My knowledge of American drama series is, for the most part, very patchy. I get by with a mixture of self-proclaimed ignorance and bluffing. I’ve got no ideological hang-ups with any of it; I accept that the first series of Heroes was great and that Desperate Housewives was like Blue Velvet for teenage girls. I just don’t have the time. There is also a part of me that is, I admit, quite proud of the fact that I’ve only ever seen one episode of The West Wing. It feels deliciously subversive. There is one exception: the only contemporary drama I feel able to talk about with any real authority (seasons one to six of The X-Files aside) is 24.
This is an unpopular view, but I’m of the conviction that 24 never jumped the shark. In eight seasons, largely due to its capacity to endlessly reinvent itself, it dazzled and confounded us with a thousand twists, betrayals and feints. Its political sensibilities are ambiguous and there is, I’ll admit, a part of me that feels ashamed of the glee I experience when Jack Bauer is twisting the knife (metaphorically or, sometimes, quite literally) into the spine of a scheming terrorist bastard. I have been told that I cannot enjoy this show and call myself a liberal. I answer that it satisfies a certain morbid testosterone drive possessed by most men of my age.
Key to the success of 24 is its merciless attitude towards its cast: no one – apart from Bauer himself – is safe, and regular and beloved characters are shamelessly gunned down / blown up / poisoned without a moment’s thought. Sometimes these deaths are signposted, but the most effective are the ones you don’t see coming (the opening of season five, for example, was particularly memorable – if you’ve seen it you’ll know why). In playing with our expectations, of course, the show was also guilty of setting up certain conventions, so that by the end of its run we knew how things worked. For example, a seemingly-deceased character was never actually dead unless you saw the corpse (and even then, that wasn’t always enough to keep them from popping back).
Other conventions were the behavioural patterns of unexpected turncoats after they’re unmasked. We usually learn about them at least one episode before the CTU chief does, and it’s generally accepted that as soon as we find out, their previously impeccable mask of respectability will slip completely, and they’ll suddenly find it incredibly difficult to keep up the pretence. This is usually because one a turncoat has been unmasked to the audience it’s not long before everyone else finds out as well, if only because it keeps the show moving. Indeed, such rapid narrative progression is something 24 does particularly well: seasons are rarely about the stuff we think they’re about, and apparent main antagonists are dispatched with gleeful abandon quite early on in a season, revealing layers of conspiracy that usually go right to the top, and someone with considerable political clout.
So Emily and I devoured it. I can still remember the look on her face the night she discovered the identity of the mole at the end of the first season; she spent the rest of the evening wandering round the house, occasionally muttering “I can’t believe it was them!”. But part of the show’s appeal is rooted in its sometimes unintentional humour. We know, for example, that the beloved Chloe is supposed to be funny, and that her Asperger’s renders her prone to bouts of tactlessness (“I just think we need to be really nice to Michelle, you know, because of Tony getting shot in the neck”). But it’s hard not to chuckle when you hear presidential advisor Lynn Kresge announce that “I just got off with the Secretary of Defence”, at least if you’re British. And how am I supposed to take an assassin seriously when, at the beginning of season eight episode three, we get this?
I know they don’t have a monopoly on the name, but honestly.
All of which set me thinking. A Who / 24 mashup would be difficult, purely in terms of how you’d reconcile the very human political / terrorist threats of Fox’s drama with Doctor Who’s extraterrestrial sensibilities, but perhaps a more telling problem might be how the two protagonists would get on – or rather wouldn’t. Jack Bauer gets the job done, but he kills people. You might as well team the Doctor up with Frank Castle. But if it did happen, and if it was, say, the Tenth Doctor because I find his inanities easiest to write, it might go a little like this…
EXT. INDUSTRIAL AREA. NIGHT.
[A large patch of grass and sand, surrounded by a chain link perimeter fence. Clusters of bushes, shrubs, the occasional oak. The sun is going down in the distance, and the autumn breeze rustles. Six or seven GUARDS patrol, machine guns cocked. There’s no indication of what they’re guarding. Nearby, just behind a tree, a familiar-looking blue box. Floodlights illuminate the area, but their reach only partially extends to the tree and TARDIS.
