Film As we’ve discussed before if you’re a Doctor Who fan, or at least the kind of Doctor Who fan who’s bought every dvd in the range including re-releases and re-re-release (Resurrection of the Daleks), you can’t turn it off. “It” in this context being a habitual awareness of the franchise in other contexts, like not being able to watch the recent series of Law & Order UK without wondering why Martha Jones is knocking around with the Fifth Doctor or noticing that it’s quite some way into Chalet Girl before someone who hasn’t been in Doctor Who appears, the KFC knock-off at the beginning employing both The Unicorn and the wasp.
“It” can creep up on you when you least expect it and believe me, I didn’t expect to be half way through the languorous post-hippie travelogue Eat Pray Love, blurting out “This is just like Doctor Who!” into my empty room especially since there don’t appear to be any casting connections whatsoever. Unlike the previous entries in this series too, this isn’t some desperate attempt to absorb some much loved (or at least liked) material into a franchise which isn’t, let’s face it, desperate for new material. I hate Eat Pray Love, with its grizzly orientalism, leisurely pace and pre-packed la-de-da. Only a few of the performances make it in any way watchable.
That and once I’d noticed it, trying to spot the many ways it is similar to Who, a rabbit hole which opens with the protagonist. Over the years, the reasons the Doctor originally stole the Type 40 and left Gallifrey have been hinted at, most recently in The Doctor’s Wife. The general impression is that he was bored, sick of the stuffy arrogance of Time Lord society and seeking “a great spirit of adventure” and he’s continued wanting taking his companions out to see the wonders of the universe in a desperate attempt to fight a very personal, very fundamental numbness, the kind of enuii which can only develop in someone whose over a thousand years old.
In Eat Pray Love, we find Liz (Julia Roberts) a modern real world career woman who has everything a woman of her ilk dreams about (a house, a man) but like the Doctor is just bored with the whole effort. Once divorced, she decides that the thing to do is leave everything behind and go for some adventures, or as the official synopsis has it “Gilbert steps out of her comfort zone, risking everything to change her life, embarking on a journey around the world that becomes a quest for self-discovery.” So their motives aren’t that dissimilar and neither is their transport. The Doctor has his TARDIS. Liz’s bank account is also dimensionally transcendental.
Liz’s journey is broken into four sections, the prologue which sets up the story, then three other episodes, the eat, the pray and the love, so it’s following the archetypical episode structure of Doctor Who (and given the varying lengths of those episodes not unlike a Big Finish audio). Each of those stories pretty much offers a discrete chapter, so it’s most like the caravan or quest genre of Who adventure in which a TARDIS team find themselves in a new location with new challenges each episode exemplified by 60s stories like The Keys of Marinus or The Chase and latterly the Eighth Doctor audio Seasons of Fear with an overall story tied up at the conclusion.
In order to create some element of pace and cut down on endless shots of planes landing in airports, the transitions between section are rather haphazardly edited with Liz almost popping into existence in each location, thrown into some ensuing chaos and, like the TARDIS team, trying to cope with what each new culture is throwing at her. One of the few great moments in the film is when Liz is tossed around the back seat of a car, sheepishly looking out of the windows as though the walls of the city are going to fall on top of her. It's not too dissimilar those scenes in the modern series, with the TARDIS interior’s erratic enough to throw its inhabitants to the floor.
It’s only really (really!) when we reach the content of the adventures that the analogy admittedly runs into trouble. In each of the different locations, like the Doctor, Liz befriends a couple of the locals. In Italy it’s a Scandinavian and a language coach, in India an alcoholic Texan (played by Richard Jenkins in yet another of his sad man roles) and a young girl in an arranged marriage, in Bali a couple of healers and Javier Bardem. But unlike the Doctor she’s not there to fix their lives, she's there to learn from them: to be spontaneous, be in touch with your spiritual side and um, if you keep the right side of Santa’s list you can snag a Bardem.
The way Liz goes about this isn't un-Doctorish, always open to new experiences, unafraid to ask the difficult questions but similarly willing to learn, a trait that's especially evident in the newer series. It's not unusual too for the Doctor to become the passive observer in some adventures, dragged along by events, his intervention not always instrumental to the outcome especially in some of the historicals. He doesn't effect much change in the final few episodes of An Unearthly Child, other than running away from a cave of skulls and threatening to brick a man in the head to escape.
Plus, in the spin-off material there have been short stories or even whole novels that have hinged on the Doctor learning from some spiritual journey especially in the case of the Sixth and Eighth Doctors who spend an inordinate amount of time moping around, building train sets, attending retreats and in the case of the former rocking with The Beatles. The television series is also thick with unseen stories which amount to little more than an encounter with someone famous because the Time Lord can or showing off some planet like Women Wept to his latest companion, assuming he’s not inspecting a nebula himself.
But it’s just not the archetypical adventure, not that the classic series wouldn’t have benefited from trying something this experimental now and then. Who knows, Colin Baker might have survived the 80s bump if the Doctor had visited Tranquil Repose on Necros and simply been allowed to pay his last respects to Stengos whilst having long nostalgic chats with Natasha and Grigory about their mutual friend and sitting in for Alexi Sayle’s DJ and offering some comfort to the corpses underhindered by yet another repetitious appearance from Davros and the Daleks with Peri finally being taken to Blackpool afterwards.
Except it’s not terribly dramatic which is Eat Pray Love’s curse. As Liz drifts through the film, the only tension is whether we’ll be treated to a flash of Julia Roberts’s smile, the supporting characters rarely on-screen long enough to present much in the way of jeopardy. But nevertheless, the thrust of the piece, her “great spirit of adventures” feels very fundamentally Who-like which is presumably why I had that revelation, for all its insanity. But as the title of this series suggests, I didn’t think it was Doctor Who, I thought it was almost Doctor Who. If only Bardem’s character was revealed to be a Zygon.