‘Once Upon a Time: The End.’ The Twelfth Doctor and the Duties of Narrative. Part Three

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An article by William Shaw first published in The Tides of Time number 41, June 2018

Continued from Part One: Listen! and Part Two: Tyranny.

Subversion

“Your simulation! It’s far too good!” Now, what are we to make of this line? Surely the ability of a subroutine to send an email should not have all that much to do with the quality of the computer program it finds itself in. Why should a program’s email function have any kind of direct relationship to its verisimilitude?

Jacques Derrida might help clarify things. Starting in the mid-Troughton era, he pioneered the literary theory of deconstruction: the ways in which the content of texts ends up running counter to their ostensible intent. He coined the famous phrase “il n’y a pas de hors-texte”, or “there is no outside-text” (sometimes translated as “there is nothing outside the text”). This does not mean that individual texts should not be considered with reference to other sources, or to historical and political contexts. Rather, it points out that humans have no way of understanding the world other than through language; through text. And since language is fundamentally impure, contingent, and unstable, all texts implicitly contain the means of their own subversion; texts can be made to deconstruct themselves.

This is partly why demagogues fetishise simple language and clear, unobstructed thinking: the more complex a text is, the easier it becomes to subvert. In turn, this is how the Doctor usually avoids becoming a demagogue in his storytelling; by finding an existing textual paradigm and subverting it. Listen ends up being an implicit rejection of the standard ‘Moffat Monster’ framework. Extremis is explicit in its rejection of the supposed triviality of fiction. You don’t have to be real to be a deconstructionist. Long as you never give up. Long as you trick the bad guys into their own traps.

Alternatively, there is the option to simply reject a story outright. In Smile, the Doctor relays the classic fable of the Magic Haddock, a story applicable the episode’s own events. He then rejects the fable, stating that his favoured chess strategy is to kick over the board. This rejection of prevailing narrative is standard for the Moffat era — Elizabeth Sandifer calls it “narrative substitution” in her essay on A Good Man Goes to War — but the phrasing in this case is a straight lift from The Curse of Fenric: a game requiring the player to break its own rules. A text requiring its own deconstruction.

(The other obvious classic series precedent, The Mind Robber, sees the Doctor fighting a literal Master narrative, another postmodern bugbear. Again, the Doctor offers a kind of subversive play in the face of a rigidly predefined narrative).

There are dangers to this approach — one of them being that the deconstruction of narrative risks becoming itself a narrative, postmodernism’s own weeping angel — but for the Twelfth Doctor there is a more potent danger. If he specialises in narrative subversion, and is increasingly aware of his own narrative status, there comes a point where it is necessary for him to subvert himself.

Continued in Part Four: Melancholy and Part Five: Awareness

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