The Noir of Who: Backstory and Part 1

Back in, I think, 8th grade English class, we read Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations. A friend of mine (whose mother would later introduce me at his wedding as “her third son”—a high compliment) was so taken with the intricate web of connections between the book’s many characters that he pulled out a piece of paper and attempted to graph them. He ended up with two columns of identical names with lines connecting nearly every name in the left-hand column to nearly every name in the right-hand column. It looked like a game of cat’s cradle gone horribly wrong, and I was fascinated by it.

To this day I remain fascinated by connections between seemingly disparate things. Because in life, as in art, everything connects to everything when looked at just the right way (though with all due respect to Carl Jung and The Police, I think the “acausal connection” of “synchronicity” is a stretch; like cigars, sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence).

It was inevitable that connections like this would make their way into my posts, beginning with describing the joy I took tracking how many actors and actresses from the 20th Century Fox Charlie Chan films of 1935-43 had appeared in the two dozen films screened during the 2015 NOIR CITY film festival. This exemplifies what I would call the “two worlds collided” connection, when disparate interests overlap in an interesting (if not necessarily meaningful) way. Great examples (for me, anyway) would be if I turned on MSNBC one weekday evening—and Rachel Maddow was interviewing director David Lynch or Chris Hayes was dissecting the latest game played by the Philadelphia Phillies[1].

Or when you continually see elements of film noir appearing in Doctor Who, following its resurrection in 2005. I use the word “resurrection” in homage to the scene from the brilliant film noir Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955; 54.5 POINTS) in which Dr. G. E. Soberin (Albert Dekker) says, after he and his goons have tortured Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman) to death:

If you revive her, do you know what that would be? Resurrection, that’s what it would be. And do you know what resurrection means? It means raise the dead. And just who do you think you are that you think you can raise the dead?

**********

To be perfectly honest, for most of my life I was not a fan of Doctor Who. My wife Nell (now as ardent a fan of the series as I am) and I had similarly annoyed reactions to the show as children: it always seemed to be airing (or about to start) on our local PBS station just as we wanted to watch something else.

In fairness, I did love the show’s original opening theme (which for a time I conflated with the opening theme from Dark Shadows[2]).

Around 1991, not long after the first incarnation of the series was cancelled, an apartment-mate would watch Doctor Who every Saturday afternoon with a small group of friends. The few times I tried to watch an episode with them, I was stymied (and, frankly, a bit bored) by the serial nature of the show (prior to 2005, a single story would be told in multiple half-hour-long episodes).

And that was that…until May 2010.

At that time, I was vaguely aware that Doctor Who had returned, but it still held no interest for me. But then another friend shared this video with me.

Charmed by Craig Ferguson’s boyish enthusiasm, I relented and decided to watch the first few minutes of a recent episode, expecting to be confused and bored again. Our OnDemand included the current Series (#5). It made sense to start with first episode of the Series (“The Eleventh Hour,”[3] April 3, 2010). I settled onto the sofa, clicked “Play” on the remote control and began to watch.

Within a few minutes, I realized I was inexorably hooked on Doctor Who. It was that compelling. It helped that this was the first episode to feature Matt Smith as The (11th) Doctor, as well as the Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill as new companions Amelia Pond and Rory Williams, respectively, and that it started a new storyline under a new showrunner, Steven Moffat[4]. Not only could I enjoy the episode on its own merits, it allowed me (and Nell, also instantly transfixed when I convinced her to watch the episode a day or so later) to ease into the series and its particular iconography.

We watched all of Series 5, first OnDemand and then as they aired, and we have watched every episode since then. Between Series 5 and 6 (I think), I watched the previous four Series’ in order. I also watched some episodes from the first incarnation (1963-89), though I remain less enamored of them (with a few notable exceptions from Tom Baker’s run as the 4th Doctor).

It was only a matter of time before a) our daughters also became fans (our eldest daughter practically memorized this book) and b) we started buying Doctor Who paraphernalia—I even had a TARDIS iPhone case until I inadvertently drove over it a few months ago. And one of the first posts I ever wrote was a data-driven analysis of post-resurrection Doctor Who episodes (updated and vastly improved here).

