Does any story start and end in such wildly different places as this odd combo we call Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways?
It starts when the Doctor (angsty Christopher Eccleston), Rose (punky fish Billie Piper) and Jack (flashy John Barrowman) find themselves trapped within three different television shows. The Doctor is in fly on the wall voyeur-fest Big Brother. Rose is on quiz show The Weakest Link and Jack on fashion advice whatsit What Not to Wear. They have obviously landed in the reality/lifestyle/game shows department (they were lucky to avoid Celebrity Wrestling). What a pity they didn’t land in the drama department though; we might have seen them in Spooks, or EastEnders. Or maybe even Doctor Who. Now that would be meta.
(If they had, perhaps one of them could have landed in 1966’s The Celestial Toymaker, where Doctor Hartnell and co found themselves competing in a range of deadly games. Or perhaps in 1985’s Vengeance on Varos where a docile populace is kept oppressed through a steady diet of torture videos. Or maybe in 1988’s Remembrance of the Daleks where a human is wired into the Daleks’ mainframe to provide the imagination and innovation the Daleks have bred out of themselves. Even in the first year of its relaunch, Doctor Who was happy to mine the best of ideas from its past.)
The episode suggests that these shows, transmitted ad nauseum, survive until the year 200100, but with hindsight that’s obviously wishful thinking. Even watching it in 2016 is like watching a historical re-enactment. Big Brother may be struggling on in some jurisdictions but is no longer the cultural phenomenon it was. The Weakest Link is long since broken and What Not to Wear has been consigned to the great charity bin in the sky.
So what felt like up to the minute social commentary in 2005, feels passé now. But such is the risk of referencing any contemporary cultural products in any piece of media, and it’s happened ever since Susan Foreman grooved out to Johnny Smith and the Common Men so many moons ago.
But what might get forgotten watching Bad Wolf now, is the common thread through those TV shows our heroes are catapulted into. It’s not just that they were so called ‘reality TV’. It’s also that they were unrelentingly cruel and humiliating.
The acid hosts of What Not to Wear regularly reduced their guests to tears with their brutal commentary. The Weakest Link’s host harangued and insulted the show’s contestants, augmenting a format which required contestants to vote each other off. And Big Brother’s cameras never shied away from a contestant reduced to tears, and zoomed in mercilessly on any faux pas. In each case, it wasn’t such a leap to imagine new versions of these programs where people were executed, not simply evicted.
Bad Wolf comes to us pre-spoiled these days, but in 2005, had you remained spoiler-free, you may not have known that the Daleks were going to turn up (although I suspect that most shrewd fans had guessed that they would show up for the season finale). The surreal placement of our three heroes in twisted versions of popular TV shows helped maintain the uncertainty about who the masterminds were behind this plan. We may not have been surprised if an ethereal Toymaker or a power crazed slug or some similarly bizarre adversary had dreamed up this nutty scheme. But it doesn’t seem like the Daleks’ style at all. That’s nice misdirection from writer Russell T Davies; giving us a plot too surreal for the Daleks and them placing them right in the middle of it.
But actually, surrealism and the Daleks are not necessarily the strangers we might think. As early as 1965 we saw them as exhibits in a space museum, sight seeing on the Empire State Building and sharing the screen with Frankenstein’s monster. The Evil of the Daleks has some of them turned into playful children, and Revelation of the Daleks has them running a funeral parlour. Victory of the Daleks has them serving tea and last year’s The Witch’s Familiar has them consumed by their own excrement. And next random is Daleks in Manhattan which mixes a plot to turn themselves into human hybrids with depression era musicals. So in fact, there’s something about their unstinting metal villainy that makes us want to juxtapose them with the unexpected, in a way which doesn’t happen to say, the Cybermen.
Even so, the madness of Bad Wolf readily gives way to the more traditional action adventure of The Parting of the Ways. We’ve had nine seasons of finales now, so we’ve come to expect a big finish at the end of any given run of episodes. But each one has got successively more complicated, often requiring a detailed understanding of what’s happened in the previous 12 episodes. The Parting of the Ways feels much simpler. There’s a shedload of angry Daleks on the way. The Doctor’s got to stop them with not enough time or resources. As simple and as brilliant as that.
It’s also very grim. Everyone dies, as if in repudiation of the Doctor’s happy exclamation at the end of The Doctor Dances. All the humans, all the Daleks. The cruellest (though most stylish) death is that handed out to would-be companion Lynda with a Y (Jo Joyner), exterminated from a window outside a spaceship by a Dalek, whose headlamps illuminate its famous catchcry in the silent vacuum of space. The most brutal and perfunctory though is all those people in Australasia, whose fate is potently demonstrated through a simple pixelated outline, melted like ice-cream in the sun.
Only our three heroes survive, and they all have to die first and be resurrected, in various fashions. Jack’s revivification will be enough to fuel four seasons of Torchwood. Rose turns into a superbeing with the power to save the day; this will become a recurring theme in RTD’s Who, with the same thing happening to the Doctor and then Donna in subsequent season finales. The Doctor, of course, regenerates, the final iconic element of the old series to be introduced in the new.
What will happen to the Earth, now free of its malevolent broadcast empire, but dealing with melted continents? What happens to everyone still trapped in the games? Doesn’t matter, we’ve moved on. A flash and a bang, and David Tennant’s smile gives us an early but unmistakable signal that we’re in for a very different Doctor to Eccleston’s tortured loner. This story started by presenting reimagined versions of famous TV shows, and it ends as a reimagined version of itself, a famous TV show.
ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: There is an inventive stab at Raxacoricofallapatorius.
LINK TO The Monster of Peladon: Like the apparitions of Aggedor, the games of Satellite 5 are not what they seem.
NEXT TIME: You put the devil in me. We’re off to old New York for Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks.