Deus Ex Scriptor

Recently, a commentator on this very blog said “‘Deus ex machina’, at least among fans, would appear to translate as: ‘I didn’t like the ending’…” Can’t entirely deny that right now, so let’s examine it! Moreover, let’s stick with the new series.

As everyone knows, ‘Deus ex machina’ means ‘god from the machine’ aka the tendency for a ‘god’ to be lowered (via a ‘machine’) at the end of ancient Greek plays to solve all ills. More modernly, as the OverthinkingIt article on this very topic in Doctor Who , it means “any time when something or somebody who has not been a major part of the story so far shows up at the end of a play, movie or TV show more or less at random to dictate how it ends, usually making everything the characters have done up until this point seem irrelevant by comparison”.

I think, for Doctor Who, we can perhaps be more specific. “An ending where a previously unseen plot point gives the Doctor god-like powers beyond that even of his sonic screwdriver.” Not entirely accurate, as we’ll see in the next paragraph, but it’s what it feels like. This is where the ‘I didn’t like the ending’ translation comes from, namely the unseen plot point. Surprise! With one bound he was free! Another translation is ‘Cop out!’

Let’s not dance around the issue, and cut to the first, best example. In this case it isn’t entirely unforeshadowed, and moreover doesn’t happen to the Doctor. Yep, we’re talking Rose in The Parting of the Ways . She gains the powers of a god due to the power emanating from the machine . How more a literal insertion of the phrase can you get? It originally referred to the stage device, it wasn’t a story point, and there it is, as in your face as possible!

This, to me, is the most egregious example possible. It’s RTD going ‘I turn Rose into a god because I can’t think of another way to solve this problem’ (and possibly ‘because I fetishise her’ but that’s a different topic). (Fine, I’ll acknowledge that RTD could have easily come up with a different ending, and it did lead to the amazing ending of the Ninth Doctor… but he didn’t!) The fact that this is just so obvious and in your face makes it not ‘post-modern’ or ‘deconstructionist’, it’s just annoying in levels too large to ignore.

The other obvious example is in, of course, The Last of the Time Lords . You too can become a god if everyone chants your name! No amount of technobabble logic can get away from the sheer effrontery of the Tinkerbell solution which gives the plot equivalent of whip-lash. Fie! I cry, Boo! It doesn’t give the Doctor other powers (other than the ability to ignore the laser screwdriver) or lead to his death, nor even the Master’s end, so there is no greater meaning as in Rose’s transformation, it’s just to get him back from Dobby-form.

(And while these are RTD examples, the end of The Forest of the Dead doesn’t give much hope that the next production crew won’t deify the man.)

Does ‘Deus ex machina’ = ‘I didn’t like the ending’? Maybe, but there is cause.


9 Responses to “Deus Ex Scriptor”

  1. Paul Scoones Says:

    I’m with you on The Parting of the Ways and Last of the Time Lords, which really are a couple of outstanding examples of the problem, but…

    Forest of the Dead? Really…? I recently rewatched that story and was impressed at just how carefully and thoroughly the elements of that ending are seeded over the course of the story.

  2. Thad Ritchards Says:

    I was referring more to how the Doctor only needed a click of the fingers to open and close the TARDIS doors. A bit Lawrence Milesian in the complaint, but I can see his point.

  3. Paul Scoones Says:

    River Song has throughout the story hinted at her knowledge and admiration for a future version of the Doctor, someone clearly even more powerful and accomplished than the present Doctor, someone who can make “whole armies turn and run away” and can open the TARDIS “doors with a snap of his fingers”. The Doctor is understandably quite unsettled by these revelations, finding himself temporarily reduced to living in the shadow (pardon the pun) of his future self.

    So the final scene, in which the Doctor snaps his fingers and open the TARDIS door is a vital moment, one which poignantly speaks volumes without a single line of dialogue. The expression on the Doctor’s face tells us that his shaken confidence has been restored – he is on the path to becoming the man that River remembers and adores. It’s also entirely credible within the series narrative; as far back as the Hartnell era it’s established that he has a mental link with the TARDIS, so why shouldn’t it respond to his snapping his fingers. To complain about this scene is, I think, to miss some of the story’s meaning.

  4. Thad Ritchards Says:

    The fingers are a signal that the Doctor is developing powers. This means that in some story, at the climax, the Doctor should suddenly develop the power “click fingers and… all the power goes out”. This just sets up that the Doctor may be able to pull more DeMs in the future.

    Now, if we got slowly developing abilities, and this was clearly signposted and stuff, then yes, we can look back at FotD as the beginning. Until then, I’m seeing this as an indicator to keep an eye out for futher DeM moments which will point back to FotD as the explanation.

    We shall see. (insert standard ‘time will tell’ line here.)

    (Anyone else want to jump in here?)

  5. Paul Scoones Says:

    This is a character who can make objects disappear into thin air, can move against the flow of time, can survive for a time unprotected in the vacuum of space, can purge radiation from his body, and can incompacitate his enemies by simply applying a finger to the forehead.

    All of the above ‘developing powers’ have cropped up in past stories with no lasting impact for the ongoing series. Why should the Doctor snapping his fingers to open the TARDIS door be any different…?

  6. Thad Ritchards Says:

    The clicking fingers are not a DeM. Most of the moments you mention are not DeMs. The DeM is the plot moment at the end of the episode. It is merely a sign that more DeMs will come, but no, the clicking fingers are merely a character moment in itself.

    THe one moment I would say is DeM is the slowing the time flow. Suddenly crops up as a convenient power right at the end, enables his to stop the big bad of the station exploding… yeah. Not as bad as other occasions, and one would expect a Time Lord to have some control over Time, and for me does strike a sour moment in the episode, especially as the Doctor just otherwise dithers at the earlier fans neccesitating the needed power (and also the then seemingly unnecessary death of Jabe).

    Anyway, I agree that the clicking fingers moment by itself is not an example of Deus ex Machina. (Ths Doctor installed a device to respond to his snapping fingers!) I’m complaining about what it suggests for the future.

  7. Paul Scoones Says:

    Ah, I misundersttod your original article then. I thought you considered the finger snapping to be an example of a Deus ex Machina.

    Regarding the moving against the flow of time ability, I was actually thinking of The Time Monster and Invasion of the Dinosaurs, but The End of the World I guess is another example of the same thing.

  8. the_other_dave Says:

    I’ve always taken the wider interpretation of the term, (it is meant to be a metaphor) refering more to the device itself, rather than the God it produces. While the examples above are the most literal interpretations of the term (and I’d like to add “Deux ex Machina” the Doctor Donna into the mix with those, and have only just realised as I’m typing this that the corresponding half human Doctor has implications for the TV movie that no one else may have considered…. but that may be annother article…)

    Anyway, a wider interpretation would include any eleventh hour devices, solutions, enemy weaknesses, events, and characters (and their personality changes) that suddenly have the ability to close the story and completely nullify whatever the threat may be. A gimmie, a McGuffin, a rabbit out of the hat.

    I would agree with Jamas’ inclusion of “time-stopping” in this. OK, there is a precidence for this previously in the classic stories, but the Greeks “knew” the Gods existed as well. In fact, if this seems to be an inherent power the Doctor has, (and oddly seems to have forgotten about until the final fan) makes Jamas’ comment:
    “the Doctor just otherwise dithers at the earlier fans neccesitating the needed power (and also the then seemingly unnecessary death of Jabe)”
    – all the more damming.

  9. Foo Says:

    While not having the brain power to engage fully (it’s late on this side of the world and I should be in bed), I really didn’t have a problem with Rose in The Parting of the Ways. On the other hand – The Last of the Time Lords – ughhhh. I really enjoyed the episode (and Sound of Drums) but the whole say my name thing really did my head in…and was something that marred an otherwise brilliant episode.

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