The Autumning Empire

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Archive for the month “December, 2013”

Breaking Bad’s Big Lesson For 2013

imagesThis was supposed to be a list. You know, one of those pop culture end-of-year lists. I had planned on calling it, “Five Most Important Things That Breaking Bad taught us in 2013.” It seemed apt. 2013’s end may signify any number of cultural milestones, but it’s an understatement to say the that final season of AMC’s Breaking Bad is one of the most important.

But I didn’t get far with my list. Well, that’s not exactly true. I got really far with just one item. Don’t get me wrong; Breaking Bad will continue to teach us many things beyond the year 2013. But as I tried to piece together what is unique about this program’s remarkable five-year run, the most important item on my list became the only thing. Here then is the top one thing that Breaking Bad taught us in 2013.

1. Sentimentality Corrupts Great Art

Breaking Bad excelled in many areas. But it also avoided lots of unnecessary mistakes. Narrative fiction has a host of pernicious traps that lie in wait for all who dare the journey. And the most pervasive of these traps, the one that snares the most wily and intrepid of storytellers, is the ancient snare of sentimentality.

I don’t want to go too far here. Art and sentimentality are not mutually exclusive. There’s nothing wrong with the two of them getting in bed for an occasional drunken fling. But the minute they start shacking up, or god forbid getting engaged or even married, it’s a sure fire sign of disaster. Yeah, I know. Dickens and Capra were masters of sentimentality. But these were not men; they were sorcerers tampering with a dark, seductive magic that most of us just can’t handle.

vince-gilliganVince Gilligan instinctively understands this truth. With Breaking Bad, he and his team created a world where viewers became deeply and emotionally involved without ever having to feel…well, dirty. Breaking Bad never cheats. Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, Skyler, and Hank  all come off as real people, people we feel that we know. And we care about them, in spite – or perhaps because – of their deep and tragic failures.

Those of us who enjoyed and endured the last appearance of Matt Smith on Doctor Who know how important it is for an actor’s departure or series’ end to come with a sense of closure. But what does this mean, and how is that sense of completion achieved? Usually by indulging in our culture’s favorite pastime: looking backward. Unfortunately, the past’s seductive landscape is mired in the sweet and enveloping quicksand of sentimentality. Remember when? Remember how?  Wasn’t that funny? Wasn’t that great? Wasn’t that – oh, damn it all to hell, I promised myself that I just wouldn’t cry!

The fact that Breaking Bad avoided this quicksand tells us everything we need to know. After lying to, exploiting, and all but destroying his family for an Empire of Meth, a broken Walter White speaks with his wife Skyler one last time. Like the swan songing protagonists before him, Walt attempts to answer the question: what did this journey mean? But he’s cut off by his wife, whose interjection triggers this painful, quiet exchange:

Skyler:  If I have to hear…one more time…that you did this for the family-

Walt:  I did it for me. I liked it.  I was good at it. And I was really…I was alive.

In fifty-nine seconds and twenty-eight words, Walter White gives his wife and viewers what we’ve been dying to hear for five whole seasons: the whole truth and nothing but.

What does Walter White receive in exchange for his frankness? The hope that his wife might not go to prison. A few precious seconds visiting his daughter’s crib side. And one last, secret look from afar at his bitterly estranged son. Throughout the series’ run, I found just about every scene between Walts senior and junior all but unbearable to watch. Perhaps it’s because I’m a dad myself, but I found something deeply unsettling and tragic in this father’s betrayal of his son. Even Walt’s relationship with Jesse, his all but adopted son, played out with greater fairness and equity. At some point every boy must watch his greatest idol fall, and we saw it happen at its most poignant and wrenching.

breakingbad514Walter White’s final farewell to his family leaves the viewers with a host of unanswered questions. Does Skyler forgive him? Do we forgive him? Can we forgive him? Do we want to forgive him? Are we even in a position to forgive, since time and again we freely handed over our sympathies this manipulator, liar, and murderer? Once upon a time, this game was played with the sly and cunning mastery of Alfred Hitchcock; Breaking Bad took it one step further by mapping out the suspense over a five year period.

