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Doctor Who: Death Comes to Time (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Death Comes to Time originally broadcast on the BBC website in 2001.

I’m just another alien…

Alien to where?

Everywhere.

– the Doctor and Bedloe

There is quite a lot to like about Death Comes to Time. It offers a conclusion to Ace’s character arc. It features a stellar voice cast. Tannis is great villain. The script isn’t mired in continuity or slavishly devoted to the letter of the continuity of Doctor Who.

On the other hand, there’s quite a lot to loathe about Death Comes to Time. In moving away from Doctor Who continuity, it feels like a generic space opera. There’s a loss of the intimacy that defined the series. There’s a central revelation that makes no sense and a central moral philosophy which seems at odds with the very heart of Doctor Who. On top of that, it seems rather clumsily constructed. If it was intended as a pilot, the wrong characters are in focus for most of its not-insignificant runtime.

Hello, stonehenge!

Hello, stonehenge!

It is good to have Sylvester McCoy back, though. More than Colin Baker or Peter Davison, the Seventh Doctor seems suited to audio. McCoy’s delightful Scottish accent, with it’s meticulous enunciation and rolling r’s is great to hear on a recording. It also feels appropriate that he was the first of the Doctors to webcast like this. McCoy’s Doctor really got the short end of the proverbial stick on television, with a character arc cut off at its mid-point and then he appeared in the television movie only to get killed off relatively quickly. (Although, perhaps, not quick enough.)

This brings us to the first problem with Death Comes to Time, but by no means the most significant problem with it, arises in the involvement of Sylvester McCoy. In a way, it’s the same problem that haunted the television movie. Here it’s disguised for a little while, and only becomes truly obvious in the final act, but both Death Comes to Time and the movie waste valuable time and development on a Seventh Doctor who is completely redundant.

Both stories kill him off after introducing him as the main character. It’s a technique that can work well, but is very tough to pull off. It’s especially tricky with the Doctor because the character has such a legacy of history behind him. Including a previous iteration of the character just to “off” him is a waste of time and energy. Imagine how difficult it is if you don’t already know the Doctor. It’s particularly frustrating because the Doctor’s main purpose in Death Comes to Time is to die, and yet he spends much of the story separated from Ace, who becomes the real hero. (And, presumably, was intended to headline the proposed series that would follow.)

There’s a reason that Russell T. Davies didn’t bring back Paul McGann for Rose, and waited until The Parting of the Ways to “kill” his Doctor. If you want to make a story accessible – if you want to open it up – then you need to provide a nice entry level for the audience. A character whose only function is to die, but serves as the primary focus of the plot, is a very tough concept to pull off in a pilot adventure. Death Comes to Time doesn’t pull it off well at all.

And, in a way, this is a problem that reverberates through Death Comes to Time. It doesn’t seem to take the most direct route anywhere. Instead it seems to indulge in what is expected of it. Again, there’s a reason that Russell T. Davies revived the series in a forty-five minute format. Even the subsequent webcast, Real Time, was considerably tighter to make it more accessible to modern audiences. Death Comes to Time is padded out to six half-hour episodes, and a lot of those seem completely unnecessary by the point we reach the end.

To be fair, there’s a lot of Death Comes to Time that works quite well. A lot of those things are located in the first half of the series, as the webcast comes a little bit off the rails as it approaches its climax. But we’ll come to that. The initial episodes raise some interesting questions. For example, Senator Sala’s criticism of the Doctor’s reactive nature seems spot-on. “Do you save people – but only a little, for a short while – and then run away and leave them to die?” Interestingly, Russell T. Davies’ revived show would be just as willing to question its protagonist, and to raise legitimate criticisms of his methods of operating.

It’s also nice that director Dan Freedman (who, I believe, also wrote it as Colin Meek) captures the spirit of McCoy’s Doctor. The Seventh Doctor has always been a bit more honest about his manipulations than his predecessors, and it’s nice to seem him explain that the his intervention here is not to save one planet. “There is more at stake than the fate of this planet,” he explains “I mean that if the Kennisian occupation of Santinay becomes permanent, they will have a springboard to a thousand other planets, each with burning holes where cities stood.”

