Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor – A More Considered Response

I watched the first one, so very long ago. In the living room, at my Gran and Grandad’s, at 53 Chappell Road, Droylsden. I was probably the only one watching, absorbed in a black and white television set showing BBC, and thus tuned to Doctor Who because it followed on from Grandstand and, maybe, The Telegoons.
My parents, my grandparents and uncle were talking as our traditional Saturday afternoon wound down towards that soon-to-come moment when Uncle Arthur would run us back to Openshaw. They may have been talking about what had happened the day before, about the assassination of President Kennedy, or they may have been just talking about what families talk about. I was the only one watching: this was a children’s programme, and the only other child present was my sister, then only sixteen months old and not interested in television.
Fifty years later and everybody’s been waiting for months for the Fiftieth Anniversary special. There’s a funny feeling to watching this, knowing that I am now old enough to, officially, remember something for half a century. To be able to draw a parallel between myself then and myself now.
But that’s my problem, not yours (just wait until you reach that point, that’s all I can say).
Apart from an initial flurry of speculation when John Hurt made that astonishing appearance in the last minute of the last series (and nearly everybody was right in guessing that he was the Doctor who had actually ended the Time War, though there were no other plausible moment in the Who mythology where he could, with any satisfaction, have been accommodated) I’ve deliberately avoided anything that would tip any hands as to what would happen in the special. If there were to be any moments of great dramatic revelation, I wanted them to be dramatically revealed at that moment in the story that Stephen Moffat had conceived, and not in any trailer, forum, newspaper or spoiler.
And I managed to get to the start of The Day of the Doctor as free of pre-conceptions as it was possible to be without having hermetically sealed myself away for the last six months and five days. I knew that David Tennant and Billie Piper (groan) were going to be in it, and Christopher Eccleston wasn’t, but I had avoided everything else with determination.
Except for The Night of the Doctor, which was a game-changer in that opening moment when the Doctor you weren’t expecting appeared, and then the bloody door was blown off and if they’d kept that so hidden, anything was possible.
So I got there with no idea what to expect, unlike the millions of others who knew what they wanted to see, so many of whom, in the watching and the immediate aftermath, seem to have not got their Fiftieth Anniversary. I, on the other hand, can say that it satisfied me. It was, of all improbable things from Moffat, low-key, and personal in its heart. And I think that it was all the better for it.
The mandatory nod to the very beginning was dealt with joyfully: the original (and greatest) theme music, Clara a teacher at the school that grand-daughter Susan attended, Ian Chesterton’s name on the Board of Governors. It was the best kind of Easter Egg, placed in plain sight for all to see and recognise, but without the sense of having missed something for those who saw but did not recognise – like all the others I didn’t notice and which didn’t get in the way.
Moffat built his mystery quickly but carefully. A message from Queen Elizabeth: the First. Paintings that contain a frozen moment of time, the answer shown before the question is asked, just as the two sides of the Smith Doctor’s mobile phone call were shown in reverse order. The time fissures that bring together the Smith Doctor and the Tennant Doctor in Elizabethan times, where we can see the typing up of a loose end from Tennant’s era. The convention that whenever two or more Doctor’s meet, they really don’t approve of each other, but still end up working like a dream.
But this Special is about John Hurt, the unknown Doctor, the interloper who’s inserted into the mythology at precisely the moment where all is obscure: the Time War, Russell T Davies’ great sweeping away of a cluttered past, of Time Lords and Daleks, the addition of the dark element that is so bloody, uniformly, boringly mandatory in everything and everyone, without the slightest thought for individuality. The corruption without which any character in television or film becomes, somehow, unreal and unrealistic.
Sorry to all you Davies fans: I wanted to like Doctor Who when it came back but I lasted three episodes of Eccleston before giving up, and I know an awful lot of you regard this story as just a comprehensive shitting on Davies’ Doctor(s), but what Moffat did was brilliant.
