This post is brought to you by my backers on Patreon, if you enjoy it, please join them by clicking here! It's how you can keep essays like this coming <3 :). -James Wylder
Let’s just get it out there: the Chibnall era of Doctor Who just had it’s first masterwork, and while I could just spend this whole article talking about how good the thing was, it’s probably best to just establish that yes: this was not just good, it was great. Rosa follows in a big long tradition of episodes that when you hit them in a new Doctor’s first series shout, “This is what we’re doing, by the way!”
In the last era of the show, we hit that with “Listen”, an episode that eschewed having a villain at all, and was entirely about character motivations, flaws, and their consequences. It acted as a mission statement for the rest of the era: the major villains were more fleshed out, and given complex motivations. The focus was on close and deep relationships, and peeling them back, or breaking them.
Here, we see a new focus exposed, and a whole new angle on the show becomes clear. Like our previous two episodes, the Doctor drops right into the middle of someone else’s story. Her job isn’t to be the most important person in the story, she’s drifting in and out of other people’s stories. Her motivations aren’t the driving force of the episodes, the guest stars are. This was confusing to a lot of folks last week, where we get dropped in the middle of a race and the two strangers we meet are given more character moments then our main cast. But that’s the new take—Doctor Who is now a show about butting into other stories, and helping those stories to finish better than they would have otherwise. That we were introduced to the Doctor by literally having her drop into the middle of a situation, now in hindsight, seems like a neon sign telling us this was where we were going.
Which ends up being the perfect way to handle a story about someone like Rosa Parks, doesn’t it? I had a lot of fears about how this would be handled going into this episode, but none of them panned out. The Doctor and friends’ goal isn’t to inspire or create Rosa’s heroism, but simply to preserve it. Rosa Parks is the episode’s protagonist, and she gets full credit for her own actions.
Notably, the episode doesn’t allow the white characters to glory in their success. The move of forcing the white characters to be complicit in allowing Rosa be taken off the bus, and Graham’s cry of “I don’t want to be a part of this!” with the Doctor’s terse, “You are,” as a reply removes any sense of joy at her action from the moment: it’s horrible, it’s uncomfortable, and it should be. And it’s heroic, but heroic for the right person. The Doctor confronts the cosmic racist, but it’s Ryan who gets to actually get rid of him. The moments are given to the right people. It’s careful.
It’s also notable that the villain’s motivation is just that he’s a big giant racist. That’s actually enough. His method of trying to change history however, is where we get into some of our other recurring themes of the season.
See, he was installed with an implant that makes it so he can’t hurt or kill anyone against his will. Which marks three episodes in a row where we have people with things put into their body without their consent. It was possible, however unlikely, that two weeks in a row was just a very specific co-incidence. Three in a row? Bodily autonomy IS the theme of this series of Doctor Who, and what that means going forward is very interesting.
It’s also fitting that Rosa Parks was chosen as the figure to fit into that theme. Her act of protest, not moving physically from a space so that someone else can occupy it, is a physical and tangible act of protest. Her very bodily presence is the protest. There are plenty of other civil rights activists who could have had a story about them, but Rosa Park’s story fits into the themes we’ve seen this series in a way that is particularly snug.
The way Team TARDIS goes the minutia of Rosa Park’s life, the personal details of her life and her schedule, is also small and intimate in a way we’ve never seen before since they show was revived—as much as I’m here to dissect big themes, Chibnall continues to be more concerned with the tiny moments people live in.
Another tiny set of moment is the mention of Artron Energy, vortex manipulators, and of Stormcage (the prison River Song was held in). We are in a new era, but what a comfort to know that the past isn’t forgotten. We can live on in the future, but don’t forget the past.
And that is a theme of the episode itself—maybe the most surprising scene was the one in which Ryan and Yaz are hiding behind a dumpster, and acknowledge that while things got better, racism isn’t gone. They’re still living and fighting against it, and it didn’t vanish. It would have been easy to celebrate what Rosa Parks did as a pure and complete victory, but while staying within the realm of child friendly, it doesn’t erase how long it took for her to get the recognition she deserved, or how she lost her job after staying in her seat on that bus.
As much as the episode is very much about what an amazing person Rosa Parks was, it never makes her heroism in taking a stand against brutal, humiliating, violent forces something she is reveling in. It’s awful. When it happens today, it’s still awful.
