|In this image, Clara is cleverly disguised as the number 2.|
It’s December 25th, 2013. X-Factor winner Sam Bailey is at number one with “Skyscraper.” Eminem, One Direction, and Pharrell Williams also chart, as do Leona Lewis and AC/DC. In news, since Tom Baker last appeared as Doctor Who, the Syrian civil war rumbles uncomfortably on, and the official intermediate report on the Sandy Hook shooting was released. Paul Walker died, as did Nelson Mandella. Pope Francis gives his first Urbi et Orbi speech. Matt Smith regenerated into Peter Capaldi.
So here we are at the last entry of TARDIS Eruditorum. Nothing flashy, I’m afraid. I can’t possibly go bigger than I did for Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, and the elaborate structural games of things like Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways or Ghost Light don’t quite seem appropriate. Just an ordinary entry, as befits an ending where, in truth, everything carries on perfectly fine without me.
Still, some cards on the table. Why here, first of all. After all, due to the twice-weekly schedule of the Smith era, these posts have carried on well past Series Eight. Why not blog it? Because Time of the Doctor is a good end, ultimately. And I needed one. You have to to end somewhere, and a regeneration story at the end of the program’s fiftieth year is a good place to do it. It gave me an end I could build to for a nice, long while, and gave me the same advantage with the Smith era that I had in every other era, which was knowing where I was going with it. And, as I discovered to my pleasure when it aired, it’s a good story. One of my favorites, in fact.
Second, since this is the last of the posted-out-of-order entries, why have I been posting some stories out of order ever since I put The Name of the Doctor in place of Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. Which perhaps gets at another nagging question I should answer before walking off the stage, which is why I do odd things like this in the first place. The answer, for better or for worse, is to explore the idea of non-linear storytelling in a more direct way. So much of the Moffat era takes place out of chronological order, with consequences preceding causes and explanations preceding the things they explain. And that seemed worth dealing with. The obvious vector was River Song, the character in the Moffat era most defined by her non-chronological nature, and so I decided to put the River Song posts out of order. I considered both along her own timeline and backwards, but neither seemed quite appropriate. River’s own timeline simply prioritizes a different story while retaining chronology, and backwards was always going to be a big risk if she appeared again. So I decided to do it genuinely out of order, picking stories for slots based on what thematic concerns they engaged and what would come of contrasting those with the points in the chronological narrative they fell. I started with The Name of the Doctor because what’s most interesting about Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead is the way in which it belongs to the future of the show, and so I took the most immediately present moment of the series that fit the bill.
Here, on the other hand, I’m breaking the rules a bit, since this isn’t actually a River Song story. But it is very much a story that’s haunted by River. Essentially nothing about the story would have to change if Tasha Lem were replaced by River, hence the wave of speculation that followed transmission. There’s that odd Trenzalorean who appears at the end in several shots, lingered on just enough that we notice her, who looks like Alex Kingston in much the same way that Barnabas deliberately invokes Caitlin Blackwood. There’s the odd non-plot involving Clara’s grandmother and Amy’s ring. And, of course, there’s the fact that this story is steeped in the past continuity of the Smith era, which is to say, the continuity of River and the Silence arc. Plus, of course, it’s interesting to take the final entry of the blog and of the Smith era and instead make it the fourth entry of the Smith era. Putting the end of the era right alongside its beginning feels like the right contrast in a way that The Angels Take Manhattan or Let’s Kill Hitler wouldn’t. So here we are.
We have by now laid out the basic narrative move that underlies most of Moffat’s writing from 2010 onwards – the logic of narrative substitution. When this logic is at its best it is usually because the substitution is ideologically motivated – when the story that is abandoned is abandoned because there is something genuinely wrong with it, and where the point is that the new story is in a real and ethical sense better. When, in other words, the alchemy really does lead to material social progress. The Time of the Doctor takes this approach to its most brazen level as it considers and then ultimately rejects the narrative of death and mortality.
This is, or at least should be, impossible to do well. Narratively speaking, rejecting the possibility of death is almost inevitably going to be crass. Death, after all, is not an element of the social order to be rejected or reconsidered. It’s not a set of narrative tropes that we should have long since thought better than. It’s a fundamental condition of life. Rejecting death thus runs the real risk of crossing a line into just being ridiculous. There is no point to be made by declaring that you reject the idea of death save for your own mad hubris.
But what jumps out about The Time of the Doctor is how deft and nuanced its treatment of death is. It’s the little things that make this, but they’re real and significant. The scene towards the end in which the Doctor has grown too weak to open the Christmas cracker, and Clara reaches to help him is an utterly tiny detail, but it’s a detail that tangibly comes from interacting with and caring for elderly and infirm people. This in turn gets at the real thing to highlight, which is the nature of the death on display here: death from old age. This is not the pumped up action of The Caves of Androzani or the tragic reckoning with fate of The End of Time. This is the most ordinary, mundane death imaginable – the truly inevitable one.