TARDIS phone.JPG

**********

As I watched the series, I was also further exploring my growing fascination with film noir. It was inevitable that I would begin to observe “noir” aspects to the series (even if, as Ferguson notably sang, the show “is all about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism”). Not long after defending my doctorate in December 2014, I started to play with the “Doctor Noir” persona (the appellation was, I believe, coined by a college friend)—even going so far as to adopt the handle @drnoir33 when I joined Twitter in July 2017.

IMG_1595.JPG

The author at the 2015 NOIR CITY film festival in San Francisco brandishing a replica of the 11th Doctor’s sonic screwdriver (and omnipresent bow tie).

These two worlds “collided” in my head until June 2018, when I finally sat down to write what would become “The Noir of Who: Film Noir’s Imprint on the Resurrected Doctor Who.”

What I originally expected (naively, perhaps) to be roughly the length of a short peer-reviewed journal article (3,000 words) soon evolved into a 10,000+-word magnum opus. Following some gentle, albeit pointed, criticism from Nell, I whittled it down to just over 8,300 words.

And that was the version I e-mailed to the editors of the Film Noir Foundation’s quarterly e-magazine NOIR CITY on August 17, 2018, knowing full well the usual procedure for prospective authors is to submit an idea for a piece first; I suppose I was thinking “look, I actually have a finished product for you.” I was also aware there is little overlap between film noir devotees and Whovians, even joking on Facebook when I posted this photograph of my replica of the 9th/10th Doctor’s sonic screwdriver sitting atop a 2015 NOIR CITY souvenir brochure that “nobody here knows what this is.”

IMG_1524.JPG

The bottom line is that I was going to write “The Noir of Who” anyway. One reason I remain comfortable with the decision I made nearly two years ago to become a writer, despite not yet earning any income from it, is that as difficult as the writing process is, I have taken more joy in it (especially on this site) than in nearly anything I ever previously done. Moreover, at times it as though ideas need to physically come out of my head and onto the page. (Never mind that it has also been almost two years since I started writing the book I thought would take six months, tops, to write.)

Needless to say, after a bit of nudging, I had a response on September 28: a unanimous “intriguing idea, but far too long to fit within the traditional confines of a print magazine), suggesting I trim the essay to ~1,500 words as a possible installment of “Noir…or Not?” However, in January 2019, the revised version was also unanimously rejected.

Which, I must admit, stung a bit[5]; I was proud of what I had written, and I thought had presented solid examples of the influence of classic film noir on the resurrected Doctor Who. I concede the original submission was both too long for a publication governed by traditional size restraints and somewhat “off-topic.” Indeed, where I struggled most writing “The Noir of Who” was in providing enough information about the series to elucidate its basic premise, characters and themes for readers who had never seen the show without inundating them with unnecessary information. I likely would have had the same challenge establishing what “film noir” is to an audience of Whovians, had I submitted the essay to a Doctor-Who-themed publication.

But in cutting the essay down to 1,500 words, clarity was sacrificed for brevity. Necessary background information on the series, along with many examples of noir influence, was removed.

So after much though (and trying not to think about it), I have decided to post the essay on this site (edited down to just over 7,600 words) in four installments.

The first installment, establishing the essay’s premise and introducing the series itself, may be found below.

Please enjoy.

**********

The Noir of Who: Classic Film Noir’s Imprint on the Resurrected Doctor Who

Part 1

Typewriter keys pound out narration amid nocturnal views of the Manhattan skyline: “New York, the city of a million stories. Half of them are true, the other half…just haven’t happened yet.”

Mark Hellinger’s closing words in his exemplary film noir The Naked City echo unmistakably: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them,” while the typewriting recalls neo-noir Hammett as the titular detective-turned-writer rewrites the film’s events in a literary Moebius strip.

An older man speaks: “So, will you take the case, Mr. Garner?”

Garner, the narrator, is a dark-haired young man wearing a gray raincoat over a dark suit, tie loosened at the collar: “Sure, why not?”

“Because you don’t believe me,” answers a large gray-haired man in a stylish blue three-piece suit: Dashiell Hammett’s man of power, broadly afraid of nothing and no one.

“For 25 dollars a day plus expenses, I’ll believe any damn thing you like.”

