Friday, 20 January 2012

The Doctor is not Chuck Norris.

(This was written after the broadcast of Moffat's first season. There's the odd bit of overlap with my later Moffat piece, like the Inferno quote)

There’s something that the current Doctor Who production team, need to be told: the Doctor is not Chuck Norris. He really isn’t. He wasn’t when Sydney Newman, Verity Lambert, David Whitaker and company created him, he wasn’t when Barry Letts/Terrance Dicks and then Phillip Hinchliffe/Robert Holmes reinvented him (granted, their Doctors were closer to Chuck Norris then the first two were, but they still weren’t Chuck Norris, give or take the odd bit of Venusian Akido or twisting Scorby’s neck). The Eric Saward-era Doctor may have been closer than was comfortable, but that was down to laziness. It’s true Andrew Cartmel’s Doctor had a touch of Chuck Norris, which became a problem in the New Adventure novels, and while in many ways the 2005-onwards version jettisoned this, it was probably 1988’s Remembrance of the Daleks that set the precedent. And since Forest of the Dead, the writers of the new series have tended to confuse the Doctor with Chuck Norris. And that’s a shame. Because when you think about it, the Doctor really isn’t Chuck Norris.

It’s probably obvious I’m thinking of the website “”. One in particular reads: “When the boogeyman goes to sleep every night, he checks his closet for Chuck Norris" (apparently it’s Chuck’s favourite). This is strikingly similar to a line in Paul Cornell’s New Adventures novel Love and War, in which the Doctor declares “I’m what monsters have nightmares about.” Steven Moffat - who once suggested Love and War when asked in DWM which Doctor Who story he wished he’d written - was taken enough with this line to sample it in his episode The Girl in the Fireplace (mentioning its source admiringly on the episode’s online commentary). A version of it (“Are you frightened of monsters?” “No, they’re frightened of me”) reoccurs during Moffat’s first series as show runner (in The Hungry Earth), which was quotable enough to use in the previous episode’s “Next Time” trailer. It’s all very macho - monsters don’t mess with Moffat’s Doctor if they know what’s good for them.

Remember that in the old days - at least until Remembrance - it was taken for granted that the Doctor wasn’t perfect - he made mistakes, and he couldn’t gain everyone’s trust. There’s a wonderful moment in 1970’s Inferno when Greg Sutton points out “that’s not what the Doctor says”, to which the Brigade Leader sneers “who cares what he thinks.” Sutton snaps “I do - he talks a lot of good sense!” This little moment is gripping and affecting because we the viewers know damn well that Sutton is right, but find ourselves shouting it, over the noise of Stahlman’s drill. And in case you think that audiences don’t like their hero to be less than the demigod surrounded by adoring pilgrims that RTD and Moffat have developed, remember that DWM’s favourite story poll saw every 2005-onwards story beaten to number 1 by 1985’s The Caves of Androzani, and isn’t the extraordinary charged drama of those four episodes built around the irony that we - and Peri - know how wonderful the Doctor is, but no-one else in that story does? But then Remembrance - while a superb piece of tv in itself - comes along and establishes that the Doctor is always in control, that the Daleks are foolish to even consider messing with him, and that he will not merely outwit each foe as he meets them but set in motion traps for cosmic destruction - maybe even genocide. It’s interesting here to compare its climactic scene with that of 1976’s The Brain of Morbius. In Remembrance, the Doctor declares:

This is the Doctor. President Elect of the high council of Timelords, keeper of the legacy of Rassilon, defender of the laws of time, protector of Gallifrey. I call upon you to surrender the Hand of Omega and return to your customary time and place.

The line “I am far more than just another Timelord” was, at least, rightly cut from this speech, although a few weeks later it was done more crassly in Silver Nemesis. In Morbius, on the other hand, the Doctor, believing that Morbius’s brain has been kept in a fishtank for far too long (and dropped at least once) challenges the villain to a mind-duel. “I am a Timelord of the first Rank - what are you?” scoffs Morbius, to which the Doctor replies: “nothing - a mere nobody.” And indeed he loses the duel - his point was that Morbius’s damaged brain is not up to the exertion of winning. He challenged Morbius purely because it was the right thing to do, not because he was a being of awesome power with whom Morbius was foolish to mess. Similarly, in the same season’s Pyramids of Mars, when the Doctor is powerless before Sutekh and responds to interrogation with “I renounce the society of time lords. Now I’m simply a traveller”, there is again no hint that he’s downplaying his identity - the Hinchcliffe production team see him as a traveller who just tries to stop wickedness. Pyramids is thrilling because the Doctor comes close to dying - he tackles an enemy far greater than him, and he wins. Remembrance - superb though it is - suffers on repeated viewings because there’s no possibility of the Daleks winning, leading us to ask: where’s the tension?

