The “Doctor” Trilogy: Breaking the Rules

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Guest contributor Christoph Schwarz examines how it worked and didn’t work in the 2013 “Doctor” trilogy


In all forms of art – writing, painting, music, architecture, etc. – the most crucial contributors are recognized for breaking the rules, not disregarding them. These contributors broke new ground by working around the rules and expanding the possibilities of their respective art form. Doctor Who, which has been breaking the rules for more than fifty years, has contributed a lot to television and the science fiction genre in general.

One of the biggest Doctor Who rule breakers is none other than the current head writer, Steven Moffat. In his recent loose trilogy of 50th anniversary episodes, Moffat undoes some of the strongest narrative structures in the history of the show – controversy over these episodes stem partially over these changes. Ultimately, the bold decisions that any Doctor Who writer makes will be met with disagreement – mostly because of the large and diverse fan base – but are the massive changes to the show within recent episodes supported by any aesthetic credibility?

As aforementioned, the most important artists are known for breaking the rules by working around them. Yet, they could not do this without an express purpose to do so. Plenty of the most notable Doctor Who episodes set up a certain “set of rules” within the exposition and skillfully work around them to emphasize a specific concept or theme. Typically, this process is used to produce an emotional resolution since every viewer will at least watch the story for the plot and characters, but some will dig further to find an underlying purpose or theme (iceberg theory). Before I apply this to the larger changes made in the “Doctor” trilogy, I will first demonstrate how this process was successfully used in a few of the best-received episodes of Matt Smith’s tenure. (NOTE: This is not a top three list, they are a few episodes that highlight what I am discussing.)


Doctor-Who-Vincent-and-the-Doctor-Trailer-(42)Example A: “Vincent and the Doctor” by Richard Curtis
The rule: As Amy says, “Time can be rewritten! I know it can!”
Breaking the rule: Despite showing Vincent van Gogh his future, which should provide him some hope, he still commits suicide – his death is fixed.
Purpose: Amy’s earlier adventures with the Doctor convey her naïve view of him as somebody that can solve any problem, save any life. When Amy realizes that Vincent’s visit to the future did not alter his end, she says, “We didn’t make a difference at all.” The true heart of the episode is not the popularly played on concept of “fixed points in time” but that Amy learns to see that doing good is not always about delaying death but improving a life. This comes through especially in the oft-quoted “The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things.”

doctor-who-the-god-complex-trailer-next-time-(30)Example B: “The God Complex” by Toby Whithouse
The rule: Companions can have complete faith in the Doctor. (“Trust me. I’m the Doctor.)
Breaking the rule: To save Amy, the Doctor breaks her faith in him.
Purpose: The Doctor’s ability to save Amy, already strained in the previous two episodes, reaches a breaking point. Whithouse introduces a unique situation whereby Amy’s faith in the Doctor is what puts her in peril. This underlines the recurring theme of Amy’s complete but misplaced trust in the Doctor. To save Amy, the Doctor reveals to her (suitably as she is a child) that he is not a savior but a madman, somebody willing to take crazy risks in the hope of achieving a solution. While indirectly the Doctor still saves Amy, Amy is disenchanted at last, paving the course for her final decision in “The Angels Take Manhattan.”

oswin-asylum-of-the-daleksExample C: “Asylum of the Daleks” by Steven Moffat
The rule: Oswin Oswald, because of her human voice and backstory, is a human. Breaking the rule: Upon reaching Oswin, the Doctor discovers that she is not a human but a Dalek. Her backstory is, in fact, her way of coping with the tragic reality of what has happened to her.
Purpose: The revelation of Oswin’s true form towards the end of Asylum of the Daleks conveys the manipulation of perspective. This concept is developed throughout the episode by Moffat in a number of ways – Amy’s hallucination being one of them. As a point of character development, it sets up Clara Oswald as a character that isn’t all that she appears to be, and works as the foundation for Amy and Rory’s near-divorce. Moffat shows how far off perspectives can be when only a little or none of the truth is known.

