Which makes it all the stranger that he doesn’t.
Even before time was rewritten, of course, this was true. Davies deliberately inserts a gap between The Waters of Mars and The End of Time, even opting to develop the running Queen Elizabeth I joke within it. In this regard, The Day of the Doctor slots in with precision, just as it does with The End of Time, which it goes out of its way to make sure it still fits in with. So much so that Tumblr became an entertaining place in the immediate wake of The Day of the Doctor, as scads of people cried foul about how it contradicted the Davies era only to have scads of people point out all of the tiny little things that Moffat did to actively and meticulously match the Davies era.
As with many fan debates on Tumblr, the immediate fallout of The Day of the Doctor had no shortage of straw men, with people angrily reacting against points that never actually got made. (See also the “legions” of fans who aren’t going to watch Peter Capaldi because he’s old and unattractive.) Still, there’s an interesting fault line that opens up in the question of just how much of a retcon The Day of the Doctor is – one that is revealing in terms of the sorts of details that each argument prioritizes.
For one entirely sensible camp, The Day of the Doctor is a retcon only in an additive sense. It simply says “and here’s a bunch of stuff you didn’t know was happening” while playing very actively within the lines of what has gone before. What jumps out here is not the addition of an entirely new incarnation of the Doctor and the wholesale reversal of the end of the Time War, but rather on the numerous conscious nods to the series’ past inserted throughout the episode. So when the Time Lords declare that the High Council’s plans have already failed, this is notable precisely because it checks the box of “how does this fit in with The End of Time,” just as the decision to declare that Arcadia is a Gallifreyan city nicely nods at Doomsday.
For another entirely sensible, The Day of the Doctor is a massive retcon because of how drastically it shifts the nature of the Time War from an abstract conflict of horrors in the vein of Faction Paradox’s Book of the War to being, basically, a Star Wars movie. Perhaps more significant is the nature of the Doctor’s ultimate weapon. In a Time War, a weapon called the Moment sings of strange and uncanny power. The sense is that the Doctor does not possess a weapon in a conventional sense, but a piece of time itself. Instead we find out that he has a bomb that can wipe out a galaxy and that happens to project an avatar of Billie Piper on the side. The question isn’t, in other words, whether you nod at all the details, but whether you nod at the substance of what the original stories were saying. The Day of the Doctor may line up perfectly with all of the words of the Russell T Davies era, but if anyone thinks David Tennant was playing the Doctor with the idea that he’d been John Hurt during the Time War they’re barking mad. Indeed, the whole “regeneration I don’t talk about” line of thought falters in the face of Tennant’s Doctor, who seems to never tire of talking about all the awful things he did in the Time War. Sure, the words line up, but only if you take them out of context, which, to be fair, is exactly what The Day of the Doctor does with its continuity references. (See also Mike Yates and Sara Kingdom, where the entire joke is the violence dealt to the original context.)
This gets at another argument over exactly how The Day of the Doctor does or does not retcon the past. Again, in its zeal for matching up with the textual iconography of the past, The Day of the Doctor takes care to not actually require you to watch any previous story differently. So much so that it picks up the “past incarnations don’t remember multi-Doctor stories” idea in order to make sure that for every story prior to The Day of the Doctor the Doctor mistakenly believes himself to have destroyed Gallifrey. On the one hand, this changes very little – it actually isn’t until The Day of the Doctor that the Doctor comes up with an alternative; note that it is very specifically the Eleventh Doctor, inspired by Clara, who finally thinks to do something other than push the button. In this one case the commitment to a fealty of quotation becomes a larger fealty of narrative coherence. Eccleston and Tennant’s Doctors – indeed, even Smith’s Doctor up to his penultimate story – are Doctors who failed to come up with a better way there could have been, and so owes penance until they do. There’s a curious honesty to this retcon – until the Doctor comes up with a way to rewrite time, he doesn’t get to reap the benefits of his new story.
