Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Will Wildman has no patience for me

Spoilers for Doctor Who, but only things that are now years out of date.
Trigger warnings for personality and memory erasing, and hopefully that's about it.

The last episode of Doctor Who I ever saw featured the utter destruction of Donna Noble. Part of me wants to pull out an Ancient Greek word that means “utterly destroyed” because that is a single word in Ancient Greek and it would serve as a nice contrast to the completely different word that means killed. The problem is that when used of people the utterly destroyed word means “killed” and if Donna had been killed I wouldn't be writing this post. As such, it would probably confuse the issue.

Anyway, once upon a time there was an episode of Doctor Who in which the character Donna Noble was utterly destroyed, though her body and a select few parts of her brain went on living in a way that vaguely resembles what happens to those bitten in zombie fiction but was about a million times more disturbing. (One million, seventy five thousand, three hundred twenty, and eleven sixteenths times more disturbing, to be exact.)

You see what happened is they erased her personality. Memories too, which I find truly disturbing in itself, but that is as nothing compared to what was done to her personality. It was necessary, you see, if she ever slips into her old personality, even a little, her brain will fry.

One might say that Donna was returned to the person she was before she met the Doctor, but that person was someone capable of becoming who she was with the Doctor, and if Donna even approaches being such a person again, her brain will fry. She is not the person she had been because the person she had been was one who had it within her to be the person that she was, and she doesn't have that in her anymore expect, perhaps, as a path to a truly messy form of accidental suicide.

One might say that she's the person she would have been if she'd never met the Doctor, but that isn't true because we met that person as well (she saved the universe) and if present Donna even approaches that person, her brain will fry.

We know that it isn't just about memory, if it were her personality would not have ripped out of her skull and discarded like ... like something you discard. What would one discard? Rotten fish perhaps? No, they'd be used for fertilizer I suppose. What is treated with even less respect than rotten fish? Whatever it is, like that.

People can lose memories while maintaining broad strokes of their personalities, but that isn't what we see with Donna, her personality is yanked out and the warning is given that if she flashes back to even part of what she was even once, boom. Brain is fried.

So we're left with the question of Donna, what did happen to her, and how should we feel about it. She grew more in a few years than some people will in a lifetime. She went from someone completely wasting her potential, apparently unaware that that potential even existed, to someone who surpassed it. Someone who did the impossible and saved not just one universe in the process, but all universes.

But the problem with the impossible, apparently, is that it bites back hard. Which is odd, because the first season finale actually involved Rose completely escaping the effects of said biting, the Doctor simply took them on himself and regenerated.

So she was left in an interesting state. Memories and personality erased. Reset. With the rule being that if she ever grew or changed or improved, her brain would explode.

We can introduce some exceptions in there. I don't think there's anything preventing her from becoming a great chess player as long as she isn't brave or compassionate or ambitious or curious, or anything like that. What she can't do is recapture any of the things that made Donna Donna. So imagine a list of all the things that make you exceptional. Not even all of the things that do right now, all of the things that could if you were given the chance to thrive. Now imagine that your brain, and soul should you have one, were reset to how they were back when most of your present personality didn't exist. This is going to have to be more extreme than just the time Donna is losing because she's grown more in that time than most people do in a decade or two. Our best bet for comparison is probably just to take you as when you were a child. So say when you were twelve. Or five.

Everything about you is reset to the way it was when you were five. Your memories since then are gone. Any growth you've had since then is undone. At first this might not sound that horrific, given some of the things that are faced in Doctor Who, but remember the catch. You're never allowed to so much as approach the person you are today. Which is where we return to the list you made above of everything exceptional about you. The defining characteristics of youness. If personality-stripped you ever starts going near those things, boom, he or she is dead.

If you're courageous, then being Donnaed would mean having that stripped away and the laws of biology determining that if you're ever courageous again, boom you're dead. If you're ambitious then being Donnaed would mean having that stripped away and the laws of biology determining that if you're ever ambitious again: boom, you're dead. If you're interested in learning then being Donnaed would mean having that stripped away and the laws of biology determining that if you're ever curious again, Boom. You are dead. And if you're Hufflepuff then you're pretty well screwed, because that means that if you ever approach self improvement again you're as dead as a demonstration spider.

