This article covers the episodes Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways, which together form a single Doctor Who story. Having said that, this is the least straightforward two-parter of the 2005 series, with two tonally different episodes. First of all, we have Bad Wolf, with a strong focus on future deadly versions of reality television shows. Watching this now 13 years after the first broadcast, it is remarkable how dated it is starting to feel, but that’s the price to be paid when you reference popular culture to such an extent.
The Doctor finds himself trapped in a Big Brother house, which is the only format shown here that still exists, although the version of Big Brother being referenced here was dead within 5 years of Bad Wolf. Channel 5 picked up where Channel 4 left off, but with a different presenter, so Davina McCall voicing her robotic alter ego is very 2000s. The Weakest Link finished in 2012, and Trinny and Susannah thankfully seem to have disappeared off our screens. I would guess any young viewers discovering the older episodes of Doctor Who would have no idea what was going on for a lot of this episode now. But time marches on.
It is ironic that a show that was so spectacularly bucking the trend of filling primetime television schedules with reality TV and makeovers should choose to feature those very things. However, Bad Wolf does not shy away from showing the bad side to these types of shows, at least in a tongue-in-cheek manner. It is open to interpretation whether this is Doctor Who embracing popular culture and finally slotting into the mainstream (which it definitely did in 2005) or critiquing the trash that a lot of television had turned into. I would suggest the latter, because it gives such a bleak vision of the future in which reality television has been taken to the logical extreme, with contestants being supposedly killed off for viewers’ pleasure. So far, so Vengeance on Varos, which makes you realise just how incredibly ahead of its time that serial was.
It has been so nice to see the influence of Big Finish throughout this first new series of Doctor Who. This is a matter of opinion, but without Big Finish showing that Doctor Who could still be done successfully it might never have returned to television. At the very least they have provided a wonderful opportunity for experimentation with a huge variety of ideas, and one such idea features in Bad Wolf. While this is not a rewrite of a Big Finish script like Dalek was, one very important element is straight from The One Doctor: the Anne Droid. However, this time she is the genuine article and it is not just played for laughs.
Although the spoofs of familiar shows are good fun, it does feel a bit like marking time while we wait for the Daleks to turn up. The gag is taken too far with mentions of other shows such as Countdown (where a bomb goes off after thirty seconds) and Stars in Their Eyes (where contestant get blinded), all a bit obvious and childish. Then, after an episode where we all look at the cruelty of future television and are invited to be disgusted at the perversity of watching people die for pleasure, we get The Parting of the Ways… in which we watch a lot of people die for pleasure.
Fans will be aware of the imminent arrival of the Daleks before new viewers, due to the heartbeat sound effect when Rose wakes up on a Dalek ship. This sound has been used ever since the first Dalek story, and is as effective now as it has ever been. Dalek showed us how deadly just one Dalek can be, and now we get to see a whole army of them in action. However, they are still at their most frightening up close, when one or two of them glide around a corner, preceded by their shadows, of course. Then we have the Emperor Dalek, but not the same Emperor as we saw in The Evil of the Daleks. This one thinks he is a god, and the Daleks worship him. This is something of a theme, with Rose also achieving a kind of god-like status at the end. Troublingly, to become a god she has to abandon her council estate roots and start speaking in RP English.
So this brings us to the resolution of the plot, which is probably one of the most debatable moments in Doctor Who ever made. The Doctor gives up and declares himself a coward, and then the TARDIS resolves the story. But there’s a lot more to it than that.
So the Doctor faces a choice that has been created by the Daleks, and his choice is to be a “killer” or a “coward”. Notably, the Daleks are a race of beings that value “killers” and nothing else. The Doctor has a choice of two wrong options, and he has been a killer before, in the Time War. He won’t be a killer again, so he chooses to do nothing. And there is an important message here: sometimes life gives you rewards only when you stop trying to get them so desperately.
Whilst the Doctor is always the one to find a third way when faced with an impossible choice, he is a broken man since the Time War, and in any case this has been a series about Rose, just as much as a series about the Doctor. So she is the one to turn up and make a third choice, one that the Doctor hasn’t thought of. It’s not a failing that he doesn’t think of it – his relationship to his living ship is such that he would never think of using the TARDIS in that way.
