Doctor Who made me think, of shame, disgust, beauty and phobia. I felt horror I had not felt watching the programme this century, and waking in the night had to find ways of making the renewed horror and fear less, so that I could go back to sleep.
“Praxeus” in the show is a virus which eats plastic within bodies, first of birds then of people. Scales grow across the human bodies, onto their hands and faces. As the camera lingered on Matthew McNulty’s face, looking sick and miserable, I felt my guts twisting with revulsion. In the night, I told myself repeatedly that he is an actor and imagined him peeling off the makeup and going for a drink with the rest of the cast. I thought of him in Deadwater Fell on Friday night, as a disgraced policeman launching himself across a room at former Doctor David Tennant who was playing a doctor, then chatting as friends on the side of the set. It’s fiction. It hasn’t wholly worked. I still feel perplexed distress, so decided to write it out here.
Silly right-wingers were irritated with Doctor Who being “woke” again, with Warren Brown as the McNulty character’s husband, and a plot around plastic pollution being a bad thing, but that pleases me. Doctor Who has shown sick people before, in Spyfall lying in bed surrounded by monitors, where the Doctor after a quick wave of her sonic comments that all their DNA has been rewritten and they’re not human any more. But they looked like people in comas and hardly bothered me. I have binged Pose recently, with Blanca in hospital with an AIDS related illness, and felt sympathy.
So if it is about illness, that’s not all of it. I like to think of people recovering. The human tends to health, healing injuries, fighting off infection. Here the scales grow over the face, and death seems remorseless, slow but certain. McNulty, who as a working class actor has a particular forte for incomprehending misery, has a strong TV career, so possibly as a good actor engaged my empathy and conveyed his character’s distress, and I think it was more than that.
I want to look beautiful. I see someone looking repulsively ugly so that I want to look away, and I imagine myself looking so ugly, so that others reject me. I can imagine myself like that, and it gars me grue. I have rarely felt beautiful. I do not feel repulsive, but others sometimes show their transphobia so that I know they are repelled, and that is a horrible feeling.
I loathe the idea of feeling disgusted by another human being in such a way as to break sympathy. That is a strong part of it, the fear of rejection which we suffer so much. I think the worst of it was the scales, a parasitic and destructive thing, were obscuring the face. I imagine something creeping over my face like that and am horrified. The humanity is obscured.
And the virus seemed effective, so that it would certainly kill. It didn’t, always, but the anticipation of death and being weak and powerless before it, is ghastly. I pause to think again of McNulty peeling off his prosthetic, giving the glue a quick wash off, and going to do something else. Stephen Moffat’s Doctor had moments of awe and wonder, and moments of triumph, but Chris Chibnall’s Doctor never seems to get anything better than exhausted relief, a slight respite from the grind before some other task starts. She’s still in control, but she seems to have to work harder. I liked Russell T Davies’ Doctors, when as soon as they started running you had the feeling that the monsters were left hopelessly behind, but with Chibnall they seem certain to catch up. The running seems exhausting, the long lines explaining what is going on delivered with misery and fear. I want more joy, more careless derring-do and panache. Even the delight of Missy in The Magician’s Apprentice, killing someone to make a point, is preferable to this.
Added: the end of the season, with the Master, shorn of all Missy’s character development, destroying the citadel of the Time Lords and turning all the Time Lords into cybermen who could regenerate, was so mean and nasty it may have put me off Doctor Who. At least while Chibnall runs it.