And that's probably the most Harry Potter you will ever see me put here.

So, that's the last Doctor Who I ever saw. Donna was Donnaed. An amazing and impressive character had all of her growth and strength ripped from her very psyche, along with her memories, and was left on earth as an incurious vapid individual while her family was warned that if she ever grew into even a hint of a shadow of her former self that growth would kill her. And do it in a hurry.

And then the channel I watched Doctor Who on stopped carrying it. I haven't seen anything since Donna was destroyed.

I agree with Will about something. He writes, “it hurt more than if she had really died,” and he's right about that. If Donna had simply been killed, instead of being Donnaed, I very much doubt that you'd be seeing anything remotely resembling this. I did hurt more. She was robbed of the chance to even be herself.

Imagine a story where it was just some totalitarian government trying to drag Donna and others off to the mind control center (where the exact same thing would have happened to her) while the Doctor and others tried to stop it and then in the end she died in the attempted getaway. It would have been heartbreaking, and she'd probably have had some silly last line like, “At least I die as me,” but it would have been so much better in terms of not feeling like you have to curl up into a ball and be depressed about it for the next six months.

Where I disagree with Will is in the next clause of his sentence, and the explanation offered for that clause in the sentence after that, “which is why I have no patience for people who complain about what happened to her. It was supposed to hurt.”

Plenty of things are supposed to hurt. Remember the woman on the satellite in the first season finale, the one that the Doctor promised to save. The one who died a pointless death when the Doctor failed to keep his word? That was supposed to hurt, and it did hurt, and it left a lasting impression. Remember the destruction of Pompeii? Remember watching as the earth was exterminated, or as an entire universe was wiped from existence just so Donna could get back to the original timeline and save the Doctor like she was supposed to? Remember the fish-likething who Martha helped only to have him die on the planet's surface in the episode with Jenny only for us to discover that the entire bloody conflict was the result of a days old dispute about who should be making managerial decisions? Remember any episode other than, “Just this once, everybody lives!”

Or, for that matter, return to Will's own point. If Donna had simply died, that would have been something that was supposed to hurt. It would have succeeded in hurting.

There's plenty of space for things that are supposed to hurt, and plenty of range of hurt available. The way in and quantity with which things hurt is a valid place for criticism. There would have been all kinds of things that could have been done to Donna that I'm pretty sure even Will would agree went too far. Those things will go unmentioned partly because I don't want to load the post with trigger warnings, but mostly because I don't want to think about them.

If any of those unspoken things had been done, criticism would have been valid even though it was supposed to hurt. Criticism is valid now, even though it was supposed to hurt.

Writers sometimes want to hit the audience with a blow to the gut so hard as to leave the audience weeping on the floor, that intent doesn't mean that those who don't like the way it was executed are wrong.

It was supposed to hurt. It did. That's not the end of the discussion. It's more complicated than that.


[And then, just like that, it occured to me that I should probably link to Will's blog and the post that contained the two sentences I'm responding to, which is actually almost entirely unrelated to what I say here.]


  1. Strongly argued, but I think your premises are flawed. Explicitly, Donna can't remember any of the things that she did - time travel, aliens, having a Time Lord mind - but the Doctor says nothing about the kind of person she can be. There's nothing on which to base the claim that she'll overload if she shows too much compassion or courage. For that matter, the Doctor nearly commands her family to show Donna more support and encouragement, not to protectively stunt her growth.

  2. So you're arguing that the Doctor ripped her personality out along with her memories of the sheer joy of it?

    Also, I'd have to go back to exact phrasing, but I'm pretty sure that it was that she couldn't be that person. Otherwise there would be no problem with her growing new memories of things like time time travel, aliens, and the like. New memories are not like old memories, so if the problem were just the memories the Doctor could reintroduce himself and help Donna through this difficult time in her life, what with the amnesia and all.

    Instead the implication is that if she does anything like her old self, like say travel through time or be courageous, she'll burn out. If the problem were merely one of memory she wouldn't have even needed to stop being a companion, Jack can't remember two years of his life (iIrc, it has been a while) and it hasn't hindered his ability to tag along.

    If the problem is remembering instead of being, then the problem everyone should be objecting to is the Doctor abandoning her for no reason whatsoever.

