Coward or Killer: Doctor Who Scene Analysis (pt 1)

Hail the Doctor, the great exterminator.

Hail the Doctor, the great exterminator.

You know, people always say the Ninth Doctor is “serious”, but he’s honestly one of the lighter of the rebooted series. Because he’s not so self-assured, he’s not a god, he’s a just uncertain broken sod trying to do the right thing. That’s why it’s so scary when he snaps, as in “Dalek”, where he comes to face with all his guilt, all his anger, and comes so close to the line (“You would make a good Dalek.”). And that’s why there’s so much relief when he puts down the gun, when he stops, when he stays the Doctor. But let’s leave the Dalek parallel for the moment.

This down-to-Earthness (for an alien) can be something that separates him from Tennant’s Doctor, by the end a “lonely god”, holding himself above others, so broken by both his own power and all the decisions he’s had to make that he’s actually quite unhinged (see also the “Fury of a Time Lord” scene, where he, perhaps against his will, places himself the judge of the Family of Blood, and is cold and vengeful as hell). And it’s a thing that separates him from Smith’s incarnation, a man who’s still just like Ten at heart, but hiding it behind a childlike mask and dodging everything.

Not to say these aren’t traits shared by Ninth, who much like Eleventh is very much running from something, but they haven’t quite come to define him. But by the end, when the chips are down, he stands over the trigger, and is presented with the choice: “Coward or killer”… And it’s the most defining moment for Ninth, because in the end he chooses “Coward. Any day.” Of course, the Doctor never becomes a “villain”: Tenth would always ask, one last time, “stop, and I’ll let you go”, but would he hit the trigger? I don’t know. Their arcs provide great contrast to each other, in fact, and if you want to consider the development of the Doctor’s character as a whole, definitely something to look at.

So, let’s look at the “Coward or killer” scene, and the surrounding Dalek assault, and admittedly all things said, it’s not the perfect ending to the episode. Rose’s intervention smacks of deux ex machina, and arguably robs the ethical dilemna of the situation. But not only is it key to Nine’s development, it’s key to the Doctor’s relationship with the Daleks and their parallel to him, and it’s also tense as fuck.

Background
So, “The Parting of the Ways” is the second part of the two-part series finale of series 1 of “New Who”, as it is called. It’s also the last appearance of the Ninth Doctor, marking the second shortest run for a Doctor. So, it’s understandable they’d want to end with a bang, whether that be an actual explosion or some sort of emotional boom, as well as put an end to both the series arc and Ninth’s own character arc (though the Doctor is always the same character, each regeneration is often treated as their own separate “incarnation”, with their own arcs and quirks).

The Daleks are coming to kill Earth, because killing things is basically their thing, and are about to assault the space station the Doctor’s on. Oh, but the Doctor has figured out one last way to stop them: create a delta wave generator, that will kill everything in its path, human and innocents and Daleks alike. Because the Doctor sort of likes his travelling companion slash morality chain slash semi-love interest, he sends her (Rose) away. While the Doctor prepares his wave generator, Rose tries to open the TARDIS’s “heart”, granting her the ability to fly back to the Doctor. All is lost, but Jackie comes up with the ultimate solution: bust it open by pulling at it with a bulldozer.

What follows is three main concurrent scenes: the Doctor rushing to prepare the device; the slow attack of the Dalek, as the last line of defense (including Jack) give their lives to try to hold them off to give the Doctor time; and Rose pulling at the TARDIS to get it open. All the while, off-screen, Earth is bombed by the Daleks and whole countries disappear. All this coupled, of course, with dramatic music.

The Daleks come

Fast cutting between these shots is key to the creation of energy in this scene.

Fast cutting between these shots is key to the creation of energy in this scene.

We open with a moreorless empty establishing shot, while the background music kicks in. The music is of note in this scene, and right now it’s the main source of tension, sounding almost like a war march. It signals that, no, this is not just an empty room, this is the quiet before the storm, and is oddly reminiscent of some classical western showdowns. In the second shot, a sense of entrapment is felt in the mise-en-scene, with the character almost completely covered by wire apart from a small gap to point his gun out of. This entrapment is heightened in the following two shots, through their incredibly tight framing (just enough to fit the gun and the back of their heads in). It also serves to create a link between these two minor characters, who just recently semi-got together, and that helps give them some character. The fast-cutting between the shots helps imbue a sense of unsteadiness and energy, with these shots going progressively faster and faster (the establishing shot remains the longest, and most easily allows the audience to take in its content, the empty scene that will not be empty for long). However, once it cuts to the point-of-view shot of the Dalek, the shot lingers.

