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Doctor Who: Doomsday (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.

Doomsday originally aired in 2006.

Daleks, be warned. You have declared war upon the Cybermen.

This is not war. This is pest control.

We have five million Cybermen. How many are you?

Four.

You would destroy the Cybermen with four Daleks?

We would destroy the Cybermen with one Dalek. You are superior in only one respect.

What is that?

You are better at dying.

– the Cyberleader and Dalek Sec compete for the title of “bitchiest Doctor Who villain”

Part of my frustration with Doomsday is the same problem that I have with the rest of the second season’s weaker episodes. Like Fear Her or Rise of the Cybermen, the second season finalé lacks ambition. It feels complacent, it feels comfortable. It feels like putting the Daleks and the Cybermen together in one episode is enough to merit attention, without anything more than exchanging pithy one-liners. It feels like the separation of the Doctor and his companion is the biggest and most important thing in the universe, without really convincing us that this isn’t the best possible outcome. It feels like the easiest way to make these threats palpable is to set them in modern London, without any real sense of consequence or scale.

The tears of a Time Lord...

The tears of a Time Lord…

I talked a bit about my feelings on the separation of Rose and the Doctor in covering Army of Ghosts. Notwithstanding the fact that this separation has been undermined and diminished by making sure that Rose remained a frequent enough guest star, the problem is that the Doctor and his companion separating is inevitable. After all, the show ended its first season by recasting the starring role. It’s not as if Billie Piper is any more irreplaceable. Rose was always going to have to leave, and Doomsday somehow manages to give her everything she ever wanted, while still telling us that this is a sad ending.

“Rose Tyler, defender of the Earth,” the Doctor jokes when he discovers that Rose is running Torchwood in alt!Earth. Apparently the BBC were seriously considering a spin-off at one point, which really makes this very hard to sell as a sad story. Given how Rose wanted a “better life” in The Parting of the Ways, it seems like she found a more fulfilling avenue for her talents. Indeed, it’s nice to see that a companion’s job options don’t dry up after saving the world. It sounds like Rose got a much better deal than Sarah Jane or the Brigadier.

A man alone...

A man alone…

Indeed, she even gets to reunite her mother and father, despite the fact that her father died when she was a baby. Given that the death of her father left such a void in her life that she almost tore apart the universe in Father’s Day, that seems like the best possible outcome that anybody could hope for. Even ignoring that the ending to Journey’s End gives her her own version of the Tenth Doctor, it’s hard to get too upset about what happens to Rose. After all, there are tonnes of other companions who will never see the Doctor again.

Davies is a fantastic character writer. That scene at the end between the Doctor and Rose is actually remarkably sweet, despite how manipulative it all is. The choice to cut the transmission after Rose says “I love you” but before the Doctor can respond is a very shrewd dramatic touch. The question of whether the Tenth Doctor is romantically in love with Rose or not is hotly contested, and much more interesting as an unresolved question.

London's burning...

London’s burning…

I’ve never subscribed to the idea that the Doctor is inherently asexual. Some iterations are, and some aren’t. The Third Doctor wouldn’t have time for that nonsense, but it’s hard to argue that the Fourth Doctor and Romana II were more than just friends. It’s interesting how much care was given to try and justify a position in favour of an asexual Doctor in the time while the show was off the air. Dealing with the fact that he has a granddaughter, certain writers even tried to suggest that the Time Lords reproduced asexually.

Indeed, The Doctor Dances seems constructed as a counter-argument to that commonly-held view. I’ve never had a problem with a flirty and romantic Doctor, and the Tenth Doctor is probably the most firmly sexual iteration of the character to date. (Even more, I’d argue, than the Eighth or Ninth Doctors.) That said, I’m not sure if I’d read the relationship between the Tenth Doctor and Rose as romantic on his end.

For Pete's sake!

For Pete’s sake!

There is certainly plenty to support the position that he was in love with her. The human version of the Tenth Doctor is happy to be stranded on alt!Earth with Rose, and he concedes “we were… together” in Smith & Jones. Of course, Davies could just be using the relationship stuff as a metaphor, with Martha obviously treated as a rebound companion rather than a rebound girlfriend. And his hesitation to actually say the words seems a little odd.

