. Time enough – but for what I must judge. I can hear the city drowning in the yoke of depression. They beg me to stop. But I can’t.”) The plot could see the Doctor, allied with hardboiled detective Sam Garner, using time-travel to incrementally solve a jigsaw-piece narrative a la Orson Welles’ perennial proto-noir classic Citizen Kane, with crime-lord Julius Grayle, an august man of artistic pretensions, dead with some dread secret, possessing a Xanadu of his own. The story could have exploited the richness of the genre to capitalise on the Doctor’s darker characterisation, with impressionistic Dutch angles, etc., creating further alienation between the Doctor and audience. We recognise the Doctor is a changed man. The Silence’s objective is secondary. It acts as a foundation to probing the Doctor’s psyche; to exploring the question: why do we continue to be invested in a character whose ‘true’ identity is in the dark? What new, stimulating, interpretations can be brought to the character?
The Doctor and the Daleks
Asylum of the Daleks ostensibly aimed to recapture the menace of the Daleks, which the consensus agrees hasn’t been seen since Robert Shearman’s Dalek. Dalek however stands as the superior story with its lone soldier encapsulating the sheer, unmitigated horror of Davros’ creation: a cunning creature that could feign pity from a young woman, portrayed as an unstoppable war-machine. The story grants insight into precisely why the Doctor despises them, when even a single Dalek can tear his world apart.
Although Asylum began effectively, with Nick Hurran’s stylistic direction depicting the Doctor literally emerging from the shadows to interrogate the Daleks’ puppet Darla, the episode swiftly declined in quality. It’s barely salvageable. The episode suffered from a case of gross advertisement and brutal misuse of the Classic Daleks. Here was an opportunity to re-examine the Doctor’s history with the Daleks, to highlight his alleged ‘warrior’ characteristics. Boasting of this assembly will naturally lead to certain expectations, so I’m questioning exactly what Moffat’s motives were if he wasn’t prepared to treat them accordingly.
Imagine: a team of human survivors, sheltering in the claustrophobic domain. Outside, it’s an inhospitable blizzard. Skeletons are interred in the snow (but a snow which doesn’t faze the Doctor). Their ship’s engines are dead. The crew are rationing their meagre victuals. They’re close to death. They’ve sent a distress signal. They luckily retain an old-fashioned heater on a crank-generator and some torches, which they use economically. Three of the crew have been lost in the labyrinthine corridors. One was found; his body mutilated, “as if Jack the Ripper had returned from the dead.” Dispatched by the Daleks, the Doctor traverses the planet until he discovers a means of entry. These Daleks were incarcerated because they’re failed experiments: super-soldiers; the Daleks’ own Frankensteinian creations. They were a high-risk, high-cost affair, but with firepower capable of legendary devastation. They’re sadistic, highly resilient; grotesque, sanguinary, yet wickedly clever creatures in their insanity.
Dalek justified its portrayal of the sole Dalek. Physical acts of extermination underlined the Dalek’s morbid psychology, and thus the Doctor’s abhorrence of them. Here, they’re reduced to gathering dust – a mockery of history. Obviously, some of the suggested darker elements would necessitate being muted, but if Dalek can display visual genocide, and truly define ‘horror’ within the Kaled mutants, why couldn’t Asylum?
Asylum felt like an iteration of the worst of series 6. Frankly, it was a wasted opportunity (which goes for every Moffat story since The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon). Like A Good Man Goes to War, the episode was hyped to exorbitant proportions, only to misfire: like the former story’s treatment of the Cybermen, so too did Asylum feel like an insult. Oswin’s personality was vexing. I won’t conjecture about Jenna’s future involvement as the companion, but Asylum would be hinting she’s part of a grander endgame.
This leads to discussion of the ending: erasing the Daleks’ memories. At first, I disagreed with the decision entirely. Upon reconsideration, it’s an intriguing development of their relationship – if the Doctor had erased their memories. Preferably, the Doctor would be seen to discover this New Dalek Empire is a ‘hive-mind’ of Daleks. Realising what this means, the Doctor, aware the Daleks’ activities will alert the Silence to his survival, promptly deletes their knowledge of him with appropriate adroit and chicanery. It would show initiative by having the Doctor himself elevate the stakes, thus displaying a layer of maturity, as well as developing the story’s theme of the Doctor demonstrating his genius (“I’m not looking for ‘countermand’, dear. I’m looking for ‘reverse’”). With the Daleks oblivious to his true nature, the Doctor slips beneath the threshold of consciousness (as evidenced by Solomon’s later failure to ascertain his material value).
Both series 6 and 7 desperately needed to show the Doctor travelling alone, having cut ties with the Williams, presumably accompanied by one-off companions, over a passage of time. This would thematically strengthen the storyline as a whole, as the Doctor distances himself from humanity. For example: his connections with UNIT, now perceived through a distorted ‘lens’ – a morose demeanour. This would elaborate on a historical ‘image’, or ‘vision’, of the Doctor, and the sundry nature of his influence: his integral role in shaping a more localised history, as well as a universal one (i.e. the Daleks). Thus, the storyline unfolds transitionally: man to myth to ‘nameless’ archetype. This represents the Eleventh Doctor’s apotheosis: the dark detective; suffering from an existential crisis of faith. By the end, he realises he needs a more permanent, intimate, human attachment before he loses sense of his own identity.
