The Noir of Who: Part 2

I have long been fascinated by “two worlds collided” connections between disparate things. Emblematic of that fascination has been observing the influence of classic-era film noir on the television series Doctor Who, following its resurrection in 2005. Emerging from those observations was the essay “The Noir of Who: Classic Film Noir’s Imprint on the Resurrected Doctor Who,” which I first wrote in the summer of 2018. I had hoped it would be published in a particular film noir magazine, but it was deemed too long and off-topic. To be fair, the criticism was valid–though I did not agree with the presentation of that critique.

The upshot, then. was that I edited the original essay down to roughly 7,600 words for publication on this site in four parts. You may find the full backstory and Part 1 (establishing the essay’s premise and introducing the series itself) here.

Part 2, addressing characterization (femmes/hommes fatale and the Chandlerian good man gone wrong), may be found below.

Please enjoy.

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

Part 2

An archetypal film noir character is the strong, seductive and duplicitous woman (or man) who uses a willing man (or woman) for selfish, often deadly, ends. The Rough Guide to Film Noir lists 10 exemplary femmes fatale including Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Double Indemnity, Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) in The Lady From Shanghai, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) in Out of the Past, Anna Dundee (Yvonne DeCarlo) in Criss Cross and Kitty March (Joan Bennett) in Scarlet Street.[1]

A thought-provoking variation on the femme fatale in the resurrected Doctor Who is the psychopathic River Song.

Traveling on the TARDIS after their wedding, Rory impregnates Amy. Soon after, Madame Kovarian (Frances Barber) has The Silence kidnap Amy, replacing her with an avatar. “Melody Pond” is born in the 52nd century on the asteroid Demon’s Run (“A Good Man Goes to War,” June 4, 2011) then taken to 1960s Earth by Madame Kovarian. Conceived in the time vortex, Melody has both human and Time Lord DNA, meaning she can be conditioned to become a weapon against The Doctor. Amy, Rory, River and the 11th Doctor unknowingly encounter young Melody (Sydney Wade) in Florida in July 1969 (“The Impossible Astronaut,” April 23, 2011) as she escapes her captors. One night six months later, she wanders into a noir-lit Manhattan alley, where she assures a concerned wino “It’s alright, it’s quite alright. I’m dying. But I can fix that. It’s easy really. See,” before regenerating in a chiaroscuro explosion of light (“Day of the Moon”).

1970 regeneration.jpg

Later, a newly-regenerated River engages in a flirtatious cat-and-mouse game with The Doctor before kissing him with a poisoned lipstick with no known antidote (“Let’s Kill Hitler,” August 27, 2011). However, River soon begins to fall in love with the man she was raised to kill, upending her femme fatale persona (at least where The Doctor is concerned), using her remaining regeneration energy to save The Doctor. Nonetheless, Madame Kovarian eventually recaptures River and forces her to kill the man she loves. Indeed, we are told over and over that this is a fixed point in time—it must happen where, when and how it happens. Thus, when River instead empties her weapon pack, time itself collapses (“The Wedding of River Song,” October 1, 2011). Literally to “save time,” the 11th Doctor marries the psychopathic daughter of his closest friends—the woman who is ultimately incarcerated in a maximum-security prison for his “murder.” No classic film noir ever contained so many twists of fate.

river berlin

Film noir hommes fatale, meanwhile, include Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney) in Born to Kill, Webb Garwood (Van Helfin) in The Prowler, Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotton) in Shadow of a Doubt, Fred Graham (Robert Mitchum) in When Strangers Marry (aka Betrayed) and multiple Zachary Scott portrayals (Danger Signal, Mildred Pierce, Ruthless). Jerry Slocum provides a homoerotic twist in The Sound of Fury.

the empty child

Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman, above on the right, along with Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler and Christopher Eccleston’s 9th Doctor) is the resurrected Doctor Who’s clearest homme fatale. When we first meet him (“The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances,” May 21/28, 2005), he is a con artist who left the 51st-century Time Agency after two years of his memories were erased (amnesia as HR policy). He is also a sexually-flexible man willing to betray and/or seduce to get what he wants. Handsome, charming and intelligent, Captain Jack briefly travels with The Doctor before turning the Torchwood[2] Institute, founded by Queen Victoria (“Tooth and Claw,” April 22, 2006) to protect the Earth from aliens (even The Doctor), into The Doctor’s ally. In fact, the spin-off series Torchwood (2006-11) is an even darker, more violent and sexually-explicit version of the resurrected Doctor Who.

