On Death Comes to Time and the new starship Enterprise

Earlier this week the first picture of the Enterprise from next summer’s Star Trek film was released.

In case you’ve not been paying attention to the development of J.J. Abrams’ new Star Trek film, it’s a tale of the classic characters — Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and all the rest — during their original five-year mission.

Some people don’t like the look of the ship. It doesn’t look like the Enterprise from the original series. No one would mistake this design for Matt Jeffries’ classic design.

Personally, I think it looks fantastic. Based on one shot, I like what I’ve seen.

The reason? The Enterprise is familar enough to be recognizable as the starship from the original Star Trek, and it’s different enough to be interesting.

See, I don’t want a slavish recreation of the 1960’s design ethos in the new Star Trek film. It’s anal-retentive. It’s an exercise in big-budget pasticherie. And, frankly, it’s not very interesting.

My feeling? Give me something that evokes the feeling of the classic Star Trek. We’ve seen a hundred different variations on Sherlock Holmes’ digs at 221B Baker Street or of the Batcave — or, going back even further into literary history, Hamlet’s Elsinore Castle or Arthur’s Camelot. The familiar stories, myths, legends, and characters are reinterpreted for every age. Plays are reinterpreted. Novels are reinterpreted. Why shouldn’t the world of Star Trek be just as open to interpretation? Is it because we saw it on television, and thus we have a visual record of what it should look like?

In short, I think Star Trek should be open to reinterpretation and reimagining. Doing so doesn’t invalidate anything. Instead, it opens new avenues of interpretation, new prisms shedding light, new perspectives that illuminate the hidden corners. A slavish devotion to the past is ultimate counter-productive, as doing so lends credence to the idea that these stories were done right once, and how it was done then is how it must always be done. Rather than becoming legends for the ages, archetypes even, the stories become rooted in a time and a place that may have no relevence in other times.

What brought this to mind was, surprisingly, a Doctor Who story — Death Comes to Time.

First, some background. Death Comes to Time was a Doctor Who internet radio play produced by the BBC in 2000 and 2001 starring Sylvester McCoy as the seventh Doctor, Sophie Aldred as Ace, Stephen Fry as the Minister of Chance (a fellow Time Lord), and John Sessions as General Tannis. The first part of the story when released garnered some impressively huge download numbers.

I didn’t listen to it online. Instead, when the story was released as a 3-CD set, I bought that, and I’ve listened to it three times now, most recently this past weekend.

The story’s reputation in fandom is, I should admit, rather low. On this very blog, for example, Cameron commented that Death Comes to Time was “the only time in 45 years, including the nearly eight years before I was born, that I was ever tempted to use those terrible words: ‘This isn’t real Doctor Who.'”

I can’t speak to what Cameron’s reasons are, but I can think of numerous reasons off the top of my head. The Time Lords are portrayed in a manner we’ve never seen before (and, with one exception, we would never see again), as beings with god-like powers who are not allowed to interfere with anything. The Doctor himself dies at the end of the story. Ace becomes a Time Lord when she is granted a TARDIS. The Brigadier is placed in command of a spacefleet and launches an attack from a secret base on the Moon’s farside. Those would be the “big” issues, though there are a number of minor issues I could spend hours regurgitating. For the nonce, on the surface Death Comes to Time gets some very basic — and very major — things about Doctor Who horribly wrong.

Yet, it also does some very interesting — and very likeable — things. I loved Stephen Fry’s Minister of Chance, as he’s the first time that I can think of where the Doctor meets another Time Lord — and he’s the Doctor’s friend and ally, not a rival or a batshit crazy wanker. I loved the Doctor’s companion Antimony. The fates that befall both of these characters are genuinely surprising and moving.

Then there’s General Tannis. Imagine the Master, but sane and completely depraved. He’s a right bastard, and I found him a truly effective villain. Certainly, one of the most chilling opponents the Doctor has ever faced. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to listen to Tannis and not think of the whole “balance of the Force” nonsense from the Star Wars prequel trilogy. (That’s one criticism I’ve heard of Death Comes to Time, that the story wanted so badly to be The Phantom Menace. And there are elements, like the balance of the Time Lords or the rebellion on occupied Santiny against the Canisian invaders, that are clearly derivative of The Phantom Menace.)

The problem with Death Comes to Time is that a lot of pieces on the board, like characters, look like Doctor Who pieces. But then there are pieces that simply aren’t in any way Doctor Who pieces. The mythology of Gallifrey from the series (new and old) is simply incompatible with the way the Time Lords are portrayed here. The Doctor has never shown god-like powers (except for when he enslaved the Family of Blood). And certainly, the story’s ending, with the Doctor dying to clear the Time Lords from the universe so that the old gods can die and new gods can take their place, simply doesn’t make sense in any sort of known and familiar Doctor Who universe.

I actually think that’s the point of this story. That it’s not supposed to fit.

Consider the opening dialogue from the first episode. The Time Lord Casmus tells a fable of the failure of the gods — the Time Lords themselves, really, and their failures are couched in vaguely mythological terms. Later, he tells Ace a story of a painter who created a painting so beautiful he fell in love with it, and when he asked his gods to bring his creation to life they did, only she was trapped inside the painting and had no conception of a world “beyond” the four edges of the painting.

