Russell T Davies and faith

Writing and reading about Aliens vs Wizards on Thursday sparked up some old thoughts on Russell T Davies’ writing, and I wanted to set them down somewhere. As I’m trying to encourage myself to blog more again (as I have been doing for almost all of the ten years since I started) I thought this would be good place for them to be set down. Besides, I haven’t written at length about Doctor Who and the like for some time, and it’d be nice to get back in the habit.

One of the common themes of Davies’ writing is what happens when the ordinary and extraordinary intersect. The Second Coming (a very ordinary man discovers the most extraordinary thing possible about himself) is perhaps the most dramatic example, but it’s a common thread in much of his work. Consider that his approach to Doctor Who was to look from the companion’s perspective, and his companions weren’t people marked out as being in any way special until they encountered something extraordinary. The Sarah Jane Adventures was about the ordinary and extraordinary existing on different sides of Bannerman Road, and Torchwood was at its best when the two met. Children of Earth works because a lot of it feels like a political thriller that just happens to be about aliens rather than leaked documents, while Miracle Day fails because it’s too detached from the ordinary.

(There are a whole lot of other potential posts buried in that paragraph, but we’ll carry on with the main idea for now)

Davies is an atheist, but he’s often written about faith, and I think that’s because it’s an interesting pointer to how human beings deal with concepts of the extraordinary. He’s someone who doesn’t believe, but is fascinated by the reasons why people believe, and while this is a theme of The Second Coming, I think his most developed take on the issue is actually running through series 3 of Doctor Who. (Though some of it is foreshadowed in series 2’s The Satan Pit, but that gets complicated as it appears to be a Davies rewrite on top of Matt Jones’s original script).

There’s a pattern in Davies’ Who series of an earlier episode like The Long Game, Rise Of The Cybermen or The Lazarus Experiment turning out to be relevant to the plot of the series finale. While Lazarus clearly does set up plot elements for the series 3 finale, I think the most important set-up episode of the series is actually Gridlock. This is a story that revolves around faith – the passengers’ faith that they’re not forgotten by the city, Martha’s faith that the Doctor will save her, Novice Hame’s faith in the Face of Boe, and the Face’s faith that his ‘old friend’ will save the day. What makes it an interesting story is that not all faith is shown to be foolish. It’d be very easy for this to be a story about unsuspecting travellers being kept on the Motorway by the faith they’re instructed in from above with all being manipulated merely to ensure the Macra get a regular food source, but instead it’s a story with no real ‘baddies’ – the patch sellers aren’t nice people, but they’re clearly just people trying to get by in the undercity, not evil masterminds or the pawns of one.

While Davies often includes god-like characters in his stories, he works within the framework of Clarke’s Law (‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’) even if he often takes a shared approach with Lawrence Miles in that it’s much more evocative to describe something so advanced that we can barely conceive it in the language of legend and fantasy than it is in the language of technobabble. (My attempt to understand how the Time War happened may help to either illuminate or further obscure this point)

Again, we come back to the interaction between the extraordinary (godlike characters like the Doctor, the Master and the Face of Boe) and the ordinary (just about everyone else). Gridlock introduces the idea that faith can be a useful force in the Who universe and not just a cultural opiate, as has been suggested in other stories. This, of course, sets up the background for the resolution of Last Of The Time Lords. The faith that Martha sows amidst the people of Earth can restore the Doctor and defeat the Master in the same way the Face of Boe’s faith could keep all the survivors of New Earth alive on the Motorway. This being Davies, though, there’s a dark counter to all this with the Toclafane an example of how humanity’s faith in itself to survive at the end of everything can lead to something truly horrifying, willing to put its faith in the Master and the Paradox Machine to survive.

Perhaps the idea Davies is working towards is the idea that faith can be a power in the Who universe, but it can only be good if the recipient of that faith doesn’t want it. In the Cardiff scene at the end of Last Of The Time Lords, the Doctor is relieved that no one remembers the faith they had in him and the mention of the Face of Boe reminds us that the people of New Earth may not know what he did to keep them alive. From what we see of the Sally Calypso broadcasts, he’s never mentioned, and his only companions at his death are Hame, the Doctor and Martha. A god (or godlike being) may need faith to work, but to want that faith is to risk corruption. However, that faith is always catalysed through some form of sufficiently advanced technology – the Face is connected to the city and the Motorway, using his life force to sustain them, while the faith that fuels the Doctor is psychic energy channelled through Archangel.

Which brings us back to Wizards vs Aliens, and the train of thought that launched this post. In the interview about it from the BBC’s press office (possible spoilers) Davies talks about this as a world where magic and science co-exist with magic seemingly being presented as simply magic, rather than the result of sufficiently advanced technology. It’s an interesting departure from his previous approach, and will be interesting to see how they interact. Of course, it’s easy to read far too much into the scripts for a kids’ TV show, but if people hadn’t started doing that, where would Who fandom be today?