Magic Bullet Productions

Doctor Who: The Long Game

By Fiona Moore and Alan Stevens

Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 327

"The Long Game" has been described in a number of quarters as a "lightweight" story. While this is true in the sense of it not being as deep or powerful as its immediate predecessor, "Dalek", it is not true in the sense of it being inconsequential, lazily written or poorly thought out; in fact, it manages to improve on and develop some of the themes of earlier Davies-written episodes.

To begin with, "The Long Game" actually fits well into the forty-five minute time-slot, without feeling stretched (as did "Aliens of London"/"World War Three") or compressed (as did "The End of the World"); from a narrative point of view, the only false note is arguably the presence of the yappy little dog in Adam's parents' house, which appears initially to be setting up for some kind of plot point or gag, but then disappears without any real payoff. "Game" also has a more nuanced conclusion than "World War Three", which appears to imply that the defeat of the aliens has removed the problems with British politics and left Harriet Jones free to usher in a new golden age; here, the fact that the alien has been defeated now means that things can simply go back to normal, for good or for ill. Indeed, it is also implied within the episode that the return of "normality" may bring technological and social changes, but will have little impact on human nature, as when the Editor refers to people both before and after the Jagafress takeover as behaving like "cattle." There is also an unspoken tension between evil imposed upon humans by aliens and the evil which humans do to themselves; while the Jagafress is controlling the way humans think through their media, and is preventing them from having potentially beneficial contact with aliens, it did this by taking over an existing human apparatus, and human beings are more than capable of xenophobia themselves.

It is thus also significant that Davies once again picks up on the now-familiar theme of diversity. While the exclusion of aliens appears to be making a bit of a virtue of necessity, as it would be rather expensive to show all of the beings allegedly making up the Empire, it is also implied that shutting out the aliens is one of the things which is holding humanity back. There is considerable real-world truth to this, as it has been proven time and time again that cultural diversity and migration promote the sharing of ideas, innovation and development. This also, however, ties in with the message that development should be neither artificially discouraged nor encouraged; Adam's attempt to bring back the secrets of the future to 21st-century Earth (thereby instigating progress, albeit at the cost of cause and effect) is portrayed as just as bad as the Jagafress' attempt to hold the future Earth back from achieving its "natural" stage of development.

The major theme of the story is, of course, a simple message: don't trust the media- or indeed anyone who claims to have the answers- but think for yourself, and don't let others make your mind up for you. The junk food which the denizens of Satellite Five eat parallels the cheap but emotionally satisfying "news" which they consume intellectually (and picks up on the "chips" symbolism of "Rose" and "The End of the World"). While the satire here is not terribly subtle, it is less specific and targeted (and therefore of more general relevance) than that in "World War Three": while some have attempted to read a deliberate set of parallels to Fox News into the story, "Game" is more about the media in general. Many of the points it makes could apply to any commercial television station (one thinks of Channel Five, with its eternal smorgasbord of porn and Nazis) or, for that matter, non-commercial (BBC News 24 can be as guilty of presenting a particular "version" of events as any of its rivals).

The closest "Game" gets to a specific target is when we learn that the Editor calls his boss "Max" (as in the not uncorpulent "Cap'n Bob" Maxwell, one assumes). The reason why the Editor is aware of a disturbance in the information, but is unsure whether Cathica or Suki is the source (in one of Doctor Who's better bait-and-switch sequences, as the viewer is led to believe he is referring to the Doctor initially), is largely a subtext in the story, but the fact that Cathica and Suki work closely together, form part of the same team and appear to be friends of a sort mean that the behaviour of the one will impact on the behaviour of the other, and, if the Editor is looking for anomalies of action and deportment (as he can not read their minds unless they are actually interfacing with the computer system), might not immediately identify who it is.

Perhaps to re-establish the series' format as its second half begins, the opening of the story is a deliberate echo of "The End of the World". Like the earlier story, "The Long Game" features the Doctor showing a new companion the wonders of the future, a speech about the successes of the human race, a shot of the Doctor and companions looking out through a space-station window onto a future Earth, the presence of the Face of Boe (and the implied presence of other species), and a scene where an overwhelmed companion is offered a phone call home using Rose's "Doctored" mobile, and then goes to sit on an observation deck, ostensibly to acclimatise and get over the culture shock. Both stories also feature sequences at the end in which the Doctor deals out punishment in response to a crime (albeit on a much less serious level in "Game" than "TEOTW"). The key difference between the stories, aside from the fact that this is Earth at its height rather than the end of its existence, is that this companion is only genuinely overwhelmed for a brief period, and that his response to the future world is not to ponder its significance, but to try and profit from it.

