Saturday, June 15, 2024

Doctor Who and the Ethics of Possessing Dead Bodies

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Texts from the Tardis is an ongoing Doctor Who re-watch  in which we compare the reactions and analysis of a first time viewer (Peter) to a long-time Whovian (Andy).

Episode 3: The Unquiet Dead

Peter: I am Jack’s utter disappointment.

Everything looks rustic and dingey and not futuristic spacey at all!

Andy: Well there is no accounting for taste.

I’ve always felt like shows about time and space travel should be about the unexplored. They’ve got the all of space and fucking time, and they go to Earth in 1860?

DW E3 Obligatory VictorianI don’t see why the past should be any less interesting than the future. After all, when you’ve got a time machine, the definitions of past and future are totally relative. And there is an enormous amount of rich history on this planet! They are just as worth exploring as comparable events from the future.
Plus, as we see here, there are surprises in the past too!

That’s true, it turns out Charles Dickens was way cooler than I imagined.  

DW E3 Dickens and the DoctorDickens is a great example of why exploring the past is an excellent storytelling choice. (Although this episode doesn’t even touch on the best thing about Dickens, which was that he was a BAMF social justice warrior.) He’s used in this episode as the rational foil to the phantasmagorical phenomenon, contrasted to Rose’s eager curiosity and the Doctor’s boundless enthusiasm. He’s a stand in for the audience to argue that ghosts don’t exist so that the Doctor can exposit that they are really aliens.  

Don’t get me wrong, if you’re going to dick around in the past, adding aliens is a recipe for pretty fun times, but going into the past as a trope or story telling device?  I find it tiring.  I want to see shit that hasn’t happened yet or hasn’t been seen by anyone, but more than just ghosts in the basement with Charles Dickens.

But they aren’t ghosts! They are aliens. (Non-spoiler spoiler: on this show, the answer is always aliens.) Doctor Who repurposes classical supernatural myths a number of times, which is something I always enjoy. I like my magic with a healthy dollop of science, and the implication here is that aliens have been showing up on Earth throughout history, which is a pretty cool bit of in-universe lore.

DW E3 Dont wander offI was initially skeptical about whether or not to trust the ghost aliens. I’m a fairly trusting individual. I like to give people or non-people the benefit of the doubt unless I have reason to suspect otherwise. The Doctor seems to have a similar quality to him so he probably would’ve still tried to help them, but the fact that they were displaced/destroyed by a war he was a main participant in adds an extra layer of motivation that makes it impossible to not help.  

The request made by the Gelth in the alien seance seems fairly reasonable to me. Like I’m personally of the belief that a dead body is no more than an empty shell left behind – like when a hermit crab upgrades to a tennis ball. The pen cap he leaves behind is just chilling waiting for a new hermit crab to come and claim it. I know that there are tons of religious beliefs that in fact claim the opposite but like maybe we just won’t use their bodies then. Or maybe just have a “volunteer to be a surrogate body for an alien race” check mark on people’s drivers licences the same way we do with organ donation.


I honestly have some mixed feelings about recycling corpses. As a person with a uterus, I constantly have to defend the idea of bodily autonomy, and one of the strongest arguments for pregnant people maintaining it is that humanity has established the precedent that people maintain bodily autonomy even after their deaths. That’s why we don’t allow things like organ donation except on strictly voluntary basis — which in turn leads to a shortage of viable organs that people desperately need.

I’ve often wondered if maybe we should have an opt-out system instead of an opt-in system but I worry about the kind of precedent that sets.

Well I for one say “Come on in little crabby buddy (or non corporeal alien refugees). Everyone needs a home.”  

Episode 4: Aliens in London and Episode 5: World War Three

DW E4 Harriet Jones
Everything you need to know about Harriet Jones: she is humble, places a premium on rules and manners, and is full of cheery pep, even when the world is ending

Can we take a moment and talk about how awesome Harriet Jones: Badass Extraordinaire is? And how you just abso-fuckin-lutely have to say both her names every time?

I’m pretty sure there was an Act of Parliament requiring it.

And maybe one more moment to talk about how much of a dick Jackie is? Like she is just always being mean to someone every time she’s on screen.

In this particular episode I’m inclined to give her a pass. After being missing for a year, Rose finally shows up with a mysterious man who refuses to leave her side. We the audience know that they can’t tell Jackie they’ve been time traveling, but from her perspective, Rose’s refusal to say where she’s been reads a lot like an abusive relationship.

I’m very confused that the Doctor is apparently so bad at steering though. Last episode they landed in Cardiff, 1869, instead of Venice, 1860, and this time he landed a year later than he meant to. He’s been doing this for millennia right, shouldn’t he know what he’s doing? Is this a plot device or is there a reason for it?


Gah, it’s so frustrating when you say that because it means that I have to wait for an answer! But it is also satisfying because it means I am on the right track and that there is an answer.

DW E4 Transcendent PigThe Slitheen are almost unbelievably ludicrous in this two-parter. Their aesthetic is basically “fat and farts a lot” which I feel like is fat-shaming (not-cool). But at the same time, they are also galactic terrorists which is also pretty chilling.

Are they galactic terrorists? I would have thought they’d be intergalactic terrorists. How many planets can you irradiate in one galaxy?

I looked it up. They are, in fact, just your run of the mill variety galactic terrorists. According to the fan wiki, their planet Raxacoricofallapatorius is in The Mutter’s Spiral, which is apparently just the Time Lord’s fancy way of saying The Milky Way Galaxy.

The fact that they chose Britain to steal nuclear weapons from is clearly a sign of the Doylist bias, because this has got to be the most complicated nuclear protocol on Earth.

I feel like the Evil Overlord Handbook would say to just come in and steal some of our nukes and go irradiate Mars… or maybe something else a little further away that doesn’t require elaborate disguises and the permission of the UN. We have enough nukes to blow up the world a floppityjillion times over. (That’s a very scientific calculation.) And according to John Oliver, it’s not like we’re doing a great job securing them. They apparently get stolen all the time and we don’t notice.  

As weird as the nuclear protocol is, I appreciated that the lag meant we got to spend more time with Rose and the Doctor in the cabinet room. I remember this episode as happening much later in the series, because the Doctor and Rose are already so close! But the fear in the Doctor’s voice when he says “I could save the world but lose you” is so raw and tender. They are both characters who care deeply and quickly.

So you said early on that you love when the show stops and lets two characters just talk. And I can’t help but agree with you. Every time that happens this episode it’s wonderful.  From Jackie and Rose’s conversation at the beginning when Jackie keeps asking where Rose has been, to the very last scene when Mickey and the Doctor have a heart to heart and decide that Mickey isn’t ready for time travel. (But shhh. Don’t tell Rose.)

The development of background characters is another one of the things I love about this show. It would be easy for Rose (and the show) to ignore Mickey and Jackie in favor of the objectively more exciting space and time travel. The fact that they don’t says a lot about Rose as a character, but it also is indicative of the overall message: ordinary people matter too. Mickey really came through in this episode, and the Doctor recognizes that. 

Jackie keeps asking the Doctor if he can keep Rose safe. Like is that a serious question? Sure, she’s involved in a conflict between a couple of species that she otherwise would not have been involved in if not for the Doctor. But…the planet was going to be destroyed! The whole damn planet, as in, Jackie, the Doctor, and Rose too! Without their direct intervention it most likely would have become a hunk of irradiated money. Can you keep her safe from that, Jackie? Can anyone? The Doctor can’t guarantee her safety anymore than you can, no, but I guarantee he will always try.

Please do not spoil Pete in the comments!

Images Courtesy of BBC

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