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Doctor Who: Army of Ghosts (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.

Army of Ghosts originally aired in 2006.

How long are you going to stay with me?

Forever.

– the Doctor and Rose tempt fate

It’s only logical that anybody diving head-first into a fifty-year-old television show is going to have an opinion that radically diverges from the fandom consensus on a couple of stories. So, for example, I’ll concede that I like The Talons of Weng-Chiang, but less than most. However, the biggest divide – and the point on which I feel furthest from consensus – comes with Army of Ghosts and Doomsday, Russell T. Davies’ massive farewell to Rose Tyler, the companion he introduced all the way back in Rose. It’s generally acknowledged as one of the high points of Davies’ tenure and one of the truly great Tenth Doctor stories.

I am far from convinced.

The cracks are starting to show...

The cracks are starting to show…

None of this, of course, has anything to do with the fact that Army of Ghosts and Doomsday have been eroded and chipped away at over the years following. After all, you lose the emotional impact of the separation at the end of Doomsday the moment that Rose reappears in Partners in Crime. However, even taken on their own merits, as they were at the time of transmission, I really can’t get caught up in all the love and appreciation of them.

A lot of this is down to the way Davies writes. I’ve discussed before that Davies is a lot better with characters and themes than he is with plot mechanics. I suspect that’s why his season finalés tend to blow over so dramatically – he’s having so much fun playing with the characters and ideas that he has absolutely no idea how he is going to put the genie back in the box. He ratchets up the threat and the tension in each of his end-of-year adventures, and he’s immediately forced to find a way to pull back before he does anything so serious that the Doctor can’t land on a recognisable modern-day Earth the following year.

Three-dimensional characters were always Davies' strength...

Three-dimensional characters were always Davies’ strength…

So, understandably, Army of Ghosts and Doomsday put characters to the fore. Davies can write characters like you won’t believe. I’d argue that Davies is much better at fleshing out supporting and leading characters than Steven Moffat, although Moffat is much stronger when it comes to putting a story together. For example, when Moffat deploys a reset button in The Big Bang it feels a lot smoother than anything Davies does during The Last of the Time Lords. His way of weaselling out of the set-up at the start of The Impossible Astronaut in The Wedding of River Song is a lot smoother than Rose’s deus ex machina in The Parting of the Ways.

However, Davies writes stronger characters. Matt Smith and Karen Gillen are phenomenal actors, so they cover up a bit of Moffat’s bluntness with the Doctor and Amy. However, there is the fact that Amy’s apparently successful career in Closing Time and Asylum of the Daleks consists of modelling – something never even hinted at before she departs. In contrast, Davies has been able to fully define who Rose is and what she needs to have a reasonably satisfying life at the end of Doomsday. Which becomes a problem, but we’ll get to that. I’d argue that Donna was just as developed in her single year on the show. Martha might be the odd one out, unfortunately.

The shape of things to come...

The shape of things to come…

So there’s some great character stuff here, all thematically tied together. We get Rose’s fantasy about living forever with the Doctor, which mirror’s Jackie’s belief that her father might be coming home. Both are hopes and dreams that we can understand, but ones that we must objectively recognise as impossible. Much like the fact that the “ghosts” are ultimately something truly horrifying, the thought of living with the Doctor for the rest of your life isn’t as romantic as Rose might like to believe.

It’s a terrifying thought, when you get down to it. The human lifespan is nothing compared to a creature who has existed for almost a millennium. As Jackie advises her daughter, “And in forty years time, fifty, there’ll be this woman, this strange woman, walking through the marketplace on some planet a billion miles from Earth. But she’s not Rose Tyler. Not anymore. She’s not even human.” Despite Rose’s obvious romantic infatuation with the Doctor, that life just isn’t possible.

Leading light...

Leading light…

Also, practically speaking, we know it’s not possible. Even if you’ve never watched an episode of the classic series in your life, you know that companions are rotated fairly regularly – it’s not as if the show ever had a consistent cast. Even if the sidekick might be interchangeable to the general public, we know watching it that Billie Piper won’t be around forever. Maybe it’ll be another year, maybe two. Maybe she’ll stay as long as Elisabeth Sladen or Frazer Hines. Or maybe she’ll be leaving pretty soon, seen as we’re making a big deal of it.

