Thoughts on: The Day of the Doctor

I’m not going to lie. I have really mixed feelings about Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary special. On the one hand, I was squeeing for dear life alongside millions of other Whovians worldwide as I watched this special when it was broadcast simultaneously around the world. I was a bleary-eyed wreck for the rest of the day, given “broadcast simultaneously” for me meant waking myself up when it was still dark, but I had no doubts at all that it was worth it. The episode was a roaring success, a perfect celebration of Doctor Who’s fifty years. It was written as a “love letter” to the fans, and I, zealous initiate to the fandom that I was at the time, felt adored. On the other hand, the über-fan in me can’t help but put aside my gushing adoration for the special as a Doctor Who episode and agonise, as only an über-fan can, over the huge ramifications what happened in this episode has for the ongoing narrative of the show. I mean, what happened in The Day of the Doctor was big. Huge. It changed the past and present of the show, and marked out its future. And, I hate to say it, but I’m not sure I’m okay with that.

Don’t get me wrong, though. I’ll start out this review with what I liked about the episode: everything. Or almost everything, as I’ll explain. The Day of the Doctor is some of the best produced, best written Doctor Who in the show’s now almost-52-years-and-counting history. It was only appropriate that, for the show’s golden jubilee, it revisit what’s not only the biggest in-story event in the show’s history, but the event that separates the old series from the new. Eight years of listening to the Doctor’s angsty emo moaning about the Time War, and we finally get to see the damn thing — and the Doctor’s critical role therein. It was a coup on Steven Moffat’s part to write in a heretofore unseen incarnation of the Doctor, conceived as the Doctor who fought in the Time War — and ended it. We were treated to stunning scenes of John Hurt as the War Doctor duking it out with Daleks at the Fall of Arcadia. It shortly became clear what this momentous episode was about when the scene soon changed to a derelict old barn, wherein the Hurt Doctor caressed apprehensively a strange, ominous-looking instrument. “Oh my god,” gasped millions of fans in unison. We’re witnessing that moment. To see the Doctor in the moments before he ends it all; that is truly special. The tortured, tormented expression in the Doctor’s eyes said all.

The story goes on to explore the Doctor’s frame of mind before and after he made the fatal decision to activate the Moment and end the Time War. To end it all and live is the Doctor’s punishment for activating the Moment. To see what he becomes after is the Moment’s attempt to dissuade him. The Doctor’s interactions with his past and future selves are, inevitably, spiked with levity and humour, but there’s equally a heavy solemnity to the proceedings given that, when the Doctor meets himself, he’s forced to confront who he is, especially when one of the selves he meets is the self he’d rather forget, that represents what he hates about himself. The Tenth and Eleventh Doctors are confronted, even shaken, by meeting their dark, shadowy past life whose memory they’ve done their best to repress, and whose reappearance has inevitably conjured up traumatic memories and uncomfortable truths. But for the War Doctor, meeting his future selves is an enlightening experience; he’s encouraged to see that he’s the Doctor again, the man who saves worlds, but yet he finds his post-war incarnations unrecognisable. “I don’t know who you are, either of you. I haven’t got the faintest idea.” As the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors are characterised as “the man who regrets” and “the man who forgets”, and their juvenile behaviour portrayed as a conscious aversion to what they used to be, the episode introduces a fascinating spin on the Doctors of the modern series. The trauma and regret over his actions in the Time War is depicted as having fundamentally changed the Doctor on an emotional level, has shaken his very conception of self to the core, leading him to be the way he is, even to the extent of running from himself. It’s compelling, absorbing writing.

But then it gets complicated. The War Doctor, having seen his future, is, everything considered, enheartened by what he’s seen, and decides that he’s doing the right thing back on that barn on Gallifrey. The Tenth and Eleventh Doctors follow him. It almost seems at first like the Doctor, his post-war selves, has reconciled himself with the decision he made.

“All those years, burying you in my memory.”
“Pretending you didn’t exist. Keeping you a secret, even from myself.”
“Pretending you weren’t the Doctor, when you were the Doctor more than anybody else.”
“You were the Doctor on the day it wasn’t possible to get it right.”

