Doctor Who: Salad Days

Shipping steel

There was plenty to relish in the first episode to feature Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor The Woman Who Fell to Earth.  These included the entirety of Whittaker’s performance, but also the score, camera work and colour palette, and The Doctor building things, in addition to the sets. Plus Salad Man. The locations for filming felt familiar and also exotic, uncanny and mundane. As it should look and feel, in other words.

Northbound 

It was a little bit Christmas Invasion with The Doctor not yet knowing who she is (and speechifying about it) until called into action (and speechifying about it). This was in addition to the scene where The Doctor naps as new companions wonder about this sleeping alien. There was more generally something of Russell T Davies’ era with the prominence of family and home life. However, there were Eleventh Hour call backs with a young woman in uniform (Amy/Yaz) dragged into an alien investigation, ending up with a raggedy Doctor donning second-hand clothing, and travelling. Meanwhile, The Doctor’s response (her pose) at realising the loss of her TARDIS felt very Peter Capaldi-like. Of course, there was the call back to the original premise: a bunch of people (familiar to each other) accidentally ending up gallivanting across time and space.

So much to celebrate

Only One

This episode updated Doctor Who, but I saw plenty that continued its traditions. There were wrong first hypotheses, name forgetting, bargaining with the enemy alien, lectures, sacrifice, adrenaline, and the creation of a team, gang, fam. There were raised stakes, working things out as they happen, running about, improvising solutions, making friends and generally being The Doctor as The Doctor should be.

All this was pretty good. Some bits even touched wonder…like Ryan entering that forest. The soundscape added complexity to each scene, enhancing the uncanny, menacing feel of the alien, which was nicely undercut with The Doctor’s “Tim Shaw” name confusion.

Standing on the Outside

What I wanted more of: I missed the TARDIS. I want acknowledgement of the brother’s work, as well as his sacrifice to find his taken sister. More about the impact of the series of deaths and of the legal and other implications, instead of ‘we all lied, what now?’. Especially since Yaz, even on probation, would be a ‘sworn officer’. Thus, it means in her first outing after asking for more challenges she failed. I want consequences for this.

One Long Day

In addition: the alien escape felt too convenient. Also, these taken people need to be rescued or otherwise addressed by The Doctor.  But who knows, sometimes one writer has plans for ongoing stories that other writers don’t pick up. Plus, Chris Chibnall said there would not be two-parters. That doesn’t however, mean things set up in this episode can’t be resolved later. Maybe the brother’s sacrifice to find his sister won’t be in vain.

My Turn To Cry

But let’s get to the BIG neon warning this episode threw in our faces like it was no big deal.  Everyone knew there were three new companions. Graham, Ryan and Yaz. It was abundantly clear Grace, (Ryan’s Nan) wasn’t going any further.

But why, WHY, do we need Another Dead Mother (figure)? Ryan gets two dead mothers, his actual mother who died when he was a child and now his Nan, who sacrificed herself to (sort of) save her grandson and Yaz.  For plot purposes this death was pointless, the action had peaked. The companions were all on the same page already. They knew each other, and were united in their experiences what level of  previous ‘belief’ they’d held about aliens. No other death was needed to further unite them. What they’d experienced was emotional enough, and anyway, The Doctor is the catalyst who will transform them, not the death of Grace.

Furthermore, the three companions end up accidentally travelling. It’s not like they choose to leave Grace behind. Grace could’ve returned to work and the other three could’ve helped The Doctor and then disappeared. Or Grace could’ve ended up in a coma after the fall, which would’ve increased the emotional tension between the Doctor and companions. There are dozens of ways Grace could’ve lived and also not become a companion. Grace could’ve become a base to return to, like Jackie for Rose and Francine for Martha.

Never Before

Or to turn this situation upside down, how about a mother as companion? Yeah, we have The Doctor as a woman but imagine the narrative possibilities of a travelling, adventuring mother, instead of a host of dead mothers, or mothers waiting like Jackie Tyler and Francine Jones. Imagine a woman drawn to adventure but also torn between her role as parent, and this desire for the universe. Imagine not a daughter begging to meet her dead father, but a mother who encounters her future adult child. Would/could she want to return home to change how she raises that child?

Numbers Fall

Anyway, it’s no use speculating on possibilities until we examine what has been. While the needless death of mother figures in fiction literally infuriates me, the unrealised potential of mothers to be more than one thing is also, frankly, annoying. Yet when mothers do become more involved it’s usually treated as a negative. For example, when Jackie gets the opportunity to be the companion (Doomsday) she is mocked for being 40 by a character meant to be 900. Jackie is treated as the butt of jokes anyway but The Doctor’s disdain is unnecessarily mean. Similarly, when Martha Jones’ family is dragged into The Doctor’s world, Francine (with her ex-husband and other daughter) is forced into servitude (The Last of the Time Lords).  The entire Jones’ family has an unfairly rough trot, in fact. Can’t say I’m a fan of their dis-empowerment, but the abuse of Francine by the Master is the most egregious to me, simply because she was once so formidable, after constantly being wronged by her husband, and his new girl friend, as well as The Master.

Home and Broken Hearted

But back to Grace. In this one episode she offered commonsense, nursing practicality to contrast to Yaz’s (misplaced) confidence, Ryan’s frustrations and Graham’s reticence. Grace was thus doomed from the outset merely for her competency because, as often happens in Doctor Who the slightly useless are saved (the crane driver) while the worthy die.

I would have enjoyed more acts of Grace.

Yet I can’t help wondering how it would’ve been to see Grace operate in the universe. As a primary carer (as parent and nurse) she had the potential to be a compassionate counterpoint to The Doctor’s usual methods of resolving crises. But no.

No Good For You

Instead, she’s dead. All I can say is at least Grace wasn’t murdered, and passed over, like the other characters in this episode. Yet in some ways, her death is worse. The murders serve to demonstrate the vileness of the alien, but Grace’s selflessness is just another in a line of emotional penalties endured by companions for becoming involved with The Doctor. As I indicated earlier, the companions had already witnessed murder victims, stymied an attempted abduction, lied to police, foiled attacks, and been implanted with bombs. The personal cost didn’t need escalation for the characters, nor the audience.

So why kill her?

Lack of imagination? The need to remove reasons for companions to return home?

Whatever…

Just How Many Times

Perhaps my reaction to this plot device is due in part to the news that in Australia this year alone 54 women have been murdered. Not in fiction, in real life. They were individuals, some were parents, some weren’t, but they were going about their business when they were killed, mostly by men known to them. (See Destroy the Joint ).

More than one a week.

Believe me, as a daughter who lost a mother (in an accident), I wish sudden deaths are fictional. I wish all deaths are for noble sacrifices that lead to great achievements and personal transformations. But there are too many needlessly dead women in real life for me to stomach one more needlessly killed off woman in fiction.  Even in fiction I love.

Showtime

This is my plea to writers. Find other ways for characters to emotionally evolve. Find other ways to separate individuals from family members and responsibilities if plots require it. Find ways to include many more different types of women as active participants in stories.

Otherwise, the risk is You Got Nothing I Want*.

* Chapter titles are songs by Cold Chisel, because this band of working class, troubled troubadours of Australiana seemed to fit.

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