    That he does abandon her implies that the problem is in Donna's present, not her past. The technology to make sure memories don't recur is definitely available to a time traveler and it isn't as if the Doctor had moral qualms when it came to messing with her mind.

  3. Wibbley-wobbley biological meta-crisis. Jack had two years' worth of his memories erased, but he was probably still a normal human during that time - Donna is no longer fully human, having had a freak accident implant a secondary timelord mind into her head. Timelords being the complex extradimensional beings that they are, it can't simply be erased, only blocked off from the rest of her mind. The memory wipe was because the blocking-off is imperfect and if she specifically remembers any of the events that led up to the metacrisis, it will reintegrate and she will burn out.

    That's technobabble that I've extrapolated from the technobabble we were actually presented with, but I think it holds up.

    (You haven't seen it, but we meet Donna one more time, in David Tennant's final episodes. It's explicitly stated that on a subconscious level, she's still having more complicated thoughts than she is fully aware of, and she's safe. It's only once aliens start running around that she has to be sedated to prevent burnout.)

  4. Wibbley-wobbley biological meta-crisis.

    Not that wibbley-wobbly. It's actually one of the most clearly stated things in the series*. She can't use the Time Lord part of her, if she does, she dies.

    That was pretty damned clear. It's not just a bad idea, it's literally stated that it cannot be. Which means that if Donna uses the Time Lord parts of her she cannot be. She dies. It is that simple.

    Donna can explicitly use the parts of her that govern the accessing of memories. That doesn't burn her up and kill her. That means those parts of her are still human. That means that the relevant parts of her as at least as human as Jack was at the time.

    Also, looking at a transcript for exact words, it is so much worse than I remembered.

    The Doctor doesn't just not try to get Donna's consent, he gets the opposite of consent:

    All of this is after she admits that she knows not undergoing the procedure will kill her:

    No! Oh my god... I can't go back. Don't make me go back. Doctor, please, please don't make me go back!

    No, no, no, please!

    Please, no, no!


    Seven "no"s, two "don't"s One of those "don't"s had two pleases associated with it. There were two instances of multiple "no"s being associated with a "please".

    She begged him not to. I didn't remember that.

    There's a reason the Doctor isn't a medical doctor, there's a reason the Doctor has never been certified as a lifeguard or passed a wilderness first aid course. They train you not to do anything remotely like what he did there.

    If someone doesn't consent you don't treat them. For as long as they are capable of indicating what their choice is, if their choice is not to accept treatment you don't provide treatment. Even if it means their death.

    It's not a major concession, it's really only the tiniest little bit of respect when you think about it -letting someone have a modicum of control over their own life and death- but apparently the Doctor refuses to give Donna even that much.

    For that matter, her first words after she realized she was going to die were that she wanted to stay in the Tardis and live out the rest of her life there.

    That would be like someone saying, "I don't want to go to the hospital, I want to live out my life in this house. Which I love."

    And a doctor responding, "Screw you. I'm dragging you to the hospital against your will and knocking down your house to do it," except that analogy requires us to believe that knocking down someone's house is as big of a violation as ripping out their personality.

    As I said, it is so much worse than I remembered.

    I know that "mind-rape" is an often used term, but did they have to make it so ... explicit? I was going to go into slightly more detail about the parallels drawn, but it makes me want to vomit. So I won't.

    I mostly wrote this to say, the parts of Donna's mind governing the retrieval of memory are clearly indicated to be human because if they were not the fact that she is retrieving memories would kill her according to the the statements about what timelordy minds do to human people.

    So either that part of her is human or the Doctor and Donna were both lying about how the meta-crisis works.

    Also, I sort of buy Ana's idea that when judging a work retcons shouldn't be taken into account. Even if later on it turns out, "No, it was all bullshit, it was just a trick to fool the people who planted bugs in the Tardis and Donna's house," it was still highly problematic when it aired.

    Even knowing that staying meant almost immediate death, Donna begged not to go back. She begged repeatedly. She continues begging for it not to happen during the act itself.

    That's a problem.

    That's something worth complaining about in itself, even ignoring everything else.

  5. And footnote:

    * The only thing unclear is why the hell it was called a meta-crisis.