I think this was the most emotionally gratifying moment in the story. The Doctor, having been tormented and agonised over what he did for centuries, loathed and reviled his own flesh since the fateful day, finally makes peace with himself, finally allows himself to see that what he did he had to do. He was prepared to do the terrible deed all over again because he knows that it’s what had to be done, and that he had no other choice. “Thank you,” croaked the War Doctor, an expression of supreme serenity and comfort, that of a man at peace, having replaced the anguish and dread which was there before.

But then a teary shake of the head from the pretty girl in the corner, and the Doctor decides that, actually, no, this is all wrong, and that, actually, he’s been hiding a bit of Time Lord jiggery pokery up his sleeve for precisely this eventuality. It’s okay, all! No Time Tots need perish today! This is where my “mixed feelings” come in. If the story had resolved itself with the Doctors making peace with their decision in the knowledge there was no other way, it would have been perfect. I’m not saying I hate the resolution — I’ll admit even I was grinning broadly when the Doctors were exulting excitedly when they realised there was another way — I just think I would have much preferred it never happened. I set out my reasons at length (but with less coherency) here, but I’ll delineate them very briefly here.

Firstly, the resolution positively screamed deus ex machina. What the Doctor did was supposed to be inescapable, but lo! and behold, the Doctor whips out a bit of Time Lord trickery to save the day without needing to spill a drop of Gallifreyan blood. How very convenient. Secondly, the resolution seemed to backtrack on what literally just happened in the Doctor’s emotional reconciliation with his decision, his acknowledgement that the decision he made could not be avoided. The script sets up the message that sometimes there is no “right” answer to a problem, that sometimes inconvenient, even terrible, decisions have to made which are inescapable. This was the one time the Doctor couldn’t just fly in and save the day, crying “Geronimo!” or “Allons-y!” with the hero music blaring in the background. And then it immediately backtracks by portraying the Doctors doing exactly that. Is the message that there is a right solution to every problem? That the Doctor will always save the day? Really? Thirdly, I’m not sure I like what the resolution means for the Doctor’s character. The Doctor’s actions in the Time War, and particularly his decisive role in ending the Time War, defined the character of the modern Doctor. Common to all the modern Doctors was how the guilt and remorse over the Time War affected him. It added compelling mystique and emotional depth to the Doctor’s character. Now that the Doctor knows he actually saved, not burned, Gallifrey, that element of the Doctor’s character that made him so interesting is now gone. Moffat has tried to find other ways to make the post-DOTD Doctor interesting, such as questioning the Doctor’s morality (for the umpteenth time), but the “Am I a good man?” stuff in Series 8 was inevitably going to ring distinctly hollow after this. I’ve tried to condense my critiques as much as possible because I don’t want to bore my long-suffering readers with an extended rant, but, as I said, I do more justice to my gripes here, if you want to read them.

For all my regret over the continuity implications of this story, I must emphasise that I still love it to bits. I couldn’t help loving it, even if I tried. It’s just a fantastic script, fantastically produced with fantastic performances and contributions by all involved. Billie Piper was entrancing. David Tennant’s still got it, in buckets. John Hurt was a presence to be contended with. Ingrid Oliver as Osgood was adorable. Tom Baker’s cameo was utterly mesmerising, the great man delivering in those moments what was possibly the best little bout of acting he’s ever contributed to the show. The sub-plot concerning the Zygons was captivating in its own right, and could easily have made up a quality Doctor Who story on its own. All the affectionate references to the last 50 years of Doctor Who were a gratifying treat, in the way the kinds of confectionery pastries that melt in your mouth are. It was watching this and the other 50th Anniversary specials, after all, that spurred me to go back and watch the classic stories for the first time. The last word, though, has to go to the three men who were given the honour of playing the titular character on this great occasion, and who each acquitted themselves with distinction. Matt Smith, David Tennant and John Hurt were an absolute joy to watch together. Their dialogue and interactions were what made this story. I honestly can’t remember laughing more at Doctor Who than I did watching the three Doctors together. “It just occured to me. This is what I’m like when I’m alone.” Indeed.

Despite my very considerable gripes, I’m succumbing to the temptation to give this story top marks, in spite of myself. It’s just an absolute triumph, in every way that matters.

Rating: 10/10.

