Saturday, November 23, 2013

Nomination for my least favorite episode of anything ever: The Day of the Doctor

Herein you will find spoilers for basically all of Doctor Who ever, including The Day of the Doctor. Also, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Read at your own peril.

          The summer I was 13, my mother read all the Harry Potter books. I had already read them, of course, and I was so excited that my mom was giving them a shot, because she’d tried before and given up. But this time, she persevered. More than persevered; she got into them. Periodically, when something really exciting happened, she would call me to let me know where she’d gotten.

            One day, when Mom was reading Goblet of Fire, I got a call from her while I was at camp. I let it go to voicemail. When I checked it a few hours later, I heard this:

            “It was Moody.”

            That was it. That was the message. I wish I still had it, because I’d upload a recording and attach it to this post. Never have I heard such devastation in a three-word sentence about Harry Potter.

            Later, I asked my mom why she was so upset. She told me it wasn’t so much that she was attached to Moody, as that she was invested in the Triwizard Tournament. She’d spent 650 pages of a 700-page book rooting for Harry, wondering if he would win, being relieved when he succeeded, wishing and hoping and praying. And then in the end, it turns out it was all rigged. Harry never actually had a chance of losing at all. All that emotion—on Harry’s part and my mom’s—all that emotion, wasted on a lie.

            This is not a post about Harry Potter. This is a post about Doctor Who. This is a post about the Time War.


            The 2005 Doctor Who is not a reboot of the classic series, but neither is it entirely the same animal. The series share a continuity and a few characters, but they differ in their sensibilities. Their tones, their themes, and their styles are all considerably different. To an extent, this is true of many eras in the show’s history; Doctor Who reinvents itself with every Doctor and every showrunner. But it’s especially true of New Who and Classic Who.

            The difference-maker is the Time War. Specifically, the end of the Time War, and the Doctor’s actions there. Not fully revealed until The End of Time, the Doctor’s decision—his war crime—turns him from a renegade wanderer into a lone survivor. It turns him from a (relatively) carefree adventurer into a haunted, desperate atoner. It changes him. Fundamentally. Every New Who Doctor has carried the legacy of the Time War with him. Nine, Ten, and Eleven have all struggled with the moral implications of it. It’s the thread that holds them together: For seven series, the deepest, the most moving, the most meaningful moments of Doctor Who have always carried in them the echo of the genocide of the Time Lords.

            And now, apparently, it never happened.

            To say that I’m disappointed is not an understatement. “Disappointing” is not even the spectrum that I’m working from. I’m not disappointed; I’ve been cheated. The game was always rigged.

            Imagine that in season eight of House, it was revealed that House’s leg had never been injured. It was all in his head. Not only is he fully capable of walking now, he has been since the moment we met him. He never had an infarction. The infarction was a dream.

            Imagine that in Iron Man 3, we learned that Tony Stark had never been a weapons manufacturer. He was actually a toy-maker; he only dreamed that he built missiles. He only imagined that bombs he’d invented had killed thousands.

            Imagine that in season four of Angel, we learn that Angel’s soul wasn’t given to him by a gypsy in retribution for the many horrors he’d caused. Rather, he’d had a soul from the moment he became a vampire, and the gypsy cursed him to believe that he’d murdered and tortured thousands of people.

            That’s what’s just happened to Doctor Who. Every moment in the past seven series that derived its weight from the Time War has been cheapened. And there have been many such moments. The show is built on them, in fact.

            If you watched The Day of the Doctor—and if you haven’t, what are you doing reading this?—you’ll remember this bit:

John Hurt: You’re about to murder millions of people. 
Kate Lethbridge-Stewart: To save billions. How many times have you made that calculation?  
Eleven: Once. Turned me into the man I am now. I’m not even sure who that is anymore. 
Ten: You tell yourself it’s justified, but it’s a lie. Because what I did that day was wrong. Just wrong.

            Steven Moffat, apparently not content to literally rewrite the history of the show, has rewritten it figuratively as well. Over the past seven series, the Doctor has made that calculation dozens of times—and he hasn’t always decided it was wrong.

            In the series one finale, “The Parting of the Ways,” the Ninth Doctor, cornered on a space station by a horde of Daleks poised to exterminate the world, builds a delta wave transmitter. The delta wave will destroy the Daleks, but will also kill most of the humans on Earth. With his hands on the trigger, the Dalek Emperor taunts him. “What are you, coward or killer?” the Dalek asks. The Doctor takes his hands off the trigger. “Coward, any day.”

