Spoilers below. The only non-vague ones are references to River Song’s plotline.
My unhealthy love/hate relationship with Doctor Who is no secret. That I’ve fallen desperately in love with the character of the Doctor, with the TARDIS, with a universe bereft of Time Lords and wandered by a their lonely, blood-stained destroyer is no secret. That the writing, frequently lazy and often poorly thought out, used to tell the stories, the characters chosen to accompany the Doctor, the themes the show opts to explore often disappoint me to the point of fury, also not a secret. There are things about the show I don’t like which come down to a matter of taste, but the show commits enough objective sins that I’m willing to hold it accountable for the subjective ones as well.
The first episode of the new series is bad. Living plastic is dumb, the device they use to resolve it idiotic, Rose is a twit, and the dialog is nowhere near snappy enough to make up for any of that. I went on to watch the second episode for one reason. When Rose tries to pin down exactly who the Doctor is and it’s clear he’ll have to tell her something, the Doctor says this:
It’s like when you’re a kid, the first time they tell you that the world is turning and you just can’t quite believe it ’cause everything looks like it’s standing still. I can feel it – the turn of the earth. The ground beneath our feet is spinning at a thousand miles an hour. The entire planet is hurtling around the sun at sixty seven thousand miles an hour. And I can feel it. We’re falling through space, you and me, clinging to the skin of this tiny little world. And, if we let go… That’s who I am. Now forget me, Rose Tyler. Go home.
Everything up to the penultimate sentence there is great, but not enough to redeem anything. It’s that, plus the self abnegation that works for me. I knew nothing at all about the series at that point. But the Doctor was something special, something subtle and wonderful, and frightened of himself. Of course I watched another episode.
One of my problems with the show is how very much it embodies the idea that humans, as a species, are rather pathetic. I could cite nearly getting overtaken by fart-joke aliens as proof, but even the series seems to acknowledge the Slytheen were a mistake by not bringing them back after the first season. There is that. But Rose makes a sufficient case on her own. The Doctor endlessly marvels at her compassion, cites this trait as the thing that makes her worthy, but that compassion is useful mostly as a plot device enabling her to do stupid, stupid things. She wanders into traps, resurrects galaxy destroying villains, and gets hampered down in side plots all the time because of this “compassion.” She’s not compassionate, she’s an idiot. Her biggest redeeming quality is that she has the self-awareness to know what a lucky break she has in the Doctor, and acknowledging how much better she is with him than without. But as a case for humanity, Rose’s argument seems to be that at our best, we’re puppies. Affectionate, cute, but ultimately helpless.
Martha’s better. She’s competent, assertive. And inexplicably, character-shatteringly in love with the Doctor. Falling for the Doctor is a sign of good taste, sure, but she is at points actively miserable as a consequence. Humans, in the face of something as wonderful as the Doctor, even the best of them just freeze up with awe. At least Martha had the sense to put herself out of her misery. Still, not a great argument for humanity. And if you think I’m being unfair, let me cite the extraordinary ease with which Harold Saxon pulled off his plot. Oh those humans, so easy to bamboozle and manipulate.
Donna finally gives us somebody capable of seeing the Doctor plainly. And she’s the best case, out of the traditional companions, made for humans. Donna is actually compassionate; she forces the Doctor to actually examine the Ood situation as Rose never did. She’s also competent and provides her own skill set to compliment the Doctor’s, like Martha did. And like the Doctor, she has deep-seated self-image issues. Donna’s revolve around her worth, though. She’s not good enough, not clever enough, not successful enough. We meet her when she’s desperate to get married because she needs the validation, and we’re told she gets a happy ending when she finally manages it. In short, the only humans who can run with the Doctor without being completely warped by him manage it, not because they’re worthy, but because they’re convinced they aren’t.
Amy and Rory, not better. But let’s stay with S4 for a minute. I’ll direct your attention there because the Library is where we finally find a convincing argument for why the Doctor should spend so much time so dedicated to humans. Yes, I’m talking about River Song. For the first time we meet a human who is the Doctor’s match. She’s clever and confident, knows the value of the Doctor but capable of coping on her own. In some places she even outstrips him – she knows more about the TARDIS, about his future, knows him better than he does himself. River Song is a character who, if she were to travel along with the Doctor, would be there as his equal, not his elevated pet. Go team human.
At the end of S5, when Amy and Rory are getting fuddled and dead, River is holding her own, pulling some strings, and shooting Daleks, not because she’s frightened and helpless, but because she’s pissed and independent enough that the Doctor’s ethics do not control her. The Big Bang was the first finale in the show which didn’t disappoint me, after a long slew of finales that often left me screaming obscenities and cursing the names of various writers. River Song was a huge part of that. At last, a human role model for me. Somebody other than the Master who can match the Doctor and remain themselves. It was lovely, a reward for sticking with this show that takes such joy in hurting me so much.
Of course it was doomed. I knew the other shoe was coming. And when, as the first half of S6 started to wind down I figured out the shape of the shoe, I grumbled. While watching A Good Man Goes to War, one of my buddies asked why I was making the growly angry noises. “Because they’re about to kill River and I do not like it.” And they did. Oh boy, did they ever.
Leaving aside the sloppy plotting behind the Schrodinger pregnancy and the urge to flesh out River’s back story at all, the real crime there was in the DNA. River’s not human, she’s “Human plus Time Lord.” It’s bad enough to say she is what she is because she was deliberately groomed into it, but in one scene the show takes the only truly worthy example of humanity in the show and says we can’t claim her. Never mind, team human. Rose really is all you have to offer.
Why can’t humans be as wonderful and enigmatic as the Doctor? Why must we be a series of victims, of helpless, needy, nobodies at turns awed or spiteful when confronted with the Doctor? It’s not his alienness that makes the Doctor wonderful, it’s his cleverness, his knowledge, his outlook, and his technology. The character stakes are so much higher, the depths of pathos so much richer, if we raise the bar for humanity. Wouldn’t it be better if the Doctor’s companions fall because their mortal, not because they’re feeble; if they leave because they have their own adventures to explore, not because remaining with the Doctor will destroy them?
I can never have River back. And since the show put her there, then broke her, I will probably never get the thing River could have been for me. I’ve faulted this show for failing because it thinks camp is an ends to itself, for using its designation as a family show to enable sloppy plotting, and for relying on nostalgia for worn out plot devices to carry them through. But I think I’ve been harping on the wrong flaws. The show’s real failure is one of vision. For all that the Doctor walks through the universe praising humans for their wonderful humanness, insisting we’re special and wonderful, the show doesn’t believe it. And maybe that’s the Doctor’s final tragedy, that he’s deluded himself into believing we’re better than we are and is doomed for bitter disappointment. I don’t accept that. Let’s leave the self-loathing to the Doctor. Give me humans I can be proud of.