Doctor Who: "Army Of Ghosts"/"Doomsday"

Doctor Who: "Army Of Ghosts"/"Doomsday"

“Army Of Ghosts” (season 2, episode 12; originally aired 7/1/2006)

(Available on Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Instant Video.)

“Doctor, they've got guns.” “And I haven’t. Which makes me the better person, don’t you think? They can shoot me dead, but the moral high ground is mine.”

I’m not absolutely sure that “Army Of Ghosts”/“Doomsday” is the best of the five Russell T. Davies-penned finales, but it’s definitely the one that is most solid in its construction. This two-parter lacks the grandiose ambition that defined last year’s “Bad Wolf”/“The Parting Of The Ways.” That earlier story used the Dalek attack on the far-future Earth as a pretext for the 9th Doctor’s final moral dilemma, in which he was forced to either capitulate to the Daleks or annihilate the human race. The story’s literal conflict was just the pretext for the episode’s grand thematic statement, and the script sometimes strained to present satisfactory setup or resolution to the Doctor’s insoluble dilemma. After all, there’s a reason that Davies had to turn Rose into a god to get the Doctor out of his mess. “Army Of Ghosts”/“Doomsday” is far more straightforward in how it uses its monsters. The Cybermen and the Daleks are driven by their standard motivations of conquest and subjugation, and they are concerned with the Doctor only insofar as he is a threat to the success of the plans. Whereas last year’s finale saw the Dalek emperor get inside the Doctor’s head with all his talk of divinity and genocide, here the Doctor seems rather bored when the Cybermen try to engage him in Doctor Who’s umpteenth debate about the relative merits of emotion.

This two-parter does engage with some larger thematic questions; it’s just that these issues are overshadowed by the arrival of the two evil alien armies. In theory, this story sets itself up to resolve some of the big questions that this season has raised about the Doctor. In “The Christmas Invasion,” Harriett Jones suggested that the Doctor was fundamentally an interloper in the affairs of humanity, which could not depend on him in the face of alien invasion. “Tooth And Claw” pushed that idea further with Queen Victoria’s rejection of the Doctor and Rose’s blasé attitude toward the chaos and destruction unfolding around them. The modern-day Torchwood is the realization of Victoria’s plan to fight the alien horde, and the word “Torchwood” has popped up in almost every episode going back to, ironically enough, “Bad Wolf.” Unlike that previous arc phrase, the Torchwood reveal is thoroughly logical, even prosaic. Compared to what we got last year—and, at the risk of spoilers, compared to what we get in subsequent finales—everything about “Army Of Ghosts”/“Doomsday” feels so resolutely sensible. That’s mostly a very good thing, though perhaps not entirely.

To that end, this story positions the Doctor in his traditional role as the heroic defender of the Earth. Tracy-Ann Oberman is a lot of fun as Torchwood leader Yvonne Hartman, who is allowed to occasionally question the Doctor, but Davies’ heart isn’t in these criticisms. The Doctor is so obviously right about the danger that the ghosts represent, and Torchwood’s antagonism toward the Doctor is rooted in so much paranoia and slightly anachronistic human chauvinism, that isn’t possible to take seriously the jabs at the Doctor’s superiority. It’s not as though Doctor Who is incapable of placing the Doctor in a morally ambiguous situation; Yvonne Hartman might well have proven a more formidable opponent than Harriett Jones when the Doctor slipped into vengeful god mode after the destruction of the Sycorax spaceship. In this case, though, there’s never much question that humans are messing about with forces they do not understand and with enemies they cannot hope to defeat. The only reason that Yvonne or parallel Pete Tyler criticize the Doctor’s imperiousness is that they don’t understand that they are in a Doctor Who story, that they are mere supporting characters in narrative that requires the Doctor to be the hero. And it’s hard to imagine any scenario that is more uniquely Doctor Who than one in which the Doctor must stare down the combined might of the Daleks and the Cybermen.

