It probably speaks volumes about the 1960s, the number of intellectual properties having 50th anniversaries these days. James Bond just had one, Star Trek’s is a few years off. And speaking of Star Trek, we’ve just rung in 50 years of Trek’s counterpart from across the pond, Doctor Who, celebrated by way of the television special “Day of the Doctor.”
Since the 2005 reboot of the classic British sci-fi adventure series, the series has been operating under an overarching backstory: the Doctor is the sole survivor of his people, the Time Lords, having been forced to resort to drastic means to defeat their enemies in the Great Time War, the Daleks, defeating them (although heaven knows that hasn’t slowed them down any) but taking the Time Lords with them. The Doctor’s character arc across his last three (four?) incarnations has been driven in part by trying to come to terms with and atone for that act.
Now we flash back to that moment. When the Doctor is preparing the intelligent weapon of mass destruction to do the deed, he is invited by the weapon’s consciousness to encounter two of his future selves (the two most recent Doctors, David Tennant and Matt Smith) to help him learn the impact on himself of this action.
The other two Doctors are each engaged in their own adventures. Eleven and his companion Clara are studying a mysterious painting that depicts his lost homeworld of Gallifrey. Ten is romancing Queen Elizabeth I, who he suspects (partly correctly) of being an alien impostor.
The three Doctors are thrown together, and have to fight a plot by the Zygons, a long-ago enemy of the Doctor whose world was collateral damage in the Time War, to seize the Earth by invading it through time travel, and capture the 21st Century British government’s stash of dangerous alien salvage.
At the end of it, the three Doctors return to the moment of the end of the Time War, and come up with a new solution to preserve Gallifrey, albeit at the cost of making it vanish to places unknown, with the combined effort of all the Doctors, past, present and future, and letting the war-era Doctor rediscover who he is, was, and will be. The Doctor has a new quest to rediscover his homeworld, and new hope after long years of loneliness.
“Day of the Doctor” was played up as being a supreme, game-changing moment for the character, and for the show under the stewardship of Steven Moffat, formerly a principle writer for the show and also creator of Sherlock.
Now, full disclosure, I followed the series up til the first few episodes of Smith’s run, and much else that I’ve learned about the show on Moffat’s watch is second-hand from friends and critics, and what I can extrapolate from the Russell T. Davies’ era and episodes written by Moffat during that time. That said, “Day of the Doctor” regrettably seems to confirm a lot of the objections raised about the show under Moffat’s tenure.
If my plot summary above seems a bit vague and jumbled, it’s reflective of my own attempts to follow what’s going on. The great motto of modern Doctor Who is ‘wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey,’ for the occasions when the mental acrobatics of keeping track of time travel begin to get hard to process. Actually, in fairness, the plot isn’t that intricate. It’s more a case of being unable to see the trees for the forest, you might say.
Modern Who was, naturally, brought about and fostered by fans. That in itself is no indictment, but it does carry an element of risk: that the creators’ adoration for their source material will override their good judgement with regards to storytelling. This is, after all, where the stereotypical low-grade image of fanfiction springs from.
And unfortunately this impulse, poorly-restrained, is evident here, and I’ve noticed in places during Tennant’s run, and increasingly through what I’ve seen of Smith: the characters don’t talk like people speaking to other people. They talk like all the dialogue – all of it – was written as potential material for trailers.
Ten at one point runs across what he thinks is an alien in disguise (it turns out to be a harmless bunny rabbit) and declares himself thusly:
“Whatever you’ve got planned, forget it. I’m The Doctor. I’m 904 years-old. I’m from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. I’m The Oncoming Storm, the Bringer Of Darkness…”
I know this was meant as a comedic aside, but really, who talks like that? Certainly not the Doctor I know.
Over the course of episodes I’ve seen prior to this, the Doctor has become increasingly boastful about his own epicness, when other characters aren’t proselytizing it instead. John Hurt, as the inexplicable ‘War Doctor’ ends with speaking to his future selves as ‘great men,’ and as charming as they are, I feel like the writer’s opinion of them is a lot higher than their portrayal justifies. It may just be that an elder and venerable actor like John Hurt speaking with such breathtaken admiration to two actors decades younger than himself cannot ring true. While the crossover episodes have a tradition of comic banter between Doctors, I felt like too much time was spent with the three of them sniping at each other at the expense of stuff actually happening.
