So. Your Humble Blogger watched the season finale of Doctor Who last night, and… I didn’t get it.
Here be spoilers, obviously enough. It isn’t clear to me how much of anyone’s enjoyment of the episode would be spoiled by foreknowledge of the plot turns, but it’s likely that someone’s enjoyment would be spoiled by my grousing. I’ll hold off on both until the next paragraph—in this paragraph I’ll just mention for any Gentle Readers who are just joining us, which seems so very unlikely but has happened in the past, that I’m an old Whovian who knit Tom Baker scarves in the 1980s, and have been deeply ambivalent about the new show since its inception. I’ve enjoyed a lot of it, groused about a lot of it (in this Tohu Bohu, even) but it has never been my show the way that the show was in the Third and Fourth Doctor eras. So my not-getting-it comes from a pretty fundamental lack of getting-it in the first place, and should be taken with that in mind.
OK, plot spoilers follow.
According to the new storyline, if I understand it correctly (and I probably don’t, because (a) it was confusing to me, and (2) I dropped a stitch while the Doctor was in the Matrix and was concentrating on picking it up through three rows and a color change so I missed some visuals) the Doctor is not, in fact, a native-born Gallifreyan but is a ‘fondling’ (I’m going to say ‘fondling’ every single time from here on in, just to warn you, because I will still think it’s funny) from another universe without knowing it. OK so far, although I tend to dislike the kind of genetic determinism that this hints at—if the Doctor is a hero because she is a fondling from another universe without knowing it, then that’s awful and bad, but if the Doctor is a hero and happens to be a fondling from another universe without knowing it, then fine. And the Doctor is not just any fondling from another universe, but is the source of regeneration energy—the Gallifreyans conducted medical experiments on her as a child and used their discovery to give themselves the ability to regenerate, which means that while the Doctor has always believed she was subject to the 12-regenerations limit that the Time Lords enforce on each other, in fact she is unrestricted and, not to put too fine a point on it, Timeless. Still, fine.
The Time Lords then erased the origin of their regenerative power from their history, because reasons, I guess? And kept it in the Matrix in disguised form because of other reasons, or perhaps the same ones? Which is kinda less fine, but still kinda fine. I mean, narrative necessity is a thing, too.
It’s the next part that I dislike and don’t get how it fits in to the show: at some point, the Doctor (who is also the fondling from another universe who is the source of regeneration energy) (a) is made a part of a secret Division of Meddlers in Time who are sent on secret missions and then have their memories erased, despite the obvious risk of sending the fondling who is the source of regeneration energy into highly dangerous situations; and then (2) steals a TARDIS and runs away from The Division in the Ruth regeneration, erasing her own memory and living as a human in 21st-Century Earth until the Time Lords send the Judoon after her, which she escapes when we see her but presumably at some point the Time Lords recover her and erase her memory again; and then (iii) steals a TARDIS (presumably the same one, without knowing it) and runs away from the Time Lords again, successfully traveling through time and space meddling on her own without Time Lord interference for some indeterminate amount of time; and then; (δ) goes to the Time Lords for help after the War Games, after which they do not erase his memory (except of Time Technology) but exile him on earth, while still giving him occasional missions to perform for them including thwarting other renegade Time Lords, most prominently The Master; (E) visits Gallifrey on several occasions, is selected as Lord President of the High Council, goes in to the Matrix, meets (and fights and vanquishes) Omega, Rassilon, Morbius, Barusa and every other significant Time Lord in their long and varied history, during which nobody attempted to erase his memories or indicates awareness of his connection either to The Division or to the fondling; (VI) runs away from the Time Lords again and again and again, with them taking very little effort to do anything about it, other than giving him a long and involved trial that I never got around to watching. Oh, and he destroys (or at any rate believes he destroys) the entire planet throughout space-time, committing genocide on an unimaginable scale.