JACK BAUER is lying flat at the crest of a nearby hillock, a couple of hundred yards away. He surveys the scene through binoculars.]
Jack [into cell phone]: Chloe? It’s Jack. I’m at the rendezvous. I don’t see any sign of Curtis or his team yet.
Chloe [over phone]: I just spoke to him. He’s about twenty minutes out.
Jack: Dammit. That doesn’t give us enough time. We need to intercept now, before they move the nuke.
Chloe: I’ve tracked the energy readings to somewhere in this area. Look for anything unusual. They don’t know we’re coming, so you should be able to see it.
[Jack scans with his binoculars. He stops when he notices the TARDIS.]
Jack: Chloe, I think I have a visual. Moving in but I need a hostile count.
Chloe: I’ve got seven.
Jack: Roger that.
Chloe: Jack? Please be careful.
[One of the guards is standing at his post, surveying the area, when he flinches as he is grabbed from behind. It’s Jack, with a knife at his throat.]
Jack: Now listen carefully. Do exactly as I say and I won’t have to hurt you. I am going to move away from you a short distance, and when I do, I want you to lie down on the ground, face down.
[He carefully disengages and the guard begins to crouch, but in the process of doing so grabs his gun and makes to shoot Jack. Jack swiftly plunges the knife into his neck. The guard can’t help screaming as he goes down.]
[All of a sudden, there are shouts as the other guards come running. The air is awash with yelled instructions in Russian, and gunfire. Jack swiftly drops to his knees and pulls out a pistol. He fires once, twice. He empties the chamber. He ducks and rolls. He uses the shrubs and trees as cover. One by one, the guards buy the farm.
After thirty breathless seconds it’s all over. Jack gets up, catching his breath, recovering.]
Jack [into phone]: Chloe, it’s Jack. All hostiles are down. Repeat, all hostiles are down. I’m moving in on the energy reading.
[With his gun still drawn, Jack moves across the grass towards the oak where the TARDIS is hidden. Suddenly, he stops. He points the handgun straight. He can see someone, standing, unseen. Reflexively, Jack points his gun at the figure in the shadows.]
Jack: HANDS WHERE I CAN SEE ‘EM!
[The figure raises its hands.]
Jack: Now I want you to walk slowly towards me. One false move, one sign that you’re not following my instructions, and I will put you down.
[Slowly, the figure emerges into the light. It is, of course, the TENTH DOCTOR, in trademark brown suit and coat.]
Jack: Who are you?
The Doctor: I’m the Doctor.
Jack: I don’t have time to play around. What’s your name?
The Doctor: Just the Doctor.
[Jack fires a warning shot that zips past the Doctor’s shoulder. The Doctor flinches, but not much.]
Jack: GIVE ME A NAME!
The Doctor: Just…the Doctor. [He starts to wander forwards.]
Jack: Don’t move.
The Doctor: I’m just getting a little closer, that’s all. I don’t have any names except the Doctor. Not an alias, not a nom de plume, that’s just what everyone calls me. The Doctor. That’s all you need to know. Now tell me your name.
Jack: My name is Jack Bauer. I’m a federal agent on an assignment to locate a nucular weapon in this vicinity. That’s all you need to know. I don’t want to have to kill you, but I will not hesitate to pull the trigger if you can’t give me what I want.
The Doctor: God, what is it with people I know called Jack? You’re the second one I’ve met with a trigger-happy disposition. Mind you, you’re not as bad as the last one. He couldn’t wait to get his gun off. Preferably with everyone he met.
Jack: What are you talking about?
The Doctor: Oh, nothing, really, I suppose I’m just sidetracked. But I’ll tell you something, Jack. You put the gun down…I can help you.
Jack [cocks]: Why should I believe you?
The Doctor: Oh, I think you already do. I’ve met your type before, Jack. You’re the shoot-first type, not because you like it, but because it’s the only way you’ve stayed alive so long. You could count the number of people you really trust, I mean *really* trust, on the fingers of one hand, am I right? And everyone close to you, or at least nearly everyone, has died. You walk through this world and you do good, but you leave a trail of fire and devastation behind you, and there are days you can barely look at yourself in the mirror.
