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Posts Tagged ‘Rusty Davies’

I am occasionally accused of treating Doctor Who as if it were a religion. I tend to get rather annoyed when this happens, mainly because my show has never caused any wars, perpetuated any major social problems or injustices, or been responsible for much of anything beyond mild boredom and occasionally substandard storytelling.

 

The Doctor strikes a familiar pose in front of some Romans...

 

However, simply because it is something of a phenomenon and because there is an awful lot of it to select from, you can put virtually any interpretation on it you like and find something to support whatever it is you’re trying to say. Nevertheless, there was something of a world-wide jaw-droppy-open moment a few years ago when the Christian Right organisation Movieguide nominated the episode Gridlock for one of their Epiphany Awards. This was not just because the episode features married lesbians, inter-species reproduction and a cat wearing a nun’s wimple (none of which are things you would expect the Christian Right to be big fans of), but because the series – in its revived form anyway – has never really minced its words.

In addition to some quite scathing swipes at British foreign and domestic policy (presenting Tony Blair as a psychopathic maniac being about the mildest of these), Russell T Davies never really pulled any punches in putting his own atheist beliefs into the show. At one point the Doctor visits a place where religion is, like weaponry, banned, while on another occasion he is quietly amused by the ability of human beings to ignore evidence for the existence of aliens, even after countless attempted invasions, while continuing to believe in things which are invisible and intangible (the implication being that he’s talking about… oh, surely you can work it out).

Despite all this, I’m fully aware of a number of committed Christians who are regular viewers of the show, and at least one of the writers of the new series is a Christian himself. (I also know one Christian who refuses to watch it at all on the grounds that it’s apparently ‘occult’, but that’s a separate issue.) Because the show is the show it is, some Christians have picked up on what they perceive to be strong Christian themes and imagery in the show and are writing about it as though this were the only such interpretation.

Well, I’m always vaguely suspicious of people trying to use fantasy and SF fiction to promote religious ideas that weren’t necessarily the creators’ intention. My own parents, who are believers, were keen to see a Christian subtext to things like E.T. (a personal project of Steven Spielberg’s, who is – not to put too fine a point on it – Jewish), and the original Star Wars (if there is a real-world spiritual basis to the Jedi religion then it’s either Taoism or Shinto). Even Alan Moore has gone on record as interpreting the Superman mythos in explicitly Christian terms – the perfect man with extraordinary powers who was sent from the sky by his father to save people and inspire others (the creators of Superman were also Jewish).

Having said all that, there are quite a few rather good genre Christian allegories, with the best, and best-known, being the original The Day The Earth Stood Still, which does lay it on with a trowel somewhat (although, given this, the denouement – with the message ‘Behave or we’ll kill you’ – is startlingly authoritarian). Personally I have a great admiration for the Babylon 5 episode Passing Through Gethsemane, which deals with themes of responsibility, guilt, and forgiveness in a Christian context with great sensitivity. Other shows, comics and movies are a bit less full-on in terms of doing a full-scale allegory but quite happy to use some Christian iconography and imagery.

For example:

Must try harder to be subtle, guys.

 

Charlton Heston saves the world in The Omega Man.

From Smallville. This scene references Clark Kent's 'crucifixion' waaay back, but I couldn't find a picture of that (sorry).

 I suppose if you’re intent on playing with these kinds of themes and imagery you’re as well to sneak them into a SF or fantasy film, as they tend to get overlooked, these kinds of films being generally dismissed and disparaged. No-one, rather to my surprise, made much of a fuss about Darth Vader being the product of an immaculate conception, while the similar material in The Matrix (Neo rises from the dead to assume his full power, while his real name translates as Son of Man) was carefully buried.

And, returning at long last to our original topic, it’s not unknown for people to stick Christian iconography into Doctor Who. Probably the worst offenders here are the makers of the McGann TV movie, which features a newly-resurrected, white-robed Doctor vacating his ‘tomb’ early on, and climaxes with him being fitted with a high-tech crown of thorns. More recently, even some of the Davies episodes start to creep into this territory despite Davies’ professed agenda. The climax of David Tennant’s second series essentially has the Doctor revitalised by the power of prayer, in an incredibly Messianic sequence. The very next episode seems him ascending, flanked by angelic Hosts.