We end on a shot of the asteroid Rosa Parks, which is such a different take on a legacy. In previous episodes where we see the legacy of someone in the future, it’s been something from an imagined future (a copy of a future printing of an Agatha Christie novel, for example) or a personal view on a person’s legacy (the curator in “Vincent and the Doctor”’s wonderful speech about Vincent’s life). Here, the legacy we see is a physical object, built into memory. Like the Ghost Monument, our memories are not just in stories, they are in manifestations. You can love a dream, but you cannot show it to someone else. You cannot feed a man bread made of fiction. Our bodies are matter, and the decision to show her legacy in a real object is a manifesto of that.
A declaration that we have a right to a place in the universe. To exist, to breathe, to live in our bodies in our own space. And no one has the right to take that agency away.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Star Wars Tales, Marble Hornets, and Doctor Who writers come together in new anthology.
Indianapolis, Indiana October 19th, 2018
When James Wylder got his friends together in college to tell sci-fi stories on the weekends, he never thought it would culminate in working with some of the very people who inspired him. The new anthology 10,000 Dawns: Poor Man’s Iliad brings together many of those same friends who started the project under editor James Wylder. New voices passionately joined the endeavor, but the real surprise was actor and writer Tim Sutton. “We’d all stayed up scared watching the series Marble Hornets, so it was a real surprise when I took the leap to contact Tim about the project and he jumped on board right away,” Wylder said. Soon, Star Wars Tales writer Nathan P. Butler had joined the book, as well as Doctor Who writer Simon Bucher-Jones. The book also brings in other notable writers like Vesik and Steamborn author Eric R Asher, Australian fantasy author Kylie Leane, Astral Tides author Nicholas Scott Kory, and Scottish sci-fi duo Michael Robertson and Evan Forman. Rounding out the line up are Trevor Allen, Kevin Burnard, Colby McClung, Jo Smiley, Sarah E Southern, Jordan Stout, and Elizabeth Tock.
Together, they crafted an epic, telling the history of a sci-fi universe over 800 pages of short stories, novellas, and even one short novel. “Poor Man’s Iliad is a saga in the true sense, it spans generations, wars, loves, and some amazing science-fiction concepts. It’s unlike any anthology you’ve read before,” Wylder adds.
James Wylder is the author of ten books, including the #1 Amazon Time Travel novel 10,000 Dawns, and the Doctor Who themed poetry book “An Eloquence of Time and Space.”
10,000 Dawns: Poor Man’s Iliad will be released by Arcbeatle Press on October 25th, 2018 in both print and digital formats.
Find out more at jameswylder.com, or send inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org, and buy 10,000 Dawns: Poor Man’s Iliad when it releases on October 25th!
The Past is Parasite
“Can people, and things, stop putting things inside me without my permission?!?” -Graham
Let’s cut to the chase, after all, this episode is about a space race.
The themes from the last episode? Oh boy, they’re all back. Like the previous episode, we get a first person shot, we have immense physicality, and a planet that is filled with dangers big and small that can kill a person, each described not in terms of horror existential, but of horror bodily. Flesh eating microbes anyone?
But the biggest thing we picked up on was something I wasn’t sure would be a theme through the whole season, but clearly is going to be. I mean, two episodes where people have things planted inside their bodies without their consent and comment on it explicitly to the audience isn’t so much a subtle theme as a siren signaling to the audience that bodily consent is going to be something that we need to pay attention to throughout this season.
Which leads into another point I should address quickly—there’s a story arc this season. That was something we were told explicitly wouldn’t be here, so outside of anything interesting we have another era of not being able to believe the production team. Alas. I mean, I’m not surprised, but still. Anyways. Yes, there’s a story arc. The Stenza are back, and are apparently involved in forcing people to create bio-mechanical monstrosities. Or were, since they’re all dead.
“The Ghost Monument” is an episode haunted by the past, filled with ancient things that are struggling to survive in their future. We have a space race that’s been going on for millenia, but is not coming to it’s ultimate end. We have a planet filled with ghosts of a dead civilization, the people’s creations living on after them to haunt the world as physical spirits. The planet’s one defining feature a monument that itself is barely there, shifting in and out of reality. The past holds on here, on a world called desolation, and it is history that is inescapable.
But screw history. The whole point of this episode that it’s never to late for reinvention.
We’re treated to two new characters, both part of the space race, one of whom has lost their wife, the other who has deep deep seated trust issues thanks to some amazingly abusive parenting. Both are dealing with parasitic pasts, and an inability to trust. This mirrors the conflict we have between Graham and Ryan, both of whom are dealing with loss, and neither of whom is open to trusting each other. But more than that, a thing that is bringing our characters down is toxicity. Not just in the planet, which is notably toxic, but I the character’s attitudes.
