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Doctor Who - season two finale

I. Surprise

About halfway through "Army of Ghosts," the penultimate episode of Doctor Who's second season, we finally realize what truly sets the ninth Doctor apart from the tenth. The Doctor has been captured and his TARDIS confiscated by the nefarious Torchwood institute, and the institute's supercilious director Yvonne (Tracy-Ann Obermann) is about to run another another dangerous ghost shift, in spite of the Doctor's warnings that doing so risks punching a hole into the void between dimensions. The Doctor stops her by doing nothing at all—just leaning back and grinning maniacally. It's the kind of move that the ninth Doctor practically majored in—a jarring shift in his own personal definition of the situation that forces everyone around him to run in order to keep up. As soon as he recognizes that he and Yvonne have fallen into a pattern—the Arrogant Bureaucrat refusing to listen to the Outsider Who Speaks Sense—the Doctor steps out of it, and Yvonne (who has been imposing her own narrative on events from the moment the Doctor steps out of the TARDIS—and probably for some time before that) is so startled and wrong-footed that she accedes to his demand.

Being an outsider is vital to the Doctor's ability to step into the middle of a crisis and resolve it. Unburdened by prejudices, preconceptions, ignorance, and misinformation, the Doctor never plays by anyone else's rules. Entering into a situation, he makes it his own, taking responsibility for its outcome and its conformity with his own values (hence his incandescent rage and disproportionate vengeance on Harriet Jones in "The Christmas Invasion," when the PM's judgement didn't track with his own, and she dared to put her own stamp on events). It was this quality that first drew me to Russell T. Davies's reinvention of the show: in the midst of the most hackneyed and formulaic storytelling, the main character was capable of surprising both his fellow characters and his audience.

But not, sadly enough, for most of show's second season. Messing with Yvonne's head in "Army of Ghosts" is a rare return to form, and throughout most of the second season's episodes we find the Doctor more and more often being swept up by events, reacting instead of acting, and, most importantly, unthinkingly accepting the ground rules laid out by others. When confronted with a trap that forces him to choose between unleashing a great evil or dooming Rose in an earlier second season episode, "The Satan Pit," the Doctor sidesteps the dilemma by choosing to believe in Rose's competence. Implicit in that choice, however, is the un-Doctorly acceptance of another person's rules of play. When faced with a similar choice in the first season's penultimate episode, "Bad Wolf"—which opens with the Doctor literally refusing to follow the rules of a reality TV game—the ninth Doctor simply says "no." Like his predecessor, the tenth Doctor sees more than the rest of us, and knows more than the rest of us. But he no longer thinks differently.

II. Villains

The Cybermen are boring.

I speak, of course, only of Russell T. Davies's incarnation—of the four reviewers writing about Doctor Who for Strange Horizons this week, I'm the only one with no experience of the earlier version of the show, and living outside the UK, I've had no opportunity to absorb knowledge of the Cybermen by cultural osmosis. So it's possible that in the hands of other Who writers, the Cybermen were truly effective villains, but when Davies brought the Cybermen into his reinvented Who universe in the mid-season two-parter, "Rise of the Cybermen"/"The Age of Steel," the result was boring. Davies's Cybermen have no personality and no wit. They follow a creed all-too-obviously designed to hit our moral superiority buttons. They're scary, but only in the sense that a flight of stairs is scary as one falls down it, or a car is scary to the person it's about to hit. It's the death that the Cybermen are capable of dealing that is terrifying—robbed of the capacity to kill, they would be no more inherently frightening than the stairs or the car.

Daleks are not boring, and they're frightening even when they can't, or won't, kill. They have wit and personality to spare—they are, in fact, not a little bit funny. And it is precisely because they are amusing that they are also frightening—these ridiculous pepper-pots who are so suffused with hatred and bloodlust.

