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'The Day of the Doctor': Rewriting the Past One Satisfying Moffat Ex Machina at a Time

By C. Robert Dmitri | TV | November 25, 2013 |

By C. Robert Dmitri | TV | November 25, 2013 |

Doctor Who has come a long way.

I was not around in November of 1963; my parents had only just gotten married. For me Doctor Who started back in the mid-80s with The Doctor, Romana II, and K-9. I was around eleven or twelve years old. KERA, my local public television affiliate, aired a syndicated adventure every Saturday night, and I first happened upon “The Creature In The Pit.”

There was a dearth of interesting televised science-fiction and fantasy in that era compared to the way that we’re spoiled now. Among others, there was the unjustly (in my opinion) cancelled 80s Twilight Zone reboot. There was the almost immediately cancelled satire Wizards and Warriors with Julia Duffy. There was the Marc Singer and Jane Badler V series that did not live up to its TV-movie and miniseries predecessors. Of course, there was Star Trek: The Next Generation, but in those days I had a stubborn loyalty to the classic series and was opposed to what I initially labeled as “Love Boat In Space.” (Maybe I just unluckily happened some extremely bad episodes.) Hence, in lieu of Saturday Night Live - a show that I like to think borrowed my jibe from the collective unconscious when it spoofed Star Trek: The Next Generation as The Love Boat - I was hooked on this alternate weekly appointment with our favorite Gallifreyan.

Belated apology and gratitude: I’m sorry, KERA, that I never gave any money to one of the several pledge drives that always featured “The Five Doctors.” I was just a kid, so I did not have much in terms of disposable funds, but thank you for introducing me to the show.

I did not have many friends that also enjoyed the show, or at least I did not know about it. I recall in my eighth grade Humanities class that a cute girl once mocked my weekend habit when the show came up in a conversation, and I only remember watching Doctor Who a single time back in those days when I was not alone. (A high school friend and I watched Sylvester McCoy’s “Dragonfire” together.) It was not that I had a shortage of nerdy friends; the British import was simply not on the radar like it is now. Hence, while something like Star Wars might have been more formative to my development and preferences and was certainly more universal in the world of my youth, for a kid in the Texas plains Doctor Who - that fixture of my solitary late-night weekends - felt like it was “mine.”

Near the end of the 80s I attended a Doctor Who convention in Dallas and was first exposed to the fact that the show did have a sizable American cult following. One of the show’s producers was there and announced the plans to imminently make a Doctor Who feature film. The audience loved the sound of that. What followed was no feature film, the cancellation of the television program, the lackluster McGann TV-movie (no offense to McGann), and the long hibernation of BBC’s Doctor Who…until that 2005 rebirth.

Flash forward to the morning of November 23, 2013. I’m at a big multiplex movie theater that must be using six or seven of its screens filled to capacity to give us a global premiere simulcast of the 50th anniversary episode. This isn’t that feature film proper that we were promised so long ago, but it’s on the big screen, we’re wearing 3-D glasses, the cosplay is rampant, and for all the people at this multiplex, I barely saw a duplicate t-shirt. (Aside: how many unique Doctor Who t-shirts must there be in the world?) The pre-show includes Doctor Who trivia, and the warning to silence our cellphones and follow proper theater etiquette is humorously delivered by none other than Strax the Sontaran. Smith and Tennant in dueling Doctor roles inform us of the 3-D perks of our viewing. (Another aside: the 3-D would not add much for me.) The audience is hyped, and their sonic screwdrivers commemorate the moment with a chorus of lights and squeals. (Yet another aside: one of the trivia items informed us that over one thousand sonic screwdrivers are sold daily in the States. At that rate, you’re looking at a million in less than three years. I’m certain there are some repeat customers - several of them no doubt in my theater - but that’s still staggering.) With the exception of that rude guy that griped at me for saving seats for my friends, the environment is all good will.

So why am I providing you all this personal context? The context helps in understanding that my extremely positive reaction to “The Day Of The Doctor” is biased by nostalgia and the general allonsy-conducive vibes.

Spoilers, as River Song would warn, follow.

