“If someone came up to you and said: ‘I want to tell you a story, it’s the best story in the world.’ And you are like ‘awesome’. But it never ends. I would turn and walk the other way. I don’t want to hear a story that never ends“
With Steven Moffat this past week suggesting that Doctor Who will likely be on the air for another five years it has got me thinking about whether an ending is something the show has been missing.
Endings can give a story structure; they can be a catalyst for both the characters and the audience to grow more anxious about the future. We know the story is going somewhere, it’s not just meandering aimlessly, and instead it has a point.
Since the revival in 2005 most seasons have had a story arc leading to a finale. The build up and weeks of speculation make audience enjoyment mount. But they did start to get a little formulaic – some villain is gathering plans to destroy the universe, the Doctor and/or the world. And yet we still keep coming back for more.
Why does this work? Was it ever an issue in the original series?
The show’s format from the beginning was an isolated serials. Most came in four to six parts and each story had a beginning, and an end. But the show kept going because the Doctor kept going. Companions came and went, but the Doctor kept regenerating.
As soon as The Deadly Assassin let us in on the secret that a Time Lord is limited to twelve regenerations, suddenly we knew an ending for the Doctor really was on the table.
For the Fourth Doctor, the limit may have seemed a distant threat, but it was still there. With every new Doctor we got closer to that thirteenth and final incarnation.
The Eleventh Doctor was gearing up to lead into the Twelfth, who would inevitably face that threat head on. After the Tenth’s double-regeneration, many of us assumed Twelve would be the last in the cycle. I, for one, was looking forward to seeing a darker Doctor facing the reality of his or her own mortality. I wasn’t alone, and much of the fan base was waiting for this turn and how the Doctor would deal with it.
We did not get that. Instead Time of the Doctor rebooted the cycle and the Doctor has a new set.
I couldn’t help feeling a bit let down, like we had been robbed of an ending. I felt like there had been a build up over the years leading to the final regeneration.
Looking back on the Fourth Doctor’s final words; “It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for.” It didn’t feel like the moment had been prepared for, at least not in a satisfactory way.
But maybe this is in keeping with the character of the Doctor and the show itself. Let’s take a quick look at the Doctor’s attitude towards endings, as it has come up a few times since the revival.
In the Russell T Davis era we hear the Doctor’s post war attitude, summed up quite succinctly in The End of the World;
“Everything has its time and everything dies.”
When the Doctor reunites with Sarah Jane Smith he has his outlook given a more positive spin. Rather than being a judgement on a criminal mastermind, the sentiment is used to stop the Doctor himself from committing a terrible act.
Sarah Jane: The universe has to move forward. Pain and loss, they define us as much as happiness or love. Whether it’s a world or a relationship, everything has its time. And everything ends.
As he struggled towards the TARDIS, the Ood says; “This song is ending. But the story never ends.”
The season seven finale, The Angels Take Manhattan, dealt with endings and the Doctor’s attitude towards them.
“I always rip out the last page of a book. Then it doesn’t have to end. I hate endings!”
Indeed, back in season four, during The Forest of the Dead, River Song gives a monologue about her adventures with the Doctor, saying;
“When you run with the Doctor, it feels like it’ll never end. But however hard you try you can’t run forever. Everybody knows that everybody dies and nobody knows it like the Doctor. But I do think that all the skies of all the worlds might just turn dark if he ever for one moment, accepts it.”
Perhaps this is the Doctor’s attitude. He never accepts an ending, never gives up. Perhaps that is part of the tragedy of the character and the story itself.
Since the regeneration limit has been taken away (because let’s face it, they can always restart it again and again now), where does that leave the Doctor’s narrative? Steven Moffat’s series has already dealt with the Doctor’s death multiple times, to the point at which I don’t feel like it would ever actually have a big enough impact.
As a result, it seems that the Doctor’s fate might be the tragedy I mentioned. The future Doctors may be doomed to fight evil and tyranny across time and space forever. If the series itself ever came to an end, I feel like this would be the way to go out.
It lines up with something of the Doctor’s optimism and drive to help. The Doctor won’t give up or retire in the end, nor will they die. Instead, he may be left with a Sisyphus like task – bring peace to a cosmos that is always at war in one way or another.
The Doctor is a traveller, speeding across space and time, never finishing the work, and perhaps never really wanting to, deep down.
Joel Cornah, is an author hailing from a small isolated village in Lancashire. He was awarded a degree in English and Creative Writing from Liverpool JM University and spent seven years writing a comical newspaper for The Barrow Downs Tolkien discussion forum. He is a published author, having written the novels The Sea-Stone Sword and The Sky Slayer, the novella The Spire of Frozen Fire, and has had many short stories featured in anthologies. He also has written for WhatCulture’s Doctor Who section and currently runs a small café and bookshop in Lancashire.