What is Doctor Who?
Eternal question. If we’re trying to come up with definitions, I think my personal favourite (because let’s not delude ourselves, Whology is anything but a hard science dealing in cold objective facts) is that it’s a show about the interaction between ordinary life and the immensity of the universe, both as a physical place and as a narrative backdrop waiting to be filled. It’s all about the liminal spaces where these two areas intertwine and clash – creating and destroying life, possibilities, stories.
“Time and Relative Dimension in Space. It means Life.”
That’s why “Listen” is my favourite Who story – it embodies, in a way, a platonic ideal, as a story almost entirely devoid of exterior action, of classic plot, where all the tension and stakes are created through the conjunction of daily life and the madness and chaos the Doctor embodies. The show, at least for me, tends to be at its weakest when it strays away from this original fountain of youth – the appeal of the Hinchliffe/Holmes tenure is quite lost on me, partly because it’s focused almost entirely on the narrative aspects, imitating and rewriting, but, lost in the vastness of space, a certain lack of concrete human stakes (as the complete absence of companions from modern days post-Sarah Jane tends to indicate). Thankfully, it has for now very much been a guiding principle of the New Series – for all their differences, I think it’s fair to say that the Moffat and Davies eras share an approach here, where the core drive behind their character arcs is going to be the question of how to resolve this contradiction, this tension. Amy finds it by letting go of her trauma and embracing a reality-transcending love; Clara finds it by abandoning the “real” life and becoming a being of pure imagination, a tale in and on herself; Rose or Donna’s tenure in the TARDIS ends with them being cut from the Imaginary World, the enchanted parenthesis closing in at last but living them better persons, or at least in a better situation, for it.
What the show doesn’t entirely show is how damaging this crisscrossing of the real and the fictional, the small and the infinite, the terrestrial and the celestial can be. Somewhere in the Land of Fiction, there’s a dark, dark abyss, one the show can’t bear to gaze into for too long. It swims into its murky waters every now and then, of course – Amy’s traumatic childhood clearly comes to mind, with the way “The Eleventh Hour”, and series 5 in general, play with repressed ideas, hidden rooms and doors just at the frontier of your perception: Jane Campbell’s sterling analysis of the visuals motifs used to suggest it is one of the best pieces of Who criticism ever written (1). Clara’s arc plays on the same beats – except that instead of dwelling in repressed rooms and invisible monsters, the Abyss (or maybe the basilisk, if we’re nicking that idea from El Sandifer and saying that all ideologies eventually fall down into the Weird and birth weird creatures of thought) explodes, in a vivid, burning wound. The Volcano scene from “Dark Water”, now that’s the bottom of the pit if ever there is one – a moment where the very narrative threads of the show are about to snap, one that is going to haunt the narrative going forwards; even at a visual level, look at the way “Last Christmas” seems to re-use that setting for the bits where the Doctor wakes up and discovers it has all been a dream – like all traumatic events, it persists, as a sneaky frame or a vengeful raven. But the writers can’t get too deep – because Who, and that’s its beauty, is targeted towards an universal demographic, and should, at its best, be empowering, be – and damn all the right-wing crybabies – a safe space. Sometimes, it’s necessary to practice a dark-tinted exorcism to reach that point – that’s essentially what series 8 is, and even that proved to be too much for certain viewers (who are, just so we’re clear, absolutely entitled to feel that way) –, yes, but that’s not the end goal. Televised Who can’t dance with the Abyss forever.
But there’s someone who can.