Doctor Who Series 9: Musings on Magic

Greetings Kasterborites! I have been musing over my Christmas list when it comes to Doctor Who Series 9 and beyond. I’ve been thinking about the darker, edgier direction Series 8 took and the kind of things that give me that little tingle of awe that I think are referred to as “squeee” or “the feels”. And my demands are both vague and specific…

The future of Doctor Who currently lies in the mind of Steven Moffat and his band of writers. Thereafter it rests in the minds of future showrunners – I like to think of them walking among us, bearing The Sign (perhaps a TARDIS-shaped birthmark between the dimples of Venus) unaware that their Who-based daydreams will one day be broadcast to millions…

The other day [British for “recently”] I saw The Hobbit at the cinema… Monsters, magic and good versus evil. This got me thinking, not least because of Peter Jackson’s love for Doctor Who, about where the show could go next. Bear in mind that my brain has mostly been working in a solution of two parts brandy, two parts sherry and one part brain-juice for the past week or more. So any recent “thinking” has been heavily influenced by Christmas *cheer*.

One of the things I enjoy about The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are the epic forces and ancient magics that underpin the events in Tolkien’s world. Whatever is happening at any one time is usually part of something much bigger and it’s more than mere politics. (Then, of course, there’s the monsters and adventure). It’s the same thing that makes a lot of fantasy appealing, in my view: things that usually take the form of dramatic irony or providence in ordinary fiction can take on a deeper significance in fantasy literature.

Sylvester McCoy in The Hobbit

In normal fiction someone might get their comeuppance because of a negative character trait or a convenient twist of fate whereby the good guys always win. Often in fantasy literature narrative tricks and allegories can participate in the narrative in a much more direct way: they can be a part of the events unfolding. The things people do, say and feel – a protagonist’s or antagonist’s agenda – can take affect across time and space (even between universes).

So where stories may sometimes rely on the general principle that the good guys win, coincidence or dramatic irony, in fantasy literature, destiny can take on a very real form. In fact destiny can be identified and interacted with whether as a prophecy, magic or perhaps some feature of advanced technology. There can be more tangible reasons for things turning out the way they do and being able to make narrative structures or tropes actual entities within the story, you can tell richer, more complicated stories. At least that’s my view as a fan of the genre.

Of course this can cause problems as well. We’re all familiar with the aphorism in recent Who that “time can be re-written.” Of course the mechanics of – when it can and cannot be re-written or whether any attempt will be thwarted by the intrinsic structure of wibbly wobbly ball (“destiny” perhaps) – tend to change depending on what is convenient for the writer in that particular story! And fair enough. It’d be difficult to keep a time-travel based show going if there weren’t some arbitrary “fixed points” to shape the narrative here and there.

So in speculative fiction, things that inform the agenda of the key players – things like vengeance, desire, punishment, love and redemption – can take affect across generations and between galaxies whether though spells, programs, transmats or God-like powers. Or they can take effect in ways that are impossible in ordinary fiction. Themes like deceit, the anonymity of war, and redemption can take on other allegorical forms in fantasy fiction. One of the best examples in Doctor Who that I can think of transforms these into a plague…

If you haven’t seen 2005’s The Empty Child/ The Doctor Dances yet, look away now (actually, watch it now!)!

The bulk of the two-parter centres on the harm done by nanogenes (or nanobots) that colonised the body of a young boy killed by a WWII bomb moments before they get to him. He was in the way of danger because he was looking for his mother and died with his gas mask on. His mother had been *too young* when she had him and worse (going by the social standards of 1940s Britain), was not married. Because of this, his mother, Nancy, has had to lie to him from birth and pretend to be his sister…

The Empty Child

After his infection with nanogenes, we have an outbreak of gas-masked zombies searching for their mothers. The nanogenes were battlefield medical technology primed to get soldiers up and doing what they were supposed to be doing.  Thinking that a lost little boy in a gas mask, looking for his mother is what humans are supposed to be like they set about re-modelling anyone that came into contact with them.

At the denouement the Doctor tells Nancy to go and tell Jamie that she is really his mother. This allows the nanogenes contact with one of the boy’s parents and they recognise maternal DNA as a generation above Jamie i.e. a more authoritative example of what humans are suppose to be like. They also notice the fact that she doesn’t have a gas mask and isn’t on a singular quest to find a longed-for mother – they realise they’d made an error in their wartime swift “repair” based on one example of a human. They reverse all of the sinister damage and even improve some of the victims along the way (a missing leg has returned!).

This is quite a neat and complicated science fiction explanation (and I LOVE it). But the brilliant thing that fantasy genres can do, as discussed above, is feature allegory and other narrative devices as physical realities in the story. We have the literal event of microscopic robots recognising a very concrete fact of human biology paralleled by the emotional event of Nancy being honest about who she is and Jamie discovering that he does have someone who will be a mother to him rather than a big sister. The “cure” from bringing the nanogenes into contact with maternal body and DNA is spread by the Doctor to every other victim.

