Note: MASSIVE SPOILERS. For both the 50th Anniversary Special (Day of the Doctor) and the Time of the Doctor where Smith regenerates.
And so another era in Doctor Who is over, as Matt Smith fezzes his way out of the TARDIS and in to whatever it is former Doctor’s do after they are done—apparently other BBC dramas. And yes, apparently fez now has a verb form, but that’s just the kind of world we live in these days. Peter Capaldi takes the helm of the juggernaut Sci-Fi show now, presumably with less of a foul mouth than his most famous former gig on The Thick of It. Although the Doctor dropping f-bombs would be hilarious.
Looked at together, both the Day and the Time of the Doctor represent the whole of Steven Moffat’s time as show-runner. They are high budget outings filled with brilliant moments of pure genius that really suffer when you’re dealing with the connective tissue between them. Of course, since that connective tissue is known as the rest of the plot, that can be an issue.
And make no mistake, there are amazing moments in both Day and Time. In Day, Matt Smith and David Tennant on screen together play really well; and despite his character being younger than either of them John Hurt brings a weary souled gravitas to his War Doctor that plays perfectly with the haunted Ninth and Tenth Doctors. And in Time the scene where Matt Smith talks—directly to the camera almost—about how everyone changes and how the important part is remembering all the people you’ve been is chillingly good television. I sniffled, and I’ve always been of the opinion that there wasn’t a scene Smith was in that Tenant couldn’t have done better. Smith walking into battle spinning his cane and railing against the assembled evil of the universe is just a great image.
But then you get to the parts between them, and the overall story-telling. Day of the Doctor creates so many little nagging problems when you step back to think about it that you’re left wondering what hasn’t changed in retrospect. And changing what we knew is by itself not automatically bad, but how it works can be bad.
Undermining the Narrative: Time of the Doctor
One of the problems I have with the arcs of the Moffet stories is that in striving for his explosive moments he undermines the narrative of those story arcs, and indeed of Doctor Who.
In Time of the Doctor this comes about because of how they address the issue of his regenerations. The Doctor is only supposed to have a limited number of regenerations—he can be reborn 12 times, meaning that the 13th Doctor would have been the last. 13 is a good number numerologically speaking, associated with bad luck and other things, as well as luck in many cultures. And in the Time of the Doctor, Matt Smith spends the episode believing he is the last regeneration because of the various horsing around with regeneration energy there had been in previous series.
The episode spends a fair amount of time as a meditation on mortality. Smith reflects on time as a whole, as Tenant has previously done, and we get to see some great character moments. The Doctor with the child-like innocence spends his limited spare time repairing children’s toys, beloved by the youth of the town called Christmas. The Doctor who was so devastated by losing the Ponds (at least to his timeline) views every life he saves as one more victory—tying in to the Tenth Doctor’s words about every human life being worthwhile, a philosophy that is tied into so many of the Doctor’s actions and philosophies.
But at the end of the episode, the Doctor is granted a whole new regeneration cycle in a bombastic sequence where he uses the excess energy to destroy Daleks left and right. He stands on a clock tower winning the day once again, the Time Lord victorious, even though he knows the cost is that his time as Doctor will end.
Now I am not criticizing the fact that the Doctor didn’t die. At the height of its popularity as a worldwide phenomenon no one actually expected Moffat to say “Surprise, pack it in, we’re leaving Wales! Shows over, on to Sherlock!” There was no way for the Doctor to really die here, even if we follow the interpretation that the previous quasi-regenerations were in fact real regenerations. But it is how the regenerations are granted that causes the problems. There is little build up to it, and no comment on it afterword. Essentially Clara asks the Time Lords really nicely, they open a big old crack and do it, and then everyone is on their way and the TARDIS is crashing again.
Can you fill in details? Sure. The Time Lords were on Trenzalore looking to see if they could come back, presumably having a limited (300 years at least) window and a limited amount of energy to do so. Presumably it takes a significant amount of energy to open a giant hole in space and send the regeneration energy through, and this represents a sacrifice to them. Probably it is even a sacrifice that means they cannot use this method to re-enter our dimension, and their aid to the Doctor means they will have to wait and see if they can ever come back.
But that’s not in the episode; it’s all things that we are reading into it. At best they are subtext, but after the miraculous event there is ZERO commentary on it. Yes time was running out and there is only so much you can say and they wanted to get to the big scene with Smith saying goodbye. But that’s the problem: Moffet rushes so much to get to the big emotional payoff that he skips scenes vital to the rest of the plot. Without knowing what it represents to the Time Lords or what it cost them, all it feels like is a Deus ex Machina. Without knowing that it means that the Doctor will have to search for more obscure and difficult means of finding his home, there is no emotional weight to the action. We get to see Smith say goodbye after his victory, but the victory is left weightless and meaningless. It has no cost and no sacrifice.
That is the biggest issue of undercutting the narrative in the episode, but not the only one. As other reviewers have noted the episode is disjointed. At the beginning of it the Doctor has a decapitated Cyberman that we have no idea why he has, and the buildup to why he is in orbit is abrupt at best. We skip forward through his time in Christmas so much that the emotional connection to the town is severely lacking, and so much of the meaningful “action” scenes are back-loaded that it feels like a marathon sprint to the end. All of this further undercuts a meaningful discussion on the nature of mortality to an effective immortal, the emotional connection we have to the choices and people in the episode, and ultimately our buy in to the ending of the episode as anything but Matt Smith’s goodbye (i.e. the episode qua the episode.)