We pick up with Eleven and Clara being called by the Brigadier Stewart’s daughter to account for a mysterious high-tech painting of the last day of the Time War on Gallifrey and a summons of The Doctor by Queen Elizabeth I. (Yes, I’m still calling him Eleven.) As we find out later, the painting is not simply a separate artistic rendering of a moment; it’s a preserved capsule of the moment itself that can be used to preserve living beings in waiting. Incidentally, I’m not sure how Eleven and Clara escaped that strange “place” that was The Doctor’s timeline at the end of “The Name Of The Doctor,” but if we’re intended to know that information it must be forthcoming in a future episode.

Meanwhile (a word that of course has little real meaning in this timey-wimey jumble), The War Doctor (John Hurt) faces the ethical dilemma that defined Nine for us at the very beginning of his run: should he or should he not activate the doomsday weapon that will annihilate the Daleks and all of Gallifrey, thus ending the Time War? Such a powerful weapon has a clever feature - a built-in conscience that manifests itself in a manner so as to make sure the weapon’s user fully grasps the implications of the decision. In this case, the weapon takes the form of a future companion of The Doctor, Rose Tyler. The actual Rose Tyler does not appear in this episode, and there is no interaction between her and Ten. (Take that, shippers. Sorry - I couldn’t resist.)

Speaking of Ten, he’s busy wooing Elizabeth I in 1562, only to discover that an old enemy, the shape-shifting Zygons, are infiltrating England, in the hopes of making Earth their new home. Confronted with two bickering Elizabeths, one real and one villainous, Ten does his best to navigate the situation.

The War Doctor brings the three Doctors together, as “Rose” provides him with a chance to meet his future selves as a means to decide whether or not he can live with using this weapon that will kill so many innocent Gallifreyan children, as living with the act is to be the weapon’s punishment for him.

Once these three are together, the fun begins. Eleven and Ten riff off each other as well as you might have imagined, and Hurt’s War Doctor brings the appropriate gravitas to the proceedings. Using Hurt in lieu of Eccleston might have been accidental, but I do think it was also serendipitous. Having a new voice works to set apart the critical moment that ends the Time War and builds suspense in the story by emphasizing how unlike The Doctor (as we know him) the decision was.

There are many good moments, but here’s my favorite exchange between the three:

Clara: “Doctor, what’s going on?”
Eleven: “It’s a…a timey wimey thing.”
War Doctor: “Timey what? Timey wimey?”
Ten (the phrase’s source): “I have no idea where he picks that stuff up.”

Past cross-Doctor adventures use the same motif: the younger-in-age Doctor mocks the new, younger-in-appearance blokes, resenting the implication that there possibly could be any improvement. It’s a funny thing that these older Doctors are the younger spirits; as we find out, the relative juvenile nature of Ten and Eleven is a method of compensation for that great evil that they committed in the past. Certainly the BBC wanted to cast younger guys, but conceptually this works. Regeneration becomes a defensive, instinctual coping mechanism.

Ever since Eight kissed Grace Holloway, Doctor Who has seen a contentious shift in The Doctor’s inclination for romantic entanglements. I myself was opposed to it at first, but I’ve become accustomed to it and accepting of it. Another of my favorite moments contrasted the new and the old in that respect:

*Ten kisses Elizabeth I, having just married her.*
War Doctor: “Is there a lot of this in the future?”
Eleven: “It does start to happen, yeah.”

The Zygon-Earthling conflict works as a representative microcosm for the War Doctor’s own ethical dilemma when the younger Stewart threatens to detonate London in a nuclear explosion in order to prevent the Zygons from procuring the U.K.’s secret alien technology cache. Is it right to save hypothetical billions at the cost of murdering millions? Ten and Eleven - having dwelled in guilt long enough to deem killing the millions to be wrong - solve the smaller dilemma by deluding the humans and Zygons into not knowing who is who until a treaty is reached. The same solution won’t apply to Time Lords and Daleks, but the War Doctor has seen enough.

