The Future of the Paternoster Gang
David Selby ponders where things could head next for the trio.
Series Eight, it seems, will see changes to most of the show’s status quo: the Doctor has lost his title as the Last of the Time Lords and has taken on a newer, more capricious incarnation, changing his dynamic with the companion; the Siege of Trenzalore is over and the Silence would appear to be a thing of the past, and even smaller changes, such as a redly-lit, bookshelf-filled TARDIS console room only represent the greater shifts in the show as a whole. Yet moving onto a new era, the show-runner has decided to keep the Paternoster Gang: a broad label referring to the characters of Madame Vastra, the ‘Great Detective’ of Victorian London, her human wife, Jenny Flint and their unconventional butler, Sontaran Commander Strax.
At present, there is abundant potential in the Paternoster Gang. Each character holds their own unique possibilities, though a charming aspect shared by all three is the notion of having a recurring setting which isn’t contemporary Earth; one of the advantages of time-travel fiction. During this article I will explore some more possibilities of the Paternoster Gang within the series and how they could be explored, linking in largely to literature and culture relevant to the Victorian era.
The Great Detective
“You realise Doctor Doyle is almost certainly basing his fantastical tales on your own exploits? With a few choice alterations, of course. I doubt the readers of The Strand magazine would accept that the Great Detective is, in reality a woman.”
Simeon’s quote holds even more relevance than it would first seem. It reflects ‘Victorian Values’, suggesting that even celebrated novelists adapt their fiction to suit social standards. Madame Vastra would never rise to fame; she’s a controversial figure in most senses, but is ‘used’ by the authorities because her talent far outweighs that of those which the authorities would rather laisse with.
It does, also, point towards the chance of having an episode featuring the historical figure of Arthur Conan Doyle. Considering so many fans encourage the idea of working Doctor Who into Sherlock, a more subtle approach could be taken with either Conan Doyle meeting the inspiration behind his fiction or it being revealed that Vastra and Doyle already have an established relationship. Due to the limitations of age, unless the Paternoster Gang were to move forward, a ‘Great Detective’ story would have to see the novelist in his earlier days, before he turned to spiritualism, allowing the narrative to foreshadow his darker days in the way that Vincent and the Doctor did too. Could you bring Conan Doyle to the future to show him the television adaptation of Sherlock? It would be risky…
Down the Rabbit Hole and Through the Looking-Glass
Penned largely as nonsensical children’s fiction, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and what Alice found there became popular with both children and adults, largely thanks to their strong themes of surrealism. This surrealism, contrasted with the harsh, gritty reality of life for those negatively affected by the Victorian period, provided much-needed escapism for many grown-up readers whilst children simply engaged with concepts such as anthropomorphic creatures.
Anthropomorphism could be (and has been) used in the show, not just with the clichéd concept of talking animals but also with other personified aspects of life, for instance the weather. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice accesses the fantasy world by falling down a rabbit hole. This fantasy world could be the Land of Fiction in the Whoniverse, opening doors to other ideas raised in this article (you could meet the Great Detective there). The Land of Fiction in the 1800s could be populated by famous figures of Victorian literature, on a landscape built upon juxtaposition.
I’m a massive fan of the use of mirror images, particularly in television (if under a suitable director). They communicate multiple perspectives of a single entity, or very often focus on self-perception. A psychologically-challenged character could be presented with a warped alternative of themselves or their world which they must come to terms with as they enter.
A secondary theme in Through the Looking-Glass is game-playing. Gaiman’s Nightmare in Silver already touched on the ‘competitive’ narrative structure by embedding a game of chess into the crisis at hand, but I’m convinced that an arguably more apt writer would be able to take on something similar with, say, a game of cards. Most of my suggestions in this article have been confined to the era at hand, but a one-off episode set in a Carrollean fantasy world could provide an alternative viewpoint of our central characters.
Hyde and Seek
Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella entitled The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde ventures into the life of Dr Jekyll, an increasingly shadowy character who develops a split personality (““If he be Mr. Hyde” he had thought, “I shall be Mr. Seek””).
