The Day of the Doctor
The Day of the Doctor:
The Bad, the Good, and the Meta
Doctor Who copyright © 2013, BBC.
If Steven Moffat is nothing else, he is a product of (what I will call) post-modern deconstructionism, a creator whose work, more than anything else, abstruse and abstract, is "in dialogue with itself" while story — characters and plot — is relegated at best to a secondary position in the "text".
I am reminded of Joyce's Ulysses, a marvellously well-crafted novel by a master of prose and structure, dense with wit and denser still with allusions and references to what would come to be called texts, rather than books or stories. Beneath the artifice, Joyce's tale does contain a story, but it is so constrained by its obscure puzzles it is essentially unreadable to most of us.
Simply put, unless you are a Bible scholar also versed in Grail mythology, or you have an excellent guide (as I did, in Joseph Campbell's The Masks of God), Ulysses is a crashing bore.
Where Joyce went wrong, and a writer like Samuel R. Delany went right, was that the former thought allegory and allusion were the core of his labours, while the latter understands that story is central, the other bits — the puzzles and obscure puns, the complex metaphors and allegories — are extras, like easter eggs on a DVD, gifts for fellow academics (or fans; insularity does not happen only in the academy!). It is fidelity to Story that marks the difference between gilded in-joke and accessible art.
(Unlike Joyce, Delany is very much alive. It would be humbling indeed were he to appear here and tell me — like Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall — that I don't know what I'm talking about.)
Rather than add new water to the River of Story, the post-modern deconstructionist typically diverts a small part of the existing flow, dams it, then proceeds to splash about in the resulting lake which he (more rarely: she) proclaims is in fact no lake at all but the ocean, or at least, the only important body of water around.
When done well, the post-modern waves crash through the barrier or, even better, outflank it and cut across country to create an entirely new story-course. In literature, writers like Samuel R. Delany come immediately to mind. Closer to home, Dan Harmon's brilliant meta comedy, Community, serves as proof that self-reference need not be strictly onanistic.
Too often though, all that solitary splashing only sullies the waters of the ersatz lake, creating a muddy soup that might appeal to a specialized few, but which seldom tempts even the hungriest non-expert to dine. The soup may (as with Joyce) break free of its bowl and re-invigorate the wider world, but more often all that effort results in only an arid and forgotten salt-pan, the creative juices dried up and blown away on a sere wind.
And so it has mostly been with Moffat's Who, a series of ambitious concepts, poorly executed, in which characters and worlds were symbols at best, never people or places. Those stories were largely about Doctor Who the program, not the Doctor or his companions, the people; an endless Ouroboros circle jerk that failed as stories in their own right.
But — and speaking of onanism, Young Geoffrey! — what about "The Day of the Doctor Itself"?
In my introductory remarks, I said that "The Day of the Doctor" (from now on: TDotD) was a happy surprise. It was an actual story, crafted with internally-consistent humour to make me laugh out loud and character-driven pathos that brought tears to my eyes.
Clocking in at about 75 minutes, TDotD felt much shorter. It was a dense story, in which a lot more happened than we have become accustomed to under Steven Moffat, and one in which all of the major characters had important parts to play.
As the various Doctors (I leave to others the pleasure of debating naming and numbering conventions; at least for now I will label John Hurt's incarnation the War Doctor. Meanwhile, those of you interested in such things might enjoy a good introduction to what promises to be a long fannish debate at this DoctorWho Livejournal community posting), new-comer John Hurt, the returning David Tennant and reigning champion Matt Smith all turned in excellent performances.
Hurt was thoroughly convincing as the "youngest" incarnation; a desperate and driven "man" facing a monstrous decision: to become the genocide of his own people and of the Daleks, in order to put an end to the Time War, a conflict we are told (and were given a taste of in the short, "The Night of the Doctor") put all of creation at risk of destruction.
Tennant returned as if born to the role of the 10th Doctor, playing it with a fine balance of cynical despair and broken self-pity, masked by a wicked sense of humour. It was lovely to see him again, and lovelier still that his work was not wasted by the story.
And Matt Smith played his version at least as fully as ever before. He left the broad comedy to Tennant, but did not stint in providing quieter, wry smiles along with the requisite dramatics.