Undermining the Narrative: Day of the Doctor
The Day of the Doctor presents a different sort of narrative undermining: It undermines whole seasons of the show, and the narrative of the Doctor himself.
The stories we need to tell about characters are the ones that challenge the core of their beings. The stories we need to tell about a character are the ones that force them to re-examine their beliefs and assumptions, and may shatter them. Those are the stories that, by striking at the core of a character, reveal the depth of the character. Do they bend, break, or shatter? Do they remake themselves with this new information, and are they completely different or does it shade them in a new and interesting way?
A brief example. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the story that needed to be told about Captain James Tiberius Kirk. Kirk as we see him in the series and in the first movie is a charming rogue, proud of his abilities and the things that he can inspire his people to do—and this is reinforced because we see him and the Enterprise do such amazing things. The very heart of that grinning arrogance is summed up directly in Wrath: He doesn’t believe in an unwinnable scenario. He believes that he can get his crew (at least the ones that matter, poor red shirts) through anything and have them meet for drinks afterword. Therefore the story that needs to be told about Captain Kirk is one where he faces an unwinnable scenario. Someone close to him (Spoilers! It’s Spock) needs to die in order for him to achieve victory, and he has to face what it means to him that sometimes he can’t take the whole pot. He has to face something that is so traumatic that if the stakes were any lower it would have been more of a defeat then a victory. And we, as viewers, have to see how that changes him. That’s part of what makes Star Trek III such a bad follow up. Not only is it not a great movie to begin with, but the triumphant return of Spock undermines the story of Kirk’s unwinnable scenario. The fact that things aren’t immediately hunky-dory again softens it, but in the end Kirk did get out of Wrath with everything he cared about—it just took time.
This is telling the stories a character needs to grow. Han Solo, the attachment-less loveable rogue, needs to care for something deep enough that he’ll get himself in trouble to help it (or her). Shinji Ikari needs to stop running and face what frightens him. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
So who is the Doctor? At his heart, he is the clever boy. He is the fast talker, fast thinker, fast runner; the one who can snatch a victory out of a defeat so dark it almost covered the universe because he is that smart, clever, and inspiring. At least with Ten and Eleven he has an almost compulsive need to be smarter than everyone around him (which leads to a valid criticism of the show I just heard the other day from my good friend Robin of Ley Lines in my links bar: The writers’ need for him to be cleverer than anyone else is detrimental to the character evolution of his companions, who are arguably the actual viewpoint characters and the ones we should see grow and change), and he succeeds.
So what is the challenge he needs to face? A situation he cannot clever his way out of.
And that’s what the Time War used to be. It used to be the one thing the Doctor had to solve in the dirtiest, most awful, and most sickening way possible. To save the people of the Universe, whom he took the very name of “the Doctor” to show he planned to help them, he had to kill his entire race and the entire Dalek race for good measure. He couldn’t be clever or witty and make them be friends, he couldn’t run fast enough to save 2.47 billion children, and in the end he had to make the hard choice. He had to face his unwinnable scenario. And it broke him. The Ninth and Tenth doctors were so different from their predecessors, so much bleaker, that it is clear that this genocide changed him to his very core—as it should.
Day of the Doctor changed that. Instead of affirming that decision and holding the Doctor to the most soul challengingly moment of his life, it gave him a way out. And that way out was to be more clever, to be smarter, then anyone else in the galaxy—even more clever than his previous lives. The story changed from one where the clever boy had to face the sobering reality that he could in fact lose, and changed it to one where he scored so brilliant a victory even the rest of the universe was fooled. He saved his whole planet and won the day because he was brilliant. And it undermined brilliant stories from two previous doctors and six years of television. It took the 50th Anniversary and instead of using it to tell the most important story the Doctor would ever experience, it changed the story to another piece of brilliant fast-thinking for the Universe’s most brilliant fast-thinker.
Now yes, oh ye of the internet tribe who are even now sharpening your spears to rise up against me, those previous doctors still thought they had done it and so their stories and choices are still valid. And yes, every choice the Ninth and Tenth Doctors made is still valid because from their perspective nothing changed—but the narrative that those choices represented has been fundamentally altered. The choice is still valid, but the story is now wrong in retrospect.
I did like the episodes, and those great moments are justly named: They are great moments. But I have a love/hate relationship with both these two episodes (I love them and hate them all at once, like I have a heart for loving and a heart for hating) and with Moffat’s time as show-runner so far. Which is ironic, since if you look at his episodic work under the previous show-runner they really work narratively. Blink is brilliantly done, and the “wibbly-wobbly” explanation and Sally setting up the episode at the end working beautifully. The Girl in the Fireplace is phenomenal, and Silence in the Library is haunting. But on a season or even show long run, the desire for the set-piece emotional moments that made him famous is causing the rest of the story to get muddled or overlooked. I don’t just want a story to have these big moments where the soundtrack scores and the Doctor grins, I want the moments in between that make me care about the big ones. I want the story to work as a narrative, and be cohesively maintained. Sacrificing narrative cohesion and brilliant narrative moments for big explosive moments of drama doesn’t work, because it is the connective tissue that makes the body of the story work.
So there it is, why I love and hate the Day and Time of the Doctor. Love! Hate! Don’t hunt me, internet, I want to live!