"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Sunday, November 9, 2014


If you haven't watched Series 8 of Doctor Who to its conclusion, be warned.  Spoilers ahead.

At a time when kids are very likely to know a teacher--or relative--who has been to war, Doctor Who spends a series dealing with it.

Doctor Who has a lot in common with Harry Potter.  First and foremost, they are stories aimed at kids.  The Doctor was created back in 1963 to be "H.G. Wells meets Father Christmas," and has stayed fairly true to that formula ever since. Because of this, expecting Doctor Who to be Battlestar Galactica is a bit like expecting Harry Potter to be Game of Thrones.  It is meant to be whimsical, to have its absurd moments of wild imagination, and to the adults in the room, to frequently be unbelievable.  When I hear someone complain about Who's sillier moments, I wonder if they are the kind of people who also complain about the violations of basic physics in the old Warner Brothers Roadrunner and Coyote cartoons.

But something else Who and Harry have in common (other than David Tennant) is a keen awareness that kids live in the real world too.  Young people might have slightly larger senses of wonder, but they also suffer, feel fear, and grapple with life's darker realities.  Harry Potter was from the start a tale of loss, opening with an orphan boy just after the murder of his parents.  And Doctor Who, a program with the concept of "time" at its very heart, has never shied away from death.  Because of this, even the lightest chapters of Harry and the Doctor's lives (say, Philosopher's Stone or Matt Smith's first series) have shadowed moments...and sometimes, as with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows or Peter Capaldi's freshman series 8, the darkness gets deep indeed.

There is a lot of chatter about how "dark" Capaldi's Doctor is.  He really isn't.  The Twelfth Doctor is no darker than the Seventh who manipulated Ace in both Ghostlight or The Curse of Fenric, or the Sixth whose first act was to nearly strangle his companion.  He is no darker than the First, who might have actually killed Ian and Barbara if his granddaughter didn't stop him in Unearthly Child.  Capaldi only appears dark if you joined the saga with Tennant or Smith, the two most cuddly Doctors to ever pilot the TARDIS.  If anything, Capaldi is simply a return to form.

The real darkness is actually the series itself.

Since its return in 2005, Who has relied on gimmicks to hold each series together (something the original program never bothered with, except for rarities like "Trial of a Time Lord" or the "Key to Time").  We had Bad Wolf in the first series and Torchwood in the next, Harold Saxon followed by Returning Rose.  Then came cracks in space and time, the Silents, and the Impossible Girl.  The dramatic journey in each series was that of the Companion, and how traveling with the Doctor changed her.  But series 8 did something we haven't seen before...the episodes were largely connected by themes.  Oh sure, we had Missy popping up from time to time, but for the first time, actual themes made up the connective tissue between episodes.

The loudest and clearest was the role of the soldier.  This is hardly surprising given the fact that Britain has been entangled in Afghanistan and Iraq nearly as long as Doctor Who's big new secondary market--America--has.  We have the character Danny Pink as the most obvious embodiment of the theme, an ex-soldier with a trauma in his past that, much like the identity of Missy, the show never really bothered to hide.  But Danny aside, we kept visiting soldiers (and the Doctor's dislike for them) over and over again.  Into the Dalek has the Doctor openly condemning soldiers, and refusing to take an otherwise viable Companion along simply because she is one.  Listen reveals a young Doctor terrified of being a soldier, and a young Danny inspired by a toy one.  The Caretaker is about an alien soldier that keeps killing because no one is around to give it the order to stop, and in case you hadn't noticed, Mummy on the Orient Express has an identical plot.  Both are resolved in nearly the same way; the Doctor assumes to role of commanding officer in one and surrenders in the other, letting both soldiers finally rest.  Soldiers are also at the heart of the series finale...but we will get to that in a moment.

The other re-occurring theme concerns the Doctor trying to understand who he is.  "Am I a good man," he asks Clara early on, and she has no answer.  Likewise we still don't know if the Doctor pushed the clockwork cyborg or if he jumped.  Episode after episode has Clara asking herself this question, wondering if the Doctor is still the man she knew or if she ever really knew him at all, and twice in the series, she actually borrows his identity.  Ultimately the show is asking us, the audience, this question in the wake of the 50th anniversary year.  If you have a broom and you replace the handle, the Doctor muses in the series premier, and then replace the brush and do it over and over again, is it the same broom?  Is the Doctor the same man, or is "the Doctor" really just an identity that gets passed on, an identity that even Clara can assume?   And further, is that identity a good man ("You made an exceptional Doctor," he tells Clara, "and 'goodness' had nothing to do with it") or Danny Pink's blood-soaked general who gets to decide who lives and who dies?

Both these themes come together, and are answered, in Dark Water and Death in Heaven.   While many rolled their eyes at Missy's identity ("What, the Master again?") the simple truth is a second string villain like the Rani doesn't get us anywhere near establishing the Doctor's identity.  It takes the Master, or now the Mistress, to remind us who the Doctor really is.  Both friends, both rogue Time Lords, both characters who play God and leave death in their wake, it is only by the Mistress trying to push the Doctor over the edge and into the shadows with her that we get to the truth.  That truth is a simple one; Doctors and generals are not so different.  Part of their job description is deciding who lives and dies.  But what the Mistress has never understood, and thus ends up reminding us, is that the Doctor plays God to help while she does it for her own amusement.  In a sense, she has a point; the Doctor's hands ultimately have more blood on them than hers do.  But Doctors and psychopaths bloody their hands for different reasons.

The Cybermen, of course, tie up the soldier theme for us, just as Missy's use of them answers the Doctor's theme.  In creating an army so the Doctor can rule the universe, Missy proves herself wrong and Danny Pink right.  Danny is right...the Doctor is an officer who uses others an occasionally sacrifices their lives.  But it is not a role he cherishes, but rather a cross he thinks he must carry.  And this, of course, is at the heart of his discomfort with soldiers.  They remind him of all the people he had led to their deaths.

In the end, the issue is not that the Doctor was darker this series, it's that the themes were. As I watched this, the fact that the finale aired so near Britain's Remembrance Day didn't seem a coincidence to me.  The entire series was an exploration of soldiers, of sacrifice, of death, and of why we still engage in things like wars.  It's heavy stuff, sure, but British and American kids very likely know soldiers who have served in the Middle East, and very likely question the purpose of war.  Doctor Who may not have the answers, but still its willingness to raise the questions is commendable.  The show stokes the childlike sense of wonder in kids, but often recognizes they have adult questions too.

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