This article first appeared on DoWntime in November 2017.
Part One: The Doctor Fails
There is a leftist critique to be made of transhumanism, that its entire ideology/aesthetic boils down to a declaration that the operations of capitalism work so perfectly that they ought to be applied to the human body itself. That the human race’s perfect realisation is not as squishy bags of meat and hormones, but as machinery; as capital itself.
The political implications of this reading are, to say the least, horrifying. Not least because the idea of human beings as capital has some obvious parallels in the history of European and American race relations. The small but significant overlap between transhumanist thought and neoreactionism is chilling in its implications, to say nothing of reactionary internet subcultures’ love/hate relationship with the idea of female sex robots.
To put it bluntly, transhumanist visions of the future, or at least the most visible ones, are not built by or for people like Bill Potts. We’re already seeing the effects of this in the real world — concerns about algorithmically-generated redlining, facial recognition software that can’t handle black faces — systems built by and for the privileged, who are usually not actively malicious, but who create systems which crush people underfoot, almost incidentally.
All these conversations affect how we read Bill’s fate in World Enough and Time (surely the most gruesome thing to happen to any companion in the new series). Chris Farnell has written about the brilliance of making the Cybermen an ideology, and their applicability to the concerns of transhumanism makes them a very savvy pick for a story about a black woman being torn apart and reassembled by uncaring artificial intelligences. All told, it’s probably a more mature and thought-through deployment of the Cybermen than the pseudo-Cyberpunk of Dark Water/Death In Heaven, with its “Cybermen from Cyberspace.”
(The other famous Cybermen story to gesture at transhumanism, Grant Morrison and John Ridgway’s comic The World Shapers, is amusingly name-checked in The Doctor Falls, with reference to the Cybermen arising on both Planet 14 and Marinus, whose native Voord became what we now know as the Cybermen. I like to think David Banks is from there, personally).
But while the story is upfront about the horrors Bill is subjected to, it largely does not allow us to wallow in them. This is probably for the best, and the story displays a clever subtlety in its use of details. The ‘tears’ motif is genuinely moving, and Elizabeth Sandifer has already pointed out the political bite of the moment where a panicking white woman shoots Bill, unthinkingly, the othered body a source of instinctive fear.
All the same, there’s a degree of cynicism in killing off Bill this way. I joked at the time that the episode was a limit case for the Capaldi era as ‘Saward done right.’ Moffat gets the cynicism, the body horror, the political commentary note-perfect, but there’s a sense in which World Enough and Time amounts to an elaborate excuse to have Peter Capaldi exclaim “a Mondasian Cyberman!”
(Note the continuation of a key Moffat era theme — the inability of the Doctor to see his companions and vice versa. The Doctor doesn’t see his friend Bill, instead he sees “a Mondasian Cyberman!” More subtle, but altogether more heartbreaking, is his inability to make eye contact with Bill throughout The Doctor Falls.)
Indeed, there’s a degree of cynicism even in the episode’s means of getting there. Andrew Ellard points out the silly time-wasting of the Doctor’s explanation on the bridge when “they could be having this conversation in the lift.” This may look like slack plotting on Moffat’s part, and in fact the lack of anything substantial for the Doctor (or Bill for that matter) to do is one the episode’s main flaws.
But take a step back here. World Enough and Time is a story about the Doctor’s companion having her life torn apart by an uncaring ideology, propagated by a brilliant but malevolent systems engineer, and the Doctor fails to save her because he is too busy explaining how black holes work.
One way to read this is as a stinging critique of the demand for ‘hard SF’ Doctor Who. The need for the Doctor to deliver a science lecture literally destroys the show’s potential for human drama, converting the show’s one human character into an unfeeling machine.
But the more productive reading, I think, is as a critique of the Doctor himself. In the wake of recent casting decisions, there was some discussion of the Doctor as filling a needed space for an ‘alternative masculinity’ in children’s media. Some versions of this argument posited that the Doctor’s role as a knowledgeable explainer provided a positive vision of masculinity as studious and technically-minded rather than simply aggressive, and that this was an important quality for young boys to aspire to.
