Posts Tagged ‘Death of the Doctor’

You can say what you like about Rusty Davies’ scripts, but you can’t deny that he doesn’t treat the audience like idiots. If he is required to do something that might possibly stretch your credulity a point or two too far, then he at least does you the courtesy of hanging a lantern on it. Surprisingly frequently he doesn’t even need to go that far: he’s creative enough to work his way round many problems that might have defeated someone else.
So it is with his return to Who-world, the SJA story Death of the Doctor, which I and no doubt many other people have been getting awfully excited about for the last six months. This tale, in addition to all the usual SJA stuff, featured a pretty much full-scale appearance by Matt Smith as the Doctor, as well as an even-fuller-scale one from Katy Manning as Jo Grant-as-was. (She hasn’t played this part since before I was born, let alone SJA‘s target audience.) Chucked into the mix were various new monsters, UNIT, an alien planet, and one of Jo’s grandchildren. And yet it still didn’t manage to seem completely overloaded or contrived.
The basic story (evil vulturine aliens conspire to steal the most miraculous object in the universe) was pleasingly coherent while not being so straightforward as to be obvious. One gets the impression with Rusty’s stuff is that he starts by deciding what kind of emotional beats he wants to hit and then building the plot around them, and while I sometimes find the results of this a little exasperating, here it worked fine. It was an astonishingly brave move to devote time to a key scene where the Doctor and Jo (neither of whom is a regular, let’s remember, and only a tiny percentage of the audience must have any attachment to Jo) shared a special moment together, but it was the highlight of the show for me – and was it my imagination or did Matt Smith look eerily like a young Jon Pertwee in that scene?
Some of the other familiar Rusty tropes got an outing as well – aliens created using a lazy zoomorphic shorthand (aliens who are brutish and unsubtle? Let’s make ’em look like rhinos. Aliens who are obsessed with corpses? Break out the vulture costumes!), cheeky recycling of material (in this case a respray of the Graske suit), and some remarkably florid nomenclature (the Doctor supposedly cops it in the ‘Wastelands of the Crimson Heart’, which I suspect you get to by hanging a right at the Silver Devastation and then turning off just before you reach the Continent of Wild Endeavour). But after four and a half years of Rusty as High Lord of Who these sorts of things have a sort of reassuring familiarity to them, for me anyway. Others may disagree.
If I had a serious complaint to make about Death of the Doctor it was that some of the emotional stuff in the early scenes was just a bit too heavy handed. We all knew the Doctor wasn’t actually dead, so banging on so much about grief and loss didn’t quite ring true. One could also say nasty things about the poor matte shot of the exterior of UNIT’s Welsh outpost (and as the Brigadier would doubtless say, isn’t it supposed to be a secret organisation?). If anyone lost out due to an overloaded plot, it was Laila Rouass’ character, whose motivation just didn’t quite seem to be there (mind you I’d happily watch her in nearly anything, so I may be biased). But the rest of it was fine, fun, breezy stuff.
Many years ago a friend introduced me to the impressive, if slightly bonkers Who fan fiction of a lady named Jeri Massi. The charming thing about Ms Massi’s work is the nonchalant way she discards or rewrites stuff off the telly to suit herself, or at least her own conception of what Doctor Who is actually about. The impression I originally got was that she thinks Doctor Who is actually about the adventures of impulsive teeny-bopper Jo Grant. None of the other Doctors even get a mention, and at the time I was reading every story focussed on Jo (I understand this has since changed). Ms Massi didn’t like the way Jo was written out at all and lost no time in breaking up her marriage on the grounds that her new beau was actually a bounder and a cad (didn’t bother to retcon The Green Death to make this more credible, though).
Anyway, the reason I’ve just burdened you with all that is that I’m dying to find out what Ms Massi will make of Death of the Doctor, which effectively takes a shotgun to all of those notions (and many other fondly-held pieces of fanon), though I suspect she will just dismiss it all as not being part of her personal canon, which I respect. Jo is still married to Cliff! (Though he doesn’t appear.) She has a slightly implausible number of offspring! She’s turned into some sort of crazed activist! It all rings true though. One got the impression Rusty got a bit carried away unloading news on numerous other companions as well, so in addition to the Massi and Global Conspiracy versions of Jo and Cliff, you can (probably) say goodbye to the Face of the Enemy take on Ian and Barbara, and…
Well, you know, when I first heard the reference to ‘a woman called Dorothy’ I assumed it was the old Hartnell companion, the one who in the various Virgin Publishing books caught syphilis, shacked up with a hack journalist and was eventually shot in the head by an agent of the Master in the early 1970s – but it seems I’ve backed the wrong horse as usual, as it seems much more likely this is intended to be McCoy companion Ace, whom we all thought was killed saving the world from giant psychic dust-mites. Or became some sort of surrogate Time Lord. Or wound up living in 19th century Paris with either a Russian emigre or a clone of Jason Kane. (I love the chaos of 90s Who continuity. You could wander around in there for your whole life and never get bored.) Either way, some people are going to get narked.
Which brings us neatly to the issue which brought this story a little bit of extra publicity, somewhat mind-bogglingly. Has the Limit of Thirteen actually been abolished? Well, there’s plenty of wriggle room here for both sides. The Doctor does indeed claim to have 507 regenerations, which if it is true takes the pressure off the production team until some point in the 23rd century, but if you’re an ultra-trad you could just as easily point out that he’s only saying it glibly, to shut his interlocutor up. In any case, it’s only said once on screen, which is fewer times than anyone saying the Doctor is half-human – and everyone seems perfectly happy to forget that ever happened. So, one way and another, there was something in this story to keep everybody more-or-less happy. Except possibly Jeri Massi.
Update: apparently Rusty has confessed in an interview to indeed writing the ‘507 lives’ line as a joke, and doesn’t himself believe it’ll stick. Part of me is smug, part of me is disappointed, and part of me hopes he is wrong.  


(Post Script – Possibly a rule is developing where the better the classic story that SJA refers to is, the less impressive that SJA story turns out to be – last week riffed on Pyramids of Mars and wasn’t particularly good, while this week had a Timelash reference – I mean, for crying out loud, Timelash… – and it’s great. Quite how this relates to how Mona Lisa’s Revenge very pointedly didn’t refer to City of Death – though it obviously should’ve – yet still managed to be lousy I am still contemplating. I’ll get back to you.)

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