Rust Cohle and The Doctor: Watching The Detectives


Some spoilers for series 1 of True Detective and series 8 of Doctor Who follow.

The televisual landscape is an ever-shifting one, and two of the most famous shows of 2014, True Detective and Doctor Who, go a long way to illustrating this, and to showing how a brand new formula can not only reinvigorate a series, but make you think about life and ‘the bigger picture’. Now that 2014 is drawing to a close, I’m taking another look at both shows.

Take True Detective, a grim, gothic police procedural starring Woody Harrelson and actor of the moment Matthew McConaughey, tackling philosophical ideas and a grisly unsolved case which spans 17 years, flashbacks and all. Take Doctor Who, a family-centred sci-fi drama following the adventures of a manic alien genius through time and space. Looking at each on their own, you truly wouldn’t think to put them together. But they have more in common than you’d think.

True Detective was notable in many respects, but its greatest achievement was the overwhelming sense of something close to nihilism which it brought to its story of broken lives, a broken region and people struggling to do the right thing. This was no more evident than in the character of Rust Cohle (McConaughey), whose pessimistic musings on life drive the plot forward.

His phrase ‘Time is a flat circle’, or in McConaughese, ‘Tiihm is a flaht serkul’, was the prime example of this. The idea that certain people will forever be locked in a dark cycle of events was chilling, and helped to propel the series’ story to new heights (and in some ways, depths). For all of its hi-jinks and its generally cheery tone, Doctor Who essentially follows the same principle – the Time Lord will have a companion, go on travels, make sacrifices and eventually end up alone again. For all of his attempts to help people throughout the cosmos, he himself is essentially going in a circle. When you think about it like that, it’s no wonder the latest incarnation of the TARDIS master has a perpetually sour face.

The new Doctor’s demeanour has ushered in a new age for the show. It’s more thoughtful, he’s more reflective, and he’s also creepier and grumpier. He wishes to atone for his wrongs, and now (in a step on from Matt Smith’s Doctor) not only finds human beings’ quirks strange, but (save for assistant Clara) doesn’t take any interest in trying to understand them. Instead, this Doctor follows up hunches, and has blackboards full of his scrawled writing hung up in the TARDIS – he’s obsessed with finding out how things work, with being a detective, and often puts knowledge before people. He’s the dispassionate Doctor (to some extent), just as Rust is the distant, perceptive observer of his world.

Rust has always been a detective, and the loss of his daughter drove him to despair, only for him to resurface as a cynical loner. He believes that although some people may be bad, ‘the world needs bad men’ to ‘keep the other bad men from the door’. In the same respect, the Doctor says he’s ‘made many mistakes’ and that it’s time he ‘did something about that’. Number Twelve (officially at least) is hung up on whether or not he’s a ‘good man’, and is always searching for answers.

As a result, he’s always determined to forge ahead, sometimes forgetting the people he leaves in his wake. This often reaches so far that he – in a marked change from previous incarnations – is perfectly willing to sacrifice characters who are in trouble in order to reach his next goal. A Smith or a Tennant would go all-out to save everyone, whereas Capaldi’s Doctor appears to believe in collateral damage. Both he and Rust look into the happenings and the secret goings-on of other worlds, or the lives of others, seeking to do right, seemingly no matter what the cost.

The two shows engage with the difficulties of keeping promises over an entire lifetime. In both, people are hurt. Lies are told. In one, marriages fail and minds are lost. And yes, True Detective may be the far superior show to Who in terms of the quality of the series we’ve just had, but both of them essentially make the same point. We need people who, to quote Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon in The Dark Knight Rises, ‘plunge their hands into the filth so that you can keep yours clean’, and are willing to do what others are not for the good of all. As in that great film, time is something that has worn down both protagonists here.

They are two people who could be seen as ostensibly ‘bad’, but are forever hunting and trying to stop those who are worse – fighting the darkness, no matter the darkness within themselves. Sirius Black, one of the main characters in the Harry Potter series (a cornerstone of my own childhood), says in the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, ‘We’ve all got both light and dark inside of us – what matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.’ And so, no matter the fact that both characters have done some serious things (both past and present), if they try to do good, is that what really matters? That’s a moot point, and one which may remain unanswered, going in a circle.

But are we over-simplifying matters by equating the characters’ struggles to good versus evil? Perhaps, but at least the issues of good and evil, and what constitutes them both, are being looked at (through the prism of watchable shows) in a manner that perhaps goes deeper than your average piece of telly. Rust Cohle and the Doctor may be conflicted characters, but they want the same thing – peace – and on the whole, they end up getting it. Spoiler alert – as Rust (rather unintelligibly) states at the end of Detectives first series, ‘Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light’s winning.’

So is it really? That’s up to how the viewer sees it, but with two such people around, the universe may at least stand more of a chance – albeit via a more circuitous, wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey route.

Alex Nicholson

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