A pivotal aspect in constructing a complex character is developing for them multiple identities depending on their situation and company. A two-sided villain is an engrossing one because often the audience can empathise with one side whilst abhorring the other. A likely motivation for a Victorian antagonist would be resentment at Victorian traditionalist values which promote repression. Repressed, the villain is forced to act alone, only truly knowing themselves – they conform to the social norm whilst in the public eye, but re-enact darker acts when out of the spotlight in an attempt to express their hitherto-concealed emotions. This would be significant for Vastra (or Jenny); a woman who has fought against suppression, acting true to herself even if it leads to her being shunned – so the Great Detective can understand, even relate to, the villain at hand.
It also brings forward the notions of identity which began to arise in the Victorian period; that people do have two sides, often a darker side, and that we only know ourselves (“With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to the truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two”). As the shadier side grows more prominent, increasing in its animalistic urges, it begins to merge into and suffocate the light. Either this would lead to a dismal end, or either Vastra or Jenny would find a way to appeal to his/her now-repressed humanity. In a show like Doctor Who, it remains important to present human decency as the most powerful motivation of all, so I would not be against an ending that varies from the original bleak (but admittedly ingenious) resolution to Stevenson’s original.
When considering Victorian Literature genres, the first that comes to mind is Gothic Fiction; drawing from Romanticism, placing key focus on ‘edgier’ intense emotions. Already, The Crimson Horror touched lightly on body-horror, The Snowmen on grief (albeit with a romantic slant) and Deep Breath on a bit of both. Gothic storytelling sits safely behind unadulterated horror, providing a more pleasing and more quaintly unsettling idea of horror. Gothic/Romantic storytelling is no new genre for Doctor Who; The Talons of Weng-Chiang exhibited how a Victorian locale can provide an effective backdrop for a gritty mystery, utilising Gothic architecture in the dead of night. On the whole, Paternoster Gang stories feature at least delicate influences of Gothic storytelling, and when it comes to sophisticated period/genre writers like Gatiss, my faith in them is secure.
At the heart of Victorian storytelling possibilities is the astonishing scope of culture which could be explored, from popular entertainment to bloodcurdling folklore. The key threat could come from, say, a medical breakthrough; medicine was central to humanity’s advancements around the time of the Paternoster Gang, and there’d be a strong sense of irony in death coming from an attempt to preserve life (disease, even without a medical subplot, also provides a believable threat in a historic setting). Colonialism could perhaps come from an alien authority; either the Silence, or creatures akin to them in concept, could be playing a greater role in human (industrial) evolution than we’d think possible.
Jack the Ripper is flippantly tackled in A Good Man Goes To War, but what if he wasn’t killed after all? It brings me back to the Jekyll/Hyde setup; the split-personality, where a trusted protagonist could be responsible for brutal killings. Of course, considering the nature of the Ripper’s motivations, crafting such a story should be a meticulous process. Spring-heeled Jack could be a safer bet, still linking into Victorian folklore but staying within the confines of family television.
The Victorian slums are an instant insight into harsh poverty. The Paternoster Gang (presumably) live a somewhat agreeable life in a fair-sized house with an Edenic garden (which echoes Vastra’s ‘organic’ origins). A case where they’re forced into an investigation into the slums could be an eye-opening experience for both the protagonist and the viewer (in a Doctor-lite setup, perhaps, putting Vastra and Jenny centre-stage).
One of the many reasons I enjoyed The Crimson Horror was because of Mrs Gillyflower; an antagonist with religious motivations. In terms of religious corruption, the Victorian Church sought to aid the rich and control the poor, using religion as a tool – just as Mrs Gillyflower did too. The Paternoster Gang work at their best, in my eyes, as victims of religious prejudice and xenophobia – and an alien threat can also be successful when posing as a deity to a gullible population.
“Perhaps this is the purpose of detective investigations, real and fictional — to transform sensation, horror and grief into a puzzle, and then to solve the puzzle, to make it go away. ‘The detective story,’ observed Raymond Chandler in 1949, ‘is a tragedy with a happy ending.’ A storybook detective starts by confronting us with a murder and ends by absolving us of it. He clears us of guilt. He relieves us of uncertainty. He removes us from the presence of death.” – Kate Summerscale, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher
Summerscale’s quote epitomises the poetic appeal of crime fiction. As a detective, Vastra puts a new light on the stylistic features of Doctor Who storytelling, in many cases either ‘neatening’ or posing the potential to neaten the narrative structure of the ‘investigation’ or ‘case’ at the heart of the story. From the mind of the detective herself, any writer is provided with the opportunity to adopt framing devices, such as those used in Scott Gray’s The Crystal Throne, wherein Vastra provided a narration concurrent with events. In Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, a large part of the narrative is told through direct letters to Holmes from Watson, addressed ‘MY DEAR HOLMES’. Vastra, though romantically, occasionally addresses her wife as ‘Dear Jenny’. The parallels between the two may suggest that in an investigation in which Vastra and Jenny are inexorably separated, Vastra may write to Jenny, the dialogue of which reports would become the narrative voice of the episode.
