Doctor Who: Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways
By Fiona Moore and Alan Stevens
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 328
The final two-parter of the season has been much anticipated, if only for the return of the Daleks in sizeable numbers. Beyond that, however, "Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways" manages to weave powerful moral and social subtexts in with the action and the satire, culminating in the redemption, then the regeneration, of the Ninth Doctor.
The story begins as a brilliant satire on modern reality-TV and game shows. The programmes chosen are deliberately anachronistic--as it is extremely unlikely, whatever the programme's producers may hope, that Big Brother will be around in 200,000 years' time--as are the clothes of the participants; however, this works along the same lines as the equally anachronistic cigarettes and baseball caps in Alien, in that they are visual and narrative signifiers with which modern viewers can identify, whereas having the participants playing some invented future game while clad in silver Lurex might prevent people from appreciating the satire on the same visceral level. By taking certain elements to extremes, the way in which such programmes act as a form of social control is clearly outlined: while in real life no one has ever been killed on Big Brother (yet!), the power of the media, and the degree to which people fetishise the idea of being a "celebrity," means that people are willing to voluntarily make idiots of themselves simply for the chance to appear on television, rather than questioning whether this is in fact developing a system of skewed priorities, or challenging the nature of television programming in the 21st century. The way in which game shows such as The Weakest Link dress up the simple regurgitation of factoids as "knowledge" is also satirised in Rose's complete failure to do well; we know that Rose is an intelligent and resourceful girl, but here she is completely floored simply because she knows almost nothing about the popular culture of the year 202,005.
In the Doctor Who version, the fact that people are randomly chosen for the games (with a kind of "it could be you next!" element ironically close to that seen in the BBC's own adverts warning against licence-fee dodging) and are sometimes rewarded financially for winning, and the fact that the viewers are drawn to the programmes for the entertainment and/or schadenfreude value as well as simply to survive (by learning the best tactics and ways of winning the game) means that the populace are kept in line through fear and a sense of helplessness. Furthermore, the most chilling thing is the way in which the characters willingly participate in their own oppression (as with the office worker who remarks that they are only doing their job, and Roderick, the Weakest Link contestant who first uses Rose to ensure his own survival, and then vigorously denies the existence of the Daleks); even the Doctor is not immune, admitting to being a fan of Bear With Me at the same moment as he decries such programmes as rubbish, and apparently not remarking on the contradiction. The Daleks may have shaped the system, but it would not have worked if people weren't willing to allow themselves to be oppressed in exchange for entertainment and the occasional reward. By sending them up in this way, "Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways" makes viewers more aware of the complicated and convoluted ways in which genuine reality-TV programmes mesh in with forms of social control.
The presence of genuine logos and game presenters in the programme has, however, raised the question of whether this is the Doctor Who version of the black comedy/mockumentary series BrassEye (in which celebrities flocked willingly to lend their names to flagrantly bogus charities and causes), or, as the Guardian suggested, simply one television programme promoting others. On the one hand, Doctor Who can be said to have turned the tables on Endemol, Trinny and Susannah et al., by getting them to participate willingly in a story showing up their own programmes as demeaning and dehumanising agents of social control, in exchange for a modicum of publicity. At the same time, however, they are, it must be said, gaining exposure from this: there is a school of thought, after all, which says that no publicity is bad publicity. As the programmes themselves are a tangled web of entertainment and control, so their presence on Doctor Who exposes an inseparable mix of support and attack, patronage and satire.
This story is, furthermore, the one which finally pulls the rug out from under the optimistic vision of humanity and the future held up in certain earlier stories. In "Bad Wolf", the Doctor makes what is essentially an inversion of his optimistic little speeches about human progress in "The Long Game", "World War Three", "The Empty Child" and "The End of the World"; here, we learn that rather than engaging in constant self-improvement, humanity is equally capable of stagnating in front of the television, and in this instance, it's the Doctor's own well-intentioned actions which brought this to pass. This, consequently, casts doubt on the Doctor's earlier speeches and activities, suggesting that, for instance, his "Britain's golden age" speech at the end of "World War Three" and his jingoistic rant in "The Empty Child", while they may sound like the words of someone with inside knowledge, is in fact just the Doctor engaging in desperate wishful thinking, and also that (as first explored in "Boom Town"), having the Doctor ride in and save the day is not universally a positive act.
The contrast between the speeches is also interesting in terms of what they tell us about the Doctor's mindset. In essence, his attitude throughout this series has largely been expressed as "if we're in trouble, we fight it, and then everything will be OK once we've won"; however, this kind of black-and-white simple scenario is precisely the sort of thing one can imagine him thinking just before he pressed the button and destroyed the Time Lords along with the Daleks--which, in the end, simply produced an even more deadly Dalek. Even here, he attempts to justify destroying all life on Earth by saying hastily that humans will live on in the colonies. Now, in this story, the Doctor is forced to face the much more complicated reality of the situation and acknowledge its complexity in order to redeem himself; given the choice to be "a killer or a coward," ultimately, he chooses not to kill, even if it means accepting the label of coward, letting his sworn enemies live, putting humanity at the mercy of the Daleks and being killed himself, finally coming to terms with the fact that life isn't simply a matter of black and white moral choices.