The Hurt Doctor who was introduced in such dark circumstances, the version that could not justify himself with the Name, the Warrior conceived to make War, the man who chose, with deliberation and knowledge, to commit double-genocide, turned out to be a Doctor – a real Doctor. On the day his decision had to be made, on the day when he would activate the Moment – the alien weapon which would do this – the machine’s conscience intervened.
To have her played by Billie Piper, not Rose nor the Bad Wolf, but a simulacrum, a deliberate pre-echo, was a moment of inspiration. I hated Rose, and I loathe Billie Piper, but here she was brilliant, incarnating her role with thought, compassion and gentleness.
If he were to do this, the Hurt Doctor’s punishment is to live. But first, he must see how he will live. So he too is introduced to the Smith and Tennant Doctors, via the Time Fissure, and he is neither raging warrior, destiny-laden nor dark, but a Doctor who can snap and snipe at his successors as much as they do at each other, with the same irreverent humour that has always come with the turf of Doctor Who, and who makes himself real in his successors eyes in a way that they, culpable but removed and wishing to distance themselves, had not before been able to do.
So much so that when the Moment comes, they are prepared to accept, and share the responsibility that they have, in their different ways, sought to avoid. So much done, yet the inevitability of things prevails. Time is Time.
Yet this is to reckon without the Impossible Girl, Clara who has occupied the Doctor’s life, all of it, and who still has the belief in this unusual being to ask if there is not another way?
I’ve screamed at Moffat’s misogyny in the past – it very nearly fucked all over The Naming of the Doctor – but he can here be absolved of much, by putting the resistance to inevitability into the hands of Jenna Coleman and Billie Piper.
And there is another way. A way that preserves the unity of time, the sanctity of these years of New Who, of the Doctors who lived with themselves as ultimate villains. It comes from the Smith Doctor because he’s the current incarnation, but also because he’s the one who’s lived longest and had the most time to think. And through him, Gallifrey is saved, in secret, by removing the planet into a frozen moment of time.
Into a painting.
And in that glorious ending, all the Doctors – ALL of them, each in their TARDISs – come together to have the home they fled at a time that is so long ago that it might as well no longer exist: and because we are so close to another regeneration, there are not just Twelve, there are Thirteen, for a second of time in which we glimpse the Capaldi Doctor’s face.
And it is all reset, and the Hurt Doctor is redeemed, and regenerates into Christopher Eccleston (whose refusal to take part robs us of a moment that should have happened, the preservation of the final unity, his face in the wardrobe of his predecessor, the full regeneration). But there is one final moment for those of us who go back to marvel at.
New Who has often been accused of rejecting Old Who. That can’t be said any longer: this Special alone has built the bridge between the two eras: the unexpected, unimagined Doctor has cemented Old Who in the shape of McGann to New Who in the shape of Eccleston. It has opened a very great door, whilst accelerating the series towards confrontation with a chance bit of lore that seemed meaningless and fay when spoken casually in the past: twelve regenerations, and twelve only: Thirteen Doctors.
And Capaldi makes Thirteen.
But in its final moments, as Smith muses on retiring, and becoming a curator, he is approached by the curator, of this museum of the strange on that silly little planet that the Doctor, in all his faces, has visited so often. The curator is an old man: he is Tom Baker, the oldest survivor of the Thirteen faces. And in his guidance as to what to understand from the painting Gallifrey Falls No More, he is the promise to all of us that Capaldi cannot be the end, that one day the Doctor will retire, and will regenerate into an old, familiar, beloved face and form.
I’m grateful to Moffat for meeting the expectations I never had, for eschewing empty bombast and pomposity, and making this story about redemption, acceptance and the removal of an inhumane burden. As far as I’m concerned, fifty years has been worth it, and in a subtle fashion, the ground has been relaid for fifty more. To those of you who hated this, or were bored with it, or confused, or sneered, or thought that it was conceived in hatred to shit all over Russell T Davies, I’m sorry that you can’t take joy from this.
I, at least, am content.