Davies writes good characters. His leads are great. His supporting cast are fun. Even though Jackie hasn’t been a regular companion, we know enough about her to expect her brief trip with the Tenth Doctor to be fun. Even Davies’ one-off guest stars are great. Yvonne Hartman is pretty fantastic, with Davies having a great laugh writing a chipper modern manager of a top secret colonial organisation. Even the smaller roles, like Gareth and Adeola, get small but endearing interactions that mark them as characters rather than handy victims.

I will admit that Billie Piper Rose to the challenge...

I will admit that Billie Piper Rose to the challenge…

Looking at his Doctor Who work, Davies works best when he’s writing character-focused stuff that doesn’t necessarily rely on plot too heavily. I think his Christmas stories are superb. Smith & Jones is a delightfully fun season-opener, second only to Steven Moffat’s The Eleventh Hour. Davies’ best Doctor Who script is Midnight, which is essentially a quiet character-driven episode that deconstructs a lot of the standard Doctor Who conventions while refusing to even explain the monster of the week. (And it is, of course, both cleverer and better for refusing to do so.)

The problem with Army of Ghosts and Doomsday is that they require a great deal of plotting. They work of plot points set up in the early part of the season, specifically in Rise of the Cybermen and Tooth & Claw. However, these developments are all absolutely secondary to the character work that Davies has been doing. Things don’t happen because they make sense or because they flow rationally. Instead, things happen because they are convenient for plotting purposes.

You'll look familiar...

You’ll look familiar…

So, of course Rose discovers a universe where her father is alive. Of course her mother in that universe dies, leaving a widowed mother in one world and widowered father in another. It’s like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. The first season established that Rose has daddy issues, so damn it if this plot isn’t going to bend over backwards to give her back her daddy, make sure that her mother is happy and even reunite her with Mickey.

And this is the thing. Army of Ghosts and Doomsday position themselves as a tragedy. We’re meant to feel sorry for the Doctor and Rose at the end of it. However, it’s really the absolute best possible ending. I mean, being the Doctor’s companion involves a lot of risk. Companions have died. They’ve crashed into planets and been blown out of airlocks. Some even end up dumped in random places suddenly and conveniently romantically paired off with fairly sleazy characters. Some have their memories wiped.

Guns blazing...

Guns blazing…

That’s tragic. That’s sad. It’s something the old series never really hammered home as effectively as it could, and it’s the kinds of thing that Davies would have had a field-day with. Indeed, Davies has even looked backwards to the classic series method of replacing companions, retroactively making them seem more tragic. In School Reunion, we’re explicitly told that he effectively booted Sarah Jane out of the TARDIS into a field and never came back for her. That was harsh. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as dying, but it was still a pretty crappy thing to do.

By any measure, this is not sad. The fact that Rose and the Doctor would split up was inevitable. In fact, we spent both School Reunion and The Girl in the Fireplace coming to terms with the fact that you really can’t stay in the Doctor’s life forever. So it’s really a question of how you break up the two characters. Rose gets to know that the Doctor didn’t get tired of her and wander off, so that’s good. She gets her dead father back, which is really more than anybody could logically ask.

Lighten up, Doctor...

Lighten up, Doctor…

We’ve been told that travelling with the Doctor is its own reward – it makes you “better, stronger, wiser” to borrow a quote. You get to see all of time and space, everything that has ever happened, or ever will. You get to see, to quote Rose, “a better way of living your life”, and it makes you a better person. These are the standard perks of travelling in the TARDIS, and Rose got all of them. She also got a great deal more. Indeed, magically piecing together a broken family seems to be a more tangible reward for her time in the TARDIS.

Sure, she’ll never see the Doctor again. Unless you are Harry, the Brigadier, Tegan, Sarah Jane or Jo, the chances of seeing the Doctor after he has left you are next to nil. It doesn’t matter what universe you are in. He never went back for his granddaughter, and most of his visits to previous companions were more accidental than anything else. Sure, Rose is locked off from her own world and her own universe, but Army of Ghosts suggests that she has been gone so long that she didn’t really have that much attachment to that world, beyond her mother.

Foreshadowing!

Foreshadowing!

So I really can’t get behind the emotional climax of Army of Ghosts and Doomsday, because it’s really the happiest departure of a companion ever. Even Martha’s departure, to take care of her family after a year of torture from the Master, was more tragic than this. It feels a little overblown, and it seems to suggest that Rose is somehow more important or more special than any other character who ever appeared on the show. Even the Ninth Doctor’s departure in The Parting of the Ways wasn’t as cynically emotionally exploitive.

