Well, that was the best episode of Doctor Who we have seen in a very long time. It was near perfect in execution, nodded to a past that charts back before 2005, and had some deep, troubling and interestingly explored themes. I was impressed and captivated. There was a clear impression that this needed to be a landmark episode, and it delivered.
Hard to believe it took eight years to show an interior of the TARDIS that was more than nameless corridors, but when push came to shove we were not let down.
The Doctor decides to let Clara try and fly the TARDIS as a way of getting the two of them to feel more comfortable with each other. (The TARDIS has made it plain that it doesn’t like Clara one bit and doesn’t trust her to be aboard without the Doctor.) For some reason putting the TARDIS in some kind of safety mode to allow Clara to fly involves turning off some plot significant shields? (I said near perfect execution, didn’t I?) Anyway, the moment is provided for the TARDIS to be exposed and some likely lads in a salvage vessel spy it and try to haul it in.
During the process of this the TARDIS is damaged, and somehow the Doctor is thrown outside the TARDIS whilst Clara is trapped within (fudge fudge fudge). The Doctor convinces the salvageers to help him enter the TARDIS and find Clara on condition that they receive the ‘salvage of a lifetime’.
Meanwhile, Clara becomes lost in a very unhappy TARDIS (fires are periodically a problem, because of… reasons) and she finds herself chased by strange, dark, creepy creatures.
The Doctor and the salvageers (it’s a word, shut up*) enter a race against time to save Clara and stop the TARDIS from exploding, hampered by the fact that some of the salvageers are more intent on salvaging than saving.
To add spice to the mix, one of the salvageers is an android, and he can sense the pain of the TARDIS, causing tension as he urges against his teammates’ impulse to just loot and get out.
This was bright, bubbly, entertaining, nostalgic, and dark. Which is a lot of what I want out of Doctor Who. We had some lovely nods to TARDIS episodes past, including the fan-beloved swimming pool. I would have liked to see the Cloisters (we do hear the Cloister Bell), maybe the rooms of some former companions, and I’m madly curious about the Doctor’s own bedroom, but there you go. They had to go wherever the plot was relevant, so fair enough.
There were a number of notes that made me wince. It wasn’t as bad as a Moffat penned episode, but there were a few completely unnecessary gender-oriented jokes which went unchallenged, and I continue to feel uncomfortable with New Who’s (mainly Moffat Who’s) emphasis on the conception of the TARDIS as female and in some kind of romantic relationship with the Doctor. Yes, there is a tradition of referring to ships using female pronouns, but that’s a sexist time and location-centric Earth tradition, no reason for the Doctor to buy into it. No obvious reason for the Doctor to think of the TARDIS as gendered at all. Being gendered is not a requirement of sentience. I know the Neil Gaiman penned episode is popular and all, but one of the things that made me less keen on it was this emphasis on the TARDIS as female and in love with the Doctor – even thinking of herself as called ‘Sexy‘, which if you wanted to encapsulate everything that’s wrong with Moffat era Who, a lot of it is said right there.
There’s nothing wrong with the TARDIS being feminine per se (she couldn’t possibly be female (sexed), TARDISes don’t mate), she can be gendered however she fancies. The problem is that she’s in a master/slave relationship with a paradigm patriarchal figure in an epically popular television show aimed at children. And don’t get me started on the people who think the themes don’t matter because it’s a family show. Do you even know what a theme is? A theme isn’t something invented by academics, it’s something academics label as a way of identifying messages embedded in a work of literature (yes, TV is literature, just like plays, deal with it) and issues tackled. If your message is one of iconic figures with whom children will identify being engaged in deeply problematic master/slave relationships with the division being created along gendered lines in a show where the male patriarch increasingly belittles women… yeah, it’s a problem.
Let’s talk about the master/slave dialectic; it’s an important tool of societal, psychological, and literary analysis. Marx liked and popularised it for that reason, although it originates in Hegel. One thing I think really raises the bar of this episode of Doctor Who is that it directly addresses the problematic of master/slave dynamics.
