Many, many, many years ago, I had — I’ll admit this story is going to sound unlikely — a friend. Her name was Shelley, and she was the only person I knew who liked Doctor Who as much as I did.
The reason I bring it up is that one of the things Shelley and I would do was to collaboratively author fanfic. Or at least, author fanfic premises. And there was one in particular that I’ve always thought about talking about because there were some weird coincidences to do with it. But since all I have in the way of evidence that this is an actual thing is a pile of nearly illegible handwritten notes in a 4-inch pocket notebook that is probably somewhere in my parents’ attic, I always reckoned people would just think I was making shit up, with the bit I added after the TV Movie about there being a time war between the Time Lords and the Daleks, with the protagonist being the only survivor.
But I wish I’d mentioned it sooner now, because of the basic premise — which I don’t even get to take credit for myself, since Shelley usually came up with the big idea and I did more of the detail work. But the premise of this Doctor Who spin-off was this: that the reason the Doctor and Susan had settled down in a scrapyard in 1960s London before a couple of interloping schoolteachers blew their cover was because they’d been trying to set up a stable respectable home-life for the Doctor’s niece, Jessica, who he’d sent into hiding because the Time Lords were trying to kill her. Because, and this is where it gets relevant, there was this old Time Lord prophecy (and, of course, being Time Lords, “prophecy” is probably something weird and science-fictiony involving metatemporal perception), see, about how Gallifrey’s destruction would be caused by a Time Lord-Human hybrid, and the Doctor’s brother had gone and married an Earth girl.
This would have been, I must explain, around 1990. We’re talking before the TV Movie, before even the Leekley version, before anyone except maybe Nicholas Briggs had taken a stab at wiping out the Time Lords, and we certainly hadn’t heard of the Audio-Visuals at this point. Now, in the original idea that me and Shelley had, I think the Time Lords were just wrong about this and being assholes. But later, in the time between the TV movie and the destruction of Gallifrey in the BBC book line, I got this idea that there would be a twist where it turned out that she actually did start the Time War, by inadvertently violating the carefully negotiated terms of a precarious cease-fire (She personally would survive by, I having read the original version of Human Nature by then, getting turned into a fully-human child to be raised by her former companions. There was a comic relief bit where the Doctor marries them by the power vested in him by the Fourth Galactic Alliance, the great Prophet Zarquon, the Sisterhood of Karn, and the state of New Jersey).
So I bring all this up now for the obvious reasons. And, I mean, also to point out that, “A half-human Time Lord,” and, “The Time Lords have a prophecy that they’re gonna be wiped out by a hybrid,” are both ideas that literally a couple of twelve-year-olds (I was eleven, but Shelley was older.) could come up with.
- This episode is very straightforwardly a “Video Game Episode Written by Someone Who’s Never Actually Played One”. This is not exactly a complaint: I’m not really aware of any Video Game Episode that was clearly written by someone with a better than superficial understanding of how video games work. And it’s certainly better than most in terms of depicting a very methodically rules-based environment. I note for instance that it is different from practically every other Doctor Who episode in that the ultimate solution is for the Doctor to very slowly, very methodically work out the rules of the situation and play by them. Not exploit them, not cheat them, not change them. The Doctor simply grinds for two billion years until he reaches level 999.
- The most obvious point of comparison, what with a giant clockwork tower and constant, slow pursuit by an enemy you can’t fight, who will basically just kill you if he catches you is the Clock Tower series, which is about someone being chased around a, uh, clock tower by a slow-moving enemy who will kill her if he catches her and who she can’t fight.
- The other straightforward comparison is Undertale, a game styled after 8-bit JRPGs, but which engages its own mechanics on a diagetic level. It is not a spoiler to say that it becomes clear very early that some of the characters are aware of the player’s ability to save and restore the game: the save mechanism itself is presented as (using the game’s own terminology) the power of the soul to change fate itself through determination. What is a spoiler is to say that the ability to save-scum is the power that the ultimate antagonist is seeking for himself.
