Thursday, February 25, 2010

Doctor Who: Russell T. Davies and The Time War (Part 1)

This began life as a review of the recent two-part Doctor Who Christmas special: "The End Of Time" but, as the late, great Professor Tolkien once wrote in the foreword to something or other, "the tale grew in the telling" and I realised that I didn't really care about the specific story beats of the episode but more how it fit into a more general canvas.

"The End Of Time" is not the last episode of Doctor Who. In fact, the show begins anew in the spring, after a year away with just the occasional special to tide us over. However, in many ways this can be treated as a series ending story. The main character, The Doctor, has died and regenerated. It'll still be The Doctor but the change is the point. Matt Smith (Doctor Eleven) will not be the exact same character as David Tennant (Doctor Ten) was.

Looking at those numbers, ten and eleven you can see just what a big deal this is to a lot of people. Doctor Who was first broadcast (an hour late because of President Kennedy's assassination)on November 23rd 1963 and it starred William Hartnell as the very first incarnation of The Doctor. The show was broadcast continually until 1989 when it was originally cancelled. This was not a bad thing, in hindsight, although I very much enjoy that era of Who, the ratings were falling and the production quality could not match up to other series on the air, especially the much more modern seeming Star Trek: The Next Generation. The series lay dormant, apart from an abortive attempt at an American funded revival in 1996 as a TV movie. It featured a great Doctor (Paul McGann) but a very poor and confusing story, so it never went to series.

Massive history and cultural impact aside our story really begins with the first episode of the newest incarnation. It first aired on March 26th 2005 to rave reviews (some of us had seen it a week earlier as a leaked version on the internet, but hey, I watched it on TV as well, so the ratings didn't suffer). In hindsight "Rose" isn't a particularly good story compared to those that came after but it featured so much to take in for new fans and old ones that it scarcely mattered. It does a nice job of introducing The Doctor and his world for a new generation while also letting the old fans know just how much had changed in the time Who had been away. The new writer and "show runner" Russell T. Davies (something of a critical darling after his niche, but successful, drama series "Queer As Folk") had not let the show rest on its laurels.

The first thing that fans noticed was that the stories were faster-paced with more action and much better production values. The music was a little manic and the dialogue very quick. The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) looked much more up to date with his short hair and leather jacket, and he spoke like an intelligent working-class Northern bloke, rather than with the received pronunciation of the past:

ROSE TYLER: If you're an alien how come you sound like you're from the North.
THE DOCTOR: Lots of planets have a north.

A good many critics also suggested that Rose (the new companion for The Doctor) was an innovation too as an intelligent, active participant in the adventures rather than a screaming damsel in distress, but the old series had already had quite a few highly capable female companions: Leela, Romana, Ace, to name but a few. What Davies did do, however, was to introduce us to Rose's family. The adventures might have been galactic and time-hopping, but they always had a human side, which was definitely lacking previously.

Format innovations aside Davies had also worked out a new backstory for fans to puzzle over. Specifically - The Time War.

This, to my mind, is the single best aspect that Davies brought the character. We gradually find out that The Doctor is the last of his kind (the godlike Timelords). That they had fought a bitter war across the cosmos and throughout history with their arch-enemies, the murderous cyborg race known as the Daleks. Something The Doctor had done had ended the war and destroyed all of the Daleks at once, but in doing so he had also condemned the Timelords to destruction.

This was a brilliant and elegant move. For a new viewer, this is who The Doctor was to them, a damaged, guilty, survivor of the destruction of his race. Not only a survivor, but their slayer. For all his sense of fun Eccleston's Ninth Doctor was a broken man. The Doctor had always had a difficult (to say the least) relationship with his people, but they had always been a constant in his adventures and now they were gone. The Daleks were also a constant, renowned as The Doctor's biggest and most frequent foe, but no-one seriously considered that the Daleks wouldn't be back at some point in this series, the Timelords were much more likely to stay dead.

Fans like nothing better than a nice juicy backstory to debate endlessly and The Time War has been a rich vein to mine. Speculation suggested that it might have had its roots in the older series, with The Doctor being sent on a mission by his people to terminate the Daleks at the point of their creation in the excellent story "Genesis Of The Daleks". This was confirmed by Russell T Davies and the whole thing took on a sinister aspect. The Timelords fired the first shot in the war but The Doctor could not see genocide through and let the Daleks survive. Was the war his fault? Was it the fault of the Timelords? Or were they right that the Daleks were just too dangerous to live. We didn't really get an answer to that one in Genesis, but it sets the tone fairly well.

The other most signficant Time War event in that show takes place in the Sylvestor McCoy (Seventh Doctor) story, "Remembrance Of The Daleks". The Doctor uses a Timelord superweapon the Hand Of Omega to wipe out the Dalek homeworld, Skaro. The Seventh Doctor was a scary man if you got in his way - in fact, he shares a lot of traits with the Tenth Doctor, who we'll come to soon enough - and he committed genocide without blinking.

THE DOCTOR: Do you think I would let you have control of the hand of Omega?
DAVROS: Do not do this. I beg of you!
THE DOCTOR: Nothing can stop it now.
DAVROS: Have pity on me!
THE DOCTOR: I have pity for you. Goodbye Davros. It hasn't been pleasant.

