. . . And We Weren't Invited
For no reason at all, I would like to justify my love of Day of the Doctor.
I should point out that I mean that, not ‘here is why Day of the Doctor is brilliant and you should love it.’ It’s hard to escape from that but I am going to try and write this as an explanation for me personally adoring the 50th anniversary special, not a way of brow-beating everyone who doesn’t.
This stems particularly from a good friend of mine giving the reasons he didn’t like it, one of which – the one I’m going to focus on – being the reduction of the Time War to a mundane ‘Daleks invade a planet’ scenario (sorry for the paraphrasing, SF). This is something I’m aware of as a more general criticism, although I stress that I have avoided all online discussions about this, as far as possible, like the plague.
And I get it. I really do. After seven years of being told that the Time War was an epic all encompassing universe wide war filled with monstrosities such as the Nightmare Child and an Army of Meanwhiles, with battles raging from the Crucible to Arcadia, it’s perhaps inevitably underwhelming to be presented with several scenes from the Star Wars copybook of sci fi warfare. I mean, they even have defence turrets, for Rassilon’s sake! Where is the sprawling trans-temporal conflict full of weird and horrific entities we were promised? Why are the BBC – OK, let’s be frank, people mainly talk about this in terms of Mr Moffat – why is Mr Moffat only giving us laser bolts and flying saucers?
There are several obvious answers, starting with that old chestnut that a BBC budget, even for the 50th Anniversary of their flagship show, is finite. But this rings hollow for me for two reasons. First, it implies that some sort of expense was spared for Day of the Doctor and this seems untenable. Day of the Doctor is one of the most solidly put together pieces of television I have watched for ages. From acting to set design to thematic unity, an extraordinary amount of care and attention went into it and clearly quite a lot of money too. Second, if Sapphire and Steel has taught me anything, it is that time-bending artefacts on a shoe-string budget are often a heck of a lot creepier than their blockbuster equivalents.
So essentially, I'm going to come at this as purely as possible from a story-telling point of view. That's how I accept things within stories, above and beyond the limitations of effects or the medium. And the most basic reason I can give for not having any problem with the depiction of the War is that we are seeing its last day. The whole story revolves around the final few hours of the conflict, the last gasp before oblivion. The situation is desperate and hopeless. All the final weapons have been fired save the one no one dares use, there is no clever technobabble left, and the mighty Time Lords are reduced to using laser guns.
This is really quite an incredibly significant statement to make. The myth of the Time Lords that the revived Doctor Who has presented is one of a god-like and noble species transformed into something monstrous and fallen. The War was so dreadful that they were tarnished by their efforts to save themselves. And the root of that myth lies in the very first story to show the Doctor's people, The War Games. There, they were all-powerful outsiders to whom the trappings of battle were patently irrelevant. The War Lord, a master of his field, is dismissed without a single Time Lord finger being lifted, his entire species sealed away forever. War is beneath the Time Lords. And so too is the rest of the universe. We are told they have complete control of their environment, that they never need to leave their own world, that they watch over the cosmos without getting involved. Even as they became less omnipotent and more mundane with every succeeding appearance, the idea of them keeping the messy universe at bay persists – Gallifrey was protected by transduction barriers through which nothing could come. A war fleet was casually waved past, regardless of the havoc it would wreak, because it could no encroach on Time Lord isolation. Even the Laws of Time seemed to exist because they served to control the uncivilised universe beyond and keep everything predictable.
Gallifrey was an ivory tower, the Time Lords within untouched by either war or monsters. To have a load of killer blobs from another planet come crashing in with their silly little guns and their silly little spaceships is about the worst thing you could do them. Because suddenly there is something in their environment they cannot control. Suddenly the mess is over the threshold. In The End of Time, we are told that Gallifrey is on the verge of defeat, that the only thing left to do is blow up the universe. In Day of the Doctor, we get to see what that looks like. And it looks like the Time Lords reduced to the losing side in a stock sci fi war, genericised, everything special and magical stripped from them and crushed beneath the oncoming wave of Dalekanium.