So I suppose one can meaningfully ask the question of whether the Doctor is, on any level, a truly Christian or even Christ-like protagonist. He does score heavily over most fantasy heroes (with the possible exception of Tolkien’s Hobbits) in that he is largely non-violent and almost always non-sexual. (Although, interestingly, the recent episodes which have seen him at his most Messianic have also defined his relationships with his travelling companions in the most explicitly romantic terms.) He also makes a habit of sacrificing his life to save others and then coming back in a somewhat altered form.

I think you’d be stretching a point to argue that any of these things were done intentionally, though. The non-violent and non-sexual elements of the character are basically hand-me-downs from the original conception of the Doctor as an ancient wizard, while his periodic renewals are the result of the original leading man being too ill to carry on performing in a series which continued to be popular.

One enters rather dangerous territory when comparing anyone, fictional or otherwise, to Jesus, as this sort of entails one coming up with a set of ideas as to what Jesus was actually like and really stood for. Some people, normally Christians, tend to get rather touchy on Jesus’ behalf if you attempt this sort of thing as it’s something which they have strong feelings about themselves.

However, it’s probably safe to say that Jesus could be described as a man on a mission, and an authority figure. For the vast majority of the time, the Doctor is neither – he just wanders around rather irresponsibly, just doing things he enjoys. He doesn’t seek out evil in order to confront it, but if he comes across it he feels morally obliged to intervene. On numerous occasions he turns down or evades positions of responsibility in order to resume his carefree lifestyle.

What’s particularly interesting in this context is a run of stories, originally on TV in the late 1980s but then continuing in comics and novels, in which the Doctor’s character goes through a fairly radical change. The Doctor begins to deliberately target his old enemies and other forces of evil, enmeshing them in machiavellian schemes that lead to their own destruction. He has assumed the (rather nebulously defined) role of Time’s Champion, which leads him to become increasingly callous, and estranged from his companion. He is more explicitly the mythic figure alluded to in some recent episodes (‘he is ice and fire and rage… he stands at the centre of time…’) than ever before – yet at the same time, he is less identifiable and likeable.

This isn’t to say that there’s no overlap between Christian ethics and the Doctor’s, but you could say the same about virtually any action-adventure hero. The fact remains that all these characters – the Doctor, Captain Kirk, Judge Dredd, James Bond – have emerged from a Christian cultural background and are inevitably defined in response to that to some extent. As fantasy figures they inevitably depart from accepted cultural standards to some degree – though the Doctor does this less than most. And, on rare occasions, he does show signs of moral uncertainty when placed in a particularly tough situation: most famously when ordered to commit genocide, of course, but he actually cracks under the pressure and makes a serious moral mistake towards the end of The Waters of Mars.

I suppose in the end one could argue that the Doctor is an inspirational figure, but not in the sense that he embodies or encourages a particular set of moral codes (except in the most general terms). He himself doesn’t intentionally set out to show people how to live their lives, let alone tell them as much. I think he’d be quite shocked if people did set out to unquestioningly follow his example. He doesn’t blindly accept authority of any kind – he asks awkward questions and uses his wit and intelligence and conscience to work out what to do for himself. I leave it to you to decide for yourself whether these characteristics of the Doctor are truly recognisable amongst the very real virtues of Christianity and its adherents.

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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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Amongst the basic human rights that we all enjoy and often take for granted, an easily-overlooked one is the right to be wrong – commonly utilised at the same time as the right to be stupid, and, of course, the right to free speech. (Personally I’ve never needed it, of course.) Some kinds of wrongness are less acceptable than others, obviously. Not liking Doctor Who because you just don’t go for fantasy or you’ve received serious permanent brain damage I can empathise with, if not entirely understand.  On the other hand, should you object to it on the grounds that it is ‘occult’ – well, we’re either never going to discuss it again or have a very, very lengthy and heated argument.

Another group I’m prone to get exasperated with is that odd subset of Who fandom who dismiss great chunks of the series as ‘not counting’ somehow. This particular fault-line tends to be most pronounced when it comes to the 1963-1996 version and the one that’s been running since 2005 (oddly enough, the American-led TV movie production usually gets lumped in with the first run). Personally I can’t really understand why this should make any difference. I was talking to a work colleague a few years ago and he admitted that a friend of his was a lapsed Who-fan – she just didn’t like the new stuff. ‘But,’ he added, ‘she was still really annoyed when Chris Eccleston left after only one year.’

‘Why?’

‘She thought he was frivolously wasting one of the Doctor’s regenerations.’