The Walt and Skyler farewell is but one of countless similar exchanges seen over the series’ run. Virtually every deeply emotional, heartfelt moment is punctuated with at least one asterisk. As a result, our own emotional responses to the scene may or may not mirror those of the on-screen characters. We are therefore required to make our own decisions about how to respond. This makes for volatile, painful viewing. If the creators of the show aren’t telling me how to feel, then I’m sort of on my own, then, aren’t I? By demanding that we examine our loyalties and feelings, Breaking Bad held the mirror up to nature, and in so doing, avoided the dark arts and sweet seductions of sentimentality’s lure.

Art, at its best, provokes doubt. Sentimentality, at its worst, demands belief. This demand is firm and unconditional; you must believe, you will believe, and believe it right now. Believe that fairies are real. Believe that true love conquers all. Believe that if you just try your best, you can make it here in America. And if you don’t believe? If you decide to get all cocky and bow out? Go ahead. Do it. Protest the manipulation. But you’ll come off like an awful spoilsport, won’t you? No one gets thanked at a rained out picnic. And if it’s hard for you to believe? Hey, don’t worry. There’s an arsenal of weapons just waiting to bludgeon you into willing and passive submission. The swelling orchestra. The tearful close up. The supremely accomplished actor like Tom Hanks, who is so well practiced at giving your heartstrings that firm and encouraging tug. Come on! It’s just a movie. Or a TV show. Or a song. Why over intellectualize it? Why intellectualize it at all? Can’t you just sit back, relax, and enjoy it?

Breaking Bad’s steadfast, disciplined refusal to go this route made it one of the most emotionally complicated narratives I’ve experienced in a very breaking_bad_walter_white-540x303long time. The show was not cold. Indeed, it’s hard for me to think of any story that surpasses Breaking Bad in its invitation to gut wrenching empathy and an all but impossible compassion.  The program was never lazy, and led its viewers by example. More importantly, it respected us by refusing to dictate what we should believe or feel. That’s more than you can say for most TV shows and movies. Strange. We’d never let a parent or partner tell us what to feel , yet we’re perfectly comfortable putting that responsibility in the hands of complete strangers, and paying them handsomely for the privilege.

Look, I cried at the end of E.T. right along with the rest of you, so I’m sorry if this tirade makes me sound like a heartless bastard. But history tends to be pretty tough on cultures that are addicted to sentiment. And if the first thirteen years predicts anything about the next eighty-seven, then 21st century America is in for a brutal beating at the angry hands of history. We can only hope that Breaking Bad will be counted in the great and final tally. Then, historians of the future can look backwards and say, “For one five year moment, the Autumning Empire held up the mirror, took a hard look, and just once had the courage to say: ‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.’”

David Berkson

December 30, 2013

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Smaller On The Inside: Steven Moffat And The Incredible Shrinking Whoniverse

hr_Doctor_Who_-_The_Time_of_the_Doctor_6

I’m pitching a script idea for Doctor Who. This mind-bending tale will be the first full episode starring Peter Capaldi’s newly minted 12th Doctor. Episode One has him kidnapping Doctor Who’s head writer/show runner Steven Moffat from the BBC, and bringing him back to ancient Greece, where the two men meet Aristotle. There, the great philosopher and author of Poetics teaches Steven Moffat how to construct a plot.

Blink_(Doctor_Who)Stay with me now, because it doesn’t stop there: get ready for the paradoxical, timey wimey twist. Unfortunately, the trip to antiquity leaves Doctor Who‘s head writer un-persuaded. Apparently, Steven Moffat isn’t impressed by the idea that a character’s actions should be logical, and follow naturally from the actions that precede them. And so the Doctor – in a desperate bid to save his own creative master (and indeed, himself) – travels forward to the BBC studios of 2007. And that’s where Steven Moffat meets a younger version of…himself. Forty-five seconds of light-hearted comic relief ensue as the two of them realize: “Whoa! This is really happening!” Then Moffat 07 shows Moffat 13 some of the best Doctor Who episodes ever written: “The Empty Child,” “The Doctor Dances,” “The Girl in the Fireplace,” and of course “Blink.” It’s a poignant moment. After all, Moffat is (or was) the author of all of these wonderful stories. But before this episode swells to its paradoxical, sentimental climax, the Doctor forces both Moffats to do the same thing I had the misfortune of doing last night: watch the worst Doctor Who Christmas special ever made. “The Time of the Doctor.” God bless us. Everyone.

