Television review: Doctor Who, Series 8 [2/5]

He Only Hurts Me Because He Loves Me Edition

I.

Most shows are sometimes flat. Many are sometimes good and occasionally great. Doctor Who is all of these things in a totally unique way. Even the cheesy episodes radiate an unqualified enthusiasm and philanthropy that touches on some precious feeling, maybe only the tiny remains left over from childhood, that there is a right way to do things and that obstacles can be overcome in the end if you are the best version of yourself and dare to trust good people. Those episodes are sweet in a way that I don’t see anywhere else. On all but my grouchiest days, that seems to be worth something.

The good episodes, on the other hand, can be as brilliant as the Doctor himself. All of those worlds with their people, their dangers, their struggles; all of those bubble universes and rewritten time lines; the larger-than-life characters and long traditions; a world where literally anything is possible—how could great stories fail to emerge?

In a show whose central theme, if there is one, is the magnificence and power of being human, the Doctor’s two hearts symbolize his status as something even more than that. The series itself, however, has for some time now lost its heart. The increasing reliance on zany spectacle instead of genuine emotional investment has been much criticized, as well the insistence that every conflict have higher stakes than the last. The most beloved episodes of Doctor Who, by contrast, are small stories: Blink, which focuses on a young woman who has suddenly discovered the danger hidden in her ordinary life; Dalek, which interweaves Rose’s compassion with the Doctor’s hatred; and my personal favorite, The Doctor’s Wife, which is a beautiful story about the search for community and the ability to find it in unexpected places.

II.

More troubling than lazy writing and cheap dramatic twists is the nature of the underlying social messages Doctor Who has begun to develop. I was once content to sweep them under the rug whenever they surfaced. Maybe if the dramatic presentation were at its peak, I still would be. As things are, there seems little to redeem what has become a deluge of damaging representations and warped ideals.

The sexual assaults played with everything short of a laugh track: Amy assaulting the Doctor, Clara assaulting the Doctor, and the Doctor assaulting Jenny all come to mind. I gather they finally worked up the guts to show a man assaulting a woman because we’re supposed to assume that she’s uninterested in men, so it can’t really be sexual and therefore can’t really be sexual assault. (It’s actually impossible to sexually harass or assault a person who’s queer and it never, ever happens.)

The super romantic dudes who stalk a young woman until she agrees to sleep with him, and then they live happily ever after: this happens in both Blink and the Narnia-inspired Christmas special.

The weird fetishization of women specifically as mothers, most obviously in the Narnia-inspired Christmas special (really, please just avoid this episode entirely), but also to some extent in The Doctor Dances.

The constant digs at Clara’s appearance throughout series 8, which are presumably supposed to communicate that (1) the Doctor is out of touch, because obviously Clara is really hot if we stop to think about it, which—what do you know!—now is the time to do; (2) the Doctor and Clara have moved past their flirtatious phase, because the only way a man could be sexually uninterested in a woman is if he finds her physically repulsive; and (3) the Doctor feels comfortable enough with Clara to constantly berate her for her appearance, because you don’t have to be nice to people if you care about them and also because if she were actually fat or ugly, then that would be completely unacceptable.

When I was trying to process all these things for this post, I came across an anecdote on Tumblr. A woman who goes by Flipse asked her nine-year-old cousin Emma whether she wanted to watch Doctor Who together.

But her response broke my heart:

“no he’s making fun of Clara. She’s not fat, mom says. He’s not nice. I don’t like it anymore.”

Her mom then told me Emma had asked her if ‘she was big and had big hips? and if the doctor wouldn’t like her either?’

Her mom said “but the doctor loves Clara!”

she then simply responded “no, that’s not how you treat friends. I would be told off in school if I did that.”

It’s a relief to me that this little girl gets that. I honestly don’t think the showrunner, Steven Moffat, gets it. He seems to believe that if you’re brilliant enough, everyone should just put up with you. His depiction of Sherlock reinforces this interpretation.

Flipse’s post continues, “and that’s basically all have to say. My almost 9 year old’s biggest hero has made her feel fat.”

These criticisms matter because Emma matters.

III.

Series 8 has some good moments. Listen, for example, was probably the best episode since series 6. But the strong scenes don’t tie the series together. If there is any coherent thread, it’s abuse.

In Kill the Moon, Clara makes a big—and very moving—speech to the Doctor after he leaves her when she desperately needs his help:

Clara: You know what, it was cheap, it was pathetic. No, no, it was patronizing. That was you patting us on the back, saying, well you’re big enough to go to the shop by yourself now, toddle along.

Doctor: No, that was me allowing you to make a choice about your future. That was me respecting you.

