Five things that Doctor Who could learn from Twin Peaks (part two)

 

Population 51,201. Possibly not for much longer.

(If you missed Part One, it’s available here.)

Now, where were we…?

3. Resolutions are for wimps

It’s funny how the words “What year is this?” sound great at the beginning of a Doctor Who episode but were a notorious let-down for many fans when they dumped them at the end of the Twin Peaks finale. As Cooper and the resurrected Laura / Carrie / whoever the hell she was leave the Palmer residence and stand in the street outside, Cooper’s mute hesitancy returns: dumbstruck and unable to do anything, his final line of dialogue is an unhelpful question that addresses nothing at all. It’s left to Laura to have the last word, although said last word is a scream that could outdo Bonnie Langford. In a parallel universe where Doctor Who was made in America, she’d have made a hell of a companion.

It was frustrating as hell, but there was something glorious about it. Having spent the last few weeks gradually building up to Cooper’s triumphant return, Lynch grants us a final confrontation with BOB (who is dispatched, somewhat bizarrely, by a cockney geezer wearing a single glove who punches him to death). You could probably have left it there, and we’d have been happy, more or less. Instead Lynch retcons the last twenty-five years (the ramifications of which are glossed over in Cooper’s warning that “There are some things that will change”) and then sends Cooper and Diane off on a fool’s errand: to find Laura Palmer. They cross (we presume) to a parallel universe, have sex in a motel, whereupon Cooper wakes up somewhere else. None of it makes sense. Oh, there are fan theories. There inevitably are. Where no explanation is provided, it is human nature to find one. But when it comes to the entity formerly known as Judy, no answer is given beyond the vaguest of explanations: Lynch, it seems, is happy to leave things as they are, perhaps for good.

There is a scene at the end of episode 16 that caused collective jaws to drop. You know the one I mean. It’s the one with Audrey. There is a moment you realise something is up: it’s when the master of ceremonies announces ‘Audrey’s Dance’, whereupon Ms. Horne slides seductively across a deserted dance floor, surrounded by onlookers – until the moment we flash-cut to a scene in a white room, where she’s staring into a mirror. The implication is that Audrey is in some kind of hospital (one would assume psychiatric) and that the scenario in which she found herself – a rich, embittered woman searching for a missing family member – was taking place entirely in her head, with her pedantic, hopelessly mismatched husband quite possibly a real life doctor who’d managed to work his way into the delusion. It is then that you realise that every conversation Audrey has had – every scene, come to that – has taken place in the company of this man and this man alone, thus leading us to imagine that somewhere along the line (presumably after she slept with Cooper) she went completely off the rails, and that everything we thought she’d seen was strictly in her head.

Still, that’s as far as it goes. It’s an implication because we never visit or hear from Audrey again, her plot strand left tantalisingly dangling. As a potential framing device it’s devastatingly effective, calling to mind Buffy’s ‘Normal Again’: just how much of the story, besides the scenes we know about, took place inside Audrey’s head? That’s a question we’d perhaps be unable to ask ourselves had we been party to any sort of further glimpse into her mental state; the more abstract the resolution, the greater the scope for filling the gaps. Similarly, the frustrating / glorious thing about the finale is that it opens up a world of possibilities and leaves them there, the same way that series 2 left things on a cliffhanger back when Cooper was sat in that bathroom. There is something nice about being able to answer the question yourself. Besides, cliffhangers are eventually resolved, after a fashion, even if it takes twenty-five years. We may not yet be done with Carrie Page and whatever it was she was running from.

Curiously there’s one episode of Doctor Who that actually does this quite well, if only because the planned sequel to ‘Sleep No More’ has yet to materialise and indeed is now looking increasingly unlikely. It means there are frequent requests on social media for clarification. It sadly also means the episode sits near the bottom of people’s lists of favourite stories, simply because some people don’t like its unresolved state. Well, I guess you can’t have everything.

 

4. You don’t have to make a point

I’ve just read a Tweet from Marie Claire that incensed me. They recently published an article in which they called out Taylor Swift for, among other things, remaining apolitical in the 2016 election. “Taylor is not required to be vocal about her politics,” they said, “…but it’s also fair to side-eye and question her decision to remain silent.”

No it bloody isn’t. When you’re thrust into the public eye you’re expected, up to a point, to be a role model for the impressionable young people who idolise you, but that only works so far. It is not the responsibility of any celebrity to state political allegiances, discuss social issues or make statements on abuse and feminism. That is a matter of personal choice, irrespective of how many people follow them on Twitter. They don’t have to say anything – and when they do, we inevitably tell them to shut up and keep recording music / making films / writing Harry Potter books, as if the creative process ought to be sufficiently fulfilling in itself. You can’t have it both ways. We lambast the political actors as much as we decry the ones who stay on the fence – or who are sensible enough to stay quiet on issues they don’t want to discuss. An apolitical outlook is not a mark of cowardice; it’s a sign of integrity.

