Sunday, November 24, 2013

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special: The Day of the Doctor

I feel like such a moron sometimes when I have to preface reviews with a warning of "spoilers".  I guess its essential consumer advise:  don't read this blog post until you've actually seen the television special, but it also feels so paralyzing.  When a major literary critic goes to discuss John Steinbeck, he doesn't preface his essay with "lol, spoilers".  Hell, even if you read the preface to a novel written a decade after the fact, it will spoiler the ever living time-traveling shit out of whatever that book is.  You can't make good, really intelligent points without giving away the real meat of the product, which unfortunately is exactly what a spoiler is trying to hide.  So if you're wondering "should I watch this Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special"?  The answer is "yes", and you should have seen it a whole day ago.  Now we're going deeper than that shallow thumbs-up, thumbs-down paradigm.

My immediate emotional reaction following "The Day of the Doctor" is best described as cautious pessimism.  The ultimate conclusion of this special is to completely recreate the paradigm and probably the overriding mood of the modern "Doctor Who" universe, shockingly retconning a huge portion of the Doctor's history.  This is actually doing the very thing that makes me hate time travel stories so much:  when all of history can be rewritten, you can just remove or change pesky points in a character's backstory, and suddenly nothing that happens has any permanence or meaning.  "Doctor Who" for the most part has been smart enough to avoid doing that thanks to all kinds of deeper rules about how you cannot interfere with your past, how there are certain points in history that cannot be changed, and even going so far as to call somebody who would rebuild history, no matter what the motive, to be committing terrible sins of hubris*.  Well, guess what?  The Doctor does all of those things at once, breaking every rule of logic and good narrative sense.

That I am not sitting here in tears shows the strength of show-runner Steven Moffat's writing and tone in "The Day of the Doctor".  It is a very good episode of this show, surprisingly grounded for much of its running time despite being a massive anniversary in the series history featuring three Doctors at once.  Basically the main foe of this episode is an alien race that could have been in any episode, featuring a small-scale adventure who is not exactly defeated but peacefully dealt with thanks to the Doctor's superpowered cleverness.  Russell T. Davies would have shot for the grandest most operatic of adventures in massive scale, but Moffat's strength is generally keeping the adventures small, even in anticlimaxes.  The new John Hurt Doctor is no cackling supervillain, he's just another Doctor with his own moments of goofy Doctor charm.  It could even be called an anti-climax, but only if you're judging emotional and narrative strength in that uniquely American scale:  by how big and expensive the explosions are.  What we have here is David Tennant and Matt Smith dancing together in a hilarious fashion, working off the emotional terror brought back by John Hurt's secret Doctor, and solving a universal crisis in grand optimistic style, its nothing an audience cannot love.

However... there's the problem of how this all fits into the rest of the Doctor Who universe.

"The Day of the Doctor" was set up a few months ago by the Season 7 finale, "The Name of the Doctor", a rather mediocre episode which very unskillfully dodged the issue of finally revealing the Doctor's name by instead giving us another even greater Doctor secret:  a twelfth, previously unknown Doctor played by John Hurt.  He proclaimed ominously "What I did, I did without choice... in the name of peace and sanity" causing the Eleventh Doctor to reply - with a shocking amount of hate - "But not in the name of the Doctor."  So who is this Hurt Doctor?  What did he do?  What possible crime could the Doctor have committed in his past lives that was so awful that he hid away not just the crime but an entire incarnation of himself?

In the very first seconds of "The Day of the Doctor", this is revealed:  John Hurt's Doctor is the man who destroyed Gallifrey at the end of the Time War - an act the audience has long known about, its been the sin that the last three Doctors have carried around, building the main character of modern "Doctor Who".  Its the most obvious solution to the mystery, and I guess disappointing to me on a fanboy level.  It does mean that the 50th Anniversary Special can immediately junk away the Black Box - I imagine if J. J. Abrams was watching he burst into tears.  If you were in the audience watching just to see the Box revealed, then you were watching for the wrong reasons.  Also, that the depiction of the Time War is basically nothing more than a Dalek invasion of a single planet, not featuring the absolute madness of all of time and space that David Tennant's Doctor described back in "The End of Time", is also no-never-mind.  Its disappointing, but if you wanted to see it, you're watching the wrong show.  Then again, no show ever could hope to depict the Time War on any level**, it is beyond the budget and skill of any writer.