    Meta can mean beside, as in meta-story, meta-game, meta-post, meta-Buck. It can mean after, as in the Metaphysics (the stuff Aristotle wrote after the Physics.) Those are the most common meanings, I'm pretty sure, they don't seem to fit here.

    It can also mean "by means of", and I think (if we're not going to claim that one of the writers had a crisis and that was what caused the ending) that's what we're going to have to go with. Time Lord-Human by means of crisis. Because if it's after or beside crisis that doesn't make much sense.


    Footnote here because apparently I'm too wordy for my own comments.

  6. For me the problem that this was blatantly put in to make people feel bad. It "smells of the lamp"; the bones of the story-telling technique are showing. Long-term consistency of character (of the Doctor or of Donna), the way similar problems have been dealt with at other times, all of these things are thrown out of the window in order to get a good hard pluck on the heartstrings.

    I don't watch the show to be manipulated.

  7. It's sufficiently wibbley-wobbley that it caused itself; Donna touches the hand because she's cross-temporally beckoned by her future self.

    I'm pretty sure they used 'meta' because it sounds fancy.

    You have definitely proven me wrong on my original statement - apparently I do have patience for such arguments, whether I'm convinced by them or not. I gave insufficient credit to the depths of critiques that could be levelled against the situation.

    That's something worth complaining about in itself, even ignoring everything else.

    On this, we are fully agreed. Ten had some serious issues and that was a horrendously disturbing thing there. (There is maybe room to argue that due to the breakdown already occurring she was not in a fit state to determine consent, but since we have no explicit evidence of that, it would be a retcon and thus not applicable.)

  8. apparently I do have patience for such arguments

    I have noticed this, and I thank you for participating.

  9. I found that extraordinarily disturbing as well, and honestly, I thought it was more disturbing in the episodes afterwards. In terms of character of the Doctor, he later shows explicit guilt in what he did to her. I think he thought it was "best for her at the time," but that was completely wrong of him to make that assumption and he realizes it. In a later sequence when he's trying to pull up an image of someone to talk to, he feels guilt at all of them, but it's clear that he by far feels the worst of all about her.

    In addition, several of the episodes following that one show him struggling with the extent of his powers in general. In particular, the Waters of Mars is about what extent he can change the rules of time. It doesn't go well. Unfortunately for Donna, he learned that lesson far too late. I keep hoping somehow they will get back to her, but they haven't yet. Even though the writers basically fridged Donna to do it (ugh), one thing I like about Doctor Who is that the Doctor is not always unambiguously right. Of course, Donna was the one to point that out most often.

    Also, if you don't know about it, Tardis Eruditorum is a fantastic blog breaking down a lot of the issues with Doctor Who by an unabashed fan: He hasn't gotten to new Who yet, but I'm really curious what he'll have to say about it when he does.

  10. The thing about Donna is that it is not for me the most problematic moment of nuWho - although it is second. The most problematic would be by Rose, raping the TARDIS at the end of S1. Seriously, when you need to use a car to force a sentient being open to then do something so terrible none of the Timelords would and the Doctor hasn't even considered as an option against its consent (hence the car) I'm going to use the word rape as it's the closest thing I have that fits. And that was never dealt with in the course of the show.

    As for watching Who after that, that was RTD's last ever season finale (and I hated that, and Bad Wolf as I mentioned - and consider Tinkerbell Doctor of S3 the wrong sort of ridiculous and S2 pointless). And not long after the Doctor committed suicide-by-deathtrap that a bright six year old should have been able to avoid. For seasons 5 and 6, the head writer has been Stephen Moffatt who hasn't reached the highs he reached in Seasons 1-4 (The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, The Girl in the Fireplace, Blink, Silence in the Library/The Forest of the Dead).

    S5 is IMO better than any of S1-4 if you don't mind that the Doctor has a mysogenistic side, Matt Smith's playing someone only slightly different from himself turned up until the knob falls off (and he already starts at 11 from what I hear) and outside her range (scream, pout, hair flip) Karen Gilian's acting ability is ... generally unimpressive.

    S6 I'd say falls back to RTD-series levels but without the spectacularly good actors that centred the RTD stories. That said, in place of Moffatt providing a truly brilliant episode in the season for RTD, Neil Gaiman provided The Doctor's Wife for Moffatt.