This season has tried to suggest that the Doctor isn’t as always as good or righteous as he claims to be, but this finale can’t take that argument to its logical conclusion without breaking Doctor Who’s core premise. Still, the reason this doesn’t much bother me is that “Army Of Ghosts”/“Doomsday” is so successful in so many of its other aspects; whatever these episodes’ failings as a closing argument for the second season’s suggested themes, they still represent a supremely entertaining 90 minutes of television. The story is an effective sequel to “Rise Of The Cybermen”/“The Age Of Steel,” although this two-parter manages its foray into action movie territory without quite as much silliness as the season’s first Cyberman story. Davies cleverly arranges the story so that the Cybermen can take over the entire planet—in one of the story’s best lines, the Doctor grimly points out this is a victory, not an invasion—while the focus remains squarely on Torchwood Tower. A truly global incursion is too massive for Doctor Who to portray plausibly, but the show has a half-century’s experience with the base under siege. Director Graeme Harper makes the legendary Doctor Who standby of running up and down corridors as thrilling as possible.

What’s more, Davies and company fully understand that Doctor Who’s first ever televised showdown between its two most iconic monsters should be equal parts momentous and cheesy. The war of words that opens “Doomsday” plays like what a child might say when playing with Doctor Who action figures, which is really exactly right. It’s just about in character for the Daleks to rant about pest control and boast that they can defeat the Cybermen with a single Dalek, but creatures of pure logic like the Cybermen really shouldn’t be that catty about the Daleks’ disinterest in aesthetics. As it turns out, the two-parter subscribes to a fairly rigid hierarchy of villainy: The imperialist humans of Torchwood are overwhelmed by the Cybermen, who in turn are humiliated by a handful of Daleks. As a Cybermen fan myself, I’ll admit that I’m disappointed by their poor showing here, but I’ve always rationalized this with the belief that the real Mondasian Cybermen would have put up more of a fight than their Cybus counterparts. Plus, it’s a nice touch to have the Cybermen first propose an alliance with the Daleks and then later ally themselves with the humans against the superior threat. This isn’t a big moment, but it’s one of this season’s better illustrations of the cold, dispassionate logic that defines the Cybermen and sets them apart from the Daleks.

It’s hard to remember now that, back in 2006, it was actually somewhat shocking when the Daleks emerged from the void sphere. The Daleks have since firmly established themselves as mainstays of the program, but the sense of Doctor Who fandom at the time was that the first season had belonged to the Daleks, so the second season would belong to the Cybermen. The decision to hide the Dalek’s return inside the Cybermen’s reappearance gives “Army Of Ghosts” a terrific cliffhanger, probably the best we’ve seen in the new series so far. It’s another example of the solid construction of Davies’ script that, given the fact that Rose had used the Bad Wolf energy to wipe out every Dalek in the universe, he comes up with a way to introduce Daleks from outside the universe, neatly tying in with the parallel universe origins of the new Cybermen.

The concept of the Genesis Ark is similarly clever. The introduction of recovered Time Lord technology suggests a massive range of possibilities, each more insane and fannish than the one before it. The ultimate reveal that the Genesis Ark is a prison ship can feel oddly underwhelming; it takes an object that could hold forbidden, much-wanted knowledge about the Doctor’s home planet and instead the contents are “just” millions of Daleks. Maybe that isn’t the most imaginative answer, but it is the one that fits most cleanly into the rest of the story without unbalancing everything else that is going on. Besides, it’s a stroke of genius to build the scariness of the Genesis Ark about the one thing we do already know about Time Lord science: It’s bigger on the inside. Again, I can’t quite shake the feeling that “The Parting Of The Ways,” for all its imperfections—and the far more serious imperfections of “Bad Wolf”—represented a more daring experiment for Doctor Who, but sometimes daring can be overrated. In its story of Torchwood and the war, “Army Of Ghosts”/“Doomsday” never quite attains greatness, but it is never anything less than really, really good. And that still leaves the as yet unmentioned aspect of the story. We need to talk about Rose Tyler.