Just as fast as that mystery is solved, "The Day of the Doctor" then reveals Rose Tyler to actually be the control system of a Time Lord superweapon which ended the Time War.  She is a weapon of so much power that she is basically God in this episode, and creates the events that cause the three Doctors to come together.  I also like how even though its never stated, the Badwolf felt so much compassion for the Doctor it followed him to Earth to help him regain his - I hate to use the word "humanity" for a Time Lord - I guess Doctor-ness, which was the plot of the first season of the rebooted "Doctor Who".

The Three Doctors then go off to defeat some shape-shifting monsters who managed to kidnap Queen Elizabeth I and almost take over UNIT, a properly silly "Doctor Who" adventure.  Its fun stuff, especially how it weaves the time travel into the narrative, a trick Steven Moffat is particularly good at.  Fezes show up across the prologues, and the fezes come together to link up the Doctor's.  A minor phone call from a side character in the first ten minutes turns out to be the Doctor calling into the past/future/whatever (its very Timey-Whimey) and is the essentially key to saving the world.  You also have to love how the John Hurt Doctor is able to mock the wacky comedy stylings of the newer Doctors "do you always have to talk like children?" "Do your hands ever stop moving?"  Physically he seems to be a much older man, but there's something about his presence and thinking that makes him seem younger than the other two. 

Three tones of Doctor come together well:  one living a nightmare, one carrying the burden of solving that nightmare, and a final one, trying to move on past that nightmare.  Essential to all of it is the connection of that one terrible act:  destroying Gallifrey.  It has painted everything we know about modern "Doctor Who", a deep weight that has continued to give this character depth throughout all of his manic comedy and various victories.  If that was retconned, what would be left of the Doctor?

Well, that's a question that Steven Moffat is bold enough to answer.   The three Doctors at the end, despite all evidence and amazing John Hurt lines ("lesser men must light the fire") to the contrary, they decide to redo history and save Gallifrey, not lock in away in a Time Lock where it was burned away.  They, in extremely impressive Doctor fashion, gathering up a legion of every incarnation of himself both past and present - Peter Capaldi cameo! - all come together to freeze Gallifrey into a pocket dimension, where maybe in Season 8 the Doctor can find and save his home.  The Dalek invaders very obediently destroy each other, since Daleks are disappointingly very stupid creatures who can be counted upon to be easily dispatched in a matter of seconds***.  Its impossible to not get swept up in the mighty emotional power of three Doctors and another eight pieces of stock footage all gathering together to save their planet, and its this child-like gleeful moment of triumph that only "Doctor Who" can supply.

BUT this is still a huge retcon.  And probably a very dangerous one.  The Doctor being the last of his kind has always been the standard that has separated the modern "Doctor Who" from its classic incarnation.  He's had to walk this lonely road of seven seasons trying to forget this great terrible act he committed, and more dangerously, avoid trying to fall into the wicked hubris that turned his people into such awful threats to the universe.  There's always that heavy moment when any of the new Doctors has to tell his companions that he had done, what he is capable of, and just how dangerous this time traveling business can become.  Its this dark visage of the past, threatening all adventures, things can get this badly out of hand that you end up with a war across all of existence past and future.  Its also a warning on the character himself of the Doctor:  he has committed genocides in the past, even on his own people, even when knowing the number of billions of Time Lord children who had to die, all to save the universe.  There is a seething rage within this character, one partially for himself, one partially towards the threats of the universe, one that dominates every interaction.  Its why he's kept every companion on some level at arm's length, its why he cannot have a place.  Why does the Doctor act so manic, so desperately silly?  All to cover up this incredible pain.

