Dear Steven Moffat: The Day of the Doctor

Tennant and Bugs

Dear Steven,

As this 50th anniversary’s approached I’ve become morose. How morose? Well if you think John Hurt’s face looks like melancholy personified then imagine a puss 13 times as world-weary. Why should I be in the doldrums? Christ, don’t you read these letters? In my last correspondence I spoke of Graubünden and the clinic that’s been my home these last few months. The therapists here wanted to flog the last bit of Whovian fandom from my broken, bleeding body. It was a surprise to learn this wasn’t a metaphor and there would be cruel and unusual punishment as well as psychiatric care. If I was to get better, they said, there was no possibility of watching the anniversary show.

When a programme is being shown across the world, in the cinemas of 94 countries as well as being beamed into every television in the British Isles and you can’t join in, your mood turns. This morning I sat in the corner of my room and wept bitter, excluded tears until my eyes swelled to the size of Elizabeth Regina’s breasts. I’m not kidding, Steven – David Tennant would have titty fucked my face if he’d been in town.

Thank Omega then, that I chose to end it all by headbutting myself to death. That shrewd decision proved decisive. What no one seemed to know, and certainly not the orderlies who’d chosen this particular room for my detention, is that the corner I was squatting in was a phased area and that if you pushed through you surfaced in the BFI Southbank’s NFT1 just half an hour before the institute’s 3D screening of the episode with no less a set of VIPs in attendance than Matt Smith, Jenna Louise Coleman, Sylvester McCoy and, holy space time, you.

Steven, I’ve never seen an audience with so many hats and scarves. I’d also never sat in an auditorium with you and your family before. Sure, it was disconcerting at first – more so when I realised you and your son had the same hair and that in order to sit in on the action I’d have to discreetly kill a man sitting on his own and fold him under the seat until I could safely leave at the end, but what a feeling! The buzz when you walked in and the crowd applauded! The spark of electricity when Matt Smith took his seat! The ripple of pleasure throughout the crowd as Sylvester McCoy took his place on the left side of the cinema, reserved for those Doctors you didn’t deign to cast! The boos when a few people noticed Rufus Hound! This, Steven, is what it meant to be a Doctor Who fan on the show’s 50th birthday: taking pride of place amongst a warm congregation of mostly mentally well-adjusted people.

So I’m sure you’re anxious to know what I thought of the episode. After all this was the big one. If you fucked this up fandom would hate you until the day you died then desecrate your grave, and not just yours but that of every Moffat until the end of time. Well I’ll get to it in a moment. First of all I have to thank you for the prequel minisode. The gentleman next to me, who may have been the director Nick Hurran, as his companion wildly clapped his credit, was good enough to show it to me on his chatbox and not ask any questions about the man under the seat. Correcting the injustice that we were cheated out of the 8th Doctor’s regeneration was retconing at its finest, assuming such a thing can truly be said to exist in the Whoniverse. It tipped us off that you may be minded to undo some additional errors from the show’s shakey return to the nation’s drool boxes. With that thought held in space and time let’s get into it, starting with…

What went well

For me everything that worked about the anniversary can be summed up in two words: Elizabethan Bust. No, sorry – I mean John Hurt. Initially, like most fans of this fucking thing, I was horrified at the invention of Hurt. A forgotten Doctor? An incarnation conveniently hidden both from the audience and The Doctor himself? This seemed like retconning at its worst, Steven:  a sure fire way to destroy the series forever by doing perverse things to its chronology. But it seems you’re not a complete bastard after all because Hurt’s function was to be one big wizened Russell T. Davis remover. When he popped up in the last seconds of The Name of the Doctor we couldn’t know that he’d be the means by which you’d undo some of the worst decisions ever taken by a Doctor Who showrunner. Hurt’s character was a device to restore two things sadly missing in the show’s post-2005 incarnation: Gallifrey and The Doctor’s moral authority.

Anyone brave enough to rewatch Russell Dust’s first series will now realise how frivolous and stupid the Time War concept was. It’s clear that Davis invented it for two reasons. 1) He wanted to underline the fact The Doctor was all alone in the universe; a point that didn’t needed emphasising as it’s always been an implied dynamic and 2) it sounded cool. That’s it. “There was a time war, a trillion billion people died – the Daleks and the Time Lords – you know, the show’s two greatest staples, wiped out – oh, and it can’t be undone because it’s timelocked…oh and, er, The Doctor did it…he ended it with a mass genocide…he willfully murdered two billion kids. Anyway, never mind that, he’s lonely.”

Wait, The Doctor committed genocide?!! Holy fucking fuck. That’s the worst idea ever dropped into the show’s 50 year time line. Why not make him a necrophile too? I was heartbroken when I realised we’d never seen the Time Lords or Gallifrey again. And how could The Doctor be a true hero if he’d deliberately slaughtered his own race? I know, he did it out of “kindness and charity” or some nonsense but The Doctor’s supposed to be a genius…and a pacifist. Was Russell really telling us that mass murder was his only move? Why not let the war continue and give the odd individual a chance?

So The Day of the Doctor was important because it corrected this canon crime. Finally, belatedly, The Doctor used his famed intellect to avoid obliterating his people. Not only that, Gallifrey is saved. Sure, it’s frozen in time but it exists and it’s populated with Time Lords and that’s all that fucking matters. Not only did you undo Davis’s act of soundbite driven whimsy, but you also managed to create the preconditions for the show’s future. Saved from certain destruction by The Doctor, his people now owe him a big favour. Not just any old favour you understand; he’s earned more than the demotion Kirk got in Star Trek IV – I’m talking a fresh set of regenerations here. Anything less smacks of ingratitude in my eyes and the Doctor’s timing couldn’t be better because with Capaldi and his angry eyes imminent, he’s short on bodies. This and not the great rabbit scene with David Tennant was the anniversary show’s gift to the audience: the promise of another 50 years. Only The Doctor’s old foe, the controller of BBC1, can stop him now.

