Doctor Who #720: The Doctor Dances

"Doesn't the universe implode or something if you dance?"
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired May 28 2005.

IN THIS ONE... Everybody lives.

REVIEW: The unusual title provides the key to what's really going on. Basically, this episode uses a metaphor to express the idea that Doctor Who in the 21st century is ready, willing and able to do things fans of the classic series think of as expressly NOT Doctor Who. Most directly, literal dancing, sex, dialog dripping double-entendres, characters with non-traditional life styles, and even the idea that everyone could make it out of a Doctor Who story alive. But mostly, yeah, the sex stuff. Though Rose has seen the Doctor flirt with Jabe, and has been having a platonic romance (probably akin to a bromance) with him, she becomes the audience's proxy here, dismissing the Doctor as a viable romantic partner, and yet wondering if the show would collapse if the Doctor ever fell in love, had sex, kissed someone. We're being prepared for something, aren't we? So while Captain Jack's presence gives the contrasting example that exposes these ideas, creates plenty of opportunities for amusing double-entendres (the size of their sonics, and so on), we can't just dismiss all this as Moffat the Sitcom Writer basically doing Coupling with Doctor Who material. That would be denying Series 1's main theme. If sex is on the Doctor's mind, and if Rose's denial of his maleness stings at all, it's because he's lost his entire species, his progenitors as much as his descendants. The last of his kind, he must accept procreation is now out of bounds, not the vulgar physical act, but the deeper implications of extinction. Make no mistake, the Time War is a wound the ninth Doctor carries with him through everything. Thus the importance of everybody living.

What makes The Empty Child such a strong story is that it's so thematically sound, where many stories in the RTD era (RTD scripts especially) can seem so slapdash and random. Everything points to sex, procreation and survival of the species, the drama as well as the jokes. And so we have the apocalypse averted by Nancy admitting she's Jamie's mother, allowing the nanogenes to better understand the human template and restore the boy to factory specs. The creepy "Are you my mummy?" was in fact a programmed objective when the Chula nanites understood they didn't have all the information (or else their Chula warriors would have done more than stay in their beds). Nancy, a single mother of her era, is asked to let go of her shame in spite of her culture's taboos, and that's pretty much what the episode asks of us as Whovians. Jack's pan-sexuality, Nancy being told Britain wins the war, the visual reference to the equally sexually charged Dr. Strangelove, everything supports the basic theme of sex as part of the natural order, nothing to be ashamed of, and throwing off the shackles of "no hanky-panky in the TARDIS" left over from the classic series.

And though perhaps Christopher Eccleston isn't quite comfortable with the dancing (which I guess is appropriate), this is a great episode for him. He plays the comedy well, deflects Rose's come-ons even better, and manages to make a huge info-dump intense and riveting. His moment of climax (couldn't resist) is a joyous one that makes him think, for the first time in a long time perhaps, that he can do anything, solve anything. He fixes everything, cures everyone, and even puts history back on track and it doesn't feel like one of those patented deus ex machinae because everything he uses has been laid in carefully. Energized, he promises to pull off a paradox (putting the red bicycle under 12-year-old Rose's Christmas tree so that she can remember it in this moment), and not only saves his "rival" Captain Jack, but takes him on as a companion when every rule of companionship says he wouldn't (it undercuts the proud tradition of guest characters committing noble sacrifices and doubles up the "action heroes" aboard that proved problematic for one Harry Sullivan). Like I said, this is the episode that most boldly proclaims Doctor Who can do ANYTHING now. Leave your expectations at home.