Russell T. Davies was actually brilliant when he created the idea of the Time War.  It accomplishes so much in a single move.  First of all, the old meandering dusty canon of Classic "Doctor Who" can basically be set aside, with the those parts slowly reintroduced at the series' own pace, and maybe leaving behind the parts that did not work forever.  (I still haven't watched Classic "Doctor Who", by the way.)  It recreated the paradigm of the character, turning him into this Lonely God figure with so much more to offer than just an eccentric Time Traveler.  To old fans is makes the reboot exciting and new, since all of the old bets and rules are out of the window.  And to new fans, the past is made not unimportant, it all still happened, but not suffocating.  The Time War is this captivating epic that is beyond our understanding, but paints everything.

To just ditch it is an act of huge bravado.  It is completely tearing away the status quo.  The Time War still happened, and the rules of this Timey-Whimey stuff means that the Doctor still thinks he destroyed Gallifrey, so none of the previous episodes are getting retconned.  But does it still have the same weight?  And its interesting that "The Day of the Doctor", the hugest moment in the Moffat era, comes to the very opposite conclusion of "The End of Time", the hugest moment of the Davies era.  "The End of the Time", by the way, is my favorite episode of "Doctor Who" and probably always will be****.  I guess somehow Moffat will conveniently find a way for Gallifrey to come back and somehow not have Rasillon destroy the universe and time itself.  I doubt Timothy Dalton is going to return soon.  On a better scale, this does mean there is a way for the Master to return, the greatest of all Doctor Who villains.  I cannot say I agree with this decision, but its heart is in the right place.  We're definitely jumping very fast right now into a new era, whether there's a shark under our skis is a something only time will tell.

In the immediate future right now we have in just a month another huge "Doctor Who" event, where the Eleventh Doctor will have to die in a battle against his long-rivals, the Silence.  Just right after this huge shake-up we're going to see the grand climax of the entire Matt Smith era, and the entrance of Peter Capaldi, a much older but still brilliant actor.  Watch "Torchwood: Children of Earth"***** and see Capaldi steal the show as the meek bureaucrat John Frobisher, and you'll know the future is bright for this series.  But I'm still worried.  Retcons are bullshit, no matter what the intentions, no matter where you're going.  We'll have to meet the new Doctor, who is either Twelve or Thirteen, John Hurt muddles everything, before we can realize what has really happened tonight.

Also, Tom Baker and Paul McGann both make surprise cameos!  Thanks to this special we've finally seen every Regeneration of all of the Doctors.  And Tom Baker, my dad's Doctor Who, shows up to offer a whole new realm of possibilities beyond anything we've seen so far.

* See "Waters of Mars", the closest the Doctor ever came - to my knowledge - to becoming a supervillain.

** I always found the Time War to be an incredibly cool idea, but one best kept in the past.  I guess I'm assuming slightly, but it was basically a great war that spread across the entire universe across all of time, against two time traveling civilizations.  How you even make sense of that sort of conflict, let alone try to show it on a regular television show budget, is simply impossible.  David Tennant describes it as such:  ""You weren't there in the final days of the War. You never saw what was born.  But if the Time Lock's broken, then everything is coming through.  Not just the Daleks but the Skaro Degradations, the Horde of Travesties, the Nightmare Child, The Could-Have-Been King and his army of Meanwhiles and Never Weres.  The War turned into Hell and that's what you opened, right above the Earth.  Hell is descending."  All of that sounds amazing, but will immediately seem pathetic if ever shown, its best left to the imagination.  I don't know what "The Nightmare Child" is, and it sounds like something you really do not want to see.  Steven Moffat's Time War is just Daleks fighting Time Lords in burning cities... so maybe the Tenth Doctor exaggerated?  Or it was the only way possible to show even that little bit.  Because this sort of story does not belong in a Doctor Who show, its too far off of the tone.