14609“But wait!” you may reasonably interject. “The worst ever? How is that possible? Haven’t we already seen the worst Doctor Who Christmas special? Wasn’t that ‘Voyage of the Damned’? Or was it ‘Runaway Bride’? Or maybe it was that very special Doctor Who ‘Christmas Carol.’” Ah Jesus, why pick favorites? Aren’t all Doctor Who Christmas specials terrible?* Doesn’t each inhabit its own special Whoniverse of never ending awfulness? Why not be generous? After all, it’s the holiday season.

But no. No no no no no no no. This is different. And it’s bad. Very bad. “The Time of the Doctor” is awful in ways that the others just can’t match. See, it’s not only that the show’s content is exceptionally poor. No, what is so deeply troubling about this story – if you can even call this thing a story – is that it seems to be not an aberration, but a new standard, an ominous harbinger of the terrible stuff to come.

Many years ago, in the middle of viewing an unforgivably bad film, my date turned to me and said, “Some movies you forget after you see them. This is a movie that you forget while you’re watching it.” So it is with “The Time of the Doctor.” I pity the professional TV critic whose job it is to write plot summaries scotch taped to opinion. It’s telling that in this case, many reviewers didn’t even bother with the plot. Tim Martin of The Telegraph simply threw up his hands, and tried instead to figure out what the hell the Doctor Who people were thinking:

I imagine Steven Moffat and co frantically entering text into a huge and messy Word document marked “Later”. Every time a narrative lapse gets handwaved away, every time an episode thunks to a halt with its story strands waggling, every time the Gordian plot-knot gets sonic-screwdrivered into submission for the 60-minute limit, the writers just tap the remnants into Later. What’s the deal with the creepy brain-wiping creatures known as The Silence? Later. The name of the Doctor? Later. The Catholic Church as intergalactic paramilitaries? Later. The 13-regeneration limit hanging over the series since the Sixties? Yup, stick it in Later.

A writer’s job is to tell a story. Once upon a time, Steven Moffat did this brilliantly. It’s hard to imagine Aristotle finding fault with any of the aforementioned ground breaking Moffat episodes. Indeed, the world’s first drama critic probably would have delighted in these dark and imaginative morality tales; Aristotle would have suspended disbelief.

But lowering the “threshold of acceptability” does not mean throwing it out altogether. Yet this is precisely what Moffat did when he crossed his own threshold from an occasional Doctor Who scriptwriter to the man in charge of the show. Moffat’s deal with the devil appears to have been made on the installment plan: “The Eleventh Hour” – Matt Smith’s first full episode as the 11th Doctor – is a beautiful piece of writing. But the seed of perdition had already been sewn: the so-called  “Crack in the Universe,” the first of Moffat’s incomprehensible story arcs, eventually severed disbelief’s suspension cords, and brought the whole thing crashing to the ground with an overhyped, sickening thud.

And then came the Murder of the Doctor. And the Impossible Girl. And the endless barrage of mind bending paradoxes that turned the rule of the Blue Box completely upside down. For all of its bells and whistles, a typical Doctor Who episode is now smaller on the inside than it is on the out.

Nowhere is this more depressingly clear than in “The Time of the Doctor.” Moffat appears to have abandoned the bloated ambition of his doctor-who-giftsoverarching story lines – which on some level, you have to sort of admire for their Gen X brand of Dickensian hubris. In their place he’s put a checklist. Weeping Angels? Check. Daleks? Check. Small spark of sexual tension with slender twenty-something companion that won’t ever go anywhere? Check. Because Steven Moffat’s not just the Doctor Who head writer and show runner. He’s the driving force behind a multi-million dollar entertainment juggernaut. And the business of show business is business. You don’t believe me? Check out the presents under my family Christmas tree: Doctor Who t-shirts. Doctor Who key chains. Doctor Who 50th anniversary encyclopedia retrospective 270 page book things. Doctor Who Christmas ornaments. Man, no wonder these guys are so big on Christmas specials; what better time to push all that profitable promotional merchandise? I guess taking charge of a business means you itemize, prioritize, and list, list, list – even when it comes to the sacred art of story making.

