Monday, December 18, 2023

The Life and Times of the Fourteenth Doctor

The 60th anniversary episodes celebrate the show's history, but also change all the rules

Russell T Davies is back at the head of Doctor Who. When his return was first announced, in mid-2021, practically no one had seen it coming. He'd been responsible for resurrecting the show from oblivion in 2005 and turning it into a worldwide phenomenon by 2009, and after two successors at the helm, the prevailing view was that he had more than rendered his services. He had already built a lasting name for himself as the rescuer and reinventor of a pillar of science fiction TV. It would have seemed out of the question to ask more of him. And yet, that's what happened. Doctor Who under Chris Chibnall's guidance was in crisis. For all the progress and diversity he introduced to the show, Chibnall did severe damage to it with his bad writing habits. He demonstrated he has no sense of tension, or ensemble dynamics, or narrative pacing, or moral stakes. Someone in the BBC must have feared that cancellation was imminent, which explains the nuclear option of asking Davies to come to the rescue one more time.

Also back is David Tennant, and Catherine Tate, and the inelegantly unresolved plot thread of the ticking bomb in the DoctorDonna's brain. This is a big bet from Davies: The Star Beast, the first episode he wrote for the once-again-10th-but-somehow-also-14th Doctor is about going back and fixing a rather questionable choice the character made all the way back in a 2008 episode. The Star Beast takes its time to explain the situation to new viewers, but the full emotional impact of its resolution requires that you have previously watched, and still remember, the 2008 season finale Journey's End. In summary: the 10th Doctor's companion Donna Noble absorbes regeneration energy from a newborn clone of the Doctor, giving her all the knowledge of a Time Lord. However, that awesome mental power is too much for a human brain, so the Doctor uses his telepathic talents to erase Donna's memory and save her life. For years, that moment has been loudly criticized by the fans—and by the show itself, as seen in the 2015 season finale Hell Bent, written by Steven Moffat, where the 12th Doctor's companion Clara Oswald protests that he doesn't have the right to choose what she will and won't remember. Fast-forward to this year's The Star Beast, with the newly regenerated 14th Doctor coincidentally stumbling into the one thing he knows he must not do: cross paths with Donna and risk her remembering her adventures with him. Why revisit this plot point? Why now?

Bringing Tennant back was a potentially dangerous choice. In these times of chronic nostalgitis, it could easily have sent the wrong message to switch from the most diverse era of the show to the cherished glory days of early New Who. Fortunately, Tennant returned for just three episodes before ceding the stage to Ncuti Gatwa's 15th Doctor. Unfortunately, the manner in which Davies handled this particular regeneration is a bit too reverent to the older Doctor and a bit too disputable about the newer one. The same trolls who dismissed the first non-male Doctor now have an easy excuse to dismiss the first non-white Doctor because Tennant's incarnation is still around. Perhaps anticipating that response, the now more artistically mature Davies has gone out of his way to firmly position queerness at the center of The Star Beast. What ultimately saves the day is the fact that Donna had a child (thus sharing the burden of Time Lord knowledge), that that child turned out to be nonbinary (thus symbolically transcending the incompatibility between human and Gallifreyan biology) and that neither of them is afflicted by the traditionally male attachment for power (thus being able to willingly renounce the regeneration energy). The cherry on top of this cake is the unabashed unsubtlety of this episode's villain, a genocidal tyrant who pretends to be persecuted for his white skin. Just in case it wasn't clear what problem Davies is writing about.

Watching The Star Beast reveals an important theme that, in hindsight, was always present in the first Davies era: an obsession with duality and the dangers of rigidly opposed categories. This is related to the better-known theme that it's a terrible burden to be the Doctor, but it's even worse for someone else to take his place. In those years one could easily appreciate the mastery that Davies has over the art of season-long foreshadowing. The 2005 season builds up quickly escalating threats to companion Rose Tyler until the 9th Doctor has to sacrifice his life to save her from having absorbed too much power from the Time Vortex. The 2006 season is full of stories about loneliness and grief, culminating in the 10th Doctor's prophesied separation from Rose. The 2007 season redefines the Master as an equal to the Doctor, the only being in the universe who can understand him, and accordingly frames the death of this mastermind villain as a tragedy. Finally, the 2008 season turns Donna into an imperfect copy of the Doctor, one that cannot be allowed to exist. The unifying thread in the first Davies era is the Doctor's curse of uniqueness. There's an unbreakable wall between the Doctor and everyone else. That is the fatal binary that The Star Beast shatters joyfully.

Curiously, the following episode, the delightfully horrifying Wild Blue Yonder, reaffirms the idea that there are untold dangers in producing a copy of the Doctor. Davies had already hinted at this problem in the fantastic 2008 episode Midnight, and here again we have a shapeless alien entity from beyond the rules of reality attempting to steal the Doctor's identity. The same familiar idea is emphasized here: as hard as it is to be the Doctor, it's worse for someone else to try to become him. Which leads us to the grand finale in The Giggle, where the 14th Doctor's death results in a "bi-generation" that leaves us with two living Doctors. This is an old trick from Davies: the only other regeneration story he wrote, from 9th to 10th, also includes convoluted circumstances that lead to the creation of a clone of the Doctor. And, just like in Journey's End, the remedy to the Doctor's curse, the only way to dissolve the division between him and everyone else, is to divide the Doctor himself and let one member of the resulting pair settle down and embrace domestic bliss. It's a bad idea for someone else to become the Doctor, so the solution is for the Doctor to become someone else.

There's more symbolism, though, to read in The Giggle. Binary oppositions can also be understood as enmities, which makes it fitting that the villain of this episode is the embodiment of competition. The problems inherent to any system of mutually exclusive winners and losers give Davies an opportunity to flex his social critique muscles. To write a villain whose big plan is to turn the medium of television into a vehicle to unleash the worst traits of humanity is perhaps too on the nose, but it's also brilliant. As if borrowing a page from Kantian ethics, the episode demonstrates the undesirability of viewing the world in terms of winners and losers by showing what happens when everyone adopts that mindset. After such a profound statement, the Doctors' victory over the Toymaker in a simple game of catch may look too simple, even anticlimactic, but what matters in that scene is the symbolic content: competition is defeated by cooperation. Of course, as you must have noticed just now, that victory is in itself a binary event. The Doctors win; the Toymaker loses. But did the Toymaker really lose? As long as someone is a winner, the insidious influence of play still lingers.

So the show must go on: the 14th Doctor, still fresh from the unprocessed trauma of the Flux, is taking some time to reflect and heal, while the 15th flies off to keep saving the universe. It's no longer either/or. Regeneration doesn't have to be a binary event. Although we still don't know how many seasons will feature Gatwa in the role, for now Doctor Who is very much back in form.

Nerd Coefficient:

The Star Beast: 7/10.

Wild Blue Yonder: 8/10.

The Giggle: 8/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.