Monday, 25 November 2013

The Days After Of The Doctor

So, this post as originally conceived was just going to be my thoughts on Saturday's Who special.  Really, though, I'm just not sure there's any point. The whole thing was such flimsily constructed sound and fury that trying to figure out if it signified anything seems fruitless.  When Moffat called this "a love letter to fans", he really wasn't kidding.  The only real question is whether you enjoyed the letter's prose, and whether you appreciated the letter's handwriting.

Not everyone did, which is hardly surprising.  Much as David Tennant's swansong contained pretty much every one of Davies' most obvious tics, Day of the Doctor surely couldn't have come any more Moffat than it did. For those who dislike Moffat's endless obsession with flashy structural tics and ironic banter, this must have been pretty excruciating.  I am not one of those people (which isn't to say I don't get the criticisms; different things bug different people). Moreover, even by new series standards, this thing had plot holes you could fly an inside-out TARDIS through.  Like Davies before him, Moffat clearly thinks he can rely on the rule of cool to combat this.  Unlike Davies, he's often right.

In short then, I loved it, but can't rationally explain why.  I suspect a great many people who didn't like it can summon far more coherent arguments than my "YAYFORALLDOCTORSAWESOMETIMES", but having waited some twenty-five years for something like this to show up, I'm not so self-sabotaging as to watch it with a detached, clinical eye.  That's what everything else on television is for.

That concludes what could charitably be called my thoughts on the special itself.  What strikes me as more interesting is some of the fan reaction that followed in its wake, most particularly regarding how Day of the Doctor impacts on previous Who stories.  There's no way to discuss this without major spoilers, so those who haven't seen the special - or who have had their minds wiped by the Black Archives - would do well to look away now.

There are two immediate questions that spring up after watching Day of the Doctor.  The first is why no mention was made of the fact the 11th Doctor knows full well Gallifrey wasn't destroyed in the Time War.  The suggestion has been made that watching three Doctors (or two Doctors and the Warrior, or whatever) agonise over whether or not to fail to destroy their home-world lacks a certain degree of drama.

There are two responses to this, one practical and one psychological.  Practicals first: the solution worked out by the Doctor's with help from Clara and the Moment allows Gallifrey to be moved by the Doctor(s) instead of by Rassilon.  This is not a small distinction. Arguing otherwise strikes me as ridiculous, akin to arguing that locking myself in one room is equivalent to someone else locking me in another.  The details are critically important. Most obviously, it presumably short-circuits Rassilon's original plan to explode the universe and ascend from the ashes, or whatever the hell "The End of Time" was supposed to be about. This time, when Gallifrey escapes, it can stay escaped.

(Of course, this runs into its own problems. If Rassilon never escaped and threatened all of reality, how did the Tenth Doctor meet his fate?  Anyone who's read Lawrence Miles' Interference would presumably say this doesn't matter. I shall simply point out it's a very different problem to the one that's been presented, and frankly about one thousandth as infuriating as Davies' cheat of allowing Tennant to regenerate into Tennant at the end of season four).

The psychological argument is actually the one I prefer, though. The idea here is that the Doctor's psyche took a beating from pressing the destruct button on his race that couldn't be healed two hundred years later when he discovered he'd actually failed.  To take a cue from, of all places, season three of Lexx, it is our intention to cause harm (or to not think about whether we're causing harm in situations where we clearly should be) which damns us, not whether or not we succeed.  Looked at from this angle, DotD wasn't about the day the Doctor succeeded in saving Gallifrey (though as noted above, it is only now that Gallifrey can be safely brought back into the universe), but the day he was given the opportunity to undo the decision which has haunted him for four centuries.  The actual crash-bang-wallop of the special perhaps becomes mooted, but given the whole story was based on the guilt the Doctor has carried for four incarnations, suggesting the arguable similarity of the new situation to that of the status quo ante robs the story of its effect strikes me as very foolish.

Of course, there is a way to be more foolish, and that's to be a dick about regeneration limits.

For those who aren't familiar with the original Who series, it was mentioned on more than one occasion that a Time Lord could only regenerate twelve times, and therefore, only have thirteen incarnations. Back when this idea was introduced (if I remember correctly, during Tom Baker's tenure) it was presumably unthinkable that this would ever be a limit the show would have to face.  At the time, no actor had held the role for fewer than three years (if we ignore the fact that Patrick Troughton didn't take over the role until the third story of season four), meaning by the time Tom Baker left the role, the show still had twenty-seven years of stories left in it.

But then things started to accelerate. Davison, Colin Baker and McCoy managed just eight seasons between them.  Paul McGann only got the TV Movie.  Eccleston only stayed a year, and Tennant gobbled up two incarnations.  The Doctor's first four incarnations lasted eighteen years.  His next seven lasted thirteen (speaking continuously; there was plenty of wilderness in the middle).  Add in the, well, adding in of John Hurt, and the new series raced through the five incarnations available to it with astonishing speed.

So now the question becomes: should we care that according to the original series, Matt Smith should be the last Doctor?

The answer, obviously, is a thundering "maybe". Whether or not you give a damn about the idea is no more or less a matter of preference than wanting to see the Sea Devils return, or thinking there's a bit too much kissing going on in the TARDIS these days.  We all pick and choose what slices of the old series we'd like to see ported over to the new one - even "nothing at all" is a defensible position, albeit one I find hard to get my head around.

