The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Dr. Who vs. Battlestar: The War for Emotional Resonance

Written by: Alaka Prodhan, Special to CC2K

Image In the last couple of months, two of my favorite television series have come to an end for the near foreseeable future. I’ve already waxed lyrical on my love for Battlestar Galactica elsewhere on the site. Doctor Who, however, is a relatively new obsession and I think is yet to feature thus far on CC2K.

Anyone who is familiar with both series may find it odd that I’m embarking upon a mash-up because, on the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be much to unite the two. Barring the fact that they’re both modern “re-imaginings” of established shows, and the shared generic title of science-fiction, they seem poles apart. For one, they’re both catering to wildly different audiences. One is fun, the other is not; one is family-friendly, the other decidedly not; one dabbles in political allegory and social critique, the other in unabashed escapism. Battlestar Galactica from the outset has been content to alienate half the original fan-base with its gutsy, dark, morally ambiguous take on established mythology, whilst Russell T Davies’s revival of Who has tried to keep both the lightness and humor of the old series, as well as the element of hide-behind-the-sofa terror that aims to give children of all generations sleepless nights.

However, several superficial similarities between the two season finales got me thinking about deeper resonances which endow the Doctor Who finale with some of the emotional depth so regularly and skilfully employed by Battlestar Galactica’s more adult offering.

Both episodes involve the following key ingredients: a resolution to a conflict between humans and a feared enemy (though surprisingly in Battlestar the conflict ends in truce, whereas in Who, by genocide); a triumphant return (in one, a return to Earth, in the other, the return of the Earth); and finally, a ‘surprising’ downbeat ending.

The biggest link stylistically is that both of the triumphant returns form an emotional climax which is accompanied by an uplifting choral, orchestral piece. In Battlestar, Bear McCreary uses a fully-fledged SATB choir for the first time, and to add to his impressive back catalogue of foreign tongues and lyrical experiments, they sing original lyrics translated into Latin [see Bear McCreary’s blog entry for more details]. It’s a moment which has been nearly four years in the making, and the music aptly captures the intense yet confused feelings of happiness and relief which marks the end of a long and fraught journey for the crew of Galactica, not all of whom have lived to see that day come.

Murray Gold, meanwhile, revisits the theme which he created for the Ood in episode three (“Planet of the Ood”). It’s a fitting choice and a welcome musical return, one which embodies feelings of freedom, joy and renewed hope; it’s hard not to smile as we see the TARDIS being piloted as it ought to be, the console fully manned by the Doctor’s closest friends, all saviors of the Earth.

However, any euphoria in both universes is short-lived, and this is where New Who really surprised me. For one, it made me realize that Battlestar doesn’t have the monopoly on the emotional equivalent of a long, hard kick to the goolies. But in Battlestar I think it’s fair to say that we’re used to it, so it doesn’t really come as much of a surprise that the shining beacon of hope, their port in the storm, the Earth of dream and legend that has carried the entire fleet through several years of fight and flight, is actually no more than a bleak, ravaged wasteland. It’s what we’ve come to expect: the stark realism which never shies away from problems and complexities, which embraces the gray spaces in between, which is happy to defy convention and simply doesn’t allow for straight-forward, pat endings because nothing in this universe is.

Problematisation, if I may be allowed to coin a new phrase, is what Battlestar Galactica lives for. We’ve seen it time and time again throughout the series, moments where the writers lead us down an avenue laced with hope and candy only to drop an anvil of death, doom and DESPAIR right on top of the characters’ heads. It’s the same technique as employed in the season one opener, where the initially welcome return of the Olympic Carrier, with its immediate joy of reunion, is soon undermined by suspicion, fear, and difficult decisions (incidentally ending in all three of the aforementioned “d”s). We see it again in season two, most notably with the unexpected arrival of Pegasus, heralded by wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing, savior-devil Cain (oh my, I’ve only just clocked the biblical significance of her moniker), and then once more in season four with the return of Kara Thrace. Nothing is ever what it seems, and the audience does well to remember that no-one is safe, anything might happen, and probably most of it bad…

…which brings me rather nicely to “Journey’s End”, which has not only one, but two problematic endings. The first comprises of the fanfic-esque resolution to the Rose/Doctor storyline where Russell T Davies seems to throw a crumb or two to the avid shippers that make up a substantial portion of his fan-base. However, it can be argued that this resolution is not really a resolution at all. Rose gets her happy ending, ostensibly, but it’s not with the right man – Doctor 2.0 is not the Doctor she traveled alongside and fell in love with. She’s also been tasked with reforming him so that he no longer goes around acting like a genocidal maniac… probably not what she had in mind?! It made me think a little of the manner in which Shakespeare often ends his comedies – it’s the equivalent of the wrap-up wedding where the ‘right’ couple is eventually united, but you can’t help but feel unease and distrust of surface, that maybe all hasn’t ended well after all.