It’s quite possible – and very in-character – that he was just waiting for the signal to die so that he could avoid the awkwardness of having to confess that he isn’t in love with her. It is better to let her live in hope and all that. I don’t know. Davies writes both Rose and the Doctor so well that it’s easy enough to look past the fact that the episode was so contrived and so clumsily plotted up until that point.

Hold on, you might get sucked into a plot hole...

Hold on, you might get sucked into a plot hole…

I also love that moment where Pete and Jackie reconnect. It’s a small moment, but every line is pitch-perfect. Jackie’s inability to decide whether or not she cares about how rich Pete has become is lovely. The Doctor and Mickey’s reaction to Jackie’s claim that she has always been true to Pete is understated, but effective. Again, it’s almost enough to get you to look past how contrived the plotting of combining the widowed Jackie and the widowered Pete actually is. The fact that the show set this up in a by-the-numbers and generic two-parter at the start of the season doesn’t make it any less convenient.

Then again, plotting was never Davies’ strong suit as a writer. Indeed, the separation of Rose and the Doctor depends on hitting a big “reverse” button that just so happens to be enough to put them in more danger than anything ever before. The “reverse” switch then somehow manages to absorb every Dalek and Cyberman that came through the void, but doesn’t suck in the TARDIS (which should be covered with “void stuff”, logically) and doesn’t snap both the Doctor and Rose into to pieces.

Now the Daleks are screwed...

Now the Daleks are screwed…

I find it hard to believe that no Dalek or Cyberman is strong enough to resist the pull of the void when the Doctor and Rose can survive by holding relatively tight. Even if they could maintain their grip, surely the force required to pull Cybermen from across London (if not the world) would be enough to tear their arms off at the shoulder? It just seems so… handy and so trite. It’s the easiest possible solution to all of the problems raised in the episode.

Doomsday has some great ideas. Having the Daleks and Cybermen invade contemporary London is a great idea. There is, after all, a reason why the Dalek emerging from the water in The Dalek Invasion of Earth is such a great cliffhanger. Similarly, there’s a reason that the Cybermen never felt more tangible than that time they marched down the steps of St. Paul’s in The Invasion. Those are iconic images, and bringing those two aliens to modern-day London is a perfect recipe for an iconic and memorable story.

Clash of the titans...

Clash of the titans…

You don’t even need a credible plan. After all, the Daleks in The Dalek Invasion of Earth wanted to fly the Earth around outer space for some reason. It’s just the idea of putting the two against each other. In The Dalek Invasion of Earth, it was the idea of seeing London under occupation by a force designed to evoke the Nazis, complete with an underground resistance and forced labour camps operating on British soil. In The Invasion, it was the idea of an alien menace lurking in the sewers.

The problem with Doomsday is that it doesn’t have any room for any of that iconic stuff. Keeping the Cyberman invasion and the revelation of the Daleks as the cliffhanger of Army of Ghosts gave the show an absolutely amazing hook, but it means that Doomsday has a lot to get through, without any time to spare. As a result, the handling of the Daleks and the Cybermen can be best described as “superficial.”

Life's a beach...

Life’s a beach…

It’s cool, in the same way that seeing The Avengers was cool. Everyone likes throwing the toys together. Davies writes both sets of monsters as wonderfully bitchy, to the point where I wish the Daleks had fingers so they could snap them. “Daleks have no concept of elegance,” one Dalek comments. The Cybermen reply, “This is obvious.” Oh no he didn’t! Even the Daleks’ discovery of the Cybermen is somewhat dismissive. “Long range scans confirm the presence of crude cybernetic constructs on worldwide scale.”

To be fair, Davies does try to give the Daleks and the Cybermen their due. He arguably does a better job of giving the Cybermen a mission statement here than in The Age of Steel. Conquering Earth, they declare, “Cybermen now occupy every land mass on this planet, but you need not fear. Cybermen will remove fear. Cybermen will remove sex and class and colour and creed. You will become identical. You will become like us.”

That glint in their eye stalk...