The Doctor's act of self-redemption is clearly plotted out in "The Parting of the Ways". The Doctor's initial choice is one which is, essentially, evil; although he knows that there are other choices, he deliberately chooses what seems the simplest, most essentialist path, even though that means sacrificing everyone on Earth. He plays with people's lives, deciding that, in an echo of Margaret's remark about killers assuaging their conscience through letting one victim go, Rose must live because she is, in his view, "innocent," but Captain Jack, the self-proclaimed conman, and the staff and game-show participants can be sacrificed to achieve his ends, because they are "corrupt" (when the reality is much more convoluted, as witness the office-worker who starts out by saying that they are "only doing their job" but ends her life with a touching act of affection for her coworker). Through him, also, Captain Jack and his team are further drawn into negative acts, accepting violence as the only way simply because the Doctor says that this is the case. At the end of the story, however, having finally rejected the role of "killer," the Doctor redeems himself--by recognising that Rose has, in her innocence, taken on an ultimately corrupting influence, and takes it from her himself (apparently using this power to repair the damage the Vortex has done to her and wipe her memory of the event), knowing that it will cost him his own life. In fact, had the Doctor chosen to destroy the Daleks, the Earth and himself as he had planned, the Bad Wolf/Rose would have returned to a future with no one to prevent her from exercising her limitless, and therefore dangerous, powers, indicating that his final choice was the right one. Previously in the series, the Doctor has, for the most part, not been the one to save the day at the end of the story; here, we see that it is because a man who thinks in simplistic, black-and-white terms cannot be given moral sanction in a family show, which having him save the day undoubtedly would do in the eyes of most viewers. In the final story, however, he does save the day, as the transformed Rose is a greater threat to the universe than the Daleks.
Rose, like the Doctor, is also not portrayed as an inherently good person. She still has a selfish and thoughtless side, casually telling Mickey that she has nothing keeping her in 2006, and she looks into the Time Vortex with no real idea what she's doing or whether there will be consequences. She turns out to be the Bad Wolf--which, as the official website indicates, is an ambiguous thing to be, and something ultimately linked with corruption. The Tardis allows her to channel the powers of the Vortex because it has been established as far back as "Edge of Destruction" that it has consciousness, and in "Boom Town" that it will give people what they want--but what they do with that is up to them, there being, for instance, no guarantee that Margaret will grow up to be a better person (and, interestingly, when the Doctor takes on the Vortex at the end of "The Parting of the Ways", it kills him, in what may be the final manifestation of his death wish). What Rose wants is to rescue the Doctor and fight the Daleks; and, because the Dalek Emperor thinks of itself as a god, that is essentially what she becomes in order to fight it. All power, however, corrupts, and it is clear that Rose is essentially just a nineteen-year-old girl with godlike abilities; she destroys the Daleks without a second thought, and resurrects Captain Jack but not Lynda or the other station-dwellers. She becomes both creator and destroyer, Shiva-like, and, to save her from the consequences of having such power, the Doctor must take it onto himself instead.
The supporting characters are also well-served, with development reflecting the main theme of the story. Mickey and Jackie both get their redemptive moments, recognising that in order to love Rose, they must let her go, however painful it may be. Mickey helps Rose to return to the Doctor despite his obvious pain at her casual brushoff, and Jackie finally overcomes her clinging, stifling attitude to Rose and comes to respect her daughter's choices, even if it might mean never seeing her again. Lynda (with a y) is set up cleverly as a kind of alternate companion, a role which is acknowledged briefly in the look that Rose gives her when Lynda goes off to fight the Daleks; if one had not already heard that Billie Piper would be returning next season, one might have had a qualm or two about that when Rose is "disintegrated." Captain Jack is once again brilliant, combining flirtation with anything on two legs with gun-slinging and leading the anti-Dalek defense, and gets to become the second ever companion in the series' history to share a kiss with the Doctor (as well as having the first male same-sex kiss on Doctor Who), although, where the kiss in the 1996 telemovie seemed to come out of nowhere, both this and the Doctor/Rose kiss later feel natural and appropriate to the context.
The two-parter also gives us a new take on the Daleks. "The Parting of the Ways" takes the idea of the Daleks becoming obsessed with racial purity to the point of self-destruction from "Remembrance of the Daleks", but develops it further, setting up the paradox that to survive, the Daleks must use human tissue, but, in doing so, must accept that they themselves are partly human. This contradiction drives them mad, forcing them to turn to religion to justify themselves. The Emperor Dalek, surviving against the odds and recreating the Dalek race, comes to think of itself as a god, bolstered by the Daleks' worshipping it in their attempts to deny their own basic nature. "Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways" thus is also an explicit satire of the religious fundamentalism, of all persuasions, pervading modern geopolitics, arguing that fanatical religion stems basically from denial and self-loathing, and that fanatics with guns are the most dangerous thing in the universe. Furthermore, under all of this is the implication that the Daleks, like the Doctor himself and like the corrupted Dalek in the eponymous episode, have a death wish; they want the Doctor to come to the Game Station and destroy them (the Controller's seeming "betrayal" being apparently an element in their complex plan), with the Emperor Dalek urging him to become an exterminator. Illogical though the Daleks' actions may seem, they make perfect sense in the context of their internal conflict and sense of denial.