In "Doomsday," the second season finale, the two races encounter one another for the first time in the show's history. The Cybermen escape their own universe, in which the Doctor's interference had led to their defeat, through the rift created by the Daleks' void ship, which hid between dimensions in order to escape the Time War. The first meeting between these two archvillains is amusing—"You are superior in only one respect," the Daleks imperiously inform the Cybermen, "you are better at dying!"—but to someone who hasn't been pitting Dalek against Cyberman in their head since the age of eight, the alternating bouts of trash-talk and wholesale slaughter which ensue quickly become repetitive, and wear out their charm. It becomes painfully clear that the true purpose of these altercations is to fill up space. Quite simply, the Daleks are brought in as a secondary villain in "Doomsday" in order to keep the Cybermen—the primary, yet far less interesting, villain—occupied while our heroes regroup. They have no independent function in the story and, what's worse, no emotional significance of their own. They no longer affect the Doctor as profoundly as they did in the first season—they are no longer a living testament to his crimes and failures. "Doomsday" reduces the Daleks to plot points, and it is therefore no wonder that, however they may triumph over the Cybermen physically, they emerge from the battle sadly diminished, brought down to the Cybermen's level, and not a little bit boring.

III. Heroes

Why does the Doctor stop the Daleks and the Cybermen in "Doomsday"?

This may seem like a stupid question, but reviewing the episode, it's quite clear that the answer is something along the lines of "because he cherishes life" or simply "why not?" Which, admittedly, are both perfectly respectable reasons when faced with genocide and the threat of galactic domination, but cast your mind back a year and you'll discover a character far more intimately concerned with the outcome of his struggle against the Daleks. In the first season finale, "The Parting of the Ways," the Doctor had something to prove, an emotional hurdle to overcome that was in fact so important that he chose not to stop the Daleks because to do so would mean the loss of his soul. However we may feel about the Doctor's choice, there's no question that the ninth Doctor had a stake in the situation at the end of the first season that the tenth Doctor doesn't at the end of the second.

Which isn't entirely surprising because, for most of the second season, the Doctor doesn't seem to have much of a stake in anything, except perhaps the well-being of his companions. His emotions are entirely reactive, the product of the situation he's placed in—as opposed to the ninth Doctor, whose actions were always informed by the trauma of the Time War. The tenth Doctor has no such underlying trauma. In fact, he has no underlying psychology to speak of—he is a character with no heart.

By nearly every superficial yardstick, the tenth Doctor is a great deal more Doctor-ish than the ninth. Christopher Eccleston's character was rather sedately dressed, behaved in a relatively normative manner, and was unusually vulnerable—closer to the ground and at times almost humanly damaged. David Tennant, in a weird outfit, constantly bursting out in zany behavior, and with a streak of arrogance and a core of chilly inhumanity, seems a better fit for the role of an ancient, time-traveling alien. And yet perversely enough, the tenth Doctor lacks a certain numinousness, a sense of otherness that the ninth Doctor exuded. For all his human vulnerability one rarely doubted that the ninth Doctor was alien—it was, in fact, the humanity at the core of his personality that, when encrusted with alien behavior and thought-patterns, made him believably different (Davies used a similar approach when he cast Eccleston as the son of God in his 2003 miniseries, The Second Coming. The combination of ordinary emotional reactions with extraordinary behavior and attitudes made Eccleston's character believable as a divinity trapped in a man's body, and both actor and writer clearly carried over a great many of the character's attitudes and mannerisms when creating the ninth Doctor). Tennant's mannerisms conceal no such emotional core because the Who writers forgot to give him one—having established, carried out and completed an emotional arc for their character in the show's first season, they failed to sketch out a corresponding arc for the second season. As a result, Tennant's performance gives the impression of a kid in his dad's coat—a human masquerading as an alien.