That glint in their eye stalk…

It’s actually a better argument than what Lumic manages, even if the episode isn’t especially interested in what makes the Cybermen the Cybermen. You get the sense that the Cybermen are merely here because they are iconic, rather than because the show has anything especially interesting that it wants to do with them. To be fair, Davies generally had at least one good idea whenever he brought back the Daleks or the Master – but the revived show has never seemed too sure about what to do with the Cybermen.

This is obvious here, where they are pretty much defined as second-rate Daleks – the second-most iconic monster design of the classic series. That’s hardly the best way to approach a monster like the Cybermen, but I can’t argue that it is any different from anything the show has done with them since the 1960s. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, though. I can’t help but feel like the Cybermen were really drafted into the revived show because they are a recognised part of its iconography, rather than because the show had anything interesting to say with them.

Lining it all up...

Lining it all up…

The Daleks do slightly better. There’s nothing here quite as fascinating as the god emperor of the Daleks, but the Cult of Skaro at least tries to do something new. And, for all its faults, the same could be said of Daleks in Manhattan. Although there’s a fair amount of camp humour here, Davies manages to balance things relatively well. The jokes don’t undermine the Daleks as a threat, like they do in Daleks in Manhattan.

There’s a nicely chilling moment after the Daleks kill Raj, the supporting character who is at least given a name so that his death carries a bit of weight. “You didn’t need to kill him!” Rose protests. This prompts a deliciously menacing Dalek response, “Neither did we need him alive.” It’s a great line, because it makes the Daleks scary and effectively articulates their central philosophy. The only reason for them not to kill is because they need you. Anything that they don’t need might as well be dead.

Hitting the wall...

Hitting the wall…

Uniting the Daleks and the Cybermen here is the first time that it has been done on television. Both appeared in The Five Doctors, but separately. It really seems to be the point where the revival unashamedly acknowledges its direct predecessor. Davies was careful in the first season not to scare away viewers by wading too heavily into the show’s long history, but Doomsday comfortably intersects not only the Daleks and the Cybermen, but also the Time Lords.

The show doesn’t name Gallifrey yet, but the Daleks tell us, “This is all that survives of their home world.” Rose asks, “What’s inside?” Sec responds, “The future.” He’s obviously talking about the army of Daleks, but he could also be speaking about the show itself. From here on out, Davies would be a lot more comfortable including homages and shout-outs, acknowledging the classic history of the show. The Macra, of all things, would cameo in Gridlock. We’d see the faces of all the classic Doctors in Human Nature. Utopia would see the return of the Master, one of the original show’s campest adversaries.

The Doctor looks unwell...

The Doctor looks unwell…

And yet it feels a bit disappointing as well. Here’s a chance to compare the Daleks and the Cybermen – to measure them against one another, to compare and contrast. The two are very different creatures, with two very different ideologies driving them. And yet, despite that, all Doomsday really does is decide that Daleks trump Cybermen by a considerable margin. There is a certain amount of coolness to watching that unfold, but it feels a bit shallow.

Doomsday really suffers because the show relies so heavily on being based around the real world. I’d argue that this has been one of the reasons the show has been such a massive success, and why it has found such a broad audience. As a rule, Davies sets the show in a world that doesn’t look too different from our own. However, there’s a problem when you try to introduce concepts into that world that are so far outside the norm that they can’t be reconciled with our world.

Not a stellar finish?

Not a stellar finish?

We saw that in Rise of the Cybermen, where the story suffered from trying to tell a Cyberman origin story in a world not too different from contemporary London. Any society where Cybermen are physically or sociologically possible would have to be very fundamentally different, so the whole concept sort of buckles a bit. Here, Davies has a bunch of Cybermen occupy London, and then unleashes millions of Daleks on the city.

The original show was never too bothered with continuity. It either kept its invasions so small in scale, or the Doctor’s visits so widely spaced, that there were no real consequences. Davies is going to tell the next two stories – The Runaway Bride and Smith & Jones – in contemporary London within a relatively short period of time. He can either opt to have the Dalek and Cybermen invasion have real and lasting consequences, or he can cop out.

