Seasons of War Mini-Review 40: Doctor Death

Continuing my series of mini-reviews on the short stories to be found in the charity War Doctor anthology, Seasons of War, edited by Declan May and published by Chinbeard Books.

Seasons of War cover

After all this time, it’s come down to this: The War Doctor has gone mad.

Or at least, he wonders if he has. After all, it’s not often he finds himself sitting on top of his own Police Box, wondering how he’ll get out of this situation…with the box buried to its upper edges in mud. It would be nice if, for once, he could rescue himself.

He thinks back to the battle from which he recently escaped. He won—of course—with the settlement saved; but in the course of leaving, his TARDIS was struck by an explosion, and careened off onto another world. THIS world, with its mud. He’s tired, he admits; this war has worn him down, until he’s only a shadow of the optimistic, cheerful mastermind he once was. Adding insult to injury, as he leaves his TARDIS, he finds it sinking into the mud. He climbs atop it as the door slips beneath the surface, and surveys his desolate landing area.

Something approaches across the mud flat. It’s distant, a small black blob, but it is definitely coming toward him. He reaches for his Dalek-eyestalk telescope, but remembers he left it in the now-inaccessible TARDIS. He finds himself talking to himself about the approaching spectre. Is it a mirage? And does talking to himself mean he’s crazy now? At least the sinking has stopped, much help that may be. Wait! The figure…

…is Death.

Well, of course it is. It’s long overdue, isn’t it? Maybe seeing Death personified is the true first sign of madness, followed by mirages and—possibly—talking to oneself. Never mind that! Death approaches! Black robe, scythe—very traditional, this version of Death. The Doctor hails him, but receives, of course, no answer. Well, he must have better things to do. He certainly had them earlier that day.

In a flashback, the Doctor cradles the girl with the purple hair. She is dying. It was only a glancing shot that took her, but that is all that was required. He knows he shouldn’t have brought her, and he apologizes. In end, she tells him it’s not her fault, though he is sure it is. They saved the planet, and all those people, but here, he can’t save her. She knows, and she accepts it. In the moment before her death, she chides him gently; she’s only known him a year, and in that time the man she calls Mr. Foreman got so old, so fast. The fact that he has known her for hundreds of years is irrelevant now.

“Sleep on. Jenny Shirt,” he said to the purple haired girl he had known for several hundred years, holding her close. “For I have rocked many like you to sleep and yet, I cannot sleep myself. Not yet. Not ever. I shall not sleep.”

And Jenny Shirt died.

As Death—with a capital “D”—approaches, the Doctor hails him again. Above, this planet’s three suns are sinking, and the Doctor wants to know if they will outlast him. Will his end be soon? He may get away. He always does. Does that make him lucky? Would Death call him that? Or would Death call him anything at all? He doesn’t deserve a name, and doesn’t have the energy to explain it anymore. The War has taken that from him, too.

He remembers another time, a little eariler than Jenny’s death. He visited an ambassador in a high tower. He’s been sent to kill this man who stands between his people and the Daleks—this man who fools himself into thinking he has done what he must, while instead he has betrayed his people. The Doctor makes no move, no reply; he only watches. It is the one thing the ambassador cannot handle. His own guilt bubbles out of him in his words, until at last, overcome, he leaps from the window to the ground beneath.

Mission complete—and all the worse for it—the Doctor leaves the Ambassador’s quarters.

Death has drawn close over the last several hours. During those hours, the Doctor has had his own time of confession, for this silent, relentless march is the one thing he cannot endure. He explains himself, cajoles, confesses. Now, as the suns finally set, and Death becomes dim before him, he falls silent for a moment.

With the red eyes of Death facing him under the cowl, he explodes in fear, and frustration, and abject self-vindication. He shouts that he never claimed to be right; he only acted to help where he could. There is no right in this War, only doing what one can. That cold reality has stripped his sense of purpose, and without it…why does he fight? He is too exhausted to know. And yet, even he, the Doctor, can’t cheat death forever. He is ready for it…he wants to sleep without hearing screams.

Death raises its scythe, and the Doctor closes his eyes in anticipation. He only wishes that he had not let everyone down—friends, allies, the universe. He wishes he had not failed.

