I think I’m going to use my weekend posts to discuss my ideas that I’m working on in relation to fiction. Maybe it’ll be pure story brainstorming drivel, maybe an interesting character or idea, maybe an exercise like the last few weeks of my Assignment: Earth story. I do want to make a story like that too: a historical companion book to a television show that never existed. It could be Jorge Borges by way of D. C. Fontana.
But I thought I’d spin a few moral philosophical reflections about the Doctor Who 50th, seeing as that pretty much dominated my afternoon and evening.* Because this is fundamentally a story about the nature of conscience. Incidentally, I’ll take this footnote break to broadcast an enormous
to anyone who hasn’t watched The Day of the Doctor yet and still wants to be surprised.
* I also watched the drama, Adventures in Space and Time, Mark Gatiss’ tv-movie of the birth of Doctor Who and over William Hartnell’s era, and I think the last two minutes actively constitute fanfic on BBC2 and the international broadcast partners. I’m not sure if that’s good, or if it’s absolutely terrifying. I shall have to think further on this.
You see, the whole story is built around John Hurt’s use of The Moment, a weapon whose computer was so powerful that it developed a conscience. And any weapon — any killing machine — with a conscience is going to prevent itself from being used. Really, The Moment’s conscience is so extreme that it calls for philosophical analysis. There’s a powerful purity to the conscience that Steven Moffat wrote.
In the material sense, The Moment prevented itself from being used by connecting John Hurt, the one who wanted to use it, to the future versions of himself who would prevent him from using it. But these future versions would also do double duty of showing the full ethical consequences of his actions: what kind of person he would become if he were to use the weapon. And he was, in many ways, a haunted man. David Tennant’s Doctor is defined by his regrets; there’s a reason why one of his catchphrases was “I’m so, so sorry.” Matt Smith’s Doctor is defined by his flightiness, his forgetfulness, how he flits from one topic to another in a manic squeal to cover up the rage. This is precisely what Moffat intends us to think: he has Billie Piper’s Moment avatar explicitly say it.
Hearing Hurt’s rage as they sit in the Elizabethan cell, Smith chuckles that this is how he sounds when he’s alone. Smith hides his self-hatred.** Seeing his same old heroism shine through the trauma, and the impact that trauma makes on his future selves, Hurt returns to Gallifrey knowing that, no matter what he does to himself, he doesn’t become a monster permanently.
** I think this is why I’m glad Christopher Eccleston was being paid far too much money to leave the set of Thor II. His Doctor, wonderful though he was, had so short a tenure that his character was defined too much by the raw trauma of the Time War and his destruction of Gallifrey. It’s why I’m still conflicted about Eccleston’s Doctor, why I’m sad we never had more than a single year to explore his character. The Time War weighed too heavily on him, and we never got to see him truly deal with it, only scream with the pain. At no point in the Eccleston Doctor’s life would he have been able to do anything but rage uncontrollably at John Hurt. The story would have to be utterly different.
Because what Hurt wants to do is monstrous. That’s why he doesn’t think of himself as the Doctor, why he accepts his punishments that The Moment gives him during their initial talk. Her own sense of conscience is so pure that even the intention to use the weapon for any reason is worthy of punishment. Hurt realizes, with Tennant and Smith beside him, that there is another way.
Only when he was alone did Hurt have no choice but to use The Moment as a weapon, losing the privilege of being called The Doctor. When he has himself as a companion, he can become better than his worst defeats. The Moment avatar acts as a companion to Hurt, serving as a voice of pure conscience, the faith that he can be better than his circumstances dictate. Clara does the same for Smith, calling him away from activating the weapon and reminding him that he can find another way out, the ethically best way out of an impossible situation. Clara, The Moment Avatar, the companion, is the call of conscience for the Doctor, the conscience that sanctions him to pull himself out of the narrative whose structure and associated necessity bind us completely, and cheat.***
*** The Moment acts as a pure conscience, which is often described as an internal voice. Yes, Kant described it this way. He was influential for a reason, after all. One can understand that voice as whispering, “There should have been another way.” The three Doctors gathering at The Moment’s moment of activation even describe that event as immune to conscience’s intervention, the day there was no other way. It would make sense that Moffat would choose The Moment’s avatar as Rose Tyler’s Bad Wolf, the literal goddess from the machine, the TARDIS, who ethically renewed Eccleston’s Doctor by ending The Parting of the Ways without further loss of innocent life. She cheated the story for the Doctor, when Eccleston couldn’t think of how, demonstrating that there was another way. Bad Wolf Rose was a voice of pure conscience that could act on her will, just like The Moment.
Because the explanation is pure technobabble, just like the more obvious technobabble of Russell T. Davies’ cheats that win his epic stories. The real story of The Day of the Doctor is about watching the ethical transformation, the redemption of John Hurt, and through him, the redemption of the character. He is now primed to truly run forever.
You see, I think the Doctor has had a problem since its revival. Materially, it’s become bigger than it’s ever been before. Never in the wildest dreams of anyone before the international export and promotional blitz that has occurred during the Moffat era, has Doctor Who ever been this big, when The Day of the Doctor is simulcast literally across the world. The Wikipedia page for the special has a map of how many countries picked up the simulcast. There are more who did than didn’t. On Earth. That’s how big we are.
But the Time War and the trauma it inflicted on the character of the Doctor is a weight around the show that wouldn’t go away. There’s a reason Smith’s Doctor is called the one who forgets: it’s been so long since the Time War continuity was introduced, Moffat knew it would get in the way constantly having to wax on about it, as we could in the Tennant years. Because the Davies era formed a single continuous storyline of overlapping characters (except for the one little gap just before his regeneration where, in-canon, Tennant’s Doctor comes for the 50th Anniversary), from Time War’s end to Tennant’s goodbye was a fairly short time.
