What’s It About?
The last-surviving Chimeron is pursued by the Bannermen. Stowing away on a time-travelling nostalgia tour, she ends up at a holiday camp in South Wales in 1959. But the Bannermen are pursuing Delta, and they do not care who they kill to find her.
I can’t condone this foolishness.
The opening lecture of my “Religions of China and Asia” class included a distillation that seemed obvious once stated but, like all brilliant statements, could not be recognized until stated: “History is not the same thing as the past.”
History is the study of what happened in the past, but inherent in the study of the past is the interpretation of the past. The present always shapes how we view the past; the present influences how we study the past. Historians strive to hold their own biases in check, but a completely objective analysis of history is not possible. Historians studies trends, movements, and events, emphasizing some over others, in an attempt to discern the patters that gave birth to the present. The past is not objectively observable. We cannot walk into the past and see it and understand it as those living in it would see it and understand it.
And in “Delta and the Bannermen,” we have nostalgia tours, the past as a profitable market. The past has become the focus of commerce and tourism. It becomes a facsimile that just happens to take place in the past. Rather than a construct of artificial space in which tourists walk (such as a theme park), the tourists go into the past itself. But make no mistake, the past is dangerous. People live and die. This is perhaps why the nostalgia tour sets its sights on Disney Land, a safe space in a bubble of past events. Going back in time to visiting Disney Land, then, is an experience of history—it has the interpretive framework of tourism, but it may not qualify as experiencing the past because the tourist is not fully present in the moment but in his or her perception of events, a perception which is defined by leisure, marketing, the present reality of the era travelled from.
How interesting, then, that the tourists in “Delta and the Bannermen” die. The people who survive are those who do not operate from the tourism interpretive framework, but are those who live fully present in the present (which happens to be, in this case, the past). The Doctor, Mel, Delta, the Bannermen, and even the named workers at the Shangri-La resort (because a recurring theme in Doctor Who is missing the target, whether in the TARDIS, a time-travelling tourist bus, or visual effects) survive because they recognize the artifice of tourism in the context of the present dangers of unfolding events. And if the past is composed of events as they unfold and history is study and analysis of the past, then “Delta and the Bannermen” makes the critique that the past is more authoritative than history. What happened shaped us and can destroy our interpretations. While history as a field can influence the present, it does not influence the past, and rediscovering events can challenge our work as historians.
And Doctor Who is now a niche field of study in the realm of media history. It is open to a variety of interpretations about perspectives, developing and evolving media, and social commentary. And it reinterprets itself. JNT let that genie out of the bottle and it can never be put back in. Even in its current form under Steven Moffat, Doctor Who is about the Doctor, which indirectly makes the show about itself as deconstructing and reinterpreting the Doctor as a character requires deconstructing and reinterpreting the show. Moffat just does this with more panache and JNT and Saward did in the 80s.
And in “Delta” we see the continuing reinterpretation of Doctor Who at the hands of Andrew Cartmel. Already the show has adopted a striking and effective visual style. Sylvester McCoy has largely emerged as the Doctor, though without some of the nuance he will soon develop. The occasional three-episode format is a nice change of pace. And in this story it is never quite clear what will happen next. Yes, we know the good guys will win (we have emerged from the Saward vision of the show), but it is not quite evident how they will win or even how all the pieces fit together. In some ways, they don’t fit together terribly well, but the tone of the story is the essence of a shrug and a wink, not in a dismissive and patronizing way but in a “yeah, we’re working on it” way.
The show is optimistic again. Yes, it is silly, but it is silly intentionally not through accident. It shows that, if nothing else, the people now running the show are in control of what they are doing from a storytelling standpoint but also from a production standpoint. “Delta and the Bannermen,” like all of this season, is an event; it is Doctor Who being reborn before our eyes. The danger is that we will miss it due our interpretations of Doctor Who. The modern era of Doctor Who is being born.
At least, that’s my interpretation.