Or, as the other argument goes, a host of classic Davies stories are now “not real” because the angst is over a fictional event. At this point it becomes difficult to sustain a tension I was at least attempting to for several paragraphs, which is to pretend that I’m at all neutral in these debates. Because, of course, the angst over the Time War was always angst over a fictional event. Or, perhaps more accurately, it was always angst about a real event, namely Doctor Who’s cancellation. Not for nothing does the concept come roaring back as a metaphor for navigating the gap between the Davies era and the Moffat era – that is to say, the point where Doctor Who stops being “that old show Russell T Davies dusted off and made into a hit” and where it starts having to stand on its own as a franchise that exists completely independently of any major creative figures involved in its (re)creation.
Fundamentally, the Time War stops being useful to the series at the precise moment that Doctor Who no longer has to be bound up in the trauma of its cancellation. This is the real message of Day of the Doctor and, subsequently, Time of the Doctor – an energetic two-fingered salute to the world on the part of a series finally owning up to the fact that it’s here to stay. Tempting fate? Perhaps, but the fact of the matter is that no matter how high the Tumblr hashtags stack up, Moffat’s Doctor Who is reliably popular. The only thing that’s changed since 2009 is the media in which fandom’s sound and fury is contained. And so the idea that stories are rendered unreal by later stories they could not possibly have responded to anyway is fundamentally ludicrous. All you have to do to watch The End of Time unmolested by its retcons is to remember that The End of Time aired in 2009, which, frankly, if you’re not doing, you’re probably doing a fairly shit job of watching The End of Time to begin with. The End of Time is a program that is aware that it could come crashing down at any moment, and The Day of the Doctor is a program that is convinced it’s not going anywhere. Unsurprisingly, they have differing views of the traumatic break with the series’ past that the Time War represents.
Similarly, it is impossible for me not to look at the textual continuity of quoting lines from The End of Time as what we might call the game of writing Doctor Who, and to contrast it sharply with the substantive continuity of what sort of war the Time War actually is. Both are key elements of the text, but even a cursory reading of the blog’s past will note that I’ve always been more interested in the substance of past stories – in the context that gets erased by future stories simply because future stories do not actually belong to the televisual event that a Doctor Who story actually is. Not for nothing does every entry begin with a variation on the same sentence. The textual game is all well and good, but it is a game played out over the larger narrative.
So in effect, the nature of the retcon comes down to the nature of four years passing. For The End of Time, the Time War is the last time that Doctor Who got cancelled. The Eccleston-Tennant regeneration was carefully not presented as a cancellation, but rather as one more unexpected trick that the series could pull, situated in a season that had been all about presenting an ever-evolving definition of what Doctor Who was in a sort of televisual Steve Jobs style such that each episode trailed off (literally) with “oh, and one more thing.” Here, however, Doctor Who is getting cancelled and being replaced by a series that is confusingly called Doctor Who, but which is unmistakably an entirely new approach. (Remember the whole “is it Season Five or Season One” controversy from 2010? No, it’s fine, nobody else does either, but it happened.) So the Time War gets brought back because it’s a symbol of the last time this happened. It has to be encountered and then rejected in favor of the belief that there is in fact a continuity between these two series.
But The Day of the Doctor has a different problem – celebrating fifty years of Doctor Who in its thirty-third season. For The Day of the Doctor the Time War is not an anxiety – something that could happen again at any moment – but rather a wound to be healed. “Be a Doctor,” Clara insists, and so he is, diagnosing and remedying his own textual scars, suturing in John Hurt so as to symbolically remove the existence of the gap. It would be more surprising if the two takes on the Time War did match up.
But what is truly extraordinary is that we are now about 1700 words into a post about a story inserted into the gap between The Waters of Mars and The End of Time, and yet we haven’t actually commented on The Waters of Mars at all. This is, notably, because there is nothing whatsoever in The Day of the Doctor that references The Waters of Mars. Which is more than a little surprising, given how The Waters of Mars resolves. Consider The End of Time one last time; after some portentous Timothy Dalton narration and a bit about Wilf that serves as a cold open, the post-credits episode begins with the Doctor stepping out onto the Ood Sphere as instructed, his affect and dress consciously inappropriate. There may be a gap inserted with a joke about deflowering Elizabeth I, but the story still treats the ending of The Waters of Mars, with its supreme triumph of hubris, as a textual phenomenon that must be engaged with.
