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Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor

By Jim Rohner · November 26, 2013

Since current Doctor Who showrunner and "The Day of the Doctor" writer Steven Moffat took over the reins from the departing Russell T. Davies almost four years ago, Whovians have found themselves involved in their own personal Kirk v. Picard debate. While Russell T. Davies can be credited with reanimating and re-popularizing Doctor Who after decades of absence, Steven Moffat has been praised for expanding the scope of the show. While the former loved to explore space and the Doctor's impact across the universe, the latter delights in exploring the complexities and consequences of altering time. One hired David Tennant, the other hired Matt Smith. "Midnight" on one hand, "Blink" on the other.

Compromise seems to suggest that Davies was the better showrunner and Moffat the better writer, but there are still voices on each end of the spectrum either still lamenting Davies' departure or only looking ahead to what Moffat still has in store. 

Theoretically, comparisons would and should be set aside for "The Day of the Doctor," with the focus instead shifting to celebrating and reveling in a show that has delighted millions of fans across five decades and multiple generations. But like many of the grand theories that Moffat has proposed during his tenure as showrunner, this one crumbles under closer examination as the gripes invoked time and again by fans of Davies finding maddeningly perfect typification from the beginning of the episode to the end.

"The Day of the Doctor" confirms the cliffhanger mystery left to us at the end of "The Name of the Doctor" as to what role John Hurt's Doctor played in the past and why his mere existence is such a source of pain and shame that he's been purposely forgotten, buried deep within the Doctor's past. The Warrior Doctor, so named because he forfeited what the Doctor represents for the sake of what he felt needed to be done, is—as everyone with a pulse suspected—the iteration of the Doctor responsible for the destruction of Gallifrey, who is doomed to live by "The Moment"—a forbidden, sentient weapon donning the guise of Bad Wolf Rose Tyler—as a consequence of ending the lives of 2.47 billion children (and who knows how many other adults). The episode's smartest move is positioning The Warrior Doctor as a tragic figure to be understood rather than a malicious villain to be scorned. We've had three Doctors across eight years mournfully hinting at a catastrophe brought about by their own hands, so the primary task of "The Day of the Doctor" is not to condemn him, but to understand why he felt he had to do it and to have him understand why he shouldn't.

The latter understanding comes courtesy of the tenth and eleventh Doctors, who through random instances of Moffat's favorite narrative device—that of "wibbly wobbly timey wimey"—are brought together in medieval England right about the time that light is being shed on why Queen Elizabeth I has been/will be so hostile towards the Doctor in the past/future. "The Day of the Doctor" shines when Tennant, Smith, and Hurt are all together, the former two seemingly embodying the jubilation of the show's younger fans with the latter giving voice to an older generation vexed with flamboyancy. Tennant and Smith are hilarious in both their banter and self-reference ("Oh, you redecorated!…I don't like it"), but they also bring a much needed gravity when it comes to literally coming face to face with their past. It's not just that the presence of The Warrior Doctor forces both the tenth and eleventh Doctors to physically confront what they've done, but their differing methods of coping also put them at odds with each other—while the tenth Doctor has internalized the pain ("The One Who Regrets") the eleventh Doctor has decided that he needs to move past it ("The One Who Forgets"). With these three together, the episode finds its emotional core and some of the strongest character writing the series has seen in its current inception.

But saying that Moffat is skilled at writing the Doctor isn't exactly a compliment; that's the man's job, he should be good at it by now. Outside of the tender moments between the main characters, "The Day of the Doctor" suffers the same fate as any grandiose Moffat story arc in how its zealousness for profundity and complexity masks the fact that more questions have been raised than were answered and vast majority of continuity and rules laid down by the show's predecessor have been spectacularly discarded.

Think back, if you will, to Season One, Episode Eight, "Father's Day." You may recall that Rose's attempts to save the life of the father who was meant to die resulted in the manifestation of nasty, winged creatures that devoured everything in their path in an attempt to fix the tear in time and space by Rose changing what was meant to be. Now think back to Season Four, Episode Two, "The Fires of Pompei," in which a conflict arises between the Doctor and Donna when the Doctor insists that Pompei being destroyed is a fixed point in time and thus, cannot be changed. Humor me once more and recall "The End of Time" in which…hell, in which ANYTHING with Rassilon and the remaining Time Lords happens. These episodes, plus more currently escaping my memory, laid the foundation for what we assumed were hard and fast rules by which the Doctor, as the last remaining Time Lord, would always have to operate. Oh, sure, there were cheats here and there and occasional calls for the suspension of disbelief (how is it that the universe was fooled by the death of a life-sized robot Doctor?), but for a subject as nebulous and unprecedented (impossible, really) as time travel, we understood that "rules" for time travel carried about as much weight as a "monarchy" in present day England. 

But the lack of objective accountability only makes the crimes of "The Day of the Doctor" more atrocious by how unashamedly it disregards the previous eight years of insistence on its agreed upon "fact": that of Gallifrey's destruction as both a permanently fixed point in time and the one great point of mystery and tragedy for the Doctor. Futilely searching the shelves for a gift to give a show turning 50 years old, it seems as though Moffat concluded that the only suitable gift would be a whitewashing of previous continuity, opting to make the one unchanging point in the Doctor's history changeable. 

It could be argued, I suppose, that Moffat hasn't changed the destruction of Gallifrey, per se, but merely delayed it inevitably by freezing the planet in time just before its destruction, but this argument fails by being a backhanded victory—Gallifrey hasn't been destroyed, but it also hasn't been saved, and thus "The Day of the Doctor" becomes an exercise in spinning wheels. But even if the destruction of Gallifrey has merely been postponed, that still means that something that we were told did happen has now “unhappened” and the consequences for the Doctor's actions have been nullified. If something as monumental as the destruction of Gallifrey can be altered then what are the limits of the Doctor's abilities?  If the Doctor can go back in time and undo anything, then there are effectively no consequences or weight to any decision or any choice he makes. If he gets something wrong, he can just go back and try it again.  No rules, no consequences. Wibbly wobbly, timey wimey. 

Davies or Moffat? One insisted that time can be rewritten. The other hasn't stood by anything.