Instead of providing Tennant with his own character arc, the Who writers rely on Eccleston's leftovers, and the result is alternately confusing and absurd. "Do you really believe I can [defeat the Cybermen and the Daleks]?" the tenth Doctor disbelievingly asks Pete Tyler (Shaun Dingwall) in "Doomsday" and, upon receiving an affirmative, muses that "maybe that's all [he needs]." It's a line that belongs to the ninth Doctor—if anything, Tennant's Doctor has been notable for being arrogant and self-regarding. And in the history of bad and unconvincing line readings, surely Tennant's wooden attempt to wring emotion out of "I was there at the fall of Arcadia. One day I might even come to terms with that" deserves pride of place.

The fault isn't with Tennant. It's with the writers who, when they do remember that their main character ought to feel something more complex than "killing people is wrong," keep writing for Christopher Eccleston.

IV. Agency and Power

That the Doctor has little or no emotional stake in defeating the Daleks and the Cybermen has very little effect on the progression of events in "Army of Ghosts" and "Doomsday," for the simple reason that with one or two exceptions, he has almost no control over the episodes' plot. "Army of Ghosts"'s function is setup—it introduces us to the playing pieces, tells us how each of them moves, and places them on the board. The Doctor has little to do but stand back and allow Yvonne the delusion that she controls him. As previously noted, he has her so thoroughly worked out that he can finely manipulate her actions, but he uses that capability only once before the Daleks and the Cybermen make their move and the actual story begins in "Doomsday."

Begins with an act's worth of filler, that is, as the Cybermen and the Daleks distract each other. The Doctor hangs back and watches helplessly, only to be rescued by Pete Tyler, the alternate universe version of Rose's father and the leader of the fight against the Cybermen in his own universe, and those acting on his behalf—the revolutionary Jake and the Doctor's former companion Mickey. For nearly the rest of the episode, it is Pete who controls the plot on the side of the angels—he kidnaps the Doctor in order to heal his own world, which is being boiled by radiation emanating from the rift between our universe and his (and then, in the first of several instances of the needle skipping over the plot's grooves, suddenly and for no discernible reason decides to return with the Doctor to our world), and effects Rose and Mickey's rescue from the clutches of the Daleks. Mickey gets handed the plot torch for a brief instant, as his fortuitous stumble unlocks the Dalek's secret weapon, the Genesis Ark, but it is immediately handed back to Pete so that he can rescue Jackie from the Cybermen and decide on his own that he and a select few will be escaping our world for his.

Only at this point, with less than 15 minutes left in the episode, does the Doctor stand tall, take the plot into his own hands, and ... discover a particle that will save the day. At which point the plot is once again snatched away from him and passed around like a hot potato: Pete kidnaps Jackie and Rose, Rose chooses to go back, Jackie demands that Pete retrieve Rose, Rose sacrifices herself to keep the rift open, Pete rescues her. It's all the Doctor can do to hang on for dear life.

If we discount the episode's villains—the Daleks, the Cybermen, and Yvonne—and also those characters who follow others like Mickey and Jake, then it is Pete Tyler, not the Doctor, who is actually at the center of "Army of Ghosts"/"Doomsday."

That a character other than the Doctor controls an episode's plot is not always a problem. The Doctor's greatest power isn't his intellect or his control of the TARDIS or some nonexistent force of arms. It is his capacity to change others, to make them like himself (or rather, like the person he is supposed to be)—people who don't play by others' rules. Spend enough time with the Doctor, and you will begin to see the world as he does. Eventually, you'll come to think like him, and begin to insinuate yourself into situations that don't concern you because everything has come to concern you, and because you believe that it is in your power to save the world. We saw it happen to Rose and Mickey and Jackie and even guest characters like Cathica in "The Long Game" or Tommy Connolly in "The Idiot's Lantern." We saw the lingering effects of this transformation in the Doctor's former companion Sarah Jane Smith.

But we can't see it in Pete Tyler, who is not one of the Doctor's disciples. He rescues the Doctor because he wants to save his own world. He rescues Jackie because he loves her and Rose because Jackie wouldn't have forgiven him if he hadn't. None of his actions are motivated by the Doctor's influence. Whether directly or indirectly, the Doctor isn't running the show.