Moffat’s episode Forest of the Dead marks the next turning point. The idea of the Doctor as “Time’s Champion” from the New Adventures had, mercifully, been ignored by Russell T Davies (The Ninth Doctor’s description of himself as the “Oncoming Storm” of Dalek legend in The Parting of the Ways might be a nod to the “Ka Faraq Gatri” idea behind the New Adventures and 1990s Dalek comic strips and novelisations, but you get the sense that Eccleston’s more vulnerable Doctor is saying it to pull some weight with the Daleks), but this story saw the Doctor defeat the monsters by reminding them who he was. It wasn’t entirely inconsistent with Moffat’s earlier episodes - The Girl in the Fireplace had the aforementioned Love and War quote, while The Doctor Dances ended with the Doctor able to bring everyone back to life (which was triumphantly moving in that episode precisely because it’s the one thing that can’t normally happen in a Doctor Who story - Eccleston’s heartfelt “just this once, Rose, everyone lives!” seems less poignant now we know the Doctor will be doing it again in Forest of the Dead). It was, however, a disaster, which should never have got past the first draft. Firstly, it’s a get-out clause, an exceptionally lazy and unimaginative way of concluding an adventure story. Secondly, the idea of unquestionable authority is ethically dubious. Instead of being taught that wickedness can be fought by effort, decency, improvisation, intelligence and by seeing things from a different angle, children growing up with this dumbed-down version of the Doctor are being taught that you shouldn’t worry about monsters because the Doctor will deal with them and his authority is total. He might as well just flash a badge. It’s especially worrying at a time of increasingly trigger-happy tactics by British police, defence of torture by the US, and a highly dubious war. This is not a time to bring up children to believe in infallible authority - is that really what Doctor Who stands for?

Moffat’s next Doctor Who work - which saw him become show-runner - would use this idea as a touchstone. The Eleventh Hour climaxes with the Doctor warning off another alien race by reminding them who he is. This time it’s done in far more detail - they discover by scanning the planet that he is the person responsible for repelling all invaders, and instantly find images of his face following that of each invader, as if they’d typed “aliens - and who kicked their asses” into Google Images - it’s oddly like the moment in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where Zaphod enters the Total Perspective Vortex, which normally kills you with the shock, only to find out he is actually the most important thing in creation. The difference is that here the hubris seems unintentional. The episode ends with a trailer for the rest of the series that showcases the Doctor warning (in the cliff-hanger to The Time of Angels) “If you’re smart, if you value your continued existence, if you have any plans about seeing tomorrow, there’s one thing you never ever put in a trap…ME!!!”. It sounds an awful lot like the Incredible Hulk’s “don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry”, it sounds a little like the voiceover on a trailer for a Batman movie, it reminded me of the catchphrase “Big mistake!” from the much-hated spoof of macho action-movie excesses Last Action Hero and it even sounds a little bit like the Shaft theme music, but it doesn’t sound much like Doctor Who. For pomposity like this, it deserved its Graham Norton cartoon.

In the penultimate episode of that series, The Pandorica Opens, Moffat gathers more old villains than ever before, putting the Doctor in a situation greater than any of the previous finales. What does the Doctor do? He reminds them all who he is. “Remember every black day I ever stopped you!” he warns. Then he challenges them to “do the smart thing - let someone else try first!”, and because none of them have the guts, their ships all fly away (they settle for sneaking up on the Doctor later, and then putting him in a box instead of killing him, for reasons which have so far escaped me). Remembrance’s “return the hand of Omega!” scene was the forerunner, but here it’s done with practically every monster the Doctor has ever faced.

What’s really worrying is the thought of where all of this will lead. Forest of the Dead also gave us River Song, a character who exists to tell us that things will be getting more exciting later on (“Spoilers!” has actually become a catchphrase of hers. Again, one is reminded of the Graham Norton cartoon). River tells us that the Doctor will become a superhero, one whose power dwarfs that of the Tenth (and this was a guy who’d scared off an alien invasion force with a Satsuma, imprisoned aliens in supernovas for all eternity, cured a group of patients infected with every disease known to man and jumped through mirrors on horseback), who only has to click his fingers and the TARDIS doors will open. At the end of the episode, Tennant clicks his fingers… and the TARDIS doors open. You see where I was going with the Chuck Norris allusion. “Chuck Norris has no CTRL button on his keyboard because Chuck is always in control.” If the Doctor clicks his fingers, doors will open.

Doctor Who should be open-minded. The Doctor should be a moral will-o’-the-wisp, moving to different situations, considering different viewpoints, trying to understand different environments, helping the show to raise more questions and ideas than realism-bound shows can. He needs to make mistakes, to be vulnerable sometimes, to struggle to find answers rather than have fervent admirers hand them to him (even UNIT salutes him now). Neither the show nor the Doctor should be predictable or safe, but unfortunately safe is exactly how you feel when the Moffat-era Doctor is around, with a Sonic Screwdriver that, thanks to Cold Blood, can now knock weapons from his opponents’ hands.

Whatever monsters are out there, they’re going to end up making a mistake. They’re going to mess with the Doctor. Bad move, pal. You just wait till he gets on your tail. (“’Cause being this is a sonic screwdriver, the most powerful magic wand in the universe, you’ve gotta ask yourself a question - do I feel lucky? Well do ya, punk?”) With the Doctor around, there’s nothing to worry about at all, really, is there?


  1. just looking through previous posts.. i agree!

  2. Nice post though the Remembrance allusions are a bit overstated; it is worth noting that the tension in the story is because the Doctor's "masterplan" is cocked up well and truly within 5 minutes of episode 1.

    The same is true of the only other story where the 7th Doctor has a big plan he's trying to carry though - he underestimates and neglects to confide in Ace, resulting in her inadvertently dropping the information that Judson needs to release Fenric. The only two stories of the era where this strange idea of the "omnipotent" 7th Doctor come from both make a point of having him royally screw it up when he tries to behave like that!