One need not look much further on this side of the Atlantic than an American World War II film to see a world in which Germans are beaten heroically and with no moral ambiguity. The difficulty of war is brushed over.
In reality, the time period is one of the bleakest moments in the twentieth century. The death toll, the suffering, the emotional and physical turmoil–why would you want to re-live it in fiction when you can re-write it? I guess this is why Doctor Who (2005) touches on the London Blitz so often, where the denizens of the city put up with bombs raining down from the sky at night without losing morale. A time of terror, through the show, looks increasingly like a fairy tale.
This year’s Doctor Who Christmas special, “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe,” is not the first episode to revisit war-time Britain. The memorable two-parter from season one, “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances,” has the Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) racing around London to fight an alien disease where symptoms include growing a gas mask face and repeating the phrase, “Are you my mummy?” before becoming a brainless, war-time zombie. It’s a scary first outing into this particular time period, but horrifyingly appropriate.
The happy ending in the second half of the story arc, “The Doctor Dances,” is mainly effective because the happiness is, against all odds, earned. A moody, Gothic atmosphere is alleviated when the gas mask plague turns out to have a cure, one that even restores a background character’s missing leg. The Doctor, enormously happy, goes on a tangent to explain that miracles where “everything turns out fine” are rare, but possible.
Like the actual survival of London in the era, we are reminded that good things can and do happen in the darkest of times. This is one of the strongest episodes in the Doctor Who canon.
These so-called rare happy endings that the Doctor talks about, however, become more numerous as he revisits the time period. For many viewers, it lessens the impact of the first visit to WWII England to watch the Doctor succeed against the odds again. And again.
While the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) doesn’t come back to the World War II era, his predecessor can’t seem to leave it alone.
Not only is the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) personal friends with Winston Churchill (Ian McNeice), one of his first adventures with Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) as his new companion is at the heart of the bombings in “Victory of the Daleks.” It’s an episode with a lot of neat ideas, including the Daleks as an “invention” of the British military and some exciting strategies and plans by the government against Germany, but it becomes forgettable fairly quickly.
Compared to the atmosphere of “The Empty Child,” this is more of a Boy’s Own Adventure Story. There are fighter jets in space and unambiguously evil daleks that need to be destroyed by the true blue British. It’s not the story of people swept up in events they can’t control, but an adventure where evil is rooted out and justice is achieved. Tragedy is shifted toward the background with a side character’s significant other dead in the war, a sadness de-emphasized but present.
Another sudden happy ending: a robot who thinks he’s human (Bill Paterson) is saved by the humanity in his fake memories. In this scene, the Doctor and Amy lean over the man as he fights to find a reason to live despite his artificial nature. Here, we find a parallel to the lesson of the episode: fiction saves us. Yes, an alternate history where human triumph over both daleks and Germans didn’t happen, but doesn’t it paint history in rosier tones to briefly imagine it did? At least for a moment?
“Victory of the Daleks” isn’t as poignant an episode as “The Empty Child,” but it’s not meant to be. It’s a piece of pulp fiction, a throwaway with the drama of the Blitz hushed to a background hum. The important thing isn’t that the British survived in a powerless situation, but that they gained victory. World War II is again visited in “Let’s Kill Hitler” with a similar, adventure-is-fun-and-exciting attitude.
These London Blitz episodes all culminate in the most recent Doctor Who episode, “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe,” the most cheerful look at the time period yet. It’s not just a sci-fi story but a fairy tale, another encounter with an alien race as the darkness of World War II rages in the background.
The title and bare bones of the plot are taken from C.S. Lewis’s book, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” where a family is evacuated to the countryside and encounters another world outside of reality. This time, however, a character is already dead. Madge (Claire Skinner) struggles to tell her children that their father has been killed coming home for Christmas in his airplane. Much like the background drama in “Victory of the Daleks,” her loss is a shadow over her character.
She doesn’t have to tell them.
A fun, gorgeous plot unfolds, with sentient Christmas trees and planet harvesting machines. And Madge is inside a giant robot suit for a little while. It’s fantastic. Then she ends up going back in time, with the help of the Doctor, to save her husband from dying, instead bringing his plane to a safe landing at home.
The story is a little bit more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it. People don’t quite deal with loss, but fix it. Where “The Doctor Dances” has characters barely recover from disease and “Victory of the Daleks” has the British triumph in a time of crisis, “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” resurrects the dead.
Each encounter with the Blitz is viewed through a softer lens. The United States focuses on a narrative where a single country sweeps in to help end the war, a less than accurate revision that plays up one army’s honor. Meanwhile, Great Britain makes itself a happy ending in its historical science fiction, stripping away all the anxieties of an era and giving a time period hope when there was little to be found.
A show about time travel, Doctor Who gives us the parts of history we want to see, a narrative of heroes and happy endings. The real sorrows of war are left for other, darker works of fiction and the pages of history books.