|Well, at least it’s just the one who committed genocide and not the one in that|
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. The hour, in this case, was actually about seventy-five minutes long, commencing at 7:50 PM on November 23rd, 2013. Martin Garrix was at number one with “Animals,” with Lily Allen, Lorde, One Direction, Lady Gaga, and Eminem also charting. In the six months since The Name of the Doctor had aired, Edward Snowden had created a major international stir when he leaked a significant trove of classified information about the extent of surveillance operations being routinely carried out by the US and UK governments, Mohamed Morsi was deposed as President of Egypt in a military coup, and Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines and Vietnam, killing more than six thousand people. The man, of course, was Steven Moffat.
The Day of the Doctor did not quite win universal praise. It just won stellar ratings, an impressive 88% AI rating, the distinction of being only the second episode of Doctor Who ever to hit the number one slot in the weekly ratings, and Doctor Who Magazine’s 50th Anniversary poll for the greatest story of all time. Nothing is all things to everyone, but it is difficult to imagine something coming much closer than The Day of the Doctor did. And yet The Day of the Doctor arrived after an enormously troubled production season, and was hardly an uncomplicated production in its own right, with executive producer Caro Skinner quitting the series a few weeks before shooting began, on top of the entire mess of Eccleston initially expressing interest and subsequently declining to reprise the role. That it avoided being an outright disaster given these circumstances seems a lucky break. That it was an insta-classic seems a small miracle.
At the heart of its success is a script by Moffat that is unapologetically committed to the episode’s grandeur. The episode deploys big set piece after big set piece, rarely waiting long between them. The TARDIS helicopter lift starts at the two minute mark. At seven minutes, we jump into the Time War. Billie Piper shows up six minutes later, David Tennant six minutes after that, at around the twenty minute mark. At twenty-seven minutes, Smith and Tennant share the screen for the first time. The big Zygon awakening/invasion breaks out at thirty-five minutes. Six minutes later is the big “did you ever count the children” three-way confrontation among the Doctors, which, while lacking the immediate grandeur of some of the other instances, is nevertheless a huge moment. The biggest slow period of the episode is the subsequent ten minutes building to the Doctors blasting their way out of Gallifrey Falls No More, bringing us to the fifty-two minute mark. By fifty-eight minutes, all three Doctors are agreeing to commit double genocide. And seven minutes later the thirteen-Doctor montage has kicked off. And six minutes thereafter the Curator shows.
But for all the accelerated pace involved in jumping from set piece to set piece, what’s also striking is the way in which the individual set pieces are generally given room to breathe. It’s not quite accurate to say that Moffat has slowed down the pace for this story, because there are moments where it absolutely screams through sequences, but there’s a sense of what scenes are going to need room to breathe that hasn’t entirely been on display in Moffat’s Doctor Who since The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon. The result is an episode that feels, in many ways, like a linked sequence of mini-episodes. The Day of the Doctor watches very well as a single seventy-five minute bit of cinematic television, but it’s also an episode that divides very well into smaller segements. The counterpart to the huge chain of set pieces is that there’s a great place to pause and see how dinner’s coming every seven minutes or so.
The other thing to point out, structurally, is that Moffat, in the most obvious move imaginable, tapped Nick Hurran to direct this. Hurran is typically adept, and even manages to make the 3-D effects work to his advantage at times – the handling of the dimensionally transcendental paintings is one of the few genuinely great shots in the history of the generally awful technology of stereoscopic film. Fast-paced scripts have always had a friend in Hurran, whose use of inserts and double images lets him communicate information with considerable efficiency, in a manner not unlike how Sherlock speeds things up with its superimposed text. He’s also incredibly deft at abandoning strict continuity editing, as in the Zygon breakout scene, which doesn’t parse as linear action at all, opting to very clearly communicate “oh no, Zygons everywhere, and now Osgood is cornered” instead of trying to actually show the entire process of Osgood running from the statue room to the elevator.