These “rules” may not be as direct as rules like “a Time Lord can only regenerate twelve times in a single cycle” and they may originate from the perspective of the characters, but they are the starting point for development. In the case of these episodes, the result is gratifying.

The “Doctor” Trilogy

day-of-the-doctor-tv-trailer-(3)-gallifreyIn “The Day of the Doctor” a long-time “rule” is abolished – the Last Great Time War did not result in the demise of the Time Lords. Instead, the Doctor is able to save them and maintain the illusion of Gallifrey and the Daleks’ mutual destruction. This change is probably the most controversial in the “Doctor” trilogy. It not only counteracts what viewers have come to accept over the past eight years, but it overturns one of the main selling points for the revival of the show and seemingly undermines a significant part of the titular character. Personally, I can still watch episodes such as “Dalek” or “The End of Time” without the quality feeling diminished, but that will vary. While, from a production standpoint, Moffat’s decision to revive Gallifrey refreshes the storytelling possibilities, it also makes a significant point about the Doctor at a significant time for both the characters in-universe and the viewers – the Doctor neither blatantly defies the rules or hopelessly accepts them, he always comes up with the mad alternative. “The Day of the Doctor” showcases this to the highest degree through the Doctor’s clever solution to the Time War problem.

the name of the doctor promo batch b (18)“The Time of the Doctor” also presents the Doctor’s proclivity for rule breaking but with more rules to be broken. An issue arises with a rule prompted by the entirety of series seven: “Once we know it’s coming, it’s written in stone.” “The Name of the Doctor” clearly establishes a few facts concerning the Doctor’s future: he comes to be known by other names before he dies, there is a great battle in which he is involved and succumbs to old age, his TARDIS remains and becomes overgrown, the overgrown TARDIS has a crack in the left window from the earlier crash landing, and a time stream of the Doctor’s life (containing every moment in his life up through the Eleventh Doctor) is housed in the console room which is the same console room as his current one.

crack-time-of-the-doctorIn “Time of the Doctor” only two of the aforementioned are fulfilled – the Eleventh Doctor ages to death defending a crack to a universe that contains Gallifrey. Whether this is an oversight of the rules on Moffat’s part or unfulfilled prophecy (a time stream, no matter the technobabble, is no substitute for a real body) remains unclear but it is for certain that the crack in the window was gone by the time of Christmas episode, contradicting what was seen in “The Name of the Doctor.” Defying what was established Series Seven presents narrative problems but it does follow the general lines of Matt Smith’s tenure – the Doctor discovers indisputable evidence of his end early on but finds a way around it in the end. The TARDIS blows up leaving cracks in the universe, the Doctor is shot in the middle of regeneration, the Doctor travels to his tomb – in all cases a solution is devised. A pattern repeated throughout Smith’s tenure encounters its completion in the Christmas episode (the Eleventh Doctor even scoffs at “the rules”) and Clara’s reputation as the “Impossible Girl” remains, in some way, intact since she does accomplish the impossible through her appeal to the Time Lords.


So, did breaking the rules work or not in the “Doctor” trilogy? Well, both. Some will say it did and some will say it didn’t, but it will never be one or the other. Doctor Who will never be the show for everyone in every way but it is daring, much like the Doctor, and is novel in its ideas. It is by the ridiculous ideas of many talented writers that the show has survived and revived. From the outside, a show about an alien that travels through time and space in a police box idea might appear odd, but if this show did not aim to be explorative and experimentative- instead of popular and cliché- it would have never succeeded. The “Doctor” trilogy may not be perfect or even enjoyable to everyone but it is true to the spirit of the show and serves as a beautiful celebration of it. In a strange way the show and its subject reflect each other. Recall the purposes under each example I used. Doctor Who is not viewed in the same way by any two people, it will not always be what people expect it to be, and it is up to the viewer to see the good (or the bad) in it.