That the Daleks not only cope perfectly fine with being the other side in a generic sci fi war but stand on the brink of victory because of it is perfectly fitting. Their great strength has always been the singularity of purpose that takes a magic go-anywhere cabinet and uses it simply to go more places and destroy more stuff. Ultimately, they are absolutely at home with just laying into things all guns blazing. For all their cleverness, Daleks are basically tanks and in the end, tanks are just there to shoot things. Once they have got around all the awesome weapons in Gallifrey's arsenal – which they obviously have – they have basically won because in a straight up shooting match, no one can beat them.
This is the narrative reason I think it works. We are seeing the end point in a war of attrition on a cosmic scale. The end point in the Time Lords' fall from grace is not Rassilon with his magic glove blasting people out of existence, it's a bunch of terrified civilians and equally terrified soldiers running blindly from their inevitable deaths. The Daleks have forced the Time Lords to play by their rules at long last and it doesn't matter if the final cost will consume them as well; this is the end for which no one on Gallifrey is remotely prepared.
There is, however, a rather more conceptual reason I like Day of the Doctor's Time War, why I actually prefer it to Mr T Davies' implied trans-temporal conflict. I'll try and explain this as clearly as I can, although I'm not sure I'm up to it because what I know about literary theory could be written on a postage stamp. Essentially, what it boils down to is the sneaking suspicion that the epic, cosmic thing we've been teased with from Rose to the Rings of Akaten is actually totally hollow.
Now, I don't actually mean that the idea of a war fought in four dimensions is worse than a re-run of Return of the Jedi. Quite the contrary, I think that it opens up some very interesting possibilities. What I mean is that for all that we have heard about planets burning, the universe itself catching fire, whole civilisations being rewritten again and again, and all the impressively demonic entities this has conjured up, we have never seen a single inkling of what this actually meant. We're given the impression of a war of the gods yet it's all been in the abstract. Ok, we know that the Master – a man who once accidentally annihilated a large fraction of the universe without batting an eyelid – was so scared he ran to the end of time and hid. We know a bunch of aliens lost their homeworlds (the first day of the Time War seems to have led to a lot of planets going Krypton). We can infer things from the expanded universe like War TARDISes and Time Lord intervention squads. We know that the Doctor was driven to genocide.
But I would argue that until we see a girl on a spaceship willing to throw herself to her death rather than go through the magical doorway to adventure, we don't actually see what it was like to live through all that. And until we see men and women and children caught in the fires of their dying homeworld, the Time War is just a clinical Lensman Arms Race – a game of one-upmanship where the goal is to think up the best way to tie the universe in knots.
Which is fine, in a sense. Who doesn't enjoy coming up with ludicrous super-weapons or epic sounding battles between eldritch abominations? But as a background for self-loathing and guilt of the kind that the Ninth Doctor simmered with and the Tenth Doctor waved in people's faces, it is wholly artificial. A war between concepts in which the stakes are so big they're meaningless.
RTD's Time War is epic and mysterious, gloriously so. Day of the Doctor works, to me, as a much needed reminder that a war is a thing in which people die in great numbers on both sides. There is nothing glorious about that. There is nothing magical about it. It doesn't matter if you use flowery language about Could-Have-Been-Kings and Crucibles: we are talking about death, about people dying violently and in fear.
The Moment is a wonderfully poetic name for something that ends a war. But at its core it is a box that ends lives. That's what any kind of weapon ultimately is. So yes, of course it's underwhelming. That's what you get when you romanticise genocide.
I think the main reason I put forward this line of thought lies with the differences between the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors and where my preferences lie with respect to those differences. With the Tenth, we are presented with the Doctor-as-a-god. He is special because of what he is, and what he is is epic and timeless and inhuman. And being epic and timeless and inhuman, he can be a product of an Epic Time War and save the day by blowing everything up. This is how Doomsday and The Last of the Time Lords and Journey's End resolve. The Tenth Doctor lives up to his hype. He is as epic as he says he is. The Eleventh by contrast is a man with the reputation for being epic earned by accident. He is the man with 900 years experience rewiring alien technology and who looks brilliant because of it. Everything epic about him is a trick of circumstance and perspective. When he wins, it is not because he is the most godlike being in the room, it's because unlike everyone else, he isn't playing by the rules. The victories in The Big Bang, A Good Man Goes to War and The Wedding of River Song are utterly shameless cheats that have the appearance of being miraculous until you realise that they were the result of lies, trickery and making it up as you go along.
