Doctor Who: the Doctor Dances — review (New Series tenth anniversary retrospective)

Colin Baker once cited The Doctor Dances as his favourite episode because of the Everybody Lives! moment. As part of the New Series tenth anniversary retrospective, The Doctor Dances, and its first half, The Empty Child, has been chosen to represent 2005’s best episodes. And so it makes sense for that to focus on the Everybody Lives! moment, because it’s so iconic, and is considered to be the Ninth Doctor’s best moment.

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Screenplay by Steven Moffat.

Colin Baker once cited The Doctor Dances as his favourite episode because of the Everybody Lives! moment. As part of the New Series tenth anniversary retrospective, The Doctor Dances, and its first half, The Empty Child, has been chosen to represent 2005’s best episodes. And so it makes sense for that to focus on the Everybody Lives! moment, because it’s so iconic, and is considered to be the Ninth Doctor’s best moment.

Indeed, the idea of Everybody Lives! has resonated throughout the show, both negatively and positively. The idea was reused by Moffat for bittersweet effect in 2008’s Forest of the Dead, and he himself then became a writer (in)famous for killing characters, and then not having killed them. It’s a problem that’s persisted in Moffat’s writing for some time. First, he kills a large amount of characters for dramatic effect, despite it being so common that it’s no longer dramatic. Then, he finds a way to resurrect them all for dramatic effect, despite it not only being so common that it’s no longer dramatic, but often happens due to a convenient plot device, and Moffat’s own, apparent, fear of consequences.

Joss Whedon and George R.R. Martin are famous for killing beloved characters, but they don’t overkill them. Everything that happens in the stories they tell happen for a reason. Moffat’s characters die because that’s the only way he knows how to create drama without resurrecting someone else. It’s got to the point in the show where life and death are now meaningless. The sacred suspension of disbelief that is death no longer has any value.

Remember that time Superman died? The world’s most indestructible hero? Well, he died. And then came back. And just like that, comic books were doomed to a style of storytelling where literally nothing matters anymore, because death is never permanent. There’s no jeopardy, no tension. And if there’s no tension, there’s no real conflict, and if there’s no conflict, there are no reasons for me to want characters to actually achieve anything. And that basically means I’m no longer invested in the story Moffat’s attempting to tell.

The latest season finale, 2014’s Death in Heaven, was more focused around death than ever before. And with it came a tonne of reasons to just not care. For a start, Moffat thought it would be a fantastic idea to resurrect Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart, whom was killed-off in 2011’s The Wedding of River Song via phone call. And that was that. One phone call, and he’s officially deceased. Until now, when he’s back in the form of a Cyberman. In the same episode, Danny Pink also died. But I just don’t believe that, since he’ll likely get some form of presence in Moffat’s final episode. And then there’s Osgood, killed so we could see how evil the Master is, yet there’s no guarantee this wasn’t the Zygon version of Osgood already established in continuity. Moffat denies that she was, but that means nothing without it being confirmed in narrative.

In fiction, character deaths can be exciting, especially if revealed to be faked. Moffat grew-up a fan of Sherlock Holmes, and would have gone through the process of The Final Problem and The Empty House, and what brilliant storytelling that was. But Arthur Conan Doyle killed Holmes once, without Watson actually seeing it. And then he never killed him or Watson again. By the end of the Sherlock Holmes canon, you know his death is final. When Family Guy killed Brian, viewers were outraged. So they brought him back to life by literally changing events with a time machine. South Park kills Kenny in just about every episode as a recurring gag, but it’s never meant to be emotive. In Doctor Who, Rory died so many times that the Silence made a joke about it. When characters in a sci-fi reference the way a character keeps dying, it’s officially no longer relevant. And yet, Moffat keeps killing characters. Owen Harper of Torchwood was so interesting as a character because he was the only time Russell T. Davies had brought someone back from the dead. When Ianto died, that was effective, because Davies wasn’t the kind of writer who didn’t kill characters randomly.

If death doesn’t matter in fiction, that fiction itself doesn’t matter. And right now, Doctor Who‘s a show where every dramatic change brings an element of doubt. We can never be sure a character’s dead, so we don’t really care when it happens. The line “Everybody Lives!” isn’t entirely accurate, because characters are always living. The problem is that it’s because they’re returning from being dead. Dallas killed the character Bob Ewing, but retconned this by explaining that the entire season had been a dream. And people were outraged. It’s considered that Dallas, as storytelling, was no longer important because that kind of plot device had been applied.

The Doctor Dances is a wonderful episode, and was so uplifting at the time for being one of the rare occasions when nobody died. Were this episode to air today, it wouldn’t have nearly as much impact, because characters are being brought back to life left, right, and centre. These two episodes of Series 1 is storytelling at its finest, and that’s what makes them the best episodes of that year. Unfortunately, the one thing that made it stand-out has now been invalidated by a writer’s obsession and death and resurrections.

Anyway, The Doctor Dances as an episode itself is filled with subtext. The whole thing’s a sexual metaphor, with the Doctor’s journey being one of incompetence, awkwardness and eventual willingness to compete with Jack Harkness, who finally becomes a semi-regular with his second appearance in the show. The title notwithstanding for being a bit ridiculous, it’s both cleverly solved while also facilitating interactions with the characters. Both sides of it blend together in such a way that you realise Doctor Who couldn’t be done in any other way: finding a clever solution, everything being perfectly wrapped-up, and doing it all with a swing and a jive.

Doctor Who: the Doctor Dances – logical solutions, values characters more. 8/10

Author: alexsigsworth

Basically... run.