And, early on in the adventure, it’s clear that Dan Freedman is on something approaching the same page as Russell T. Davies when it comes to the nature of the Doctor. The Doctor, Death Comes to Time suggests, is the lonely god. Unfortunately, as we spend time with the Minister of Chance, Freedman makes this unfortunately literal. We are introduced to his ability to mysteriously heal wounds – “something to be used sparingly” – and it grows from there.

It turns out that the Time Lords are literally dieties, to the point where they can affect the very fabric of the universe. Investigating a bunch of mysterious black holes, the Doctor notes, “The only thing that could make them grow like that is a Timelord misusing his abilities on a great scale.” The mysterious (and less than helpful) Casmus assures Ace, “If you break the rules, you break the world.” The Doctor, it transpires, can literally bend reality to his will.

It goes without saying that this is a massive update to the character. However, it’s not a logical one. If the Doctor can do anything, why does he need a TARDIS? We’re told that he shouldn’t use his power to interfere with the universe, but it’s hard to believe that unaided transportation would be frowned upon. Death Comes to Time also relies on us pretty much ignoring every appearance of the Time Lords. I don’t normally mind a writer breaking continuity if it confines their story, but it’s a pretty fundamental change. It’s the kind of thing that needs a careful justification.

Death also comes to space, apparently...

Death also comes to space, apparently…

We don’t get one. Instead we get the Yoda-esque Time Lord Casmus. He talks about “the deep, sublime intelligence of the universe” and how dreams are “perceptions uncluttered by shadows of matter” and “time is the canvas upon which worlds are painted.” It’s all new-age pseudo-philosophical nonsense, and it eats into the story a great deal. Plot-wise, Casmus exists to get Ace to where she needs to be at the end of the story, and to explain the logic behind that fundamental revelation. He does the former well enough, but the latter is just a mess.

We’re told repeatedly that using that sort of power to interfere in the mortal world is a bad thing. “It is not your place to make the world a certain way,” Casmus advises Ace in one of the adventure’s more ill-judged moments. Isn’t that exactly what the Doctor does? He shows up, fixes a society and leaves. That’s the way he operates. He determines what needs fixing by his own moral criteria, and his defining characteristic is that he rejects the notion of non-interference or cultural relativism where suffering is concerned. That’s what distinguishes the moral outlook of Doctor Who from Star Trek.

“It is your place only to fight them, not to end them with a thought,” Casmus tells Ace, which adds another logical problem. If the fight is the right thing to do – that there’s no reason why the Time Lord’s can’t directly intervene – then limiting the use of their powers seems a little selfish. If they have the criteria and authority to identify right and wrong, and there’s no rule about the damage they can inflict in fighting those injustices, then tying their hands like that only serves to cause more suffering.

It hardly helps that Casmus is a massive hypocrite. A recurring character is the guard who was tasked with protecting Ace. Casmus uses the non-Jedi mindtrick on the guy to convince him to release Ace. He then convinces the guy to become a doctor. The guy seems to thank him for it, remarking, “He gave me a purpose.” However, despite his philosophical mumbo-jumbo, Casmus basically messed with the guy’s free will. If that’s not abusing his powers, I don’t know what is?

In a way, Death Comes to Time feels like a more generic American space opera than Doctor Who. In fact, it conspires to put the Doctor inside a system and a logical structure, which seems like the exact antithesis of where the character belongs. With its decision to follow Ace on her journey to be a Time Lord, the speak-in-riddles mentor-figure of Casmus and its focus on intergalactic warfare, this feels more like a generic science-fiction adventure series than anything related to Doctor Who.

The last episode even features a cameo from the Brigadier, as played by Nicholas Courtney. However, it doesn’t resemble the character that I loved on the show. For one thing, we get the Brigadier referring to himself as “the Brigadier” in a bad-ass boast. Later on he addresses the celebrating troops, telling them, “Of course we won, we always win.” That sort of arrogance feels out of character for the Brigadier, who was always defined as this firmly grounded military man in contrast to the wackiness that surrounded him.

The script has a few ill-judged moments. Like Russell T. Davies, Dan Freedman has a tendency to over-the-top when it comes to the show’s national pride. While Doctor Who is always distinctly British, this seems a particularly large misstep in a webcast. Death Comes to Time is less than nuanced in its portrayal of Americans. We get a few minutes of Jon Culshaw doing his George W. Bush impersonation as the Americans struggle to cope with an alien invasion, while Tony Blair dials in to allow Britain to save the day.

