Friday, July 29, 2005

Whoville

I was pointed in the direction of Andrew Rilstone's blog during a discussion about the Extended Editions of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films. If Rilstone's keen wit and crisp prose weren't enough to keep me coming back for more, there was the fact that, while his reactions to the individual films were largely the same as mine, his ultimate feelings about them were the complete opposite. I've made a rather thorough review of Andrew's blog (and his older website) since then, and have discovered in him a rare treasure--a person with whom it a genuine joy to disagree. Although Andrew's perspective is frequently more harshly fannish than my own (how, for example, can you damn Peter Jackson's films and praise The Phantom Menace?), he is such a perceptive and insightful writer that I always walk away from his posts with something new to think about.

Andrew is also largely the reason I ended up watching the new incarnation of Doctor Who. You may have heard, from various media sources, that the SciFi Channel's reimagination of Battlestar Galactica is the best new science fiction on TV, but this is simply not the case. With its overpowering exuberance, compelling performances, and infectious humor, Who leaves Galactica struggling for second place. For most of the first season (and before it), Andrew provided a running commentary at the level of excellence I'd grown accustomed to expect from him, but just at the season finale, he decided to become succinct. My hopes that this entry was merely meant to provide Andrew with an interlude to gather his thoughts in preparation for a marvelously detailed critique of the episode and the season in general, hopefully on the scale of his six- (or possibly eight-) part series about Revenge of the Sith have thus far proved unfounded. Happily, I now have a forum of my own (it's probably not overstating the case to say that I started this blog in order to have a place from which to discuss Andrew's thoughts about DW).

So, without knowing Andrew's fully-formed opinion (which, at the time of the entry's posting, he may not have known himself) and with the understanding that everything I know about Doctor Who I learned from Andrew himself and this extremely helpful Wikipedia entry, let's answer Andrew's question.

Is the resolution of "The Parting of the Ways" a deus ex machina?

Andrew's accused DW of taking the deus ex machina route before. In his blog entry of May 11th, he writes:
Another problem is the show's embarrassing fondness for deus ex machina. ... it is getting wearisome that each week, there is a magic button that the Doctor or one of his companions can push to end the story. (Week 1: The Doctor happens to have a cannister of "alien destroying chemical" in his pocket. Week 2: There happens to be a "defeat the baddies" button hidden on the ship. Week 3: The guest star realises that the aliens go away if your turn the gas on. Week 4/5 The Doctor has a secret code word to call in an airstrike Week 7: The alien goes away if you turn the heating up.)
Which seems to me a rather drastic interpretation of what a deus ex machina is. Yes, in the first episode of the season, the Doctor had a vial of alien-killing chemical on him. However, as Andrew himself pointed out in his review of the episode, the story starts in media res and is told from Rose's perspective. For all we know, the Doctor came up with the formula for the alien-killing chemical after years of careful study, gathered the ingredients at great personal risk (making his way through the slave-pits of Ur, the icy slopes of Mount Eee, and the Jaxen-beast infested wastelands of Makek), and combined them in a chemical reaction so dangerous and volatile that it has been declared illegal and punishable by death on three different planets. Or he picked it up at the supermarket on his way home from the movies. The point of the story isn't how the Doctor saved the world from the Nestene consciousness but how he met Rose, and how, when he very nearly failed to save the world from the Nestene consciousness, she risked her own life to help him.

It's a theme that recurs throughout the season. Yes, there's a Stop Platform One From Exploding button in "The End of the World", but the Doctor only reaches it because Jabe sacrifices her life so that he can do so (and because he walks through a series of giant swinging blades, but the only proper reaction to this kind of obstacle is a Gwen Demarco shriek of "This episode was badly written!" Let us never speak of it again). Yes, Dickens figures out that turning up the gas weakens the aliens in "The Unquiet Dead" (and really, is a solution still a deus ex machina if it has to be figured out?), but without Gwyneth's sacrifice, the rift still would have opened. The "Aliens of London"/"World War Three" two-parter isn't about how the Doctor bravely defeats the aliens but about how he struggles with the question of saving the world but risking Rose and Harriet Jones' life, and how Rose, Harriet, Jackie and Mickey accept that this is a reasonable trade.

What Andrew might be trying to say, for which deus ex machina might be a misleading catch-phrase, is that the resolutions of most of the episodes in this season of Doctor Who have been simple. Most of them are arrived at with great ease. Quite a few rely on technobabble.* "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances" is a good example of both, and do you know what? It's still my favorite story of the season. Because it's eerie and really quite frightening. Because the guest characters are interesting and well-acted. Because Jack has instant chemistry with Rose and the Doctor. Because there are some wonderful lines and great character moments. And, of course, because of the Doctor's sheer infectious joy at the end.

In almost every episode this season, the parts have been greater than the whole. The minute the crisis is introduced, you know exactly how "Father's Day" is going to end. In fact, from the moment the Doctor stupidly agrees to take Rose back to the day of her father's death, you know exactly how the episode will play out, from beginning to end. Nevertheless, "Father's Day" is a grueling, heart-wrenching 45 minutes of television (my own opinion is probably biased--I lost my father at a young age before I could really get to know him--but I know other people reacted similarly). In an ideal world, would the DW writers be able to wrap their excellent character development, good lines, and great humor inside good stories with interesting and exciting resolutions? Yes. But if forced to choose between the former and the latter, I know which I prefer. In the long run, I'd like to see better stories on this show, but it's the strength of the characters that convinces me they are worth waiting for.

But I've veered away from the question. Is the resolution of "The Parting of the Ways" a deus ex machina?