[He is still walking slowly forwards. Jack keeps the pistol trained, but he’s clearly thinking this through.]
The Doctor: The life you’ve lived has made it hard for you to really trust anyone. But the real reason you’ve stayed alive so long, Jack Bauer, is because you’ve learned to rely on your gut. You react purely on instinct. So tell me, Jack. What does your gut tell you…right now?
[Jack stares. There is a long, considered pause. Then he lowers and holsters the gun.]
The Doctor: Now, that’s more like it.
Jack: We don’t have a lot of time.
The Doctor: Yeah, I gathered. Tell me about this bomb.
[The door opens, and Jack and the Doctor step in. Jack stares around him, in amazement, or as amazed as we ever see Jack get about anything.]
The Doctor: Welcome to the TARDIS!
Jack: How are you doing this?
The Doctor: It’s complicated. I’d explain, but I don’t really think you’d –
[The monitor starts to beep.]
The Doctor: Hello, what’s this? [He starts flipping switches.] Looks like a signal, some sort of video conference, but it’s no one I recognise, and I don’t know – hang on.
[He punches a button, and Chloe’s face appears on the monitor.]
The Doctor: Hello.
Chloe: Is Jack with you?
Jack: I’m here, Chloe, and I’m unharmed.
The Doctor: Sorry, who are you?
Chloe: I’m Chloe O’Brian. CTU.
The Doctor: Chloe! Good to meet you, Chloe. [pauses, reflects] I knew a Chloe once. No, Zoe, that was it. She had her memory wiped in the end. Sad day, that one.
Chloe [wearing her I’ve-just-crapped-in-my-pants look]: OK.
The Doctor: Anyway, never mind that. What on earth are you doing on my monitor?
Chloe: I used Jack’s cellphone to run a GPS trace. Then I narrowed down the electrical signals to find a match for nearby closed circuit displays. Then I isolated the feed and managed to broadcast on the same frequency to find you.
The Doctor: …OK.
Chloe: Jack, you look like you’re inside a chamber or something, but according to my readouts the only building within two hundred yards of your current position is a public phone booth. Is there some kind of underground thing that’s not on the blueprints?
The Doctor: Ah. No, that’d be me. It’s my ship. It’s kind of – well, bigger on the inside.
Chloe: Bigger on the inside?
The Doctor: In a manner of speaking, yeah.
Chloe: How is that even possible?
The Doctor: It’s a sort of wibbly-wobbly…timey-wimey…thing.
Chloe: Fine. Whatever…
The Doctor: Anyway. Seeing as you’re here, Chloe, you can help us find this bomb.
Chloe: That’s kind of what I was doing.
Jack: Chloe, we don’t have time for this. Where did you get to on the Geiger emissions?
Chloe: I’ve isolated them and come up with a likely match. The only problem is they’ve already moved the bomb, so you’re going to have to follow the trail.
Jack: Fine. Send it to my screen.
The Doctor: No, wait. Send it to mine.
Chloe: Which one? There’s like seven of them.
The Doctor: The chrono-analysis LED tracker.
Chloe: That doesn’t help me.
The Doctor [exasperated]: Oh, the yellow one.
Chloe: On its way.
The Doctor [dashing over to the yellow screen, takes 3D glasses out of his pocket, puts them on, stares, takes them off]: Right. According to this the emissions were tracking south by southwest at a latitude of seven degrees, so all I should need to do is –
[All of a sudden, the TARDIS shakes violently. Jack and the Doctor are practically knocked off their feet.]
Jack: Doctor? What’s going on?
The Doctor [tapping buttons, running from one screen to another with his ‘concerned’ look]: Some kind of heat signature. It’s ruptured the TARDIS’s readouts and started a small fire in the engine core. For some reason I can’t access the controls, unless I can patch it from here – [he points his screwdriver into the circuitry of an open panel, and it fizzes in a most alarming fashion] – aaaargh! [The Doctor withdraws, clutching his hand] No good. I’ll have to get down to the main circuit room. Probably die in the process. Still, there’s always regeneration. Probably.