Thoughts on: The Name of the Doctor

“What kind of idiot would try to steal a faulty Tardis?” are the opening words of this finale. Then the zoom out to the magnificent, domed Capitol of Gallifrey with the captions “Gallifrey, a very long time ago…” Without further ado, we’re treated to a scene of William Hartnell as the First Doctor nicking the Tardis for the first time, with a little help from one Clara Oswald. This episode doesn’t mess about in getting across the message that this finale was going to be big, but big in a very different way to any previous finale. Previous finales have all been huge, universe-shaking events, the stakes always bigger and better than ever before. There are no reality-destroying schemes afoot here, no universes to reboot, no Dalek legions to thwart, but, in terms of its significance for the show itself, this finale was as huge as any of Russell T Davies’ show-stoppers or Moffat’s mind-benders.

This finale was rich in continuity, advancing the 50-years-and-counting narrative of Doctor Who more than any dramatic standoff with the Daleks or the Cybermen or the Master has ever done. I love that. For suckers for continuity like me, this finale was just 45 minutes of entrancing viewing, notwithstanding that not all that much actually happened. Given a choice between a soaring series of Doctor Who at its storytelling best, but light on continuity, like Series 4, and a fairly undistinguished series that nevertheless advances the narrative of the show in an exciting way, I have to admit I’ll choose the latter every time. Maybe that’s why I adore the somewhat maligned Series 6 so much more than much of the rest of the fandom. And what we got in The Name of the Doctor was very exciting indeed. The punchy, jaw-dropping pre-titles sequence, showing Clara popping up everywhere throughout the Doctor’s life (with delicious cameos of the classic Doctors), established in an explosive way that, if you thought you know what “Impossible Girl” mystery was about, the answer was bigger and better than you could ever have imagined.

Let’s start with the meat, though. In essence, this is a fairly uncomplicated story about Richard E. Grant, who wants to take his revenge on the Doctor for all the Doctor has done to thwart him. With his terrifying minions, the Whisper Men, Grant lures the Doctor and his friends to his grave at Trenzalore, where he’ll enter the Doctor’s time stream and upset the Doctor’s life (but killing himself in the process). This was all riveting stuff, but Grant could have been given a more convincing motive. It’s the fact that it involves a sacrifice on Grant’s part that makes me question it. If J.K. Rowling taught me nothing else, it’s that malevolent beings like Lord Voldemort and Richard E. Grant fear death more than anything else. Perhaps he could at least have sent a few of his Whisper Men into the Doctor’s time stream to do the dirty for him, instead of killing himself.

One of the critical scenes of this finale was where the Doctor was enjoined to speak his name in order to open his tomb, else Grant would kill his friends. And the Doctor resists. For a moment it seems like he’d see his friends die rather than utter his name, before River saves the day (although, did anyone else initially go “What, his name is ‘Please’?!”) That raises a pretty big question about what’s so significant and critical about the Doctor’s real name that he won’t even divulge it to save his friends. It was suggested at the end of the episode that the Doctor reverted to using his real name during the Time War, when he dropped the moniker “Doctor”, which is why he’s so secretive about his real name, but the Doctor was keeping his name secret long before the Time War. Sorry, my fanboy imagination is running wild here. Just indulge me for a moment. I like the idea that the Doctor has an even bigger, darker secret behind his real name, and his concealment thereof, which he’s kept close to his chest ever since he adopted the name “Doctor”, when or before he set off in the Tardis all that time ago. It’s never really been made clear why the Doctor left Gallifrey in the first place. In Hartnell’s time the Doctor very suggestively referred to himself as an “exile”. But that’s all for another time. The scene was, in any case, a hugely tantalising tease about the mystery surrounding the Doctor’s real name, the secret “hidden in plain sight” which no writer for this show has ever thought (or dared) to answer.