The truly brilliant part of this is what we also see. If the viewer follows the nanogene plot, they will get that there is a well thought-out speculative scientific event taking place. But we see something that looks like magic from modern traditions of depicting supernatural forces in fairy tales. There is glittering holy light around the embracing mother and child as she reveals who she is, overcomes her shame and gives Jamie the assurance that he is loved. It looks like something from a Disney movie, but the glittering light is really advanced technology doing something very clever. The next thing we see is the Doctor shooting glowing magical powers from his hands – but again with the perfectly thought through sci-fi explanation for what is really happening. What looks like fairy tale magic has a perfect speculative scientific explanation. Moreover this science fiction event is made possible by Nancy’s bravery and the Doctor’s desire to heal. Where bravery and good intentions can take on magical appearances in fairy tale, here their impact has a technological explanation. Never mind the brilliant performances – as a piece of science fantasy writing and directing this is what I call: Bloody brilliant.

So we have an example of Doctor Who doing a sciencey version of shooting powers from your hands in the manner of Harry Potter and LOTR. In those two franchises, and I’d argue in a lot of Manga, the use of magic seems to stand in as an allegory for the strength of emotions and strength of character – moral fibre perhaps. This sort of thing crops up in Doctor Who too, in the love-conquers-all endings we have seen a bit too much of over the years. In The Lodger, Craig’s desire to remain where he is somehow is comprehended by the mysterious ship’s systems and enables him to oppose its pilot-trapping protocols. Then his love for his son in Closing Time somehow overturns the Cybermen’s emotion-removing software. What with the finale to Series 3, Ridiculous Rings of Akhaten and Bracewell’s humanity in Victory of the Dalek’s this can all get a bit much…

Capaldi Eyebrows

But anyway – back to Tolkien and the future of Who. The point I wish to make is that Doctor Who can do magic-plus. It can present all the visual and metaphorical trappings of spell-casting in other fantasy literature and go further, introducing different kinds of explanations and properties. And the reason this is important is because it enable Total Awesomeness. And I’m thinking of the kind of Total Awesomeness that you see when the Wise Old Man (or woman) archetype (the Santas, Merlins and mysterious Sages-on-the-Hill) goes badass. Key examples that give me this particular thrill in LOTR are the showdown between Gandalf and Sauron in The Fellowship of the Ring and similarly the Cure of Theoden in The Two Towers. In The Hobbit, I got “the feels” for the faceoff between Galadriel and Sauron – clips are online (though they probably shouldn’t be so I won’t link!).

In Peter Capaldi we have an actor who, I think, can carry this off more than any other since the Classic era. While Smith managed to portray an ancient Time Lord in the body of a 20-something wonderfully, there’s something that a bit of salt-n-pepper gravitas lends to the role. Capaldi certainly has a contrasting stillness and presence that may come with a bit of seniority.

So this is what I’d like for Christmas, Kasterborites. It doesn’t matter that the big day is gone as the delivery is being made to a production office in Cardiff, and should hopefully already be sitting on a desk:

1) More properly thought out speculative science-magic awesomeness.

2) The Twelfth Doctor getting some Wise-Old-Badass moments – probably involving stuff that looks like cool magic but without a Welsh Children’s Choir or poorly explained leaves.

3) Peter Jackson directing Capaldi in Wise-Old-Badass moments.

That is all. Doctor Who using the flexibility of its format to bring us some truly epic, magical narratives and the Doctor doing some Epic Wizardness – he’s got the Magician’s outfit and the eyebrows. All he needs are the stories. With Series 9, episode 1 being titled The Magician’s Apprentice, might I be getting my wish…?

But enough of my two-parts Brandy rambling! What do you want to see in Series 9 and beyond? What does Doctor Who look like, feel like and do when it’s at its best for you? And what gives you “the feels”?

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  1. bar says:

    Sorry James, much as i like your analysis of tEC and tDD I’ve been watching Silurians recently, and am SOOOOOO missing the science without magic, but with politics – and not just corny ‘weapons launched in 45 seconds’ gags. General touchy-feely nods towards taking climate change seriously or picking up space exploration again (just like Moonbase) aren’t enough.

    My wish-list for S9 includes some serious exploration of, for example, current cyber ‘digitally enhanced’ humanity – Cybermen v Psi, but with the whole thing thought out a bit, like in Spare Parts. Or some real science questions about longer lifetimes, gene therapy, a world dependent on deep sea fish and algae-farming (the Sea-green Death?), or superconductors or nuclear fusion… Where are the DW stories that make kids want to become engineers?

    I’ve been thinking about the ‘magic solutions’ criticism since that end of Flatline where the Doctor’s work in the TARDIS came to fruition and the weapon he’d been developping, channelled through the sonic, looked like a HP patronus spell. I loved the resonance with Ten (not one of my fav Doctors, but I appreciate others’ loyalty to him), but I didn’t get the awesome vibe that the orange sparkly fairy dust moment in The Doctor Dances. There the science was explained, in Flatline it was just assumed the Doctor knew what he was doing, we didn’t need to.