Adam, brought along at Rose's request at the end of "Dalek", is very much the anti-companion. There are distinct parallels with Adric's tendency to self-justifying and selfish treachery in "State of Decay" and "Four to Doomsday" (although Turlough was also treacherous, Adam's behaviour has more of Adric's naivete than Turlough's sinister conniving), perhaps reflecting the fact that Davies thought up the premise for the story in the early 1980s. Adam is clearly a nasty piece of work, evidently sharing his erstwhile boss Van Statten's attitude to life: namely that, when offered the future, he is not amazed by the beauty and wonder of it all, but simply sets to work trying to figure out how to make a quick profit, regardless of the potential consequences for others (and of how it might rebound on himself). Whether this is the result of Van Statten recruiting people with similar personal traits to himself, or Adam concluding, based on Van Statten's success, that he is a worthy role model, or a bit of both, is unknown; however, it seems deeply rooted in Adam's behaviour, such that he blatantly gives Rose the brush-off so as to leave himself free to go out and exploit the resources of Satellite Five, and desperately tries a bit of very corporate-sounding spin at the end of the story so as to imply that the Doctor is to blame for his own wrongdoing. Not surprisingly, this is the first companion to be simply taken straight back home after his initial adventure in the TARDIS, with the Doctor effectively announcing to his face that he's rubbish.

The resolution of the Adam plotline, while less morally ambiguous than certain other things the Doctor has done since the start of the series, is certainly worth debating. On the one hand, Adam's ambition clearly makes him a danger to himself and others, and he is also such a bad sort that it would seem to require a fairly drastic shock to wake him up to the consequences of his actions. On the other hand, through stranding Adam in the 21st century without reversing his brain surgery, the Doctor has essentially doomed the man to live out the rest of his life in eternal fear of a finger-click; even if Adam reforms, he will still have a hole in his head. This ending thus recalls the Ancient Greek story of King Midas being given ass' ears by the god Apollo, and, as in the myth, the rights and wrongs of this action are not clear-cut.

This also highlights the suitability of Christopher Eccleston for the role of the Doctor this season. Although Eccleston can do comedy, he always has a slightly sinister edge to him, which means that one is not immediately inclined to trust him, which should hopefully discourage people from assuming that simply because he is the titular character he is always in the right (linking in with this story's theme of not believing everything one hears). As a counterpoint to the Doctor, Rose is still very much the point of identification and emotional compass for the viewer; her position as the "old hand," showing off to Adam her cosmopolitan familiarity with time travel, reflects the fact that the viewer, too, is now thoroughly familiar with the show's premises, and is seeing the future from the perspective of familiarity rather than something to be marvelled at.

The chief antecedent of this story, aside from "The End of the World", is "The Macra Terror" (albeit without the xenophobic final message), "The Sunmakers" (even the modulation on the computer voice is similar), "Paradise Towers", "The Krotons", "Dragonfire" (cold-hungry villain plus café sequence) and, as noted above, "State of Decay" and "Four to Doomsday". Outside of the Doctor Who canon, we have what may be another Brazil reference (the "secret" elevator which takes Sam to the executive suite once he finds the right code, also the plumbing and ductwork), Total Recall and its origin story, Philip K. Dick's "We Can Remember it For You Wholesale", Babylon 5, and also a number of themes common to the cyberpunk genre: Suki in particular recalls Pat Cadigan's series of mid-1980s short stories focused around the theme of overlaying artificial personalities onto real ones. As in every other story this season, the colour blue is once again associated with aliens here through the lighting of Floor 500. Like "The Unquiet Dead", also, we have a corpse seemingly animating itself to take revenge (she may well start rebelling earlier, when she fails to move when the Editor commands her to terminate Cathica's access and then burn out her mind). The fact that Simon Pegg, star of Shaun of the Dead, features in an episode involving zombies, is almost too much of an obvious connection to mention.

In terms of major world events, the transmission of this story has seen no deaths or weddings; however, it has seen the resignation of David Trimble, surely a major event for the Ulster Unionist Party, and indeed for Northern Ireland as a whole.

While Russell T. Davies might not have produced an episode on par with "Dalek" yet, he is, to be fair, writing eight episodes, supervising the writing of all the other stories, acting as executive producer on the series and being the public face of Doctor Who. Considering the workload involved, it is thus commendable that "The Long Game" is, if nothing else, coherent, well-paced and enjoyable.