The centrepiece of this episode, though, was the much-hyped revelation of the nature of the impossible enigma that was Clara Oswald. The vicious disruption of the Doctor’s time stream is destroying everything the Doctor has done over his life; whole galaxies are being extinguished in the sky, all the Doctor’s friends dying. To save the Doctor, Clara enters his time stream to expel from it the scourge of Richard E. Grant, frustrating the latter’s heinous devices once again. She splits into a million echoes across time and space, always there to deliver the Doctor from the designs of his rat-faced assailant. Those scenes, portraying Clara living a million lives in a million places and times, stalking the Doctor like his guardian angel, were just wonderful. Clara’s interactions with the Doctor’s past selves were fan-pleasing in themselves, but it all sent a distinctive chill down my spine (particularly Clara pointing the Doctor’s first incarnation to the right Tardis). Moffat sure knows how to conjure up classic references effectively. I hadn’t seen the classic stories when I first watched this, but even I felt enriched by the great invocation of the show’s history that it represented. I acknowledge the criticisms of this sequence to the effect that Moffat has made Clara too important an influence on the Doctor’s life, but I don’t really entertain them. The Doctor’s companions have always been the best of him, as the Doctor himself admitted. It doesn’t bother me that Clara is given such profound importance in the Doctor’s life. On the contrary, I loved the idea.

What tops this finale off, though, is its emotional appeal. For one, the relationship between the Doctor and Clara has just been rendered of cosmic importance, which is bound to tie the two together more closely than ever before. We can see that in the touching way the Doctor risked everything by going into his time stream to recover Clara. Their “reunion” inside the Doctor’s time stream, a distressed and confused Clara tumbling into the Doctor’s arms, was moving. The love and gratitude on the Doctor’s face as he embraced Clara was real. Especially given his realisation about how devoted Clara is to him, that she would go into the Doctor’s time stream, split herself into a million pieces, live a million lives, to save him. Secondly, there was River Song. The reappearance of River Song’s ghost, following the Doctor as he faced up to this terrible ordeal on Trenzalore, was poignant enough, but the revelation that the Doctor could see and hear River all along was too much. “You are always here to me. And I always listen, and I can always see you.” Beautiful. Shut up, there’s just something in my eye. Like a stake. Their final, final farewell had a satisfying, yet sad, air of closure and finality, and, really, there was no better way it could have been done. “See you ’round, Professor River Song.”

Rating: 8/10.

P.S. I have a feeling I’ll live to regret this, given I’ve got exams very inconveniently coming up in the next few weeks, but I want to try to finish off the rest of these reviews for the specials and Series 8 before Series 9 airs on the 19th (or the 20th for me). That means I’ll probably have to do one review per day until then… allons-y! (he says unsurely).

Doctor Who headcanon #1

As a follow-up from my previous post, this will be the first of my personal Doctor Who headcanon shares, which I intend to make a regular feature of this blog. These snippets of my fanboy imagination are inspired by the fandom “headcanon” accounts on Tumblr, e.g. this, this and this, although I intend to make mine a little less, er… Tumblr-y. So without further ado…

The Doctor really did activate the Moment and destroyed Gallifrey and all the Daleks to end the Time War in his original timeline, it was only when he subsequently went back to change events in The Day of the Doctor did the timelines diverge, or the original timeline was overwritten (depending on how you want to look at it).

Like I’ve said before, I don’t like what Moffatt and Co. did by nullifying the Doctor’s role in ending the Time War, regardless of DOTD’s quality as a self-contained feature. My adoption of this particular headcanon is my way of compromising with Moffatt: the Doctor did use the Moment to end the Time War, but he also didn’t. It’s a timey-wimey thing. Contradictory events of two timelines can co-exist at the same time, as Amy said in The Wedding of River Song:

AMY: “I killed someone, Madame Kovarian, in cold blood.”
RIVER: “In an aborted timeline, in a world that never was.”
AMY: “Yeah, but I can remember it, so it happened, so I did it.”

And in the minisode Good Night:

AMY: “When I first met you I didn’t have parents, I never had parents. And then you did whatever it was you did and rebooted the universe and suddenly I had parents, and I’ve always had parents, and I remember both lives in my head, both of them, in my head, at the same time.”
DOCTOR: “…Time is being rewritten all around us, every day. People think their memories are bad, but their memories are fine. The past is really like that.”

So, I know it probably seems like I’m breaking one of my headcanon rules with this one (Rule 6: “it wasn’t a timey-wimey thing”), but here’s an instance where show actually establishes, or at least leaves open the possibility (it’s left ambiguous as to whether the Doctor actually did use the Moment in the original timeline), that two different timelines have taken place surrounding the same events. In any case, I intended that rule to apply to “headcanoning” something out of history because one doesn’t like it without any onscreen suggestion that there was any timey-wimey business going on.

