Part Three: Nothing Really Matters. Anyone Can See. Nothing Really Matters. Nothing Really Matters. To Me.
One type of reaction I’ve seen to “The Day of the Doctor” is something along the lines of “now every time I watch ‘Dalek’, or ‘Father’s Day’, or ‘The Last of the Time Lords,’ I’ll have to think ‘It’s all a lie. This whole story is based on a lie.’”
If that’s true for you, then I feel sorry for you, because those are among my favorite stories Doctor Who has ever told.
I think when I watch those stories I’ll be thinking “This is that part of the Doctor’s life between the day chose to destory Gallifrey and the day he chose to save it. This story is from one of the most important chapters in the Doctor’s life so far, a chapter that’s over now. This is that story from the time when the Doctor is slowly, surely, over the course of 400 years, inching away from the hopeless moment where he has his finger on the trigger and inching slowly toward the moment when he will suddenly realize that there is hope.”
Okay, that’s a long thing and I probably won’t be thinking all of that, in those words, every time I watch Doctor Who. But I think you get the idea—an entire new layer of happysad has been added on top of the stories that I already loved and still do. Just like how “The Doctor’s Wife” has added new layers to every story in the past 50 years where the TARDIS hasn’t taken him where he wanted to go, but rather where he needed to be.
And I love the way it’s done. It’s like ‘The War Games’ or ‘The Doctor’s Wife’. This story removes nothing, but adds a new fact which uplifts the whole narrative in retrospect. The story begun in ‘Rose’ was about how the Doctor carries on after deciding to commit genocide against his own people.
It’s still that story. That still happened. It still matters.
But now it’s not just the story of what the Doctor is moving on from, it’s also been recontextualized as the story of how the Doctor moves toward the later decision not to commit genocide. And even though the genocide is averted, “The Day of the Doctor” rests on the Doctor’s very real 400-year atonement arc in as a vital part of that aversion.
Far from being rewritten or undone, all that brilliant character development is being brought to bear on the narrative in a new way that propels the show in a different direction. It’s being reoriented toward the future rather than the past. Which is actually kind of emblematic the way Moffat has driven the program during his time on it: while RTD’s narrative was concerned primarily with the past (every arc is in some way about something from the Doctor’s past coming back to haunt him), Moffat’s narrative has always been oriented toward the future (Trenzalore, The Doctor’s relationship with River, and now the Doctor’s “quest” for Gallifrey).
And it’s all pulled off by making use of the fact established in the classic series that, during multi-Doctor stories, the older Doctor tends not to be able to remember events from his younger self’s perspective. So instead of handwaving this fact away, it’s brought in as a vital part of the narrative.
The Day of the Doctor feels very much to me like a story where the “current” Doctor is not Matt Smith but John Hurt. The Moment is his companion, and she shows him he doesn’t have to commit genocide. It just takes her 400 years to do so. And that’s what we’ve been seeing since “Rose.”
I like that. You may well hate it, but I like it.
(I still have more to say on this.)
Repeated disclaimer: All I’m trying to do here is explain why I liked Moffat’s decision to bring back Gallifrey and I like the way he pulled it off and I don’t think it diminishes anything for me. This is my reading and I’m trying to set out my reading based on my understanding of Doctor Who and what I think makes it great and what elements of it are most important to me. I’m not trying to tell anyone else that their reading is dumb or bad.
Part Two: Genocide is Bad.
Look, genocide is bad. It just is. Can we all agree on that? If you want to put forth the argument that, from a theoretical, non-real-world perspective, in certain science fictional contexts where the circumstances are pushed far beyond the limits of reality, that maybe just maybe it’s okay to wipe out millions to save billions, or billions to save trillions, etc, then I am willing to entertain that argument. As long as we can all agree to the premise that, on the face of it, all other things being equal, barring truly extraordinary circumstances, genocide is bad.