This comes from one of the ostensibly controversial decisions that Moffat makes, which is to combine his insertion of John Hurt into the Doctor ordering with a cheeky continuity point of counting the Stolen Earth/Journey’s End regeneration in order to hit the Robert Holmes-penned regeneration limit from The Deadly Assassin. On the one hand, it’s necessary for Time of the Doctor to work. The image of the Doctor staying on Trenzalore to make toys for children and save lives is only as powerful as it is because the Doctor is giving the rest of his life to the decision.
On the other, however, the move seems on the surface to scupper a story that many assumed would eventually happen. Everyone assumed, after all, that the Deadly Assassin limit meant something – that it would result in some big plot in which the Doctor would know he was mortal and, presumably, seek out extra lives or some way to save himself from death. The idea of a Doctor who was truly, properly mortal was, for a certain type of fan, terribly enticing because it offered the opportunity for some epic plot. And even if it was generally accepted that he would somehow find more regenerations (although there really was a set of fans who wanted the series to end and reboot), at least you’d get the big, dark epic.
Instead Moffat swallows the point as an incidental detail. It’s not until over halfway through the episode that the fact that the Doctor is actually on his final regeneration comes up. The means to make him the final regeneration didn’t even exist until the preceding episode. All told, the plot that everyone was assuming would consume an entire era of the show lasts a bit less than twenty minutes, all of them ones in which the audience knows that Peter Capaldi’s coming at the end of the episode. The triviality with which the regeneration limit is kicked down the road so that someone else can deal with it in 2063 is in its own way quite jarring.
But, of course, it’s just narrative substitution. And here there is an ideological point behind it. Moffat firmly and emphatically rejects the idea that the possibility of death would in any way alter the Doctor’s narrative. The plot point that Smith’s Doctor is the final one may last only twenty minutes, but it’s cheekily retconned onto an entire era such that the Doctor has been unable to regenerate since The Eleventh Hour. This is, of course, a brazen and pure retcon. In fact nobody making The Eleventh Hour knew that Smith was secretly the thirteenth Doctor. Nobody even thought he was the twelfth, even though Journey’s End allowed for it. This really is a flat out retcon. And yet the effect of the retcon is oddly perfect. It takes an era of Doctor Who that acted as though it was business as usual and proceeds to declare that it was, in fact, the big epic storyline that a hundred mediocre fanfiction writers had dreamt of for years. (And come on, admit it – who has never, ever speculated about what they’d do for the Thirteenth Doctor? Certainly I’m guilty as charged.) The point, of course, is to reject the premise of that story and tell a different one. A story in which the Doctor is somehow different just because his life is on the line, as though his quasi-immortality was the only reason he could ever be the hero he’d been since 1963? How wretched.
Instead the entire point becomes that the Doctor would never have done a thing differently just because he was going to die someday. Yes, Moffat takes an entire storyline off the table, but he does so for what are, in the end, sound ideological reasons. He removes the possibility (or at least, delays it some fifty years) of a bad story. Even if one disagrees (I certainly don’t, obviously), it’s difficult to object to the decision in principle. Especially because in its place Moffat tells a story of quietly immense power. One in which the Doctor accepts death, but does not accept the vast, epic war that Trenzalore initially seemed to augur. Instead he grows old like everybody else, serving as a literal Father Christmas. He makes toys for children and keeps people safe, because every time he saves a life it’s better. Even in the end, when he tells Clara to remain behind in a gesture that will surely only keep her alive for a few minutes, it is for him one last victory. There is a pristine beauty to this; an immortal man agrees to grow old and die, just so he can save a few lives. The Doctor stays on Trenzalore for untold centuries, and everyone he saves dies anyway, and it is, in the end, not the point at all. The point is that he keeps the town of Christmas happy and safe for as long as he can. And when he can’t anymore, he faces even this with dignity.
This narrative substitution defines the entire episode, in fact. An episode billed as the resolution to all the plots of the Moffat era to date stubbornly refuses to give a moment of definitive resolution to any of them. The Silence become a joke about confession, the entire Season Six plot is written off in some throwaway dialogue, and none of the buildup and massive, sweeping story arc is given any space to matter at all. All parts of it that do appear are recast as benevolent. The ominous crack becomes a source of hope. The chilling decree that silence will fall becomes a slogan of peace. When the episode goes to big action sequences, they are almost explicitly flagged as narrative necessities. There’s one last scary Weeping Angels sequence (with a great new conceit – Weeping Angels coming out of the snow, so you lose sight of them), but it has neither setup nor resolution. It’s just there, existing for its purest purpose of giving the episode an exciting bit at a point where it needed an action sequence.
