Domesticating the Doctor Part V: Divorcing the Ponds

The Christmas decorations are still up, we’ve only just started eating the pudding (if I’d known it only took 3 minutes in the microwave I might have cooked it on Christmas Day) but the festive season is pretty much over in our house. Time to chew over the 2012 Doctor Who episodes (Series Pond & the Christmas Special) with a couple of new installments of DOMESTICATING THE DOCTOR.

Previously on Domesticating the Doctor, we looked at our hero’s distaste of the domestic sphere throughout the Classic Years (with a brief holiday from it when he was Jon Pertwee), we looked at the three Mother-in-Law characters from the RTD era and how this new, rebooted version of our hero coped with jam, Christmas dinner and housing estates, we delved back into pre-war Britain with a very human Doctor, and finally we poked holes in his new Moffat era family with Marrying the Ponds.

Before I get to the 2012 episodes, I wanted to touch briefly on the Night and the Doctor shorts, which were released last year as part of the Series 6 box set, but which I personally failed to watch until somewhere around the beginning of Series 7. These little sketches not only answer some rather intriguing questions about the actual timey wimey physics involved in the Doctor’s marriage to River Song, but also expands on his relationship with Amy, cementing it once and for all as being far closer to a familial connection than anything else.

This Doctor doesn’t get why married people should want to share a bed, but is in his element when talking about his best friend’s childhood – children make sense to him in a way that grown ups don’t, and he seems far less threatened by their domesticity. If this wasn’t fully clear from The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe (which probably deserves a post of its own, to be honest) in which the Doctor upcycles a house to be a child’s paradise but sneers at the functional adult rooms, it should certainly be clear from the scene in which he shows Amy the power he can have over her childhood and her memories, using only a theoretical ice-cream.

Also, as suspected, his marriage to River is full of gun battles, glamorous evening dresses, and nothing remotely domestic. Romance all the way, their style, but they’re not picking a dinner service together.

Another series of short sketches appeared just before the launch of Series 7a (or as Moffat referred to it, Series Pond): Pond Life laid out the theme of the first half of this season by showing how Amy and Rory’s grown up life is affected by the Doctor flitting in and out – there’s an Ood packing their lunches, and a Time Lord bursting in on them in the bedroom (again). It’s all funny and entertaining, but a little bit wrong.

Why exactly is this Doctor trying to hard to keep Amy and Rory? He’s never done it before. Sure, it could be because he imprinted on Amy during his post-regeneration trauma [the first face I saw] but I’m not convinced that’s enough of an explanation. It has nothing to do with River, either, who doesn’t figure in Pond Life or most of this season.

The companions are growing up, and domesticity slowly swallows them whole and then spits them out again – the Doctor turns up one day to discover that they’re not home, something is wrong, and he missed the moment to fix it, even supposing he could have done so in the first place.

Oddly, this matters to him, in a way no previous Doctor would even have blinked at. Is this the first sign that the Doctor is getting old?

Asylum of the Daleks was a shock to the system for many fans – not because of the big movie style drama and action of the piece, but because Amy and Rory’s marriage was on the rocks and at the point of divorce, suddenly and without warning.

And yes, it was dealt with in a rather shallow, too-quick kind of way in the story, but the tension between them was more than a ‘gasp, what has Moffat done’ season opener. The actual point of the relationship breakdown and the Dalek-inspired reunion was made quite clear by Amy who tells the Doctor firmly that this isn’t something he can fix “like you fix your bow-tie.”

I get very defensive of Amy, who seems to be a target for such a massive weight of criticism (some of it very gendered and problematic) and I was particularly concerned to see how many people watched the thirty second argument/making up of Amy and Rory Pond, and leaped to the conclusion that Amy was entirely at fault, and had broken up their marriage without having a single conversation with Rory about why she wanted to end it.