And I say that I’ll entertain the argument. I’m not sure I ultimately agree with it. And even if I did, I’m not sure I’d ever agree that I’m comfortable with the Doctor doing it onscreen. Or even offscreen. I’m not 100% okay with his decision to kill Leela and Susan and Romana and the mysterious Woman from the End of Time and lots and lots of innocent Time Tots (and maybe also Ace, I dunno) under any circumstances. I’m not really comfortable with The Fires of Pompeii, either. I’m not thrilled about the fact that the Doctor went on to embrace Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart as his oldest and dearest friend after he wiped out every known living Silurian in their sleep for no clear reason.
And speaking of Lethbridge-Stewarts, in “The Day of the Doctor” during that scene where Kate is threatening to blow up London in order to save the Earth, did you believe that she would do it? I believed that she would be willing to. Maybe you did too, maybe you didn’t. Either way, did you believe for a second that London and all its inhabitants were really going to be wiped out? That going forward, the status quo of Earth in the Doctor Who universe would be that London was destroyed by UNIT in 2013?
I doubt that you did. The audience knows that the Doctor is going to rush in at the last moment and stop her. The storytelling structure of Doctor Who makes it completely absurd to envision anything else happening in that moment. It’s so obvious as to almost be boring.
Which of course is the point. It’s all an exercise in manipulating the audience to the point where they feel like, since the Doctor can’t let Kate destroy London to save the Earth (the very idea that he’d even consider it feels awful), the Doctor can’t let himself destroy Gallifrey.
Now maybe you’re above that kind of manipulation. Maybe you’re rolling your eyes and shouting “He let Pompeii burn! What about those children?” But I’m not ashamed to admit that in that moment, I’m along for the ride. As previously established, I’m someone who thinks Doctor who can, should, and will move on from the Time War. So then and there I was thinking “Sure. It’s gotta happen sometime. It’s a big step for the show but it has to happen eventually. Is now the time?”
Because after the Time War there’s only (as far as I can tell) four ways Doctor Who can carry on:
- Have him be forever defined by this thing that happened off-screen in 2005, for the rest of the decades (centuries?) that Doctor Who continues to exist as an ongoing fictional narrative.
- Have him just kind of gradually move on and get over it.
- The show just ends after a few years, like normal tv shows tend to do, so this isn’t an issue.
- The Doctor saves everyone and it’s like none of it ever happened.
As for 1, I’ve already rejected that. It just doesn’t work, for me. 2, fuck no. To commit genocide is monstrous. To commit genocide and then just “get over it” is beyond monstrous (as the Tennant Doctor points out in this episode, disgusted with Smith’s attempts to forget the toll of his decision). As for 3, pffft. Yeah right. So I don’t see how anything other than 4 works (although as always, there might be options I haven’t considered).
There’s a moment in the special where the Smith and Tennant Doctors say to the Hurt Doctor: “You were the Doctor more than anybody else. You were the Doctor on the day it wasn’t possible to get it right. But this time, you don’t have to do it alone.” They put their hands on the button to press it together. I’ll admit it: there’s something quite sweet about this scene. But still, watching it, I was a little bit afraid that Steven Moffat was going to use Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary to re-affirm the importance and value of mass murder. This was not an idea that made me happy.
But luckily (in my opinion), New Who has a last ditch saving throw that it likes to use to stop the Doctor from going off the deep end. I mentioned before, when discussing Kate and the Zygons, that it’s part of the fabric of the show that the Doctor stops the brutal destruction of innocents, because he just does, because that’s the point. But whenever it looks like he’s gone over the edge, the narrative logic of the Doctor Who universe is such that he’ll have a companion there to bring him back from the brink. And in the case of this story, it’s absolutely the perfect companion for this situation: Clara Oswald.
Okay, just kidding. Clara, as if. I’m talking about The Moment. But more on that later.