As well as social outcasts (which I will discuss), the Paternoster Gang represent anachronistic figures in their era. Take their new sonic devices designed for Series Eight: they’re futuristic gadgets inspired by everyday Victorian paraphernalia, for example Vastra’s hat pin. On a greater scale, this could prefigure even greater changes if an alternate timeline were to occur: steampunk, thematically, is known for bringing a (often literally) darker edge to an alternate timeline setup, where in the future technology is heavier-influenced by the Industrial Revolution, creating a rougher, more dismal and polluted landscape (which is a call-back to my earlier points on a Looking-Glass reality).
It’s not just their eccentric countenances (light-heartedly dismissed – ‘The Turkish Fellow’) which set the Paternoster Gang apart from Victorian society. Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint are lesbians, remarkably open members of LGTBQ (Lesbian / Gay / Transsexual / Bisexual / Questioning) in a time in which homosexuality was an illegal practise. In most cases, known homosexuals were ignored or tolerated rather than incarcerated, so long as they remained discreet with their preferences, behaviour and comments. Vastra and Jenny would be decidedly unusual and in most known cases denigrated couple. The series so far seems to imply that their relationship is condoned because of Vastra’s status as ‘the Great Detective’ (Scotland Yard is ‘in her debt’), even allowing them to be open about their relationship much to the irritation of those present. But what if their luck were to run out? If the streets were fully rid of crime, or a rival detective who conformed to standards were to materialise, they would soon become subjects of public contempt and could face severe consequences.
If there is any inconsistency at all in the duo, it would be that there appears to be some confusion about whether they are repressed or ‘open’ (to avoid a clichéd closet analogy). Vastra’s reputation as ‘the Veiled Detective’ would seem to imply that her whole life, including romances, remains behind closed doors, yet in most appearances she openly refers to Jenny as her wife. Some clarification about exactly how much the public know about Jenny and Vastra would be appreciated. Jenny mentions being ostracised by her family – I would surmise that having lost the support of the people who matter in her life, she no longer cares about her image to others. A scene with Jenny’s family in stories to come would not go amiss. Deep Breath has since provided some explanation.
A Matter of Loyalty
Each member of the Paternoster Gang could, in the right circumstances, face a heart-breaking personal dilemma over the two worlds which have defined them. I’d be interested to see Vastra, for instance, caught up in a war (in the future – TARDIS trip?) between humanity and the Silurians, where one of the two is acting with reprehensible antagonism towards the other. Vastra would either have to, depending on the chosen scenario, convince the Silurians of humanity’s virtues, cementing her dedication to her newly-found home, or turn against humanity and help her own people. Jenny would, in the case of the latter, either defy her wife – or, more likely, also turn against her own people to help the conceivably blameless homo reptilia. How much loyalty does Jenny have towards her own species? As a social outcast, this could be an engrossing question to explore.
A similar setup could be applied for Strax. There is very little new use for him other than (the admittedly hilarious) comedic moments, so to challenge the character, and arrival of the Sontarans would be the ultimate test of his loyalty and perhaps depict the brutal extent of Sontaran culture (I highly doubt Strax would receive the hero’s welcome).
There will unquestionably reach a stage where the Paternoster Gang will need to go in a new direction, and a trip in the TARDIS could provide that one-off setup which could eventually define the curious characters. Perhaps by this point their ending will come, as they go either their separate ways, or remain together as an unlikely family unit. Until then, I look forward to seeing how they and their era are explored in future episodes.
“Nothing’s lost for good if you still remember it. Hang on to your memories, my darling. In the end they’re all we’ve got. Your people may be gone… but your family’s right here.” – Jenny Flint, The Crystal Throne