As above, so below. The same logic applies to the episode on the level of individual shots. The Smith/Capaldi regeneration is done in a cut. The big scene we think is it isn’t it at all. The Doctor’s big “I will always remember when the Doctor was me” speech isn’t his last line. Neither is the Karen Gillan cameo. Instead his last line is, in fact, “Hey.” Perhaps more to the point, the moment when “our” Doctor disappears is swallowed entirely. The camera cuts away from him proclaiming that there’s a new sheriff in town, and when we next see him he’s old. When Matt Smith finally appears without prosthetics again, in his regeneration scene proper, he plays the part slightly wrong, showing more age than he ever did covered in latex. Every buildup and expected moment of the crashing sci-fi epic is instead underplayed, subverted, and rejected. Abramal and Marta, the couple who explains the truth field, get more attention than the Silence do. (And their lovely scene, in which the Doctor asks if the truth field makes life difficult, and they each, perfectly honestly, give a different answer, makes them interesting characters in a way that Tasha Lem simply never can be.)
And so instead we get a story that forces us to focus on the small moments – one that makes more of Handles’s death than it does of a massive Dalek assault. One where the Doctor stays on Trenzalore for, ultimately, no reason other than that he promised Barnable he would, and he refuses to do that to another child. (Note how Amy’s theme plays as Barnable hides behind the TARDIS, telling us everything we need to know about what story this is.) It is a story that continually considers the epic, and then concludes that, no, what is more important are people. And yet all the mysteries are tied off. The Five Doctors is invoked to remind us that the Time Lords can grant new regeneration cycles. Kovarian and the question of who blew up the TARDIS are all answered and explained. But the explanations are pointless. Coming up with made-up explanations for made-up things is, after all, trivial. So trivial as to be a pointless, empty pleasure. The point never was the mystery, but about the people around the mystery and how they lived their lives. And the answer is “well.”
And so the story ends. The Doctor grows old and dies for the last time. He faces the Daleks, knowing it’s his last battle, and does nothing but accept the inevitable.
(Within all of this is Matt Smith’s acting. The story is, in effect, about the end of Matt Smith’s Doctor, and it is built as an utterly constructed piece to allow him to go nuts with his acting. More than any other Doctor Who story, ever, in the history of the series, this is a showcase for the lead actor. Yes, Caves of Androzani, The Parting of the Ways, and even in its own way The End of Time provided showcases for their actors, but this episode is placed on such utter high speed on its plot that there is nothing holding it together except for Matt Smith’s performance. In one sense this is the apotheosis of the Moffat era – a self-consciously incoherent shambles of sentimentality held together by nothing save for Matt Smith’s ability to flail about in unconvincing latex prosthetics. It is as though the script has gone out of its way to do everything wrong, to piss off every contingent of critic that has ever complained about the Moffat era, just so that Matt Smith can hold the story together with his sheer charisma. Ultimately then the episode lives or dies based on whether you think Matt Smith pulls it off.
And if he does, it’s in an absolutely bizarre way. Because he ends with the most unsettling decision of them all – to simply stop acting like his Doctor well before the end. He is a completely different character in this at the end. As is fitting, given the script, because by this point the Doctor has slipped into a completely different continuity than it was in just one year ago. There’s no more River Song. The crack in the universe hangs there on the wall, but there’s nothing from its iconography here. No Atraxi, no Prisoner Zero, no Ponds or Williams. And Matt Smith’s Doctor has gone away as well. Now he’s playing some weird Hartnell pastiche opposite a companion who’s coming out of a world the audience has never seen her in. Clara gets a whole new dimension to her character here, so even she’s unfamiliar. And Jenna Coleman sells the hell out of it, finding new ways to be surprised in childlike ways. Yes, she’s unabashedly playing the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, just as Matt Smith is unabashedly doing a physical comedy routine about old people. It’s absolutely bizarre.
But it works because every production decision is spot on. The music shifts around tone enough times and ways to continually suggest new things and the sense that a story is advancing. The use of light and editing and pace is incredibly deliberate even as the story frays apart. By the end we’re watching entire plot threads of Doctor Who and the nature of its universe get explained with a single sentence quickly delivered, but we can spend ages luxuriating on a shot of an old man and his granddaughter figure opening a Christmas cracker on the day the old man dies. The question of how time works – we’ve fallen from “time can be rewritten” to “not even the future can be rewritten” – is literally squared away with a single line about the Time Lords, who are no longer a secret origin for the Doctor but weird gods of shimmering light that flicker like faeries through a barely opened door. All for the purpose of getting in the long pans across children’s drawings of the Doctor. It’s a stunningly meticulous program.
