Worlds Within Worlds: The Secrets of Series 9 (Part 2)
Guest contributor Janine Rivers concludes the thematic exploration of Series 9.
To refresh, we left off with the suggestion that Doctor Who is, through the motif of ‘worlds within worlds’, drawing closer to its original ‘bigger on the inside’ premise of falling out of our world/into another than it has in all its fifty years, and I’m picking that thread back up from the off. If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, you can cast a glance at it here. With introductions out the way, let’s continue.
A Signal Inside Your Brain
Sleep No More continues, surprisingly, with the theme of terrorism and radicalisation which more evidently manifested in The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion. But whilst the Zygon two-parter focused on ‘worlds within worlds’ as cultures both nefarious and decent hidden within our own, Sleep No More takes the radicalisation concept and uses the thematic motif to tell us about subliminal messaging: an idea hidden within a video. Rasmussen’s is literal, an electric signal with the capacity to turn us into monsters. But the metaphor is clear enough: the messages hidden within fiction get inside our brains without us even realising and, if abused, can twist and ‘monsterise’ our ideologies.
(By sheer coincidence, Sleep No More aired the same night as the reports on the Paris massacre. Viewers were first fed a startling narrative about radicalisation where transformation into monsters is presented as a viable possibility, and then a news report on real monsters, already transformed, in the world we live in. But this doesn’t undermine Doctor Who – our show has always been the one to speak where no other writer dares to speak, and to cross into real-life events and comment, constructively, on what they mean.)
We’re looking for a Trap Street
As some readers pointed out last time, Face the Raven presents me with the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the extent of my thematic idea. It’s an episode about a seemingly bigger-on-the-inside street hidden with the country’s capital city: a real, tangible world within another world.
Cue political undertones. Not only is the street a hidden physical place, it is also a complex and defined culture. The Zygon Inversion’s theme of integration returns, with the aliens on the street who change their physical appearance to integrate with their new culture. Integration is seen as a must – not a good thing, or a moral thing, but a predicate to survival. Even the monster of the story is said to have integrated, taking a form that fits its surroundings (why that form happens to be that of the literary Raven is an interesting point of discussion). Along with the sense of culture, there’s also a social hierarchy and a harsh but debatably necessary system of law (I wonder: did Ashildr continue to run Trap Street in the same way after Clara died? Potential for a sequel, perhaps). The residents of Trap Street also happen to be alien refugees, doing their best to live. And there wasn’t even a joke about benefits. Tut tut.
Dictatorship for Inadequates
The arc, if it even exists (more on that later) comes to a head here. The Doctor should have been more thematically-conscious, should have seen this one coming. He gets trapped within a world – his confession dial – that’s bigger and more complex than he expected it to be. A world he suffers and dies to escape. But again, it’s a world he learns more about as he experiences it, and can only understand it with an open mind and an active interest. Sure, it might be a torture chamber, but it still manages to function on multiple levels as a cultural metaphor.
First, the Doctor understands nothing about it, but then he starts to listen: he listens to the castle, and he listens to his heart. He explores. He looks at the world around it – at the relationship between the world he’s trapped in and the stars in the sky above it. And eventually, when he reaches the heart (or in fact, rim) of it, he discovers its past – a past longer and heavier than he had ever imagined. And he stays, to make it better, and to break free of the oppression. (So you could probably say that Heaven Sent is about an oppressed culture; billions of people, who happen to be the same man, oppressed in a violently mundane system. But to be honest, that’s scraping the barrel, and I’m more inclined to the position that Heaven Sent is too busy doing other far more intelligent themes, like isolating one man on his own and being a story about an individual told on a cosmic scale. It is, incidentally, my favourite Doctor Who story ever.)
Drawing a Line
The obvious choice is the Matrix – a hell contained within Gallifrey, in its darkest corners, where rejected products of other cultures scream and strike at each other in a society so abject and oppressive that it fails to find any sort of harmony. But instead, I’d opt to look at the Shabogans, by which I am referring to the community the Doctor arrives in at the start of the episode. They might be the Shabogans. Alternatively, they might not. But since people have probably died over this debate, let’s just call them the Shabogans for the sake of aesthetic.
What are the Shabogans? It is possible that again we have discovered an underclass. But whilst the underclass of Skaro was a mound of rot, mud and hatred, Gallifrey produces something else. The fascist society (Skaro), obsessed with purity and cleansing, could only end up drowning in their own filth – but Gallifrey, a place for boring, deceitful bureaucrats in hats with the power to end time itself, produces a peaceful, unarmed, and honest society on its fringes. To reject the culture of Gallifrey is to reject everything that’s nasty about the Time Lords.
When the Doctor empowered the Dalek underclass to rise up against its oppressors, it was an act of violence and anarchic social destabilisation. But that’s really the nature of the Daleks. Such an uprising would be antithetical to the nature of the Shabogans. Instead, to join the Shabogans is to step over the line and do away with your weapons: a revolution of pacifists. And whilst they don’t end up running Gallifrey, the Doctor does empower and inspire them to protect what they’ve got both materially and ethically, even if that means putting their own children on the front line.
Bigger on the Inside
Lastly, there’s the story of Clara Oswald. Let’s start by having a look at the extraction chamber. The extraction chamber represents two things. The first is death. An extraction chamber is used to take someone from the moment of their death and return them to it, in that sense becoming the new moment of their death. Everyone who has ever been extracted has spent their final moments in the extraction chamber.
Yet the second thing the extraction chamber represents, particularly in Clara’s case, is immortality. The only thing that has to happen is that Clara has to one day return to the extraction chamber. But if she doesn’t age, and carries on running, when does that day really have to come? Theoretically, Clara is immortal: all that has to exist is the possibility of her returning, but no given moment is any more important than the next.
So whilst Clara is tied to her fate, without even a heartbeat, she’s also granted an eternity. She can live more than anyone has ever lived, but only within a single moment. The extraction chamber creates a world within a world – and more than that, it allows the story of Clara Oswald to become bigger on the inside.
That broadly covers all the themes of the series. I’m sure some of the site’s insightful commenters will be able to pick out more, and I look forward to seeing what others have made of the series. Do I think that ‘worlds within worlds’ was intended as a theme of Series Nine? Possibly. There’s certainly some sort of similar thematic undercurrent, whether that’s the juxtaposition or death and immortality, or ‘bigger on the inside’ as something that applies to more than just the TARDIS.
Either way, this – and articles like it – go to show, really, what a complex piece of television Series Nine was. The resolution to the Hybrid arc was just two old characters at the end of the universe exchanging meaningless theories, and in a way, I like that, because it epitomises what makes Series Nine so immortal. There’s no one set way to understand it – there’s so much going on at any one time that any one person can read the story differently from the next. And I like that. I like the fact that Doctor Who is beginning to sustain itself by telling stories which themselves are bigger on the inside.