Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Ineffectual Ninth Doctor

I'm watching the four seasons of New Doctor Who (for what must be collectively my third time), and find myself appreciating the Ninth Doctor more than before. Frankly I'd never been wild about Eccleston's performance. His gurning still makes me want to rip his face off, and his acting often comes across forced and stilted. His minimalist wardrobe mirrors a hollow soul, at least until we probe more deeply. He never really seemed like a fair representation of our Time Lord hero (even if he gets plenty of good stories), though now I'm seeing that a lot of awkwardness behind the character is much to the point, and in a good way.

Eccleston's Doctor is of course the most damaged of all the incarnations, an immediate product of the Time War. He's prone to depression and fits of rage, juxtaposed with manic goofiness. He's astonishingly judgmental (like anyone who has serious faults), as we see in his treatment of TARDIS companions like Rose and Adam. Only the Sixth Doctor (played by Colin Baker) surpasses the Ninth in terms of arrogance and violent tendencies. But most noteworthy is his ineffectuality, which I'm finding increasingly compelling... and vastly amusing. The Ninth Doctor saves the day only 30% of the time (in contrast to the 90-99% of all other incarnations), almost wearing his incompetence like a badge of honor. This is the Last of the Time Lords as we might well expect, isolated and alone in the universe, unsure how to fit in, paralyzed by indecision, weighed down by the colossal failure of his people -- and himself -- unable or afraid to rise to the occasion.

It's worth going through the seven stories where he has to rely on someone else to put things to right. In Rose he bumbles around with the Nestene Consciousness until Rose pulls off an acrobatic rescue. In The Unquiet Dead he stands by hopelessly expecting to die, as Charles Dickens figures out how to liberate the possessed corpses (contrast with season three's Shakespeare Code, where Shakespeare saves the day only by doing as the Doctor instructs), and then as Gwyneth sacrifices herself to destroy the gaseous creatures. In Dalek, it's ironically the Dalek itself which is the hero, ordering Rose to command it to exterminate itself, as an enraged Doctor looks on, barely able to stifle his murderous impulses. In The Long Game, Cathica saves the day as the Doctor and Rose are interrogated as captives. In Father's Day, Pete Tyler saves the world by sacrificing himself after the Doctor is obliterated by a Reaper. In Boom Town the TARDIS saves everyone, by surprise and completely without the Doctor's engineering. Finally, in Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways, Rose rescues the Earth from Dalek-extermination, when the Doctor admits he doesn't have the balls to follow through with his own plan. Only in the other three stories -- The End of the World, Aliens of London/World War III, and The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances -- do we get a proactive Ninth Doctor who saves people, either directly or by proxy.

Now again, this isn't a complaint. As I'm warming to more and more, the ineffectuality of the Ninth Doctor is precisely what makes him such an interesting character. Because he's a suffering loner, he loses not only his moral compass (witness especially Dalek), but his ability to act heroically. And that's precisely the rut which the Tenth Doctor climbs out of in seasons 2-4. Tennant's Doctor becomes the most domesticated of the incarnations, bonding with humanity more than ever before, and back on track with his usual heroics. With hindsight and repeated viewings, I see that the single-season Eccleston sets the stage wonderfully for a triple-season Tennant.

For reference purposes, here are the stories from the four seasons showing who "saves the day" in each. Eccleston's Doctor has a 30% success story (3 out of 10), while Tennant's has 90% (29 out of 32). Naturally, the stories in which the Doctor is the ultimate hero can involve the proactive help of others too. (Martha in Family of Blood and Last of the Time Lords are big examples of this.)

The Ninth Doctor (30%)

Rose -- Rose
The End of the World -- The Doctor
The Unquiet Dead -- Charles Dickens & Gwyneth
Aliens of London/World War III -- The Doctor (through Mickey)
Dalek -- Rose & The Dalek
The Long Game -- Cathica
Father's Day -- Pete Tyler
The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances -- The Doctor
Boom Town -- The TARDIS
Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways -- Rose

The Tenth Doctor (90%)

The Christmas Invasion - The Doctor
New Earth -- The Doctor
Tooth and Claw -- The Doctor
School Reunion -- The Doctor
The Girl in the Fireplace -- The Doctor
The Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel -- The Doctor (through Mickey)
The Idiot's Lantern -- The Doctor
The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit -- The Doctor
Love and Monsters -- The Doctor
Fear Her -- Rose
Army of Ghosts/Doomsday -- The Doctor

The Runaway Bride -- The Doctor
Smith and Jones -- The Doctor
The Shakespeare Code -- The Doctor (through Shakespeare)
Gridlock -- The Doctor
Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks -- The Doctor
The Lazarus Experiment -- The Doctor
42 -- The Doctor (through Martha)
Human Nature/Family of Blood -- The Doctor
Blink -- The Doctor
Utopia/The Sound Drums/Last of the Time Lords -- The Doctor

The Voyage of the Damned -- The Doctor
Partners in Crime -- The Doctor
The Fires of Pompeii -- The Doctor
Planet of the Ood -- The Doctor
The Sontaran Stratagem/Poison Sky -- The Doctor
The Doctor's Daughter -- The Doctor
The Unicorn and the Wasp -- The Doctor
Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead -- The Doctor
Midnight -- Hostess (unnamed)
Turn Left -- Donna
The Stolen Earth/Journey's End -- The Doctor


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