So let’s recap for a moment, lest the problem here be too subtle. Tennant’s Doctor, in this story, has just come off of The Waters of Mars where his hubris and arrogance have seemingly damned him. Specifically, he’s just arrogantly decided that he has the right as the Time Lord Victorious to rewrite history at will and without serious thought, and this arrogance has caused him to have to confront an omen of the imminence of his own death. In particular, recall the reason given in The Fires of Pompeii for why you can’t alter a fixed point in time – because if you could, the Doctor could go and change the end of the Time War. So what does he do in the only story explicitly situated between The Waters of Mars and The End of Time? He pilots his TARDIS into the Time War and changes the ending. On the surface, at least, it is difficult to come up with a less plausible or sensible answer to that question.
This is, of course, the point. Thus far we’ve found no particular grounds for tension between the Moffat and Davies eras. There’s a retcon, sure, but no sharper than the ones Davies applied to his own era. But here we have an utterly irreconcilable issue. Davies wants the Doctor to be damned by arrogantly meddling with history at the exact same point in the narrative that Moffat wants to have the Doctor pull off the most brazen bit of meddling he’s ever done, casually rewriting the entire history of the show to be a long con building up to the thirteen-Doctor rescue of Gallifrey.
It is difficult, if not outright impossible, to read this as anything other than a rejection of some of the essential storytelling premises of the Russell T Davies era of Doctor Who. As the Davies era calmly goes out in a blur of epic darkness that suggests the underlying pessimism that Davies has always held about the world, the Moffat era asserts a viewpoint of the world that is fundamentally more moral. I do not mean, to be clear, more ethical; that is to say, this is not a statement about the comparative moral rightness of the two eras. Rather it is to say that Moffat writes Doctor Who with a world that believes unerringly in “the right thing to do,” whereas Davies writes Doctor Who with a world where there are no right answers and where if humanity survives into the future it will be through the fundamental dissolution of the singular concept of “human nature” and its replacement with the idea of “humanity” as a thing that just spreads out across the stars, dancing freely with other species. (Note that the hopeful future augured by The Waters of Mars explicitly includes the inter-special marriage of one of Adelaide’s descendants.)
But for Moffat, there are just things you don’t do. Moffat has said in interviews that the resolution of the Time War always stuck in his craw a bit for the simple fact that, in his view, the Doctor wouldn’t do that. In his view, Doctor Who’s ability to evade any narrative collapse by cheating the rules must include preventing the Doctor from making a decision as terrible as the decision to commit a double genocide. But this constitutes an explicit reversal of The Waters of Mars. For Davies, the Doctor sadly trudging away from Bowie Base One as everyone dies is the correct action, because for Davies the Doctor is never better than when he’s a tragic figure. He can cheat death, but only by losing something else. For Moffat, however, the idea that the Doctor going back and saving the last three people would be treated as a moral wrong is simply unthinkable. If, in Moffat’s view, the Doctor wouldn’t commit the double genocide, he wouldn’t walk away from Adelaide either. The entire moral structure of The Waters of Mars becomes untenable within Moffat’s worldview, and we see it unravel completely in his invocation of the Tennant era.
If we wanted to be uncharitable to Moffat we could suggest that this is because if there is one thing Moffat is utterly unconcerned with, it is the possibility of hubris. But this is not our only option. Another way of phrasing it is that for Moffat, the point of the exercise is to retell the story until you like it. Time can be rewritten, which means that the past is there to be revised into perfection. For Davies, our only hope of salvation comes through a sort of ego-destroying hedonism – the embrace of life in all its fragile glory, with the knowledge that embracing this involves a near-total rejection of the actual social order. For Moffat, however, salvation is an altogether stranger thing – something that is accessible at any given moment, but only through the rewriting and honing of one’s self to where one becomes a teleological narrative force. And so Moffat, at last, makes the Doctor into the Time Lord Victorious, and then has him walk away unscathed into the future.