I’ve heard people say that “The Day of the Doctor” undermines the entire Russell T Davies era and negates the entire premise of the new series up to this point. What I’m going to (start to) say in this blog post is my thoughts about why I am not disappointed about the way Moffat chose to undo the Doctor’s destruction of Gallifrey in “The Day of the Doctor.”
What I am not doing is telling you that you are wrong to be upset. I am not trying to tell you that you are a bad Doctor Who fan, or that you should shut up and stop criticizing the show, or that you should stop watching the show if you hate it so much, or that if only you had a more sophisticated, broader view of the show you’d obviously agree with me because my opinions are so perfect.
I’m just putting this out there as my explanation as to why I personally think Moffat’s aversion of the Doctor’s genocide is satisfying (to me) and why I think it diminishes nothing about the stories that preceded it (for me).
Part One: This Was Always Going To Happen.
I’m not trying to drag Russell T. Davies’ name through the mud. I’m not trying to tell you he sold you a false bill of goods. The man’s a genius and a saint, as far as I’m concerned. But the destruction of Gallifrey… maybe you thought of this as defining event in the Doctor’s life going forward. Maybe you’re only a fan of the New Series and this is fundamental to your view of who The Doctor is as a character. Or maybe you’re a fan of the whole 50-year history of Doctor Who and you were really into the notion that Doctor Who had been changed forever by the Time War.
In that case, it makes sense that you’d be upset. But personally, I’m not. Because I never saw Gallifrey’s destruction as permanent. And as much as RTD treated it as permanent within the narrative, I don’t think he actually saw it as permanent in the long term, beyond his tenure on the show. I might go so far as to suggest that the concept of “permanence” was always somewhat alien to RTD’s concept of Doctor Who.
The Daleks are gone forever. Oh wait, no, they’re back. Okay, we defeated them so this time they’re really, really gone forever, we’ll never see ‘em again. By the way, I truly am the last of my kind. There’s no way that anyone but me survived. Oh wait, what? He’s back? The Master? This changes everything forever. I don’t have to be alone. Oh, wait, no, he just died again, definitely for good this time, because he didn’t regenerate. How sad. I’m alone forever. Unless someone has some potions to bring him back.
IT’s RTD’s modus operandi. He makes something permanent, stresses that it can never be changed, and then later introduces a one-off exception at will. Nothing can get into a time lock (except maybe Dalek Caan) and nothing can get out of one (except maybe a white-point star). We’re told that travel between universes is impossible—while it’s happening—and then told it will never happen again. Then it happens again. Numerous times. I am not calling RTD a repetitious, boring, or careless writer. As I said above, he’s a genius and a saint, I’m just pointing out a particular narrative technique of his.
From this pattern, one might just have developed the impression that Gallifrey’s return wasn’t quite as impossible as the Doctor kept saying it was. Because a fundamental law of Doctor Who in the RTD and Moffat eras is this: the more the Doctor stresses that something is impossible, the more likely it is that it will happen.
I think RTD would agree with me. I bet he’s as glad as I am that Gallifrey’s back. I don’t speak for him, but given what I know about RTD as a writer, as a Doctor Who fan, and as an admirer of Steven Moffat’s work, I’m guessing he watched “The Day of the Doctor” with an ear to ear grin. (as an aside, Moffat contacted him before writing the special, to clear the air because he was worried that he might be stepping on Russell’s toes a bit, but Russell cut him off and wouldn’t even let him explain because he was so excited to watch the show and didn’t want to be spoiled). Doctor Who isn’t supposed to stay stuck on the past, as I’ve written previously. RTD came up with the Time War because it was a great idea for where the franchise was in 2005. I don’t think he intended for it to still be in place in 2015, 2020, or 2063.
I guess this is just kind of what I always asssumed. At some point, someone in charge of Doctor Who was going to want to advance the mythology of Doctor Who in such a way that Gallifrey still existed.
