Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Mistrial of a Time Lord - further thoughts

By Craig Owen Jones
Bangor University

Danny Nicol’s recent comments on Doctor Who’s twenty-second season, otherwise known as "The Trial Of A Time Lord" (1986) achieve a great deal in drawing attention to the season’s tendency to play fast and loose with the most basic principles of jurisprudence. As an adjunct to Nicol’s characterisation of its problems, there are some interesting precedents in British television prior to the season’s broadcast that may benefit from scrutiny.

"The Trial of a Time Lord":
The Inquisitor questions the Doctor
Many of the germane aspects of the trial depicted in this peculiar quartet of serials from the Colin Baker era receive their most compelling treatments not in British science fiction (Blake’s 7’s (1978-81) dalliances with the device of the courtroom trial during its second season notwithstanding), but in the realm of comedy. The television run of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-74) found the conduct of judges and policemen alike to be fertile ground. Both the death penalty and the rule against bias were satirised by a sketch in ‘The Spanish Inquisition’ (1970), in which a frustrated judge (Graham Chapman) rails against his inability to condemn the defendant in the light of the restrictions then recently placed on usage of the death penalty, asserting instead his imminent move to South Africa (‘England makes you sick!... I’m off, I’ve bought my ticket’), before declaring that, in a final fling before leaving, the defendant is sentenced to be burnt at the stake.

The question of reliability of police evidence, meanwhile, was mercilessly lampooned in the Monty Python’s Flying Circus episode ‘The Light Entertainment War’ (1974), in which a doltish police officer (Michael Palin) is in cahoots with Terry Jones’ judge, and (ineptly) gives evidence to implicate the defendant (Eric Idle) while reading from his notebook. The sketch was still considered sufficiently relevant in 1979 to warrant an airing during the Secret Policeman’s Ball, the series of occasional charity shows staged in aid of Amnesty International throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, this time with Graham Chapman as the policeman and Peter Cook as the defendant.

Cook provides another example that is relevant to the issues under study. On the penultimate evening of the 1979 show’s run, Cook – taking his cue from the outrageously partial summing-up of Sir Justice Cantley during the Thorpe trial which had ended the previous week – delivered a monologue that has since become known as ‘Here Comes The Judge’ that combined observations on class and political leanings to impugn the judge’s impartiality with devastating effect. The monologue, which brought the house down, was so successful that it was shortly released as a spoken-word record, and is now acknowledged as a masterpiece of British comedy. Cantley’s couching of his comments in the language of impartiality bring to mind nothing so much as Lynda Bellingham’s Inquisitor, whose behaviour becomes increasingly inscrutable as the season progresses.
Satirising the police:
Not The Nine O'Clock News

The late 1970s in particular seems to have provided a good deal of grist for the satirist’s mill in the way of improper conduct in both the courtroom and the police station. Arguably the most successful satirical programme of the period, Not The Nine O’Clock News (1979-82) was the originator of several sketches to criticise the conduct of the police, including an uproarious monologue by Griff Rhys Jones that begins with an extreme close-up of what we assume is a yob bragging about his exploits during a riot in which he assaulted several people – ‘I hate mush, cos they make me puke, right?...’ – only for the camera to slowly zoom out, revealing that Jones is in fact wearing a police uniform (but see below). The much-criticised ‘sus laws’ that resulted in the disproportionate stopping and searching of black people provided a focus for another sketch that saw Jones playing a policeman, this time one ‘Constable Savage’, who is pulled up by his superior (Rowan Atkinson) for repeatedly arresting the same man, one Winston Kodogo; the sketch ends with Atkinson deciding the best place for Savage to continue his career is with the Special Patrol Group. The SPG also received bad press in The Young Ones (1982-84), in which the police in general are routinely portrayed as needlessly heavy-handed. In one episode, Alexei Sayle plays a police inspector in the guise of Benito Mussolini; in another, Rick (Rik Mayall) starts to play some music during a party, only to have his record player destroyed – mere seconds later! – by a police officer who asserts that ‘the neighbours have been complaining’.