The problem with this argument (other than the by-now clichéd response of ‘why can’t they learn those qualities from a woman as well?’) is that the vision of masculinity as clever genius is already well-established, and, more to the point, just as potentially damaging a role model as the violent action man.
The hackneyed comparison here would probably be Rick from Rick and Morty, but the general image of the white man rationally explaining the universe to everyone around him is potentially toxic in itself, given its resemblance to, say, the privileged engineers and software developers who fail to think through the social implications of their world-altering technology. More broadly, being knowledgeable and technically-minded will only get you so far if you refuse to listen to perspectives other than your own.
This gets especially troubling when we consider how this vision of the Doctor interacts with his largely young and female companions. World Enough and Time is in many ways a reiteration of a basic Moffat-era plot. Bill is the girl so devoted to the Doctor that she tolerates a world of demons for his angelic sake. She waits for him, her femininity coinciding with, if not explicitly causing, her subordinate role in the story.
It’s a reiteration of that basic structure, but it also turns on that structure in its own resolution. Some might call it a narrative collapse; I prefer to think of it as narrative detonation, the final explosion of a bomb that the Doctor has, until now, largely been able to defuse. A final, most extreme iteration of a formula, which conclusively demonstrates it is time to move on.
Your friend Bill was just
Another girl who waited.
And you took too long.
And so, having gotten a young black woman killed, implicitly because of his own masculinity, we can finally turn to the Doctor himself. I say that in full knowledge that I’ve spent a lot of this piece on him already, but it’s here that I want to make my definitive statement for this mini-series of essays. Consider this your episode one cliffhanger, if you will.
This is not a story about the Genesis of the Cybermen. It’s not even, really, a story about Bill.
It is a story about why the Twelfth Doctor deserves to die.
Part Two: Sit Down and Talk
“MISSY: Exciting, isn’t it? Watching the Cybermen getting started.
DOCTOR: They always get started. They happen everywhere there’s people. Mondas, Telos, Earth, Planet 14, Marinus. Like sewage and smartphones and Donald Trump, some things are just inevitable.”
— Steven Moffat, The Doctor Falls
“Cyber is the future.”
— Donald Trump
I’ll say this up front, because I think it’s important: to argue that Donald Trump was somehow inevitable is very, very stupid.
Trump’s rise to power was not some inexorable process of nature. It was the result of conscious decisions, made by several people, over a number of years. To look at that sequence of events and see liberal democracy as Calvinistically predetermined towards fascism is politically naive and, more to the point, leaves an incalculable number of guilty fuckers off the hook.
Why, then, does the Doctor say it? Elsewhere in the same scene he demonstrates a genuine political savvy — “always read the comments, because one day they’ll be an army!” — yet it does not seem to have occurred to him to prevent said army from organising, or indeed to design a comments section such that genocidal armies cannot be fermented within it.
A reasonable defence is that he’s panicking. Certainly Capaldi plays the scene with an arresting desperation. The Doctor is scared, angry, powerless, yet defiantly brilliant in the face of it. The scene itself is the Capaldi era in microcosm — three brilliant actors having discussions about continuity (Harold and Missy’s conversation amounts to a comparison of Lists of Regeneration Stories) which also manages to be a dark and effective confrontation with the weird.
This should also put paid to the tedious objection that I ‘hate’ Peter Capaldi, or his Doctor, or indeed Steven Moffat. This scene is strange, atmospheric, cathartic, and horrifying. Talalay’s direction is controlled yet nightmarish, and Capaldi conveys heartbreak like no other Doctor can.
What he can’t do, it seems, is save the day here. Harold makes explicit what was a (frankly too deep) subtext in part one — the Doctor was so busy “chatting” that he allowed the whole situation to go, almost literally, to hell. It’s hard not to see this as indicative of a wider problem. Put simply, the Twelfth Doctor is deeply politically naive, and in a way that his era has encouraged us to notice.