Stray observations:

  • The Doctor’s channel surfing through various ghost-related programming represents one of the best of the show’s pop culture medley. It’s not terribly sophisticated cultural satire, but it makes the point effectively that humans are much too quick to get cozy with an unknown force. Plus, the EastEnders gag was just on the right side of the line between stupid and clever. Jackie launching into a plot summary when the Doctor asked when it all started was what put that bit over the top.
  • “I think it’s ghastly.” It’s a brief moment, but it’s fascinating to see that the Doctor, for all his grief over the Time War, is so repulsed by the thought of loved ones returning as ghosts. For a man who can travel anywhere in space and time, he really is terrified of his past.
  • The Doctor and Jackie make a very funny double act during their time as prisoners of Torchwood. Even when surrounded by soldiers, the Doctor can’t resist being an ass to Rose’s mom.
  • It’s very good to see Mickey again, and it’s a nice touch to have Rose more visibily excited to see him than vice versa. But I must ask: Is it really cool to just leave a gigantic gun hidden away in a hutch like that? You’d think it would be slightly harder to conceal a weapon that massive in a place as advanced as Torchwood. And yes, that’s pretty much the platonic ideal of nitpicking. (Or maybe that would be wondering just how Jackie managed to get up into the TARDIS rafters. Either way, really.)

 “Doomsday” (season 2, episode 13; originally aired 7/8/2006)

(Available on Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Instant Video.)

“They said one touch from a time traveler will wake it up.” “Technology using the one thing a Dalek can’t do. Touch. Sealed inside your casing. Not feeling anything ever, from birth to death, locked inside a cold metal cage. Completely alone. That explains your voice. No wonder you scream.”

It never ends well for Doctor Who companions. That’s not to say it always end tragically, but you can count on one hand—hell, maybe on no hands at all—the number of times a classic series companion is given a departure befitting of his or her legacy on the show. As “School Reunion” pointed out, even Sarah Jane Smith, one of the classic series’ longest-serving, most iconic, and most beloved companions, was abruptly abandoned in Croydon (or was it Aberdeen?). William Hartnell’s most celebrated speech as the First Doctor—“Just go forward in all your beliefs, and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine”—was his farewell to his granddaughter Susan in “The Dalek Invasion Of Earth.” But as beautiful as those lines are, he still said them after locking Susan out of the TARDIS and leaving her on a Dalek-ravaged Earth with a man she barely knew. The Doctor promised Rose that she would be different, that he wouldn’t just abandon her like all the companions before, yet that’s precisely what the Doctor tries to do in “Doomsday.”

That fact can be easy to miss, given how emotional, even heartbreaking, the pair’s final farewell is. Certainly, it had never quite dawned on me before this viewing that, if not for Rose’s intervention, the Doctor appeared oddly content to part ways with her here. After all, he works out his brilliant plan to rid Earth of both the Cybermen and the Daleks, and he barely skips a beat when he admits that the plan requires Rose to be trapped forever in the parallel universe. He shows none of the angst or indecision that confronted the 9th Doctor in “World War Three” when he realized that his plan to defeat the Slitheen would risk Rose’s life. It feels so awfully true to who the Doctor has always been for him to be ready to dump Rose so unceremoniously. We can speculate on his precise motivations—no, seriously, we’re about to speculate on his precise motivations—but that scene is the best reminder that the new series has offered to date that the Doctor is an alien, that his actions and reactions are not necessarily predictable. It’s dangerous for Rose to love the Doctor, not because he is incapable of that emotion but because the ways in which he expresses it are not governed by a human perspective.

After all, there are so many reasons why the Doctor’s initial decision to send Rose away can be seen as an act of love. I mentioned “World War Three,” but it should be pointed out that the Doctor is acting to save Rose’s life; it’s just that a life without the Doctor is not one that Rose wants. If we use his conversations with Sarah Jane in “School Reunion” as a guide to his thinking here, the Doctor may well believe that Rose is getting on with her life, that there is nothing more that she can learn from him. I suggested in last week’s review that “Fear Her” felt like Rose’s graduation, and so this two-parter feels like Rose trying to hang around past the point where she more naturally should have left.