On the one hand, yes, of course. There is literally a god nestled in the machine of the TARDIS. It emerges at the end of the episode and saves the world, taking the entire Dalek fleet apart with a wave of its hand. If our characters are playing pieces on a chess board, the ending of "The Parting of the Ways" is the player's hand, sweeping away the entire opposing side and even bringing back the knight we lost in the previous turn.

And yet. A deus ex machina ending is unsatisfying not because the god emerging from the machine is so powerful but because we don't know why it has done so. For some reason, this all-powerful creature has allied itself with our hero and against our villain. For some reason, it has taken time out of its busy schedule to meddle in the affairs of creatures as insignificant to itself as ants are to us. Why? Why now? If the god in the TARDIS cares about the Doctor so much, couldn't it simply have prevented the Dalek Emperor from escaping in the first place?

The answer to these questions is the reason that the resolution to "The Parting of the Ways" isn't a deus ex machina. The god in the TARDIS doesn't emerge of its own volition. It has to be forced. It has to be carried, at great personal risk, by Rose, who very nearly loses her life in the process.

It isn't another easy ending. In order for the Dalek army to be defeated, the following things have to happen:
  • The Doctor has to choose to preserve Rose's life and send her and the TARDIS out of harm's way.
  • Rose has to reject The Doctor's request that she live a normal life and choose to return to help him.
  • Rose has to realize that Bad Wolf is a message for her, and what it means, and how she can force the TARDIS to return to Satellite 5.
  • Mickey and Jackie have to choose to help Rose to accomplish this.
  • Rose has to risk her life by not only returning to a losing battle but also by looking into the heart of the TARDIS**.
It is through all of these decisions, and through Rose's sacrifice, that the world is saved. Nothing could be further from a deus ex machina.

Sacrifice, as previously mentioned, shows up again and again throughout the season. It is the question at the core of the ninth Doctor's character. Most of us would agree that sacrificing ourselves to save many others is justified and right. It's a decision that requires 'merely' courage and selflessness. But what happens when you're asked to sacrifice not your own life but the lives of others? Is it right to risk the world in order to save a loved one? Is it right to sacrifice an entire planet to stop a deadly menace? The first season of the new Doctor Who started with a character who had answered that last question with an affirmative, and was suffering from the crippling doubt that naturally resulted from that decision. At the end of the season, the Doctor refused to make the choice again; instead, both he and Rose chose to sacrifice their own lives for someone they loved. Taken as one continuous narrative, the season is not only a good character exploration or a collection of funny lines, but a damn fine story with a completely satisfying ending. In the end, the new Doctor Who is greater than the sum of its parts.

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* I suspect that for Andrew, a DW fan from way back who is used to multi-episode storylines, the quick and dirty resolution of so many of the stories in the first season rankles far more than it does for someone like myself. Endings are famously a problem for shows like DW, in which potential menaces are limited only by the writers' imagination--just look at Buffy (no weapon forged can defeat this demon, so let's attack him with a bazooka!)--but if you're already reeling from what appears to be a truncated format, the rush to solve the problem in the episode's final act must seem particularly inorganic.

** One of the great things about "The Parting of the Ways" is that it retroactively justifies the existence of "Boom Town", one of the season's weakest entries. That episode did have a deus ex machina ending, but it served to teach Rose about the heart of the TARDIS and its dangers.

6 comments:

Didi said...

Is it wrong of me to reply to such a long and well considered post with "yes, I agree"?

My own response to the end of the season was considerably shorter, and not nearly as well considered as this:
http://www.darkestablishment.org/2005/06/28/two-wonderful-and-too-short-seasons-end/

Didi said...

Another, unrelated comment: Your Amazon Wishlist link led me to MY Amazon wishlist. I suspect the link you actually want to use is this:
http://www.amazon.com/gp/registry/registry.html/104-3038622-7146314?%5Fencoding=UTF8&id=1ABZCUFTYBF3U
Or it could be this:
http://www.amazon.com/gp/registry/registry.html/104-3038622-7146314?%5Fencoding=UTF8&id=1SQ9MOBQ3I35N

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Thanks for the head's-up, Didi. I fixed it.

Anonymous said...

To summarize the summary of the summary, if you try hard enough anything can be described as a DEM, and if you try the other way you can make great plot sense out of a guy coming down a crane and saying "happy ending, dudes!"

My two cents say that there is nothing wrong with DEMs, the greatest and the bestest were know to use them, and anyone who relies on hollow definitions instead of on the actual experience of DW and comes out short has earned just that.


I.

Maya said...

I'm still stuck halfway through the season (I'm behind, what can I say) so maybe I shouldn't even post a comment yet, but...whether the simple solutions in DW count actual dei ex machinis isn't the issue for me. The issue is that they are too simple and, dare I say it, a little boring.

I-have-a-vial-of-anti-alien-juice doesn't bother me; what bothers me is that Rose kicking a guy over is enough to save the world. I'm also clearly one who can't handle a one-hour DW episode, but I think it is a very challenging limitation for the show. There is so little continuity from one ep to the next, so they end up spending 41 minutes on setting up the situation and 3 on solving it.

Don't get me wrong--I adore Rose, herself. She's ten times more interesting than the Doctor in this incarnation. Ecclestone is fabulous when he's serious but most of the time he mugs unconvincingly.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

The issue of continuity from one episode to the next is definitely dealt with later in the season, Maya. From episode 9 onwards, there's an increased sense of a larger story being told. Still, there's no denying that the new DW is more episodic than long-time fans are used to.

But I'm afraid I may have spoiled your enjoyment of the season's end - the Bad Wolf revelation in particular.

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