Satirising the police interview video:
Alas Smith and Jones
But the treatment of police officers that is most relevant in respect of Trial Of A Time Lord’s preoccupation with the admissibility of the evidence provided by the Matrix is found in Alas Smith And Jones (1984-98), the vehicle of NTNOCN alumni Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith. In a keenly-observed sketch set in the interview room of a police station, we see the interviewer (Jones) questioning a suspect (Smith). Smith’s character is clearly innocent, but Jones’ gleeful demeanour derives from his transparent attempts to tamper with the evidence – the video of the interview shows evidence of several clumsy edits, and in the final seconds of the video, Smith finally appears bloodied and bruised, implying his maltreatment in the cells. The sketch was broadcast in 1992, several years after the introduction of recorded interviews in 1984, but it is hard not to view it as a direct response to that policy. What it questions is not the principle of recording, but the fidelity to the truth of that which is recorded. When we hear the evidence of a witness as recorded in an interview room shorn of context, to what extent may it be relied upon?


Such depictions of the adversarial process play, of course, devil’s advocate. Smith and Jones do not seriously claim that the recording of police interviews should be dispensed with as useless or unreliable. But they do succeed in interrogating our understanding of such interviews as infallibly truthful sources of evidence. The police interview sketch takes the point to its furthest extreme; it is Kurosawa’s Rashomon played for laughs. But in its highlighting of the mutability of evidence presented at one remove, in videoed, taped, or written form, it asserts the centrality of authority, of ruling by the sword. After all, the Time Lords are more or less all-powerful; and there are several moments in Trial Of A Time Lord where the court gets perilously close to dispensing the cosmic equivalent of victor’s justice. Unlike the science fiction comedy Red Dwarf episode ‘Justice’ (1991), in which the crew enter a penal space station enveloped by a ‘justice field’ within which the consequences of an unjust act are instantly played out on the perpetrator – in Trial the gap between the act of interrogation of one’s actions and determining ways of dealing with them in a just fashion is improbably broad. As Nicol notes, the contradiction between the format of the trial and the outcome is never resolved – charges are summarily dropped, and the process is never properly concluded.

Given the preponderance of satirical commentaries on these issues noted above, it is tempting to view Trial in the same way, as a metatextual comment on the way in which Doctor Who was being treated by the BBC at the time. As is well known, season twenty-three’s story arc was occasioned by producer John Nathan-Turner’s conviction that the show was experiencing something akin to being on trial, with frequent changes to format and scheduling and near-constant criticism of its tone both within the BBC and from viewers irate at the gory, violent tenor of the programme under the editorship of Eric Saward. This seems on the face of it to be a legitimate rationale for the haphazard trial process that we see. After all, Doctor Who was not above satirising the British establishment in the 1980s – one thinks of The Happiness Patrol (1988), a trenchant comment on the Thatcher ministry. Showing a frustratingly Kafkaesque Gallifreyan system of jurisprudence could, in the right hands, have constituted a powerful riposte to the show’s treatment by the BBC.

Campy dialogue:
The Doctor and the Valeyard

But this seems altogether too cosy an explanation of the strange perorations and verbose exchanges of Trial Of A Time Lord’s courtroom scenes to be admissible. For one thing, the season achieved its final form in the most haphazard fashion; the final serial, a two-parter entitled ‘The Ultimate Foe’, was famously written at breakneck speed by Pip and Jane Baker when Saward resigned as script editor before the season’s conclusion. Furthermore, the courtroom two-handers between the Doctor (Colin Baker) and the Valeyard (Michael Jayston), while often glossed as ‘comic’ in scholarly commentaries, are anything but. The schoolboy insults the Doctor launches in his interlocutor’s direction are risible and painted in the broadest of strokes, and the Valeyard’s replies are campy and unconvincing. Crucially, even viewers at the time viewed these scenes as poorly conceived and unfunny, even if the intent on the writers’ part was to introduce levity into what on paper were needlessly wordy exchanges. Ultimately, it is difficult to think of Trial as anything other than a noble failure, a stab at a grand and lofty narrative that falls flat due to a combination of silly posturing between protagonist and antagonist, pedestrian storytelling, and an almost complete lack of internal logic in terms of the trial that lies at its heart.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Mistrial of a Time Lord

By Danny Nicol,
Professor of Public Law
University of Westminster.


“The Trial of a Time Lord” (1986) was a 14-part serial, the longest in Doctor Who’s history.   In it, the Doctor (Colin Baker) is put on trial by his own people, the Time Lords, for interfering in the affairs of other peoples and planets.   The trial is presided over by the Inquisitor (Lynda Bellingham) and the Doctor is prosecuted by an official called as the Valeyard (Michael Jayston).   

