It’s really Selena’s fault. Well, Selena and Cadmium 2. (“Cadmium 2, the podcast of cult Britannia,” as the tagline explains.) Well, alright, before that, even, it’s Christopher Eccleston’s fault. Him and Billie Piper.
You see, I happen to like Eccleston’s acting. When I heard that the Doctor Who franchise was rebooting, with Eccleston playing The Doctor, I thought, “huh, maybe it won’t suck as bad as that stupid scarf guy did.” Prior to the reboot, prior to the Ninth Doctor, my total experience of Doctor Who had been flyers on the walls of science fiction conventions, advertising Gallifreyan Room Parties, and glimpses of BBC reruns on WTTW, the PBS affiliate in Chicago. (All I recalled of those glimpses was a scenery-chewing dork in a scarf, lengthy omg lengthy exposition, and aliens even less convincing than those on Star Trek.) Battlestar Galactica had just re-launched to great critical and fan acclaim. “Revisioning” was a buzzword in movies and tv at the time. For Eccleston, I would give Doctor Who a chance.
What I found was Rose. And, in seeing Billie Piper’s Rose I found out something that no-one had ever seen fit to tell me. Namely, that while there are many things to get out of Doctor Who, many ways to watch the show, one of those things is the sequence of relationships between The Doctor and his Companions.
And here, a digression: To all the fans over the years who tried to tell me Doctor Who was a good, cool show. Why did not a bloody one of you ever mention that the show is about relationships? Why do people insist on describing Doctor Who as a show about a Timelord who travels about, getting into and out of scrapes and meddling with or helping worlds and their troubles? People talk abut the Tardis, about Daleks, about Cybermen . . . People talk about Gallifrey, about the Master. Nobody ever says, “this is a show that describes the essential value of humanity through a series of relationships between a powerful alien Doctor and his (mostly) human traveling companions.” That would have sold me. (This is part of a much longer rant I have about the way people describe and sell science fiction shows overall.)
I found, in the Ninth Doctor and Rose, a show, a series of stories about the power of will. The Ninth Doctor seems to believe — occasionally vengefully — that sentient beings deserve the full consequences of the choices they have made. He doesn’t seem to mind Lady Cassandra’s fate — it was what she deserved. He is vindictive against the Slitheen. It’s possible to view the Ninth Doctor’s attitude as one of guilt, of pain and loss. He, after all, is the sole survivor of the Time War. He believes that he himself needs to get what he deserves — yet seems unsure of what that might be.
I watched Ninth Doctor and liked it. I watched Tenth Doctor and loved the show. I liked the Doctor, David Tennant’s Doctor more than I loved an specific episode, story, or Companion — though I have my favorites, of course. Tennant’s Doctor had moved past the depression and mis-aimed anger that seemed to simmer in Eccleston’s portrayal. Instead that guilt and anger had moved into a goal — no more genocides, ever again. Yet this goal is not a closed door, it’s not a target to be hit or missed. It’s a choice, an endless series of choices made by all sentient life, every moment, across universes.
Tennant’s Tenth Doctor doesn’t mean to force creatures into his morals. He doesn’t start out with threats. No. He offers them the opportunity to stop themselves. He pleads, he promises, he cajoles. He wants everyone to live. He doesn’t want to be a killer more than he already is. When a race or creature refuses to turn from the path of murder and genocide the Tenth Doctor turns the death and destruction back on its source — still hoping, I think, that the creature he stops may live longer and learn to be better than they are. But if not, he doesn’t mourn the loss.
This, then, is the Doctor I first met. A man, grieving and guilty, who rebuilds himself into an agent of free will and redemption.
Obligatory X-Men tie-in: I meet a lot of folks online and at conventions these days who say they have an opinion on the X-Men. They like a character, or dislike another. They like or dislike some storyline. And, in each new conversation I have, I must first determine the ground rules. I have to figure out which X-Men my new conversational partner knows.