That, at least, explains the structure. But The Day of the Doctor is far more than just that. It is a story that has to make a definitive statement on what Doctor Who is. And the way Moffat approaches that is revealing. It has been observed, not inaccurately, that The Day of the Doctor is largely about the new series. Yes, John Hurt is there to, in a real sense, allow the classic series to pass comment on the new one, but it’s worth noting that we pick up with the War Doctor, essentially, the day before Rose, a fact that’s heavily emphasized up front by Billie Piper’s intrusion from the Doctor’s immediate future. The major plot point, the Time War, is a new series invention. Yes, you’ve got the Zygons there as fanservice for David Tennant, and a smattering of classic series references and jokes, but this really is mostly about the recent past of the series. It’s much closer to being a new series version of The Three Doctors than it is to being The Thirteen Doctors.
Some of this is simply a matter of practicality. Moffat surely rewatched The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors in planning this, and it would not have escaped his notice that The Five Doctors sagged badly under the weight of its cast size, and that was only really four Doctors. And down the road of trying to include all of the past Doctors lies a wealth of significant logistical challenges, to say the least. The only Doctors it would be straightforward to bring back were McGann, Eccleston, and Tennant, and one of them wasn’t interested. So it’s inevitable that this would be a new series-focused anniversary.
But it’s also worth recalling what the Time War means in terms of the new series. By the end of the Davies era, the Time War had been built into, essentially, a metaphor for the cancellation – as the consequence of an actual narrative collapse. One of the things The Day of the Doctor is very much about, then, is suturing that wound. Between The Night of the Doctor and the War Doctor’s regeneration scene, Moffat tacitly removes the gap that had existed between McGann and Eccleston, symbolically restoring an unbroken narrative to Doctor Who so that it has something resembling an unbroken fifty year history.
There are, of course, lies in this. The Wilderness Years get a significant rewrite, in particular. Moffat remarked that he couldn’t really see McGann’s Doctor destroying Gallifrey, which is, to say the least, ironic given the Eighth Doctor Adventures. Yes, The Night of the Doctor goes out of its way to nod to Big Finish, but the McGann era is still a messy and hazily defined thing. All the same, it’s worth noting how much more destructive to the McGann era it would have been to give the War Doctor’s part to him. Deciding to have McGann’s Doctor only ever have flitted about the edges of the Time War at least leaves his era untouched, instead of declaring that the Doctor people enjoyed in Alien Bodies or The Chimes of Midnight, or even God help them, the TV Movie became, in the end, someone who committed double genocide. While the nature of what happened in the Wilderness Years remains muddy, whatever happened, it at least happened how fans remember it.
The bigger lie comes in the form of the War Doctor. Not, to be clear, because he’s a brazen and unapologetic retcon. Rather, it’s because he doesn’t actually fill the hole he’s meant to slot into. John Hurt is seventy-five, and The Day of the Doctor is overwhelmingly likely to be his only actual appearance in Doctor Who. His casting actually serves to render the Time War even less representable than it had been. Prior to The Day of the Doctor you could have done a Time War story provided Paul McGann was still alive. Now, however, the Time War is a truly lost era. (Yes, Engines of War exists. And someday the McGann/Eccleston book will too.)
But in some ways this entire train of thought misses the point. One of the more on-point critiques that Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood make in the About Time series is the observation that the biggest problem with The Five Doctors is that it fails to use itself to kick off a new direction for the series. For all that it tries to culminate in an “well, isn’t this how it all started” moment, it’s not a story with consequences of any sort. This contrasts with The Three Doctors, which goes through a lengthy celebration of the past and then, more importantly, emphatically moves forward by restoring the Doctor’s ability to travel freely in time and space. Once again, it’s fairly obvious that Moffat looked at the past and thought about what worked and what didn’t, because The Day of the Doctor is firmly in the tradition of The Three Doctors. It’s over-hyping things to say that this is about setting up the next fifty years of Doctor Who (although it is worth noting that Moffat would ultimately make sure that the series began its fifty-first year with the Doctor at the beginning of a cycle of regenerations), but Moffat does use The Day of the Doctor to set up a new metaplot for the series.