This particular story is sufficiently rich in Doctor Who and other fantasy antecedents that only a few need be mentioned here. Once again we see links to "The Ark", with the Doctor revisiting the site of a previous adventure to learn that his actions have had unintended consequences. Given Chris Boucher's interest in religion and scepticism, it is no surprise to find elements of all three of his Doctor Who stories: "Image of the Fendahl" (in which an innocent girl is taken over and turned into a golden, godlike being with seemingly unlimited spatio-temporal powers); "The Face of Evil" (in which religion, madness and denial of one's own nature are explicitly linked) and "The Robots of Death" (in which a man in denial about his humanity becomes mad from the confusion and styles himself a god). There are also similarities to "Planet of The Spiders" (the Emperor Dalek with its worshipping acolytes as the Great One and its minions; the Doctor regenerating due to cellular damage; activities in a previous story coming back to haunt the Doctor). There are numerous references to the Dalek canon; as well as "Remembrance" (which also contributes the Doctor as the destroyer of the Daleks, and the Daleks making use of a girl linked into a powerful machine), the story draws on "Genesis of the Daleks" (as Russell T. Davies notes in Doctor Who: Confidential, this is essentially where the whole Dalek/Time Lord conflict gets started), "The Daleks' Master Plan" (the force shield, the Daleks interfering in galactic politics, the last-ditch and nearly fatal struggle against the Daleks) and "Revelation of the Daleks" (Daleks made out of human tissue and bastic bullets as an anti-Dalek weapon). "The Evil of the Daleks" is really only an antecedent in terms of having contributed the Emperor Dalek and its black-domed guards, but one might suspect that the scene in which the Weakest Link floor manager goes mad with a gun might be a humourous reference to the accidental "invasion" of a floor manager in "The Chase" (much as the Dalek floating in front of the external window might seem to reference a similar scene in "The Sensorites"). Outside of the programme, we have references to the Paul Cornell Virgin novels No Future (in which a powerful, godlike woman engages in retroactive history) and Timewyrm: Revelation (with the Daleks mythologizing the Doctor as a destructive spiritual force). Beyond Doctor Who, the main antecedents are BrassEye, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (particularly the Series Six finale), The Year of the Sex Olympics and, once again, Brazil, albeit more thematically than directly, in terms of jobsworth bureaucrats who are willing to kill innocents provided they and theirs are safe.
Appropriately enough for the final story, there are also references to all of the other previous adventures in "Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways". Just to cite a few of the more major ones, we have a girl (first the Controller, then Rose) linking in to a greater system, as in "The Unquiet Dead" and "The Long Game", and a child or young person which is dangerous due to having access to great power which they themselves cannot fully control, as in those stories and "The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances". The events of "Father's Day" are referenced, and the story also develops the complex relationship between Rose and Mickey seen in "Boom Town". The use of chips as a metaphor for leading a banal, unquestioning, unchallenging life, employed in "Rose" and "The End of the World", returns, as does the Doctor's fatalistic attitude in the second story, and we once again see a reference to the Doctor's vigilante killing of Cassandra in his willingness to do the same to the Daleks. The story is also a development of the events of "Dalek", in which the Doctor becomes like a Dalek himself, but ultimately recognises that this is the wrong thing to do (the climax of "The Parting of the Ways" is also an inversion of the climax of "Dalek", in which Rose prevents the Doctor from doing the wrong thing and restores his humanity). Finally, also, this story gives the lie to its designation as a two-parter, as it is only now that we understand the significance of the episode title "The Long Game" (particularly as it now seems that the Daleks were the silent partner behind the Jagafress).
On a technical level, the story is once again excellent, with the sequences with Daleks flying through space, the Emperor Dalek, the flying saucers and the skeleton effect on the victims of their weapons being particularly noteworthy. In light of this story, also, it might be worth considering the significance of why the inside of the Tardis is gold, and curved, with inverted domes on the walls, mirroring the Dalek technology we see. The story provides a kind of tacit retroactive explanation of why the Tardis always seems to work when the Doctor wants it to, and why the Tardis keeps returning to Earth (particularly this season), in making explicit the idea that the Tardis gives people what they want; essentially, the Doctor is a wanderer in the fourth dimension because that is what he wants to be, and Earth features prominently because of both the Doctor and his, for the most part, human companions' interest in the planet. Finally, it would not be stretching things to say that Christopher Eccleston delivers his best performance yet, running the gamut from comedy (his bemused look in the Diary Room) to powerful pathos (in the scene where he sends Rose away), and his regeneration sequence, into the decidedly mad-looking and, yes, toothy David Tennant, is, sorry though we are to see Eccleston go, a fitting conclusion to an excellent season.
"Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways" thus not only stands on its own as a truly great story, but it also develops many of the themes and ideas which have been threaded through the season thus far, bringing them all to a satisfying conclusion.