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.
You may find Part 2 (characterization: femmes/hommes fatale and the Chandlerian good man gone wrong) here.
You may find Part 3 (doubling/mirroring) here.
You may find the last installment of the essay, Part 4 (fatalism: convoluted timelines and inexorable fate) below. I will make a PDF of the complete essay available on this site shortly.
The Noir of Who: Classic Film Noir’s Imprint on the Resurrected Doctor Who
After watching the “death” of the 11th Doctor at Lake Silencio, Utah (“Impossible Astronaut”), River is stunned when a two-centuries-younger version of the 11th Doctor walks out of a nearby diner bathroom. After slapping him, this exchange occurs:
The Doctor: Okay. I’m assuming that’s for something I haven’t done yet.
River: Yes, it is.
The Doctor: Good. Looking forward to it.
River’s relationship with The Doctor is so convoluted each maintains a journal (resembling the TARDIS) to track when they are. When the 10th Doctor first meets River in his timeline, it is the last day of her life: the word “spoilers” epitomizes their interactions.
Film noir similarly disoriented viewers with non-linear narratives. Single continuous flashbacks (Double Indemnity, The Guilty, Laura, Murder My Sweet, Out of the Past, Possessed, etc.) were sometimes divided, as in They Won’t Believe Me. Rebecca embeds a flashback within a flashback, while The Locket embeds a flashback within a flashback within a flashback. There is the drunken recollection of murder in Black Angel, an alternate-timeline dream sequence of The Chase, and characters-as-children flashbacks from Ruthless and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. But these pale next to the multiple flashbacks, from different points of view, in I Wake Up Screaming (aka The Hot Spot), The Killers (both versions), Mildred Pierce, and, of course, Citizen Kane.
“Blink” contains the definitive Doctor Who statement on temporal complexity. Having been sent with Martha Jones (and without the TARDIS) by a Weeping Angel to 1969, the 10th Doctor seeks help by filming his responses to a written transcript onto what will become a DVD “Easter egg.” Sally Sparrow (Carey Mulligan) watches the clip in 2007, mystified how The Doctor can respond, 38 years earlier, to everything she says; her words, meanwhile, are transcribed by Larry Nightingale (Finlay Robertson) onto a copy of The Doctor’s end of the conversation. In the final scene, Sally hands her copy of the now-complete conversation to The Doctor, who has not yet been sent to 1969, completing the narrative loop.
On the DVD clip, The Doctor says:
“People don’t understand time. It’s not what they think it is…It’s complicated. Very complicated…People assume that time is a strict linear progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey…stuff.”
The 12th Doctor breaks the fourth wall in “Before the Flood” (October 10, 2015) to provide this example of the bootstrap paradox: taking Ludwig von Beethoven’s music to Beethoven’s time, finding no such person existed, then publishing the music under the name “Ludwig von Beethoven” (who, then, wrote the music?). These explanations do little to assure us time travel’s paradoxes “by and large work themselves out” (“Hide”).
While Doctor Who’s fractured timelines mostly serve as entertaining narrative devices, they can have painful consequences. In “The Girl in the Fireplace” (May 6, 2006), the 10th Doctor, Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) and Mickey find a fire burning in an 18th-century French fireplace—on a crewless 51st century spaceship. They talk through the fireplace to a young girl in 1727 Paris named Reinette Poisson (Jessica Atkins). When The Doctor revolves through the fireplace wall moments later, months have passed on Reinette’s side. Rotating again shortly thereafter, an adult Reinette (Sophia Myles) is so delighted to see her childhood friend she kisses him passionately (a series first), leading the latter to say—when queried by a manservant—“I’m The Doctor, and I just snogged Madame de Pompadour.” The ship contains random portals into Madame de Pompadour’s life; one traps The Doctor in the past until he locates Reinette’s original fireplace. Before making one last revolution, he says:
The Doctor: Give me two minutes. Pack a bag.
Reinette: Am I going somewhere?
The Doctor: Go to the window. Pick a star. Any star.