That is my Doctor. It probably has been ever since I saw Peter Cushing dazzle the Daleks into blowing themselves to kingdom come. It's the Doctor who would triumphantly boast that he had no weapons, no defences and no plan and leave the Daleks – who are all about having plans and being the most epic thing in the room – scared to death of him. A Doctor who is a wizard in the sense of someone who knows things and can spot a loophole a mile off with his eyes shut. A Doctor who can save the universe with some kettle and a string.
The hype would have us believe that the Doctor who fought in the Epic Time War was monstrous, that he did terrible things for the right reasons. The truth of it, the reveal that I think needed to be the truth of it, is that both the Bloody Doctor and the Epic Time War are tricks of perspective. Just as there is nothing epic or glorious about war, there is nothing epic or glorious about the War Doctor. The Eighth Doctor is damned not because he pushed the Big Red Button of Doom but because he compromised his principals and metaphorically picked up a gun. The War Doctor is not the rage at the heart of a star, he is a trickster who has run out of tricks and become trapped in the rules of a game he never wanted to play. He is a man so tired and worn down by watching people being killed that he just wants it all to end.
The tragedy of the end of the Time War has always been that the Doctor could not find another way. Again, Day of the Doctor shows us the best way that could look: resignation and the acceptance of what it means.
And the triumph, the great big birthday gift that was totally worthy of placement as the 50th anniversary capstone? The chance to break the rules and rewrite history, every line. Clara says she couldn't imagine the Doctor – her Doctor – pushing that Big Red Button. And given another option, given the thinnest sliver of a way out, the Doctor, any Doctor, my Doctor never would. He would throw out the rulebook that says he had to be epic and grand and canonical about it and he would cheat in the most gloriously gob-smacking way possible.
The future steps in to save the past, the past steps up to save the future. This is trans-temporal jiggery-pokery on a colossal scale. This is how the Doctor wins the Time War. By ignoring the rules and all that drivel about Time Locks and Fixed Points and Things That Cannot Be Touched. The reason it needs the Eleventh to step in and come up with the plan is because he has the perspective to see that the Time Lords and their laws have become meaningless, something that the War Doctor and the Epic Tenth simply cannot see.
And the Daleks dice themselves in their own crossfire because when faced with someone who doesn't play by their rules, their only recourse is to increase their fire-power. Creatures who believe in Epic War, they can only fight back by upping the stakes and blowing things up some more. What else was going to happen to them?
There is a third reason I have absolutely no problem with how Mr Moffat depicted the last day of the War, one I only really figured out today and rather tickled me when I realised it. You see, since he took over, we have seen monsters that cannot be remembered, predatory living ideas, holes in the world that eat people out of existence, a historical collapse, parasites that eat TARDISes and the whole-scale rewriting of the universe as we know it.
To quote Blue Oyster Cult, the war's still going on dear. What are the Silence, the Angels, the cracks and the collapses except the weapons of a Time War? Without any fuss, we have been shown what a 4-D conflict might look like. More importantly, we have been shown how it affects people, how it can wreck their lives in new and interesting ways, how horrifying it would be to be caught in the middle of it. We have seen, essentially, the substance behind all those hints of dark times and creepy concepts. And we have got some damn good stories out of it.
Maybe it would have been better never to see the Time War on screen. To a degree, we still haven't. From another perspective, we've been watching it happen for years. All I can say is that I think the version of the War that was broadcast was the right one. It was certainly not the story we were led to expect. But history is like that.
In the end, the stories we become are not who we were at the time. And the reality behind the stories is rarely as epic as it looks from a distance.
Listening to: Blue Oyster Cult
Reading: Revelation Space
Playing: Lego Marvel Superheroes