Doctor Who: Series 7 episode 13. The Naming of the Doctor

I miss you…

Well, that was almost exactly everything that this series, and I include the Neil Gaiman episode last week, has failed to be. Not quite: there was one almighty wobble in the final couple of minutes, until it was retrieved by one mother of a cliffhanger: John Hurt. The Doctor.

I have history with Doctor Who. I watched the first episode, that long black-and-white time ago. I didn’t see the second episode, not until it was repeated eighteen years later. But I was a regular, throughout the Hartnell and Troughton years, except that I missed both regenerations: I’m old enough to remember that the first time round it wasn’t a regeneration at all, rather a rejuvenation, from about 900 years old back to 700 years.

I missed most of Pertwee and Baker (T), but I did catch my first regeneration with Baker to Davidson. I was a regular then, one of the few who liked Baker (C), but dropped off with McCoy. I watched the movie with McGann, but don’t remember it, and I sat down to Eccleston with anticipation that quickly evaporated. To be honest, the New Who wasn’t my sort of thing, and since I seemed to be one of the few people in the Universe who thought Billie Piper was uninteresting and couldn’t act (I mean, I don’t even find her attractive), it seemed saner to walk away.

I did see the last episode with Tennant, and managed to stay awake during that turgid, overlong, wholly overdone bit at the end where he toured the entire SpaceTime Continuum just to stare meaningfully at everybody who’d appeared over all four seasons so far. But, to be honest, whilst I suspected that Stephen Moffatt would be a far more fun showrunner, I really only tuned in to check out Karen Gillan.

And she was very worth checking out, but the revelation was that Matt Smith was fun, and fascinating as the Eleventh Doctor, and the stories were fast-paced and silly and deep in the right proportions, and Gillan was also bloody good as Amy Pond. And I thought Rory was great too, and it kept hitting emotional points on the button.

And the best of them all was the Ponds’ final appearance, a dull, drear, overhyped effort that was going very badly until that moment Rory stepped up onto the parapet, prepared to sacrifice himself to save the woman he loved and the show just punched a fist through my heart and twisted, until the final moment.

So I was looking forward to the second half of this series, until it happened. Great guest stars, playing great roles. Jenna-Louise Coleman looks great. But it wasn’t working. I enjoyed the first couple of shows, the ones that everybody else hated, and after that, once everybody started enjoying the fare, I just found myself getting less and less interested. Every week, Matt Smith would go totally OTT, gurning, shrieking, throwing himself around, and everyone would praise his performance more and more. And no matter how hard I tried to get interested in the mystery that was Clara Oswin, she remained nothing more than a cardboard cut-out, a dull echo of the far more authoritative Amy.

Because that was it, basically. I was  missing the Ponds – which is the great danger with Russell Davies’s notion of focussing on the companions, because they come and go, they always come and go. They gave the series ballast, a solid base against which Smith could play, but Clara had no real substance to her. And without that, Smith was ungrounded.

Until tonight, because the threat was genuine, was real, more real than anything this increasingly feckless series had offered, because it meant the Doctor’s end. The one place in forever where he can’t go, because it’s where his grave stands. It anchors Smith’s performance, keeping him away from the scenery-chewing end of his range, because (apart from the bit where last week’s kids trick him into playing Blind Man’s Bluff, the story won’t accommodate the kind of forced whimsy and ditziness on the past few weeks.

The story is rich. Vastra, Jenny and Strax hold a Conference Call across time and space, conjuring up the ghost of River Song to join them: but not River herself, rather the long ago computer back-up made by Tennant and kept in the TARDIS forever since. Jenny is murdered, apologising for her carelessness, and the Great Intelligence forces The Doctor to Trenzalore, to a dead TARDIS, in which all the bigness is on the outside.

The Doctor is forced to open his tomb by the one word in the Universe he can’t give: his real name. But the title of the show is a McGuffin; Smith shouts something incomprehensible, the door opens, and the apparition of River Song confesses that she said his name. It’s a cheat, but an allowable cheat, since after fifty years no name under the sun could possibly satisfy.