But the faulty wall decrees that when he returns moments later for him, years have passed and Reinette has just died (aged 45), leaving a heartbreaking note for her “lonely angel.”
Fate’s malevolence is even more apparent when a character attempts to alter fixed points in time. In “Father’s Day” (May 14, 2005), Rose saves her father Pete (Shaun Dingwall) from being killed by a hit-and-run driver while walking to a wedding in 1987, leading vulture-like Reapers to kill humans to “heal” the time rupture. Realizing who the young woman who saved him is, and what she has done, Pete allows himself to be killed by the car after all—though at least he does not die alone this time. In “Vincent and the Doctor” (June 5, 2010), after spotting a monster in Vincent Van Gogh’s The Church at Auvers at a London exhibition, the 11th Doctor takes Amy to 1890 to meet him (Tony Curran). Aiming to prevent his suicide that July 29, they bring Van Gogh to the same exhibition, where a curator (Bill Nighy) proclaims him “not only the world’s greatest artist, but also one of the greatest men who ever lived.” Moved as Van Gogh is by this affirmation, he still takes his life, as a devastated Amy soon learns. And in “The Waters of Mars” (November 15, 2009), the 10th Doctor arrives on the first human base on Mars the day in 2059 it was mysteriously destroyed. Base commander Adelaide Brooke’s (Lindsay Duncan) heroic death inspires her granddaughter to pilot Earth’s first lightspeed ship, triggering space exploration by her descendants. When the virus-infected humans that destroyed the base threaten Earth, The Doctor must choose between rescue and not altering a fixed point in time. With no companion to ground him, he cracks:
“There are laws of time. And once upon a time there were people. And those people were in charge of those rules. But they died. They all died. And do you know who that leaves?!? ME! It’s taken me all these years to realize the laws of time are mine, and they will obey me!”
Safely returned to Earth with two colleagues, Adelaide worries The Doctor has altered history for the worse. Taking matters into her own hands, Adelaide shoots herself, essentially restoring the original timeline—and shocking The Doctor out of his arrogance (“I’ve gone too far.”).
The Doctor’s inevitable regeneration (a form of death), though is the definitive fated moment in the resurrected series. As the 11th Doctor plaintively observes to Clara in “The Time of the Doctor” (December 25, 2013), “It all just disappears, doesn’t it? Everything you are, gone in a moment…like breath on a mirror,” echoing Roy Batty’s (Rutger Hauer) final words in the neo-noir Blade Runner: “All those moments will be lost in time…like tears in the rain. Time to die.” And when the 12th Doctor was convinced by the 1st Doctor (David Bradley, “Twice Upon a Time”), also resisting regeneration, to accept his fate, he still claimed “one more lifetime won’t kill anyone…well except me.”
Cornell Woolrich (aka William Irish), more of whose stories were adapted into films noir than any other author (arguably 17 just between 1942 and 1956), provided the definitive noir statement on death. Woolrich biographer Francis M. Nevins, Jr. wrote it was…
“…perhaps the most important moment of his life, literally his dark night of the soul, when he suddenly understood, not just intellectually but in his heart and blood, that someday like Cio-Cio-San [of Madame Butterfly], he too would have to die, and after death there is nothing. It happened…’one night when I was eleven, and huddling over my own knees, looked up at the low-hanging stars of the Valley of Anahuac, and I knew I would surely die finally, or something worse.’ This…was the beginning of ‘the sense of personal, private doom.’ […] I had that trapped feeling, like some sort of a poor insect that you’ve put inside a downturned glass, and it tries to climb up the sides, and it can’t, and it can’t, and it can’t’”
The 10th Doctor most actively resisted this fate, famously crying “I don’t want to go” just prior to regenerating (“The End of Time, Part Two,” January 1, 2010). He told Donna’s grandfather Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbens; “The End of Time, Part One,” December 25, 2009) his regeneration will be signaled by “four knocks.” Eventually (“End of Time, 2”), he faces a choice: save Wilfred by exposing himself to a massive dose of radiation or let him die (as Wilfred suggests—after, you guessed it, knocking four times on the door of the booth in which he is trapped). Wallowing in self-pity, The Doctor declares “Well, exactly, look at you. Not remotely important. But me…I could do so much more! SO MUCH MORE! But this is what I’ll get, my reward. But it’s NOT FAIR!” That he ultimately saves Wilfred, calling it “an honor,” does not excuse his arrogant petulance.
