Arcs of Triumph?
From a writer’s point of view The Doctor is a hero that unlike many others, is never ‘complete’ to quote the repair droids of the MS Madame Pompadour. As we have seen, even as he faces death his story isn’t done, because his timeline extends through all of time and space in every direction and crosses itself. That provides writers with a lot of scope. Amid all the adventures though, any detail that adds to knowledge of his inner life or pre-Doctor history stands out. As it should. The issue for the writer is how to present it – how to weave it into the monster of the week story and make it pertinent to the season arc as well as revealing of character.
So what is significant about Clara’s role in both revealing aspects of The Doctor and shaping them? We know Clara shaped his unconscious with a story about fear and a toy soldier, and there does seem to be a theme going on about soldiers. We learn The Doctor slept in a barn he later used to attempt to blow up Gallifrey from. We repeatedly learn he lies. Sometimes we learn he lies because he knows someone is listening in (Gus in Mummy in the Orient Express) or to give people hope (Flatline), or to learn something. We know he often doesn’t care about feelings. Except when he does. He is self-loathing and aware of it and smart and arrogant about it. In Flatline, he revealed taking on the persona of The Doctor is not about doing or being good and this series so far is his attempt to define if he is good at all.
Yet he is still a hero. Or: yet he is still a hero?
And somehow Missy and Clara fit into all this.
We learn, as writers to make characters ‘real’ or three-dimensional. Readers (or viewers) are meant to love them, identify with them, or have empathy for the heroes they are drawn to. The Doctor may not like himself, but others love him and see him as real even if they don’t know his name or understand much about him. It is they, with their flaws and mistakes, who add to his dimensions as much as the details of his past do.
Some paintings are meant to be looked at in certain, obvious ways, but turn you head and the picture reveals what was there all the time, but obscured. A new perspective renders this aspect of the picture intelligible. It is apparent in Holbein’s The Ambassadors. As they stand in their furs and luxuries, a great big something at the bottom of the picture disturbs the celebration. At the right angle it is obvious an anamorphic device. A reminder of the futility of their materialism or a surprise for the viewer in the appropriate vantage point?
Similarly, taking your character into a new situation, or against a new kind of enemy or viewing your character from a different perspective should, likewise, reveal more of what was there already. Holbein’s skull is there the entire time, and once you know it is there you look for it. You can’t unsee or unknow its presence, but finding it the first time is…yowsers.
Furthermore, anything new that is revealed about your hero should be congruent with what has gone before. Or at least up to a point.
Doctor Clara and the Hero Formula
When Clara ‘becomes’ The Doctor in Flatline she breaks down his character into acts. Typical English teacher, she pulls apart his story and identifies his motivations and what she sees as his reasoning. She is doing what all critics do. She decodes his ‘Hero Formula’. First. Snoop. Ask questions, use tools, get help, identify group and become their leader. As a leader The Doctor then tries to inspire hope, assesses ally or enemy for their abilities and then uses the strengths and weaknesses of those around him – or in this case her. Finally, Doctor Clara uses all her knowledge against her enemy, including their strengths. Doctor Clara is also unique in her modus operandi. Her knowledge of students and Briggsy especially allows her to see him beyond his ‘teen gone bad image’. She uses his skills, which turn the abilities of the 2Ders against them, which in turn, saves The Doctor. She becomes the Clara Version of The Doctor.
Through a glass darkly: otherness
I am not sure yet that Clara realises The Doctor is not really a person but a role. Even though she is told this repeatedly, as recently in Flatline, when the Doctor delivers his Save the Day speech and demarcates his role. Again.
But to deliver his ‘defining’ role speech, Flatline had to deliver something to combat. This episode is very, very clever. So much of it is about the difficulties in interacting with a completely ‘alien’, kind of alien. And he used the word: monster. Finally it was a kind of ‘baddie’ we didn’t need to feel all conflicted over. It was new, weird, and completely Other. He used the power of the name, to identify it as an enemy and to identify himself as a protector. But while he needs the baddie to find himself, he is still not ‘good’.
Lines of Sight
The Doctor, from a new point of view, stuck hilariously inside his tiny Tardis, sees how Clara understands him and why she can’t say he is a definitive ‘Good Man’. Nevertheless Clara, and I guess all of us, want him, and her version of him to be ‘good’. Good not just as a replica of The Ambassadors is a fair reproduction, but, I think morally just and the kind of clever tainted with kindness. In fact we want this Doctor to live up to his vow from Day of the Doctor: Never cruel or cowardly. Never give up, never give in.
We are all just prism-ers here, of our own device
Western entertainment has traditionally depicted the good in white and the bad in black. We know that’s simplistic and racist, or has its basis in fears about The Other. But often stories are allegories, the blackness can be the darkness of night. Now we understand light and we know from Gandalf that white is not white. Refracting white light it breaks into its components, which is all colours – the entire spectrum. White is everything. In story telling logic, then, white/good is always alchemically mixed with a little of everything else. What I’m getting to is no Hero is without that little bit of everything else.
It white is everything, then black, is not something, but the lack of something. Not Freudian Lack (necessarily) but absence where in the nothing something can grow, develop, leech through. It is unknowing. Ok, sounding more Freudian now. These 2D monsters exist in the space where we think there is nothing. They are the skulls in the painting before we see them, in this episode, literally and figuratively. Once we know they are there we can’t unknow. But like the skull in the picture, they too are a mystery.
Like criticism, perspective is just another way humans invented to understand the world. And the world worked fine without both for quite a while. But they do have their benefits, like making what we see clearer and rendering worlds and that which they contain proportionate to other worlds.
Anyway, whether the criticism is from someone like me outside the story, or from someone inside, like Clara or that other Companion/Doctor, Donna, it is never static. It comes from different places at different times with different motivations. Clara’s assessment of The Doctor is true for her experience at a particular point, but is not the only ‘truth’. Similarly, what I see now is limited because I am limited in exactly the way The Doctor is not. Time and space and what for most is a linear experience of the progression of events are no barrier to this Hero with 12 Faces.
Unlike The Doctor I am on the slow path, but just like that Girl in the Fireplace every now and again the light breaks through. In those fleeting moments like Reinette, I too have a means to look through time into other worlds: stories.
Thanks to all the tellers of stories who show me other times and places.
2 thoughts on “Doctor Who: Depth Perception”
A big thanks from me for this awesome run of Doctor Who essays, Bec. I love this show so much, and Peter Capaldi has become my favourite Doctor, so it’s cool to see some thoughtful… well, thoughts on his run of the series so far. 🙂
Thanks so much! I keep wanting to compare Capaldi to Matt Smith and Tom Baker. He’s like a combination of both but he’s making it his own, that’s for sure.