As fans of what it is becoming increasingly ridiculous to call ‘New Who’ will probably know, the Doctor has been haunted by ‘the oldest question in the universe’ since they ran away from Gallifrey. It was made the subject of quite a lot of enquiry and discussion during the Matt Smith era, and revolves around their name. Let’s not focus on the fact that there must, presumably, be older questions than that still floating about the universe – ‘Doctor Who?’ is apparently that question.
So – what’s next on the universe’s To Do List? What’s the second oldest question in the universe?
In this Short Trip by Carrie Thompson, we’re about to find out.
When we work it out, you should probably prepare your groanometer. Pack it with ice or some such to stop it from exploding in philosophical rage. When you find out what the second oldest question in the universe actually is, (at least according to the unusually flippant Fifth Doctor here), you’ll go ‘Ohhh… Really?’
The point of course being that no, no-one’s proposing to tell you what the second oldest question actually is – it’s a twinkly-eyed joke from the Fifth Doctor as he’s up to his plimsolls in muck, mud, the trial of Satan’s Chicken and disgruntled medieval peasants with an axe to grind and a dinner to prepare.
Because that’s where this story takes us – to a soaking wet, muddy hole in the ground in Earth’s middle ages, full of drunks, honest sons of the soil who believe bathing is bad for you, and a chicken which stands accused of murder.
The Doctor, seemingly more for mischief than for any other reason, decides to defend the bird against the calumny of the villagers, many of whom have plans to share out the corpse of the doomed beast for their pots the next day, once they’ve seen God’s justice done upon the fowl fiend (Yes, dammit, I went there – how often d’you get an opportunity to use that spelling?!).
While Nyssa spends the trial with the head jammed in a medieval armpit, the Doctor uncovers shenanigans underneath the mud and the movement of chickens. He doesn’t exactly cross-examine the winged wonder, but he does shift the culpability for the inferno onto an altogether more likely looking wrong ’un.
Which is where things really start to go wrong. Everybody in the middle ages loved a good chicken dinner of course, but if there’s a chance to root out sorcery in their village by means of a full-on warlock-burning, so much the better – they can always kill the chicken when the interfering blond bloke naffs off back wherever he came from.
So from a premise that feels forced and seems to involve the Fifth Doctor in an uncharacteristic game of ‘Let’s mess with the peasants,’ comes a situation of genuine danger, with the Doctor on the wrong side. When he discovers what’s really going on, it’s actually the Doctor who introduces the concept of witchcraft into the minds of the peasants, apparently on the grounds that it seems like a good idea at the timeThe resolution of that drama though returns to a somewhat forced and not all that sympathetic denouement from the Fifth Doctor, who essentially forces someone with an extreme germophobia to live in a pigsty – or at least a chicken coop – for the rest of their lives, without really sufficient evidence of their need to be punished in this particularly hellish way.
Ultimately, The Second Oldest Question probably seemed like a good idea on paper, and could have developed from its mid-story point of peak emotional drama into something that showed the Fifth Doctor dealing with the occasional inconsistency of his own whims and actions. Instead, he appears content to lay his sentence of torment on a criminal – if not a chicken – and walk, muddy-shoed away, content in the knowledge that at least he’s saved them from being burned to death by hungry peasants. Ultimately then, it feels like a good idea insufficiently worked through with the Fifth Doctor’s character uppermost in the decision-making process, and with an ending of ‘that’ll do’ convenience, rather than one that strives for Fifth Doctor moral complexity.
The Second Oldest Question is certainly worth picking up for completists, and there are plenty of funny bits along the journey. It’s just that both the journey itself, and the destination it ultimately reaches, feel less convincing and worthwhile than they probably should. Tony Fyler