            In series four, episode two, “The Fires of Pompeii,” Donna and the Tenth Doctor end up in Pompeii, the day before the destruction of Mount Vesuvius. Towards the end of the episode, they end up inside the volcano. They realize that the mountain is the base for the rock monsters they’ve been battling, unless the mountain is destroyed—unless the volcano erupts—the rock monsters will take over the Earth, killing all humanity. The Doctor puts his hands on the self-destruct lever. Donna puts her hands over his. They push the lever, erupting the volcano, and killing everyone in the city of Pompeii.

            In series five, episode two, “The Beast Below,” the Eleventh Doctor and Amy discover that a space ship has captured a space whale, and is torturing it into carrying the ship on its back. The Doctor, faced with two bad options—letting the space whale be tortured indefinitely, or letting the thousands of innocents on the spaceship die—chooses to lobotomize the whale. He is saved by a last-minute realization from Amy, but nonetheless, that’s his choice.

            In series seven, episode three, “A Town Called Mercy,” the titular town of Mercy is being threatened by a cyborg soldier, who says that unless the town turns over an alien in their midst, a war criminal by the name of Jax, everyone in the town will die. The Doctor picks Jax up and carries him over the city limits himself, handing him over to the cyborg. (Jax, incidentally, is being hunted by the cyborg for turning him into a cyborg, so that he could end a war that was devastating a planet.)

            All of those decisions are terrible and important ones, and all of them are interesting moral dilemmas on their own. But all of them gain much of their emotional significance from the fact that the Doctor is trying to atone for a genocide. “A Town Called Mercy” and “The Beast Below,” in particular, draw strong allusions to the Doctor’s actions in the Time War. And what’s the real meaning behind “The Parting of the Ways” if the Doctor has never been the killer he thinks he is?

            And what about the Doctor’s losses? How are we supposed to feel anything over the death of The Master in “The Last of the Time Lords” if the Doctor is not, in fact, the last of the Time Lords? If the Doctor’s entire family is not dead, what was the point of examining that grief in “The Doctor’s Daughter”? If the Doctor is not the last of his kind, how much meaning is there in the parallels that were drawn between him and the lonely monster in “Vincent and the Doctor”? Between him and the space whale in “The Beast Below?” Between him and the minotaur in “The God Complex”?

            Those aren't the only scenes that lose their resonance. What do we do with the revelation that the Dream Lord is really the Doctor in "Amy's Choice," now that the Doctor no longer has any good reason to be the only person in the universe who hates himself as much as the Dream Lord does? What do we do with the assumed contents of the Doctor's room in "The God Complex," if the Doctor has never really done anything that makes him that terrifying? Half--more than half--of the Doctor's characterization in New Who has been based on hating himself, on grief and regret. Those scenes don't mean nearly so much, now.

            And then, of course, there’s the moral lesson itself. Maybe there are people who truly believe that sacrifices never have to be made. That it’s always possible to save the day without hurting anyone innocent. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I doubt it, but I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s pretty damn easy to say “There’s always a way out!” when you’re the writer and you can pull any wibbly-wobbly Deus ex machina you want out of your ass.

            You want to know why I rant about Steven Moffat? It’s not the sexism. It’s not the grand, shiny plots that seem really cool until you realize they make no sense. It’s this: Doctor Who used to be a show about impossible choices, unbearable losses, and yes, exploring the universe in a police box. It used to be a show about characters, plural, with complicated histories and rich internal lives. But a show like that has to live with its consequences. It can’t undo past events, especially not central, meaningful ones, because the characters’ actions, their losses, and their responses and growth in the aftermath, are the point of a show like that. So Doctor Who isn’t about those things anymore.

            Now it’s a show about clever plots, where history gets rewritten every season. It’s a show about one character, the Doctor, whose most interesting character arc has just been unwritten, and a series of companions with no particular psychological depth and no hint of a life or story that doesn’t revolve around the Doctor.

            Doctor Who used to be a show about people. Now it’s a show about fezzes. But hey, I guess that’s fine. After all, fezzes are cool.


  1. I couldn't find the words to describe why this ep bothered me so much but you did it beautifully and with great respect and insight, thank you :)

    1. Yeah, I've been thinking about this for a long time--I had a pretty big suspicion Moffat was going to do this, so it didn't take too long to get my thoughts in order, afterward.