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17 April 2009 @ 12:58 pm
The Tragedy of Ten; or, the further frustrations of a fan whose favorite season is still S3  
Thanks to various comment threads (I love my flist!), I'm thinking about the Tenth Doctor and why I find him particularly frustrating in certain respects, and yet another thing that irks me about the end of season 4. The other jumping-off point for thinking about this is the very end of "Planet of the Dead," but it's not about that, really (no spoilers for the special).

Here's the thing: we're still watching a character who cannot change or grow in any way.

When it looks like growth *might* happen, RTD smacks Ten back down with some external tragedy (the latest of these being what happens to Donna). It's impossible for Ten to ever come to grips with anything; he just circles. That's not to say that DW storylines can never be tragic, but Russell never lets Ten work through his trauma, try to live with it in some way. Instead, Ten just pastes the mask back over it, flirts and grins his way through another adventure--and there's a part of me that loves that character type, that "laughing on purpose at the darkness," but never moving out of it leaves the narrative with nowhere else to go. We either need an external change (fewer tragic plotlines) or an internal change (the Doctor learns how to cope), or else we get the paint-by-numbers ending that we got with "Planet of the Dead."

And as a (crazy) fan of both Martha and S3, I find this particularly frustrating because the end of S4 further hollows out S3. S3, painful as it is, nevertheless works if we can believe what Donna, in "Partners in Crime," says of Martha: "That Martha must have done you some good." And while I was watching S3 for the first time, I thought that's what I was seeing. As I *know* I've said before, if Rose got the Doctor (in Ten) who wanted to pretend that he was whole and healed, Martha got the one who knew that he was broken, who had to be honest about pain and loss and Gallifrey. And Martha helped him do that--sometimes by forcing him to, as with that therapy session at the end of "Gridlock" (never forget that Martha's a doctor), and sometimes just by being there to hold him up as he falls apart, and getting his hearts started again. It's thankless work (though it didn't *have* to be), and there's been tons of argument about whether it was fair to put Martha through that, but it matters. Same with the death of the Master; Ten actually grieves for him, and what is that crazy Viking funeral about if not closure? That's a big part of why I love S3--that sense that the Doctor is changing. There's a line in a song I love, "Christmas Carol" by Nerissa and Katryna Nields: "You fall apart because you're growing / Unfolding slowly toward the light." And I thought that's what I was getting in S3.

Except apparently not. It looked like that, for a while; Ten is completely honest (well, as honest as Ten gets) with Donna, about what happens to companions, about having had a family, about how he feels responsible for what happened to Martha. Even if the Ten-and-Martha relationship remained strained and strange in S4, it was possible to believe that he'd learned from S3, even if he couldn't put it into practice with the person who had taught him. And watching Ten and Donna interact in S4--not just their banter, but the way he praises Donna, looks out for her--is the best thing about the season, for me.

But Russell, oh, he loves his reset button. And it's not just for plots; it's for any possible character growth, as well. What happens to Donna at the end of S4 is sad and painful, no question. The Doctor should be sad about it--though he also knows that Donna is awesome, so perhaps he can take comfort in that as well. But what it does, character-wise, is wipe out the whole of S4 as well as S3, because Ten is right back in that same closed-off emotional state. He's always aloooooone. And he never gets to move past that point. None of the experiences he's had can touch him. It's only possible to "do him some good" in the short term.

The whole thing makes me think of Sandman, actually. What is it that Neil said about the series--that it's a story of someone who must either change or die, and what choice he decides to make? That may be more appropriate than ever, now, as we get closer and closer to the regeneration--but where Dream stubbornly insists that he does not and cannot change, even as he sees change happening all around him, RTD keeps setting up the possibility of change (Sarah Jane's speech to him in "Journey's End" lays out the clear path Ten could take), only to insist on its impossibility because of outside factors. It would be different if I thought that Ten was refusing to change, maybe (though that would bring its own issues). But instead RTD slaps another tragedy on, so Ten can have something *new* to grieve--because otherwise he might have to work through something properly, and that wouldn't be a tragedy. Reset, reset, reset.