I didn’t get that at all from their exchange. In fact, when she raises her inability to have children (and we don’t actually know whether this is a physical or psychological barrier), he replies “I know” which implied to me that this was a conversation they had gone over more than once. The big difference in this particular version of that conversation was not Amy’s revelation (to the audience) about her motivation for kicking him out of the house, but Rory’s own inadvertent revelation that he believes his love for her is BETTER than her love for him – that he has always assumed this is an intrinsic fact of their relationship.

And, whoa.

I don’t actually think we should be critiquing what goes on in a fictional marriage any more than we should throw stones about real relationships, but I do think it’s worth noting that Rory (who can often do no wrong in fandom eyes) does not cover himself in glory in this exchange. Not only does he bring up the ‘waited 2000 years for you’ sacrifice to score points in a fight, but his lack of confidence in Amy’s love (which he probably always thought of as humble and self-sacrificing) is a form of terrible arrogance – as if he has the competitive moral high ground in their love story. This to me is just as problematic as Amy’s own arrogance in making the choice to ‘let him go’ so he can have imaginary children with some other person.

Note, I adore both Rory and Amy. I think they are both cute as buttons. I also think that they are not in their best emotional shape in their early twenties, at least partly thanks to the timey-wimey shenanigans they have gone through. And it’s important to recognise that there are faults on both sides here – they both have trust issues and forgiveness issues and have to get over all of that to be together. The strength of Series Pond is very much that it shows the progression from a relationship that is not-cooked-yet to a mature marriage that we can believe lasting for the rest of their lives.

If Amy and Rory had drifted happily towards their final story without some sign of bumps in the road, especially after the trauma at Demon’s Run (and the emotional ramifications that we never did see dealt with on screen – no wonder they went off the rails as soon as the cameras turned their backs) then their Happy Ever After would have felt far less realistic.

People do stupid things in their early twenties. If they’re lucky, the world doesn’t end.

While we’re on Asylum of the Daleks, there was one element I did want to critique: I love Amy’s cranky Scottish fury at the world, but the slapping in this episode felt wrong. It was just as inappropriate here as in the Time and Space sketches a couple of years ago – Moffat’s writing has always shown a clear influence from old Hollywood banter movies, and this is usually a good thing (because, BANTER) but hitting within marriage isn’t funny in the 21st century, and it doesn’t make a lot of a difference that it’s the woman doing it.

At least when Lynda slapped Spike in Press Gang, he slapped her back. The same went for Starbuck and Apollo in Battlestar Galactica. In both instances it was shown as an example of a couple who see each other as equals regardless of gender – but Rory would never slap Amy in a million years (and no one would accept him doing so in Doctor Who) and it feels deeply uncomfortable to see that double standard played for laughs.

While I agree Doctor Who is not a children’s programme any more, I think it’s important to remember how many children do watch it, and there are some things that are irresponsible to make light of. Comedy marital violence is up there with rape jokes as things we don’t need to see in our escapist TV any more.

Ahem (steps off soap box)

So the marriage was patched up, and continued stronger than before, but the Doctor kept returning, colliding happily into the Ponds’ domestic normality on an irregular and unpredictable schedule, usually without so much as a by-your-leave.

This was certainly a fresh companion interaction, and one with great source for humour. Thanks to the clever writing of both Moffat and Chris Chibnall (seriously, who would have thought it) we got to see Amy and Rory grow into themselves as adults, falling in and out of the TARDIS in between domestic chores such as changing lightbulbs…

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship contained many glories, but adding Rory’s Dad to the canon of, well, companion parents (I guess I can’t call them Mothers-in-Law anymore) was a master stroke. Brian Williams embodies domesticity, a homebody who prides himself on a quiet masculine competence.

Meeting Brian, we understand more about Rory than we ever have before. It’s clear that his son being a nurse makes almost as little sense to Brian as does travelling among the stars, but also that they are deeply similar in the ways that matter – I loved the line especially about how Rory has been picking up space-tech with medical/first aid applications on his journeys, just as his Dad always has practical things in his own pockets.