The office where they stand is lit solely by two thick-shaded table lamps behind Garner’s head, a desk lamp, an inconspicuous fire and street lights dimmed by thick curtains.

After more banter, Garner says “Goodnight, Mr. Grayle.” He pockets a packet of bills, dons his gray fedora and departs. Outside, rain soaks Manhattan.

More typing: “The address Grayle gave me was an apartment block in Battery Park. He said it was where the statues lived…I asked him why he didn’t go look himself…He didn’t answer…Grayle was the scaredest guy I knew. If something scared him, I kinda wanted to shake its hand.”

An obscured Garner climbs short stone steps into an eerily dark brick building atop which a red neon sign flashes “WINTER QUAY.” Inside the dusky lobby, he is a dark shadow crossing a black-and-white chessboard tile floor. His shouted “Hello?” causes a cage elevator straight from the Bradbury Building to whirr into life, its car descending and opening with a sharp ding. It deposits Garner at the end of a short hallway with blood-red carpet and doors reminiscent of the blistering-hot hallway at the end of the neo-noir Barton Fink.

The typewritten label affixed to the right of the door to room 702 reads “S. GARNER.” Garner enters with a tentative “Hello? Anyone home?” A standing hat rack holds a fedora and raincoat exactly like Garner’s, while a battered wallet on a wooden side table contains the time-worn private investigator’s photo-license of “S. Garner.” Pulling out his wallet, Garner extracts the identical—albeit practically new—license.

Looking befuddled, Garner hears a noise in the bedroom, where a figure lies in bed. To Garner’s angry-scared “Who are you?” the response is, “They’re coming for you. They’re going to send you back.”

“Who’s coming? Back where?”

“In time. Back in time. I’m you.”

An old man with wispy gray hair sits up in bed, fully lit. Pointing mournfully at Garner, he repeats, “I’m you.”

Garner darts into the hallway, murderous-looking marble statues at either end. Looking from one to the other, they get closer. Garner’s drawn gun looks useless. Entering a dark stairwell—its slats cutting shafts of light—his descent is blocked by statues, forcing him to climb flight after flight as the typing reappears: “1. The Dying Detective.”

On the rooftop, Garner backs to its edge as loud thumps shake the building. He pauses, bewildered. Looming behind him are giant sharp teeth menacingly arrayed inside a wide-open marble mouth. With his head framed by the Manhattan skyline, Garner turns to look, and exclaims, “You gotta be kidding me.”

And we see

Winter Quay Statue of Liberty

…just before the opening credits, not of a classic or contemporary film noir, but of “The Angels Take Manhattan”, the September 29, 2012 episode of the longest-running science fiction television series ever: Doctor Who.

Yet only the overtness of noir distinguishes “Angels.” While Doctor Who has mostly fit Craig Ferguson’s pithy summation (The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, November 16, 2010) as “the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism”[6], it has also exhibited far more “noir” since its 2005 resurrection than one would expect. Among other elements, the resurrected Doctor Who has effectively utilized three interrelated aspects of classic film noir:

  1. Characterization: femmes/hommes fatale and Chandler’s “good man” gone wrong.
  2. Doubling/mirroring: the divided self
  3. Fatalism: convoluted timelines and inexorable fate

**********

”The Doctor” (original name a secret) is a centuries-old Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. Time Lords can see and feel time itself, enabling them to protect the laws of time, including “You can’t rewrite history, not one line!” (“The Temple of Evil,” May 23, 1964).

For unknown reasons, The Doctor stole a TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space), the device Time Lords use for time/space travel, and ran away from Gallifrey. Despite having all of time and space to inhabit, The Doctor maintains a particular affinity for Earth.

As for The Doctor’s name, in “Twice Upon a Time” (December 25, 2017), the 12th Doctor (Peter Capaldi) warns the about-to-debut 13th Doctor (Jodie Whittaker, the first female Doctor), “you mustn’t tell anyone your name. No one would understand it anyway…except children. […] But nobody else. Nobody else, ever.” This pseudonymity evokes Hammett’s unnamed Continental Detective Agency operative and reminds us the second “Mrs. DeWinter” in both Daphne DuMaurier’s novel Rebecca and its 1940 film adaptation has no first name.