He tried to a-void this outcome...

He tried to a-void this outcome…

Understandably, he cops out. The Daleks are only loose in London for a few minutes, but – based on what we see – that should be enough to wipe out a significant amount of the population. It also seems weird that they Daleks don’t target infrastructure. You’d imaging the destroying an iconic building or two would be a relatively efficient way of exterminating the locals. The show magically and conveniently sucks them back into the void, but there are no consequences. There’s no weight or substance to any of this.

The Parting of the Ways cheated by featuring a future Earth. That was a smart cheat, though. It allowed the Daleks to cause serious and lasting destruction without damaging the framework of the show itself. The Doctor will simply never return to that time, so there’s no fallout. Doomsday feels somewhat lazier. There’s a point where you can’t continue to base a fictional world on our own world. Unleashing millions of Daleks over London, even for five minutes, is that point.

A clean sheet...

A clean sheet…

The Runaway Bride even suggests that this is the kind of thing that Donna could miss while on holidays, effectively conceding the argument and trying to turn it into a joke. It’s charming enough to work. However, it just feels cheap and convenient here. Much like the Cybermen themselves, it seems like the show wanted Daleks in contemporary London, but simply didn’t want to do all the heavy-lifting involved in such a concept.

Still, Davies does write some good lines. I really like, for example, his twist on the old sci-fi staple of “global surrender.” The Cyberleader informs Yvonne, “You will talk to your central world authority and order global surrender.” This prompts Yvonne to respond, “Oh, do some research. We haven’t got a central world authority.” It is moments like that which demonstrate Davies’ strengths as a writer, an ability to take a familiar concept and play with it in a way that is both cheeky and a little affectionate. The Cybermen do, in the end, manage to broadcast to all humanity – even without that pesky central world authority.

Keeping doomsday at bay...

Keeping doomsday at bay…

Doomsday also continues the trend of making the Doctor fallible. I like when Davies picks apart the character, and dares to question the way that he works. Like Army of Ghosts, Doomsday is full of the Doctor declaring things impossible only to be proven wrong. When Jake appears, the Doctor protests, “You can’t just, just, just hop from one world to another. You can’t.” Jake points out that the evidence would disagree. “We just did.”

Similarly, I like that Pete is willing to take charge and to shut the Doctor up if necessary. “No, you’re not in charge here. This is our world, not yours. And you’re going to listen for once.” It’s interesting to see another good guy question the Doctor’s moral authority. Davies has a knack for doing that rather well, and daring to chip away at the notion of the Doctor as some entirely flawless hero. Doomsday doesn’t do it quite as well as Bad Wolf or The Sound of Drums, but it’s still a nice recurring element.

The Doctor, in the TARDIS... with nobody...

The Doctor, in the TARDIS… with nobody…

I’m not mad about Doomsday. It does have a lot less plotting problems than The Last of the Time Lords, but I think the third season’s closing episode had a lot more ambition and a lot more to say. It certainly illuminated the Master as a character a lot more thoroughly than Doomsday does for the Daleks or the Cybermen, and Martha’s departure actually feels a lot more tragic than Rose’s goodbye, despite not receiving nearly as much attention.

Of course, The Last of the Time Lords hits the reset button even harder and Davies’ plotting is clumsier than ever, so I’ll concede that Doomsday is – relatively speaking – a much tighter piece of work. It’s just not a piece of work of which I am especially fond.

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2 Responses

  1. First off- I love your reviews. They have so much depth and the pictures are fun. How is it that you don’t get more comments?

    It occurred to me on my recent second watching of these episodes that the alternate demention should have its own Doctor. They do have their own Tourchwood after all.

    • Thanks, Heather!

      Good point on the Torchwood thing. No idea how I missed that myself. Is it possible Pete’s World branched after the founding of Torchwood, maybe? If that’s how it was formed? (As opposed to always existing in parallel or something? Parallel dimensions make my head hurt.)

      And I’ve no idea why I have so few comments. If I’m optimistic, it’s probably because I post so much it might be hard to keep track? But it doesn’t bother me too much. The comments I get are generally top-class.

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