Also, Brian never actually refers to the TARDIS as a shed (if you’ve never listened to the Lucie Miller/8th Doctor audios then her speech about it being a shed is pretty spectacular) but you just know from his final scene sitting on the doorstep of the TARDIS eating his sandwiches and watching the universe go past that he thinks of it as the ‘best shed ever.’

Meanwhile, Amy the action hero is getting better and better at the TARDIS adventures (in this story she takes on the role of the Doctor, naming Nefertiti and Riddell as her companions) and yet struggles to settle down in her everyday life. Even the Doctor, who usually does not pay attention to such things, notices that she keeps switching jobs (I was trying so hard not to be judgy, but TERRIBLY RELIEVED she was not a fashion model for ever) and seems mildly concerned about it.

Is it his fault that Amy can’t find an occupation she is satisfied with in the real world? Well, yes. Her short attention-span and trust issues are almost entirely down to him – especially when you take into account that the crack in her wall was at least partly his fault too.

Never mind, she still has some growing up to do.

It was The Power of Three where domesticity and the Doctor truly came back into focus, in something akin to a duel to the death. Guess who won, almost by default?

Here’s a clue: it wasn’t domesticity.

The plot resolution may have been a bit rubbish (as young Amelia might say), but the Power of Three was a wonderful penultimate adventure for Rory and Amy largely because it wasn’t a real adventure at all – it was a glimpse at how fractured their domestic life had become, with the Doctor’s many intrusions into it. They even got to experience (along with the audience) what it would be like if the Doctor stayed with them for a while instead of the other way around.

Irritating, mostly.

During the Year of the Slow Invasion, Rory and Amy made the decision to stop running away with the Doctor. It’s a great decision for them. It allows them to commit to work and friends and their real life in a way that they never have before.

Frankly, I was so convinced by the progression of this narrative, from the final mmadcap antics including That Western Episode and OMG Zygons in the middle of their anniversary party, to the Doctor agonisingly bouncing off the walls (and the Wii) when forced to stay in one place, and their evident happiness in being able to ‘be’ in one place and time long term, that I was genuinely shocked when Brian pointed out that Amy and Rory had in fact been fooling themselves the whole time, and loved the Doctor best.

It was necessary to the story arc, but didn’t feel natural to me. I wanted them to stay and have their nice ordinary life, because that’s what the successful companions *get* when they leave the TARDIS.

Of course, that is what they got in the end, but not by choice.

One of the most frustrating aspect of New Who for me, especially in the RTD era, is the idea that running around in the TARDIS is the sort of thing no one would ever want to stop doing, except under very dramatic circumstances – even Martha and Mickey, the two companions who did finish it on their own terms, were both presented as doing so largely because they were needed with their families rather than because travelling no longer appealed (and in both cases there’s also the sad but clear implication that they both feel they’re not as important to the Doctor as Rose – that neither of them feel like they really count as a companion).

I am not saying that we should have a companion who spends her whole journey through Oz bitching about wanting to get back to Kansas, but why shouldn’t a companion simply grow out of it, or decide that it’s time to stop wandering, or find a better option, without it having to be a tragedy of epic proportions? There must be a happy medium somewhere between Doomsday and sending Dodo to the country…

Travel is fun and awesome and exciting, but home is quite nice too. There’s something to be said for the comfort and reliability of domesticity. After the ‘there’s no place like TARDIS’ attitude of the RTD era, I was quite excited that this last run of Amy and Rory’s epic adventure wase presenting the idea that yes, you could just grow up and leave the TARDIS while you were all still friends, without it having to be a Big Deal. You could leave the TARDIS (more than once) and still keep in touch with the Doctor…

But of course, this is a drama series. So, drama. And instead of the quite natural domestic end to Amy and Rory’s travels which maybe should have happened in The Power of Three, we got The Angels Take Manhattan which forced the Ponds and the Doctor apart forever.

