October 20th, 2013
“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Time War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
With apologies to Francis Fukuyama
The End of Time is a resignation letter. It marks the end of Russell T. Davies’ tenure as showrunner on Doctor Who, and of David Tennant’s time as the Doctor. But more than that, it exudes a sense of resignation, in that this, as much as anything else in Davies’ time on the show, shows that what he was attempting to achieve was impossible.
Davies had wanted to bring back Doctor Who, and he did so — and the fact that it was a massive commercial success shows that he succeeded, at least in part. But the show he brought back was a very different beast from anything that had been called Doctor Who before.
And the plot of The End Of Time, more than anything else, works as a critique of Davies’ own tenure on the show. The cliffhanger at the halfway point shows it best — everyone in the entire world is turned into the Master.
So what we’ve got here is a story where the ultimate evil is seen to be homogeneity — everyone being the same, looking the same, acting the same. Conformity to the norm is seen as an evil in itself. This is a good old-fashioned Doctor Who moral.
And yet what is it packaged in?
This is a story that follows all the familiar tropes of genre fiction, right down to the hero’s evil nemesis suddenly having superhero powers for no adequately-explained reason. And it’s filled with TV and film stars — John Simm, star of the other most popular SF show of the mid-2000s. Timothy Dalton, a former James Bond. Catherine Tate, one of the most popular TV comedians of the decade. Billie Piper, a pop star. Bernard Cribbins and June Whitfield, two of the most familiar faces on TV.
In other words, it’s designed to be utterly familiar to anyone who’s ever watched anything on TV before. There’s nothing new here, nothing to surprise.
And it was while listening to the dialogue for this that it really hit home to me exactly why that should be.
Every character in this story, pretty much, has near-identical speech patterns. This is unsurprising — for someone who has a reputation as a great dramatist, Davies is particularly tin-eared when it comes to dialogue, and never really distinguishes his characters through their vocabulary (except through the clumsy use of catchphrases).
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — people can be distinguished by actions as well as by their speech patterns, and Davies does often manage to create characters who one feels one can understand — but it’s a telling one.
In particular, and notably for our purposes, almost every character Davies writes uses the “that’s so X” formation. While “so” as an intensifier has a long history, it has largely replaced the word “really” (which previously replaced “very”), among one group in particular — those born between 1963 (the year of Davies’ birth) and 1978. This has happened to such an extent that the phenomenon has become known among linguists as “Gen-X so” (first coined by Arnold Zwicky in 2001 in a post to the mailing list of the American Dialect Society).
Having a look through the transcripts of the script for this two-part story, I see intensifying “so” used by an Ood elder, the Master, a British pensioner, a green-skinned alien, a Gallifreyan visionary, the Doctor, and Rassilon. Not all of these are precisely Gen-X so, but many are, and all are using it as an intensifier, often multiple times. By contrast, “really” is used in that way only twice, both times by the Doctor, and “very” is also only used as an intensifier twice.
In other words, all the characters, no matter what planet they’re from, or how old they are, speak in a manner that locates them in a tiny, parochial area of space and time.
The Book of the War predicted all of this, of course. In that book, describing a Time War that may, or may not, be the same one we finally see in The End of Time, we see not only the satire of a media that spoonfeeds people the same things over and over, but also the idea of the Ghost Point — the idea that human history essentially stops in the early 2000s, and humanity is condemned to remain in stasis for the rest of existence. This is the central point from which everything else in The Book of the War follows, and it’s partly an explanation of the stunted nature of most space-operatic society, but it’s also a parody of an idea that has been very influential (or perhaps I should say so influential?)
Francis Fukuyama, in The End of History, posits that humanity has, in capitalist democracy, found its final, perfect, governmental system, that all ideological conflicts have essentially finished, and that every country in the world will eventually become a capitalist democracy, with no further progress possible as long as we remain human.
This is essentially a reaction to the huge successes (at least on its own terms) of the Thatcherite ideology in the 1980s, a time when “there was no alternative”, a claim that seems, in the UK at least, to have become the truth with the rise of New Labour and their continuation of Thatcherism under another brand name.
Russell T. Davies was fifteen when Thatcher came to power. He was thirty-four when New Labour took over. All the most important experiences of his young adulthood happened in this ideological framework.
Not to suggest, for one second, that Russell T. Davies was a supporter of Thatcher. I know nothing of his politics, but everything I know of him suggests that he would have been strongly opposed to her.
But social attitudes matter. The environment in which one lives has an effect.
And knowing this, one can then look again at Davies’ Doctor Who, and at the post-2005 series in general. And one can see that all the criticisms of the show actually boil down to one.
Some have criticised it for its safeness — Davies saying before the 2005 series that “no-one is interested in Planet Zog”.
Others have criticised its structure — saying that Doctor Who is fundamentally unsuited to “story arcs” and forty-five minute episodes, to which the response has generally been “that’s just how TV works now”.
My own pet criticism has been the temporal parochialism I talked about in The Kingmaker, and which leads to people saying “that’s so”, but which also leads to erasing all the struggles anyone in the past has fought and won, by saying “everyone’s always really been the same”.
And this all stems from the same root, it seems. One could be harsh and call it a failure of empathy, but it is, more accurately, a failure of imagination. A failure to comprehend that anything could ever really be any different, a failure to believe that progress is possible. History has ended. Time has ended. There is no alternative.
Davies’ approach was, ultimately, a dead end. He didn’t have the imagination to look at “how TV works now” and change it to something that Doctor Who would fit, so instead he looked at Doctor Who and changed it to fit how TV works now, because Doctor Who is more adaptable.
And it was about to change again.