“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.

13 Responses to “Doctor Who: Fifty Stories For Fifty Years: 2009”

  1. Richard Bensam Says:

    I did not envy you one bit the challenge of finding something to say about those two installments of unutterable tripe. Somehow you managed to do it in a way that almost feels more dignified than that alleged story deserves, and in a way that fits in with all the previous installments you’ve written. It can’t have been easy.

  2. Andrew Hickey Says:

    Thanks. I do have a few through-lines I’m following for these posts, but it *was* incredibly difficult for me to find anything useful to say about any TV Who from 2009. For a long time I was considering doing a Big Finish story instead, but 2009 wasn’t exactly a great year for them, either, and I thought I needed to do *some* sort of wrap-up of Davies’ time on the show.

  3. Tim O'Neil Says:

    “Waters of Mars” is good. Really good, I think, certainly a better lead-up than “The End of Time” deserved.

  4. Andrew Hickey Says:

    To be honest, by 2009 I was so sick of Davies and Tennant that they could have made something as good as I, Claudius and Citizen Kane combined and I’d think “that’s a bit shit”. I didn’t even watch any of the 2009 episodes until nearly four years later, in preparation for this essay…

  5. Gavin R Says:

    Lis Sladen often said ‘so lovely’ in DVD commentaries. I assumed that was a case of picking up new vocabulary from younger people and the media, but Google ngram says that particular phrase was at its most popular in print from about 1820 to 1940 and dropped off drastically in the 1960s, although it did recover slightly as the ‘Gen-X so’ became more popular.

    Lis Sladen’s autobiography used the term ‘went ballistic’, which could be a genuine case of her picking up new language, or something inserted by the editor. ngram results for that phrase are ambiguous because there’s only one hit (which makes me suspect their corpus isn’t very representative), but ‘go ballistic’ has more meaningful results and didn’t start to become popular until the 80s.

  6. Andrew Hickey Says:

    Oh, “so” as an intensifier definitely has a long history — apparently it’s in Beowulf, even, although I have to take others’ word for that.
    It’s also the kind of linguistic development that one could expect to see happening in multiple times and places independently. I’m pretty sure the development goes something like:
    “I’m so tired that I can hardly sleep”
    The “that” is dropped — “I’m so tired I can hardly sleep”
    This gets interpreted as two clauses, like in the Beatles song — “I’m so tired, I haven’t slept a wink”
    And then we end up with just “I’m so tired”.

    It’s the fact that Davies’ script uses “so” as almost the only intensifier that makes it significant — any one or two of those uses individually would be unremarkable.

  7. Gavin R Says:

    I definitely agree with you about RTD and the ‘Gen-X so’, especially making aliens use it. I just thought ‘so lovely’ was an interesting exception, and the more I look into it, the more it confounds my expectations. I would have expected the older uses to be in the form ‘so x that y’, but just compare ‘so lovely’ with ‘so lovely that’. ‘so tired that’ is also way below ‘so tired’, and ‘not so tired’ is even lower, but I still find it hard to believe that this is a general trend with all uses of ‘so’. Is there another common pattern involving ‘so’ that I’ve forgotten about? Is it just a bias in the Google corpus?

  8. Andrew Hickey Says:

    I bet “so nice” also falls into that category. Certainly it’s a popular phrase in 60s pop songs…

  9. Bloke Says:

    The comment about Francis Fukuyama is a bit sloppy, given that Fukuyama is an American and obsessed with America. His first book in particular is an attempt to grapple with ideas of American Empire as much as anything. Britain is used in “The End of History” largely as a counterexample for the sake of talking about *its* empire and then not having one any more.

    Now, you can suggest that Fukuyama was in a dialogue with the Ronald Reagan politicos and that Reagan = Thatcher for all practical and ideological purposes, which is in many ways true, but your juxtaposition doesn’t quite work as it stands.

    (And if you’re doing Fukuyama-Lawrence Miles comparisons, you could have stretched it even further with “biotechnology as weaponised tool in the political sphere” while you were at it…)

  10. Gavin Burrows Says:

    “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.”

    Being only marginally younger than that myself, I can now combine my two favourite things and be a grumpy old git and a petulant pedant simultaneously. But I don’t think the ‘end of history’ was a particularly Eighties or Thatcherite thing. I’m only being partly tongue-in-cheek if I call Thatcherism steam-punk. I think they pictured a Britain which had been drifting for the past few decades, and they were ushering in a new Victorian age of innovation and entrepreneurialism. – going back to go forwards. Those of us who opposed it all tended to label it as purely regressive, a retreat to “Victorian values”. In short Thatcherism very much saw itself and was seen by others as a direction, in opposition to other directions.

    What you’re talking about is more Blairite. By embracing so many of Thatcher’s reforms and cultural shifts, a Labour leader was able to portray himself as unifying. Perhaps significantly, Fukuyama’s book itself was not published until ’92. Before Blair bur after Thatcher.

    I’m feeling at a bit of a loss over what to call it. Fukuyama was of course originally a neo-con but then jumped as the Bush ship sank. Certainly it’s some combination of political neo-liberalism and cultural post-modernism, but I don’t think it’s as simple as their being twin manifestations of the same thing.

    …but of course that is a bit of a pedantic point when Who was revived in 2005! How it relates to post-liberalism or neo-modernism – well, you’ve raised an interesting question there, one I’d like to think about. First thought is that what you’re describing is probably more evident under Moffat than Davies.

  11. RetroWarbird Says:

    I’m a student of dialogue signifiers, and I’d found myself surprised to hear of the heavy emphasis on “so; that’s so, that is soooo,” and other permutations.

    In an odd way, I think the surprise is less from its existence – after all I’ve seen and heard a lot of Gen-X terminology in my lifetime, whether in media or in everyday socializing, but rather that I’d actually stopped noticing it. I don’t hear it in my everyday life anymore. This should then make it even more noticeable in written dialogue or if I hear out out in the world, but it’s had the opposite effect.

    But we’re living in the wake of Baby Boomer/Gen-X dominance, for good or ill (I usually argue for ill – every last bit of writing from that era has always felt to me like I was being patronized by someone with far more success than I have, even if they’d say, graduated school or university by way of paying me to write their research papers), and it could be that I’ve just made active attempts to tune out every last bit of their idiosyncratic mannerisms. (It’s hard enough curbing my own tendency toward hybridized New England/Rural/Near-Canada slang, let alone excising it from my writing.)

    Living in the brief fugue of cultural dividing line that rests between late-game Generation X and first-hand Millennials seems to be a swell vantage point.

  12. Tim O'Neil Says:

    Boy, people really love discussing this episode. Just can’t shut up about Rasillon and old Wilf.

  13. Gavin Burrows Says:

    That’s so right, Tim!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.