Doctor Who Review: The Doctor Falls

So: on Sunday I visited the Barbican’s exhibition “Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction” (which is excellent, by the by, and produced a few fangirl moments for me). One of the things the exhibition makes abundantly clear is the extent to which science fiction is a genre rooted, problematically, in colonialism: its roots are in Jules Verne-y tales of imperial adventure, in which Western gentleman scientists visit the unexplored corners of, say, Darkest Africa, and find dinosaurs and strange monsters to be conquered or exploited for the good of Queen and Country.

We can situate Doctor Who in this tradition, too. (Oddly, the exhibition skips almost entirely over Doctor Who, possibly because it doesn’t quite know what to do with it.) The Doctor is a white, straight man, usually old, who flies about the universe in a 1960s police box which these days symbolises Britishness.

That is, he may be canonically a Time Lord, and thus country-less; but in spirit he is definitely British. He flies around the universe, sight-seeing, exploring, boldly going, ands generally sorting out other people’s problems for them. He’s much too civilised to fight, and avoids doing so by outwitting his enemies using his technological superiority. He also Knows Best, most of the time. He is, in other words, a manifestation of a particular fantasy of British superiority over everyone else, ever.

(Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the waves.)

There’s often more to Doctor Who than that, of course, but that’s the basic template. Or a basic template, at any rate.

I’m interested in making this overt, in relation to The Doctor Falls, because I think that Steven Moffat’s finale to the Twelfth Doctor’s escapades and his own involvement with Doctor Who is engaged in deconstructing a lot of what makes the show what it is.

For instance: isn’t it interesting that this final episode takes place on a colony ship? And not just any colony ship, either: it’s a ship that’s become stuck (outside a black hole) before it even managed to pick up its colonists; the colonialist project, mankind’s conquering of space, frozen and stagnated before it’s begun. Not only that, either: because the colonists begin to turn on themselves, enhanced human Cybermen fighting “normal” humans (and look how those humans are constructed as American pioneers, which is to say colonialists, in dress, architecture and outlook) in a spectacular self-destruct which the Doctor sees as inevitable in any human society. (Wherever there are humans, there will eventually be Cybermen.) That’s a self-destruct of the show’s underlying ideology of colonialist exploration, of technological superiority, of progress. Even the Doctor is cut off from his TARDIS, the mode of transport that defines who and what he is.

This ideological dissolution of the show’s Whoishness is compounded in other, smaller but not less significant ways. Look at the Doctor’s refusal to regenerate at the end of the episode: another kind of stagnation that undoes the very essence of what the Doctor is, a palimpsest of personalities made up of hundreds of often contradictory episodes. (The show has the man’s name on it, after all.) Look at the Missy/Master side-plot: Moffat squanders the narrative potential generated by the Master’s appearance at the end of World Enough and Time by having the Doctor foil his plan almost immediately, so that the Master is reduced to purposeless, sterile evil, destroying his future self to prevent her standing with the Doctor. The parallel with the ending to The Last of the Time Lords only accentuates how the mighty is fallen: from a plot that stretched to the end of the universe and back in that episode to petty, self-involved irrelevance that destroys its own future.

And, finally, look at the dissolution of the little ka-tet that has formed the core of this season of Doctor Who. Nardole is left behind on the dying colony ship, fighting a war he cannot win. (I wonder if Moffat actually realises that this is what the Doctor has done by taking the TARDIS to Antarctica? Even if Nardole and the colonists make it eventually to the bridge, they will be unable to leave.) And Bill, pointedly and significantly, leaves the Doctor behind; escapes into a new relationship and a new mode of being which is anti-colonial, insomuch as it specifically excludes the paradigm of the white straight male explorer. This step into the future is pretty much the only note of hope in the entire episode. Having comprehensively dismantled the ideological framework of the show, Moffat gestures at what might come next – something very different, something that breaks Doctor Who and remakes it again.

There’s been a lot of speculation in the wake of World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls that the next Doctor might be female; and plenty of ambivalence as to what that might mean for the show. It’s clear, I think, from this episode that a female Doctor would represent a symbolic end for Doctor Who – that is, an end to the colonialist and misogynistic ideological structures on which it’s implicitly built.

But would it, as Andrew Rilstone asserts, mean that the future could only ever be female, lest a male replacement seem to imply that a female Doctor is inferior?

I think it depends on what incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall does with Moffat’s deconstruction of Doctor Who. I think, from here – from that image of Bill and Heather stepping into the sky together – it’s possible to imagine a reconstruction of the show, with a woman at its centre, that’s inclusive enough, that’s anti-colonial enough, that it opens a way for the Doctor to be any gender, or none, without the implication that any of them are inferior; a reconstruction that exists outside the need for such logics. It’s also possible to imagine Doctor Who continuing much as it always has done: with a female Doctor who cannot help but be compared to her male predecessors.

It remains to be seen, then, what the ultimate “meaning” of Moffat’s deconstruction of Doctor Who will come to be – whether it creates a new future for the show or just represents a creator at the end of his tenure wrecking things for his successor.

4 thoughts on “Doctor Who Review: The Doctor Falls

  1. Welcome clear-sightedness. I’m thinking more and more about colonialism in Doctor Who at the moment. RTD even suggested every space story featured human ‘pioneers’ for example. I’m far less predisposed to question it than I should be.

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    1. Thanks, Matthew! That’s an interesting quote from RTD – it highlights how hard it is to imagine a space story that isn’t based on colonialist paradigms, especially if it also has to be accessible to a large TV audience who don’t necessarily consume a lot of other SF.

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      1. Yes! In the event there haven’t been that many conventional ‘pioneer’ stories in New Who – and one which explicitly attacks the slave trade, of course, in Planet of the Ood. However, it’s difficult to think of the Doctor as ‘explorer’ in ways which detach him from the imperial mindset, particularly when played in patrician style; and Troughton and McCoy, the least patrician Doctors, both posed as administrative officers of empire.

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        1. I agree that there aren’t that many New Who stories in which the Doctor visits a planet just to find out what’s there (“Midnight” comes to mind, but it’s not the Doctor who saves the day in that episode); it’s more that the show is based on colonialist assumptions and structures. How many times has the Doctor offered to show a companion the universe? It’s that idea that all those worlds are there for the taking; that the strange and the other is there to be seen and marvelled at and narrated by this old white British man. I think that’s especially the case with Capaldi’s Doctor, too, who’s much less – accountable, I suppose – to his companions; neither Clara nor Bill ever really got to call him out on his alien morality (as, say, Donna did at the end of “The Fires of Pompeii”); he’s literally always right, a fantasy of British superiority.

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