[A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.]
… And there there are the times when Doctor Who just gets it all so perfectly right that you feel you never need to watch anything else ever again.
There’s so much that could be said about The God Complex — about the careful selection of one-shot companions; about the craftsmanship with which they’re given separate and interesting characters so that in the space of 45 minutes we come to care about who makes it and who doesn’t; about the nightmarish nature of the hotel’s corridors and staircases, before we even get into the individual rooms; and about how the nature of what the monster is doing turns out to be different from what we all assumed. But that’s not the point.
The point is, as so often with Doctor Who, about three people who we’ve grown to love, and whose relationships are not quite straightforward; and about how those three people come through when they’re thrown into situations that are bizzarre, terrifying or puzzling. Or, in this case, all three. For most of the last three series, Doctor Who has been a programme about one person, the Doctor, who takes some friends along for the ride. But now it’s very much about three people: the Doctor, Amy and Rory.
Back in 2005, I think we were all taken by surprise by how central Rose made herself to the story, how indispensable she became, so that when the was stranded in another universe at the end of Doomsday, losing her felt like losing a Doctor. Perhaps it was even a bigger upheaval than Doctor Chris’s regeneration into Doctor Dave. (It didn’t help that her replacement, Martha, was so comparatively uniteresting.) But now it feels crippling to imagine losing either Amy or Rory. Let alone both, as suggested in the elegiac coda. What we have here is a programme that’s always worked on the mind. But now it works on the heart, too: not manipulatively, not in a tear-jerkey way as the appalling last act of The End Of Time tried so unsuccessfully to do; but by honesty. By being, if we can say this about a group of time-travellers, realistic.
Yes, after the events of the early part of The Eleventh Hour, Amy would grow up a little bit crazy, and merely meeting the Doctor again twelve years later wouldn’t in itself fix that. Yes, Rory would consistently feel threatened by having the Doctor around, however much the Doctor didn’t intend it. And, yes, the kind of person who could cope with slightly-crazy Amy and her Dream Doctor would indeed be someone much like Rory: thoughtful, consistent; dependable, but not in a doormat kind of way. He’s quietly made himself one of the more likeable and admirable characters in television.
And I still can’t shake the feeling that he is “The best man I ever knew”, that River Song is going to have been imprisoned for killing.
Much has been written, and rightly so, about how, since 2006 or so, the program has increasingly fetishised the Doctor himself. When in the series 1 finale, The Parting of the Ways, he referred to himself as The Oncoming Storm, it was a shock because the Doctor we knew simply didn’t think of himself that way. It was a perfect dramatic moment because the Doctor himself was in shock at the realisation that he was facing Daleks — just as he had been in the brilliant earlier episode Dalek, in which he also acted out of character (but in a way perfectly in keeping with the story). The Daleks’ presence invoked that side of him and showed us a glimpse of a Doctor we’d not known.
But with a worrying frequency, that kind of showboating, that do-you-know-who-I-am vibe, started becoming the norm. Russell T. Davies did it all the time: the Doctor solved problems by being The Doctor; and Moffat also fell into that trap a couple of times, notably when he faced down the Vashta Nerada in Silence in the Library. The Doctor had become not just a traveller or a problem solver, but a warrior. And he seemed pretty pleased about it.
So it’s been a particular pleasure over the last dozen or so episodes to watch Moffat and the other writers consistently cutting away this action-heroey aspect of the Doctor. It’s been done subtly enough, and with enough variation, that it’s not hitting us over the head. But it’s addressing the issue not just by turning its back on the way the Doctor had been developing, but by actively subverting it.
- In The Pandorica Opens, the Doctor grandstands at Stonehenge, and is allowed to think he’s frightened all the bad guys away with his I! Am! The! Doctor! schtick. But that’s shown to be a ruse by enemies who have grown as used to this as we have.
- At the end of the same episode, all his ideas of himself are inverted when it transpires that he is “a goblin, or a trickster or a warrior. A nameless, terrible thing, soaked in the blood of a billion galaxies. The most feared being in all the cosmos.”
- In a more mundane way, one of the best elements of Curse of the Black Spot is the way the Doctor makes a whole sequence of completely wrong guesses about what’s going on (and is scientist enough to abandon each one in turn).
- In the finale to the first half of this series, A Good Man Goes to War, the Doctor is shocked to find that whole cultures identify him as a warrior rather than a healer or a teacher.
- In The Girl Who Waited, 36-years-older Amy hasn’t just lost her faith in the Doctor who couldn’t save her, but actively hates him.
And now in The God Complex, not only can he not save Amy, but his inability to do so, and her recognition of that, is exactly what does save her.
Oh, this is clever stuff. The companion has traditionally been the viewpoint character in Doctor Who, the person that we identify with. And so, just as we’d been drawn into the revised Doctor (the goblin, the warrier, the Man Who Thinks He’s It) so Amy was drawn into the same uncritical, close-to-worship perspective. And now, as she is able to step out of that illusion, so we follow her. She sees now that that’s never what the Doctor really was; and so do we. It was how some other people saw him (notably the Daleks), and from time to time he was as seduced by that notion as any of us might have been. But it was never true.
Killer or coward? Coward, every time.
But those aren’t the only choices, are they? Killer, Coward or Mad Man With A Box would be a fairer multiple choice question. But it’s a mad man who expects the most of people, who retains a near-miraculous capacity for thinking the best of them despite having been disappointed thousands of times (and once more in The God Complex). He’s a mad man with a box who knows how to think. And observe, and draw conclusions. And how to rethink when they’re proved wrong. And to help others to do all those things.
In the end, Doctor Who — at least since 2010 — is a fantastically optimistic programme, because it shows us someone who we can realistically expect to become. We can’t be The Oncoming Storm, the goblin, the trickster. But we can think, observe, rethink, expect the best of others and ourselves, forgive when people fall short, help them to try again. Those, really, are the qualities that distinguish the Doctor. And they are what I want to be, too. And I can.
So we approach the end of the series with a recalibrated perspective on the Doctor. And it seems that we approach it without Amy and Rory (though we know from extratextual sources that they will be back for Series 7).
Tonight it’s Closing Time, and I am a bit worried by that. I always avoid watching the previews, so that I know as little as possible about what I’m going to see, but I’ve not been able to avoid finding out that Closing Time is a sequel to The Lodger. I loved that episode, but in part because it was so very self-contained, a sort of holiday from the main story; and because it wrapped up its whole rom-com subplot so neatly. I don’t see how a sequel can really work, and I especially struggle to see how it can tie in to the arc, which it pretty much has to with only two episodes left.
We shall see.