Plot and Pathos, and Ever the Twain Shall Meet

This blog post is written off the back of the Day of the Doctor, so first thing’s first, a warning to all of you…


The 50th anniversary episode was, in its way, a good one. There were so many nods to the old series that Steven Moffat’s head must be loose, bizarre action and time-twisting going on, and the redemption of the Doctor from the Great Time War. And it’s the last bit that’s got me thinking. To any fans who may read this, it’s not over-flattering so please don’t lynch me.

While it was also mildly annoying that the Time War was still (mostly) left to happen off-screen, the biggest thing that infuriated me about it was the attempt to of the episode to play both the tragic and happy ending game at the same time. While the initial build-up of the War Doctor making the decision to exterminate both the Time Lords and the Daleks together was quite well-handled, the Doctors’ reactions to it and particularly the resolution wasn’t handled well at all. It might be just me, but freezing everyone at their moment of torment and death seems little better than the genocide option. If you’re stuck in one moment forever, isn’t that pretty much the same as dying? Even worse, if you’re still “in the moment”, so to speak, doesn’t that make the pain and terror you’re feeling go on forever? Can you really live with that? But all these questions are brushed aside in the episode, the poignancy of the moment (hah!) forgotten because the Doctor doesn’t have to commit genocide. Which, by the by, cheapens all the heaviness of the decision that goes before. It felt somewhat like a conjuring trick: Now you see all this unbearable weight of responsibility, and voilà, now you don’t!

Compare if you will, the dilemma facing Tom Baker’s Doctor when blowing up the Daleks’ breeding lab – with the charges set, he has a crisis of conscience about whether he can bring himself to destroy  an entire race, and it’s only when he sees what the Daleks are capable of even at the start that he actually blows the charges (never mind that this doesn’t actually exterminate them, but oh well). He knows the consequences, and is entirely aware of them as he does it. The act is no less horrific than that which is committed in Day of the Doctor, but it’s handled with full knowledge of what it is, wooden acting aside, and the characters take the consequences. There were none in Day of the Doctor, conveniently hand-waved aside as the pretty much risk-free alternative is presented.

This makes all the previous agonising over the decision seem worthless; if there was an easy solution, there is no hard choice, and therefore no heartache. The pathos dissipates in a cloud of deus ex machina, with no consequences for anyone involved. This is rather a problem for the series, which does rather seem to have a habit of both blowing all the potental plot hooks really quickly to make a hyper-tense episode and doing anything to ensure that it all ends happily. Neither is good for creating an ongoing sense of drama, and now the Doctor’s previous self-loathing at having killed his own race (retconned through a throwaway “you’ll not remember this” remark) is gone.

Compare the angst over one set of bad actions evidenced by Snow White in the series Once Upon a Time. In a particular episode, she tricks the evil queen into killing her own mother, and feels a huge amount of remorse for it, her heart visibly darkening because of the act that she committed. Her guilt about this is played out quite heavily over multiple episodes, the consequences clear to everyone. While the actual darkening of the heart may have been a step too far (possibly because of its unresolved meaning in the show’s metaphysics), the suffering of the character who does a vile act is not sidestepped in any way, which justifies the emotional weight behind it. With the quick fix out of nowhere, the Doctor just can’t match this.

Why is this? Possibly because Doctor Who is still thought of (somehow) as a kids’ show, whereas Once Upon a Time doesn’t have quite the same restrictions, which allows it to deal with thorny issues like estranged parents, divorce, and magic addiction (a good proxy for alcoholism). But genre restrictions aside, the shows seem to have a very different attitude to pathos and suffering as a thing; Doctor Who seems to view it as something that must relate to the plot, and once the plot moves on the suffering goes. This is perhaps countermanded by the “under the hood” remorse that the Doctor has about killing his own race, but I can only really remember this getting wheeled out in the new series when it serviced the plot in any given episode, not as a particular restriction on the character outside of it. And therein lies the problem.

Pathos is not a plot device, it should be emergent from it. Perhaps more commonly, it should never be backstory, which is part of my problem with the Time War happening off-screen; characters in media often try to evoke sympathy through their past without much of an effort to show that past. We just know that they come from a broken home, or have lost their parents, or have some other terrible secret that makes them “special” without much in the way of consequences or explanation.

Character’s present and past needs to mean something to the character to have an impact, and modern pathos only seems to mean something to the story. Which I find a mite depressing.

About Aramithius

I'm always interested in the birth and expression of new ideas, from world creation to philosophical and metaphysical exploration. Fantasy and its related genres are the perfect vehicle for this sort of thing, and I enjoy exploring it in various ways.
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