But such an expectation is derived from watching classic Doctor Who, which tended to deal with companions’ departures with what could most charitably be called maximum efficiency. The idea that companions should eventually grow tired of life in the TARDIS and seek out a more human existence goes right back to original companions Ian and Barbara’s attempts to return to 1963. Indeed, the notion that the Doctor might sometimes make the choice for those companions who could not recognize the necessity of leaving goes back still further to the previously mentioned decision to lock Susan out of the TARDIS. Russell T. Davies just raises the natural question of why anyone in their right mind would ever choose to end the trip of a lifetime that the Doctor promises. The boring reason is that the actors who play these companions often want to take other jobs, so some reason for their characters’ exits must be fashioned. It’s easy to see why Billie Piper would have wanted to move on after two grueling years making the show, but it’s damn near impossible to see why Rose would ever want to leave.

“Army Of Ghosts”/“Doomsday” lays the groundwork for Rose’s involuntary departure with the questions that Jackie raises about her daughter’s future. Jackie’s attitude here is somewhat discordant with her fierce defense of the TARDIS team in “Love And Monsters,” but it makes sense that she would defend her daughter to outsiders while still nursing grave doubts about the wisdom of traveling with the Doctor. In both her opening voiceovers and her scenes with her mother, Rose suggests her old life was worthless, a crushingly boring existence that no one would ever want to go back to. There’s really no way she can make such a point without being deeply insulting to Jackie, who has never really moved beyond that average, humdrum existence. Jackie’s vision of an older, unearthly Rose in an alien marketplace is a tad melodramatic, but it does track with the arc that Rose has been on since the end of “Rise Of The Cybermen”/“The Age Of Steel.” In that two-parter, Mickey left the TARDIS and parallel Pete Tyler rejected her, effectively severing her last links to the life she once knew; there’s still Jackie, but it’s a child’s prerogative to treat a mother as a glorified laundry service. Jackie is a reason to go back, not a reason to stay. And from “The Idiot’s Lantern” on, Rose’s attitude subtly shifted. The back half of this season really has seen Rose act increasingly like the Doctor, with her life-saving boasts to the Cult of Skaro the latest indication that she has picked up the Time Lord’s gift for big, dramatic speeches.

Back in “Tooth And Claw,” I suggested that Rose and the 10th Doctor brought out the worst in each other. The rest of the season has been far more successful in its portrayal of the pair, but I can’t shake the sense that Rose was a companion specifically designed to complement the 9th Doctor, so her relationship with the 10th Doctor has always been slightly dysfunctional deep at its core. Rose was the perfect, fiercely human counterpoint to a battle-scarred Doctor who was struggling to reconnect with the universe. The 9th Doctor positioned himself as the merciless arbiter of cosmic morality, but he wasn’t fooling anybody, least of all Rose. She saw through the brittle, traumatized exterior to the Doctor underneath, and Rose enabled him to leave his harsh shell behind when he regenerated. But the Doctor who emerged only looks like a handsome goofball; he superficially seems more human than his predecessor, but the 10th Doctor is far more comfortable than the 9th in making grand pronouncements about right and wrong. Rose helped the Doctor regain his confidence in his compassionate, human side, but she also helped him reconnect with his Time Lord authority. A Doctor without self-doubt is a very dangerous creature, and Rose helped take away his doubts.

The issue there is that Rose only rarely sees his alien side, in part because she became complicit in it. Rose never lost her compassion, but she did become more detached from the people she encountered. The Doctor’s and her relationship became so insular. They were always there to save the world, but the vast majority of their actions were filtered through their feelings for each other. Yet when she tells Jackie and the parallel Torchwood team that the Doctor doesn’t have to be alone anymore, because he now has her, Billie Piper plays the moment as though Rose is ever so vaguely delusional, as though she doesn’t quite understand how inhuman the Doctor actually is.