Although it is probably Doctor Who’s most literal deus ex machina, it is not an unsatisfying one, because the road to that point follows naturally from Rose’s character development across the series. One thing that is left unresolved, on the other hand, is our broken Doctor. He still has a long way to travel, and he will be walking that path in a new body. But although he was suffering from PTSD, our Ninth Doctor still managed to be fantastic from start to finish, with the help of an ordinary young woman who is not so ordinary any more. RP
The view from across the pond:
There’s a lot to cover in the two part finale of Series 1. Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways create one, incredible story. But Bad Wolf doesn’t make a lot of sense. Here’s why: it’s a prologue. As the Doctor says, someone’s been playing a long game and he’s right. If this were a book, The Long Game would have been a prologue for Bad Wolf! So why doesn’t it make sense? Because if the Daleks were playing this long game… what was the point? Follow me here: they install the Jagrafez 100 years earlier to set up news stations and manipulate mankind – ok, I can get behind this. But along comes the Doctor and he destroys that, so their backup plan is to host game shows to build a Dalek army by making it look like contestants are being killed when in reality they are beaming onto Dalek ships for genetic material to make more Daleks, which we have established in Dalek, one could wipe out the entire United States but even though they are 250,000 strong, they wait for the Doctor to arrive? What were they thinking? That’s their great plan? Why didn’t they attack when they had 7, one for each continent? (One would be bored, but so what? He could hunt down penguins to make Benedict Cumberbatch’s life easier.)
That said, it’s a good episode for other reasons. Cinematically, Rose’s “death” is brilliantly shot including the Doctor’s horror over it. The arrival in the Big Brother house is comical and the finale between the Doctor and the Daleks really gives the Doctor a fantastic closing scene. It’s also a great character piece. The Doctor has such a great chemistry with Lynda (“with a y”) and Jack adds quite a bit of comedy to the story. Personally, I love the Doctor’s attitude with this gem:
Woman: “That’s not our fault. We’re just doing our jobs.”
Doctor: “And with that sentence you just lost the right to even talk to me. Now back off!”
But more than anything I see this as an incredible commentary on today’s television: so many “reality” shows and nothing of any substance. I don’t doubt that someone wanted to make this as an allegory for the rubbish on TV today and basically show how Doctor Who is fighting that mundane programming, rising up to be something better and I applaud the bravery of that. But it does not mesh with what we know of the Daleks and doesn’t make a lot of sense contextually. But it does bring us to a stunning conclusion for series 1.
Jack sums it up well: “Never doubted him, never will.” That may indeed be his feelings for the Doctor’s abilities, but it’s something more: it’s our unwavering belief that when he came back to television, the Doctor would be as fantastic as ever, and this episode offers all the proof we need. After a weak opening in Bad Wolf, everything comes together. But as great as the episode is, it does let us down because, in this era of New Who, it’s not the Doctor that saves the day any more. We may not have known this at the time, but after 10 seasons, we learned it was the new paradigm that the companion has to save the day and after all the work the Doctor does to defeat the Daleks, this is a surprise. His efforts come down to little more than busy work while Rose finds a way back to him! And as the Bad Wolf, she saves the day. That powerful claim that was a highlight of Bad Wolf ends up meaning nothing. Rose Tyler saved the universe, not the Doctor. While I love this episode, it was the start of taking away the Doctor’s power and will ultimately give Davros’ claim such validity: the Doctor turned Rose into a weapon to commit the murder of the Daleks so he didn’t have to. The “hero’s” hands remain clean while Rose … well, she seems to forget it thanks to the Doctor; she won’t have to live with it. That’s some serious food for thought. The Doctor claims to be coward rather than killer, but Rose becomes the killer and all the Doctor can do is make her forget it, then regenerate in front of her. (It’s a fabulous regeneration, and would probably make anyone forget what they were talking about after that!)
Now, I’m all for saying Doctor Who is a positive show, because the truth is that the Audience Identification figure is the Doctor, as I’ve always said (see any of my articles on the audience identification) so I believe he still represents the right way of doing things. He is the character the audience wants to emulate. In an age of fighting heroes, the Doctor is not about that. He can’t bring himself to kill, even when push comes to shove. He rarely even raises a hand to another. He has carried a gun twice in this season and was not able to use it in either instance. That’s the sort of hero we want our children to emulate. It’s a reminder that the good guys try to preserve life. While studies are saying that TV and video games are the cause of so much violence, the Doctor comes back and says it doesn’t have to be that way. If kids are going to watch TV and emulate someone, let it be the last son of Gallifrey, because he’s not going to walk around killing or fighting but he can still give us a great adventure. He shows us that there are consequences to actions; death is a last resort, love and sacrifice mean something. Rose sums it up when she says it’s not about getting up, catching the bus, going to work, eating chips. It’s about a better way of living your life. “You don’t just give up, you don’t just let things happen, you make a stand, you say “no”, you have the guts to do what’s right when everyone else just runs away!” That’s the Doctor, that’s his influence and that’s what makes him a hero.
Allegorically, Doctor Who started as an educational children’s show. Ironically, it is still doing what it set out to do. But it’s not just for children any more and it offers a lot of food for thought along the way! ML
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