When Memory Defines Reality, Jamming, 02/02/2014

I wasn’t sure yesterday that I wanted to write an extra post today, especially after Saturday’s extended meditation on Canadiana in literature and my relationship with it. But once again, Phil Sandifer’s wisdom is correct. I mused about the matter on Twitter, whether I should use the platform of my blog to argue about pop culture on the internet, and he responded, “What the fuck else would one use a blog for?”

What the fuck else, indeed, Phil.

The comment sections on Phil’s recent post about the Doctor Who story Planet of the Dead featured a discussion about the recent 50th Anniversary story, The Day of the Doctor. I’ve already written about my ideas in reaction to that story on the weekend of its broadcast, and I didn’t initially want to add much to it. Also, a major element of Phil’s TARDIS Eruditorum, as it creeps into covering the Moffat/Smith era of the show, will have to discuss the waves of Tumblr criticism that the show faces. Never before has Doctor Who had such a visible minority of very vocal fans brutally criticizing the show and its producers before. The vitriol Steven Moffat faced from fans actually led him to give up his Twitter account. That’s brutal treatment of a producer by a community of people who are allegedly fans. 

I speculate that part of the reason some people believed
River Song to be anti-feminist was because she cared about
the men in her life. This is an incredibly complicated
character, and I find that reading moronically simplistic.
Now, the original critique of Moffat’s version of Doctor Who was that he was sexist. There is no more annoyingly self-righteous fool than the person who yells about social justice on the internet and believes this to be all the activism they need to do in life. This argument (such that it was one) usually referred to characters like Amy Pond and River Song as superficially strong women who were actually co-dependently passive. They had no real autonomy, were not really independent, because their lives were so intertwined with the Doctor. River acts like a badass, but she’s motivated only by her love for the Doctor. Amy is sassy, but she constantly dresses in mini-skirts and only focusses on the men in her life, Rory and the Doctor. I don’t think I need to argue against this in detail, largely because this stream of online anger just petered out after a while, unable to say anything new. Once we’ve all heard it before, it disappears into the general din of the internet. Only a Google cache remembers it now.

The new critique is at least slightly less irritating, but equally misdirected. This is that nothing truly happens to the characters of Doctor Who under Moffat. So Doctor Who no longer has character development or narrative stakes. Every major plot arc conflict is solved by rewriting history so that it never happened in the first place.

The Big Bang: The Doctor faces certain death if he flies into the universe-erasing explosion, as it will wipe him from history. He does, but Amy remembering that he exists makes the problem go away.

The Wedding of River Song: The stability of history itself depends on the Doctor dying at Lake Silencio. But the Doctor pilots a shapeshifting robot that looks like him, so it gets shot instead, making the problem go away.

The Name of the Doctor: Clara will die if she enters the Doctor’s time stream to save it from the Great Intelligence’s corruption. She does, but the Doctor jumps in too and rescues her as if it wasn’t a big deal.

The Day of the Doctor: The last eight years of Doctor Who have revolved around the Doctor ending the Time War by destroying his home planet and murdering billions of innocent people. Matt Smith, David Tennant, and John Hurt team up to stop it from happening in the first place, so it doesn’t matter anymore.

The Time of the Doctor: The Doctor knows from seeing his grave that he’ll die on Trenzalore and the planet will be devastated. Clara begs the Time Lords through a crack in spacetime to save him, and they magically send him a new cycle of regenerations that makes the problem go away.

One day, I hope John Hurt comes to a Doctor Who
convention, just to see the love of fans for the most
mysterious Doctor.
The argument goes that all these plots, especially The Day of the Doctor, destroy any narrative stakes in the show. No one deals with crises; they just wipe them from history and carry on as if they never mattered. But this ignores a fundamental feature of how Doctor Who works: it’s a time travel show where you can change history.

Time travel stories where you can’t change history are always tragedies of pre-destination, people who struggle against fate, but are inevitably cut down by the necessity of time’s flow. History here is an ontological matter, what in philosophy of time is called block time: the events of all the universe are as they are, and must be so because they are. All events are necessary and choice is an illusion.

What Moffat understands is that when you have time travel and you can change history, then history is epistemological. Rather, one’s knowledge of history can affect the existence of history. An example will explain. It’s not their existence in a time-scarred New York that cuts Amy and Rory off from the Doctor; it’s that the Doctor has seen their grave, knows how they’ll end up, so can now no longer interfere in the time stream because it might prevent them from reaching that fate. 

When you epistemologize history, then what happened (or will happen) to you is in flux. Here’s another example. Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS ends with Clara having no memory of the events of that story; only the Doctor remembers because of his special Time Lord ability to see through time.* This doesn’t mean that the events of that episode don’t matter. They clearly develop the Doctor’s relationship with Clara. The Doctor trusts Clara more after that episode because they confronted each other about her (at the time) mysterious nature. The Doctor realized that Clara was an ordinary person. It doesn’t matter that a timeline was wiped from history. What matters is that the Doctor remembers it.

* Why can the Doctor see through time, and not Clara or any of the humans? you might ask. Because he’s a Time Lord. That’s what’s nice about fictional alien species: they can do things humans can’t. That’s what fiction is for.

Baseless dislike of Clara as a companion also annoys me.
Its only basis is that she isn't Amy, to which I ask why you
don't get upset that Barbara isn't on the show anymore.
Doctor Who is a show defined by its transformations. Learn
to enjoy its changes or stop watching.
Similarly with The Day of the Doctor. The destruction of Gallifrey was wiped from history. The Doctor didn’t actually kill billions of innocent people caught up in a war they didn’t want. He only made it seem like he did, when he actually saved them. The accusation is that because the event was wiped from history, the show need no longer deal with it. But the destruction of Gallifrey was a fundamental problem at the heart of the Doctor and Doctor Who. Clara said it herself when she sees the three Doctors about to activate the weapon: she always knew it was done, she just couldn’t imagine the Doctor really doing it. He’s the hero of the show, and it’s hard to celebrate as a hero a man who’s murdered billions of innocents. Moffat didn’t handwave the Time War away; he fixed the problem at its heart.

This is one way Doctor Who really is a utopian show. From a particular point of view, everything and everyone is redeemable. The destruction of Gallifrey wasn’t even erased from the history of the show: until the character reaches Matt Smith’s point in that episode, he’ll remember having destroyed it. 

Because time is epistemologized, character development in Doctor Who isn’t chronological, but ethical. Changing history doesn’t change the Doctor’s memory, and our interaction with our memories, how we’ve come to understand our past and our development, is of primary importance to the ethical. What happened is an ontological and moral question: discovering the present truth of the world and distributing praise and blame. The relation between our present actions and our memories determines who we are.

That’s why The Day of the Doctor was a transformative, significant story in Doctor Who. It changed the Doctor from a hypocritical hero who had committed genocide (which the audience has to ignore if we’re to regard him as a hero), to a hero who could even save the apparently irredeemable: himself.

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