The Hegelian theory is that a consciousness cannot be self-aware unless it has encountered another consciousness which it recognises as like itself and yet distinct from itself (don’t worry about why, it goes back to Kant’s transcendental idealism, which is a whole other thing, just accept for now that it’s a theory with a good amount of history behind it). As such, any consciousness is reliant upon other minded beings for its own existence, and yet (according to Hegel) it is always trying to destroy, or at least assert dominance over the Other. It doesn’t like that there is a consciousness out there that is not its own, so it seeks to destroy or absorb it. Which it can never do without destroying itself. Thus a symbiotic relationship forms. The ‘winner’ of the struggle becomes the ‘master’, dominating the ‘slave’, and yet the master becomes completely reliant on the ‘slave’ for nearly everything. Masters are not producers.
Now, there’s a feminist history of rejecting the struggle for dominance in the master/slave dialectic as a specifically masculine view. I do not subscribe to this. I think such views rest on an unsubstantiated essentialist view of gender which reads women as fundamentally submissive or non-combative. There’s plenty of evidence that this is false, even if you think that women are, on the whole, more submissive or gentle than men. Personally, I don’t just believe, but know, that many women are neither submissive nor gentle; however, I do not assert that this is an indication of superiority. I know there’s substantial reaction against Anglo-American feminist insistence on active and assertive agency as the only legitimate and respectable way for a woman to demonstrate her worth. Gender aside, one should concede that praising only the assertive and aggressive is problematic. My point is rather that assuming that these are exclusively, or even predominantly, male attributes is both false and problematic. I do think there is a natural human drive towards dominance. ‘Natural’ merely in the sense that the genes of those that strive for the most food, the most mating opportunities, etc., have a tendency to result in continued survival, and that’s common between men, women, gender queer, monkeys, catfish, and elephants. Nevertheless I also agree that struggling for dominance is not the only successful survival trait, and often beings that expend their energies in other directions can be more successful. Megan Lindholm’s masterpiece, Alien Earth, which is also deeply concerned with analysis of the master/slave dialectic, is particularly interesting in its exploration of cooperative ecologies and their relation to combative ones.
What I’m getting at is that the master/slave dialectic as an analysis of sentient interaction is an idea with legs, but not one we should be uncritical of. The Doctor’s relationship with the TARDIS is an exemplar of the master/slave dialectic. (A point the Doctor’s relationship with the Master has flirted with drawing out under the hands of some of Doctor Who‘s more insightful writers in the past.) The Doctor is the ‘master’, yet he is almost completely dependent upon the TARDIS for just about everything. She is his slave, and must do what he tells her, yet he’s not even a Timelord without her, he’s just the last Gallifreyan, not even able to reproduce. You can see why, then, it’s problematic to phrase this particularly iconic master/slave relationship in gendered terms. I am reminded with bile in my throat of the discussions I have had with male geeks about the sexism inherent in David Eddings’s works. All the women are ultra feminine, but, it is always said, the men would be hopeless without them. Polgara may be an immortal sorceress, but she likes cooking and darning socks. And that’s fine. Many women like cooking and sewing. The problem is that the men around Polgara exploit the assumption that she will like these things by completely neglecting to develop any skills in these areas. In this way, she has to perform these services for them. Dividing labour along gendered lines enforces a restriction of women’s options even as it makes men dependent on them. The catch is, the actions that men depend on women to perform are rarely those that allow women to accumulate extra resources with which to commission services from men.
And so the feminist Marxist analysis of the master/slave dialectic goes.
So. The thing I liked about this episode is that it confronts these problematic elements embedded in Doctor Who head on. By having a character who is othered (designated as the slave role) by virtue of him being literally a machine (the theoretically non-sentient analog of the slave role) we are confronted with the deep inappropriateness of such relationships. I don’t want to transgress into the Spoiler Zone, but let us just say that the emotional impact of the inappropriateness of such a relationship is made viscerally evident.
Moreover, despite the depressing tendency towards sexism in recent Doctor Who, and some unsettling elements of characterisation of the TARDIS with respect to her gendering as female, the TARDIS has a long history of defying the Doctor’s expectations. The majority of Peter Davison’s era, for instance, is spent with the Doctor having very little control over where the TARDIS goes at all. His repeated attempts to return Tegan to Heathrow airport in the correct era represent an utter failure of mastery. Similarly, ‘Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS’ is structured by scene after scene of the TARDIS asserting control and rendering the Doctor, his companion, and everyone else aboard her utterly helpless.