The Twelfth Doctor, almost always, is on the side of justice. He fights the suits, he humiliates testosterone Vikings, he punches the odd racist. He also galvanises other people to fight, and refuses to view anyone as irredeemable. This has mixed results with Missy and Davros, but one of his unquestioned moral victories is getting Lady Me to care about the people standing in front of her. He is, in some sense, an agent of empathy.
He believes, in other words, that all we really need to do is sit down and talk. That irrationalities, on all sides, can be set aside. That we just need to have a calm, grown-up conversation, and we can devise a solution that works for everyone.
The Twelfth Doctor is fully cognisant of the horrors caused by an unjust system. He is sincere, and even effective, in his efforts to fight them. But he is fundamentally committed to the system that allows them to happen in the first place. The Doctor’s insistence on viewing all people on an equal footing allows him to disregard, or overlook, the context of a given situation.
That’s why he screams at people to Sit Down And Talk with their oppressors. That’s why he withholds his services from three panicking women on a decision that could be catastrophic. That’s why he spends months collaborating with a fascist regime to ‘teach a lesson’ to his black female student. The Twelfth Doctor is committed to abstract principles — diplomacy, free will, rational action — good principles. But while those principles motivate his best interventions, they also allow him to ignore political realities. To ignore that one’s oppressors will not sit down and talk without a fight. To ignore that a fixation on personal responsibility means leaving others to suffer when it’s in your power to help. To ignore, ultimately, that the lives of others matter more than abstracted principles.
He looks at political crises, and he can’t see the people involved. More bluntly, he can’t see when he’s hurting them. This, then, is the most damning thing we can say about him. Forget the Hybrid; the Twelfth Doctor was a liberal all along.
This may not sound like a bad thing to be, and, in a real sense, it isn’t. Certainly it’s better than some of the alternatives. But it was a liberal system that enabled Donald Trump, and Brexit, and Le Pen, and Farage, and all the damage they have caused and continue to cause; a passive liberalism, so committed to abstract processes that it refused to intervene as they were visibly perverted. And then it pleaded innocence, or worse, ignorance, of how such a thing was even possible. We had plenty of opportunities to stop Donald Trump. But we didn’t. Because the process was more important. Or rather, the process was a kind of faith-object, self-evidently pure, without the need for active intervention. And here we are now, clinging to the hope that a brilliant white man might still fiddle with the system ever so slightly, and somehow save us from the metal men marching ever closer. The Twelfth Doctor is not a good man. He’s A Good Man In A Broken System. And that’s why he has to die.
Part Three: A Man Who Never Would
Not counting Colin Baker, there is only one other Doctor whose moral failing is flagged so explicitly in a way that suggests he has outlived his usefulness. That Doctor, of course, is David Tennant. Like Capaldi, he has a single moment which demonstrates his moral bankruptcy, after which the audience, on some level, is rooting for him to die.
For Tennant, it comes in The End of Time Part Two, in his conversation with Wilf on the deck of a silent starship, Wilf asks the Doctor a question, whose answer will determine the rest of the story:
“WILF: If the Master dies, what happens to all the people?”
At first, the Doctor is evasive:
“DOCTOR: I don’t know.
WILF: Doctor, what happens?”
But finally, he answers:
“DOCTOR: The template snaps.
WILF: What, they go back to being human? They’re alive, and human?”
We learn the Doctor has the power to save everyone on Earth, if he only has the strength to kill a genocidal monster. And it’s not like killing is a fresh evil for this Doctor – he has already (torturously) told us that “I’ve taken lives. I got worse, I got clever. Manipulated people into taking their own.” It is in the Tenth Doctor’s power to save the lives of everyone on Earth, and, presumably, his own. Wilf begs for the life of his species:
“Don’t you dare, sir. Don’t you dare put him before them. Now you take this. That’s an order, Doctor. Take the gun. You take the gun and save your life. And please don’t die. You’re the most wonderful man and I don’t want you to die.”
And the Doctor’s answer?