Day of the Doctor Review

[This blog was originally written in December 2013 on a former blog of mine.]

I woke up especially at a quarter-to-six on the day of the worldwide premiere of The Day of the Doctor, bleary-eyed, cursing the BBC for making me get up at such an ungodly hour of the morning, yet excited in anticipation, especially so in the knowledge that “Whovians” all around the world were, at that very moment, waiting alongside me in identical eager anticipation. I had the good fortune to be converted to Whovianism in good time for the Fiftieth Anniversary, such that I could fully appreciate the plotline, the implications for the Doctor Who saga, and what a “gift” for the fans the anniversary special really was.

And what a show. Building on the mysterious events of the Time War, and the Doctor’s infamous role in ending it, it is revealed that it was not the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann), as previously assumed, who participated in the Time War and (according to legend) killed all the Time Lords and Daleks to end the war, but a self-designed “warrior” incarnation of the Doctor, the War Doctor (John Hurt).

The twist at the end of the eighty-minute special reveals that, in fact, the Doctor had never actually killed all the Time Lords. With the help of the Tenth (David Tennant) and Eleventh (Matt Smith) Doctors, the War Doctor discovered he didn’t have to kill his entire race after all – utilising the resources of all thirteen Doctors (including the next Doctor, Peter Capaldi), the Doctor(s) engage in a bit of Time Lord trickery to freeze Gallifrey at the Fall of Arcadia in a moment in time, contained in a piece of Time Lord art, a stasis cube. The Daleks were left to destroy themselves in crossfire, and Gallifrey was presumably saved, to be released from its frozen state at some point in the future. The War Doctor and the Tenth Doctor, as well as all the previous incarnations of the Doctor recruited to help with the salvation of Gallifrey, would not remember saving Gallifrey as the events were outside each of their time streams, and as such the Doctor would not remember that he didn’t actually kill all the Time Lords.

It was a great feature: I loved the engaging plotline, the clever plot twist, the coalescence of three incarnations of the Doctor, the return of Billie Piper and Tom Baker, and all the little nods to the last fifty years of Doctor Who. But I can’t help regretting the little bout of revisionism that the writers engaged in, in creating this feature. The writers are entitled to revise and retcon to their heart’s content, of course, but I am of the persuasion that what the writers have done in this special, while making for an excellent feature in itself, was ill-advised and not good for the programme as a whole.

Firstly, I’m unhappy with the rewriting of Doctor Who canon. The Doctor’s alleged role in ending the Time War, as morally questionable as it was, was supposed to be a pivotal, defining moment in his story. The Doctor’s supposed decision to kill all the Time Lords and Daleks alike, taken in the depths of the most terrible, devastating war in the history of the universe, was supposed to be inescapable: the one instance when the Doctor couldn’t just fly in and save the day crying “allons-y!” or “Geronimo!” or whatever. It was a decision taken “on a day when it was not possible to be the Doctor”, as the Eleventh Doctor said. It made the Doctor what he is today. In any case, it was an important event in the Doctor’s past. It made him interesting, and added to the mystery of the character. But the writers saw fit to say that the event never happened. They were within their right to do so, of course, but I don’t think it was a good decision. The Doctor’s act was a pivotal moment in the Doctor’s ancient storyline, perhaps the most important moment of all. By rewriting it and making it into yet another instance among many in which the Doctor simply conjures up some clever alien jiggery-pokery to save the day, I feel the writers have taken away some of the depth and mystique from the Doctor’s story, his character, and from the show itself. What is the message that Steven Moffat intended to convey with this revisionism: that the Doctor will always save the day? The superhero will always be there for you? There is a right solution – a right answer – to every problem? How shallow.