Well, it’s nice that she still cared, I suppose. But people who get precious about this particular subject are another group who I tend to get grumpy with.

Everyone properly familiar with Doctor Who knows that the series changes its lead actor every few years. In a typical example of making a virtue of necessity, the show writes these changes into the narrative in exactly the way the Bond franchise doesn’t – the change is part of the Doctor’s alien physiology, and some of the stories immediately preceding or following a regeneration have been amongst  the series’ finest. (And some of them have been horrible, of course.)

14 years into the show’s run, a writer named Robert Holmes needed to put a villain in dire straits to make the story he was working on function. As the villain was from the same planet as the Doctor, Holmes decided that the bad guy had exhausted his allowance of bodily renewals and was thus in danger of death. Apparently arbitrarily, he settled on twelve as the maximum possible number of regenerations. As the show was only its fourth Doctor at the time, this probably didn’t seem like a big deal.

Robert Holmes. Secret plan to destroy Doctor Who not pictured.

Now, of course, we’re on our eleventh official Doctor and the regeneration limit has become more of a live issue in recent years, particularly with some very dedicated fans. While on the one hand they love the show and want to see it continue on into the future (though I’d suspect they secretly hope it will be finally cancelled just before the moment of their own death), the fact that they treat every last detail of continuity with the sort of reverence normally only accorded to Holy Writ has put them in a bit of a bind.   

Anyway, after various rumblings and jokes and oblique comments on the subject over the past year or so, it seems as if the Lords of Who have finally broken cover and repealed the limit of thirteen. As if this wasn’t already guaranteed to provoke frenzied outrage, they’ve made things even worse by not doing it in Doctor Who itself but in one of the spin-offs. (The show in question hasn’t aired yet so the exact nature of the dodge isn’t quite clear.)

As the regeneration limit doesn’t appear to be a factor in the story involved, one almost suspects this has been included solely to wind up certain people. (To which I say: huzzah! You go for it!) Certainly, the fact that the writer is Rusty Davies, already something of a totemic hate-figure amongst ultra-trads, suggests that this is just being done in the way it is to draw the fire away from incumbent showrunner Steven Moffat.  (Not that one gets the impression he’d give a damn anyway.)

I’m probably taking far too political a view of this. In any case I am anticipating the shrieks and squeals of affronted continuity fundamentalists with probably a bit too much pleasure. Anyway, to them I would say this…

Robert Holmes didn’t write the limit of thirteen into continuity because he decided it was crucial to put a limiting factor on the longevity of his favourite show. He did it because it suited the story he was writing at the time. Caring about the story you’re writing at the time means you’re more likely to get great stories. Caring more about the big story that started in 1963 and is still going on now (because that’s all that fretting about continuity really is) is a recipe for… well, bad things. Honest.

Anyway, I find the whole thing of revering the limit of thirteen rather ironic, given that at the time the story in which it was introduced was savaged by that generation’s ultra-trads  for… rewriting established continuity. (Eh?) Glad you asked. The very first time the Doctor speaks of his own race in any detail, he describes them as ‘living forever’ – no hint of any kind of limitation there. Later on, the Time Lords offer the Master a new lease on multiple lives on two separate occasions – he even takes them up on it the second time. Even sticking strictly to continuity, there’s more evidence against the thirteen limit being in force than there is supporting it.

It is compulsory for any discussion of Bad Continuity in Doctor Who to include a photo from Mawdryn Undead. So here it is.

And it’s not as if the series isn’t riddled with other examples of continuity being ignored and/or messed up. The main character’s stated age has magically reduced itself. A major and beloved character retires from one job slightly before he actually starts it, if you do the sums. One character fails to recognise an alien being which has spectacularly invaded his home planet twice in the previous five years. There is the ongoing and rather delightful chaos of when exactly the series’ ‘present day’ actually is, and how the various spin-offs relate to that.

So the apparently-impending abolition of one piece of continuity really doesn’t bother me at all. Once, it might well have done. I’m slightly surprised about how mellow I’ve become, to be honest. And if the ultra-trads want to froth and sizzle and rave about something they have no control over, that will ultimately increase the lifespan of their favourite thing almost immeasurably, and that everyone else will either welcome or be completely indifferent to, so be it. As I mentioned at the start, everyone has the right to get it wrong some of the time. Or even all of the time.

Which is probably for the best, all things considered.

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