...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Day 4710: DOCTOR WHO: Just a Moment

The Day of the Doctor (flashback):

In “The Curse of Fenric”, the Reverend Wainwright’s faith is broken not by German bombs, but by British ones. British bombs killing German children. Remember that.

The Doctor is a traveller in Time and Space. That’s where all this begins and where it always comes back to. But there are two ways to travel: never looking behind you, and there and back again. Over the (fifty) years, the Doctor has exemplified both modes, reflecting the mores of the production team of the time. They represent quite different world-views, different approaches to making “Doctor Who”, different ideas about what the series is saying, and what – and who – it’s for.

“Never look behind you” is innovative, risk-taking, “out there” in a Universe that is often a dark and strange place where light is a guttering candle; iconoclastic, it breaks continuity, changes things shakes them up, causes chaos, creative and destructive; this is “Doctor Who” typified by the likes of Verity Lambert or Philip Hinchcliffe, Mac Hulke or Andrew Cartmel. Let’s call this group “Explorers”.

“There and Back Again” is honour, tradition, moral strength, defending “hearth and home (counties)” from the weird and other, usually with the idea that “home” is somewhere “safe” to return to and worth defending; it builds upon what has gone before, strengthens and deepens, forges connections, brings order, reactionary and nurturing; it’s the “Doctor Who” of Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts, of Graham Williams era Guardians and space princesses and John Nathan-Turner’s middle years. I thought about naming this group “Nostalgics” but that seems pejorative, so let us say “Conservers”.

Change is said to be one of the keys to the enduring success of Doctor Who, so it’s important that we don’t say that one mode is “better”, even if each of us will certainly have a preference for one over the other.

Russell Davies, for all of the Barry Letts’ Era tropes that he revels in, lavishes his love on even, is clearly an “Explorer”. He pushes the Doctor into new places all the time: Platform One, planet Midnight; Jackie Tyler’s boudoir… His signature companion is Rose Tyler and the first and most important thing about Rose is that she wants to get out there, leaving her past behind. And when she leaves, she’s gone further than anyone else, to a whole new Universe, and she’s still going.

Steven Moffat, in spite of his reputation as Mr Terror, is just as clearly a “Conserver”. So much of his writing is about family and the threat to family and “home”. His signature companion is Amy Pond, who is defined by her absent family, and whose story is all about how she and the Doctor become family, how he “fixes” her (ugh) by un-orphaning her, and when she leaves it’s because the Doctor gives her a nice house and when she leaves again it’s to be with her husband.

The most telling difference between the two groups has to be their attitude to the Time Lords.

It should be pretty obvious that, as the television series “Doctor Who” developed, the Time Lords became a metaphor for Britain, just as the Daleks were a metaphor for the Nazis. It was pretty inevitable that the biggest, most important war ever would end up being between them. And that it would destroy them both. But, unlike the Daleks – there being obviously only one opinion to be held on the Nazis – Britain means different things to different people and therefore so do the Time Lords, whether it’s the stern, patrician, nay Reithian, but basically good intergalactic ticket wardens of Barry Letts or the befuddled, introverted, vain academics of Robert Holmes; the overseers of galactic order (and shipping lanes) under the supervision of the White Guardian under Graham Williams or the dark and enigmatic architects of a history that conceals their worst mistakes as conceived by Lawrence Miles.

And there is a very good case for saying that the Time Lords have always been gits. I know because Alex made it. After all, practically the first thing they do is execute the Doctor. But that’s not always been the perspective of subsequent writers and producers. Or even of co-writer of “The War Games” Terrance Dicks!

Britain, for good or ill – in fact, for good and ill – moulded the modern world, whether by Imperial conquest, or the conduct of the slave trade, or the economic influence of the East India Company, or the expeditious, even perfidious, promises of the territory of Palestine to at least four deeply antagonistic factions, torturing, maiming and murdering our way across five continents and four-hundred years all blindly convinced that technological superiority conveyed moral superiority and utterly deluded about our “basic British decency”, and the only remote claim to absolution being that maybe we were slightly less bad than other people at the time would have been, and maybe that we did it to stop people – Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm, Adolf Hitler – who would have been worse.

This completely schizophrenic view of our own past – that the British Empire was an appalling crime against humanity that at the same time was the only thing that saved the world from absolute despotism; whether we are, at heart, good or bad – informs the writing of the Doctor and the Time Lords. Is he fleeing from them, rejecting their decadence or corruption? Or is he upholding their principles even when they themselves fall short? Is he the renegade or the exemplar? Or is the Master?

