Ooh, we love a controversial one.
If you love a controversial one, strap in, because Selim Ulug’s new Short Trip brings us the story of when the Ninth Doctor meets the Daniels family.
For those with hazier memories, in Rose, the first episode of New Who, Doctor-spotter Clive shows Rose Tyler some photos and references to the Doctor, one of which is of the Ninth Doctor, looking as he looks when Rose meets him. This Doctor, he tells her, interfered in the lives of the Daniels family of Southampton, stopping them from getting on the maiden voyage of the Titanic.
This – in a classic example of the kind of storytelling for which the Short Trips range was made – is the story of how he did it.
What makes it controversial is that Selim Ulug makes it faaaairly clear that this is a Ninth Doctor in the days before Rose. That will upset some fans, who maintain that when we first see him on screen he’s almost immediately post-regeneration.
Nah. He was knocking about with the Daniels family in Southampton before he ever found the Tylers. And crucially, their reaction to him, to each other, and to the events in their lives, seems to turn a lightbulb back on in the Ninth Doctor’s head. Arthur Daniels, the head of the family, is suffering from what we would now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, after his experiences in the Boer War. His shipping line, Daniels and Son, is in trouble. And borrowing money from a childhood friend who had his own bad war and brought it home with him was a bad mistake. William Spence, Daniels’ boyhood friend, is screwing him over, seemingly for profit, but really as a way of exorcising his wartime demons. In a sense, you can see Arthur Daniels and William Spence as human avatars of the Doctor and the Master, but more potently, they’re avatars of where the Ninth Doctor’s post-Time War path could lead him – to be a good man who suffers, or to become a man embittered, indifferent and living the war in his daily life now it’s technically over.
There are some cracking, almost Seventh Doctor moments here, including a speech about the impact of intervention, and it’s clear that this Ninth Doctor is still seeing things with the long view of the warrior he’s been, where people are just part of the cost of nature, of life, of war doing its thing. But here in Southampton, at the Daniels’ table, and particularly under the influence of the daughter of the family, Connie, he’s made to realise again that every life has meaning, that every permitted and possible intervention has value in the moment, even if it doesn’t ripple the universe or make any grand, cosmic difference. Connie Daniels – not Rose Tyler – shows this wounded Doctor that making a difference is still worth it.
He learns the lesson well – there is at least a little alien tech in this story, and he disables it, but more than that, he helps heal wounds, heal rifts, bring family and friends back together – and then of course ensures that they get the chance to take those lessons forward further than the RMS Titanic.
More to the point of course, this Short Trip pinpoints a transformative moment in the Ninth Doctor’s life – again, exactly what the Short Trips range is perfectly structured to deliver – and it’s a biggie. Without this moment, we’re encouraged to believe, there will be no faffing about trying to blow up Autons. No hand flung out impulsively to hold. No ‘Nice to meet you, Rose – run for your life!’
Selim Ulug has delivered a pitch perfect Ninth Doctor story that doesn’t by any means undo what we know of the Ninth Doctor’s recovery process after the Time War, but adds flesh to the moment that first turned him back around to a remembrance of the person he used to be, and why he used to be them.
Nicholas Briggs once more deploys his serviceable Ninth Doctor voice to bring us a Time Lord still hurting on the one hand, and numbed to the pain of the universe on the other, as Connie Daniels teaches him the lesson he used to know and live by – that every life has value, and every change we can make for the better is worth the effort of making.
This is a cracking story that might yet prove to be the crown jewel of the ninth series of Short Trips. Unless you have a heart of stone, and frankly even if you do, you’re going to want to pick up this story and hear how the Ninth Doctor was set fair on the road to his destiny of recovery after the ultimate trauma of the war. Tony Fyler