Clara: Oh my God, really, was it? Oh, yeah, well, respected is not how I feel. … That was you, my friend, making me scared, making me feel like a bloody idiot.

Doctor: Language.

Clara: Oh, don’t you tell me to mind my language, don’t you ever tell me to take the stabilizers off my back. And don’t you dare lump me in with all the rest of the little humans that you think are so tiny and silly and predictable. … Clear off. Go on. You can clear off. Get back in your lonely, your lonely bloody TARDIS and don’t come back. You go away. Okay? You go a long way away.

The audience, I believe, is supposed to be proud of her in this scene—and I was, the same way that I was proud of Emma when I read about her telling her mom, “no, that’s not how you treat friends.” This would be a profound way for the Doctor’s relationship with Clara to end. It would be a meaningful contrast to Rose, Donna, Amy, and even to Martha, who left on her own account but for very different reasons. This is something that might stick with the Doctor and make him kinder in the end.

Yet nothing comes of it. Danny talks to her, basically telling her to just calm down (for which he is rewarded with congratulations on his wisdom), and she’s back in the Doctor’s TARDIS the next episode.

A manifestation of abuse is also explored in Flatline, where Clara assumes the Doctor’s role for a day. This is an opportunity for us to see how much she has absorbed his mentality. She lies when people need to be lied to, takes control of a situation that is not hers to control, and callously celebrates what victories she achieves in spite of the tragic losses along the way. This is also an opportunity for the Doctor to see himself from the outside and he doesn’t like it. He’s disappointed in Clara for abusing his name and her power.

By the next episode, all is forgotten.

Throughout the series, Clara abuses Danny’s trust, and he keeps coming back to her. Their relationship is not developed well enough for this to be plausible to me. We are given no indication of what he values so much about their relationship that he’s happy to put up with the repeated lies and divided priorities.

In Dark Water, the tables are turned in an outrageously stilted twist. Clara, under severe emotional duress…well, I’ll let the Doctor describe it:

You betrayed me. You betrayed my trust, you betrayed our friendship, you betrayed everything I’ve ever stood for. You let me down!

He then goes on to ask, “Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?”

To which I answer, YES! IT MAKES A DIFFERENCE!

Clara would say what she has said before, if she were still herself: “Honestly, do you have music playing in your head when you say rubbish like that?” Instead, she says, “I don’t deserve a friend like you,” and the Doctor replies, “Clara, I’m terribly sorry, but I’m exactly what you deserve.” I don’t know if there’s music playing in his head, but it’s sure playing on screen.

This series tells us again and again, there is no line that can’t be crossed by people you love. If you care about each other enough, then you should come back. You get the treatment you deserve.

When I think about this message, I think about girls like Emma growing up and trying to make sense of the big mess of emotions and boundaries and trust that plays out when someone is discovering love before they’ve even made sense of themselves. I think of young boys who see the Doctor as a role model; who want to grow up to be great men like he is.

IV.

Before I watched series 8, I already knew that the show had been going downhill. Series 7 was thoroughly disappointing. I liked Clara’s character to the limited extent that she was actually developed, and I admired Jenna Coleman’s performance. For that matter, Matt Smith was my favorite actor for the Doctor yet (whether Eleven was my favorite Doctor as a character is another matter, but Smith can’t be held accountable for the nosedive the writing entered when Russell T. Davies left). It just wasn’t enough, and I’m sure I would have stopped watching if Peter Capaldi hadn’t come on as the new Doctor.

Capaldi is great, and I was enticed back by knowing that he would make a good Doctor. (If you haven’t seen In the Loop, then go do that.) There is always a bit of a reboot of the character to go along with the new face, and Twelve does have some nice things to offer. But these reasons to keep watching amount to little more than the platitudes the Doctor and Clara give themselves. “I know he keeps letting me down, but we had so many good times together. This time he’ll be different. And besides, he would never really hurt anyone.”

I believe that there is a cynical meta-level on which the writers of Doctor Who know that viewers feel let down, and they’re counting on us to be drawn back with these rationalizations. That’s why we admire Clara’s self-assertion so much. We’ve heard the music playing in the Doctor’s head; we know that the illusion of substance falls away without the soundtrack, only we’re not always aware enough to see it in the moment. Watching her and the Doctor jettison their personal standards, soundtrack blaring, felt too much like watching myself deciding to give the next episode a chance. Being so disappointed in them made me see how I’m letting myself down, too, by continuing to watch a show that has set aside its values.

Danny tells Clara, “you’re never finished with anyone while they can still make you angry.” Well, I’m finished with Doctor Who—and yes, I’m angry.

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