This shows up in ways big and small, including a comic sequence where Ryan thinks he can solve the situation by being a violent action hero. That by going in with the attitude of personal destruction, he can solve their problems. It backfires, and the Doctor is able to solve the problem with a cool head and without the toxic attitude Ryan had.
Our space race friend whose mom let him drop out of a tree is the poster child for this toxic attitude,a brusk take on the world that kindness and cooperation are flaws. But, in my favorite thing about the episode, this isn’t treated as irredeemable. By the end of the episode, he does learn that his attitude about life isn’t actually going to get him what he wants, and that’s beautiful.
He sees renewal, and so does the Doctor. She has gained new friends, a new joy at the universe, and has found her TARDIS. The sheer sincere joy of her finding the TARDIS is so heartwarming I barely even want to analyze it, it’s just nice okay? Happiness, a beautiful new set from the set designer from Sherlock, and a custard cream dispenser. The Doctor’s intimate little lines to the TARDIS, “Oh, you’ve done yourself up!” are adorable. And here we are, at a new beginning.
Doctor Who now is a show about an alien who goes around teaching people about kindness, and about how toxic, isolationist, violent attitudes aren’t the best way to approach the world. It’s a show about how the bad guys ignore consent, cheat to win, and in many ways mirror sexual predators. It’s definitely going in interesting directions, and while we haven’t seen the endpoint, there is a trajectory.
* * *
Let’s talk about that scene with the ghost-rags that murder people, alright? The Doctor has a chat with them, and they can read her mind, and they mention a “Timeless Child”. This is…very much a tease for the future of the show. So lets note it now. Also. it’s something from the Doc’s past she can’t escape from, which is very much in the episodes themes. Alright, a bit off path, but noted, right?
* * *
Reinventing the past is the game here. We have a new intro sequence that looks like the old “Howl Around” intro sequences from 60’s Doctor Who, in a series with four companions like 60’s Doctor Who, in an episode that could easily be compared to old school Doctor Who Episodes like “The Keys of Marinus” or Enlightenment.”
But the most notable contrast is the race-runner, who competed in the race when it started 4000 years ago, and has now decided to end it. Despite his insistence that the race is important, that what it tests is important, he’s ending it. That could easily happen with a show about a 2,000 year old time traveler. It happened. We did it. We had stuff we liked, and stuff we didn’t. But we can do something new with something old. It doesn’t have to be like what we liked to be good. It doesn’t have to check our check list.
It can just be itself, as it is, reinvented, but still like it was.
It’s redecorated. I really like it.
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The moment that the themes of “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” really become evident is, frankly, a gross one: it’s the moment when the bad guy rips a man’s tooth out of his head after killing him. It’s a moment of violation, one that is called back to when the Doctor and friend’s find the dead man’s body. That the man was not just killed, but defiled, is made clear to the audience as being particularly abhorrent by the Doctor. This isn’t the bombastic adventures we got during the first few series of the revived Doctor Who, or the dark fairy tales that followed it. This is a story grounded in physicality, a story about bodies, and how they matter. This is something new, even when Torchwood, which Chris Chibnall who also showran, touched on the physicality of existence, it was with a wink and a twist; the details weren’t quite so important, the spectacle was. That isn’t a bad thing, it just meant it was a different kind of story.
Here, the teeth are paramount.
The very moment the show opens, with our new friend Ryan Sinclair trying to ride a bicycle despite his dyspraxia, we begin to see this new take on Doctor Who coalescing. Ryan can’t ride the bike, he keeps trying, and failing, but his will and spirit are no match for the physical limitations of his body. This isn’t held against him, or shown as a personal failing. It simply is. His body was born a certain way, and that’s how his body is. That his step-grandfather Graham doesn’t quite grasp that his body works differently is not just painful, but sadly realistic.
Having a body (which includes the brain) that does not work the same way as other people is hard. You’re constantly working to meet a standard that comes naturally to other people that takes you incredible effort just to get close to. Even as I’m writing this, my spinal injury is shooting pain up into my head. My left eye and the upper side of my head hurt like hell. I want to go to sleep, but I promised an essay about this episode, so I keep working. The pain is less than it was throughout the rest of the day anyways. Ryan falls off his bike. It hurts. He gets up. He tries again. His body fails him. He hurts. He gets up. I can relate.
So the story continues, and we’re treated to many more bodies and their workings. We meet our new Doctor, who falls (literally) so seamlessly into the role that it’s hard to say anything more than “well all the concerns about her were a waste of time weren't they?”. The way she’s brought in doesn’t focus on that she is now a she, instead of a man, but it does linger on the physicality of her change in a way we haven’t seen before. Other Doctor’s have talked about the existential nature of regeneration, and while they have talked about their bodies in the process, it was to make a larger point about an idea. Here, the body is the point, and not because the body is a woman, but because it is flesh, and that’s what we’re all made of.