The idea, it seems to me, is that just as the painting could not conceive of its creator, humans cannot conceive of the entirety of what Time Lords are capable of. As much as Ace’s journey toward Time Lord-hood is long discussions of cod philosophy, the point of these scenes are to show that how we, as the audience, conceive of the Doctor, we are only conceiving of the Doctor in a limited fashion; only aspects of the Doctor (and by extension, the power of the Time Lords) manifest in human consciousness.

At least, that’s the level where I think we’re supposed to interpret Death Comes to Time. It’s not a story that says, “Everything you know is wrong,” but rather it’s “Everything you know is misleading, because you’ve never had a full picture.”

However.

It still doesn’t fit. If you accept anything that Doctor Who has done, past or future, then Death Comes to Time doesn’t fit. On its own terms, it’s an interesting story of the passing of gods. As part of the larger symphony, it’s a dischordant note sounded on a tuba where the score calls for strings.

I mean, if that’s the level that Dan Freedman wanted the story interpreted at — that it’s more mythical and more symbolic than anything Doctor Who has done before — he makes two critical mistakes.

The first? He’s actually tried to “ground” the story in familiar trappings. And the second? Just because it’s a myth doesn’t mean that the past goes out the window. Unlike the new Enterprise, the differences here aren’t interesting; instead, they’re vaguely annoying.

See, I can make it fit. I’ve posited three possible explanations to make Death Comes to Time fit. The problem with all three is that they run against Freedman’s intentions that this be the final Doctor Who story. For reference’s sake:

Explanation one. This takes place in Lawrence Miles’ Dead Romance universe. There, the Time Lords have fled from the Whoniverse into a bottle universe where they have gained god-like powers. This is probably the easiest explanation and does the least damage, and thus Death Comes to Time takes place at some point circa Lungbarrow.

Explanation two. This is a story not of the seventh Doctor, but rather of The Other, who resembles the seventh Doctor. Thus, Death Comes to Time takes place at roughly the time of Rassilon, and The Other’s passing opens the door to the next great power — the Time Lords themselves, with new powers and new potentials. This theory is fanwanky beyond belief, and it doesn’t explain who or where Ace comes from. It could be that Ace is simply a representation of a completely different character, which I shall expound upon in…

Explanation three. This story isn’t actually about the seventh Doctor. Or about Ace. Rather, it’s about an archetypal Doctor in his final incarnation that is told using the seventh Doctor and Ace as these are characters with whom the audience has familiarity — and thus an anchor that will lead the audience into the story. In which case, this story takes place at some unspecified point in the Doctor’s future and can, in fact, serve as the Doctor’s final adventure, per Dan Freedman’s intentions.

I personally favor the third explanation — the story is largely mythical, told using archetypal symbols rather than concrete characters.

That doesn’t absolve Death Comes to Time of its sins, however. The ending, to be blunt, is atrocious. Not the final confrontation between the Doctor and Tannis. On its own terms, that works. No, I refer rather to the Brigadier’s space fleet, the insipid stupidity of President George W. Bush (yes, he’s a character), and, yes, Ace. I’ll be the first person to say that Ace is well past her sell-by date, that I don’t like her character arc here because it’s so contrary to what we know of the Time Lords, yet I have to confess that she does play a role — and a necessary one at that. The ending resolves things, and it even sets the stage for a sequel, but it feels random and not an outgrowth of the story’s direction.

Were I rewriting the ending, I suppose I would have the Doctor confront Tannis on the bridge of his starship as he plans for the assault on Earth, rather than have the Doctor simply appear when Tannis has landed his forces near Stonehenge. It’s cleaner that way.

Death Comes to Time isn’t a lost classic. It was an experiment, and experiments sometimes fail. I can’t fault it for its ambition, and Death Comes to Time has scope and generally strong production values. But it does fail because of its differences with the past. Rather than evoking the past, Death Comes to Time instead rejects the past, leaving the audience at a remove, thus building up resistance to it. It isn’t, as Cameron noted, Doctor Who. It’s something different, mythology wrapped in the trappings of Doctor Who. It’s there, in the epochal change as the old gods die and the new gods born, that Death Comes to Time generally works.

It didn’t press my Doctor Who buttons, the way the new Enterprise pressed my Star Trek buttons.

I still enjoyed it, though. :)

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3 thoughts on “On Death Comes to Time and the new starship Enterprise

  1. You’re saying what all fanboys say about it… “Now, I’m not one of these fanboys, but it doesn’t fit with episode 3 in 1904 when the Doctor clearly stated his shoes were brown” etc. I don’t think it was ever intended to fit anything…

  2. I enjoyed the new Trek, but not until after it was all over and I really got what happened in it. It’s not the classic Star Trek universe… it’s an alternate reality, altered not only by the Romulans coming back, but by the events of the series, Enterprise, which itself is a result of the time travel in TNG: First Contact.
    I saw Death Comes to Time in a similar way. It’s an alternate take on Doctor Who, in a universe where the Time Lords once excercised their powers in a fashion not hinted at in the proper programme. I imagine it having a similar, but different, history to what we saw on TV. In fact, just the other day (before reading this) I was thinking how it could be the universe where Rose and the HumanDoctor are now stranded. The Time Lords (and hence the Doctor) are just not there. Ace is off somewhere eternally avoiding home, having left Earth to its own devices.
    Or something. I just know I really like Death Comes to Time and have found a way to forgive the new Star Trek for mucking around the continuity

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