Doc in the dock: the Doctor makes a
point in his defence
The trial provides the opportunity to relate several of the Doctor’s adventures which the Valeyard deploys as evidence of his guilt.  Professor James Chapman has criticised these various segments as unengaging, and has condemned the over-arching narrative as inconsistent, incoherent and poorly-structured (Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of Doctor Who, 2nd edition, London: Tauris, 2013, pp.158-9).  Be that as it may, this post focuses not on the merits or demerits of the serial, but on the procedural shortcomings of the trial.   

The analysis does not purport to be comprehensive.  Indeed the procedural deficiencies in “The Trial of a Time Lord” are so substantial as to merit a major article in the field of Law and Television.  Instead this post merely flags up a few of the issues of procedure with which the narrative engages (and does so without giving the game away about the plot’s moment of revelation). 

A first issue in the trial is what lawyers call public interest immunity.  This is the notion that certain information can be withheld from the court in the public interest.  When the Doctor is on the planet Ravalox certain dialogue incriminating the Time Lords is removed from the evidence.  In 1968 in Conway v Rimmer ([1968] AC 910) Britain’s top court the House of Lords held that it was for the court - not the government - to strike a balance between two public interests involved: the public interest in withholding the information versus the public interest in ensuring justice in the case.  Here, the Inquisitor shows undue deference to the Time Lords’ decision on suppressing the information: she does not really interrogate the public interest in non-disclosure.

Impartial arbiter?
The Inquisitor adjudicates
A second issue is the assumption that the Matrix cannot be challenged.  The Matrix is the computer-based depository of all Time Lord knowledge and experience.  When the Doctor insists that evidence from the Matrix has been falsified, the Inquisitor pre-judges the issue, telling the Doctor “your accusation would be laughable if it were not so outrageous”. The problem of certain forms of evidence being considered unchallengable may have had resonance in the mid 1980s when “The Trial of a Time Lord” was written.  It was an era in which the evidence of the British police, whilst often relied upon at trial, was becoming increasingly discredited as miscarriages of justice mounted up.  As a result the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 ushered in the tape-recording of interviews.  Such recordings now form the focus of a very large number of criminal trials, as well as a long-standing trope in British television crime drama.

A third issue is the upgrading of the charge against the Doctor from interference to genocide.  Late in the trial we learn that the Doctor has destroyed an entire alien species, a race of sentient plants known as the Vervoids.   Instantly the Valeyard insists that the capital charge of genocide be added to the charges against the Doctor.   Yet the rules of procedural fairness include the right to adequate time to prepare one’s case (see for instance the ruling of the High Court in R v Thames Magistrates’ Court ex parte Polemis [1974] WLR 1371).  To add new charges mid-trial would be an outrageous breach of that principle.

The Valeyard presses for the ultimate sanction
A fourth issue is the death penalty. The Valeyard strongly presses for the death penalty.  In Britain, Parliament effectively abolished the death penalty in 1965 after several miscarriages of justice, and in 2004 the UK government accepted the 13th Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights which created an obligation in international law not to reintroduce it.   Britain does not extradite individuals who would face the death penalty in trials elsewhere.  The presence of the death penalty in Gallifreyan law marks Gallifrey as a more primitive society than Britain.

A fifth issue is the rule against bias.   It is a vintage principle of common law that judges should be impartial vis-à-vis the parties to a case (see e.g. Dimes v Grand Junction Canal I [1852] 10 ER 315).   The principle has also been enshrined in Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.  Yet for all her gravitas, the Inquisitor eventually shows herself far from impartial: she defends rather too vigorously the Time Lords’ decision to extract the Doctor from time and space to face trial just as his companion, Peri, needed rescuing from imminent destruction.   Bias in the opposite direction is apparent at the trial’s end: the Inquisitor drops all charges against the Doctor because the Time Lords owe him a debt of gratitude for having saved their skins.   So much for the due process of law.