And it's particularly odd because the Time War could have been an opportunity to do something else. In "School Reunion," the Doctor suggests that he can't stay with any human forever--that this is the curse of the last Time Lord. We get further hints of that in "The Lazarus Experiment": the only certainty is that if you live long enough, you just end up alone. But that doesn't make the Doctor different; it makes him one of us. The scale is different, sure--but if he no longer has that planet of people who are like him to escape to, even if only in the back of his mind, then he has to deal with mortality and loss...just like a human. Except Russell never lets him deal with it. He runs from it, he ignores it, he declares that he's never going to travel with anyone else--but we've seen this dance before. And it's Ten all over--from the manic babble to the shoes that are great for running--but it doesn't leave the writer with any new tricks, or the audience with anything new to expect.
Emily-- Toppington von Monocle: tardis [doctor who]sadcypress on April 17th, 2009 07:24 pm (UTC)
Oo. Ooh. I LIKE THIS. This makes a lot of sense to me.

Can I ask, do you think this pertains to Ten alone- would it be the same treatment if Nine had stayed? I've always felt that Nine really does undergo a lot of change during his arc, and does find that sense of catharsis by the end, letting him let go of a lot. I've always had the sense that Nine's arc was about getting over the Time War, that we were given someone deep in the throes of essentially PTSD and in denial about it to boot. By the end, he chose NOT to be the destroyer again and could also choose to save the life of someone he loved- he got over that hump.

Ten, on the other hand, enters the world thinking, Yep, ticked that off the list. Time War survivors' guilt NO MORE!... which makes him all the more vulnerable to giving in to other destructive paths. He's over the guilt, but he's alone, and all the other things you list here.

I guess what my question to you is, what do you think would have happened if Nine HADN'T died, saving Rose? Is this circular arc (cursed by writers and his own nature) a special feature of Ten? Or would Nine have faced the same thing?
tempestsarekind: bananas are goodtempestsarekind on April 17th, 2009 07:48 pm (UTC)

And that's a *really* good question. I'm not sure I have an answer. Because I also feel, like you, that Nine's arc is about letting go of some of that grief and guilt. But I wonder how much of that is possible because of his sacrifice at the end of "Parting of the Ways." Or two sacrifices--because he also chooses to die instead of defeating the Daleks at the cost of killing so many. It's that first act of sacrifice in particular that undoes a lot of Nine's guilt, I think: getting to be the "coward" instead of the killer. So I don't know if we could even get that arc without his "death," in a way. And I do think that Russell is trying, with Ten, to write a tragedy in which the lead doesn't die, which keeps requiring a reset; paradoxically, Nine's death *means* that he can move on and change.

And what's sort of heartbreaking about Ten, too, is how much he really *isn't* over that grief and guilt, as much as he tries to pretend he is--or maybe even thinks he is--in S2. That might explain his hypersensitivity to guns and soldiers--he talks about how war destroys you in "The Doctor's Daughter," how you never really get free of it. Or as he says at the very end of S2, he was on the front lines--"and someday I might even come to terms with that." I guess that's why I thought the Master's death might do that, finally, let Ten grieve for his planet--to finish what Nine started. (I definitely don't want to *discount* Nine's arc at all, in saying that Ten isn't fully over this.)

If there is a difference here that's specific to Ten and not just to RTD, I think it's that Ten is such a pretender. I don't think Nine had the option of hiding behind an eccentric personality to the same extent that Ten does.
La Reine Noire: Awesome Doctorlareinenoire on April 17th, 2009 07:52 pm (UTC)
Oh, I completely agree -- you have pinpointed one of the major things that seriously bothered me about the ending of S4. It just didn't feel necessary. I don't think RTD understands that not every series needs to end with some sort of earth-shattering tragedy for the Doctor, and your argument further supports that because you're right: he hasn't got the chance to change, to grow as a character, when plots keep hitting him.

And the arc he underwent over S3 and S4 did seem to point him in the direction of something new -- as you said, Martha forced him to open up, and Donna didn't let go until he'd answered her questions. But those last five minutes of Journey's End ruined it all.

It's such a shame, because the Moffat episodes have that kind of character arc, just within each self-contained storyline. Whether it's understanding Reinette in The Girl in the Fireplace or the River Song plotline in the Library episodes.

sadcypress' question is definitely an interesting one -- how would all this have played out if we'd had Nine for another series?
tempestsarekind: ten and marthatempestsarekind on April 17th, 2009 08:11 pm (UTC)
Looks like we just overlapped! See above comment for my thoughts on Nine. Part of what makes me so sad about Ten, in retrospect, is how much he wants to have that clean slate that's been offered to him, and how much he can't--it turns out he's not a "new new Doctor" after all. But I think that's still different from constantly giving him some new giant tragedy every time. It's sort of like when RTD felt the need to pile on the angst for Martha in "The Doctor's Daughter," to make her not want to stay: her baseline trauma, of seeing the planet destroyed, isn't actually *gone* yet, so he really didn't need to add more.