Smith’s Doctor lives for centuries longer: he’s had long stretches travelling by himself, there are many gaps in the timeline of his main friendships, his entire life with River Song**** was off-camera, and he pops in and out of Clara’s life as she continues to live individually, disappearing with The Doctor for periodic adventures. But the trauma was still there, even after nearly ten years from the show’s revival and the introduction of the Time War continuity (let alone the centuries of in-canon life Smith lives). The destruction of Gallifrey, the one moment The Doctor became literally just as monstrous as what he fights, would always determine the character.
**** Of course, when Tennant asks how Smith could let himself forget the details of the trauma of activating The Moment, he says, “Spoilers.” It was the love of his relationship with River that helped him process and move on from his own trauma. That’s why he was so depressed and isolated in The Snowmen. It wasn’t just Amy and Rory who were gone; it was the Ponds. All three of them. Between Angels Take Manhattan and The Snowmen, River went to The Library and died.
That trauma would be the one constant in the Doctor, a source of terrible gravity dragging down his character. Smith and Moffat (in the current creative process of Doctor Who, they’re the joint designers of the Eleventh Doctor, just as Tennant and Davies were for the Tenth) could find a new take on the trauma after Eccleston, Tennant, and Davies. Peter Capaldi might have managed it too.
But what about the Doctor after Capaldi? And the one after that? And after that? The weight would grow. The character would become inflexible. The show would no longer be about anything and everything, but about the inescapable trauma of being single-handedly responsible for the murder of billions. It wouldn’t be Doctor Who anymore. The weight would become so much that it could not go on.
My esteemed colleague Phil Sandifer has described the Time War as the cancellation of Doctor Who itself, appearing in the context of Doctor Who’s own continuity, the scar on the history of the show. It makes a permanent break in the nature of the classic series from the revived series. Just as Doctor Who lives with the trauma of cancellation, The Doctor lives with the trauma of the one day he became a monster. Phil tweeted on Anniversary night that now The Gallifrey Chronicles was closer to the nature of the Time War than Dalek was. The Gallifrey Chronicles implied a hopeful ending to a similar arc about The Eighth Doctor having destroyed Gallifrey in the Eighth Doctor Adventures novel series (1997-2005). However amazing Dalek and the Eccleston year was, it only offered us Doctor Who with the burden of a terrible scar.
With The Day of the Doctor, Moffat has healed that scar, yet given us a storyline that preserved continuity with the scarred history of the revived series of 2005-13. The trauma of having believed he destroyed Gallifrey and its billions of citizens was The Moment’s pure conscience punishing him for even planning to carry out so hideous an act, wiping the memory of saving Gallifrey during his regeneration from Hurt into Eccleston. That’s the moral story of The Day of the Doctor, depicting a conscience so pure that it punishes for monstrous intents and pushes those who intended to use monstrous weapons away from actually using them.
But The Day of the Doctor also depicts Doctor Who as a television show reconciling itself with its past, understanding and accepting its own unity despite the fracture that means a show with a fifty year history has only thirty-four years worth of transmitted television. That’s why it was necessary simply for us to have hope that the atrocity of the Time War, the cancellation, the destruction of Gallifrey, can be healed.
We needed Tom Baker to do it. A literal voice from the classic series, its most recognizable living icon, first appearing by his most distinctive feature, his voice. Because Tom Baker, as he appears in The Day of the Doctor, isn’t simply a museum curator. He isn’t some technobabbly echo of the Doctor’s past futurity, or whatever. We know from understanding the basic structure of Davies’ and Moffat’s styles of Doctor Who that the technobabble details don’t matter in the structure of the story. The ethics matter.
Tom Baker is clearly playing the Doctor. He isn’t imitating the Fourth Doctor. He is literally playing the Doctor, as he approaches the character. He is simply doing it at the age of 79. He is the classic series appearing in the new and saying explicitly that he and Smith are the same. The trauma of destroying Gallifrey, the trauma of the cancellation, made the classic series different from the post-2005 Doctor Who. The character was different because each actor playing him since 2005 has had to incorporate this one day of monstrosity into his take on the character. Hurt didn’t even have to, because his character hadn't yet done his one irredeemably monstrous act. That’s why, as Clara told him, he looked so young, even though John Hurt is 73 years old.
Knowing that Gallifrey has been saved from the destruction of the Time War and that the lives of billions are no longer on his hands, the Doctor has been ethically redeemed. Now that Smith remembers having saved Gallifrey, he is free from the guilt of his monstrous crime. Having to live with what is impossible to live with for centuries was The Moment’s punishment for having intended to do what would be impossible to live with. From now on, the writers and actors who create Doctor Who for the next fifty years will be free, because the character of The Doctor is free from the trauma. He knows he was never a monster at all; he was only the Doctor.
Tom Baker delivered the message because the break in the history of the show is healed. Because Steven Moffat’s international promotional blitz wasn’t only about pushing the new series. All that promotion treated the entire history of Doctor Who as a unified whole, a cultural tradition that was now being spread around the world with more power than ever before. If we take Phil at his word that the Time War was the trauma of the cancellation made manifest in Doctor Who’s continuity, we now have healed that trauma. And we now have a show that has run for fifty years across television, film, novels, comics, radio, video games, and audio plays.
Tom Baker, once the living embodiment of Doctor Who itself, could reach across to the incumbent and declare with a song of hope in his remarkable voice, that they are the same. They are the Doctor in one mad fifty year story. No cancellation in the future will ever be quite as terrible, as raw, as hopeless as 1989-2005. Because now we know it can return. When it eventually goes away again, we know it can always come back.
Doctor Who is back.