It seems to be a problem with execution. It could have easily played like good-natured ethno-centricism, like in Independence Day. Instead, there’s a distinctly unpleasant subtext to the scenes that were broadcast in the wake of September 11, as the US President proves barely able to string some words together. On top of that, the dialogue for American characters is just terrible, including the overuse of “man” and the use of “holy hootenanny!”

I don't have enough data to judge the character...

I don’t have enough data to judge the character…

There are other problems with the writing. It can be a bit on-the-nose. Before the script reveals the nature of Antimony or how Time Lords perpetuate themselves, there’s a conversation between Antimony and Dr. Cain. In it, with no real opening, she suddenly starts talking about how disgusting human reproduction is. “Surely it’s more civilised to pass on ideas?” she asks. It’s a nice point that foreshadows a great deal of stuff, but it is inserted so clumsily. It might work if she were a geneticist or a biologist, but she works at a data centre for a radio telescope.

Similarly, Sala gets to advise the Minister, “Sooner or later, feelings must be faced, or they will face you.” And anything that comes out of Casmus’ mouth is just infuriating. While the script gets both the Doctor and Tannis relatively well, the other characters are often written somewhat awkwardly. It makes the play occasionally quite jarring to listen to, as it hinges on a lot of these rather strange tangents and blunt statements.

That said, it’s not all bad. There are a lot of little things to like. For example, a vampire assassin sends a report back to General Tannis that offers a profile of the planet Earth. However, it also seems to explain a number of facts about the universe that we see in Doctor Who:

However, I have made a fortuitous discovery which will interest you greatly. The planet is the richest prize that either Kane or I have ever seen, with abundant water, resources and raw materials. So much so that every continent is populated by many tribes, all on the same planet. I do not wonder that the Timelords decided to hide themselves away here. It is very peaceful. Furthermore, because it is so remote it has no contact with other worlds and, therefore, no planetary defences.

Apparently the reason that so many planets have a homogeneous culture and population is because they are not as resource-rich as we are. I’m not sure I buy that, but it’s nice to see an effort made. Similarly, the real reason that we haven’t made official contact with aliens is a result of the fact that our neighbourhood is apparently quite quiet. Not that the show really supports that last one, but still.

I actually like the character of Antimony. He has an endearing naivety about him, a strange innocence that actually makes him a fitting travelling companion for the Seventh Doctor, the most manipulative and underhanded of iteration of the character. Indeed, I like the idea of the Seventh Doctor building a companion who will never get old and never leave him. It does undermine the whole “companion grows” aspect of the show, but it makes sense from the perspective of the Doctor. Then again, one of the things I loved about Scream of the Shalka was the way that it included a robotic Master.

And then there’s Tannis, as played by John Sessions. He’s really the perfect counterpoint to the Seventh Doctor. His plan has wheels-within-wheels, and it relies on manipulating various actors with better awareness of their motivations than they themselves possess. He also speaks in a delightfully camp sort of manner, that disarms in the same way that the Seventh Doctor’s clown routine does. Tannis really is a match for the Seventh Doctor, and it’s a massive shame that he wound up in Death Comes to Time.

It helps that he gets the best lines. When Bedloe protests his usurpation of power, Tannis responds, “What will you do? Complain to the Dictators’ Society?” After making the situation clear to his beloved leader, Tannis then introduces the new bodyguard. “He’ll be at your disposal. And he’ll be the means of your disposal if you don’t behave.” It is wonderful stuff, and Tannis really plays like a very successful execution of the Master, offering a very dark mirror to our lead character in every way. If only the ending didn’t seem so cheap.

The animation for Death Comes to Time is… rather basic. Especially when compared to the later webcasts. The show has yet to do a webcast to the quality of an animated television episode, but Death Comes to Time is still far more basic than its successors. The limited number of templates, for example, causes a problem. We get clumsy illustrations of McCoy’s Doctor holding the baby, for example. Antimony is shot and then suddenly back on model. It’s not ideal. It gets the message across, but there’s a lot of room for improvement.

Death Comes to Time actually has some solid ingredients. It has a great cast for one thing. Stephen Fry, David Soul, Anthony Head, Jon Culshaw and John Sessions all do great work. Tannis is a great character, and Antimony is a great idea. Unfortunately, the central premise and the execution of the webcast seems ill-judged. I can understand why the show was rejected by BBC radio. There is some good stuff here. It’s just buried pretty deep.

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