It is at this point, morally if not literally, that the Tenth Doctor’s fate is sealed. His arrogance and sanctimoniousness reaches its natural, awful conclusion, as he refuses to save the world at the cost of getting his own hands dirty. At this point the audience is entirely justified in saying ‘to hell with you,’ and the Master backs this up, throwing the Doctor’s most egregious saviour speech back in his face: “You never would, you coward.” If we understand the Doctor as Never Cruel or Cowardly, then this is not just the point where we realise Ten deserves to die; it’s the point where the Tenth Doctor, as a character, ceases to exist.
Whether this works as drama is debatable — certainly its impact is muted by the fact that we’ve seen the Tenth Doctor go too far at least twice before now, at one point even helpfully exclaiming “I’ve gone too far” in case we missed it. But Davies is emphatic in laying out the case that “a Time Lord lives too long” — that it is time for Tennant’s Doctor to go, whether he wants to or not.
Which makes it all the more remarkable that Capaldi’s equivalent scene is comparatively mild.
To skip the poetic mise-en-scène, Capaldi’s moment comes in Series 10, Episode 1 – the pilot of a series subsumed by the future a year before broadcast. The Doctor is trying to convince Bill that staying on Earth, in her mundane, exploitative little life, is preferable to all of time and space with Heather. And what does he say?
“You have to let go! She’s not human any more!”
To which the obvious answer is ‘So?’ Since when has humanity been a limit on the Doctor’s empathy, or love?
Except, for the Twelfth Doctor, it clearly is. This gestures at larger political questions, particularly pertinent to science fiction, about who does and doesn’t ‘get to be people,’ to quote N.K. Jemisin. Certainly it’s worth noting that the Twelfth Doctor’s most conspicuous failings involve being horribly patronising to women, people of colour, Zygons — the one language he conspicuously fails to speak is British Sign. This scene, then, constitutes an admission of something we have always known about the Twelfth Doctor — that his empathy, as bright and vital as it is, only goes so far. The Twelfth Doctor strong, passionate, sincere, and effective — and it’s not enough.
Which is why Heather’s appearance at the end of The Doctor Falls is so vital, as abrupt and jarring as it appears at first. This abruptness was a source of contention at the time, with many arguing that she ought to have appeared, or at least been mentioned, at some point in the eleven weeks between her first and second appearance.
But to argue this is to miss the point. There is no room, in Twelve’s worldview, for a figure like Heather — in a sense the Doctor has to die before she can be allowed to assert herself. Certainly an old man listing off Cyberman continuity before finally falling, with an admission of “time enough,” to make way for a time-travelling lesbian has some pleasant serendipity given the later announcement of his successor. I wrote at the time that Series 10 was a story about the Doctor showing us how to be more than human. In retrospect, I was wrong. Series 10 is a story about the Doctor desperately clinging to a vision of humanity that is flawed and past its prime, only to be saved by a better alternative.
In a wasteland created by patriarchal, industrialised monsters, the story’s ending is remarkably queer. Part of this is the usual libidinousness of Moffat’s writing — the appearance of Heather as soaking wet, despite her stated ability to appear however she likes, is surely the last great instance of Moffat hiding smuttiness in plain sight. But more broadly, for Moffat to send a second companion off to explore the universe with a new girlfriend cements an admirable pattern in his writing, of the association of sexual freedom with a more general freedom. ‘No freedom without sexual freedom’ is pretty good, as social justice messages go, and as Elizabeth Sandifer points out, Moffat is absolutely correct in identifying the aesthetic of Doctor Who in 2017 as “magical space lesbians.”
Except he doesn’t quite do that, does he? Like Clara and Ashildr before them, Bill and Heather are offered as a happy ending, with the implication of future adventures together. But we cannot actually see those adventures — instead we have to stay with the Doctor, even as Bill saves him through the healing power of unrepressed sexuality. This gets at a larger problem with the Capaldi era, and indeed the Smith era, which is the Imperfect Feminism of Steven Moffat.
Moffat can identify queerness as a source of redemption for the Doctor. He can identify ‘magic space lesbians’ as the correct aesthetic for Doctor Who (twice!). But he can’t actually give us a show about magic space lesbians. He can make the case for a female Doctor, aggressively and wittily, but he can’t actually follow through and cast one. He can only hope for an all-girl future; he never takes the final step in setting out to build one. The Moffat era offered genuine progress. But it was only ever incremental progress.