The first episode that proved that Russell T Davies' new version of Who could really do serious, adult drama was the sixth. Up to that point we'd had menacing shop-window dummies, wacky aliens gathering to watch the end of the Earth, Victorian zombies, and (a low point) a race of farting intergalactic con-artists: The Slitheen. It is with "Dalek" that the Time War was once again brought into sharp relief as we see just how completely this experience has changed The Doctor. Back when he was young, only four regenerations into his life-span, he found the concept of exterminating an entire race, even The Daleks, to be unthinkable, now, five incarnations and hundreds of years of war later, we witness his utter horror that one of his enemies could have survived the holocaust that wiped out his own people:

THE DOCTOR: Your race is dead. You all burned, all of you, ten million ships on fire, the entire Dalek race wiped out in one second.
DALEK: You lie!
THE DOCTOR: I watched it happen. I made it happen!

This exchange - it goes on from there, but I can't do justice to Christopher Eccleston's phenonemal performance by simply quoting it - This exchange is riddled with guilt, both of the genocidal kind and the survivors kind. The Doctor goes back and forth from terror to hatred to self-loathing in the space of about five minutes and over the course of the episode we even see him coming to terms with the idea that this one particular Dalek might be worthy of survival.

It certainly is not a total reach to directly link Dalek with Genesis Of The Daleks but what of Remembrance? Certainly it must be remembered that these individual regenerations are essentially different men but there must be some continuity, surely? The Doctor retains his memories, and all of his incarnations share certain personality traits: curiosity, a sense of fun, a basic sense of morality and the kind of self-importance that can only come from belonging to a race known throughout the galaxy as The Lords Of Time.

What we have in Genesis is a man who has never faced a no-win scenario. Up to this point the Doctor has always chosen the morally correct path and it has never failed him. He has killed, in self-defence, or the defence of others, but he cannot bring himself to kill pre-emptively. His suggestion that the universe needs the Daleks in order to bring about alliances between races in co-operation against them is fudging the issue, and does not stand up to scrutiny. The Fourth Doctor essentially passes the buck. He cannot bring himself to make a decision this big and passes it off as a question of morality.

The Seventh Doctor, on the other hand, is arrogant enough to take on the mantle of supreme moral arbiter. He has judged the Daleks and found them wanting so he has no qualms about destroying their homeworld even as their leader pleads with him. If the Time War is even being fought at this point (and it's a time war, so it really must be) then The Doctor's part in it can only have just been beginning. These are the actions of a man utterly convinced he is on the morally correct, winning side.

The Ninth Doctor's shell-shocked character comes directly from the fact that even something as huge as the destruction of Skaro does not alter the outcome of the war. The Doctor is used to solving problems with a quip and a flick of his sonic screwdriver. He destroyed the Dalek homeworld in an instant and it didn't make the slightest bit of difference. The conflict continued and increased in bitterness and insanity and The Doctor went from roving adventurer to out and out soldier.

Of course I have no way of knowing if Russell T Davies went into this much consideration of The Doctor's previous adventures when he came up with his Time War hook for the new series but he is certainly a big enough fan of both series not to have discounted them entirely. Before risking destroying one of the BBC's most venerable franchises I have no doubt that he would have thoroughly done his research. In any case, this is a man who had a life-size Dalek decorating the front room of his house long before he got the chance to work on the show.

There is a lot more to say. I have barely scratched the surface of the Time War and it's contined significance in the new series. I hope this slightly stream-of-consciousness geek out has entertained you enough that you will return for Part 2. Coming soon.


Lagomorph Rex said...

I remember watching the first episode of the new series, I was visiting Relatives in the UK at the time and they watched it.. made a big event out of it and I got swept up in it. Great memory even if in retrospect I don't much care for the episode because I don't much care for Rose.

I'd have never accused her of being Intelligent.. more like accused her of being a shop girl wiv'a set ov teef too big for her mouf.

I still hold out hope that one day we will get a few specials with Paul Mcgann and Christopher Eccleston expounding on the Time War a bit more.

Mark Baker-Wright said...

(The 1996 movie) featured a great Doctor (Paul McGann) but a very poor and confusing story, so it never went to series.

I simply cannot allow that line to go unchallenged. Whatever the failings of the McGann movie were, they had nothing whatsoever to do with the failure to go to a series. The movie failed because it was against absurdly stiff competition (in particular, an episode of the popular sitcom Roseanne, in which John Goodman's character suffers a life-threatening heart attack), and therefore got insufficient ratings for Fox to consider further, and without the American funding, the BBC was unwilling to consider it further at that time (I'm told the movie was well-received in the UK).

Jimtron said...

Great post, Bish. I love the Time War and think it's a great addition to the Who mythology. The language about it, in particular, was very well done and had a wonderfully Tolkein-esque quality about it.

Bishbot said...

Thanks for the responses!

Rex: I do actually like Rose in this season and I don't think it's incorrect to call her intelligent and capable. I was just trying to point out that she was hardly the first. In subsequent seasons the "isn't Rose brilliant" subtext did get a bit treacly but I still think Piper did well with what she had.

BW: I'll be the first to admit that this is far more an opinion piece than a slice of responsible journalism. My memories of the 1996 movie consist mostly of being ten and being allowed to stay up past my bedtime to watch it. I loved it, of course, but I rewatched it again recently and parts of it are really quite horrible (McGann himself aside). Perhaps it would be fairer to say that is why it didn't DESERVE to go to series?

Bruticus said...

Wasn't just Dr Who that came from the north *nods*

Who knew Flywheels came from Yorkshire *shrugs*