Secondly, I quite resent how the writers have manipulated the actual canonical storyline of the events of the end of the Time War to allow for their revision in The Day of the Doctor of the Doctor’s actions. The writers seem to have been making out (e.g. by the recurring “No More” meme, and the parallel events involving UNIT and the Zygons) that the Doctor’s decision was a classic Hiroshima dilemma: do I use this bomb and kill many innocent people if it means shortening the war and saving many more? In actual fact, this is a distortion of the story. The Doctor’s decision was not analogous to Hiroshima: the Doctor used the Galaxy-Eater (or the Moment) to kill all the Time Lords and the Daleks and thus end the Time War because the Time Lords had decided to end the war themselves in a much more sinister way, by undertaking the “Ultimate Sanction” – the destruction of the entire universe, all of time and space, and everything inside it (except the Time Lords themselves, who would continue to exist as a kind of disembodied consciousness). It was not a simple choice of taking many innocent lives to end the war, or letting the war carry on indefinitely to potentially claim many more: it was a choice between one’s own race, or the very existence of the entire universe. I imagine if the Doctor had the choice (in the actual scenario, not the rewritten one), he would make the same decision again without hesitation. So, yes, what the Doctor(s) did to save Gallifrey in The Day of the Doctor was perfectly applicable to both situations, but why did the Doctor need to revisit this event in his saga anyway? It was only made possible through a sleight-of-hand rewriting of the Doctor’s history, and the convenient invention of another heretofore-unseen spacey gimmick that allowed the Doctor to save the day without getting his hands dirty. The events of the Time War – at least this particular event – really should have been left alone.

Finally, I regret what this changed history means for the character of the Doctor himself. The Day of the Doctor was the first time we were informed that the Doctor actually regretted his decision to use the Galaxy-Eater and that he would have changed his decision if he had the choice. Of course, the Doctor’s regret is only possible in the context of the changed storyline: in the context of the original storyline, I don’t think there is any doubt that the Doctor would have chosen to sacrifice his own people again rather than let them destroy the entire universe (e.g. his actions in The Fires of Pompeii, and the way he condemned the Time Lords “back to hell” again in The End of Time). Rather, what we’ve seen from the Doctor regarding his decision at the Fall of Arcadia before The Day of the Doctor was not regret, but sorrow. Terrible, debilitating, unbearable, all-consuming sorrow (like here). This sorrow has been a constant fixture in the post-war incarnations of the Doctor; behind the grit of the Ninth Doctor, the joviality of the Tenth Doctor, and the frivolity of the Eleventh Doctor lies intolerable pain, weariness and suffering. The Doctor tries hard to repress his great remorse and guilt about the fate of his people, but it is always simmering just below the surface; it’s almost as if the Doctor’s outward display of supreme self-confidence and jocularity is, in part, over-compensation for the pain he feels underneath – a burden which he carries with him everywhere he goes. This seems especially true of the Eleventh Doctor, who is prone to sudden, frightening outbursts of intense emotion and lapses into dark solemnity, in stark contrast with his usually quirky, frivolous nature; it’s in these compelling moments that we feel like the mask has slipped, and we’re seeing the Doctor as he really is. This darkness and pain, and how it manifests itself, is part of what made the new Doctor such an interesting character, rooted in the Doctor’s dark past. But now that it turns out that the Doctor actually never did that terrible deed, that he actually saved his people and single-handedly ended the Time War, what has he to be sorrowful, guilty or anguished about? Rather, he has an enormous deal of which to be proud. Good for him, right? The Doctor is free to bestride time and space, carrying an unbearable burden no more, once again just a happy-go-lucky spaceman with a time machine and a stylish haircut. Like the Eleventh Doctor without the intensity and darkness simmering beneath the surface. How shallow.

As I said, in and of itself, The Day of the Doctor was a brilliant feature. The fiftieth anniversary special probably merited a feature length film of two hours’ duration, at least, but I’m making no complaints in that department. Maybe the BBC were unwilling to fork out for such an endeavour. But, as part of a continuing plotline, I don’t like what the writers have done. I feel the writers have devalued the significance of the Time War, and especially the Doctor’s role in ending it, in the 1,200-year-long-and-counting story of the Doctor. I often resent the snobbishness of Classic Who devotees who insist that the new series is so shallow, but, in The Day of the Doctor, I’m starting to see their point. It’s rare of me to criticise the great Steven Moffat, but I think, in this case, he has made a poor, opportunistic and ill-considered authorial decision. But that’s just my opinion.