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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Domesticating the Doctor II: The Missus, the Ex and the Mothers-in-Law

January 5th, 2013 at 22:49

Originally posted on Doctor Her on 15 March 2012.

In the last Domesticating the Doctor post I talked about various instances from Classic and Big Finish Doctor Who of the Doctor being domesticated against his nature. Now it’s time for the New Who story! Or the RTD years, at least, as it got a bit longer than I expected.

The Ninth Doctor puts his cards on the table right from the start. “I don’t do domestic.” No previous Doctor had ever had to make such a statement, but right from the start, the writing team of New Who seemed to relish throwing kitchen appliances and chips and the telly at the Doctor’s head, to watch him squirm.

“I’ve never been slapped by someone’s Mum before,” he complains in Aliens of London, one of the stories that most deeply explores the collision of the Doctor and domesticity. He’s never had to deal with anyone’s Mum before – he’s met a few companions’ Dads, but they’ve mostly got themselves conveniently killed before the credits rolled.

Imagine, oh imagine, if Jo Grant’s Mum had turned up to see what her new boss was like? Or if Romana’s Mum had arrived in the TARDIS to demand the Fourth Doctor tell her why her daughter’s postcards home had suddenly stopped…

Jackie Tyler, even more than Rose, drags the Doctor kicking and screaming into a world where you watch the alien invasion on the telly, and the TARDIS needs to start considering a regular parking space in London. He allows Rose phone access to him, something we’ve never seen him do before – and even occasionally, as in Father’s Day, marvels at the “ordinary people” life that he is completely not a part of.

For the most part he stays that way, largely because Rose is so desperate to escape her life on the housing estate that she doesn’t push him to embrace her home life (except for occasional day trips to catch up with her Mum and get her laundry done). This is a Doctor who breaks the rules and thumbs his nose at any kind of domestic restraint: quite literally, in Bad Wolf, when he is trapped in the Big Brother house, he escapes using rudeness and an inability to follow social conventions.

Rose’s own journey is one of choosing the Doctor over a domestic everyday life: not just once in the first episode, but several times, as she regularly returns home and then leaves with him all over again. This is important because we have never seen companions do this before, except those of the Pertwee era where the Doctor himself had a home on Earth, and being a companion did not mean being tied to the TARDIS.

When the Doctor changes, his relationship to domesticity is one of the key personality shifts. The Tenth Doctor embraces Jackie and Mickey instead of snarking at them (well, he does that too, but he hugs them first) and he is perfectly willing to stay and eat Christmas dinner with Rose’s family rather than sulking in the TARDIS or insisting they leave right away.

Indeed, the time lapse between The Christmas Invasion and New Earth suggests they have hung around the Powell Estate for several days or weeks – certainly long enough for the snow to melt and for Rose to have her hair done! She no longer has to choose between her family and her Doctor… though of course, she chooses travelling, every time.

Series 2 is the one where the Doctor and his companion are at their cosiest, and he is at his most sympathetic towards domesticity – he still doesn’t really understand how humans work (witness the licking of the jam in Fear Her) but he is actively interested in trying to do so. Also, like the Third and Seventh Doctor eras, this is a season with several stories that themselves portray the domestic world as a source for horror and fear: we see families torn apart by the technology they take for granted in The Age of Steel and Rise of the Cybermen; alien dinner ladies and school children turned into computers in School Reunion, ordinary people having their lives destroyed merely because they are fans of the Doctor in Love and Monsters, and alien invaders causing havoc in suburban streets in Fear Her and The Idiot’s Lantern.

All this, and Rose learns through the return of Sarah Jane that the Doctor doesn’t have a habit of keeping his companions in the TARDIS forever – he leaves them behind, and doesn’t look back. In the same story, we see her unsettled when the Doctor allows Mickey to join them – her domestic life and TARDIS life have suddenly got a bit too close together, and it’s clear that she’s not ready to have both spheres of her life collide together.

(I was disappointed they did so little with this, ridding the TARDIS of Mickey the story after next – there was so much story potential in this clash of Rose’s two worlds)

It’s the spacey two-parter The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit that really brings home the limitations of the Doctor’s relationship to domesticity: when it looks like the TARDIS has been lost forever, Rose tries to plan for a life without her, in which she and the Doctor live in a house… and it’s clear from his reaction that the thought is utterly unimaginable. It’s the first time it sinks in to Rose that the Doctor’s travelling life, onwards and upwards forever, is not something that has a use by date.

Jackie also has concerns that her daughter’s relationship with the Doctor is turning her into something less than (or more than) human. While her own relationship with this Tenth Doctor has become that of a mother-in-law who accepts the new bloke into her family, warts and all, she also feels threatened by Rose’s alien experiences, and worries for her daughter’s future – understandable, considering Rose isn’t past 20 yet and doesn’t realise what ‘forever’ actually means!

Ultimately, the Doctor chooses that Rose will stay with her family and lose him forever; Rose, not liking that choice, chooses to never see her family again in order to stay with him forever, and almost dies; finally, Pete saves Rose which also means she stays with her family and loses the Doctor.