What I'd love to see is some sense that the Doctor is able to *use* the love he has for his companions. Not just to remember them ("I had this friend who called me 'spaceman'"), but to take their traits and remember them through his actions. I'm still enamoured of the idea of having a companion from the past, so: what if, for example, the Doctor were to rescue someone from the plague or something, because of the way Donna stood up to him in "Fires of Pompeii"? That sort of thing might go some way toward doing something with those losses that isn't just a reset back to the Lonely God position.

Neaneadods on April 18th, 2009 12:09 am (UTC)
He's always aloooooone. And he never gets to move past that point.

I think part of it is RTD not being able to let go of the Doctor as suddenly a very seriously screwed up character (somewhere I have a post about how 9 may have been depressed, but by hiding his angst 10 was seriously screwed up and taking it out on his companions.)

But I also am starting to wonder if they're piling on the angst so they can also pile on the "We wuv you, Doctor!" scenes that everything seems to keep ending up with. Sarah Jane talking about how he changed her life; SJ again saying that he has a huge family, clap if you believe in the Tinkerbell!Jesus!Doctor, and the outright love fest because the Doctor doesn't get enough love at the end of the latest Christmas special.

It's as if they're not only hitting the reset button to keep using the same storylines but for the Doctor so he can need more comfort for his hurt.
stoplookingup: rusty inquistionstoplookingup on April 18th, 2009 02:47 am (UTC)
I was going to say more or less this. I've given up being frustrated with Ten's repeating character arc loop, because now I see it more as Rusty's repeating writing loop. I think Rusty came to DW with his version of the story he wanted to tell-- the tormented, lonely soul who bears the burden and heavy responsibility of godlike powers -- and Rusty just can't move on from it. He has to hit the reset button because that lets him continue to tell THAT story rather than some new one. I see the excessive Doctor-worship a the flip side of the godlike powers -- it's what mere mortals do when confronted with an awesome being.

I really think Rusty's version could have been a good story if he'd only told it once.
tempestsarekind: free radicals and tanninstempestsarekind on April 18th, 2009 02:42 pm (UTC)
Yeah. I guess I'm frustrated because there's so much that I really do love about Ten, and I wonder what we'd have gotten if RTD had been able to let go of that repeating story. Especially because as long as the Doctor is still the last of the Time Lords, he's going to have to bear that responsibility (well, he takes it on himself, which I find really scary at times--it's why he needs someone to stop him), so RTD wouldn't even have to change his story all *that* much.

I really think Rusty's version could have been a good story if he'd only told it once.

I was going to say that it was good when he told it in season one, but looking back on it, I'm not sure that *was* the story he was telling. Nine is lonely and damaged, but not particularly godlike; he's just out there, doing what he has to do because no one else can do it. And sometimes he screws up, and acknowledges it: "I made this happen," he says of Satellite Five, but he's horrified by that. It's totally different from Ten with Harriet Jones, or the cat nuns, or the Racnoss, or the Family of Blood...

Edited at 2009-04-18 02:44 pm (UTC)
stoplookingup: doctor in portholestoplookingup on April 18th, 2009 03:17 pm (UTC)
I don't know. Nine has his angry, judgmental side (ETA like in Dalek), and Ten has his self-doubt (ETA like the Ood). But Nine has this enormous advantage of just one season, which we see as a completed arc with no reset. He has an ending, and it's an ending that creates a powerful impression of having been touched and changed by his companion.

I know a lot of people detested S2, but my own opinion is that the story of Rose's problematic relationship with Ten wasn't an inherently bad one. Had Rose's ending been allowed to stand, and had Ten moved on and shown growth as a result, the series would have been much better off. S2 became a total disaster when viewed through the lens of S3, with the Rose relp being recast as a romantic ideal, Ten rejecting Martha because of Rose, treating Jack coldly, and basically going right back to his lonely emo place. And then S4 just made all that worse by having Donna share the limelight, bringing Martha back only to show us how cold Ten still is toward her, and then bringing Rose back to make her More Important Yet Again. Despite some good stories told in S3 and S4, the overall Ten arc is, as you say, the big problem. The repeated reset of Ten's emotional state becomes seriously off-putting.