Don’t get me wrong, Tennant and Smith are great actors and excellent Doctors. Not for no reason did Tennant supplant Tom Baker as everybody’s default image of Doctor Who. But as my Dad observed, a lot of the show seems to be trading on the character’s history to make Tennant and Smith look like the thing the Doctor was always destined to be, which comes across as a bit pompous – something Smith’s first episode did as well, actually.
That said, I do like that the writers make an effort to honour the heritage of the series – contrast to J.J. Abrams’ rendition of Star Trek which spends most of its time making fun of its heritage. This would have been a lot more successful perhaps if the involvement of other Doctors besides Smith, Tennant and Hurt wasn’t so slapdash. Given the short featurette “Night of the Doctor” that preceded it, clearly Paul McGann (the 8th Doctor, who was the one in the Time War) was available. Eccleston (9th) wasn’t, and Tom Baker (4th) appears (which caused me no small amount of glee, since he’s my favourite), and 1-3 are all dead of course, but the others get thrown in somewhat offhandedly, I thought.
And of course the number of them has been causing no end of confusion. This is the thing that really gets on my nerves: Classic Doctor Who, much like the Original Star Trek, was basically a set of characters and a scenario on which you could hang any story that could be adapted to them. The new series has been trying to make it into the kind of multi-episode plot arcs that are expected of television shows today. Which is fine, in principle. Where it runs into trouble, though, is that to run a story like that, especially a sci-fi/fantasy one, you need a canon. Rules. Limits. Doctor Who in its original format had a couple of them, one of which, established as far back as 1980 (Baker’s second-to-last serial the “Keeper of Traken,” if you’re interested) is that Time Lords like the Doctor regenerate 12 times, adding up to 13 lives, and we’ve somehow had another one squeezed in with no acknowledgement of this tradition, and quite of a lot of waffling from the creators about where they’re going with this. But then again, they waffle about where they’re going with everything!
The new series also established that the Time War is ‘time-locked’ making it virtually impossible to time travel into it. And yet, one convenient gadget and some timey-wimey dialogue and poof, suddenly the rules evaporate…
John Hurt is one of my favourite actors, and performs marvelously here, but there’s no reason for him to be here in the first place. Paul McGann would have made more sense, and this way the canon is thrown into disorder for no particular reason, although one suspects it’s because too much money is being made by this series to bear the thought of letting it have an endpoint or closure of any kind. And as thrilled as I was to see Tom Baker again, how did he get there?
Furthermore, the sudden evaporation of the time lock and the conjuration of not one, but two Deus Ex Machina (Machinae? Machinas?) to get around the terrible choice that has, I repeat, informed the Doctor’s character for this entire series, is just careless messing around, not taking the storytelling seriously in the name of making the Doctor look cool.
It’s often joked about Steven Moffat that he keeps killing characters off and then bringing them back again. Now he’s done that with the whole of Gallifrey. How can a series maintain its dramatic tension, its thematic backbone, when a quick burst of technobabble and a convenient gadget put an end to hard choices, to consequences?
I had fun watching “Day of the Doctor:” I’m as attracted to the idea of the Doctor, as moved to hope and joy by that wheezy old lurching sound the TARDIS makes as any other fan. I squealed like a little girl when I heard Tom’s voice, and it was nifty to see the Zygons again. But the series has become the very worst of fanfiction: fawning over the character takes priority over a good or even coherent story, engaging characters, or strong themes.
The finale – the Doctor being given a new direction, a redemption, and an ultimate purpose – is a compelling one, but it’s brought about carelessly. The dialogue is the characters addressing the audience more than each other, the hazy clues and foreshadowing are more frustrating than interesting, and the storytelling is neglected in the interest of inducing as many shallow squees as possible.
A lot of this seems to be representative of the decay of the series at large. Unlike Star Trek, however, I wouldn’t argue that it has expended itself and should be wrapped up. The formula is a lot more open-ended than Trek’s, with endless possibilities. It’s just a pity that it seems to have limited its horizons to showing off and goofing around, under a curtain of constant hype.
Doctor Who has done much to deserve such a long history as it has enjoyed, and I hold out hope for its future.
Or past. This timey-wimey stuff is pretty hard to fathom.