The problem comes when someone gets it into their heads that their choices of what the new show should keep from its predecessor are objectively more sensible than those of others.  The regeneration limit idea is pretty much exhibit A here.  People who absolutely should know better waste valuable pixels lamenting the fact that some Who fans are so clueless they think limiting the possible number of actors who can play the role is a good idea.

Which, if this were even close to what's being argued, might be reasonable.  But I know of exactly zero people who have suggested the show should feel obliged to stop with thirteen incarnations (some might feel the show has run its course and should gracefully retire, of course, but that's not the same thing). No-one to my knowledge is running around the internets suggesting cancelling the show is preferable to ignoring an idea cooked up almost forty years earlier.

Once you accept these mythical canon-worshippers as the strawmen they are, then, what's left?  A fear that the story of the Doctor finding a new supply of lives might not be any good.  Which, fair enough, it might not be.  No-one's perfect, and no story idea is utterly foolproof.  I'd have thought the tale of the Doctor finally facing certain death after over a millennia of adventures holds some dramatic potential, but what do I know, I'm not a TV writer.

But again, how many people are there who would argue this is a story that must be told independently of story quality?  I mean, Ian Levine, possibly, but who else? I know its idiocy to argue that any position is so insane as to have no adherents, but I've never come across them.

So let's assume that the vast majority of people who hold to the thirteen incarnations idea would like to see it addressed in the show if it can be done well. What objection remains to the idea?  That every three or four decades the idea must be returned to? That's the hideous limitation which must be resisted by right-thinking people? Please. There's any number of more limiting factors built into the show as currently formulated. Bitching about the horrible prospect of having to return to the same story idea two or three times a century is baffling to me.

Which wouldn't bother me, if the sentiment weren't so commonly accompanied by sneering condescension, and the implication that some Who fans are just must better at appreciating the show than are others.  You would have thought that devotees of a show that spent decades alternately ignored and mocked by the mainstream would put a bit more thought into how they deal with approaches to the show that differ from their own.  Alas, it all too often feels like the only thing geeks like more than complaining non-geeks don't get them is mocking other geeks that they don't get.

(Of course, I wonder if this issue is about to be resolved in any case.  Saturday's reappearance of Gallifrey seems perfectly timed for the Doctor to gain access to the Blue Flame and a whole new life cycle, just in time for Capaldi to take over as the first new Doctor.  Which on the one hand would be a lovely nod to the original series.  On the other, though, it would have been nicer if exposure to the Blue Flame was used as a motivator to turn the Doctor into a non-white non-man.  Now that really would be something to annoy all the right people.)


Gooder said...

I really liked it too. Was the best it's been for a while certainly. It was actually dealing with some quite dark themes and as such was pretty interesting.

Although I think it would have been amazing if the scene with the 3 doctors agonising over destroying the TimeLords had ended with them actually doing it I do understand why it was chosen to not make the Doctor a bringer of genocide.

I think the only thing that really didn't work for me was the concession to the format with the inclusion of a monster in the shape of the Zygons.

They were quite well done honestly but you could do the story very easily without them and thus had more time to use.

SpaceSquid said...

Fair point about the Zygons. It was nice to see them again - and for my money their the best updated design the new show has managed to date - but they certainly were pretty superfluous, as was rather demonstrated by the show not even bothering to let us know how that particular plot ended.

That said, the Zygon/Queen Bess plotline sneaked in both the Time Lord art idea, and the idea of giving tasks to previous Doctors so that later ones can access them instantly. So they do have a structural function in addition to being nostalgic/fun to look at.

I think as well that it might be less that they felt compelled to sneak a monster in and more that they figured they needed some action scenes so that events between the two visits to Gallifrey were more than just anguished looks (which I at least had had my fill of from Tennant quite some time ago). Much as I agree that the moral conumdrum stuff was more interesting than the Zygon runaround (though the idea of suppressing people's identities to ensure they negotiate fairly was a wonderful idea swiped from pleasingly progressive politics), it was probably a sensible choice to include it.

Especially given the ethos of the special was so continuity-heavy. There's surely plenty of fans out there who were dying to know how the Doctor got married to Elizabeth I in the first place. I wasn't, because it's a fucking stupid idea, but if I get Zygons and Gallifrey and Tom Baker, I should be magnanimous about what other references float in on that same tide.

Gooder said...

Oh yeah, they did serve some structural function but you could have fairly easily of introduced the required elements with a bit of re-jig.

Maybe include some more time-war stuff to up the action?

Just felt a bit of shame that the Zygons were kind of denied a 'real' story of their own. In that they turned up to introduce a couple of elements and were then ignored as you say.

Anyway it was good, I've actually watched it twice! As for Agents of Shield. God, that's dull.

SpaceSquid said...

I'm sure the Zygons will get their chance to shine. The Macra and the Ice Warriors are the only reimagined monsters not to have multiple appearances in the new show, and the Ice Warriors only got introduced in the tail end of last season.

SHIELD for my money is starting to improve. The last two episodes were the best they've been since Joss sat at his typewriter for the pilot. But yes, it still has some major problems, most obviously the fact that fully half its main cast are just dead weight.