Don’t get me wrong. I like BBC One as much as the next guy, and if I’m doing my part to keep them afloat, who am I to feel guilty? But the sun must eventually set on the Whovian Empire, and that day may come sooner than we think. Every show has its worst episode. But this one should – and could – have been better. Come on! Didn’t Matt Smith deserve a better send off? And to the man’s credit, he all but saved the sinking ship with his heartfelt, odd ball, son-of-Crispin-Glover antics that have made him so beloved of fans and newcomers alike. “Matt Smith – he is astonishing!” cried the 7th Doctor, Sylvester McCoy. “His face has so much experience in it, and his performance is just excellent in how you feel how ancient he is.”** Too bad Moffat couldn’t give Smith a better script when he said his bon voyage.

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So goodbye Doctor Eleven. Hello Doctor Twelve. Is it just me, or is the midnight hour for this franchise beginning to feel a little bit ominous? Peter Capaldi has all the talent, humor, skill, and gravitas to make this Doctor work. Too bad that Moffat doesn’t appear to share that confidence. Capaldi’s first appearance felt…well, a little frenzied. A quick fix it to be discarded in that ever growing “Later” file. Perhaps Moffat has finally become lost in the Byzantine labyrinth he’s been constructing since 2010.

Peter-Capaldi-Doctor-Who-Time-of-the-DoctorThe most telling line of dialogue in this special comes from Capaldi himself: “Just one question. Do you know how to fly this thing?” This is literally the Doctor referring to his TARDIS, but it might as well be Steven Moffat inquiring about the overall direction of the show. Jesus Christ, does anyone know how to fly this thing anymore? If not, we can only hope that the TARDIS crash lands in Greece, 335 BCE. There, while the Doctor repairs his time machine, Aristotle can repair Steven Moffat by teaching him what he used to know so well: how to write a good story. If and when that happens, perhaps Moffat can tend to that ever hemorrhaging and ever shrinking Whoniverse by finally closing up the crack.

David Berkson

December 27, 2013

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*Oh, alright. Most are terrible. A friend pointed out to me that “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe,” is not in fact terrible, and after a another look, I’m inclined to agree that it is indeed quite charming. But does one good deed justify a legion of atrocities? You be the judge.

**Kistler, Alan. Doctor Who: A History. Guilford, Connecticut. Lyons Press, 2013.

Peter Pan In The Land of Genocide: A Tale of Three Doctors

the-9th-10th-11th-doctorsTime is relative, especially when it comes to pop culture, and most especially when it comes to fiction. Even the most timeless classic bears the unmistakable imprint of its age. Sure, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H* is set in Korea, but it’s really about Vietnam. You don’t need to be a student of film or history to know Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby wasn’t made during the decade in which it’s set. Even William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar tells us far more about Elizabethan succession anxiety than the fall of the Roman Republic.

And so it is with Doctor Who. For half a century, the popular BBC series has given us hundreds of episodes in which its eponymous hero transcends the very the laws of time itself. But here’s the rub: none of those episodes, not one of them, can share in the Doctor’s vast and mighty power. Ironically, each story is trapped in its own fixed place in time –  a mirror of its age, a slave to the decade, and sometimes the year, in which it was made. Call it Time And Relative Dimension In Culture. In the end, that big blue box and its long-suffering pilot are time’s servants, not its masters.

So what exactly are we talking about? Hairstyles? Special effects? Not so special effects? Fezzes and bowties and big knitted scarves?  Well, sure, I guess we could talk about that. But Doctor Who deserves a closer look. Once considered a cult classic, the franchise’s 50th Anniversary Special now holds the Guinness world record for the largest audience of a simulcast TV drama. No longer a rarified artifact of geek culture, Doctor Who is now mainstream, the abstract and not so brief chronicle of our time.

HartnellWhen talking about Doctor Who, we’re actually looking at two distinct cultural phenomena. The first began as a BBC series in 1963, and ended 26 years later in 1989. The second Who phenomena* is a  J.J. Abrams era reboot (or in this case, regeneration) that began in 2005, and now grips both sides of the Atlantic. What does the new Who look like? Whenever a franchise gets recycled, its producers come a courtin’ with this solemn oath: we’re gonna take this thing in a whole new direction, AND be totally respectful of the series’ past. The results are sometimes ridiculous and unfortunate. (Like Disney’s The Lone Ranger.)  But back in 2005, Doctor Who’s executive producer/head writer Russell T. Davies actually kept his promise.  Armed with a creative team steeped in Whovian mythology, Davies kept many of the original show’s trademarks: the sonic screwdriver, the mechanical Daleks, the original soundtrack, and the beloved, squeaky TARDIS.