And, I have to say, the conclusion of “Genesis of the Daleks”, where the Doctor – on behalf of his people – chooses to reject retro-genocide of the Daleks, in spite of all their evil, has long weighed upon me. Out of that evil, will come something good. What, really, does the Doctor mean by that? It can’t just be the future alliances brought about against the Daleks; surely those races could have become friends anyway. No, it’s something more than that, more fundamental really. My settled feelings came to be that the choice was never between Daleks and no-Daleks. Because Genocide of the Daleks would have made the Time Lords into the Daleks. So the choice was between a Universe of Daleks, and a Universe with Daleks and Time Lords. A Universe where there was only obedience and extermination, and a Universe where we even have a choice.

In a way this is the only way that “Remembrance of the Daleks” does not flatly contradict “Genesis” morally and logically. The Doctor gives Davros a choice. He may be tricking him, he may have set everything up to force Davros’ hand, he may know perfectly well that Davros is never going to choose to surrender the Hand of Omega or stop his quest for ultimate power, he may have goaded Davros to the point of frothing lunacy and wound him up past the point where he’s thinking rationally, but he still – just about – gives him the choice to do it or not to do it. At that point in Genesis, the point of exercising ultimate power – the “moment”, you might say – the Doctor paused. And because he paused, he realised that he could make that choice. Davros doesn’t, literally doesn’t stop to think. That’s the difference between Dalek and Time Lord.

And that difference, that there still is a difference between Dalek and Time Lord is one idea that runs deep in the heart of “The Day of the Doctor”. In the prologue piece “Night of the Doctor”, Paul McGann’s Doctor tries to rescue a crashing space pilot, Cass, and she refuses when she recognises him as a Time Lord. “At least I’m not a Dalek!” he protests. “Who can tell any more?” she retorts. But we can tell.

“Are you coward or killer?” demanded the Emperor Dalek, and Chris Eccleston’s Doctor replied “Coward every time.” And he was right. Every time.

Alex’s reaction to “The Day of the Doctor” – and he’s not wrong – was that Moffat has now succeeded in un-writing all of Russell; that, dear lord, it’s the Leekley Bible, with the Doctor on a hero’s journey to find his lost father(land); that Moffat’s taken the very heart of Doctor Who – the Doctor running away from Gallifrey – and turned it on its head, with a Doctor running to find his home. And of course that’s what Moffat has done: he’s a “Conserver”, he needs the story to be “There and Back Again”, the future must build on the past, the hero has to return home. He made his views on Britain – that plucky little island standing up to the Nazis – pretty clear back in “The Empty Child”, and nothing since has changed that. Britain stood against the Nazis; Gallifrey must stand against the Daleks. That’s the way the tide in the affairs of “Doctor Who” is running at the moment.

But then, as Simon pointed out, “The Three Doctors” unwrote the Doctor’s exile to Earth, took him away from the safe, cosy UNIT family and cast him out into the Universe, leading eventually to the great trinity of “Explorers” Baker/Holmes/Hinchcliffe.

Things change.

Perhaps I should actually review the episode a little bit. I think “The Day of the Doctor” succeeds far more as a tribute to fifty years of the Doctor than it does as a story. The Daleks, for all the show-offy Time War CGI were hardly in it except to blow up on demand, and would they really all shoot each other in a big circle? (Alex wanted me to call this review “Gallifrey Ducks”, and I’m mightily tempted.) Though I post-facto justify that by reminding him that Rose as the Bad Wolf – and let’s be honest, it’s pretty clear that the Moment and the Bad Wolf are one and the same here; though it’s rather lovely that the clockwork box evolves itself into a big red button that is clearly a Rose – annihilated every Dalek everywhere in Time and Space. So presumably that included all the Daleks surrounding the suddenly-missing Gallifrey (less any that actually did shoot each other!).

The Zygons – really? the Zygons? Even as a gift to Davy T? – were forgotten in the big resolution (I mean are they still locked in the Black Archive negotiating that treaty? And why was it necessary for Osgood and Osgood-Zygon to work out who was who by means of the inhaler when nothing came of that? It’s not like Osgood-Zygon was anice Zygon before). Nice transformation moment, mind you. And they did a good job of disguising the fact they only had one Zygon costume. And on second watching I spotted the moment Kate got replaced (having worried that she’d been a Zygon all along!).