Doctor Who is equally obsessed with Talking About Important Things. Actually, that’s not fair. It’s more that the BBC are equally obsessed. 300-word soundbite articles about social commentary are endemic. If it’s not the racism in ‘Thin Ice’ (a story which foreshadowed the Punch A Nazi phenomenon with uncanny precision) it’s the capitalism in ‘Oxygen’, or the gay thing in…oh, every sodding episode. Listen. ‘Oxygen’ is a great story because it is bloody scary. That’s it. It has space zombies and and that brilliant scene where they’re exposed to the vacuum. The air-as-commodity thing may be what drives the narrative but I don’t watch Doctor Who for its political content, astute (if somewhat heavy handed) as that may sometimes be. I watch it because it has monsters and because it makes me laugh, when it’s good. There’s plenty of political content in The Spectator; all futurism aside, why on earth would you look for it in a tinpot sci-fi show?

I’m not saying it’s wrong to use science fiction as a medium for this. That’s the joy of it; the detached setting allows you to say the things you can’t say about your contemporaries. There’s a reason ‘The Happiness Patrol’ is one of my favourites. But note the indefinite article there – a reason, not the reason. ‘Happiness’ is also great because it looks moody (on a shoestring) and it has a freakish Bertie Bassett monster. Do we remember ‘The Zygon Inversion’ because it frightens and occasionally surprises us, or because Harness uses a sledgehammer to crack a nut in that game-changing monologue? Would it have been improved with a closing fourth wall break to camera, the sort of thing they did in Masters of the Universe? Should the Doctor tell us to take care of ourselves, and each other?

What messages do you find in Lynch’s movies? Oh, there are plenty. The Straight Story was about family. The Elephant Man examines the Victorian freak show on two levels, both upstairs and downstairs. And there’s a heap of stuff about the darkness hidden beneath the surface of suburban respectability; that’s practically his entire output, although Blue Velvet was the archetype. Twin Peaks is about a man who rapes and murders his daughter but curiously that’s where it stops. There is no heavy-handed moral. Instead there is a quirky FBI agent with a caffeine addiction who rides into town admiring the trees, and the rapist father falls on top of his daughter’s coffin at the funeral.

Series 3 is even more abstract. Things happen because they happen: Richard is an irredeemable bastard simply because he is the offspring of Bob. Dougie Jones is a gambling addict in a bad way with the loan sharks, but the programme makes no comment on this beyond showing the impact it’s had on his marriage – a situation that is resolved, paradoxically, when Cooper wins big at the casino. Twin Peaks is a show about a good many things, but it has no real message to impart – merely a Rorschach collection of fragments, from which we may derive what we will. The only thing it has to say of any real substance, as it turns out, is death.

Speaking of which…

 

5. There is a right way and a wrong way to show death

My feelings on death in Doctor Who are complicated, but there’s a decent summary of them over at The Doctor Who Companion. Here’s the Cliff Notes: Doctor Who has it all wrong when it comes to death. Characters die and then show up again next episode. They’re given miracle cures, frozen hearts, parallel existences. Often, the word ‘death’ means something else entirely. You have seen all this and you do not need me to go through it again with you. In addressing its portrayal of the hereafter (or at least the end of the herebefore), the outgoing showrunner proclaims that “Doctor Who is a big-hearted, optimistic show that believes in kindness and love and that wisdom will triumph in the end. I don’t believe it’s the kind of show that says there are bitter, twisted, nasty endings because it’s not.”

Which is not a bad way to think, but it sidesteps the question. We’re not talking about a show where people face death and then manage, against all odds, to survive. I could live with that. We’re talking about a programme which actively kills its leads and then resurrects them, or in which death is rendered meaningless because of parallel universes, or time travel, or causality – or something that happened six episodes back that we didn’t see. That’s the Marvel approach to death. That’s cheating. I’m fine with happy endings. But don’t give us a happy ending when you’ve already given us a sad one. All it does is undermine death, and at the risk of sounding all Mary Whitehouse, that’s not a healthy mindset to induce in a young and impressionable audience.

Twin Peaks was always going to be different, because it’s a show about a murder, and a number of people die. But the greatest and most profound moment in the third series occurs in part 15, where the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Office gets its final phone call from Margaret Lanterman, known to most of us as The Log Lady. Having spent the entire series housebound, her cryptic announcements rendered in a series of conversations, the Log Lady admits in these final moments of her life that “There’s some fear…some fear of letting go”. Ultimately she embraces it, but not without trepidation, and as she signs off for the final occasion, the clouds cover the moon. There is a devastating poignancy in this elegy for a fallen mystic, both in the mournful tone of Lanterman’s final words and the the dignified silence they receive from Hawk. It is conducted more or less in silence, the gaps between dialogue forming a subtext that is almost Pinteresque. The fact that Catherine Coulson was herself dying when this scene was shot – passing away, if the urban legends have it correctly, a mere four days later – is the icing on a very rich, bitter cake.

 

And there you have it. It’s not all-inclusive, nor is it definitive. And it may be wrong. I’m always happy for people to tell me I’m wrong. But it’s one way we might revive the hopes of a stagnant (if still enjoyable) programme: look at what other people are doing, and learn from them. Times change and so must I, says the Doctor. Perhaps the extent to which things need to change is greater than anyone realises. Perhaps not. But it can’t do any harm to be talking about it.

The best thing we saw on TV this year, incidentally, was Midnight Sun. But perhaps I’ll save that one for another day.

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