Eventually the Time Lords emerge discredited from the trial because of their own constant interference in time and space.  It is Time Lord hypocrisy which “The Trial of a Time Lord” ultimately condemns.  But as a result the appalling lapses in judicial procedure get sidelined.  Yet these deficiencies fall well short of the common law principle that it is not enough for justice to be done, it must be manifestly be seen to be done – through compliance with the requirements of procedural fairness.  This raises the important question of whether a conviction, however justified in substance, should ever be lawfully obtained on the basis of an unfair procedure.  The procedural corruption of the trial alone justifies the Doctor’s stirring denunciation:

In all my travellings throughout the universe, I have battled against evil, against power-mad conspirators. I should have stayed HERE! The oldest civilization: decadent, degenerate and rotten to the core! … Daleks, Sontarans, Cybermen - they're still in the nursery compared to us! Ten million years of absolute power - that's what it takes to be really corrupt!

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Doctor Who's unjew influence

By Danny Nicol,
University of Westminster

Doctor Who began in 1963, less than two decades after the Nazi holocaust had been brought to an end.   Yet the programme’s earlier years reflect an alarming degree of anti-Jewish stereotyping on the part of postwar British society.

Julius Silverstein, anxious to keep his hands on his collection
In “The Web of Fear” (1968) we meet Julius Silverstein, a central European Jew who owns the sole surviving robot Yeti, a menace which the Doctor had encountered in his earlier adventure “The Abominable Snowmen” (1967).   Julius’ friend Professor Travers implores him to part with the Yeti, on the grounds that a control unit sphere has gone missing and is in danger of reactivating the Yeti.   But Julius is so obsessed by his material possessions that he is impervious to reason.  “You vont to rob me…nobody destroys Julius Silverstein’s collection!  Nobody!  The Yeti is mine!”   Julius’ excessive materialism costs him his life, when his precious Yeti is reanimated – and kills him.


The stereotyping involved in Julius Silverstein's character wouldn’t be so bad were it a one-off.  Alas, in “The Creature from the Pit” (1979) we meet a Jew from outer space. This is the bandit leader Torvin, who is performed as Charles Dickens’ Fagin (he variously calls his colleagues “my lovely boys!”, “my beautiful boys!” and ultimately “my rich boys!”).   Torvin lives on the planet Chloris which is rich in vegetation but has scant metal, a material which therefore obsesses him: “metal, metal, metal: I’ll put my trust in this solid metal!”    He sees people (such as the Doctor’s companion Romana) largely in terms of their monetary worth.  He also proves himself entirely self-serving, having to be repeatedly reminded by his gang that he should be fighting for their collective wealth not just his own.   Once again his materialism proves fatal, yet even Torvin’s last, comic, words are materialistic: as he dies he admires the metal of the blade with which he has been stabbed.


Torvin admires some metal
It is a great pity that Doctor Who’s crude anti-Jewish racism prevented the programme from engaging properly with the Jewish story.   By contrast, in the Star Trek Deep Space Nine episode “Duet” (1993) a space station has a visitor who seemingly ran a forced labour camp in which one alien species persecuted and perpetrated genocide against another alien species.  The episode raises mature issues of responsibility and of the distinction between justice and vengeance which were highly relevant in the quest for Nazi war criminals.   It is not too late for contemporary Doctor Who to atone for its past stereotyping by treating these issues seriously.  

Saturday, 4 June 2016

"Everyone who isn't an American, drop your gun!"

By Danny Nicol
University of Westminster

“A Town Called Mercy” (2012) is a Doctor Who adventure set in an American frontier town in the nineteenth century.  In it, the Doctor forces an alien war criminal, Jex - at gunpoint - to face a cyborg called The Gunslinger who intends to kill him.  The Doctor’s companion, Amy Pond, grabs another gun, and threatens to shoot the Doctor if he continues to do this, arguing “When did killing someone become an option?  … We can’t be like him, we’ve got to be better than him!”  After Amy hamfistedly allows her weapon to discharge into the air the town’s sheriff, Isaac, hollers: “Everyone who isn’t an American, drop your gun!”
The Doctor points his gun at Jex

Doctor Who isn’t just science fiction.  Since 1963 the programme has also strived to define Britishness as part of the British Broadcasting Commission’s mission to contribute to a sense of national identity.  According to Jean Seaton the BBC must sort out what the nation is, expressing worries about the British whilst trumpeting their virtues (“The BBC and Metabolising Britishness” in Andrew Gamble and Tony Wright (eds) Britishness: Perspectives on the British Question, Wiley-Blackheath 2009).