Anyway, that’s my big objection to the two-parter. There’s a whole host of other interesting stuff going on here that I have mixed feelings about. For example, I can’t help but feel cynically manipulated by Davies’ introduction. “This is the story of how I died,” Rose tells us before the opening credits. Even before we see the end of Doomsday, there’s a sense that Davies is rather heavily over-egging the pudding.

March of the Cybermen...

March of the Cybermen…

Davies is not Joss Whedon. He has a tangible reluctance to kill established characters that he likes. He likes death and the emotional response it generates, but he’s reluctant to actually lose any substantial characters. In The Parting of the Ways, for example, he kills Jack only to bring him back to life at the end. The Stolen Earth ends with a quasi-regeneration scene. Even when he killed Astrid in Voyage of the Damned, he carefully made sure to mitigate the sense of loss by giving her a happy ending.

So we really heavily suspect that Davies is yanking our chain here. Which would be excusable if he had an especially clever way of doing it – for example, Steven Moffat’s wonderful misdirection to get out of the hook of The Impossible Astronaut. Unfortunately, the resolution of that particular point is clumsy at best. Surely Rose would be better to suggest, “This is the story of how me and my mum died”? It is frustrating because Davies can do so much better, but Army of Ghosts and Doomsday are so dedicated to copping out.

Closing in to seal their tomb...

Closing in to seal their tomb…

That said, there is some nice stuff here, especially in Army of Ghosts. The elements that really work in Army of Ghosts and Doomsday are the ones least focused on the separation Doctor and Rose. Although much more understated than in Bad Wolf, there’s a clear sense that this is all the Doctor’s fault. Indeed, he has been so busy travelling around the universe that a Cyberman invasion force is able to gain a foothold on the planet and so skilfully integrate themselves into society that they even feature on Eastenders.

“Woke up one morning, and there they all were,” Jackie explains. “Ghosts, everywhere. We all ran round screaming and that. Whole planet was panicking. No sign of you, thank you very much.” This is really the sort of thing that the Doctor should be paying attention to. Even if it does seem a little hypocritical – the Davies era has been so focused on modern-day Earth that it’s very hard to take the insinuation that the Doctor should spend more time there rather seriously. It works better in the third season, where The Lazarus Experiment and a little bit of Blink are his only trips to modern Britain between Smith & Jones and The Sound of Drums.

And the Cybermen are immediately relegated to Sec-ond best...

And the Cybermen are immediately relegated to Sec-ond best…

There’s also the fact that Torchwood is essentially the Doctor’s fault. I like that Davies actually made the smugness of the Doctor and Rose a plot point, but it doesn’t change the fact that the pair are occasionally grating. There is a sense that this is meant to be intentional, and something that comes back to bite them. Again, it’s something that I think Davies does much better in Bad Wolf and The Sound of Drums, where the Doctor is punished for character flaws much greater than simply being annoyingly smug, but it’s a nice touch.

Indeed, the Doctor’s fallibility is raised repeatedly throughout both Army of Ghosts and Doomsday, and there’s a sense that the Doctor is being made to pay for his hubris. When Mickey revealed that he travelled between universes, Rose notes, “The Doctor said that was impossible.” Mickey rather snidely, but not unfairly, responds, “Yeah, it’s not the first time he’s been wrong.” Tennant plays this sort of shortsighted and arrogant Doctor rather well, and his interactions with Tracy-Ann Obermann are particularly fun to watch. Especially the scene where the Doctor pulls up a chair to watch the latest ghost shift – calling Hartman’s bluff.

Taking a hands off approach...

Taking a hands off approach…

Oberman is great as Hartman, one of the best guest stars in quite some time. I love the idea that Torchwood is very much the embodiment of all the British tropes and conventions that the Doctor cherishes, although channelled towards something quite sinister. They’re charming, witty, friendly. Hartman even joins her staff gossiping about co-workers’ love lives, and gives a nice round of applause to the Doctor that seems like a variation of the Doctor’s own “you’re brilliant” sort of speeches.

Davies’ take on Doctor Who has very clearly been influenced by Barry Letts’ vision of the series, especially the focus on modern-day Earth. However, I can’t help but get the sense that Davies might agree with some of the criticisms that have been levelled at the Pertwee era about the way those years cast the Doctor as a decidedly establishment figure. (“A Tory,” to quote Paul Cornell.) Certainly, you could argue that The Sound of Drums sees the Master doing a dead-on and decidedly unaffectionate homage to Pertwee, right down to the coat-as-a-cape and the from-the-right-family-but-not-quite-the-brightest companion.

