Time War No More: The Degeneration of the Doctor
Guest contributor Christopher Ritchie
questions the changes made to the Time War.
Between 1989 and 2005 Doctor Who was in hiatus. Despite a brave but failed attempt to relaunch the program in 1996 in the form of a television movie starring the absolutely superb Paul McGann, Doctor Who lived on in audio format, novelisations and comics. The ‘Wilderness Years’, as they came to be known, kept the flame of the show burning. At the helm of Russell T Davies, Doctor Who came back to our screens in 2005. It returned a regenerated program. Television presenter Michael Parkinson observed that the show had transformed ‘from wobbly sets, frock coats and frilly cuffs into superlative character-driven drama, with scripts which go between comedy, tragedy and social satire’.
To account for the time in which the show was in hiatus, Davies came up with a beautiful plot device to bridge the gulf between the classic and the new series – the ‘Time War’. It was a simple but genius idea which saw Doctor’s race, the Time Lords, immersed in a seemingly endless and nightmarish war with their arch enemies, the Daleks – the show’s embodiment of evil. The Time War had universal consequences – worlds were destroyed, there were countless innocent victims, and it left the universe standing on a brink of an apocalypse. In their quest to become the victors, the Time Lords developed into the most heinous creatures of war who would stop at nothing to achieve total victory over the Daleks. In the last days of the war, they even planned to abandon their physical form to become creatures of consciousness alone, and thus immortal. In many ways, the Time War made the Daleks and Time Lords indistinguishable in their brutality and infamy.
The audience has learnt about the Time War back story throughout the revamped show which has starred Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith in the title role. Until the 50th anniversary special, the war itself was never shown on screen. It was recounted through subtle and brief storytelling, enabling us to create the atrocities through our own imaginings. Importantly, it is the Doctor who ends the Time War. In The End of Time, the audience discovers that the Doctor possesses ‘The Moment’ – an armageddon device or weapon of mass destruction – which he uses to save the universe from the Time Lords and Daleks, but in so doing, commits genocide.
In the aftermath of the Time War, Eccleston’s Doctor is traumatized by his recent past. It is clear it is not a decision he made lightly. He is living with survivors’ guilt, is the last of his kind, and is self-loathing because of his actions – “I watched it happen. I made it happen”. Arguably, the greatest difference between the classic series and the new has been the development of the character of the Doctor. Davies’ Time War plot device made the Doctor a much darker, complex, serious and enigmatic character. The Doctor was no longer the infallible, fairytale hero, or simply just a ‘mad man with a box’ protecting the earth and other planets from tyranny. Eccleston gave us a gritty and flawed Doctor; one suffering from post-traumatic stress. Arguably, the Time War is the best narrative development that has taken place in Doctor Who. Moreover, Eccleston’s portrayal of the Doctor is the most underrated in the show’s 50 years, followed closely by McGann’s.
Today’s audience’s demand blemished protagonists. They want characters which have a degree of realism, individuals they can admire or empathise with, people who come with baggage; not characters which are perfect or foolproof. One only needs to consider recent examples such as Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead, Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne, Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison in Homeland, Daniel Craig’s James Bond, Hugh Laurie’s Dr Gregory House, Sofia Helin’s Saga Noren in The Bridge, or Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys Targaryen and Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones. The very success of Doctor Who from 2005 has been largely connected to the idea of the flawed hero; the man seeking redemption.
Following Eccleston, Tennant’s Doctor is also an incarnation which has feelings of regret. To a degree, he begins to come to terms with his past, mainly as a result of his therapeutic relationship with, and love for Rose Tyler. But after losing her, Martha Jones and Donna Noble, Tennant’s Doctor regresses somewhat. In The Waters of Mars (by far one of the best episodes of the new series) he goes too far by changing a ‘fixed point in time’ and momentarily becomes the hubristic Time Lord Victorious, displaying almost Valeyard evilness. The episode reinforces the malevolence inherent in Time Lords, particularly when their power is unchecked or unlimited. It is a poignant reminder that the Doctor made the right decision to end the Time War.
Tennant’s Doctor is characterized by volatility. He bounds, almost uncontrollably, between periods of ecstatic energy and moments of absolute loneliness coupled with feelings of guilt about his past. It is a superb performance, and one which keeps the idea of the Doctor’s actions in the Time War central to the character. Tennant’s Doctor is referred to as the man who ‘keeps running’, trying to avoid his shameful history. Sadly, it is a past from which he cannot escape. Tennant’s Doctor has a thirst for life – he portrays a very humane Doctor and is more romantically involved with the female characters he encounters than any other incarnation. Sadly, these relationships only serve as a distraction or provide fleeting moments of solace. Tennant’s tragedy is that each of his Doctor’s personal losses are reminders of the greater loss of Gallifrey, and the cost of being a time traveller.