In this regard the show repeatedly defines Britishness by what Britishness is not.  Here, it pokes fun at the American “Other” and more specifically at American gun culture, as encapsulated in the US Constitution's Second Amendment

Many British people find the “right to bear arms” shocking and puzzling.   In our own country, horror at the Hungerford massacre of 1987 and the Dunblane school massacre of 1996 led to immediate gun control legislation.  With scant public dissent Britain’s sovereign Parliament, which can famously “make or unmake any law whatsoever” unimpeded by a written constitution, clamped down on gun ownership without delay.

Hands up!  The Doctor is confronted by American gunpower
in the Oval Office, in "The Impossible Astronaut"
Cocking a snook at the Americans is, however, nothing new for Doctor Who.   In “The Impossible Astronaut”/ “Day of the Moon” (2011) British brainpower is rather pointed counterposed to American firepower in the context of an adventure featuring President Nixon.   In “The Christmas Invasion” (2005) the British Prime Minister Harriet Jones instructs that the President of the United States be told that he is not her boss.  And “The Sound of Drums”/ “Last of the Time Lords” (2007) features an arrogant US President-elect being assassinated at the behest of the Master.

In an essay entitled “Tardis at the OK Corral”, Nicholas J. Cull argues that post-war Britain’s relationship with the United States is a pervasive theme both in terms of the old-show Doctor Who’s rise and fall and as a regular passing reference within its storyline.  The show had to engage with fears of American domination and American-style capitalism.  Cull contends that the triumph of brains over brawn in the Doctor’s adventures signifies the British belief that we can keep muddling through without John Wayne style gunpower (John Cook and Peter Wright (eds) British Science Fiction Television IB Tauris, 2006).  These themes are evident in “The Tenth Planet” (1966) and “The Tomb of the Cybermen” (1967). 


Bombastic American General Cutler tries to reason with an
early Cyberman in "The Tenth Planet"
However, one must observe a degree of British humbug.  In “A Town Called Mercy” the Doctor (a Time Lord, not a human, but definitively coded as British) does actually use a gun, as does Amy, though neither kills anyone.  Recurring companion Professor River Song (also coded as British) relishes firearms, not least in “Day of the Moon”.   Moreover the Doctor can resort to weapons of mass destruction as he does in destroying Skaro in “Remembrance of the Daleks” (1988) or a Cyberfleet in “A Good Man Goes to War” (2011).  And as Davros, creator of the Daleks, observes in “Journey’s End” (2008) the Doctor can fashion his companions into weapons, transforming them into murderers (for instance Rose Tyler destroys a multitude of Daleks in “The Parting of the Ways” (2005)).  The uneasy notion that the British are actually just as aggressive as their American cousins has been a persistent undercurrent of the post-2005 show, reflecting the country’s rather-frequent interventions in other countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria.  If Amy’s comment had been directed towards the Americans – “we can’t be like them, we’ve got to be better than them” – then perhaps Doctor Who sometimes serves to remind us that the British and the Americans are not so different from each other.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Terrorism of the Zygons

by Danny Nicol
University of Westminster

The Zygons in their true form
In “The Zygon Invasion”/“The Zygon Inversion” (2015) the Doctor and companion Clara encounter the Zygons, shape-shifting aliens who settled on Earth in the wake of the events chronicled in the show’s 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor” (2013).  They take human form and live out their lives peacefully on Earth in human guise, and are particularly concentrated within the United Kingdom


The plot involves a group of Zygons which becomes “radicalised” and kills the existing Zygon leadership.  Its grievance appears to be that Zygons want “the right to be themselves”. 

The story’s pervasive theme is encapsulated in an argument which the Doctor makes to his friend Kate Stewart of UNIT, the Unified Intelligence Taskforce: “Isn’t there a solution which doesn’t involve bombing everyone? … This is a splinter group.  The rest of the Zygons, the vast majority, they want to live in peace.  You start bombing them, you’ll radicalise the lot.  That’s exactly what the splinter group wants.”
UNIT's Kate Stewart favours the military solution

The Doctor’s anti-war stance turns “The Zygon Invasion”/“The Zygon Inversion” into rather a sharp political satire.  It was broadcast around the time that the British House of Commons was deciding whether to bomb Syria as part of Britain’s efforts against the so-called Islamic State group.   The idea that bombing would win recruits to the extremist group was a major argument against intervention.  But the Syria bombing was of course no flash in the pan: it followed British military action in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, which were likewise none-too-successful in ending conflict.  One can therefore view “The Zygon Invasion”/“The Zygon Inversion” as a satire on the country’s foreign policy as a whole. 

