It’s the twentieth anniversary of Terry Nation’s death today. I remember reading about it in my college computer room, where I think the news was broken over rec.arts.drwho (by veteran Doctor Who fan and writer John Peel) before I heard or read it on any more conventional source.
A few years later I was a research editor at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, primarily commissioning, editing and writing articles in the eighteenth-century area, and I persuaded my colleagues in the general literature area to give me the article on Terry Nation to write. It was published in 2004 (content available for subscribers and members of most United Kingdom public libraries) and has survived online with only minor changes ever since. It was edited down heavily for publication, so there’s no mention of his Associated-Rediffusion play Uncle Selwyn which I’d wanted to include. It’s difficult in a small space to give a rounded picture of a career particularly when the Daleks threaten to overwhelm their historical context. A peer reviewer had said (if I recall correctly) ‘It’s not as if there is going to be a monograph on him, is there?’ To which I want now to point to the work of Jonathan Bignell and Andrew O’Day, and Alwyn W. Turner. There’s definitely room to revise the entry and I hope to make time for that shortly.
An accomplished piece of television, which managed to be genuinely disturbing, pick up on the idea of two-dimensional beings which I think was discussed back in the planning stages in 1963, and advance the character arcs. In the latter case, we are being asked to infer a lot about the relationship between Clara and Danny, which seems more and more superficial. I was watching with my sister who found the two characters incompatible, and perhaps that’s what we are meant to think, after all. Clara plays at normality, but after one has had the experiences she has had, the Doctor’s life is her normality. Her ability to ‘be’ the Doctor is an obvious indicator and emphasises the ‘alienness’ which first Danny and now Rigsy recognise. This is an old theme of twenty-first century Who, reminiscent of Jackie’s ‘You won’t be you any more’ speech to Rose in Army of Ghosts. The Doctor didn’t seem to think the acclimatisation of a companion was good then, manipulating the situation so Rose would have a family and home to go back to (albeit in a parallel universe) at the cost of her company and undervaluing his own love for her (or underappreciating his obsession). This Doctor can simply say that being him is nothing to do with being good. What sort of person sets himself up as the defender of a planet or (now) a plane?
The two-dimensional creatures were subtly conceptualised in such a way as to emphasise the Doctor as both rational and intuitive investigator and (after a run of episodes earlier in the series which encouraged interpretations of the Doctor’s behaviour as wilfully cruel) as generous, well-intentioned and hoping for the best in others. The monsters are only treated as monsters once they have exhausted all other possibilities. Their dispatch was perhaps a little too convenient; I’d not considered that the two-dimensional entity’s entire strength was concentrated in the tunnel, and I presume they had been weakened by pouring their energy into the TARDIS; but a magisterial performance from Peter Capaldi’s time wizard, paradoxically invigorated by universe-weariness, was perhaps enough to banish them from this universe. There’s an irony in that as far as viewers are concerned, the monsters of Doctor Who are always experienced in two dimensions, with the exception of The Day of the Doctor; Flatline therefore fictionalises and actualises the experience of the engaged viewer, two-dimensional strangeness made to seem like real threats in a three-dimensional world.
This was a remarkably strong episode, though; presenting Peter Capaldi’s Doctor as an object of faith, perhaps, for the first time. After painstakingly undermining viewer confidence in him in the earlier part of the series, the Doctor in effect becomes a relic of himself, to manifest himself through the faith of his devotee in the final act. The devotee, though, doesn’t get the affirmation she seeks, because she has not fully integrated the experience into her engagement with the world. Is Christopher Fairbank’s Fenton, an anti-imaginative denier who advances the cause of Survival‘s Sergeant Paterson into further depths of brutal ignorance, better off for wilful stupidity? As Dark Water/Death in Heaven approaches, Clara’s role in Missy’s plan gains an extra pencil line of detail, and presumably depends on how and what Clara has and has not learned. I wonder if this series will end with an Orpheus and Eurydice story, but will Clara or Danny or the Doctor have to be rescued from Missy’s Nethersphere, who will look behind them, and what will be the consequences?
Jamie Mathieson and Douglas Mackinnon can both come back, though; tonight the dark of the world is wandered by shifting, shambling revenants reassembled by beings unfamiliar with human anatomy, and until the magician can be freed to shine his supernatural light upon them, they will not stop.