Most (but not all) of that can be explained by a fair amount of narrative hand-waving: perhaps the fondling/regeneration story is so thoroughly suppressed so early in Gallifreyan history that even Omega and Rassilon are unaware of it and nobody ever associates it with the Doctor; perhaps the Division also is very secret, particularly from Castellans, and further is abolished at some early point (perhaps the Ruth-Doctor accomplishes this?) so that it really does not exist in the ‘time’ of the show and is not referenced by the High Council in significant emergencies; perhaps once the fondling has contributed to the genetic code of the Gallifreyans it really isn’t a problem for them if he dies on a mission and does not regenerate; perhaps the Time Lords are playing their own game that we aren’t yet privy to and the various rivalries and divisions on Gallifrey account for different attitudes toward the fondling/Doctor at different times. The problem is not that it’s impossible to fix it, but that those fixes make it difficult to care. If the Time Lords have never cared that the Doctor was actually the fondling, then why should we?
And then we come to the bit that I really don’t get and that is making me cross. Yes, putative new Gentle Reader of this Tohu Bohu, the first thousand words were an introduction.
So. The Master, in his rage at discovering that the Doctor’s genetic code is part of him—
Digression: Because the old show is my show, the old Master is my Master. It’s interesting (to me, anyway) that in the 1970s and 80s the writers never seemed to think that the Master needed any other motivation than being power hungry; his attitude toward the Doctor was a sort of affectionate contempt, and eventually a sort of gleeful irritation, if that’s a thing. But mostly he was focused on power and lots of it, and was perfectly happy to kill and destroy whatever got in his way, but had no particular psychological or personal motivation beyond that. Also, he was cool in temperament, which was less wearying to me. But the re-written Master, with the drums in the head and everything, requires a personal motivation, and that’s kinda wearying to me at this point. End Digression.
So. The Master, in his rage at discovering that the Doctor’s genetic code is part of him, destroys Gallifrey etcetera etcetera, and then plans to “break” the Doctor by revealing to her the double secret: her origin as a fondling and the medical experimentation stuff, and the erasing of her memories as an agent of The Division. And… why would that break her? What emotional damage are we supposed to believe would be done by that news?
Remember that whole history? The Doctor loathes the Time Lords, and in particular loathes the high-handed manipulation that they constantly engage in. He’s bitter about the way they use the memory-wipe, but then uses it himself when he thinks it’s necessary, so the news that she has had erased memories would be unsettling, yes, but not world-destroying. Nor would she be particularly broken, I think, by the sudden realization that the Time Lord regeneration is built on ethically problematic medical experiments on outsiders—particularly since we are not shown an Omelas situation, but what appears to be more like repeated taking of blood. Still unethical! Terribly, terribly unethical. But not the sort of thing that would “break” a person after thousands of years of adventure that include, for instance, dying a billion times over to smash a wall of Azbantium, or—again—having believed himself to have murdered every single person on Gallifrey, in a good cause.
Nor do I particularly believe that the Doctor would be “broken” (or even that the Master would expect to “break” her) by learning that she was… adopted? I mean, what? It’s certainly interesting that she’s from another universe, but anyone who knows any of the incarnations of The Doctor would expect her to find it a remarkable stimulus, not some sort of emotional disaster. Or does the Master expect the genetic thing to be catastrophic knowledge? I honestly don’t get what we’re supposed to understand is so shocking, soul-destroyingly, breakingly destructive about the new stuff we (and the Doctor) learned in this episode.
Now, having whined for another five hundred words, I will say that I didn’t hate the episode altogether, as it had a lot of good stuff and a lot of well-filmed stuff, and it was not some sort of hideous unbearably sloppy and insulting mess. And in fact, it was far from the worst season-ending cap to a story arc in the show’s history. The worst was the solution to the unsolvable problem that the Doctor’s death was a fixed point in time and space, which was solved by the Doctor using a robot marionette to deke out the space-time continuum. That was stupid. The one about the Pandorica was also dreadful, as was the Hybrid Warrior, and the Impossible Girl and the Tomb was probably worse, and the plot resolution of the entire Harold Saxon storyline wasn’t much better. Honestly, the Key to Time wasn’t very satisfactory from a plot-conclusion point of view, and is saved only by not spending a lot of time and energy taking itself seriously. The problem is that the more time and energy the show spends on taking these sorts of arcs seriously, the more impressive the payoff needs to be. The more dialogue is spilt on the impossibility of resolving the problem, the cleverer the actual plot resolution needs to be, or at least, the more irritated YHB will be by the actual plot resolution failing to be clever.
But hey, at least we didn’t have any wrenching emotional farewells that turned out to be phoney, and none of the companions had an emotional death scene that also turned out to be phoney, and the Cybercowls were a hoot.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,