Comparatively, this shot is held for much longer, with a second waiting before the door even opens.

Comparatively, this shot is held for much longer, with a second waiting before the door even opens.

The vision of a Dalek is a distinctive thing, and it’s style serves two purposes here: one, to emphasise the inhumanity of the Daleks, as well as further a sense of claustrophobia. The claustrophobia is also heightened by, initially, a small pause as the Dalek remains behind the door, in utter black. Even then, the door is slow to open, and takes up most of the screen. And, of course, the main message idea behind the POV shot itself: the Daleks are coming, and with the claustrophobia used you are helpless to stop them. This is further by the loud and hard diegetic sound of the door opening, by itself. An unnerving sense is created by the non-diegetic music again: the war drum is removed, focusing the audience on this strange distortion sound that’s been on the background, as well as the shot itself.

Jack screaming, in case you were wondering, looks better in motion.

Jack yelling, in case you were wondering, looks far better in motion.

And if the POV shot helped signify the Dalek’s arrival, here they directly enter and the battle begins. This is reflected in a slight change in the music, More entrapment/claustrophobia is signified by the mise-en-scene, with them coming out one-by-one from a small corridor. The scene is intensified by a close-up of Jack, who yells the order to open fire. We see the earlier establishing shot again, only this time we can see the flashing of gunfire, which is deafening enough to drown out the background music. I don’t have a screenshot for that one, since in a still it looks essentially simply empty.

Meanwhile, we cut to a quick shot of the Doctor hurrying to get his delta wave generator ready. Cross-cutting these two scenes, in addition to adding some continuity, gives a sense of suspense and “race against time” feel to his building of the generator. The gunfire isn’t present for this shot but the music continues to blare, giving life to a shot which is, otherwise, basically just the Doctor running across the room and plugging something in.

The upper pan shot is vital in making the viewer themself feel surrounded.

The upper pan shot is vital in making the viewer themself feel surrounded.

Now we view the opposite angle of the barricade, and we see Daleks pouring in. Not only do they physically move closer “on stage” towards the camera, the use of a pan shot also gives the sense of being surrounded on all sides, oncemore underlining this whole helpless feel. Next we see the Daleks occupy the previously empty space, taking both sides of the screen and leaving only a tight middle free. Repeats of the earlier second shot, with the side character man behind the grating, and the tightly framed Jack both are once again used with the same intention, though this time they are both firing. A Dalek intrudes on the former shot, and we see more of them move into position.

Both these shots are held long enough for their stillness to be apparent.

Both these shots are held long enough for their stillness to be apparent.

The sheer lack of response from the Daleks here, as bullets fire, really shows their indestructibility and unstoppable…ness. This is highlighted in two shorts: one, a still POV shot from a Dalek’s perspective that is completely still; and two, a similarly still shot of three Daleks just standing there, unflinching. All the while these are interspersed with close-ups and canted shots of the humans vainly firing at them, continuing to ensure the intense nature of the scene.

That was just cruel, Doctor Who people.

That was just cruel, Doctor Who people.

And now we get a brief spot of lightness, of happiness, in what TV Tropes dubs a “Hope Spot”, because it barely lasts a second and serves to just make the whole thing more depressing. We see two subversions of the previous shots that showed the unstoppability of the Daleks, as well as close-up that pulls focus to the Dalek’s eye coming off. For once, the Dalek does the Dalek equivalent of running around panicking, and the camera turns to the female, cheering. Naturally, she is immediately exterminated, in a sudden change of tone. The effects used for extermination make it further harrowing: the colours are inverted, the camera tints as it happens, and in the scene itself there’s a flash of a creepily green, deathly skeleton.

Her male friend slash sort-of-love-interest takes this poorly, and immediately charges at the Daleks. Fast cutting between shots shows his mania, as well as the sound of his “warcry”, and he is also immediately killed. As mentioned earlier, these characters have recently been given some depth, and this makes their deaths all the more impactful (random nameless people are killed off fairly often in Who, after all), with the same extermination effect.

He was better off a coward.

He was better off a coward.

Finally, we shift to a quick cut of Jack firing on, before immediately cutting elsewhere. The quick shot of Jack serves to remind of his presence, and keep us invested in the scene and in suspense after the deaths of the other two characters. That Jack is also a character the audience knows, and probably loves, helps this investment (and is why it’s going to ultimately come down to Jack alone, rather than say Nameless Guy No. 3 alone).

Next time: Human female detected and the “last” stand of Jack Harkness.

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