Number 9But the ninth incarnation of the series’ Doctor was something fans hadn’t exactly seen before. The froofy costumes and avuncular mad scientist affects were stripped away. In their place stood Christopher Eccleston, a well-known and respected film actor with a long, impressive resume. If anyone would take this show in a new direction, it would be its newly regenerated protagonist.

He was a sober figure. “… (Eccleston) has a very serious screen image,” said Davies. “There’s a lot of fun and humour in his portrayal, but of course when the Doctor is angry or passionate we get that other side of Christopher, which has helped make him one of Britain’s finest actors.”

In some ways, the 9th Doctor took the character in a direction that wasn’t new, but very, very old. Fans listening carefully could hear the faint patrician echo of Doctors One and Three. The 9th Doctor is a man of grim determination. His occasional flashes of humor barely mask the grimace of a formidable, sometimes heartless adversary. “Have pity!” cries his arch enemy, an imprisoned Dalek. “Why should I?” answers the Doctor, torturing his prisoner by process of electrocution, “You never did.” Eccleston’s is a Doctor of war, the last of his race, a scarred and lonely soldier whose square, singular focus on the present is understandable when we hear his apocalyptic vision of past and future:

You think it’ll last forever. People and cars and concrete. But it won’t. One day it’s all gone. Even the sky. My planet’s gone. It’s dead. It burned like the Earth. It’s just rocks and dust. Before its time.

The 9th Doctor, then, is a man of the time and culture that spawned him. In January of 2005 – the only year Eccleston played the Doctor – George W. Bush took the oath for his second term as President of the United States. Three months later, British Prime Minister Tony Blair got sworn in for term number three. There’s a long list of men and women responsible for the bloody, pointless war in Iraq, and Bush and Blair sit right on top. One month and two days later after Blair was sworn in, bombs ripped through London’s public transportation system, leaving 52 people dead, and many more injured. Blair blamed Islamic extremists for the act, and – sounding an awful lot like Doctor Number Nine – vowed: “We will not be intimidated.”

Everybody Lives

The 9th Doctor has many moments of warmth and compassion. But even then, his message is clear: things are as they must be. When his companion, Rose Tyler, manipulates the Doctor to take her back in time so she can prevent her father’s death, the Time Lord chastises her: “My entire planet died, my whole family. Do you think it never occurred to me to go back and save them?” His acts of heroism live in the shadow of tragedy’s looming inevitability. After saving a relatively small group of Londoners during the 1941 Blitz, he cries in a fit of messianic triumph: “Everybody lives, Rose! Just this once! Everybody lives!” It’s the 9th Doctor’s finest hour, yet he can’t help but remind us that it probably won’t happen again.

Public and critical reception for this darker Doctor were, for the most part, positive, and the series was renewed for another season. But Eccleston stepped down. For all he brought to the role, Doctor Who just wasn’t his gig. His successor was quickly announced: a thirty-four year old Scottish actor named David Tennant. Tennant had followed the show since childhood, and seemed remarkably eager for the challenge. But following Eccleston’s act appears to have been a daunting prospect. “…there’s an awful lot to live up to here. I know everyone loved Chris, and so did I, but hopefully I won’t disappoint people.”

tennantHe needn’t have worried. A 2012 poll conducted by Entertainment Weekly would later show David Tennant to be the most popular Doctor of all time. But our past was his future, and even the show’s creative team found it necessary to prove Tennant man enough for the job. In fact, Tennant’s first appearance has him wondering aloud what “sort of man” he is. His final answer comes with an Eastwoodesque sneer, as he sends an enemy plunging to death: “No second chances. I’m that sort of a man.”