All of that is one interpretation, though I’m well aware that there are others. Rose and the 10th Doctor do remain one of the show’s most beloved companion pairings; I have no objection to saying that Billie Piper and David Tennant are generally terrific together, but their characters have never fit together in a way that entirely works for me. That final scene at Bad Wolf Bay is a heartbreaking goodbye, one that is perfectly played by Piper and Tennant. Rose finally declares her love for the Doctor, but the show leaves it at least somewhat ambiguous what the Doctor was going to say in response. I realize the most sensible assumption is that the Doctor was about to reciprocate those feelings, but the old-school fan in me struggles with that possibility. The show tries to have it both ways, giving new fans the big, romantic farewell while providing older fans just enough leeway to believe that the Doctor does not love Rose in the same way that she loves him.

I appreciated that uncertainty back when the episode first aired, but now I wish Russell T. Davies had been more explicit in his intentions, even if they ran counter to my personal preferences as to what Doctor Who should be. I might well have liked “Doomsday” less than I do, but I suspect I would have been able to engage more fully with the actual story if I weren’t able to keep alive an alternative interpretation of the Doctor and Rose that isn’t really supported by the balance of evidence. But then, Davies’ script doesn’t appear completely sure of its convictions. When Billie Piper informed Davies that she was leaving the series, he concluded that it would not be in keeping with Doctor Who’s optimistic tone to kill off Rose, but he also knew the character would rather die than leave the TARDIS. The decision to strand Rose in the parallel universe is the best available solution given those parameters, but is that an exile a sort of cosmic punishment for trying to get closer to the Doctor than any human should—something roughly in keeping with Elton’s musings at the end of “Love And Monsters”—or is it a final illustration of the depths of the characters’ love for each other? Perhaps it’s both of these (or neither), but the story could well have benefited from engaging more directly with this material instead of trying to please every kind of Doctor Who fan.

That sounds like a pretty harsh criticism, but I don’t intend it to be. Even when writing a “normal,” “straightforward” finale, Davies still has so many ideas to explore, and I wouldn’t be able to dig this deep into Rose and the Doctor’s parting if the story were not complex and well-considered enough to support it. The relationship between the Doctor and Rose is never going to mean as much to me as it does to other fans, but that doesn’t mean the final 10 minutes of the story aren’t devastating. With Rose, Billie Piper and Russell T. Davies pushed the concept of the companion further than the show ever had before, and it’s understandable that all subsequent Doctor Who companions are compared to her. (It’s also more than a little annoying, but we’ll get to that with season three.) Maybe it would have been better if Davies had found an ending for Rose that saw her leave the TARDIS of her own accord, that saw her find a meaningful existence that was not so entirely defined in terms of the Doctor. That might well have been a better end, but it would not have been as true to who Rose is.

“Army Of Ghosts”/“Doomsday” ultimately succeeds in its depiction of Rose because it understands both her strengths and her weaknesses. The very traits that made her the perfect companion to save the Doctor from himself are also those that made it inevitable that she would one day find herself standing on Bad Wolf Bay, a universe away from the alien that she loves. As hard as Rose might find it to believe, there are worse fates. And now both the Doctor and the audience are left to carry on, because that’s what Doctor Who is. “Doomsday” is the conclusion to a story that began in “Rose,” but that just means we now return to the show’s larger story, the one that can never end. Even the best companions come and go, but there’s always a new adventure awaiting the Doctor. “Doomsday” is quite prepared to make that point, too, as the sudden appearance of a bride in the TARDIS makes all too clear.

Stray observations:

  • This Week In Mythos: The Daleks’ home planet of Skaro is mentioned for the first time, though it isn’t made explicit that that’s what Skaro is. Dalek Sec’s appearance recalls the Black Daleks, one of about three or four different types of Dalek leader that the classic series presented.
  • I believe the resolution to this story is sometimes lumped in with Bad Wolf as an example of a deus ex machine ending, but I’ve really never understood that. The Doctor puts on his 3D glasses early in the story, and there are multiple instances in which he briefly takes them on and off, indicating that he is seeing something important. All the pieces of the resolution are established early on; the idea of “void stuff” is the only late addition, but it’s repeatedly made clear just how dangerous travel between universes is. Admittedly, I’m still not totally clear how the TARDIS avoids getting sucked in or how Pete manages to show up at the exact moment to save Rose, but... eh.
  • I’ll close out my thoughts on this two-parter by noting my absolute favorite part of the story: the reunion between Jackie and parallel Pete. I always, always tear up when they first set eyes upon each other. Camille Coduri, Shaun Dingwall, and David Tennant play that first scene together so beautifully, with Davies’ script hitting just the right balance between powerful emotion and the occasional joke about there never being anyone else. Plus, that scene crystallizes what might well be the best-developed theme of the first two seasons: The Doctor is magic, and he makes people’s lives better in ways that should be totally impossible. It’s just that he sometimes needs to be told to shut up when he starts explaining why he isn’t technically magic.