It would also more than justify the cinematic leitmotif of this series, which has the potential to be a tremendous boon for the show, rather than a glorified marketing gimmick. The leitmotif serves as an undercurrent to the Doctor’s character development. As with the above suggestion: the fatalistic mood of film noir complements his maturity. There’s an inevitability, but also trepidation, of death haunting the Doctor.
I’m surprised Moffat didn’t envision a Robert Holmes pastiche for the mid-series finale. Holmes himself was a man unafraid to borrow from inspiration, yet always, attentively, lavished his stories with originality in their eloquent characterisation; a feat not impossible from Moffat (i.e. A Christmas Carol). A story in the vein of The Talons of Weng-Chiang, where the Doctor assumes a Sherlock Holmes-esque ‘guise’, uncovering a tenebrous secret in the seedy underbelly of the city, would have been perfect for the Eleventh Doctor. Again, it develops that multi-layered portrayal of the Doctor as he assumes diverse, factitious identities, yet each hints at a deeper truth about the person he is – “Doctor who?” It would also be challenging for Matt Smith, I think, whose performance has since captured my intrigue.
Fortunately, Toby Whithouse succeeded in this direction with A Town Called Mercy. I honestly believe Whithouse’s stories present Matt Smith at his acme, which owes as much to Whithouse’s intelligent characterisation, deftly exploring themes of morality focused around the Doctor. Although Whithouse’s story does adhere to conventions of the Western genre (genre is defined by its iconography), I think it’s unjust to say the story is clichéd. It’s hardly banal, and Whithouse injects his script with an original, captivating interpretation of the genre. In the context of the final story itself, Amy and Rory were practically ornamental. I don’t consider this to be detrimental to the overall narrative, however. Mercy could have been reworked with little alteration to the main plot. The Doctor could arrive at the outskirts of the town, donning Craig’s Stetson, as ‘the Man with No Name’. The eponymous town is the stage for the Doctor’s catharsis. If Solomon’s death was an example of the Doctor’s less merciful attitude with age, then Kahler-Jex’s duplicitous nature is the Doctor’s unbridled scorn towards the forces of turpitude and corruption. While the Doctor acts hypocritically within the story, reasoning with the young man “violence doesn’t end violence, it extends it”, he is performing a virtuous act, sparing the young man from the bloodshed the Doctor knows all too well. Since the Time War, the Doctor has sought to redeem himself, thwarting evils and saving innocent lives. But even a Time Lord has his breaking-point: when the Doctor has to ask – what’s the point? What’s the value of mercy if no-one ever learns? Without a companion to stop him, it takes a young child, scrambling from her parent’s hold, to start crying (a subtle allusion to The Beast Below). The Doctor realises what he’s become: the first signs of his own reformation.
In wake of the 2011 Christmas special and The Wedding of River Song, I must express my hostility towards Moffat’s decision to prolong the Williams’ stay and their ‘familial’ connection with the Doctor (my views on River are discussed elsewhere). I’m staunchly of the opinion their inclusion (both within Asylum and the series itself) was entirely superfluous. I must ask: what did either Asylum or The Angels Take Manhattan say about their relationship that hadn’t been explored in The Girl Who Waited; that their love is eternal? The divorce subplot bordered on soap-opera cliché. It was inconsequential and inane (adoption isn’t an answer? P.S. revealed they would have done exactly that; so why not earlier?).
I can potentially see exploring another side to the Doctor’s relationship with the Williams, with Rory’s father Brian assisting the Doctor in coming to terms with their loss. I understand there’s been speculation about Brian being a widower. If that was intended, Brian might have been someone the Doctor could relate to about the fateful loss of loved ones. Furthermore, Brian’s anxiety to travel, staying within familiar territory, could have been an interesting counteract to the Doctor’s inability to plant roots, allured by uncharted pastures. From the camaraderie they share, Brian regains his confidence, while the Doctor’s outlook on life is a little brighter. Sadly, Brian’s introduction was a misjudged venture.
The Girl Who Waited was a more befitting penultimate story. The story subtly foreshadowed the impending danger of their travels together, with The God Complex completing Amy’s journey into womanhood, her childhood faith in the Doctor (which led to her cynicism in the former story) finally broken, the two parting ways. The bittersweet ending could easily have functioned as a setup for a future cameo without wanton complications to the timeline (Closing Time being an example).
As it stands, their presence – from The Power of Three to the maudlin finale – only resulted in inconsistent character development of the Doctor, undermining a potentially strong run of episodes. Since when did such a powerful and brooding, peremptory figure suddenly act like a petulant child throwing a tantrum to his ‘parents’? (River didn’t help matters either. She’s too removed from any strain of plausibility to have the writer’s desired effect on their relationship.)
Finally, on a more practical side of things, I’m inclined to agree with John Hussey about the omission of two-part stories, and the unnecessary changes to the title sequence. I do believe future stories will retrospectively have benefited from having cliff-hangers, as well as enabling their themes and ideas to be more thoroughly unpacked and detailed. Otherwise, it feels rushed. Hour-long episodes would also have been advantageous, to add depth to secondary characters. Nonetheless, this series has exhibited some superlative guest actors (David Bradley, Rupert Graves, Adrian Scarborough), and the direction has generally been quite innovative (reminiscent of Paul Joyce and Graeme Harper’s work on the Classic series), in gauging the show’s creative boundaries. I do have consternation about Moffat’s future direction for the show, though, and I only hope he doesn’t disappoint again.