Male vanity, sonic screwdrivers and the elephant in the room: Further thoughts on The Day of the Doctor

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“But I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now”

Bob Dylan

We were asking our children to trust a mass murderer. Ever since the reboot was first planned in 2004, that has been the elephant in the room at the heart of Doctor Who. Last night, Stephen Moffatt faced it down and dealt with it, once and for all. He had probably been planning it for a very long time. Certainly, when in The Beast Below, the Doctor furiously contemplates the near-inevitability of putting the space whale out of its misery:

“Look, three options: One, I let the Star Whale continue, in unendurable agony for hundreds more years; Two, I kill everyone on this ship; Three, I murder a beautiful, innocent creature as painlessly as I can. And then, I… I find a new name, because I won’t be The Doctor anymore.”

In 2004, making the Doctor the killer of his own race and another one besides made a kind of sense. Weighting the fragile new reboot down with a raft of Gallifreyan backstory would have strangled it at birth. Plus, the budget back in the day didn’t stretch to the kind of alien planet production values that a post Star-Wars audience would have required.

It undoubtedly had vast dramatic potential too. To make the Doctor dark, conflicted, haunted by survivor guilt and morally ambivalent didn’t just chime with Russell T Davies’s dark view of saviour figures. It also happened to be extremely fashionable. Before the 2008 financial crash blew the cold winds of economic meltdown our way, we could afford the luxury of heroes getting lost inside their own heads.

But over the long haul it turned out to be unsustainable. Recognising this character as the Doctor was only possible if his past atrocities were kept away from critical examination. While it was true that no recreation of the Time War could equal our own imaginations, this wasn’t just about the mechanics of showing whole cities collapsing. The moral universe wouldn’t have survived it either.

Eccleston and Tennant, in their different ways, both took the conflict as far as it could go. It opened up the dramatic possibility of Rose reawakening the Doctor’s cauterised conscience, as far back as Dalek in 2005. It gave Tennant endless possibilities for mercurial melancholy, and increasingly daring peeks over the edge of the abyss. Episodes like The Waters of Mars made gripping viewing. Yet the Doctor we ended up with in The End of Time, facing death with a furious rant and a last line that basically boils down to a whine of entitlement, was more like a terminally ill pet waiting to be put out of its misery than a Time Lord saviour of the universe. The show would not have survived another season of RTD’s nihilism.

Moffatt took another tack. Rather than struggling to blend in as a human, Matt Smith played the Doctor as bonkers, unpredictable alien. There was a childishness in his performance that was both winning and unpleasant. He was openly needy, collapsing into anguish when parted from his beloved Ponds. He pushed all the bad stuff away into a place where he could almost, with the passage of years, claim he’d forgotten it had ever happened. That approach involved very different dramatic choices to those of the Tennant years. Tennant wallowed in angst and melancholia, playing the big dramatic moments for all they were worth,with RTD frequently building up to them at the expense of rational plotting. Moffatt, by contrast, never let messy, human emotions get in the way of a neatly mythic scenario. It earned him a lot of criticism, particularly when Amy and Rory recovered improbably rapidly from the abduction of their baby. But Moff was playing the longer game. The end of the Dark Doctor was coming, but the moment had been prepared for – way, way back.

Last night the moment finally came. It was time for the Doctor to come home. And while he was about it, he had to get his pathological past selves on board. It was a deliciously audacious plan, executed with both style and substance.

Doctor Who has never just been about the kiddies. This anniversary was for their mums and dads, maybe even further back – the people who had been kiddies themselves, believing in a man who was never cowardly or cruel, and who shared with Winston Churchill the simple British motto, “Never give up. Never, never give up.”

One of the many faces of nostalgia is the way that it brings us face to face with our past selves, and with possible future ones. The basic premise of Doctor Who offers an irresistible opportunity to flesh this out. A lot of the humour in The Day of The Doctor stems from that kind of encounter. When John Hurt, fresh from the battlefield and somewhat shocked by the apparent frivolousness of the childlike Eleventh Doctor and the romcom antics of the Tenth, exclaims, “Am I having a midlife crisis?”, we older viewers recognise the dramatic irony behind the situation because we’ve witnessed seven series of equivocation and denial as Nine, Ten and Eleven all struggled in their different ways to come to terms with horrors beyond their contemplation. And we see a little of ourselves in such dysfunctional coping strategies. It’s an element of the Doctor’s character that’s always been present. He may be very old now, but at some point in his past he rejected his home and family and ran away, and he’s been running ever since. You could call him the original Baby Boomer, at a pinch.

Moffatt gets a lot of stick for his reductive portrayal of woman. Some of his jokes at their expense go down like lead balloons in these post-feminist times. But in Day of the Doctor his target was male vanity, the kind of one-upmanship that makes three Time Lords move atoms and molecules around rather than check if a door is actually locked. The ladykiller, the buffoon and the nihilist contemplating the ultimate statement of alienation; all are different prototypes of male vanity.

Every cliche of simplistic heroism was gloriously deconstructed, generally by the ironically named Warrior Doctor who was still close enough to the action to recognise the veils that his future selves had drawn over it, legitimising it with the passage of time. Moffatt is not only extremely quotable in his own right; he also knows a few things about the unreliability of soundbites as a guide to reality. When Hurt intones, “Great men are forged in fire. It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame. Whatever the cost,” we’re still punching the air when Jenna Coleman intervenes and stops the men doing the unconscionable. Who wants the tedium of a negotiated solution when they can have an inspirational poster moment? What appears to be banter can become a matter of mass life and death on the turn of a sixpence and it takes enormous confidence on the part of writer and actors alike to judge that kind of dramatic flip-flop moment.

What happens if the Doctor ceases to be the Doctor? Well, for a start, he gets a lot of other names – the Oncoming Storm, the man of fire, and rage, the Warrior, to name but a few. We’ve been seeing that particular timeline play itself out since 2005, but the Anniversary brings it slap bang up against its limitations. How can you celebrate a Doctor who isn’t the Doctor anymore?

Middle age tends to bring us back to where we started from. We realise how arrogant and certain of ourselves we sounded once. How empty many of our grand gestures were. We find ourselves contemplating reconciliation, forgiveness, perhaps a little humility. We look at ourselves in the mirror one day and see our parents staring back.

We develop a new respect for the quiet arts of negotiation and compromise. We realise that we don’t have the right to destroy people simply because they don’t make the cut according to our uncompromising moral standards. If we are the Doctor, we stop trying to pretend to be human and we see the part out ourselves that is forever Time Lord, whether we like it or not.

The Day of The Doctor begins in a school, just as DW originally did, and ends with a quiet, powerful and deeply moving conversation between a wise old man and an even older one who, by the strange mechanics of timey-wiminess, is finally about to grow up. The three Doctors we’ve just seen all recognise that, like it or not, a lot of the big red button stuff way back when was all about them. And that isn’t a good enough reason to deny innocent children their future, no matter how dark that future might turn out to be. It remains their legacy, and their possession.

The Doctor always hated bullies. The show has been a beacon of hope to bullied children for 50 years – it’s remarkable how many of the people involved with its creation and development began as outsiders and remember being persecuted at school. Since 2005 we have seen the Doctor resort to the tactics of his tormentors more often than we would have liked. But now, in this glorious episode, he’s finally put both Gallifrey and The Daleks on the naughty step until they figure out how they are going to get along together.

But if that flash in Peter Capaldi’s eyes is anything to go buy, they won’t be allowed to get off too lightly.

Meanwhile, welcome back, Doctor. We’ve missed you.

http://www.avclub.com/review/the-day-of-the-doctor-105925

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