All the strange, strange creatures...

All the strange, strange creatures…

Here, it seems like Torchwood are very much a sinister take on U.N.I.T. It seems that they’re an organised quasi-military organisation that has been dealing with alien incursions into Great Britain for quite some time. Of course, U.N.I.T. was supposed to be a multi-national organisation, but we only ever really saw them dealing with British stuff. I imagine being U.N.I.T. chief in America was a pretty relaxing assignment. None of those killer dummies and gold aliens.

Torchwood are a dark mirror to the Brigadier and company. They haven’t just been dealing with alien threats, they’ve been confiscating alien technology. The have a Jathar Sun Glider that “came down to Earth off the Shetland Islands ten years ago.” As Yvonne explains, “Anything that comes from the sky, we strip it down and we use it for the good of the British Empire.” There’s a none-too-subtle colonial subtext to Yvonne’s dialogue, as she makes it clear that Torchwood is working to re-establish the British Empire.

The Cybermen have a hotline right to the heart of Torchwood...

The Cybermen have a hotline right to the heart of Torchwood…

It could be read as an acknowledgement that Doctor Who has occasionally flirted with colonial values in its past. Indeed, there are points in the series that can be clearly identified as racist – some of The Ark, for example, and some of The Talons of Weng-Chiang. There are also some moments that seem disarmingly close to colonialism. Doctor Who has, being a British show, generally been focused on Britain. You’d be forgiven for assuming that Britain (rather than Earth) was the real centre of the universe.

Torchwood seems to reimagine the concept of U.N.I.T. in light of some of those interpretations of the series. After all, despite apparently working under the mandate of the United Nations, U.N.I.T. was really just a bunch of British soldiers working with the Doctor’s sanction to take out whatever menace happened to arrive in the United Kingdom that week. While the show was always keen to point out that the Doctor wouldn’t let the Brigadier get his hands on powerful weaponry, it’s not too hard to imagine something like Torchwood lurking in the background, a shadowy and more cynical alternative to the morally idealistic U.N.I.T.

She has Hart, man...

She has Hart, man…

Torchwood also serves, rather handily, as a vehicle for Davies to condemn militaristic science-fiction shows in general. The Doctor has always been relatively unique as a science-fiction hero because he works outside any real framework or guidelines, and accounts to nobody except himself. Television shows tend to favour structures and units for their characters to work within – think of Star Trek or Stargate. Torchwood is that sort of bureaucratic organisation, a team with the best resources and skills working within a defined mandate.

And the Doctor, naturally, immediately outwits them. Torchwood don’t think independently or logical. They’re a large organisation, so they don’t question in that sort of way. It’s as if the groupthink blinds them to what should be some fairly obvious concerns. “So, you find the breach, probe it, the sphere comes through six hundred feet above London, bam,” the Doctor explains. “It leaves a hole in the fabric of reality. And that hole, you think, oh, shall we leave it alone? Shall we back off? Shall we play it safe? Nah, you think let’s make it bigger!”

Outside the Cybermen's sphere of influence...

Outside the Cybermen’s sphere of influence…

Anybody could tell you that poking at a hole in the fabric of reality itself is probably a bad idea. If they don’t, they are probably a megalomaniac villain. But a massive organisation like Torchwood? That instinct gets brushed aside and lost somewhere in the paperwork. For all their technology and rules, they really know next to nothing compared to the individualist Doctor. That extends to the ghosts and the strange sphere.

“We tried analysing it using every device imaginable,” Torchwood explains as the Doctor puts on his cheap 3D glasses and instantly spots a piece of vital information. We are, after all, dealing with a large and all-powerful organisation that seemingly can’t even notice when somebody is wearing two blue tooth ear pieces. It’s not that they’re incompetent (“everyone at Torchwood has at least a basic level of psychic training,” we’re told, and they’ve reverse-engineered loads of alien stuff), it’s that they’re wearing blinders due to their organisation’s structures and objectives. The Doctor, for all his flaws, can’t be blinded by those.

Geek chic...

Geek chic…

So, Army of Ghosts is a bit of a mixed bag. And I say that knowing that it’s a storied beloved by a lot of people. I just can’t invest in the central emotional hook to the extent that it needs me to in order for it to function.

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