New Doctor Who’s Second Season: A Brief Point/Counterpoint

Alasdair: So, that’s the second season of Doctor Who all wrapped up! It’s a weird year for the show, and I have to say it’s a distinct step down from the first season. “Aliens Of London” was my least favorite episode of season one, and I can count as many as five episodes—“New Earth,” “Tooth And Claw,” “The Idiot’s Lantern,” “Love And Monsters,” and “Fear Her”—that are as weak or weaker than the Slitheen two-parter. (I realize that many fans like “Tooth And Claw” more than I do, but I’d say that’s balanced out by my relatively favorable opinion of the Cybermen two-parter.) Five misfires out of 14 isn’t a terribly promising batting average, and there aren’t as many classic stories this year as there were in 2005 to balance out the disappointments. I love the arc that this season gives to Mickey, and “The Girl In The Fireplace” and “The Impossible Planet”/“The Satan Pit” are even better than I remembered, but overall this year is at best a mixed success. But then, this season is so defined by the 10th Doctor and Rose, and—as I’ve just discussed at length—while I can appreciate their relationship, I do so at a distance. That’s why I’ve asked my friend and colleague—and major, major fan of this era of Doctor WhoCaroline Siede to close out this review with some thoughts on why this season is one of her personal favorites.

Caroline: On the whole, I come down slightly more positively on the second season than Alasdair does. While I agree it isn’t nearly as coherent as the first, I find season two’s messiness endearing. That’s largely because—despite the occasional misstep (I’m looking at you, “Tooth And Claw”)—the season is grounded by the captivating relationship between Rose and the 10th Doctor. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Doctor loves Rose (yes, romantically) as much as she loves him. (If I had to pinpoint the moment he realizes it, it’s probably his “there is no power on this earth that can stop me” speech in “The Idiot’s Lantern,” but I’d be willing to hear other theories.) So if the season occasionally feels jarring, confusing, and messy, that’s only because Rose and the Doctor’s relationship is jarring, confusing, and messy. Over the course of season two the Doctor momentarily falls in love with Madame de Pompadour, Rose ignores the Doctor to find her parallel universe family in “Rise Of The Cybermen,” and the Doctor sends her away in “Doomsday” only to realize she has every right to make her own decisions. Those actions can be criticized for their poor emotional continuity, but they make more sense within the context of a relationship that’s both exhilarating and frightening for the two people involved. Rose and the Doctor are scared to bridge the gap towards begin “more than friends” so they occasionally pull apart before coming right back together again. 

Despite their ups and downs, the Doctor and Rose have great respect for one another and that’s what I enjoy most about their relationship. In my favorite moment of “Doomsday,” Rose confesses her love and the Doctor replies, “Quite right too.” He might not be able to admit his own emotions, but he doesn’t belittle her feelings either. While the 9th Doctor could be patronizing and authoritative, the 10th Doctor treats Rose like an equal (well, as much as a highly-secretive 900-year-old alien is ever going to have an equal). The Doctor helped Rose discover a better way of life and she helped him discover the human compassion he lost in the Time War. Season two takes a sometimes-convoluted path towards proving they are better together than they are apart (after all, if there’s just one thing the Doctor believes in, it’s Rose Tyler). The result is imperfect to be sure, but I’m willing to take the occasional low point in exchange for the fantastic highs like the one at the end of “Doomsday.”

Next week: We meet not one but two new companions with “The Runaway Bride” and “Smith And Jones.” Actually, we already met both of them this week. Well, kind of. As with everything else in Doctor Who, it’s a bit complicated to explain...

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