While this can definitely be read as the two men in her life making patriarchal decisions about what’s best for her, it’s hard for me as a parent to wish it had gone any other way. The thought of Jackie stuck in that other universe with her husband returned to her, a new baby and never seeing Rose again is every bit as devastating.

The Doctor’s own loss is conveyed not only through David Tennant man-paining at the cameras, but also by the fact that he never tries to embrace domesticity again. He takes far less interest in the families of his next two companions, Martha and Donna, with the exception of Wilf who becomes a friend in his own right rather than someone who comes with the Donna package.

One of the big differences between Rose and Martha as companions is that Martha has nothing to run away from. Travelling with the Doctor is temporary, an adventure and an experiment. She’s not only settled in her career and flat and studies, but she is completely wrapped up in her family and their problems – indeed, getting a break from those problems can be read as one of the reasons she hops ship upon the TARDIS, though she wasn’t looking for more than a brief holiday from responsibility.

Francine, Martha’s mother, is also very different to Jackie: influenced by the Master and his cronies (though this isn’t obvious at first) she never embraces the Doctor as a necessary evil, but sees him as the enemy right from the start. She’s that other kind of stock character mother-in-law, the one that won’t even pretend to be nice to the strange man her daughter brings home. It’s Tish, Martha’s bubbly sister, who welcomes him into the family, assuming he is Martha’s new man.

It’s Martha, not Rose, who actually does experience a TARDIS-free domestic life with the Doctor, but this happens offscreen in Blink – all we really know about it is that she is the one working to support them.

When Martha leaves the Doctor, after a horrific year in which she thought of little but him and how important he was to humanity, in which she fought a war with words and lost part of herself, she makes the opposite choice that Rose did: she chooses the needs of her family over the Doctor. She’s not choosing to never see him again, but she is making it clear that her family’s general welfare is far more important to her than travelling in the TARDIS. It’s also fairly clear that the Doctor doesn’t entirely grasp why she needs to stay with them – it’s not life or death, it’s about those squishy human feelings, and he’s falling short.

And yes she does cite her romantic feelings for him as being another reason why she has to stay behind, but that is a secondary revelation, not the primary one. It also has the benefit of keeping him from making too much of a fuss about losing her.

Donna brings a wave of domesticity with her – she chats endlessly about the kind of social details and gossip that the Doctor has never had to deal with, because Rose never tried to make him care about her life or her friends. Donna is confident enough in herself that when she’s interested in something, she’ll just MAKE him listen to her.

At the same time, there’s little about Donna to challenge the Doctor’s disinterest in domestic issues, because like Rose, she wants something bigger. She’s an even more enthusiastic space tourist because for her, it’s far more about the adventure than it is about the Doctor specifically. As Courtney noted in her post about poverty and the companions, the financial freedom is a pretty major carrot offered by the Doctor, too.

But you get the impression that if Donna was stranded in another time and place, she would keep travelling and having an awesome time – any place except her own time and place. And that is the tragedy of her ultimate end. She has every memory of her extraordinary life wiped from her, and is stuck back in a small domestic setting. She looks and thinks she is happy, and it’s only because we know she wanted something different that her ending feels so awful.

There’s nothing wrong with her finding a nice guy and settling down (and never having to worry about money again thanks to a certain lottery ticket) but the fact that it goes against Donna’s previous dreams makes it heartbreaking, and makes the wedding scene in The End of Time seem far more grim than it appears on the surface. Donna has come full circle, replacing the bad fiancé of her first story with a good one (according to her granddad, anyway), but losing her adventurous spirit.

Sylvia has less of a direct relationship with the Doctor as his “mother-in-law” or equivalent for most of Donna’s run, mostly saving up her antagonism for her actual daughter, though she does flap at him a bit by association. While Turn Left shows us Donna’s strength even without the Doctor around (something that makes her loss of memory and character growth even more sad later on), it’s only when the Doctor finally brings Donna home that Sylvia gets to have a proper confrontation with him.

It’s absolutely fair that Sylvia should be not only furious, but fiercely determined to rid him from her daughter’s life once and for all – after all, he has himself told her that Donna will die if she recognises him. While Wilf is gutted at Donna’s loss of her adventures and her history, it’s Sylvia who protects the Donna she knows, the one who isn’t a hero, valuing her daughter’s life over anything else, and oddly it’s something that puts her entirely on the Doctor’s side.

It’s pretty clear that the Tenth Doctor, towards the end of his time, has become so embittered that he avoids any kind of domestic entanglements. He wouldn’t have checked in on Donna at all if Wilf hadn’t drawn him back, and has actively avoided taking on the commitment of a regular companion.

Still, this is still the Doctor who once tried to understand humans and their families, and in providing the lottery ticket for Donna with a pound borrowed (given) by her late father, he reveals that he’s not completely dense when it comes to understanding humanity. Sylvia, proud as she is, would have rejected anything that smacked of charity, but comes undone in the face of him using time travel to allow Donna’s dad to give her a wedding present.

It makes you wonder how often the Doctor is in fact faking it when he pretends to be so very alien.

When the Tenth Doctor regenerated, so did the production team making the show. And all of a sudden, domesticity in Doctor Who was about to look a lot less scary…

Domesticating the Doctor WILL RETURN in Domesticating the Doctor III: Marrying the Ponds

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