This is why I think Stephen Thompson is to be commended as the writer of this episode. This is an acknowledgement and exploration of the Doctor’s problematic relationship with the TARDIS at a level we rarely see. Like the salvageers exploiting their ‘robot’ companion, the Doctor has gained immeasurable benefits – near godlike status – exploiting the TARDIS. And when the Doctor ‘offers’ them the TARDIS in compensation for rescuing Clara (one assumes he always plans to double-cross them on this, but it’s still a startling thing to do with a being you regard as sentient) one is confronted by the narrowness of their vision as they proceed to try and dissect the TARDIS, ignoring the fact that the TARDIS as a whole is worth immeasurably more than any circuit could be. The slave, we are reminded, is usually much brighter than the masters – he or she has to be; she or he does all the work.
It should also be noted that this is probably unique as an episode of Doctor Who in which people of colour outnumbered white people, and I suspect that it no mistake. One of the factors underlying the current instability of our economic situation, after all, is that so-called first-world, predominantly white countries like the UK and the US have had their wealth bolstered by exploitation of people of colour for centuries. It is a mistake to think this ended with the abolition of legal slavery. As a relatively poor person in the UK I can still buy a top for £3 if I want to. How is that possible, but that someone, somewhere, earns far less than I do? Now, following the credit crunch, our economy struggles to stabilise in a world where developing nations we are used to exploiting are gaining greater economic power.
One might still think ‘Well, that’s all very well – elucidating the master-slave relationship, but the status quo remains unchallenged for the Doctor at the end’. I think there’s some legitimacy in that. People talk about having a female Doctor or a black Doctor as a way of balancing the scales, but I still kind of feel like that’s missing the point. Not that I’m against it. I think a black Doctor could now be possible with nothing problematic to it at all. A female one… well, I have no faith that it would be well-executed under the current regime, and the total dominance of Doctor Who by male writers is preventing a woman from gaining sufficient credibility to take the helm and challenge the way of things. But in another time, under different leadership, with different writers… sure, it could be fine. My point is rather that 50 years of the Doctor flying around acting as the Great White Male Saviour to countless cultures that have not his wealth**, his education, his technology, cannot be erased by having one iteration of the Doctor be black, or Asian, or female. The problem with viewing it like this is that we are still maintaining the wealthy white man as the ideal by making it a goal to have people of colour and women play his role. The real goal is to surround this show where a rich, educated, white man saves the day again and again with a normality where any man, women, intersex or gender queer individual can save the day in any way he/she/zie damn well likes. The Doctor should not be the standard we all seek to attain. The Doctor should be just another character. Rich, complex, exciting, amongst other rich, complex, exciting characters, each of whom is rich, complex, and exciting in different ways. The rich, white, educated male ideal is not the only one to which we should aspire.
Nevertheless, I do think credit is due to Stephen Thompson and it must be noted that although there is little he can do within the confines of the show to change the cultural context in which it appears, or the necessity that the Doctor is and always will be the title character whose centrality is determined by his possession of the TARDIS – nevertheless, he does show us that if the TARDIS wishes to assert control she is more than capable of doing so. Moreover, although the status quo is re-established amongst the salvageers as well, the way in which the wrongness of their situation has been underscored provides a counterpoint with which to remind the audience that just because things have returned to the status quo, that doesn’t mean that it’s OK.
*I might have just started reading The Three Musketeers, it’s not important, don’t look at me like that.
** Incidentally, ever notice that the Doctor never thinks to carry money and never knows what would be appropriate to give someone when he has some? That’s a classic sign of someone whose wealth has become so vast they can’t even count it anymore or relate to those who lack it with any real understanding. You may not think of him as rich, but the TARDIS offers him so much wealth that money doesn’t mean anything to him. Not caring about money is not a sign of having grown ‘beyond’ such trivial things. It’s a sign that you’re rich enough that you’ve never had to care. One thing I like about Clara is that she consistently challenges the Doctor on his privilege, and expresses concern that the opportunities the TARDIS offers have distanced him from being able to connect with other people on any normal level.