Doctor Who was conceived by Sydney Newman, the BBC Head of Drama who astutely made 27-year-old Verity Lambert the first woman to produce a drama at the BBC. With its hypnotic black-and-white title sequence and intelligent writing, Doctor Who’s debut episode (“The Unearthly Child,” November 23, 1963, the day after President John F. Kennedy was shot—a truly noir debut) instantly distinguished itself. “Unearthly Child” also featured the first of 40+ “companions” to travel with The Doctor and the first startled observation the TARDIS (now permanently disguised as a 1950s British blue police box) is “bigger on the inside.”

2010 T

A life-long fan, Newman once described science fiction “as a marvelous way—and a safe way, I might add—of saying nasty things about our own society.”[7] The same is true of film noir, and not only in sci-fi/noir hybrids like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Actors like John Garfield (critiquing capitalism in Force of Evil) and Robert Ryan (anti-Semitism in Crossfire, racism in Odds Against Tomorrow) used film noir to express their social conscience. Media’s demagogic excesses were excoriated in Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival), Try and Get Me (aka The Sound of Fury) and The Underworld Story. And crime-reporter-turned-director Samuel Fuller tackled faux patriotism in Pickup on South Street, inter-racial romance in The Crimson Kimono and prostitution in The Naked Kiss.

Doctor Who connected instantly to film noir, casting popular actor William Hartnell as the peripatetic Time Lord. Hartnell may best be known to film noir fans as Dallow, Pinkie Brown’s (Richard Attenborough) henchman in the 1948 film adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock. Hartnell had played harassed publican Fencie in the 1947 robbery-gone-wrong noir Odd Man Out (co-star Cyril Cusack actually turned down the role of The Doctor), and also appeared in the films noir Appointment with Crime, Escape, Footsteps in the Fog and Temptation Harbor.

Within three years, however, Hartnell’s arteriosclerosis led him to flub lines with increasing regularity. Facing cancellation, Doctor Who’s producers had an ingenious solution: Time Lords could prolong their lives by “regenerating” into an entirely new body (with equally-new personality) while retaining all knowledge and memories. In “The Tenth Planet, Episode 4” (October 29, 1966), The Doctor regenerated into the 2nd Doctor (Patrick Troughton). Five additional Doctors followed before decreasing ratings and shrinking budgets led to the series’ cancellation in December 1989. Other than a 1996 American series pilot that went nowhere (featuring Paul McGann as the 8th Doctor),  the series would not air again until the BBC aired “Rose” on March 26, 2005 (starring Christopher Eccleston at the 9th Doctor). Executive Producer (and chief writer) Russell T. Davies would helm 60 episodes before being replaced by Steven Moffat in “The Eleventh Hour,” himself replaced by Chris Chibnall in September 2018.

**********

Following the opening credits of “The Angels Take Manhattan,” the 11th Doctor enjoys a sunny afternoon in modern-day Central Park with married friends Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill). The Doctor reads aloud from the hardboiled “Melody Malone” novel being typed in the cold open. While getting coffee, Rory encounters Weeping Angels, perhaps the most terrifying villains in the resurrected Doctor Who. “Quantum-locked” beings who turn to stone when seen, they are described as:

Weeping_Angel

Sent to 1938, Rory encounters Melody Malone, actually River Song (Alex Kingston), about whom more below. The Doctor and Amy follow in the TARDIS, despite difficulty landing in 1938 Manhattan. They learn Grayle has been torturing a captured Weeping Angel, explaining his terror. Rory soon meets his older self in a Winter Quay apartment, where Manhattan’s Weeping Angels store time energy. After “old Rory” dies, Amy and “young Rory” find themselves trapped on the roof by the Statue of Liberty, the definitive Weeping Angel. “Young Rory” reasons if he dies then and there, the resulting paradox (he cannot be sent back from 2012 if he dies in 1938) would destroy Manhattan’s Weeping Angels. In a heart-stopping moment, Amy and Rory leap together off the roof…and land unhurt in modern-day Central Park, alongside The Doctor and River. But a surviving Weeping Angel sends Rory back again. Since the TARDIS can no longer land safely in 1938 Manhattan, a tearful Amy allows the Weeping Angel to send her to join Rory, whereupon she writes the novel.