- (The picture of Clara fills you with DETERMINATION)
- Other obvious point of comparison for someone being trapped in a surrealistic hell-world designed to extract his Great Big Secret: The Prisoner.
- It is curious that in fifty years, this is, I think, the first time they’ve done a “Circle around a time loop until you figure out enough to beat it,” in a time travel show. And technically, they still haven’t, as the version they did in the show about time travel is one which lacks not only time travel, but also lacks the protagonist iteratively learning how to escape the loop: the Doctor learns everything he needs to know in a single pass and at no point in two billion years of tries does he every do something different, like maybe write “Bring the shovel with you, it’ll hurt your knuckles less.”
- There is, I think we can assume, some number of iterations thousands of years before the episode opens before he “stabilizes” into the pattern we actually see: the iteration where he carves “I AM IN 12”. But that part isn’t what the story is about. Which is really weird, because not only is the figuring-it-out part the focus of every other Groundhog Day story, it’s also the focus of the overwhelming majority of Doctor Who stories.
- And indeed, as I said before, this is not a story about the Doctor being clever. He doesn’t exploit. He doesn’t cheat. He’s actually not very clever at all. It takes him 40 minutes to work out what the audience (I assume, unless you’re all very dim) worked out absolutely no later than when he hangs his wet clothes up to dry, probably sooner, about this being an iterative save/restore plot. It takes him until his second close-call with I am Just Going to Call Him The Ghost of Christmas Future because it is no less apropos than “The Veil” to realize that it’s confessions that stop it. No, he doesn’t clever his way out. The clever man who solves problems with intellect and romance instead of brute force and cynicism punches the fucking wall until the fucking wall falls down.
- Which is kinda in keeping with the season arc, what with the BIG GIANT MYSTERY of the hybrid, a thing which has never been mentioned or alluded to even once until it started getting mentioned out of nowhere this season, being so transparently obvious that you’ve already figured it out even if you stopped watching two years ago and all you know is the next sentence: There’s an ancient Time Lord legend about a being called “The Hybrid” who is the scion of two warrior races and who will lay waste to Gallifrey. See? You’ve figured it out, haven’t you?
- Note that the Doctor having known who the Hybrid was all along is completely inconsistent with the Doctor’s DEEP MEANINGFUL REACTION to Ashildir. Yes, yes, “The Doctor lies. Even when no one is listening or looking and he’s clearly only doing it for the benefit of the audience as a cheat by the writers to keep the audience from figuring it out.”
- Yes, of course Ashildir has taken to calling herself “Me”.
- After spending two billion years punching a wall because the secret of the Hybrid must NEVER EVER EVER be told, literally the second thing he does after escaping is say who the Hybrid is.
- But that’s not out of character, given that “The secret the Doctor will take to his grave,” turned out to be “I don’t count my ninth life because I fought in the Time War and blew up my home planet. You know, the thing I pretty much tell everyone I meet.”
- I mean yeah, sure, maybe it’ll turn out that the whole “Hybrid” thing is way more clever a twist than it seems. But when has Moffat ever done that? If anything he seems to strongly believe that it is wrong of you to want a clever twist, no matter how strongly every single thing in the story has been crafted deliberately to make you want one. River Song is exactly who she seemed to be from the moment we met her: The Doctor’s Future Wife. The War Doctor is exactly who we all assumed him to be, the secret incarnation between McGann and Eccleston. The Impossible Girl is just an ordinary person and the Doctor was wrong to treat her like a puzzle.
- But okay, though. If it turns out that the Doctor is half-human, and that the actual point of this season is to redeem that element of the TV Movie by declaring that, y’know what, let’s just fucking own every ridiculous thing in this show’s past. All of it. We will not shy away from this shit no matter how stupid it is, then I think I’ll be okay with that. That will actually be kind of cool.
- But if so, I want the Zarbi in the Christmas Special.
- I did this coming Saturday’s Tales From /lost+found last Friday, before I’d seen “Heaven Sent”, and now I wish I’d posted it then. But this week will do just as well.