Smith’s portrayal of the Doctor is much more alien and manic than Eccleston and Tennant’s. With the Time War becoming more of a distant memory, it is fitting that Smith’s Doctor displays rejuvenated joy – almost childlike at times – during his travels in the TARDIS. Smith brings such an emotional range to the part of the Doctor, but it is the darker shades which have been some of the most memorable in his portrayal: his anger in The Beast Below and A Town Called Mercy, and his desire for revenge in A Good Man Goes to War. Like his predecessors, Smith’s Doctor cannot escape his past. Many of Moffat’s stories probe us, in one way or another, to ask questions about the Doctor’s past and the man he has been:
“An ancient creature, drenched in the blood of the innocents. Drifting in space through an endless shifting maze. Such a creature, death would be a gift.” (The God Complex)
“There was a goblin, or a trickster. Or a warrior. A nameless, terrible thing soaked in the blood of a billion galaxies. The most feared being in all the cosmos. And nothing could stop it, or hold it or… reason with it. One day it would just drop out of the sky and tear down your world.” (The Pandorica Opens)
“Fear me, I’ve killed all of them.” (The Doctor’s Wife)
“Looking at you, Doctor, is like looking into a mirror almost. There’s rage there, like me. Guilt there, like me. Solitude. Everything but the nerve to do what needs to be done. Thank the gods my people weren’t relying on you to save them!” (A Town Called Mercy)
“What I did, I did without choice… in the name of peace and sanity.” (The Name of the Doctor)
In fact, Smith’s tenure reinforces that the Doctor’s survival of Time War is his punishment. As Khaler-Jex notes, “We all carry our prisons with us”.
Enter Moffat and The Day of the Doctor. Based on the prequel ‘minisode’, The Night of the Doctor, and the wonderful, if all to brief, return of Paul McGann, I thought the 50th anniversary special would be a treat. Instead, I am left disillusioned and anxious about the future of the show. Naturally, there were aspects of the 50th I adored: the interplay between Smith, Tennant and Hurt; the return of the Zygons and Bad Wolf; Hurt’s regeneration for continuity and completion; and Peter Capaldi and Tom Baker’s cameos. Even the story in itself about exploring the Doctor’s participation in the Time War was a wonderfully epic idea. But why Moffat, why did you have all the Doctors save Gallifrey by placing it in a pocket universe? This has reduced the Time War to an event of insignificance.
There was a moment when I shed a tear – the scene when all three Doctors had their hands on ‘The Moment’. It would have been a fitting conclusion that Hurt’s Doctor knew he had the support of his future incarnations, and they all pressed the button together. Alas, with his penchant for fairytale stories, magic and impossible plots known for their gapping holes, Moffat undid the best element of the new Doctor Who and reverted the character to a one-dimensional Christ-like saviour who is incapable of evil or doing wrong. He took away the very best aspects of the character: that the Doctor can make mistakes and that he can’t always fix them. The Doctor shouldn’t be omnipotent, but Moffat has taking the character one step closer to being a god. Moffat’s latest plot development is an insult to the creative genius of Davies and the narrative he established in 2005. Moreover, it is a flagrant disregard for Eccelston and Tennant’s interpretations of the Doctor. Davies’ Doctors had a multidimensional and flawed nature – much like Virgil’s protagonist, Aeneas. Importantly, Russell T Davies recognised that the most believable and intriguing central characters are neither heroes nor villains – they are often something in-between.
On one level, I appreciate that by saving Gallifrey, the Doctor has a new purpose – to get home. He knows where he must go. Like Homer’s Odysseus, he will look for his Ithaca. I also recognise that it’s a handy narrative device for Moffat – that upon the Doctor’s discovery of the Time Lords, they are likely to reward him with a new regeneration cycle for saving them, probably one which enables him to regenerate into a female, and thus ensure the show’s longevity, albeit one sliding down the slippery dip of political correctness. But on another level, Moffat’s new direction betrays the premise of the show. The Doctor left Gallifrey because he is was an adventurer and sick of the stagnant lifestyle on his home planet. In the classic series, the Time Lords were characterised as ‘decedent, degenerate and rotten to the core’. They were dull, regal and non-interventionist. The idea of the Doctor wanting to find Gallifrey and return home now that it ‘stands’ is absurd. In fact, Moffat’s plot development subverts the very premise on which the show has been created. The Doctor is the outsider, the wanderer and the perennial traveller. He chose to go on the run from his own people in a raggedy old TARDIS.
As an age-old fan who has watched the classic and new series, I worry about Doctor Who’s future. It is certainly a show that must adapt and change to ensure it continues beyond its 8th series. While I am not opposed to reinvention or change, it seems Moffat’s 50th anniversary special has degenerated the character of the Doctor. Bringing back Gallifrey will only work if the Time Lords turn out to be far more evil than the Daleks, forcing the Doctor to live with the consequences and ramifications of his actions in The Day of the Doctor. It is vitally important that the Doctor is fallible. Hopefully Peter Capaldi can bring out the Valeyard in the Doctor – a new dark side. A Doctor with grit and gravitas. In the meantime, the Moffat fairytale must end.