Ultimately the Doctor prevents UNIT from using “Sullivan gas” which would kill the Zygons, and, with some impressive anti-war rhetoric, he manages to convince the leader of the rebel Zygons to accept the way of peace.   He reinstates his friend Osgood and her Zygon counterpart as guardians of the peace, with the tantalising suggestion that “the Osgoods” are neither human nor Zygon but somehow a hybrid between the two species.
The Osgoods: human and Zygon defenders of the peace

The flaw in the story is that conflicts don't tend to end this way.  Usually the side which has a grievance obtains some concessions, even if these concessions are far removed from what they originally sought.  An example would be the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland, which craves a united Ireland but settled for a power-sharing constitution in Northern Ireland as the price for peace.  “The Zygon Invasion”/“The Zygon Inversion” falls down somewhat because it does not interrogate the Zygons’ grievance, nor does the Doctor offer them anything beyond the status quo ante, not even a fig leaf.   





Thursday, 14 January 2016

Women-only TARDIS: Imagining the Adventures of Clara and Ashildr

By Danny Nicol
University of Westminster

In “new-show” Doctor Who, travelling with the Doctor comes at a high price.  For the (male) Doctor, the adventures in time and space go on and on; for the (mainly female) companions they usually end in tears.  Since Doctor Who’s return in 2005 the Doctor’s women have suffered a variety of unfortunate fates: Rose Tyler is banished to an alternative Universe and builds a career at its Torchwood institute, yet is repeatedly depicted as morose.  She is eventually palmed off with an unstable Doctor-substitute.  Donna Noble is depoliticised by the Doctor erasing her memories of their adventures in time and space, returning to her former world of gossip and weddings.  Amy Pond, along with husband Rory, is zapped back in time to an unliberating 1930s America from whence she cannot return.  Only Martha Jones controls her own destiny.  Weary of the Time Lord not requiting her love, she dumps the Doctor, cheers up, and takes advantage of her extraterrestrial experiences to build herself a career within UNIT.  Even Martha’s exit is undercut by the one-sidedness of her love for the Doctor, yet at least she leaves on her own terms and visibly recovers.  Martha apart, gloomy exits have been the order of the day. 

These departures undoubtedly make the new show “more emotional” than the old show.  We need our hankies more.  But this emotionality comes at a price.  Doctor Who’s gender politics have never been marvellous: the show’s template was normally male dominant hero, female subordinate companion.  But in the new show the departures of the companions have been persistently unfavourable to the women characters, while the man – the Doctor - bounces back.  It’s a rather disturbing pattern.

Doctor Who’s anti-women tendency seemed taken to its logical conclusion with the killing-off of companion Clara Oswald in “Face the Raven” (2015).  Why bother giving the Doctor’s women dismal futures when you can kill them.  Thankfully the 2015 series finale “Hell Bent” revised this departure.   Plucked out of time and space by the Time Lords as she is about to be killed, she eventually makes off in a stolen Tardis with a woman companion, Ashildr (otherwise known as Me, Lady Me and Mayor Me). 

This twist in the plot won’t generate a spin-off, as far as I know.  However, imagining The Adventures of Clara and Ashildr can provide useful insights into Doctor Who.  There might be several interesting differences between such a spin-off and “traditional” Doctor Who, some of which bear on Doctor Who’s politics.

First, The Adventures of Clara and Ashildr would remove the dead hand of Doctor Who’s gender narrative – dominant male, subordinate female.  Clara and Ashildr are both women, and both have diverse experience.  Breaking the mould would make for a more interesting tension.  In this regard it is intriguing that, whilst Ashildr (an immortal) may have the wisdom of years, it is Clara who pushes the lever which sets their TARDIS off on its travels, and does so with a jolt clearly reminiscent the Doctor abducting his first two companions, Ian and Barbara, in the show's very first episode ("An Unearthly Child" (1963)).  For good measure, Clara has already claimed to be bisexual, boasting of a relationship with Jane Austen, so there is the possibility of a romantic entanglement between the women (as there was between two men, Captain Jack and Ianto, in the spin-off Torchwood).  And what if the ladies acquired a male companion?  What if that male companion were to be “helpless damsel-in-distress type”, forever screaming at monsters?  What if he tended to wander off, get into trouble and have to be rescued by Clara and Ashildr?   It might be telling to turn Doctor Who’s traditions on their head. 