A mechanical voice cuts through his silence. “Protocol #72. Search and locate. Attempt acquisition of machine.” And with that, Death’s scythe falls…scooping the mud away from the TARDIS in an increasing blur.

Death, it seems, is not here today. The Doctor recognizes as much, and gets an unexpected reply. “Recognition approved. Unit 5 deployed. Approximately 22 minutes until pick-up. You have been saved.”

The Doctor wonders if that’s really true. That depends, I suppose, on your definition of salvation.

I would like to look at this story, appropriately titled Doctor Death, from the limited view of the Time War. Instead, I have to admit that it’s much more applicable to Doctor Who as a whole, and that’s the thing that springs to mind.

The problem with any television series (and I know that Doctor Who is far more than television these days, but bear with me) is that it begs for an ending. I’m not suggesting that it needs an ending now, and I’m not suggesting that all series get an ending, but simply that we want resolution sometime. If our favorite shows must end, then let them end well! We can all think of a series that let things dangle at the end, and it’s frustrating every time. Lost, The X-Files, Twin Peaks (though those latter two have enjoyed some success in revival—although The X-Filesrevival still left things hanging!)—those are older examples, but you get the idea. So, what does one do with a series like Doctor Who?

In the 1980s, we faced this very question. Cancellation happened, and it was all that could be done just to put a nice closing monologue over the final episode. Wrapping things up was never an option. We’re glad of that now, of course, because it allowed for the existence of, well, everything that’s happened since then, but it was awkward at the time. Now, we’ve faced a situation where the Doctor has reached the end of his regeneration cycle (something the writers who created the concept must surely never have expected to reach), and he was due to die—and we plucked him out of the jaws of death. Again, I’m glad, because Doctor Who is far from over. In fact, you could argue that a show about a time traveller can never properly be over, because you can always plug in new stories in the middle. It happens all the time.

Still, one day, Doctor Who’s star is going to fade again (and I don’t mean Peter Capaldi!). It may be thirty years down the road, but it will happen. What happens then? Do we leave the Doctor hanging forever? Or do we, at last, give him a proper, noble ending? In other words, do we let the Doctor die? That’s the only surefire way to actually make an end of this show, of course; we’re dealing with a show where death is usually just a formality. As long as there is regeneration, the show must go on! Even if not on television. No, it will take a final, declarative death to lay the Doctor’s story to rest.

The War Doctor’s weariness is by no means the same thing, coming as it does from the Time War; but in this one instance, he is in fact standing in for the audience. That’s a role that usually goes to the companion, but this story is current companion Jenny Shirt’s death story, and she’s hardly an adequate audience surrogate in that moment. In fact, her death is brief and hasty and not at all built up, so as to put a final note on the horror of the Time War—we’ve had several adventures with her, and yet all her hopefulness and cheerfulness and success is cut down in an instant, almost by chance. We’ll miss her, and honor her, but it’s the Doctor who fills the surrogate role here. And the Doctor is tired. He has multitudes of timelines, hundreds of battles, tragedy upon tragedy, all tucked into his memory and scarring his body and mind. He’s ready for the end. We, the audience, aren’t ready yet—but with hundreds if not thousands of stories and details and characters and plots and universes to track, one can see how we could be. If Doctor Who ever dies, it will be in part from its own mass. None of this is to say I disapprove; I love this massive shared universe and everything in it. It’s simply to say that when the end comes, it will be well-earned. (I don’t know if any of this is what the author intended, but to me it seems too much a theme to overlook.)

It’s worth noting that this is not actually the Doctor’s first encounter with Death, though he says it is. He encountered a similarly-robed personification of Death, and even danced with Death on the surface of the moon, in a very early New Adventures novel, Timewyrm: Revelation. In that story, Death was not a machine, but was another form of artificial construct, and was short-lived (an ironic statement if ever there was one).

John Hurt Tribute photo

Doctor Death was written by anthology publisher Barnaby Eaton-Jones of Chinbeard Books. Next time: The Beach by Gary Russell. See you there.

Seasons of War: Tales from a Time War is now out of print, but more information can be obtained here, here, and here.

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