This is born of real work in the Moffat era. In a very real sense, this is what the oddities of Hide and Journey to the Center of the TARDIS and even The Wedding of River Song have consciously led to. There’s a very strange and wonderful moment right as Moffat reached Let’s Kill Hitler, which is very nearly the point at which he simply ceased talking substantively about his show, to the point of not even doing DVD commentaries or particularly meaty interviews, in the Brilliant Book 2012, in which he gives an uncharacteristically detailed explanation of his thoughts on how the show should work in 2012/13. “We had more public interest from Let’s Kill Hitler – just those three words – than any trailer we’ve ever done,” he explains, “so let’s do a series like that.” Which is to say, Let’s Kill Hitler was the explicit model for the anniversary year.
“Internal consistency is the only rule,” he says in defense of Let’s Kill Hitler. “The story makes sense within its own terms,” which are “a regeneration romcom, guest starring Hitler – it’s what the world has been waiting for,” he says with meticulous self-deprecation. Elsewhere in the book he goes further with this line of thought. “If you look at something like The West Wing,” he explains, “I’m not sure I’ve ever understood a single episode.” But he still identifies it as “probably my favorite thing ever.” His reasoning is that “an awful lot of storytelling isn’t really about making people understand – it’s about making people care.” And so he deliberately tramples over the mythology, consciously setting up an utterly ludicrous situation of someone who’s barely thirty playing a man who has lived for millennia and is finalyl dying. Moffat has simply walked away from the series lore and decided to make television with strange pictures like it’s a new medium nobody understands. This isn’t a sort of television or a sort of narrative structure anyone has ever done before.
It’s even reflected in the sort of merchandise and extras. Where there used to be documentary series devoted to explaining every detail of Doctor Who, now the paratext of Doctor Who is simply more Doctor Who. Minisodes everywhere but no explanation or apology. Everything is done in narrative now. And so we get, in effect, a little minisode with Clara and Matt Smith playing yet another different sort of Doctor – one who’s old, but with no more physical comedy and all with tone and pacing his dialogue. And then one in which Peter Capaldi flails about in a part he’s not actually had time to think about and is just improvising with, because they can and will sort his Doctor out later. This entire episode is just a sequence of minisodes in which Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman do Doctor Whoish things, over which Matt Smith slowly evolves his character to a dying old man making his peace with the universe.)
Everybody knows that everybody dies. But not every day. Not today. Some days are special. Some days are so, so blessed. Some days, nobody dies at all. Now and then, every once in a very long while, every day in a million days, when the wind stands fair, and the Doctor comes to call. Everybody lives.
Because, of course, this was never about people. It has always been about stories. Death and endings are the province of time’s cruel lens, but the Doctor has never been a creature of time. Not really. We know the truth, after all: we’re all stories in the end, and the Doctor, lord of Fiction itself, more than anyone. The question isn’t whether people die, but whether stories do. And some do. Some stories have ends. Sometimes a story reaches a point where there is nothing more to say, and no more good to be had from it. Sometimes things end.
But not always. Sometimes they just change. Even when they do die, the world goes on, still tied to the past through memory and reaching to the future through imagination. Indeed, the maxim that everything ends and everyone dies is just a special case of the real truth: that everything changes. That everybody lives, and in living brings mercury to the world.
On a panel at the big official 50th Anniversary convention, Steven Moffat had a rather lovely little monologue. “It’s hard to talk about the importance of an imaginary hero. But heroes are important. Heroes tell us something about ourselves. History books tell us who we used to be, documentaries tell us who we are now, but heroes tell us who we want to be. And a lot of our heroes depress me. But, you know, when they made this particular hero up, they didn’t give him a gun – they gave him a screwdriver to fix things. They didn’t give him a tank or a warship or an X-Wing fighter, they gave him a call box from which you can call for help. And they didn’t give him a superpower or pointy ears or a heat ray. They gave him an extra heart. They gave him two hearts, and that’s an extraordinary thing. There will never come a time when we don’t need a hero like the Doctor.”
A hero for whom death is irrelevant to why he is a hero. Who will simply save lives and make the world a better place, because he would never seriously consider anything else. Who doesn’t save the day or try to fix everything, but who just tries to make things better than they are. An eternal tide of mercury to sweep away the dead and the rotting and to give us space to tell new stories.
After fifty years, we still need this. Of course we do. As long as there are stories, there are Doctor Who stories. When the stars go out and the universe freezes, around the last fire on the last world, there will still be Doctor Who stories to tell. And when we are done telling them, at long and final last, in the distance will be a strange wheezing, groaning sound. And out will step an impossible man, and he will save the day.
The Doctor grows old and dies like everyone else, and until then he saves lives and makes people happier.
And then he breaks the rules and keeps doing it. Because that’s a better story.