As with much of this story, there’s considerable subtlety to this. It is now inevitable that Gallifrey will return someday in Doctor Who. But it’s not inevitable along any particular timeframe, a point Moffat makes especially clear when he finishes his “of the Doctor” triptych by demonstrating that you can do Gallifrey stories other than “Gallifrey returns.” Instead The Day of the Doctor just marks a sort of narrative apex – the point where the course of things turns and we finally clearly start approaching Gallifrey’s return, which, let’s face it, some showrunner was always going to do. It’s not hard to imagine Moffat reaching the end of his time in charge of Doctor Who without ever bringing Gallifrey back. What we’re changing here really is the shape of Doctor Who’s metaplot.
But what’s more important, ultimately, is the reasoning behind that change. It’s not just that The Day of the Doctor reverses the outcome of the Time War, after all. It’s that it does so as part of an argument about the Doctor’s nature. This is, to a real extent, an outright moment of disagreement between Moffat and Russell T Davies. Moffat has said that he never really thought the Doctor would commit double genocide, and here he makes that argument explicit, having Clara frame her case for the Doctor not doing it in terms of what it means to be the Doctor, which in turn gets framed in terms of Terrance Dicks’s old “never cruel nor cowardly” line. The resolution of the story, in other words, is a statement of what Doctor Who is for, as a cultural object, which in turn justifies the existence of another fifty years of it.
(It’s also worth addressing the way in which Moffat handles the issue of the Doctor spending seven seasons thinking he’s committed a double genocide, namely by declaring that the Doctor doesn’t remember this adventure until it happens to Eleven. Moffat actually goes to considerable length throughout the story to make sure it fits meticulously with existing Doctor Who continuity, and so this is no surprise. But there’s also an emotional honesty to it that rarely gets remarked upon. It’s significant that it’s Matt Smith’s Doctor who gets to figure out how to save Gallifrey, and not Hurt or Tennant’s. It’s not until the Doctor accomplishes this – until he actually finds a better way – that he gets absolution. This is, in fact, entirely fitting. Eccleston, Tennant, and, until this story, Smith all thought they made the best choice available to them, and so lived with the consequences of that belief. It’s not that the Doctor was wrong about Gallifrey being destroyed in the Davies era – it’s that he hadn’t saved it yet.)
But what is this justification? Yes, he’s neither cruel nor cowardly, and he never gives up or gives in. Both lovely statements, but clearly not the whole of it. The Doctor, and Doctor Who itself, are more than just that. So what are they? Certainly many of the answers we’ve looked at throughout this project are not really present here. The relationship between eccentricity and the mainstream that Doctor Who has always mediated, the mercurial urge to tear down the world and always, endlessly change, these just aren’t the themes that are in play here, or, at least, they’re not at the forefront of the episode.
No, instead we get material social progress. That, in the end, is the point of the Doctor. To find a better way. That’s why we need it, and, perhaps more to the point, why we always need more of it: because material social progress is always possible. Because there’s always more to do. Because making the world a better place is fundamentally, perpetually unfinished work. It is not, admittedly, the exact theme I would have preferred. But it’s a good theme, and a powerful one, and, perhaps most importantly, it’s a sensible choice for the fiftieth anniversary, because it’s the explanation for what Doctor Who is for that most obviously explains why it should keep going.
Which brings us, of course, to the cleverest thing that Moffat does in the course of The Day of the Doctor, which is, of course, the Curator. As we noted, despite creating a new Doctor to fill in the gap for the Time War, Moffat actually makes it even less possible to depict the Time War by having the War Doctor be played by a seventy-five year old actor with better things to do than pop back for another Doctor Who appearance. The same logic, of course, applies to the Curator. Tom Baker is eighty-one, and this almost certainly marks his final televised appearance in Doctor Who. But unlike the Time War, this does not create an unrepresentable space in the program’s past. Instead it creates one in the future. The Curator is a future era of Doctor Who that can never happen, but that is also now “canon,” as it were. The Doctor simultaneously will eventually regenerate into Tom Baker again and can never possibly regenerate into Tom Baker again.
And this is, in the end, the real content and result of The Day of the Doctor. It doesn’t just heal the gap in the series’ past. It forever and permanently rejects the idea of Doctor Who being something with an ending. Sure, there may be more cancellations and Time Wars to come. But the story, like material social progress, will never actually be finished. Half a century down. Forever to go. Happy birthday, Doctor Who.