There’s the most widely known, of course — the movies. The X-Men also have three successful television cartoons — X-Men, X-Men: Evolution, and the now-airing Wolverine and the X-Men. In the comic books there are three major universes of X-Men — the primary, or “616” universe, the Ultimate universe, and the Exiles universe. X-Men stories have been told in additional universes, such as Age of Apocalypse, Noir, and Rachel’s future ‘verse. In 616 alone there are currently eight (is it eight? I may have lost one — ) X-Men titles, not counting specials, limiteds, and one-shots.
There’s a lot of X-Men canon out there to know. And I am now finding myself on the other side of that with Doctor Who. I know the New Doctor Who stories, a position I mentally consider analogous to reading only Astonishing X-Men, or only knowing the movies. Something current and certainly legitimate, but lacking in the depth a long-time fan will bring to the same story. To add to this, I started listening to the Cadmium 2 podcast. Among all the other series the Cadmium guys cover, they are reviewing every Doctor Who story in chronological order. We’ve gotten up to the start of series 3. So while I am familiar with the First Doctor, with Barbara and Ian, I’ve gotten this familiarity through the commentary of others. I consider it analogous to reading Jeff Parker’s X-Men: First Class.
But my biggest exposure to Classic Doctor Who is from the original audioplays of Doctor Who by Big Finish Productions. These are authorized stories, professionally written and voiced, with solid production and special effects (mostly.) Peter Davidson, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, Sophie Aldred, and a bunch of people whose names I don’t recognize are all involved in the making of these audioplays. They are a legitimate continuation of the canon, considered by some to be a more legitimate continuation of the Classic Who franchise than many of the novels due to the ongoing nature of the plays. However, these plays are not as widely disseminated as the VHS tapes and dvds of the televised stories. I don’t honestly know how many Doctor Who fans know the stories that I am taking in.
And I am taking in these stories, oh yes. My Zune has a great deal of space devoted to them. I listen to them in the car on my drives to and from work. I re-listen to the plays, skipping to the scenes I like best. I have gotten a full-on fannish obsession with Seventh Doctor and Ace (note that is not Seventh Doctor / Ace. No slashing in this, for me.) I bought the four US-available Seventh-and-Ace dvds and have watched them. But I bought and watched them as a result of learning the characters from Fearmonger and Colditz and The Genocide Machine and Nocturne and Dust Breeding. Stories I fear most Classic Doctor Who fans don’t know.
This leaves me a bit . . . leery, I suppose, of trying to seriously say anything about Seventh or Ace. I feel rather like an X-Men fan who knows the X-Men: Evolution stories really really well and wants to talk to a 616-verse fan about the nature of the characters. While some broad strokes of character may be the same, the details will vary widely and possibly acrimoniously. And for good or for ill, the comics are sort of more-canonical than the cartoon. The comics are the original format, the longest-running, the basis for all the other presentations and alternate universes of X-Men. They have . . . more authority, I suppose, than the AUs and other media. It is my sense that Doctor Who has a similar paradigm — the television series carries more weight than the novels, movies, comics, and audioplays. Not that those are entirely without a voice, but that the television series is the fount from which the characters spring.
My other concern with my views on the Big Finish Productions audioplays is that they are being written now. The Doctor — Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, or Eighth — is written by people who have watched the New Doctor Who. People who now the direction of the Doctor’s character now. Does this alter their writing? Does this skew their characterization, knowing that the Time War lies ahead, that genocide is in this Gallifreyan’s future?
I thought this most strongly while listening to The Genocide Machine, a Seventh-and-Ace adventure involving Daleks, a library, and an original character who turns out to be the secret, real villain of the piece. The Doctor’s revulsion at the Secret Villain’s actions — is that strictly canonical, in the sense that it is a take on Seventh that is supported by the broadcast shows? Is it a legitimate extension of the character from the source material? Or is it influenced, subtly, by the Time War? Hard for me to know. Hard for me to say.
Despite my uncertainties on the complete canonical validity of my views, I find I still have an opinion. An Opinion, on Doctors and Companions, on character and humanity. Namely, that the Seventh Doctor and Ace exemplify the things I learned to love in New Doctor Who — themes of redemption, of second chances, the idea that everyone lives, that one can spend one’s life wisely. Namely, that Seventh-and-Ace are my favorite Doctor and Companion pair. And namely that Ace McShane is my favorite Companion.