[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.