More interesting and affecting for me personally, however, was the other ending: the ‘death’ which was prophesised by Dalek Caan. It’s tempting to criticise the writers for a cop out, as this turns out to be a metaphorical death rather than an actual one, but Russell T Davies gave a promise to the viewers that under his leadership, none of the companions would die. Nevertheless, given the circumstances, I rather think an actual death would have been much kinder.

The ‘resolution’ of Donna’s arc is, for me, nothing short of cruel. Fair enough, the Doctor argues that the mind-wipe is necessitated by the very threat to her survival, but would death have been much worse than what he forces upon her? Robbing her of her memories, pushing the reset button and effectively undoing all the great things she saw and did with him?

I think the events of “Turn Left” were perhaps meant, in part, to alleviate the crushing blow of “Journey’s End”; the Donna in the parallel universe never met the Doctor, but in her war-torn reality she stills displays compassion, tenacity, and ultimately she still saves the world. Nevertheless, Donna’s fate is the truly tragic tale of such great potential never sought nor seen, and perhaps never realised. It’s not tragic by any classical means, perhaps, but it’s still pretty depressing. I think of that Donna surrounding herself with magazines and telly and gossip and switching from one channel, one loud and empty conversation, one unfulfilling temp job to the next and I feel so sad.

Moreover, what really gives these last scenes their punch is that, whilst it could have been a Star Trek-esque push the reset button (as occurred in the season three finale), you really see the repercussions – it’s a localized rather than universal reset button and it’s not without context or consequence. Donna returns to being the annoying, mouthy woman we met in “The Runaway Bride”, but we and the Doctor remember who she became, who she really is. Meanwhile he has lost his best friend and she doesn’t even know, or care, who he is. It’s genuinely heartbreaking.

None of this would really matter had Catherine Tate not endowed the character with such humor and warmth. It’s interesting to note that the casting originally was moderately controversial, with some people unsure of whether her particular brand of comedy affectations would translate well to the role of companion. I had never really seen The Catherine Tate Show, and still haven’t, so, except for a peripheral knowledge of the ‘bovvered’ chav Lauren I wasn’t in any way influenced by her characters. Nevertheless, when we were first introduced to Donna in “The Runaway Bride”, I did found her loud and really rather irritating, and frankly, when the special came to an end I was glad to see the back of her. And so I think it’s a testament to both the writing and Catherine Tate’s talent as an actress that I really grew to love Donna in season four. Whilst it’s true that one of the ways in which the writers did this was the not-so-subtle ploy of making her cry in practically every single episode (look! she’s got feelings too!), she really did become a welcome addition to the TARDIS. The writers even managed, somewhat ingeniously, to incorporate her initial annoyingness into her overall character arc, with the Doctor 2.0 seeing the real, poignant reason for her mouthiness:

Donna: “But why me?”

Doctor: “Cos you’re special.”

Donna: “I keep telling you I’m not”

Doctor: “No but you are. Ohh. You really don’t believe that do you. I can see, Donna, what you’re thinking. All that attitude, all that lip, cos all this time, you think you’re not worth it.”

Donna: “Stop it.”

Doctor: “Shouting at the world cos no one’s listening. Well, why should they?”

It was also simply refreshing to see a companion not go all doe-eyed with lurrve for the Doctor. Admittedly, David Tennant is quite the fox, and if he invited me into his TARDIS I’d probably go exactly the same way as Martha and Rose, but that’s by the by. Donna was a different kind of companion for New Who. Older, not necessarily wiser, but definitely NOT interested, she provided the Doctor with exactly what he, and the series, wanted and needed: a mate. These two ran (quite literally) from one adventure to the next almost as equals, one the fast-talking time-travelling Timelord, the other the equally fast-talking temp from Chiswick – poles apart in genetics and experience, but nevertheless wonderfully balanced and opposed. Donna provided the human yin to the Doctor’s sometime short-sighted yang, acting both as his moral compass (“Sometimes I need someone.”) and comic relief, a dynamic set up perfectly at the close of “The Runaway Bride” and the season four opener “Partners in Crime”. [The moment where they finally ‘meet’ again is still one of my favorites from the series and cracks me up every time:

Her lack of romantic interest in the Doctor also meant that she wasn’t afraid of telling him where to stick it. I’m particularly fond of the moment in “The Fires of Pompeii” where she shows little consideration for the sanctity and preservation of timelines, focusing instead of the very immediate opportunity to save others from otherwise certain destruction. She tries to raise an alarm, compelled by her strong compassionate instinct and ends up butting heads with the Doctor who insists, quite on the contrary, that they make a quick exit:

Doctor: “TARDIS, Timelord, yes!”

Donna: “Donna, human, no!”

She has a voice and she’s not afraid to use it. Or rather, she had. (Sniff!)


It’ll be interesting to see what is to come in the new episodes of both series, but never again will I underestimate Doctor Who. “Journey’s End” taught me the hard way that it can do thought-provoking and depressing-as-hell along with the very best of them.