It does, though, support my belief that the Doctor’s gabble to Ood Sigma at the start of “The End of Time” was him putting a spin on his reasons for not going straight to the Ood-Sphere from “The Waters of Mars” (though I still prefer my own theory that there’s a bit of non-linear storytelling going on and he goes and visits all his companions before he sets off to the Ood-sphere and is just remembering them all again as he staggers to the TARDIS about to explode. Okay, maybe allowing him one last visit to Rose).

The 3D – better mention the 3D since it was a big deal, and we went to the cinema on the Day-After-the-Day-of-the-Doctor so as to see it; a disaster all of its own, but that’s another story – the 3D was patchy at best. The helicopter stunt was pretty good; the “look we’re a movie now” style titles stood out very well, as you’d expect from lettering over a deep field background; the Time War was mostly a lot of coloured lights (and the first and only other time since “Remembrance” that the Daleks have fired bolts rather than beams, I guess to make the 3D work. Ish.) Bits of stone and rubble flying out of the screen as the TARDIS took out a squad of Daleks sort of worked. The best bit, as it happened, was a tree. As Elizabeth was chased by the former-horse Zygon, one branch really did the sticking out of the screen thing. And ironically, the 3D Time Lord paintings (great in concept, though what were they doing on Earth and how did Liz 1 get hold of them to stick into her Undergallery?) looked completely flat. Or at least no better than they looked in 2D, when the zoom and look round gave just as much impression of 3D as the silly glasses.

But none of that was important, because it opened in Totters Lane and Coal Hill School and had photos of past companions and Kate Lethbridge-Stewart name-checking her dad, and a joke about Cromer and another about UNIT dating, and a great big red countdown.

The three Doctors played it beautifully. I’ll join the chorus who say that Chris did us a tremendous favour by bowing out of the anniversary, missed though he was, as it gave us John Hurt as the War Doctor. This will almost certainly – barring surprises – be the only time we get to see John Hurt’s incarnation, and it goes without saying what a shame that is.

Moffat was spurred to write something clever (or fan-baiting) that allowed us to see the kind of Doctor who actually would fight on the front lines, while retaining the character integrity of Eccleston’s recently-regenerated post-Time War Doctor and McGann’s pre-Time War Time Lord (or the one who runs into the start of it; another neat nod there to the books, especially Lawrence Miles’ Faction Paradox works).

There’s a sense of genuine progression from McGann’s weariness at fighting the injustice of the Universe (in the later Big Finish as well as “Night of the Doctor”), to Hurt’s ground to dust Doctor who says “No More” and breaks into the Omega Archive to steel the Moment. (Did the Hand of Omega let him in, do you think?) Hurt is perfect as the Doctor straight away, from the way he hides his shame from the TARDIS, to the way he can be acerbic to his older selves, right to the joy expressed when they think their way out of the trap of the last day. The way he can be wise, but not quite wise enough.

And he speaks on behalf of the Twentieth Century series when, almost baffled, he confronts his Twenty-First Century selves for all that they’ve become. And to be fair, Moffat can wax lyrical when he tries: the man who regrets and the man who forgets being beautifully little vignettes of David and Matt as the Time Lord. Better than “skinny” and “chinny” anyway. The badinage between Doctors ten and eleven (or is that eleven/twelve and thirteen, now?) was clearly fashioned after the “The Three Doctors” and yet came across as more like friendly ribbing between siblings than the sniping between Troughton and Pertwee. But the two new series Doctors were much more than the comic relief. Fair play to David Tennant: he restrained his occasional habit of overplaying the anger and the suffering, to turn in one of his finest turns as the Time Lord, by turns funny, self-satirising, angry and sad. And bonus for befuddled on hearing the words “Bad Wolf Girl”. And Matt, Matt was as always wonderful. Some particular emoting nicely mirroring the extreme close up of half his face against half of Hurt’s. Impressive to see them go toe to toe and the younger man keep up with the old master.

And I had genuine tears of joy when the three Doctors were joined by his other selves to make the twelve Doctors… and then my heart leapt even higher for “all thirteen”. Peter Capaldi stole the show with only his eyebrows. And then I was misting up again when Tom returned to our screens to steal the show right back; enigmatic, wise, cryptic, bonkers, Who Knows? Past self or future, or just eternally the Doctor. Along with the wonderful Paul McGann mini-episode it truly made this a proper anniversary. And it’s impossible not to think that Sylv, Colin and Peter D were there too, under those shrouds as the statue -impersonating Zygons.

(Thoughts on the Five-ish Doctors: brilliant, best of the celebration; Moffat forced to play a scene where he deletes his own Victory Daleks from the anniversary special; Peter D, choosing to delete Russell’s voice message just as the Grand Moff had deleted the Doctors’ messages earlier with an expression on his face that says – a la Space Commander Travis, a joke only Blake’s Seven aficionados will get – “oh yes, I’m a Moffat too”.)