We’re given details, from her pulse being checked, to the Doctor describing the feeling of regeneration as a bodily process, to her describing the continuing state of it as an update of symptoms. When we finally get the “I am the Doctor!” moment, she leads up to it by describing how her body has finally gotten to the point where she can remember her name. She name checks a chemical in her body. It’s different, it’s tactile, and it’s mirrored by our villain, the Clockwork Droi--
Wait, no, our villain is Tim Shaw, who seals people’s teeth. Let’s focus on him a second, but take a Deep Breath, I’ll get back to the Clockwork Droid in a second.
Tim Shaw is a monster who, yes, is busy acting like the villain from Predator 2, and going on a nice hunt in Sheffield for a human who he’s supposed to bring back as a trophy for his people. On his face, he places the teeth of the victims he kills to mark his “conquests”. His trophy will be hung up to live till it withers away and rots. His ally is a drone made of flesh and machine that seeks to track his trophy down for him (the done notably gets a first person shot, establishing it’s presence without giving it lines). Tim’s body is a weapon, cold enough to kill a human with a touch. Again, the physicality is in our face, but the most notable aspects of Tim’s physicality are how it’s all about perverting the sanctity of other’s bodies. Tim’s drone is alive, but was engineered to have no choice. Tim implants bombs in our heroes, violating their autonomy. Tim kills people with his body, by turning the frailty of the human body against them. Tim then desecrates them, and adds a bit of them to himself. Tim is perverse: he’s a monster who seeks not just victory, but domination. It’s not enough to win, other people’s bodies need to be shown to be weak, need to be proved to be weak. To feel strong, he needs to make himself feel like other’s are inadequete. The comparison to Predator 2 wasn’t just for show: Tim Shaw is a predator, just not the kind you were thinking at first. He’s definitely not allowed within a hundred yards of schools.
Tim Shaw in this way becomes a dark reflection of the Doctor. The Doctor changes herself, and grows. Her body is in flux, and she finds something new about herself. Tim Shaw changes his body on purpose but taking bits of other people. Like the Clockwork Droid in the earlier Doctor Who episode, “Deep Breath,” which introduced the 12th Doctor. The episode parallels that one, intentionally, and the differences show quite a bit about what Chibnall is trying to show us with this story.
In Deep Breath, Peter Capaldi’s Doctor faces off with a Clockwork Droid that has been linked to disapearing people (check) removing body parts from people it kills (check) who then has a final confrontation with the Doctor way up in the air (check) and then falls from that high place (check). The difference is that the Clockwork Droid is slowly becoming more and more human as it replaces it’s own clockwork with human body parts, while Tim Shaw is mocking his victims. Both villains are a clear reflection of what the Doctor is rejecting, however. In Deep Breath, the Droid swaps it’s parts out till it’s a different person, and the Doctor realizes that he can’t keep pretending he’s the same person he’s always been. Tim Shaw steals people’s teeth to show off his past, and helps the Doctor see that she can be herself, and remember her own past, but not hold onto it like a crutch. She can change, but be the same, and that’s okay too.
The finale has the Doctor turn Tim’s violation back on himself. She doesn’t violate him, or get revenge, just puts him in a position where his own crimes come back to destroy his own body. Tim Shaw finally gets a taste of his own cruelty, and he can’t take it and runs away like a coward. So much for the brave warrior. But really, that’s what all predators like him are. If they really were brave, they wouldn’t need to make other people feel weak to feel strong. Tim Shaw is strong only as long as he is untouchable.
The body count on this episode is high, including the death of the lovely Grace, who will be very much missed. But the bodycount needed to be high here: bodies break, and part of being a hero is respecting the sanctity of bodies. Respecting that they work differently, that some can’t ride bikes, that some have two hearts, that all of them can break. And acknowledging that those who would take advantage of that are, indeed, monsters.
The Doctor will be back next week. Who knows if these themes will continue, or if the themes will be bottled each week, but what a joy that we can talk about them. We will be following the Doctor in a new, tactile world. A world where the trailers prepared us with the Doctor’s new friends eating. Where our needs are important. Let’s explore that. Take a Deep Breath, and fall down to Earth with her. It’s pretty nice here, even if your salad isn’t very good.
Poet, Playwright, Game Designer, Writer, Freelancer for hire.