Of course, the most catastrophic alteration of a fixed point in time in the resurrected Doctor Who is River NOT shooting the 11th Doctor at Lake Silencio: all of history happens simultaneously. Once the younger 11th Doctor discovers his scheduled demise, he spends Series 6 trying to “outrun” it. Finally realizing running is futile, he accepts his fate…though not before figuring out how to survive.
You may not be able to outrun destiny, but you can occasionally delay it.
It took only nine episodes for Doctor Who to reach its aesthetic noir pinnacle. The two=part “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances,” 2006 Hugo Award winner for Best Dramatic Presentation, are the first of six episodes (“Girl in the Fireplace,” “Blink,” and 2008’s “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead”) Moffat wrote before becoming showrunner in 2010. Gorgeously photographed in electric blues and muted browns by Ernest Vincze (2006 BAFTA Cymru winner, Best Director of Photography—Drama), the story unfolds over a single night during the 1941 London Blitz.
Chasing an unidentified cylindrical object, the 9th Doctor and Rose park the TARDIS in a shadowy London back alley. While The Doctor seeks answers in that most noir establishment, a nightclub, Rose spots a small boy (Albert Valentine) on a roof wearing a gas mask and calling for “Mummy.” Climbing light-slicing fire escapes after him, she winds up dangling from a barrage balloon during a German air raid before Captain Jack rescues her. The Doctor, meanwhile, follows teenaged Nancy (Florence Hoath) to a house with a supper abandoned due to the raid, which Nancy shares with other kids “living rough.” The Doctor joins them, inquiring about the gas-masked-boy following Nancy asking “Are you my mummy?” As the boy (who we soon learn is Nancy’s brother Jamie, killed by a German bomb the night the unidentified object landed) seeks entry, Nancy warns The Doctor not to let Jamie touch him, lest he become “empty” as well. Following Nancy’s advice to visit “the doctor” in Albion Hospital, The Doctor wanders its shadowy halls to find hundreds of patients with precisely the same injuries—down to fused gas mask—as Jamie. Captain Jack confesses he tried to con The Doctor and Rose into buying the cylindrical object, a “harmless” Chula battlefield ambulance, before transporting them to his ship. Realizing Captain Jack’s ship (also Chula) is loaded with nanogenes, microscopic robots which heal living tissue, The Doctor concludes the nanogenes from the ambulance saw mutilated dead Jamie in his gas mask and thought that is what humans look like. They then “healed” other humans by turning them into Jamie. When Nancy tearfully claims it is “all my fault,” The Doctor finally understands: “Teenage single mother in 1941, so you hid, you lied, you even lied to him.” At The Doctor’s urging she embraces Jamie and tells him, “I am your mummy, I will always be your mummy.” In a moving sequence, the nanogenes recognize the “superior information” of the parent DNA.
Running to the child, The Doctor pleads, “Oh come on, give me a day like this, give me this one” and pulls off the gas mask to reveal a fully-healed, slightly confused boy. The Doctor then uses “upgraded” nanogenes to restore everyone, proclaiming: ”Everybody lives! Just this once, Rose, everybody lives!”
That moment of supreme jubilation, however, the idea that “just once” nobody died when The Doctor triumphed, only underlines just how much classic film noir influences the resurrected Doctor Who.
Until next time…please wear a mask as necessary to protect yourself and others – and if you have not already done so, get vaccinated against COVID-19! And if you like what you read on this website, please consider making a donation. Thank you.
 For the record, she did not actually gain the nickname “Reinette” until 1731, when she was 9. http://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/pompadou.html Accessed June 30, 2018.
 Nevins, Francis M., Jr. 1988. Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die. New York, NY: The Mysterious Press, pg. 8.