Secondly, Clara and Ashildr, whatever their background, do not enjoy the Doctor’s encyclopaedic knowledge of time, space and monsters.  This is signalled in “Hell Bent” by Ashildr having to consult the TARDIS manual.  A little less knowledge might be a good thing.  Doctor Who’s early years were marked by a sense of wonderment as the Doctor met beings, including the Daleks, of whom he was wholly unaware.  The show’s original producer Verity Lambert complained that, as the years went by, the Doctor increasingly possessed “this awful thing of knowing everything and being right about everything”. (J Tulloch and M Alvarado, Doctor Who the Unfolding Text. New York: St Martins Press, 1983, 130). 

Thirdly, what would actually be the point of Clara’s and Ashildr’s travels?  Would it be one long holiday?  In Doctor Who’s earliest days the main object was to return Ian and Barbara to their own time and planet.  Some say that it was during “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” (1964) that the Doctor first articulated his mission to fight evil.   But this has led to many adventures where his choices have been questionable and his actions brutal.   The show has had a patchy record in questioning and interrogating these choices and actions: sometimes stories have done so; sometimes the Doctor’s virtue is simply taken as read.   Perhaps Clara and Ashildr, without the Doctor’s masculine and aristocratic authority, and with each accountable to the other, might have more sustained disagreements about the rightness or wrongness of their deeds in time and space.



Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Ashildr, the law that prevailed


By David Yuratich,
School of Law,
Royal Holloway University of London

I have been struck that much of the iconography associated with Ashildr raises, to my mind at least, comparisons with the idea and practice of the law.  This emphasises the argument I have made previously that the Doctor's adventures can be read as not only taking place in time and space, but also within the law; for the Twelfth Doctor at least, his adventures are shaped by a third force.  In this post I will explain why Ashildr can be said to represent 'the law' and make some brief and incomplete observations about this.

1. The Woman Who Lived.

In The Woman Who Lived, we are shown Ashildr's study.  It is filled with hundreds of her thick and bound diaries containing her vast life story.  This imagery is familiar to lawyers and law students.  For those who have not had the pleasure, the law reports, in which decided cases are published, are thick bound volumes.  Within these we find not just reports of what happened in those cases; we find binding precedent, persuasive statements, notable and notorious historical events, disagreement and dissent over fundamental principles, interpretations of legislation, and the evolution of the common law.  Ashildr's journals are not unlike the law reports.  Coincidentally they contain '800 years of adventure' - the legal database Westlaw contains case reports dating back a similar amount of time, to at least 1219 (albeit the accuracy and quality of many early reports is generally accepted to be poor).  We are told that Ashildr's diaries contain memories too numerous for her to remember, that they tell the story of her life, that some parts have been ripped out because they were too painful.  Similarly, the development of the common law is marked by decisions that have been half-forgotten and re-discovered, and by law that has been developed and re-developed.
The wisdom of the common law:
Ashildr sits in front of her diaries

Of course, these observations may well be a sign that it's been a very long term and that I should take a break from work (some of my students would no doubt agree).  The imagery is important though, because of Ashildr’s role in Series 9.  Steven Moffat has said that her immortality was intended to provide her with a perspective on events shaped by the whole of history.  She is a character 'who will know better than he [the Doctor] does' (see here at around 50 seconds).  The law is also supposed to know better than we do - or at least, it defines the boundaries in which we are required to act. 

2. Face The Raven, face the law.

A criticism that is often (not always) levelled at the law is that it undervalues the human element: law can translate nuanced issues into black-letter doctrine.  A famous example of this is the ‘twitter joke trial', where a joke made on twitter led to a conviction, quashed on appeal, for sending a menacing message via a public electronic communication network.  Of course, for each argument that the law has been a blunt object, there are examples of it being drafted or interpreted widely so individual circumstances may be properly considered; this is most evident in human rights law, where for example Section 3 of the Human Rights Act 1998 requires judges to read statutes widely, in so far as it is possible to do so without acting inconsistently with a fundamental feature of that statute, so that individual rights may be upheld (for more on what the European Convention on Human Rights requires see www.rightsinfo.org).