But The Doctor’s own transformation best exemplifies noir in the resurrected series. In “Into the Dalek” (August 30, 2014), the 12th Doctor asks Clara for help:

The Doctor: I am terrified.

Clara: Of what?

The Doctor: The answer to my next question. It must be honest, cold and considered, without kindness or restraint. Clara, be my pal and tell me. Am I a good man?

Clara (taken aback): I…don’t know.

The Doctor (resigned): Neither do I.

Their exchange captures The Doctor’s struggle to remain (in Craig Ferguson’s pithy summation) a “force for good in an otherwise uncertain universe,” evoking Chandler’s idealized detective/hero:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be…a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world […].”[3]

As we saw with Ford’s Dave Bannion, this heroic persona can be difficult to sustain down those mean streets: Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) cuckolds his partner and sends his lover to prison in The Maltese Falcon; Mike Hammer is a narcissistic thug in I, The Jury, My Gun is Quick and, especially, Kiss Me Deadly; Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum) is all too willing to run away with his client’s lover Kathie in Out of the Past.

And not only detectives go off the moral rails. Decent men like Bart Tare (John Dall) in Gun Crazy, Professor Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) in The Woman in the Window, Joe Peters (Charles McGraw) in Roadblock and Dr. Richard Talbot (Kent Smith) in Nora Prentiss are lured by desirable women into criminal activity. Failure to provide for his family drives Howard Tyler (Frank Lovejoy) to join Jerry Slocum’s crime spree in The Sound of Fury, with fatal results. But the definitive noir good-man-gone-wrong is Robinson’s milquetoast bank teller in Scarlet Street who lies, embezzles and kills—before allowing Johnny Prince’s (Dan Duryea) unjust execution for the crime—to win Kitty.

The “good” Doctor sees his character eroded by unbearable guilt and self-righteous egotism. In “Dalek” (April 30, 2005), the 9th Doctor is locked in a pitch-black room with an unknown alien subjected to brutal torture (like Grayle’s Weeping Angel). After The Doctor offers aid, the alien slowly reveals itself to be a Dalek—albeit one too weak to “exterminate” a terrified Doctor, who then maliciously describes how he destroyed both their races. When the Dalek notes they “are the same” because both are “alone in the universe,” The Doctor snaps, viciously torturing the Dalek himself. Later, having regained full power, the Dalek (now on a killing spree) seeks orders:

The Doctor: Alright, then. If you want orders, follow this one: Kill yourself.

Dalek: The Daleks must survive!

The Doctor: The Daleks have failed! Now why don’t you finish the job and make the Daleks extinct? Rid the universe of your filth! Why don’t you just DIE?!?

Dalek: You would make a good Dalek.

This theme is repeated in “Into the Dalek” after the 12th Doctor and medical personnel are miniaturized to enter a dying Dalek—evoking 1966’s Fantastic Voyage, coincidentally directed by film noir veteran Richard Fleischer (The Narrow Margin, Armored Car Robbery, Follow Me Quietly, Bodyguard, etc.). Confronted with its race’s atrocities, the Dalek observes The Doctor’s own cancerous hatred: “I am not a good Dalek. You are a good Dalek.” And in “Witch’s Familiar,” the 12th Doctor angrily confronts the Daleks he mistakenly believes killed Clara, leading Missy (about whom later) to tell her, “Listen to that. The Doctor without hope…Nobody’s safe now…He’ll burn everything, us too.” Befitting a Doctor fighting his own demons, Ali Asad photographed “Witch’s Familiar” in near-constant darkness, creating an oppressive sense of doom reminiscent of the neo-noir Se7en.