V. Change

Appropriately enough for a season that opens with a regeneration, Doctor Who's second season is all about change. The Doctor's great tragedy, the season's early episodes tell us, is that even in his changefulness he is a constant factor, forced to watch his loved ones wither and die (this is the closest that the season comes to an emotional arc for the Doctor, but what we get is really more of a line—the Doctor tells us that he suffers because his companions leave him; then it happens). The season does indeed offer up plenty of examples of changing personalities—Mickey, Jackie, Sarah-Jane Smith—as well as several discussions of what it costs to change, and how much it costs not to.

In "Army of Ghosts," however, the show seems to make an about-face. In a scene that, in retrospect, is alternately baffling and bizarre, Jackie warns her daughter against changing too much—if Rose stays with the Doctor, Jackie predicts, she will eventually become something inhuman. After two seasons of holding up Doctor-ish behavior as a moral ideal, the show suddenly suggests that it can only be accomplished at the cost of our humanity. It's a particularly confusing reversal when we consider that at the end of the second season, Rose is largely the same person she was--the person the Doctor made of her—in "The Parting of the Ways." She knows more, and she can do more, as we see when she takes matters into her own hands in earlier second season episodes such as "The Idiot's Lantern," "The Satan Pit," and "Fear Her." But she doesn't think differently.

There's the core of an interesting idea here—a normal, human, life is after all the one adventure the Doctor can never have, and the cost of belonging everywhere is not being at home anywhere. But when "Army of Ghosts" raises this frightening prospect, it does so not as a way of making Rose wonder whether she should leave the Doctor, but in order to make the audience more amenable to that upcoming departure—as, indeed, the show has been doing since "The Impossible Planet", when an ancient evil predicted that Rose will be killed in battle. All television shows talk to their audiences, but when it comes to Rose in "Army of Ghosts"/"Doomsday," Doctor Who is talking over its character's head. It doesn't matter that we learn nothing new about Rose in "Doomsday," or that she learns nothing about herself, or, indeed, that there is nothing to be learned, because Rose isn't the point of her own story—getting her separated from the Doctor, and accommodating Billie Piper's departure from the show, is.

VI. The Empty Story

No matter how carefully I try to comprehend it, "Army of Ghosts"/"Doomsday" keeps slipping out of my grasp. It's an empty story. The plot betrays itself—I've already mentioned Pete returning to our world for no reason, but why does Jackie insist on bringing Rose across to Pete's world when she could just as easily stay in our world and maintain the status quo? The hero has no emotional and very little narrative function. The heroine is sublimated to the demands of casting. The main mover and shaker is a character we've met only twice before, and the villains are there to take up air-time. There's no there there. It's an episode that does nothing but entertain for exactly the duration of time it takes to watch, and then falls apart at the lightest touch.

The question becomes, for people like myself who started watching the show last year as a lark and stayed on because there was a real beating heart beneath the silliness and the shooty dog things, is this a tragic accident or a deliberate wreck? Does Russell T. Davies want to write about a character who has mannerisms by the boatload but no personality? Are we meant to be satisfied with 20 minutes of filler simply because they pit two iconic villains against each other? Having rid themselves of every vestige of the first season's setup—not only Eccleston and Piper but also the crew of supporting characters that populated Rose's world and became involved with the Doctor—will the writers come up with a similar social group for the Doctor to invade and irrevocably alter, or will he and his new companion simply hop through time and space, never staying anywhere longer than 45 minutes?

Can we no longer expect to be surprised?

Abigail Nussbaum has recently completed a Computer Science degree at the Technion Institute in Haifa, Israel. Her work has previously appeared in the Israeli SFF quarterly, The Tenth Dimension, and she blogs on matters genre and otherwise at Asking the Wrong Questions.

Abigail Nussbaum is a blogger and critic. She blogs at Asking the Wrong Questions and tweets as @NussbaumAbigail.
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