Edited at 2009-04-18 03:19 pm (UTC)
tempestsarekind: ten has a secrettempestsarekind on April 18th, 2009 04:06 pm (UTC)
That's true--Nine definitely isn't perfect. And the fact that he has an ending is a big difference between his arc and Ten's (non-) arc. And I definitely agree (surprise, surprise) that the big problem with S2 is the way that it casts an unnecessary shadow over S3 and S4.

Still, I think the "godlike" thing becomes a much bigger part of Ten's character than it was of Nine's. For one thing, I think Nine only goes all Oncoming Storm on the Daleks--and that winds up being the setup for his abdication of that responsibility, in not using the delta wave, even with Jack there to be the voice that says he can. And one of the really interesting things RTD does in S1 is to actually *problematize* the idea of Nine as the authority in "Boomtown," which is all about whether the Doctor has the right to be the judge. Frequently--though not always, as you point out--Ten's actions aren't questioned by the narrative itself (which has the odd effect of making the occasions when they are questioned seem kind of arbitrary: what is it about the situation with the Racnoss that merits Donna's "you need someone to stop you," when what he does to the Family of Blood is presented as perfect mythic justice?).

I think that's part of why it bothered me that Donna was brought back on board without really addressing her real issues with him--she thought he was terrifying, and it casts Ten in a very different light; he's actually *rejected* for his actions. (Which is 'curse of the Time Lord' done well, I think; his loneliness is the result of his own actions, not--say--the fact that Martha couldn't get over her 'crush' on him, which is how it's depicted in S4.) That moment is an important critique of Ten, even if it is oddly placed, and it gets written over.
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Neaneadods on April 18th, 2009 11:14 pm (UTC)
Rusty just can't move on from it

Pretty much, yeah. And it was so much better when it had been told once. Every reiteration makes him just be a bit more of a dick to everyone around him.

stoplookingup: rusty inquistionstoplookingup on April 18th, 2009 11:17 pm (UTC)
And also every reiteration makes the whole thing more cliched. At some point you run the risk of looking like you're parodying yourself.
Neaneadods on April 19th, 2009 12:59 am (UTC)
I'd say he passed it at Tinkerbell!Jesus!Doctor, except that I was so fond of most of the Donna episodes. Taking love out of the equation was a wonderful first step. It got reset, but until then, it was great.
tempestsarekind: world in peril? have some teatempestsarekind on April 18th, 2009 02:30 pm (UTC)
so he can need more comfort for his hurt

Oh, dear. It's like being trapped inside a really repetitive fic! That does make sense, though. I guess my frustration with that hurt/comfort cycle is that for some reason, the comfort never sticks, but the hurt always does. Particularly odd is the bit with Sarah Jane at the end of "Journey's End." It would be one thing if we'd gotten the straightforward cycle of "comment from Davros about the Doctor ruining his companions" ----> Sarah Jane basically telling him that's rubbish. But why have the big happy TARDIS-flying scene only to point the whole thing out as an illusion a few minutes later, by having the Doctor wind up alone again? I don't get why we even have the comfort part if we're always going to be *left* with hurt.

9 may have been depressed, but by hiding his angst 10 was seriously screwed up and taking it out on his companions

Oh, totally. I don't remember Nine ever saying "I'm always all right." At least he knew where he stood.
Neaneadods on April 18th, 2009 11:21 pm (UTC)
I don't get why we even have the comfort part if we're always going to be *left* with hurt.

To make it hurt more? I dunno.

Nine was totally up front about how messed up he was, and he was correspondingly kind to others - for instance, he stopped calling Mickey "the idiot" fairly quickly. Whereas Ten kept saying he was fine, just fine, really always fine and was a complete shit to Mickey, Jackie, Jack, Martha...
tempestsarekind: martha + ten + TARDIStempestsarekind on April 20th, 2009 12:04 am (UTC)
Yeah--I've never been able to figure out why RTD thought it was a good idea to go *backwards* on the relationship the Doctor had with Mickey. And Jack too, really. Jackie I feel kind of got a raw deal from Nine *and* Ten--though Ten was more insulting about it. Maybe it's that whole "rude and not ginger" thing, emphasis on the "rude."
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