Unlike many special episodes of Doctor Who, TDotD resisted the urge to bring back any and every fan-favourite just for the sake of a crowd-pleasing cameo; for once, there were no wasted parts. Kudos to Steven Moffat for resisting what must have been a lot of pressure from all sorts of quarters, fannish and professional alike.
As all three Doctors were integral to the plot, so too were the companions. If (Jenna (no-longer-Louise) Coleman's Clara didn't get many lines, those she had were important ones. And the returning Billie Piper, who (spoiler!) was not back as Rose, set and kept the story's plot in motion as the personification of a Time Lord super-weapon come to self-awareness, The Moment.
Piper played the role as a new character, with just a hint of Rose, entirely appropriate in context. Like Tennant, she seemed to treat her return as a joyous duty, always on the edge of throwing her audience a wink, but never going so far as to break through the fourth wall.
The minor characters, the "guest companions", were mostly female (Lethbridge Stewart's daughter Kate, her asthmatic assistant, Queen Elizabeth the First, among others) and all played active parts in the goings' on. The women had agency enough to make one suspect Steven Moffat has been reading his internet detractors after all: the episode might pass the Bechdel Test and there wasn't a girl in the refrigerator in sight.
At the heart of TDotD is the story of John Hurt's War Doctor, the hitherto unacknowledged incarnation between Paul McGann's 8th and Christopher Eccleston's 9th.
We knew right from the first episode of Russell T Davies' 2005 revival that the Doctor had done something terrible in the Time War and, over subsequent episodes, that he not only "couldn't save anyone", but that he had been responsible for the destruction of both the Time Lord and the Dalek races. The twin genocides served both to free the program from a great deal of continuity baggage (much of which nevertheless slowly crept back in via the servants' entrance) and of giving the Doctor himself a mysterious but simplified persona to attract new viewers without requiring they complete a diploma program in the history of the show in order to understand it.
Steven Moffat decided to confront those mysteries, to answer questions Davies started posing nearly a decade ago. What was the Time War? How did the Doctor end it? And why did he have to destroy his own people?
Taken on a scene-by-scene basis, the 75-minute narrative motors along at a good clip, building in intensity and ending with a satisfying climax. Its major surface flaw is that the secondary adventure, the Zygon invasion of present-day Earth, never feels like a serious threat. The real focus of the story lies deep in the past (or the never-was) of the Time War and the Dalek invasion of Gallifrey.
This is a Steven Moffat story, so of course time travel lies at the centre of it. (Worth noting: Unless I missed it, there was no mention of how Gallifrey escaped from the Time Lock into which it disappeared in "The End of Time".)
Time travel and timey-wimeyness, in fact, as The Moment brings the three Doctors together and leads them to compbine their powers to (here we go again!) re-write their own personal history/ies, which permits them to save the Time Lords from extermination and/or from being Time Locked.
In so doing, they remove the Doctor's burden of guilt — and not-so-incidentally, undo nearly everything Russell T Davies gave to (or took from — your mileage, as they say, may vary) the series.
Moffat's story simultaneously tells the story of the Time War, and erases it, along with the Doctor's sin. In many ways it seems to render moot everything that's happened since the series' revival.
And therein lie the twin flaws in an otherwise clear diamond of a story.
Under the emotionally satisfying surface of TDotD is a story whose plot, once you stop to think about it, makes no sense. The logic holes are better disguised than usual in one of Moffat's stories, but holes they are.
Also as usual, and also more subtly disguised, is the recurrence of Steven Moffat's moral idiocy.
The flaws of logic start near the very beginning of the story, in the false drama of the TARDIS' capture by a UNIT helicopter (apparently, the "best ship in the universe" is defenceless against airborne grappling-hooks).
We give the sequence a pass because it looks great, and young viewers will thrill to see the Doctor swing from beneath the TARDIS, but it comes down to Stupid But Fun, a reminder that Moffat cares more about individual scenes than story, about concepts more than character.
More seriously, the salvation of Gallifrey doesn't stand up to scrutiny; it wouldn't work.
We are told the three Doctors, using their TARDISes in tandem, will somehow remove Gallifrey from this universe into a "pocket universe" locked in a "single moment" of time. This disappearance will leave the invading Dalek fleet firing not upon the planet and its defences, but upon themselves, thus eliminating the other side of the Time War, like a billion Supermans, each punching himself in the jaw.