What I liked best about The Angels Take Manhattan was the 1930’s style Hollywood romantic comedy banter, not just between the Doctor, Amy and Rory but also between the Doctor and River. More than any previous story this is the one that tries to define how the Doctor and River’s marriage works, and indeed what Amy and Rory’s marriage has become. It’s a love letter to the idea that being practical with another person, and finding a balance together over a number of years, is actually just as romantic as all that eyes-across-a-crowded-room business. This is refreshing considering how often romance in traditional drama is weighted towards the BEGINNING of a love story, rather than the comfortable middle.

This 30-something Amy and Rory have managed to find a comfortable middle of their relationship despite being back in the TARDIS – the impression from the scenes of them picnicking in New York is that they are no longer compromising their marriage for the Doctor despite living in his world – the three of them have a companionable friendship, but the boundaries marking out Amy and Rory as a unit are very clear.

River and the Doctor display far less of that easy comfort with each other. They are still figuring things out, and she displays some wariness and mistrust about their relationship. The line about not showing the damage and the bitterness about his eternal baby face is a rare glimpse of her feelings beneath the banter. I think it’s important that we see that this dizzy, weird marriage of theirs is battered in places. River and the Doctor are sweet together, but they also pretend to know each other a lot better than they actually do – and that’s so much more interesting than if they were flawlessly in love.

The Doctor seems to relish having a wife, which is an extraordinary shift for him. It’s half a joke, but he is not just going through the motions. River is his wife, and he accords her that status, even if his idea of what a wife is owes a little too much to old Thin Man movies.

More to the point, right after he has lost Amy and Rory and is devastated by that loss, the Doctor asks River to move in with him. But is he asking her as his wife or just another companion? Does she turn him down because she thinks it’s the only way to keep him interested? Or does she mean what she say that them living together would be disastrous?

The Doctor has to have known that by making that offer, he was changing what appears to be the definition of their marriage – having had a brief flirtation with the idea of the TARDIS being the home of one married couple, he’s now trying to repeat the experiment.

He’s not ready to let go of his family, not yet. But River won’t play ball.

Meanwhile, in the unfilmed coda published on the web in the wake of Amy and Rory’s departure, it is revealed that they adopted a son and ended up with the work-domesticity balance they were trying to achieve in the 21st century all along. Amy even finds her true calling, tapping away on a 1930’s typewriter.

All they needed to build a life was to be forcibly separated from the Doctor.

While the tragedy of Melody Pond’s abduction was never entirely resolved, the specific time and place in which Amy and Rory were ‘trapped’ also does not close the door on the possibility that they were able to be reunited with their child for at least some of her childhood, in the mysterious gap between her escape from the Silence and the space suit in the 1960’s, and her turning up to share their childhood in Leadworth in the 1990’s. For at least some of that time, she was in New York…

The latest issue of Doctor Who Magazine features a short Christmas comic, “Imaginary Enemies,” written by Scott Gray, featuring a vignette from Amy, Rory and Mels’ childhood in which they fight a monster on their way to the school nativity play. On the final page, in a farewell to the Ponds we see a series of snapshots from their life, both professional and domestic, through the 20th century in America. My favourite is the image of them building a snowman by the bridge in Central Park, with a bow-tie and a fez on it.

It looked for some time like the story of the Doctor and the Ponds was going to be a gentle drifting apart rather than a short, sharp divorce. But they just couldn’t quit him and more to the point, he couldn’t quit them.

Something big, yet again, had to separate them, and while the actual mechanism for this makes little sense (everyone and their robot dog have pointed out that all Amy and Rory have to do is step outside New York to meet up with the Doctor again) it is a convenient excuse to release the actors and the characters back into the world.

Between The Power of Three and The Angels Take Manhattan, the thousand-plus-year-old Doctor is more open to domesticity than he has ever been, even taking the cozy UNIT years into account.

Is this just a phase, or does it mean something very new for our hero?

Tune in next week for: Souffles in the TARDIS!

[Cross-posted at Doctor Her.]

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