The Pessimist, the Optimist, and the Nihilist: Redux: Revisited

[So, about a year ago I wrote a quick lunch-hour post titled The Pessimist, the Optimist, and the Nihilist: Redux which was a comparison of the moral outlooks of each revival showrunner. I don’t think it’s quite substantive enough to be fully reformatted for the blog and I could never be bothered rewriting it from scratch. But I think it’s a relevant precursor to my upcoming post on Flux, so this is it, without amending my thoughts even slightly. I don’t agree with most of it now, (and I cringed making the thumbnail) but that’s very much the point:]

So a few months ago I wrote a quick smoke-break post titled The Pessimist, the Optimist, and the Nihilist which was a comparison of the moral outlooks of each revival showrunner. I quite liked it, but then I accidentally deleted it before sending, and could never be bothered rewriting it from scratch. Whoopsie. But I’ve been thinking about it since then, and I want to amend my thoughts slightly:

The bolster of the argument was that despite campy vibes, colourful aesthetics and a tendency towards (often quite jarring) happy endings, the actual thematic content of RTD’s writing for Who is deeply pessimistic. His stories often revolve around the decay of society, with it only being saved on a technicality, or at some massive moral cost. The only companion ending that isn’t actively tragic is Martha’s, and even then, we’re presented it from the Doctor’s perspective as he gets spurned.

Moffat’s, on the other hand, is fundamentally optimistic. There was a lot of noise at the time about his cruelty in killing off characters, but that seems to miss that (even when they’re not resurrected, which they usually are) the death of a Moffat character is usually on their own terms, and usually making some broader optimistic point. River Song’s death in Forest of the Dead isn’t just a melodramatic gut-punch, it’s used to show how far ‘ahead’ of the Doctor she is, and also how wonderful this Doctor will grow to become by the time he meets her. Missy’s death is a marking of her development. Clara’s is an opportunity to mark her (and comanions’ in general) outgrowth of the Doctor.

And then the post rounded on Chibnall, highlighting his era’s unclear and inconsistent outlook, and the (imo) clumsy cynicism of S12’s armada of recycled ideas and emotional beats, arguing they were evidence that the era has no sustained beliefs at all. And I think I was a little unfair. At the very least, I would rather approach the topic sympathetically and try to figure out what big lessons we can draw from his writing, however hard we have to milk the stone to make it bleed. (sorry)

So one of the big things that drew me to the ‘nihilist’ conclusion was that so many Chibnall and Chibnall-era episodes end with the week’s threat kinda unresolved. I think even the biggest fans of the era would agree with that criticism. The reading that immediately invites is “these problems are too big to be solved” as, between Barton’s monopolistic information industry and Kerblam!’s hyper-capitalist cruelty, Thirteen just leaves the systems in place. She stops the immediate threat of everybody dying, but when it comes to the actual cause of the problems, all is left as is.

Reaching deep into my satchel of charitability, the aim here might be to not imply that everything will turn out okay cos “the Doctor’s got it”. She’s not a superhero ‘above’ us puny mortals (however much her pretty confused relationship with the companions might suggest otherwise), she’s just another person, and she can’t solve these problems on her own. In fact, the era also has a tendency to highlight the responsibility of non-Doctor characters, occasionally near-enough-literally appealing to the audience, as in Orphan 55. Both series so far end with guest characters with a burden of off-screen responsibility for the threat of the episode stepping in to save the day, so whether or not intentional, it’s definitely a motif. Arguably less nihilistic, and more realistic.

But then this jars so completely with the “everything will turn out fine” angle on fascism in the very same episode as the Barton example, in which the Doctor cites that “darkness never sustains,” like the good guys winning is an inevitability. Of course we know that the fascists lost WW2, but the episode isn’t really about WW2, it’s about our modern decent into corporate techno-fascism, about which “the good guys winning” is as far from certainty as you could imagine.

The other issue with the “not the Doctor’s responsibility” reading is that if it’s aiming for a realism that “these problems are too big to be solved on TV” then it’s failing to show us how to winOrphan 55 and Kerblam!, for example, both tell us what not to do: “don’t let the planet burn,” “don’t melt down humans for cash but also don’t resist corporations with violence,” but don’t give any call to positive action. What DO we do about megacorporations? How DO we stop the planet burning? No answers are provided. If this absence of direction is aiming for ‘realist’ then it’s failing to provide any material for what we are supposed to really do. And frankly I resent the notion that “these problems are just too vast” is either an accurate or helpful approach to doing “issue” storytelling in Doctor Who. Kerblam!’s oft-cited counterpart Oxygen doesn’t just show the dangers of capitalism’s ultimate objective, but tells us how to stop it: seize the means of production. It’s useful TV. Is the Doctor’s intervention bring about the collapse of capitalism an embellished situation? Sure. But I’d argue that we learn far more that is applicable to the real world than 9/10 stories a series ending with “and then nothing fundamentally changed because the threat was too big for the Doctor to handle”.

Maybe it’s the limitations of my own ability, but try hard as I might to build any kind of coherent outlook out of Chibnall’s run on Doctor Who nothing I put together holds up to scrutiny. I wanted to write about how Chibnall’s static characters are deconstructing the over-narrativized companions of prior years, but you can’t even finish that sentence without remembering the baby’s-first-character-arc granddad stuff, or how the companion’s development was supposed to be at the heart of the show. I wanted to theorise that S12 is doing a mosaic of the show’s history to set up the naval-gazing finale, and that’s why it looks like a cynical attempt to regurgitate moments and monsters and emotional beats from years when the show was more in-the-zeitgeist, but it’s not, is it? You look at the rest of the era, and at the hanging threads, and stilted dialogue, and unfinished episodes, and every single time those three companions chirp their minor variations on the exact same “yes, Doctor” and you realise that this wasn’t on purpose.

I would love, by the way, if anybody has any real ‘redemptive readings’ of the era they’ve been sitting on. I would really love something to grapple on to and think about, that doesn’t immediately fall apart. I just wanna wanna like it, man.

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