The latest Marvel series Loki is, well, marvelous. Like WandaVision, it’s less about flashy superheroics and more of a character study of one the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most nuanced villains as he transforms into anti-hero. It’s also exactly what I’ve been hoping to see in Doctor Who for more than a decade.
Comparisons to the famous British time travel adventure were inevitable. This version of Loki is a refugee from a broken timeline where he escaped following the events of Avengers. He is immediately apprehended by the Time Variance Authority, a technologically advanced group that is responsible for maintaining the integrity of the prime MCU timeline. At one point, the show even makes a Doctor Who joke when a desk clerk calls Loki “the criminal with the blue box.” Though he means the tesseract, it’s an obvious allusion to The Doctor, who stole a Tardis from the Time Lords and which assumes the shape of a blue 1950s police box.
From the second Loki landed in the TVA headquarters, I was enthralled by its’ combination of petty bureaucracy and godlike power. The décor is 1970s retro and is a slightly-unnerving mixture of government tedium and complete mind-blowing wonder. It’s what a visit to the Time Lords of Gallifrey always should have been.
The Doctor’s home planet was always more of an albatross around the neck of the plot than something to look forward to. Since it first appeared (kind-of) in 1969, the writers have never seemed to really know what to make of the place. Sometimes Gallifrey looks like a stodgy utopia, and others it resembles a near-fascist state under a dictator. What it almost always is in practice is dull.
Audiences mostly got a look at the planet in the classic era during the run of Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor. In adventures such as “The Deadly Assassin” and “The Invasion of Time,” audiences were introduced to a lot of the mythology of Gallifrey such as its legendary founder Rassilon. There’s nothing wrong with these stories, but functionally Gallifrey never really felt like something special. It was just another place where stuffy jerks ordered folks around and needed saving.
In the modern era, Gallifrey has mostly been absent as it was thought destroyed in the Last Great Time War. Both the Twelfth and Thirteenth Doctors have returned there, and both times it’s been incredibly disappointing. Twelve did little more than sneer at the powers that be before thwarting their plans, and Thirteen spent most of episode having the new genocide of the Time Lords explained to her for an agonizing twenty-odd minutes. Trips to Gallifrey are always built up to be this big deal and in the end it’s always something less memorable than any other half-dozen alien worlds.
The TVA, though? That was reality-shattering. There is this great scene where Loki discovers a desk drawer full of Infinity Stones just casually tossed aside. The same desk jockey who makes the Doctor Who joke says that some of the employees use them as paperweights. Loki is stunned into silence. His whole world turned on the acquisition of just one of the incredibly powerful artifacts, and in the TVA they are less important than a coffee mug.
Throughout the first episode of Loki, it’s made apparent over and over again that the TVA is something so far beyond conventional understanding and power that actual gods can’t even fully appreciate it. The people involved dress no more impressively than your average employee at the state courthouse, and they wield their power over with banal indifference. For Loki, it’s the complete subversion of his entire reality. For the TVA, it’s Wednesday.
In 50 years of Gallifrey stories across multiple media, Gallifrey never managed to convey that. For all that the Time Lords were supposed to be important and dressed like extra-fabulous popes, they mostly acted like middle managers at a fast-food place way out of their depth. Even the mighty Rassilon rarely came across as anything more impressive than a dozen other nemeses.
Loki gives a heft to the idea of a time-controlling society that Doctor Who has simply never accomplished. They didn’t even need a lot of money to do it. The TVA is defiantly anachronistic and almost low-budget. It feels like a Jordan Peele set piece. The series accomplished in minutes what Doctor Who has spent years trying to do, and all it required as a few retro-futuristic props and a killer synth soundtrack. As the long-running British sci-fi show tries to find its footing after a very frustrating last season, I hope they are taking notes.
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