This is something I wrote in about 2001, after “The Ancestor Cell”:
The Doctor dreams. Something that he can't quite grasp, gone but not forgotten, in a universe in a bottle, a place of last resort, a redoubt, somewhere forgotten, forgotten that he'd forgotten. A place within a place, worlds within worlds, even if all was lost they wouldn't all be lost, or lost but not all gone, not gone but forgotten. They're not gone but forgotten. He wakes.

In “The Curse of Fenric”, the Reverend Wainwright’s faith is broken not by German bombs, but by British ones. British bombs killing German children.

In “The End of Time”, the Doctor’s faith is broken by the High Council of the Time Lords’ decision to abandon the Time War against the Daleks, to let Arcadia fall, and to wipe out all of History in order to ascend, escape, run away to a higher plane.

Moffat’s writing, mawkish, sentimental, won’t somebody think of the children though it may be, is a reminder of what the Doctor, in his long despair, has forgotten. In “The End of Time” the Doctor confesses that his stories of the Time Lords are always about how good and wonderful they were, but that that is how he chooses to remember them; that at the end, they became as bad as the enemy they were fighting. But that’s not necessarily true either; that’s how he really remembers them, from his darkest day, from the choices of the few – admittedly a Nuremburg Rally-full of the High Council, but few compared to 2.47 billion children – that drove him to despair. But the Time Lords are not the Daleks. They are not all the same. And they can choose.

Gallifrey Falls. Or Gallifrey Rises. Those are the choices the Doctor takes into the moment. But he’s the Doctor. He’s always about being given two choices and finding the third. Gallifrey Stands.

In “The Curse of Fenric”, Ace says to Wainwright: “Have faith in me”.

In “The Day of the Doctor”, Clara and the Bad Wolf remind the Doctor of who he is, and through faith in them, he restores his faith in himself.

Don’t get me wrong; I still agree with Alex. By rewriting the Last Day of the Time War, Moffat has turned “everybody dies” into “everybody lives”; he’s taken the ultimate message of Russell – “consequences” – and made it meaningless.

And yet, and yet…

I must confess, I felt the loss of Gallifrey deeply, a Universe without Gallifrey – without a Britain – was like a wound, it was to be unhomed.

So good and bad, right and wrong, Explorer and Conserver, like the Time Lords, like Britain, like all of us, “The Day of the Doctor” can be both at once and all at the same time.

After all, it’s “Doctor Who”.

Next Time… It’s Christmas. We’re promised Daleks and Cybermen and Weeping Angels. Oh My. And Silence, finally, will fall. Back to Trenzalore, then, in search of some answers. Why did the TARDIS explode? What was the endless bitter war? When will the Grand Moff stop tweaking fandom by the tail? He’s taking on the Doctor Who curse, by putting “Time” in the title, and settling once and for all the question of what happens after the Doctor’s twelve regenerations in “The Time of the Doctor”

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Stephen Glenn said...

Looking forward to you post on The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot ;)

Edis said...

Surely the final weapon theme is drawn on the Great Story Of Humanity. The 'Mahabharata'. That climaxes with the deployment of the ultimate weapon that destroys all of creation.

Bob The Fish said...

WRT "Genesis", people always remember that Tom questions "Have I the right?", but seem to forget that 1 scene later he decides "yes, I do" and goes back to kill the Daleks. Were it not for a clumsy Dalek taking the decision out of his hands, he'd have committed the genocide the Time Lords wanted him to.

And, as far as Moffat re-writing Nu-Who, there's a poster on Gallifrey Base who's signature is a quote from RTD from ages ago. I can't find the full quote at the moment, but it's listing the things that he's put in the series but not explained, such as "the fall of Arcadia" and a couple of other examples, and explaining how they're there as fuel for the imagination the same way that as a kid he could imagine the origins of the Silurians or what happened to the remaining Zygons.

Having watched "The Day Of The Doctor", it seems that Moffat's just gone through that list and done the lot, including the stuff from the old series that RTD's been thinking about since he was a kid. Expect the origins of the Siluruans in the coming year.

Mike Taylor said...

... except that Moffat very wisely did not try to explain or show us The Nightmare Child, the Horde of Travesties, the Could-Have-Been King or any of the other Time War horrors that (let's give credit where it's due) Russell T. Davies so brilliantly tossed in. Those will, I hope, remain only allusions, never made concrete.