Neville Kidd pointedly photographed the 1938 scenes in “Angels” using the low-key high contrast lighting of classic film noir. As producer Marcus Wilson explained in 2012, he “[t]ried to shoot [“Angels”], not in a film noir style but [to…] look like film noir.”[8] In the same interview, Moffat’s “Angels” writing is termed “Chandlerian.” Asked if his “head is full of film noir,” Moffat said, “As research I watched The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.” His research paid off, as the episode successfully uses various film noir tropes—femmes fatale, private detectives, convoluted timelines, doubling/mirroring, and a malevolent-fate ending—to tell a tragic story.

DalekTPO2

Again, however, the resurrected Doctor Who has been aesthetically and tonally darker overall. The in-universe reason for this shift is how the 9th Doctor engineered the end of the last great “Time War,” conflicts fought across all of time and space between Time Lords and Daleks (metal-encased squid-like creatures whose sole purpose is to “exterminate” non-Dalek lifeforms). Weary of the endless carnage, the War Doctor (John Hurt, a “shameful” incarnation between Doctors 8 and 9) simultaneously annihilated the Daleks AND the Time Lords. The devastating psychic impact of this type of act is described by Major Alec Palmer (Dougray Scott) in “Hide” (April 20, 2013) as he and The Doctor stand in a literal darkroom (the developing photograph of The Doctor evokes Weegee, whose darkly-beautiful photograph collection Naked City inspired the 1948 film noir):

The Doctor: Yes, but how does that man, that war hero end up here, in a lonely old house, looking for ghosts.

Palmer (remorseful): Because I killed. And I caused to have killed. I sent young men and women to their deaths. Yet here I am, still alive. It…it does tend to haunt you, living, after so much of…the other thing.

Like Detective Sergeant Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) after gangsters killed his wife in The Big Heat, the 9th Doctor was “born in battle, full of blood and anger and revenge” (“Journey’s End,” July 5, 2008). He is crushed by guilt like Frank Enley (Van Heflin), who betrayed his fellow prisoners of war in Act of Violence, or Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson), who allowed another man to be executed for his crimes in Scarlet Street.

Reflecting The Doctor’s transformation, the interior of the TARDIS itself changed from brightly lit

Tardis interior #5.jpg

…into a dark and shadowy lair:

Tardis shadow.jpg

This interrogation scene in “The Idiot’s Lantern” (November 10, 2006), set in 1953 London, has a distinctly noir feel.

Idiots_Lantern_37884

Even new villains physically manifest noir: the tiny piranha-like Vashta Nerada travel as literal shadows, Weeping Angels thrive on darkness and The Silence—Edvard Munch’s The Scream in black suits, white shirts and black ties—are forgotten when you cannot see them (amnesia—a staple of classic film noir plots since 1942’s Street of Chance—as cloaking device).

Silent.jpg

To be continued…

[1] Unlikely perhaps, as Hayes is a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan.

[2] Newspapers.com tells me that in 1976 and 1977, it aired at 11:30 pm weeknights on Philadelphia’s Channel 48, right after Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, which I would watch with my mother. This is a great example of “interrogating memory,” as I thought I saw the beginning of the show around 1983 or so, after a show like Doctor in the House at 11:30 pm or so. And while we are making connections: a star of Dark Shadows was one of the queens of classic-ear film noir, Joan Bennett.

[3] OnDemand did me no favors by listing Billie Piper—who left the series in 2006—as one of the stars of the episode.

[4] Curiously, the last time I had an instant visceral positive reaction like that to an unfamiliar television show was when I stumbled one night onto the “Nightlines” episode of Coupling. I had no idea who any of the characters were, but I pretty much laughed from start to finish. Both Coupling and Series 5 of Doctor Who had the same show-runner: Steven Moffat.

[5] I would also argue the e-mails were unnecessarily…let’s call it “snarky.”

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M9P4SxtphJ4 Accessed June 14, 2018.

[7] Cook, Benjamin. January 12, 2006. “Chaos and Creation in the Junkyard, “Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition: In Their Own Words. Panini Comics (12): 5.

[8] http://femalearts.com/node/309 Accessed June 19, 2018.

4 thoughts on “The Noir of Who: Backstory and Part 1

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s