I had a conversation with a friend four or five years back. I don’t remember when it was—late Russell T. Davies era, probably after we found out that Moffat was the new showrunner. I said something along the lines of “I have a feeling that RTD’s last story is going to be the return of Gallifrey.” I remember my friend was aghast at the suggestion—for him, Gallifrey being dead forever was a fundamental component of Doctor Who. Like Uncle Ben in Spider-Man. Or Harry Potter’s parents. Bringing Gallifrey back was an absolutely terrible idea. Honestly, before that conversation, even though I was mostly a new series fan, it hadn’t even occurred to me to think of Gallifrey’s (then quite recent) destruction as a permanent, foundational fixture of Doctor Who.
But to me, the death of Gallifrey wasn’t a Doctor Who thing, it was an RTD thing. So I went into “The End of Time” in 2009 thinking “Is this it? Is this Gallifrey back for good?” and it wasn’t. And then I went into “The Day of the Doctor” thinking the same thing, and it this time it was. Not only is Gallfirey back, we now know that the Doctor never destroyed it in the first place. He only believed that he had destroyed it.
I like the way it was handled. But I’ll have more to say about that later.
Doctor Who changes and moves on. By late 1966 all of the original production team and cast had left. In 1969 the writers retconned the previous six years of the show and said that the Doctor was not a human from the future but in fact a “Time Lord”, setting up an entirely new premise for the show where the Doctor stopped traveling because these “Time Lords” exiled the Doctor to Earth. Then, few years later, the show moved on from that, too. It kept moving and never stopped. Eventually it moved on from television to books, comics, and audios, and then those moved on and continuously changed, rewriting what had gone before as they went. Then Doctor Who moved back to TV, and it moved on from the past. There was a fresh start, and the Time Lords were gone. But that was never going to stick forever. Doctor Who was always going to move on from that.
My point is that, unless you fell in love with Doctor Who during the early part of the Hartnell era, you fell in love with a show that had already changed and moved on. The era of the show with which you first fell in love, whatever that era might be, is an era of the show that loads of hardcore fans have gotten angry at and turned the TV, lamenting that Doctor Who just isn’t the show they loved anymore. This is especially true of the Russell T. Davies era, which was a much more substantial reinvention of Doctor Who than any previous televised version, and which brought in a huge surge of new fans but which a certain segment of pre-existing Doctor Who fans just couldn’t abide. (And like many Moffat haters, many RTD haters continued to watch the show even while it made them angry.)
And in two or three years Doctor Who will move on from where it is now, and a lot of fans who love where Moffat has taken the show will decide that the new showrunner after Moffat has ruined the thing they used to love. Maybe I’ll be one of those people! I don’t know yet!
I’m not saying that it’s wrong to dislike what Moffat has done with the show, and I’m not saying that you should just suck it up and stop complaining or criticizing. I’m just trying to make sure it isn’t forgotten that changing the direction of the show and rewriting past “canon” is not a particular fetish of Moffat’s but rather a venerable Doctor Who tradition that many previous Doctor Who writers and producers (including and especially RTD) have undertaken with considerable glee. Which isn’t to say you have to like it.
The Cloister Room 070 - All Bets Must Be Upheld
Discussing Doctor Who: The Next Doctor
This week, Tom and Louis randomly arrive on a street in victorian London, where a mysterious man claiming to be the Doctor is doing battle with some Cybermen and a villainess with unclear motivations….
It seems like the podcasts where Tom and I disagree on the quality of the episode being discussed end up being the most fun. Am I wrong for liking “The Next Doctor” as much as I did? Probably!
Chip: Ruffles Max Maximum Taste Flame Grilled Steak Flavored Potato Chips
This is an exciting day because today is the first day I ate a chip claiming to be a succulent piece of a well-balanced dinner. Today is the day I tried Ruffles Max Maximum Taste Flame Grilled…
All I can picture is Cypher from The Matrix munching on a bag of these chips and complaining about how he knows it isn’t steak.
Well, they can’t all be winners.
yes this is what I have been waiting for all my life
Eleven vs The Toothpick