Now, the Time Lords have always been an insular bunch, and we're told they're losing the Time War; the defence of Gallifrey is the last stand. So maybe there are no Time Lord colonies, embassies or trade missions. And maybe among all their billions, only the Doctor and Romana — oh, and the Master, and the Rani. And Professor Chronitis. And ... — went out and about in the universe. Let's just say they all returned to the defence of Gallifrey, shall we?
But what about the Daleks. They were never a stay-at-home bunch. It is simply not possible to accept that the invasion fleet is all there was of them. In which case, the disappearance of Gallifrey and the destruction of the Dalek fleet, merely slowed down the Dalek's conquering of the universe.
But onwards. I have (im)moral fish to fry.
Accept the story as given: The Doctors re-write history, save the Time Lords and thus release themselves from the burden of guilt which has haunted the Doctor for hundreds of year.
And yet the story as given also maintains that in saving themselves, they exterminated the Daleks. Genocide.
It seems Moffat's Doctor suffered not because he committed war crimes, but because he committed war crimes against the wrong people. Moffat's Doctor is actually quite okay with genocide — not one of his incarnations gives it a second thought here! — provided the right people are slaughtered.
One could actually make a pretty good case that any war against the Daleks is a Just War and that only genocide could lead to victory in it. But Moffat doesn't make the case; he doesn't even acknowledge the issue.
The Time Lords are saved and that's all that matters. Seldom — if ever — has Doctor Who offered such a chauvinistic message as a happy ending.
(Strangely, the episode's secondary story stands in direct contrast. In it, the Doctor forces humans and Zygons to negotiate a way out of their conflict, insisting that killing innocents is never worth the cost. From that synopsis it seems Moffat must have intended the secondary story as a comment on the primary, but I saw no internal evidence to suggest the parallels were anything but incidental.)
This moral, this philosophical, blindness appears again and again in Moffat's Doctor Who. Consider the girl (and world) in a refrigerator in the above-referenced "A Christmas Carol" or the glee with which his Doctor informed the Silence he had programmed every member of the human race to kill them "all, on sight" in "The Day of the Moon".
It is not the fact that Moffat's Doctor kills that is so problematic; the Doctor has a long history of using violence when nothing else will work. It is that Moffat's Doctor kills so easily, sometimes with joy and almost always, without acknowledging that there even are moral issues involved.
This is especially ironic given Moffat's obvious love for the program's past. Think of "Genesis of the Daleks", when the 4th Doctor could not bring himself to destroy the Daleks more or less in the cradle, or "The Runaway Bride", in which the 10th Doctor nearly allowed himself to die after destroying the Racnoss. Ten's face, as he came to recognize the horror of what he had done is one I can still see in my mind's eye, though it has been several years since I watched the story.
It is almost enough to make Moffat's version of Doctor Who seem like another program entirely, an alternate universe's series, in which might makes right and genocide is fodder for joy and jokes, so long as the "right" groups are the ones on the receiving end of slaughter.
All that said, as 75 minutes of simple entertainment, TDotD was still as successful a Doctor Who special as we have seen in quite some time. If the upcoming Christmas special, said to feature the next regeneration of the Doctor, is as entertaining, Steven Moffat will have gone at least some way towards redeeming himself for the many broken dramatic promises and frankly lousy episodes that make up too much of his legacy.
Having now re-set the Doctor's cosmos to roughly, if not quite, what it was prior to Russel T Davies' revival, the remorseful, angry, bitter Doctor we have come to know (and often, to love) over the course of the past eight years has been rendered moot. No longer a Lonely God, the Doctor's homeworld is only missing, not destroyed. We can be sure it will be brought back to the Whoniverse sooner or later, if not by Steven Moffat, then by a future show-runner.
Which begs the question: will Steven Moffat be that show-runner?
Going strictly on the internal evidence and not Moffat's public pronouncements (we all know: Moffat lies!), there are good reasons to think "The Day of the Doctor" and "The Time of the Doctor" will mark not only the end of the Matt Smith era, but Steven Moffat's swan song as well. Having un-made so much of what Russell Davies built, this looks very much like a fannish creator's decision to gift his successor with as blank a slate as possible.
It may only be wishful thinking on my part, but perhaps the Christmas Special will mark not only the passing of the torch from Doctor to Doctor, but from show-runner to show-runner.