What makes the 10th the most popular Doctor ever? Internet theories are far-flung and ubiquitous, but I think that it boils down to this: fans are generous with Tennant because he’s so generous with them. If you want to see a man in love with his job, watch some 10th Doctor episodes, especially the earlier ones. Here was a Doctor who reached out to his allies, his adversaries, and his audiences. Even if this Doctor isn’t your favorite, Tennant’s sheer charisma and joie de vivre are pretty tough to resist.

But charm has its price, and the fee for Tennant’s was exacted on the surprisingly early occasion of his fifth appearance as the Doctor. In “School Reunion,” he joins forces with old companions Sarah Jane Smith and the robot dog, K-9. It is a fond and sentimental backward look at classic Doctor Who episodes, especially those from the vintage Tom Baker years. Warm and fuzzy would become a hallmark of Tennant’s Doctor. Try to imagine Chirstopher Eccleston picking Elisabeth Selden off the ground, beaming “My Sarah Jane!” as the music swells to a heart warming climax.

K9And that’s where the trouble begins. Not all of Eccleston’s episodes are great – or even good – but like their hero, most focus on a reasonably self-contained plot line. Not so with Tennant. The stories, the Doctor, and the actor who plays him become increasingly sentimental, self-absorbed, and above all: self-referential. Three seasons of the 10th Doctor feel less like a coherent story arc, and more like the uncovering of treasured family knick-knacks. “Hey look! The Cybermen! Why don’t we bring them back? The Sontarans? Aw, man! They were awesome! Why don’t we do one episode – or two, or three, or four – about them? That’d be cool!” Tennant’s tenure, then, is Doctor Who’s post-modern era, unceasingly asking the burning question of our age: remember when?

By the time Tennant was replaced by Matt Smith in 2010, Doctor Who’s course was set to forward into the past. New executive producer/head writer Stephen Moffat accelerated the pace: a 10th Doctor episode pays tribute to the memories of several seasons or episodes past; the 11th Doctor episodes get sentimental over events that took place a mere five minutes ago.

But when you’re watching an 11th Doctor episode, it’s kind of hard to figure out what exactly did happen five minutes ago. I realize that Steven Moffat’s taken quite a beating for his rambling, incoherent story arcs, but so far that just hasn’t stopped him. Jesus Christ, what the hell are we to make of some of these episodes? If the 10th Doctor’s all about the sentimental journey, then an 11th Doctor story such as “The Pandorica Opens” is a horribly botched magic trick, an Escher copy gone wrong, an awesome late night brainstorm that got filmed before anyone bothered to script it.

PandoricaCall me old fashioned, but science fiction does not give you license to make up a bunch of random rules as you go along, and then break them whenever it’s convenient. That’s not science fiction, it’s bad fiction, and Steven Moffat ought to know better. This man is the author of “The Empty Child,” “The Doctor Dances,” and “Blink,” justly hailed as some of the best Doctor Who episodes ever made. “Blink” in particular is a textbook example of sci fi at its best. It begins by establishing a rigidly defined set of rules, then insisting that its characters play by all of them. The result is a taut, suspenseful tale in which the Doctor (not even the episode’s protagonist) has limited power to assist the people most in need of his help. It seems incredible that this script was penned by the same guy who gave us “The Big Bang,” “The Impossible Astronaut,” and the eminently unforgivable “Let’s Kill Hitler.” But perhaps that crack in the universe is a metaphor for Moffat’s bifurcated creative psyche.

But there’s plenty of blame to go around. The hands of Russell T. Davies are also steeped in the blood of bad fiction. His overweening 10th Doctor space operas like “The Last of the Time Lords,” “The Stolen Earth,” “Journey’s End,” and “The End of Time,” sorely test the patience of any reasonable viewer in search of a story that makes one ounce of logical sense.

Davies and Moffat are smart, imaginative men. Why have they written so many bad scripts? The answer lies in the much hyped, much watched 50th anniversary special. Like most Doctor Who episodes, “Day of the Doctor” is a mixed bag. Fans of David Tennant and the quirky, unpredictable Matt Smith can’t help but smile at the sight of these two eager hams finally sharing the screen. It’s a wonderful reminder of what these men bring to the show that Eccleston never could: pure love for the role and the series. Let’s be thankful that Eccleston passed on the chance to appear on the special: he would have been an awful drag and a dour old chaperone. Science fiction does not have the right to be bad, but it does have the right to fun, and even – occasionally – silly.

