Doctor Who and the Superhero Problem
I never did go back to see how my Bad Wolf musings turned out. Not so well, as it happens. I’d hoped for a new nemesis, and that didn’t really appear; Davros always worked so much better as Evil Genius than some bland Dalek Emperor, for obvious reasons: it’s possible to take something which clearly began as humanoid, twist it and darken it and come up with true horror, whereas the worst you can do with a robot is make it bigger and have more pointy bits. Frankly, I loved the idea that Adam might have been the beginnings of Davros — inadvertently seeded by the Doctor’s casual dismissal (in the manner of Buddy/Syndrome) — but it was never going to be plausible.
Though Davies finally truly hit his stride in the penultimate episode, which had the zeigeisty hooks that connected it to our 2005 but will at the same time cause it to date terribly, his play with the Bad Wolf meme ended up one part plot device to ninety-nine parts red herring. The scattering of messages through time is a fine idea, but the Bad Wolf-ishness of the messages — the very thing that encouraged so much gleeful speculation — ended up going nowhere.
As for Captain Jack, I misunderstood him entirely, I think because I couldn’t see what purpose he might have in the larger series other than to be a veiled threat. Maybe misled by his introduction in Steven Moffat’s quite magisterial two-parter — the one everyone will take away from this series — because he ended up clearly Davies’s character: there to hold a gun when the Doctor cannot; and there to be the carrier of Davies’s playfulness. I think he knows enough to be wary of how far he can push the Doctor into sexual dalliance and innuendo, so that can be redirected into Captain Jack without undermining canon stuff that’s a bit more fundamental.
A tiny hope for the next series is that Davies keeps pushing on the juxtaposition between the Doctor’s huge galactic enterprises and Rose’s earthly concerns — that stuff is entirely new to Who, and is the thing which most of all dragged it forward a couple of decades — but that he eases up a bit on the Deus ex TARDIS. He found himself straying into something that I tend to think of as the Superhero Problem. The best description of that is the best example: once Superman has apparently reversed time, why can’t he just do that every time there’s a problem it would solve? The problem is in carefully delineating the powers and weaknesses of a superhero. If the balance is wrong, then there’s no jeopardy, and no story. A bit like balancing a tyre, it’s why there’s Kryptonite, and why Superman (for example) can’t see through lead: those are the little weights which try to make everything spin smoothly. But Superman reversing time is such a heavy weight, such a trump card, that it makes everything irrelevant. It’s too powerful a power. That’s the Superhero Problem.
If something as seemingly unstoppable as a colossal Dalek invasion fleet can be halted by ripping the top off the TARDIS controls and tapping into the curiously ill-defined (50 house-points taken from Mr. Davies) powers lying within, then how come this power isn’t always available? One answer — the story’s Kryptonite — is that the power is so vast that the Doctor can withstand it only by regenerating. It’s not a bad cost-benefit dilemma to play with in future episodes, particularly once the Doctor gets even closer to the limit of his regeneration — twelve must have seemed endless way back then. But even so, the literal genie is out of the bottle, and it’s hard to go back to the mundanities of a sonic screwdriver after such potential has been revealed. It might form in general a kind of narrative finiteness even for the immortal superhero: once the true extent of his powers has been laid bare, his usefulness for the story is over, because there’s no true going back. The best he can do is find another story context in which things are more balanced: it’s significant that Superman II upped the stakes by co-opting more Kryptonians as foes. After they’d been vanquished, there was only a retreat into Kryptonite and slapstick. Batman, being nothing-super, is far more interesting because of his immunity from this escalation, which Christopher Nolan got exactly right.
Anyhow, a fond wave goodbye to Christopher Eccleston, with the hope that he’ll return from time to time to squabble with the new kids the way Troughton and Pertwee used to. The very best thing about Doctor Who is its narrative malleability.
Extra-special bonus for having waded this far is a wee story I wrote for another place. Not much of my kink-writing would make any sense out of that context, but this might. A bit. Maybe. At least a Who fan might not get it any less than your average perv gets the Who stuff.