It is not only Daleks who trigger The Doctor’s dark side, though. In “Family of Blood” (June 2, 2007), the 10th Doctor (David Tennant), arrogating judgment to himself, metes out eternal punishments to the titular family: “He never raised his voice. That was the worst thing. The fury of the Time Lord.” In “Journey’s End,” the 10th Doctor is shown the collateral damage of his righteous arrogance. The Doctor, companion Donna Noble, some allies and a “human” Doctor (created when The Doctor short-circuited regeneration after being mortally wounded by a Dalek) are trapped on a Dalek base by their creator Davros, who seeks to detonate a “reality bomb.” In response, former companion Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) threatens to destroy Earth with nuclear weapons (thwarting Davros’ plan), and Captain Jack threatens to destroy the base with a “warp star.” Davros easily stops them, then delivers his coup de grace:

The man who abhors violence, never carrying a gun. But this is the truth, Doctor. You take ordinary people and you fashion them into weapons…Behold your children of time transformed into murderers. I made the Daleks, Doctor, you made this…How many more? Just think. How many have died in your name? [A sequence of 15 faces from prior episodes plays] The Doctor, the man who keeps running, never looking back because he dares not out of shame. This is my final victory, Doctor, I have shown you yourself.

But The Doctor’s fall from grace is most clearly displayed in “A Good Man Goes to War.” highlighted by River’s climactic voiceover:

Demons run when a good man goes to war.

Night will fall and drown the sun when a good man goes to war.

Friendship dies and true love lies.

Night will fall and the dark will rise when a good man goes to war.

Demons run but count the cost; the battle’s won but the child is lost.

Stunningly photographed by Stephan Pehrsson in ethereal reds, blues and greens, nearly every face is shrouded in shadow. Outside the brightly-lit white room in which Amy is held captive,

amy demons run

little light is visible on the base in which most of the action takes place.

demons run

To rescue Amy, The Doctor calls upon those he once helped. However, when Rory tries to recruit River, she refuses, adding “This is the Battle of Demon’s Run, The Doctor’s darkest hour. He’ll rise higher than ever before and then fall so much further.”

After “too easy” a victory, The Doctor insists that Colonel Manton, allied with Madame Kovarian, tell his troops “to run away” so children will mock him as “Colonel Runaway,” adding…

The Doctor: Look I’m angry. That’s new. I’m really not sure what’s going to happen now.

Madame Kovarian: The anger of a good man is not a problem. Good men have too many rules.

The Doctor: Good men don’t need rules…But today is not the day to find out why I have so many.

While The Doctor spars with Madame Kovarian, a trap is laid for Amy, Rory and five allies, three of whom are killed in the ensuing battle (over which River recites the poem). Too late, The Doctor realizes his vengeful blood-lust blinded him to Madame Kovarian’s plan to kidnap Melody Pond, as revealed by the just-arrived River:

The Doctor: You think I wanted this. I didn’t want this. This isn’t me.

River Song: This was exactly you. All this. All of it. You make them so afraid. When you began all those years ago, sailing off to see the universe, did you ever think you’d become this? The man who can turn an army around at the mention of his name. “Doctor,” the word for healer and wise man throughout the universe. We get that word from you, you know. But if you carry on the way you are, what might that word come to mean?…To the people of the Gamma Forests, the word means “mighty warrior.” How far you’ve come. And now they’ve taken a child, the child of your best friends. And they’re going to turn her into a weapon just to bring you down. And all this, my love, in fear of you.

Even though 12th Doctor tells his next incarnation (“Twice Upon a Time”)…

“Never be cruel. Never be cowardly…Remember, hate is always foolish, and love is always wise. Always try to be nice, but never fail to be kind […] Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind.”

…the necessity to remind his future self (“let’s get it right”) of Chandler’s precepts underscores the inevitable tension between the “untarnished hero” and the “mean streets” in which (s)he labors, be they in mid-20th-century Los Angeles or across all of time and space.

[1] Ballinger, Alexander and Graydon, Danny. 2007. The Rough Guide to Film Noir. London, UK: Rough Guides, Ltd., pg. 210.

[2] “Torchwood” is an anagram of “Doctor Who.”

[3] Chandler, Raymond. 1944. “The Simple Art of Murder” (revised edition) in Haycraft, Howard. 1946. The Art of the Mystery Story. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, Inc., pg. 237.

 

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