And inside the dead TARDIS, there is a shining construction of light, a spindle of strands, curving and recurving, up and down, in a path incapable of being followed. It is the Doctor’s life, his personal time-line, everywhere and everywhen he’s been, and every body he’s worn, including that undisclosed future. It is an open wound, and, being open, it can be entered. Which is the Great Intelligence’s intention. It will enter the Doctor’s time-line and poison it from end to end, turning every victory into defeat, destroying every achievement since November 23 1963.

The grandiosity of the scheme, which has immediate effects as whole star systems wink out, and Jenny dies again,  is matched by Clara’s response. In the beginning we see her popping up around a series of Doctors – old clips of old heroes, blurred outlines of costumes – as Clara debates her own mystery. Now she understands it, understands how she could have met the Doctor twice and died twice. Because she too can step into the open wound, destroying herself, create millions of Claras, millions of Impossible Girls. She will save the Doctor in every adversity. As she steps into the light, she says the words that link everything, beginning to end: “Run, you clever boy. And remember me.”

For a moment, the episode trembles on the brink of greatness. The series began, last year, with the unexpected, wonderfully-kept secret of Clara in episode 1. What matching glory that, with an equal gesture of secrecy and surprise, her story is to end here. And she goes into his life, repeating the cycle seen at the beginning, to which a moment of comic genius is added: as William Hartnell and his granddaughter, Susan, prepare to steal a TARDIS that the Gallifrey technicians have identified as defective (which we recognise with a sage nod), Clara appears to warn them against it: try this one instead, the navigation circuits are knackered but you’ll have fun.

Then it all starts to go wrong. The Doctor wakes up and, instead of getting away as everybody from Clara to the woman on school crossing patrol in Harpenden tells him to do, he’s going in after her. Fur hilven! She’s just made the most meaningful gesture of her life, and you’re going to render it totally pointless and ruin what this episode has built up, what the fuck?

The idiocy is postponed a few moments: it turns out the Doctor has been able to see and hear the River-ghost all along: he has always been able to. There is a short, but beautiful pitch to this conversation, which has the feel of a final, as in final for ever, meeting for this time-crossed pair.

Suddenly, the confident, cheerful, strong, clever Clara falls into a zone of darkness and swirling dust and starts crying for the Doctor. It’s a sudden, hideously misogynistic switch, like that Sherlock episode which reduced Irene Adler to someone who had to be rescued by a superior Sherlock Holmes. It’s truly shit and, needless to say, out of all the places in his long life Clara could be, the Doctor’s found her first go, and she only has to trust in him and jump down to him and she’ll be safe. I may barf in disgust.

And then, from the point of death, Moffatt pulls it out of the bag. The Doctor and Clara are not alone. Someone else is present, stood with his back to them. Clara panics, in fear of who he is, of the fact she’s not seen him, she’s seen all eleven faces but not him. That’s because he’s not the Doctor, the Doctor morosely states. He is the Doctor’s shadow, his darkness, his black sheep, but he did not call himself the Doctor, the name our anonymous hero chose.

The figure speaks, says that his was a choice forced on him by circumstance and necessity. The Doctor draws Clara away, still looking in fear and anger. The figure turns and it is John Hurt. A card appears: Introducing John Hurt. As The Doctor. Continued November 23 2013.

I’m not going to speculate. I haven’t got a clue where this is going and we’ve all of us got six months and five days to wait for an explanation, and to discover whether what Moffatt has up his sleeve for his bow out is enough to justify that truly ham-fisted and shitty little attempt to blow a nearly-glorious episode to smithereens.

For tonight, I saw plenty to delight and excite and surprise and sparkle – who do we know retired to take up bee-keeping? – only for it to be thrown into the balance due to a slice of idiot shit. I hope that whatever secrets Moffatt is keeping are kept secret for six months and five days. I hope that if he’s got any more of that misogynist shit, that someone has beaten him severely round the head until he dropped it.

Because I’d also like to be interested and intrigued in and by the Twelfth Doctor.