“Rose” takes him back to Gallifrey, but Clara, having intuited that the War Doctor has not destroyed Gallifrey yet, goes with Eleven and Ten to meet him there before he can activate the weapon. Such a moment in history should be time-locked, unless of course this was the way that it was supposed to be all along. Ten and Eleven resolve to join the War Doctor in the fateful action, but it’s Clara’s doubt that this is something The Doctor could actually ever do that gives them pause. Thus, a plan is hatched.

They’ll time-lock the entire planet of Gallifrey, preserving it in the same manner that the painting used on a much bigger scale. This isn’t a calculation that can be done by a single Doctor in the moment; it’s one that needs to have been running for hundreds of years. With a sly use of stock footage, enter Doctors One through Nine! Oh, and enter Thirteen! (I’m confused now. I’m still calling Matt Smith Eleven, but if we accept the War Doctor as a genuine Doctor, which I feel that the story implies that we must, then shouldn’t Capaldi be Thirteen, given that we have never had the chance to call him a different number? Forget it. Just know that Capaldi’s Doctor helps out from the future as well.) A Gallifreyan in the command center actually says the phrase “all thirteen” in reference to The Doctors, which irritated one of my viewing companions as to its potential implications. I suggested it could simply be a case of breaking the fourth wall and sharing the fun with the audience.

With Gallifrey removed, the surrounding Dalek ships destroy each other in the crossfire. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know immediately if the plan worked; preservation of Gallifrey looks the same as destruction, and thus continuity is preserved, as the War Doctor, Nine, and Ten will have no memory of this adventure because of the jumbled time streams of multiple Doctors interacting. They all assume that Gallifrey is destroyed and don’t recall Ten and Eleven going back to save the day.

Now that, my friends, was a Moffat ex machina if I ever saw one. (Yes, I just coined that term independently. Something tells me that it’s so catchy and on point that someone else probably has used it before, but I’m still going to take credit.) One day I’m going to rank all of the Moffat ex machinas in a hierarchy that rates how ludicrous, implausible, arbitrary, and satisfying they are. (For example, the resolution of “The Big Bang” is very tough for me to accept logically, but it’s so satisfying emotionally that I can’t criticize it.)

In this case, I must admit that I was a complete sucker and softie for the Moffat ex machina. You throw all those Doctors together, and that nostalgia of mine is going to win out. The idea of a subroutine running on the TARDIS for all that time since Hartnell’s era has its appeal too as a clever Doctor-esque solution, even if we didn’t see the moment when the three Doctors at hand summoned the other guys.

The War Doctor, Ten, and Eleven go back to the museum to reflect on what has transpired and part ways. The War Doctor is feeling old and tired once he boards his TARDIS (or again, perhaps it’s a reaction to the guilt), and we see him regenerate into Nine. (There’s a hint of Eccleston’s eyes in the light.) Eleven tells Ten about the dread of seeing their tomb on Trenzalore, knowing that Ten won’t remember. Once Eleven is left alone, we are treated with the killer cameo that transported me back to my living room in the 80s and put a lump in my throat: Tom Baker, the oldest living Doctor, appears in the role of the museum curator and tips Eleven off to the fact that the painting’s two titles - “No More” and “Gallifrey Falls” - are actually one title: “Gallifrey Falls No More.” Thus, Eleven with his unconfused time stream, has access to the memory that Gallifrey did survive, and he resolves to find it.

Who was Tom Baker’s character? How did he come by this knowledge? I didn’t care. The dialogue slyly broke the fourth wall once again, with Baker acknowledging the kinship between the two men across the decades of the show. That old twinkle in Baker’s eye is still there. (Why didn’t he offer him a jelly baby?!?) The Doctor’s new mission is to go home.

So, yeah, there was a whole bunch of “fan service” in “The Day Of The Doctor,” and I know some viewers were frustrated by that and use that term derisively. If you’re ever going to go all the way with fan service, though, it seems to me that such a momentous occasion as the fiftieth anniversary of a program is the time to do it. Fan service? Yes, consider this long-time fan of the show served.

C. Robert Dimitri hopes he’s around to watch the hundredth anniversary.