Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Doctor Who at 50: The Day of the Doctor

Day of the Doctor poster

Wrestling fans have a term called "marking out". A "mark", historically, was someone who thought pro wrestling was real and unscripted. Nowadays everyone knows how things are set up (except for the kids), and those of us who still watch do so without any illusions. But once in a great while, things are so well put together and so convincingly played that some instinctive part of you forgets it's all a show. For a brief period you are the mark.

"The Day of the Doctor" got me to mark out just a bit, and because of that I can't be as objective as I'd like in reviewing it. Part of it is that the 50th anniversary special did something I had kind of been hoping the series would do, so I have to separate out my fannish satisfaction at seeing things go The Way They Ought To. But it is rare for something to work so well that I stop thinking about how well it's working and start thinking about whether the good guys will win this time. "Day of the Doctor" accomplishes something special, and it's worth looking into how.

Needless to say there will be spoilers.

It's interesting to consider the misdirection involved in this story. After some early glimpses of the last day of the Time War, the great unimaginable conflict that threatened to burn the universe, the story settles down a bit and tells a smaller tale of the Earth being invaded by aliens. Shapeshifting Zygons are out to colonize Earth and have been manipulating everyone from Elizabeth I to the staff of UNIT, the world's anti-alien intelligence taskforce which of course keeps the Doctor on its payroll. The enigmatic War Doctor (John Hurt) is looking in on these events- the future for him- via a time fissure, and goes in to meet his future, back-to-just-Doctor selves, and for a while it seems like the special will be about how the Doctor has been shaped and changed by his past experience, his decision to destroy Gallifrey and the Time Lords, and the guilt that has followed him ever since.

But then they change the game. The current Doctor looks at his companion Clara (who is finally starting to establish her personality after a season of being a plot point) and realizes she- and we, the audience- cannot see him press the button that would destroy not just the corrupt Time Lords, but billions of innocent Gallifreyan children. He cannot do what "has to be done" when we, the audience, see up close what that is. So he and the other Doctors reject the idea that it has to be done- the narrative device of the hero doing something horrid because there is no other way.

We've seen scenes like this in miniature on the show, of the Doctor faced with impossible situations and coming up with seemingly miraculous solutions and saving just about everyone. But rarely has the situation seemed so very impossible as here, and the struggle so worthy of the task. When I sat down to watch "The Day of the Doctor" I didn't even consider the salvation of the Time Lords on the table. But when the Doctors decided that they needed to undo their past bad act- or make it that it had never happened- I was drawn in. I no longer cared about the narrative presentation. I wanted to see how they pulled this off, if they could pull it off.

And they did. It was a worthy struggle involving every single one of them, past and future. (Well, every one of them until Peter Capaldi leaves and they find an excuse to keep the show going.) To be sure, in the course of 70 minutes "Day of the Doctor" had to do what the new series often does, and sacrifice the fine detail of airtight plotting at the altars of spectacle, theme, and even character. But the big genius solution is foreshadowed beautifully by an early scene involving a dungeon door and a sonic screwdriver that would need hundreds of years to figure out how to open it, and similar handwaves always seem to have a thematic reason to them. It's clear that the technical specifics of how the solution works are less important than the Doctor's decision not to be the kind of person who makes the Hard Choices that some writers insist are necessary (and which I view as a concession to the kind of moral screwiness that has become so popular since the War on Terror started.)

So Gallifrey's back. Well, it's around, somewhere, lost but intact. The Doctor is now an exile as he was in the beginning, this time trying to find his home. I could not be happier. I understood the Time War, when it was introduced with the show's revival, was a necessary sweeping clean of the show's rather complex trappings, a way of reducing it back to a time traveller, a ship, and a companion. It served its purpose, and we got some good stories out of the Doctor's guilt and trauma. But after a while the portrayal of the Doctor as the last of his kind, the Lonely God with the tragic past, felt played out. It was an arc that ran its course. For the Doctor to finally shed his guilt and to have a new purpose in the universe is a wonderful change to the status quo, and to my mind the presence of the Time Lords- even when they're offscreen- lends a certain kind of ineffable grandeur to the universe of Doctor Who. It's a strange, big universe where anything is possible.

And so, as I left the theater where I watched the BBC America simulcast on Saturday, my major thought was not "that was a good story" or "Steven Moffatt seems to have the show back on track, I was worried with last season's finale", but "He did it. The Doctor did it." It's silly for an adult to think such things. But for a television show to make an adult think such things, even for a moment, is a great accomplishment.

So yeah, I think "The Day of the Doctor" was pretty damn good.

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