Day of the DoctorAnd David Tennant? Matt Smith? Those guys are silly. Really silly. “Why are you pointing your screwdrivers like that?” cries John Hurt’s so called ‘War Doctor.’ “They’re scientific instruments, not water pistols!” And indeed, Doctors 10 and 11 are just a couple of boys, aren’t they? A pair of lads having fun, intergalactic Peter Pans who whisk their doe-eyed Wendy companions from one Never-Never Land to the next, clinging to the TARDIS as a fountain of youth in the hope that they’ll never grow up.

Is that a bad thing? I don’t know. Probably not. The youthful impishness is what draws us to the 10th and 11th Doctors. But perhaps we should be troubled. Nostalgia – such a mainstay of current pop culture – is rooted in the fear of growing older. The same is true of Doctor Who’s incomprehensible storylines. It’s not just that they’re terrible, it’s the way in which they’re terrible. Here’s the basic formula:

  1. Some awful catastrophe threatens to bring about the end of an important character/the planet/the human race/the entire universe.
  2. The catastrophe almost occurs. In many cases, it does occur. Either way, all is lost.
  3. A miracle saves the day, preventing, or even – and this is what happens with far greater frequency in later episodes – reversing the catastrophe. No rational explanation; it just simply happens. No major character dies (unless it is the end of the season and time to replace an actor).

So it is for “Day of The Doctor.” Fans are finally brought to scene of the Time War, the battle that destroyed the Doctor’s home planet, Gallifrey. It is the site of the genocide that deeply haunted the Doctor Number Nine. And so, when we’re finally brought there, to the tragic moment of irrevocable loss, we discover…

…that it never happened. The war? The genocide? Oops! My bad. We just thought that it did. According to Wikipedia, the episode’s three Doctors: “freeze the planet in time within a secondary/pocket universe.” Then, through another act of intergalactic magic, the doctors explain that they’re going to forget that they’ve ever done this (so that all the previous episodes still make sense). You got that? They’ll remember the genocide, but we’ll all know that it never really happened.

Now again, I hate to sound old fashioned, but why choose to tell a story about genocide if you aren’t prepared to deal with it? It’s one thing to miraculously bring one or two characters back to life through a little bit of sci-fi magic. But genocide? Really? Whatever, man. I guess it’s just a TV show. Just goes to show that we’ve come a long way since 2005. With far fewer troops in Iraq** and Afghanistan, the trans-Atlantic mainstream is no longer pre-occupied with global politics, or – more importantly – the First World’s responsibility for how they play out. The Gallifrean genocide myth was created at a time when it was impossible for anyone to ignore the realities of war. Now, if you have the luxury of being able to indulge a binge on Netflix, it is entirely possible to ignore those realities.  But the folks at Doctor Who have been stuck with a genocide narrative that audiences now don’t want to hear. Better to just pretend that it never even happened. This is where nostalgia and deux ex machina endings work together: they encourage us to selectively remember the past, and anesthetize us to the horrors of the present.

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But as of Christmas, 2013, there’s going to be a new Doctor in town. It’s impossible to predict with any certainty what kind of change the 12th Doctor will bring, but one thing’s for sure: Peter Capaldi’s no Peter Pan. Moffat has insisted that the fifty-five year old character actor is the only man he considered for the part of the 12th Doctor. Indeed, Moffat seems ready to take the show in a completely different direction, promising fans that “now it’s time for the old beast to snarl.”

Really? Wow! Who’s he going to snarl at? And why? I guess we’ll know soon enough. And like most Doctor Who fans, I’m willing to sit through just about anything. But if I have any hope for the 12th Time Lord, it’s this: that somewhere in his voice we hear a little bit of the old snarl from 2005.  Escapism is great, but this series, in its best moments, has shown us that we can do better. Maybe Doctor Who is finally ready to liberate itself from this fixed point in time, and start telling us truths we might not want to hear.

David Berkson

December 18, 2013

 Don’t forget to “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook. You can contact David Berkson at davidberkson66@gmail.com, or @DavidBerkson on Twitter.

* The two series were bridged by a 1996 TV film starring Paul McGann as the 8th Doctor. 

** There are currently no British troops in Iraq.

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