Chloe: Give me the details. Maybe I can help remotely.
The Doctor: No, it’s complicated, it’s Gallifreyan and you wouldn’t understand! I haven’t got time to explain it in layman’s terms!
Chloe: I’d appreciate it if you please wouldn’t patronise me like this. It makes it very hard to do my job effectively.
The Doctor [seething, mostly to himself]: Oh, you humans are so awkward! Fine, it’s a basic algorithm from the expanded Fibonnaci sequence, and you have to embed a crossover into the subroutine that’s based on an ASCII array. Then you have to patch the new source code on top of the original binary.
Chloe: Well, why didn’t you say so? I’ve been handling that sort of coding since I was twelve. Hold on.
[She taps rapidly. The TARDIS is lurching and shaking.]
The Doctor: Chloe! You’re going to have to hurry!
Chloe: Working on it!
[Steam is pouring from the vents now, and the vibrations are louder. The cloister bell can be heard in the next room.]
Jack: Chloe, we’re running out of time!
Chloe: I know, Jack! Stop interrupting!
[Her fingers punch the keys with increasing intensity and the sweat pours off her brow. All of a sudden, the TARDIS comes to an abrupt stop, the systems returning to normal. Jack gets to his feet and dusts himself off; the Doctor is leaning on a panel, steadying himself upright, breathing in and out.]
Jack: Chloe, you did it. We’re back in control.
The Doctor: Chloe, I don’t know what to say.
Chloe: Well, ‘thank you for saving my ship’ would probably be a start. Along with ‘I’m sorry for assuming you were a moron’.
The Doctor: Mnyeah, I suppose we could start with the thank you. But no, I mean it, you’re – brilliant. I’ve never seen that sort of technical wizardry in any human. You don’t have a fob watch, do you?
Chloe: Actually yes. It was my grandmother’s.
The Doctor: Yeah? Does it work?
Chloe: Well yeah, of course it does. Why on earth would I keep it if it didn’t?
The Doctor: …Right. Forget I asked.
Jack: Doctor. Now that we’ve fixed things, I need you to use your vehicle to help me track the nucular bomb.
The Doctor: Oh, Jack Bauer, federal agent, I can do better than that. I can take you right there! [He does the hop-around-the-TARDIS dance, twisting dials, pulling levers, holding on to things and pretending it’s a plan.]
Jack [above the TARDIS noise]: What are you doing?
The Doctor: The TARDIS is zeroing in on the Geiger emissions from the bomb. We should be able to get pretty close. Well, within a few yards. Hopefully not right on top, or it’ll be in here. I still remember the last time that happened. Took weeks to clean up.
[The TARDIS comes to a lurching halt.]
Jack: Where are we?
The Doctor [all serious]: It should be just outside.
[The TARDIS door opens. Jack and the Doctor step out into a dimly lit hangar. Jack draws his revolver.]
The Doctor: You’re not gonna use that, are you?
Jack: Only if I have to.
The Doctor: How did your lot ever survive this long?
[Warily, Jack stalks through the hangar. The Doctor follows. A large, coffin-shaped object lies at the side, hidden between a pile of crates.]
Jack: I think we have a visual. Chloe, are you getting this?
Chloe: Yeah. The readings are through the roof. I think it’s the bomb. But I don’t understand why it’s unguarded.
[Jack and the Doctor lean over the edge of the device. The display is marked with complicated, unfamiliar symbols marked out in red.]
Jack: Chloe, we’ve found it. But I don’t recognise the design.
The Doctor: I think I do.
Jack: What can you tell me?
The Doctor: It’s alien. It comes from the Peradon Cluster. They used to use them for mining. You dump the bomb, it explodes, it’s quick radiation dispersal so you can go back in a week, collect the gold, get rich. Devastated the local area, of course. They were outlawed eventually. Obviously a few slipped the net. But that’s not the worst of it, Jack.
The Doctor: It’s armed. That’s why it’s unguarded. And I don’t know how to stop it.
Jack: What’s the detonation time?
The Doctor: I’d say….within the hour.