    The screenshot you chose of that fourth-wall demolishing glare closed a scene that began with the Doctor pouring whiskies, saying he feared he might have to KILL the baddie, and both of them might need a drink first. It made me believe DW was really growing up again, not JUST in Moff’s confession ‘I never said it was your fault’ closing the ‘boyfriend’ era. I think I was hoping too soon.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made it clear in other posts that I would watch Capaldi & Coleman in Timelash (actually it’s quite fun imagining classic Doctor/Companion partnerships in NuWho stories, and vice-versa) and am seriously looking forward to S9, but as someone who prefers science and politics to sword and sorcery I’m hoping for something to engage the brain, and less aimed at ‘squee’ or ‘feels.’ LIke so many others I loved the ‘Do you think I care for you so little…’ line, but particularly appreciated the fact that it wasn’t followed by five minutes of them emoting at one another. Instead the Doctor more or less told Clara to pull herself together as they had work to do – ‘Give me some attitude!’

    Or maybe I should partake of some of your seasonal volatile compounds.

    • James Lomond says:

      Bar I’ve discovered *these*
      Come over – we’ll have volatiles with the Ambassadors of Death and a log fire!

      What I really want is some complicated science that’s politically/ ethically/ humanly relevant in the context of a story and *looks* epically awesome in a magicy way. I’m sure our Venn diagrams of Who-wishes have a big enough overlap for Moff to deliver 😉 …and on reflection I think it’s more the brain-stimulating stuff that gives me the ‘feels’ which doesn’t bode well for my C21st online existence :/

      • bar says:

        Tempting, on a cold winter day…
        ‘which doesn’t bode well for my C21st online existence :/’ – except on Kasterborous, of course!

  2. Semi-Evil Semi-Genius says:

    Very interesting article! It really made me think about what I wanted for Future Who. It couldn’t hurt to do a story or two in this manner.

  3. Wayne Robert Smith says:

    Shared at Personally I don’t like magic in my scifi but it wouldn’t be the first time a script writer has sneaked it in.

  4. teddybowties says:

    one phrase to rule them all, one phrase to find them; one phrase to break them all and in the badass bind them.

  5. Dr Moo says:

    Doctor Who tried to include magic in Battlefield and The Shakespeare Code. These are two of my least favourite episodes. Leave fantasy and Sci-Fi separate. Even if the actors can do both genres (Sylvester McCoy in The Hobbit) no scriptwriter is up to it as far as the evidence suggests.

    • James Lomond says:

      What about the appearance and epicness of “magic” in a sci-fi context as discussed above with Moff’s Empty Child/ The Doctor Dances? Shakespeare Code didn’t really have any explanation of any kind – just that words can cause magic to happen and this is a species that does that and oh look a famous wordsmith can defeat them. Not sci-fi. Battlefield suffered from a lot of production issues, I think, but King Arthur’s tomb being an organically grown spaceship beneath a lake that the Doctor has locked with a voice-recognition coded to his voice BECAUSE IN ANOTHER UNIVERSE AT A LATER POINT IN HIS LIFE HE IS MERLIN is Total. Epicness. No?

      • Dr Moo says:

        An explanation is given in TEC/TDD that makes sense in its context. TSC didn’t even try and ended up feeling a bit too far on the silly side for my liking, though I can see why others might like it more than I did. Though magic is explained in Battlefield it feels like a cop out: Magic replaces technology in a parallel universe where The Doctor in the future just happens to be Merlin. Though I do love the irony of Sylvester McCoy’s role as a wizard in The Hobbit…
        As suggested in the article, if we have magic in Doctor Who it needs to have a properly thought out explanation that makes sense in the Sci-Fi nature of the show. TEC/TDD shows the correct way to do it but TSC or Battlefield are examples of what to avoid.

        • James Lomond says:

          Agreed. Battlefield more sorta name-checked an explanation in the cut-scene where Ace and the Doctor discuss Clarke’s Third Law going up the spiral staircase to the ship’s hub, but didn’t really *explain* anything about Morgaine’s powers. I just love Sylv too much not to like it 😉

  6. IsaacCrawford says:

    You should definitely check out the Faction Paradox world. They were originally In the 8th doctor novel “Alien Bodies” but have since been spun off into their own world. They use biodata to travel through time and affect cause and effect. Of course to humans that biodata looks like blood so their technology ends up looking a lot like ritual magic. Several of the novels and Audios have done a good job of showing how technology and science that is advanced enough is completely incomprehensible to humans. I think that Doctor Who could play with this idea.

    Incidentally, the book “Book of the War” is the first of the independent Faction Paradox books and has done more for my enjoyment of the Doctor Who universe than anything else. It completly opened up the world of the Time Lords, time travel, and the nature of what is at stake with temporal meddling. Look it up at Amazon and read the entry about Cousin Anastasia in the free excerpt to get a feel for it.

    • bar says:

      Thanks; you’re not the first to recommend these to me, but it’s helpful to have good reasons given.

    • James Lomond says:

      Isaac you’re spot-on. I loved Alien Bodies and all of Mile’s Who books – have listened to the later series of FP audios and the scene with the tree of body-parts Sutekh made from their reproductive chamber was awesome. The sound engineering was great too – they did a great job of portraying language too complex for humans to accurately perceive 🙂 (at least I think so). I’ll also look up the Book of the War- thanks!

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