THEORIES: One of the things Moffat puts into Captain Jack's character that was sadly never followed up on is the notion that the Time Agency stole two years' worth of memories from him. That's a really cool detail that could have provided excellent fodder for later stories, in Who or Torchwood. It does bring up some issues about Time Agents and the 51st century though. If we go back to The Talons of Weng-Chiang which this whole deal is referencing, we're confronted with one key contradiction, namely that while Greel was afraid Time Agents would come and collect him, he himself had traveled to the past with "dead end" temporal technology that was causing his deterioration. Here were finally meet an agent (or former agent) from the same century and his tech seems more advanced (though that issue is confused by Jack using stolen Chula tech, but we know his vortex manipulator is pure Time Agent gadgetry). In fact, if Greel was personally developing temporal technology, why would he fear a Time Agency that would have been from a later era. Sure, he might have gotten visits from future Time Agents, trying to stop him from building a time machine, but the problem becomes Jack, a Time Agent, specifically named as a native of Greel's era. The missing two years might be an indication that the Time Agency recruits from other eras, possibly wiping memories to make candidates more pliable, or unable to be tempted to change their own timelines once they get the chance. Could be Jack is missing more than those two years. So Jack's bosses could be from his future (oh man, what if the Time Agency was a front for the Time Lord CIA, who we KNOW from Zoe, Jamie McCrimmon had the third Doctor, had the ability to excise memories?). Or perhaps Gallifrey being taken out of space-time changed history and allowed time travel technologies to develop unimpeded by CIA interference, so that Jack's Agency is more advanced than Greel's (though it doesn't fix the contradiction from Talons). And then there's Jack's hypersexuality and how it might connect to any classic story set beyond the year 5000. Here I choose to believe Jack is an especially horny type, and that the Doctor is needling Rose when he says humanity shags itself through the stars. No need to imagine Professor Marius et al. using the clone machine to shag himself while K-9 records the encounter (I'm sorry, I'm so sorry).

- Funny, dramatic, creepy, uplifting, thematically sound... It's a great episode that just happens to also change the status quo.


Anonymous said...

Best part of this episode is how very, very logical it is. The contagious injuries seem completely implausible at first, as do the gas masks. Then we see the explanation, and it all lines up perfectly.

I am probably the only person who doesn't see sex as a major theme in this story. Motherhood and sex are different themes in my head, even though I took eighth grade health class and therefore know where babies come from (spoiler: it's filthy, filthy stuff). There's rivalry between the Doctor and Captain Jack, but it's not about sex so much as wanting Rose to be impressed with them; and while I realize there's usually a sexual undertone to males putting on dominance displays, I don't feel that either is genuinely interested in actually bedding Rose. It's more about ego and proving a point; that's how I see it anyway.

Captcha says "skyperv 115", so I guess even Captcha disagrees with me.

Siskoid said...

I see your point. If my mind went to the larger (and I admit, cruder) concept of sex, it's because the title asked me to. It's called "The Doctor Dances" and then dance is consistently used to mean "have sex" through the course of the episode.

Male posturing/competition, motherhood, all have a basis in sexuality beyond the more, let's say lascivious things the word evokes.

Jeremy Patrick said...

Good analysis of the Time Agency stuff (I didn't know about the link to a classic Who story). Apart from Captain John in Torchwood Season Two, the whole Jack-as-former-Time-Agent concept seems mostly pushed to one side...

snell said...

I don't necessarily see a conflict. After all, the 51st century is, well, a century long, and Jack could come from a period decades after Greel, which could easily explain his more advanced Time Tech.

Alternatively, Greel could have merely been trying to develop *different* time technology than the Time Agents had, presumably so they would easily be able to track him with whatever "time GPS" that was built into that standard time tech of the era. Hence, the more primitive (and self-mutilating) tech of Greel's...

Siskoid said...

Jeremy: Yeah, it sometimes feels like The Doctor Dances is an exercise in Moffat misremembering The Talons of Weng-Chiang.

Snell: Yes, a kind of temporal escalation is completely probable. And a century IS a long time. I neglected to check the dates we do have, and while Greel is said to have done his Khan bit in the "early" 51st century, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang says Jack was voted best bottom of 5094, which is the end of that century. It's certainly a big century for New Who, because that's where River Song is based as well, AND the S.S. Madame the Pompadour. In Classic Who, the early part needs to fit The Ice Warriors (arguably, but there's an Ice Age on, the same as mentioned in Talons) and The Invisible Enemy (in 5000, the year of the Great Breakout). It was inevitable some of these wouldn't quite match the others.


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