*** Seriously, they have to make the Daleks scary again.  Its all too easy for the writers to create a fleet of Daleks to add tension to an episode, but it appears the more Daleks there are, the less menacing and effective they are.  In Season 1, a single Dalek nearly killed the Doctor and was able to destroy everything that was thrown at him.  Later on only a handful of Daleks could take on the entire Cybermen invasion - notably they got defeated the second they started dropping an armada on London.  Now countless Daleks along with an army of probably billions of bizarre alien allies and the greatest of evil schemes was nice enough to destroy itself out of narrative convenience.  Daleks are more adorable than scary now.

**** Really off-topic, but the moment that really cements to me the genius of David Tennant's era and "Doctor Who" in general is right after the Gallifrey and the Master and the Timothy Dalton business is concluded.  The Doctor has survived all of these cataclysmic disasters and great events, leaving only little old Wilfred Mott trapped in a silly glass closet.  The man is going to die in there, and the Doctor has to take his place.  This after he saved the Earth, he saved the universe, he defeated all of his rivals, and still survived, even knowing this adventure was close to the end of his reign.  And he dies not for those magnificent things, but for an old man, just one person.  That's heroism, there is no sacrifice too small, no man or creature unworthy of the Doctor's help.  Anybody can die for the universe - if the universe goes, we all go - but who is willing to die for an old man?  The Doctor is, that's why he is important.

***** Actually, don't.  That series sucked ass.


  1. I honestly thought the special was amazing. But I understand that the whole retcon thing seems to not sit so well. It was the 50th anniversary, and I believe something earth-shattering or saving, had to happen to propel the story forward. Something big and monumental had to happen because of the 50th Anniversary and this I believe was a fitting change and movement.
    The Doctor has grown from these experiences, he's had all this time to realise his mistake in destroying Gallifrey and lest we forget it's a kids a show and the Doctor is a hero and therefore capable of saving the day even though he previously destroyed everything he held dear.

    Also, now the Doctor is finally capable of moving on and it opens up a new road for him to explore, a road where he has finally grown up and accepted that genocide is never the answer, where he can stop avoiding his past and be who he is, an old mad dude with a box - enter Peter Capaldi. I am so excited to see what he will do with the role, and one split second of his intense eyes was more than enough to get me dropping my tea everywhere... I know it's for all ages but if he doesn't bring some creative Malcolm Tucker-esque insults to the table I'll feel it's a missed opportunity.

    Oh and I dunno if it's worth mentioning this or if they are available but it's very much worth watching The Night of the Doctor (a glimpse of what could have been with Paul McGann as the doctor) and Fiveish Doctors - five six and seven all make a surpreme effort to be involved in the festivities and I swear I almost liked it more than the special itself.

    As ever, I love to read your thoughts, so thanks for posting about this :)

    1. You see, I don't think destroying Gallifrey WAS a mistake. Its certainly wonderful that the Doctor could summon thirteen versions of himself and break every established rule of time travel to save the day, but that's only thanks to the magic of supreme plotkai. Yeah, there were lots of innocent people on Gallifrey, but there's still the massive problem that the Doctor is saving a world that had unleashed unimaginable horrors upon the universe, and is bringing back at least two terrible supervillains - Rossillan and the Master. So more plotkai is needed to keep those things away, or hopefully the audience just forgets.

      In the actual situation, the actual moment of pressing that button, I would have pressed it and I would have pressed it every time for the rest of my life. Then again, I am much more cynical person and could never be a Doctor.

  2. I honestly thought he would push the big red button but then it was a feint to gain a big happy ending. Also, bringing back The Master is always a possibility as he is a fan favourite and in a new incarnation could unleash all sorts of trouble, as would Rassilon, so those would be villains to tackle at a later date and also provide some big bombastic plots; plus saving the majority and his home felt like the key decision.

    The writers seemed to need a refresh to give the Doctor his next big push and provide new possibilities to explore and perhaps the Doctor finding Gallifrey and being reminded of how it wasn't quite as rosy as he had remembered will be as devastating as anything else. My main assumption for the whole process was they needed some new avenues to explore and a big change to facilitate that. Plotting and logic have never been more fluid than when Moffat has been in charge but I do like his stories.