Part Four: Unlucky For Some
This argument, like so many others, is more than likely to run aground on the hard rocks of the future.
Looking at Chris Chibnall’s CV, his track record on the show, and the announcements both before and after the casting of Jodie Whittaker, it looks like Series 11 of Doctor Who is shaping up to be pretty mediocre television. Well-made mediocre television, to be sure, and with a promising set of actors in the leading roles, but mediocre all the same. I sincerely hope to be eating these words a year from now, but looking at Chibnall’s work, even as recently as Broadchurch Series 3, I just don’t see the potential for an exciting new vision of Doctor Who (not least because his stated ambition is to basically cross that with bloody Stranger Things).
But for all that Chibnall’s Doctor Who is likely to be less interesting than Moffat’s, there’s no denying that it’s made a decisive stride in the right direction, even before we’ve heard a line of dialogue. The casting of Jodie Whittaker alone is enough to make Chibnall a worthy successor, in that it clearly fulfils an ideological promise Moffat constantly made but never delivered.
In the absence of anything at all to go on about Chibnall’s Who, Broadchurch Series 3 must serve as our nearest test case for what Series 11 of Doctor Who might be like. It’s a deeply flawed piece in many, many ways. The pacing, particularly in the middle episodes, is glacial, with important plot beats more than once sidelined or communicated unclearly. The dialogue ranges from the competent to the wildly embarrassing, with the line “pull over before I smack you hard” sticking out in particular. For every well-handled, sensitive scene there is at least one that feels like an “Issues” episode of Grange Hill.
But while it occasionally flubs the Screenwriting 101 stuff, it’s hard not to see Broadchurch Series 3 as worthwhile, important television, in a way Moffat’s Doctor Who has never really managed to be. For those who don’t know, Broadchurch Series 3 is about rape. Episode 1 opens with Julie Hesmondhalgh reporting the crime to the police, specifically David Tennant and Olivia Colman, who then guide her through a visit to a SARC and the initial steps towards processing what has happened. It’s honest, brutal, and exactly what TV drama in 2017 should be.
Throughout the series, the characters grapple with toxic masculinity, stalking, and male entitlement — all themes Moffat has covered to some extent as well. But Chibnall is willing to take the gloves off in a way Moffat never quite does. To be fair, this is partly because he is writing for a post-watershed slot on ITV rather than a primetime family slot on BBC One. Nonetheless, there are differences beyond the superficial — Chibnall is far less indulgent of the ‘bumbling male’ stereotype that Moffat uses for both Eleven and Twelve, which in practice can serve as cover for abuse, and he never comes close to the ‘stalking as romance’ trope that plagued the Smith era in particular. He also makes a point of centring the experiences of Hesmondhalgh’s character, rather than focusing entirely on the detectives’ investigation.
The other notable thing about Broadchurch series 3 is, in hindsight, the most obvious; Jodie Whittaker is in it. Specifically, she is in it as a counsellor, helping Hesmondhalgh’s character to process her trauma. The series is open, and at times uncomfortable, about the relationship between their characters, with long scenes of Whittaker trying, failing, and trying again to talk to Hesmondhalgh’s character, doing the real and difficult work of helping a traumatised person to heal.
If you want evidence that Chibnall is, in some sense, committed to progressive drama, there is little better evidence than the fact he looked at Whittaker’s performance of this character, and decided she was Doctor material.
This, then, is our final point. No matter how middling the future might look, a female Doctor is material social progress. It matters that the most clever, wonderful, flawed person in the universe is now a woman. In the political context, a female Doctor means something that a brilliant white man shouting at the oppressed simply doesn’t. And certainly the presence of the rainbow motif (and the fact that she appears to have raided Bill’s wardrobe) is a good sign that the future is a little less straight than we might have feared. Chris Chibnall looks set to build on the work done by Moffat; I dearly hope he has learned Moffat’s most important lesson, flawed and muddled as its delivery may have been.
Whatever the Doctor is now, we can be sure she won’t be human.