Ashildr highlights both sides of the law in Face The Raven.  She is the mayor of a trap street that is essentially a refugee camp for aliens.  She uses her position to protect her residents from the outside world and from each other.  Under her watch, they all appear human and are treated as equals in a society governed by law.  Ashildr's haven invites comparisons with the rule of law - when understood as the idea that everyone is entitled to equality and dignity under the law - and human rights law, particularly its role in protecting minorities.

A less positive imagination of the law she represents is also evident in this episode.  The plot revolves
The rule of the common law:
Ashildr governs the trap street
around Rigsy, accused by Ashildr of a murder he says he did not commit.  He has been sentenced to death and will die when a 'chronolock' tattoo on his neck reaches zero, unless the Doctor can prove his innocence.  Clara, essentially acting as Rigsy's lawyer, spots a loophole.  She decides to game things by transferring the chronolock from Rigsy to herself, surmising that this will remove him from harm's way without any negative consequences for her, since she is under Ashildr's protection.  Clara is wrong.  Her idea, borne of an unselfish desire to help Rigsy and a sense of justice for the falsely accused, falls foul of the black-letter of the law.  It turns out that the chronolock can only be passed on or removed once, and Clara is doomed.  It doesn't matter that she is innocent, or that she acted out of good motives.  Here we see how the law can (I stress not always) reduce complex situations to a simple matter of whether your actions fall within a narrowly-defined legal schematic. 
                                                                                                                                                              
More widely than this, when Clara's actions are compared to the Doctor's, two models of being a lawyer become evident.  Unlike Clara, the Doctor helps Rigsy solely by trying to prove his innocence.  His approach seems preferable, since it is motivated by a pursuit of the truth rather than a linguistic game.  But like Clara, the Doctor also faces negative consequences.  In finding out what is really going on, he is trapped.  Rigsy was framed so that the Doctor would visit the trap street, try to prove Rigsy’s innocence, and ultimately be captured by Ashildr to be sent to the Time Lords.  Like Clara, the Doctor’s engagement with the legal process in the trap street is a negative representation of the legal process: damned if you do and damned if you don’t, always at the mercy of legal logic.

3. Hell Bent (on bending the law).

Our final visit to Ashildr comes in Hell Bent. She meets the Doctor at the end of time itself, having outlived everything – a vision of an eternal, natural law.  Throughout Series 9 she has set clear rules within which the Doctor and Clara must act, with Face The Raven just one example.  Hell Bent shows the culmination of this as the Doctor realises he must part from Clara, a realisation he comes to following a dialogue with Ashildr.  She – the law – makes him realise that his travels with Clara are dangerous, universe-threatening in fact, and must cease.  Within this set of rules established by Ashildr, the Doctor seeks the most just solution he can think of: a memory wipe process where either his or Clara’s memories will be destroyed, without either knowing whose.  This is not unlike Dworkin’s approach to how judges decide ‘hard cases’, using principles of justice to seek the best solution within the law when there is no clear or easy answer.  The Doctor loses his memories but achieves his goal: he is separated from Clara and Ashildr’s demands are satisfied.

The justice of the common law:
Ashildr and Clara embark on new adventures
Ashildr’s role does not end here.  Clara, whose memories remain, has an opportunity to seek a solution to her own problems: the fact that she is supposed to return to the trap street where she must ultimately die, and her loss of the Doctor.  This time she identifies a loophole that is acceptable to Ashildr.  Clara realises that although she is ultimately destined to die in the trap street, she can traverse the Universe forever until she chooses to return there.  Unlike in Face The Raven, the Doctor and Clara’s legal arguments are allowed to succeed, albeit Clara gets the ‘best’ result, with her memories intact and an eternity of space and time to explore.  The tables are thereby turned, with the law ultimately benefitting Clara’s black-letter approach rather than the Doctor’s full-blooded pursuit for the just outcome.

All of this is because of Ashildr, who represents how the supposedly timeless social structure of the law determines the boundaries in which we, and the Doctor, live our lives.  She is neither adversary nor friend to the Doctor: she represents a dispassionate law that governs his adventures.