John Hurt’s non-Doctor also provided the show’s other masterstroke: its critique of New Who, with its penchant for youth, whimsy and pop culture. With Hurt comes gravitas, a quality that for all the likability of the post-2005 Doctors, has been somewhat lacking. Here was an actor crusty enough and sharp enough to arch an unamused eyebrow at the mugging and infantilism of his fresh faced successors. Delight was the only word to describe his contempt for phrases like “timey-wimey” and his serious, bullshit-free approach to the role of the war torn Time Lord. Better yet was this Doctor’s lack of grandstanding and his personification of the old show’s sobriety. His incredulity when Tennant and Smith held their sonic screwdrivers aloft like weapons, showcasing the annoying New Who confusion about what this tool is actually for (who isn’t tired of The Doctor holding it like a gun?), was perfect. Assemble a cabinet at them indeed. You had balls criticising the demographically aware iteration of the show, Steven, not least because you’re responsible for half of it, but in Hurt I saw both a statement of intent for Capaldi’s Doctor and a canny way of introducing this old school sensibility to the post-2005 audience. That’s what I took from it and if I’m wrong you’ll find out just how uncomfortable a sonic endoscopy can be.

So John Hurt worked a treat, Steven, and so too did the meshing of Tennant and Smith. What a nice, slightly antagonistic relationship they had. This was well judged on your part. Multiple Doctor stories have traditionally run with the gag that each Doctor has mild disdain for his other selves, like a grown man meeting his teenaged incarnation and groaning at the stupid shit he used to say. Keeping this dynamic showed your respect for the past, as did the episode’s major coup – the return of 4th Doctor Tom Baker…or at the very least a reprise of his face. Anyone who says they didn’t leap a little when they heard that familiar booming voice is a bloody liar – not least all the women Baker slept with at the height of his fame. Sure, he looked every one of his 600 years and I realise that getting him in it was the only way to ensure he’d watch it, but having him on screen, even for a couple of minutes, made it a real anniversary episode, not just a celebration of your work and your predecessor. Making it an ambiguous cameo (is it the 4th Doctor/the retired Doctor/someone else entirely), was a nice touch, as was foreshadowing his appearance with the scarf draped round the asthmatic. This, in viewerland, is what we call good work.

Yes, there was much to like in this episode, Steven: the door joke, the original titles, the Coal Hill school cameo, Ventolin, and the decision to end with a full set of Doctors, albeit in creepy CGI form. But inevitably not everything could work old fruit, and so reluctantly, because no discussion of the episode would be complete without it, it’s time to talk about…

What went wrong

There were lots of little things I didn’t like about The Day of the Doctor. Even when I could see the mechanics behind the decision I still wanted to climb over the few rows that separated you and I and tear out a few of those curls. These weren’t fatal flaws, Steven – the show still worked, but it’s perhaps worth noting that if you’d posted me the draft script as I requested then maybe some of these problems could have been avoided.

To start with an easy one, and to illustrate in-review that there’s a flip side to every creative decision, Hurt’s Doctor. A) He really should have been Paul McGann – I think you’d have achieved many of the same dramatic effects and B) ahead of the episode you assured us that his inclusion wouldn’t change the numbering of Doctors, because he wasn’t The Doctor. Yet at the close of this episode he was. He didn’t kill the Time Lords and his future selves welcomed him back into the fold. Alright he won’t remember it but the numbering system applies in the real world, not the Doctor’s, so it’s now a given, surely, that Hurt is the 9th Doctor, the absent and too damn good for the likes of this show to return to it for the likes of us, not even for one fan pleasing regeneration scene, Eccles Cakes the 10th and so on? What, did you think no one would notice? You put it in an episode watched simultaneously in 94 countries!

So with the Time War unlocked and the Time Lords survivors we at last have an idea of how it was possible for there to be a Gallifrey sanctioned book entitled “A History of the Time War”, as seen in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. What isn’t clear, however, is how Matt Smith’s pre-Day of the Doctor Doctor got a copy. When he ultimately gets to Gallifrey will he pick one up, then travel back in time and give it to his younger self who’ll then deposit it in the TARDIS library? We know he hasn’t read it because surely the events of this episode would all be in there and that being the case The Doctor should have known what to do from the very beginning. Seriously Steven, why did you let that idea through? It’s almost as annoying as Matt Smith’s hair continuity.

A weapon with a conscience is a good idea, I was with you there, until you decided that its manifestation would be Billie Piper. This is one of those instances where real world anniversary considerations trumped plot logic. If the device had searched through the Doctor’s time line to find a form that would make an impact on him, maybe to dissuade him from using itself, wouldn’t it choose someone who meant something to the Doctor at that stage in his life? Why should John Hurt give a fuck what Rose/Bad Wolf thinks? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to show him Ace? Or Adric? Or Susan? Anyone in fact, except a person from his future. Sure, I knew why she was there, Steven – it was for the so-called fans, but I’m a fan and if you’d asked me I’d have told you that I could happily live my entire life and never see Rose or any variant thereof, again. Still, you didn’t ask and you’ll have to live with that.

Why doesn’t the Doctor know roundels are called roundels? I know they’re called roundels, the audience knows, every fucking fan-based publication in the universe knows – why doesn’t the Doctor? “Round things” sounded silly, Steven. If you’re going to write this show do the research for God’s sake.

Why do Gallifreyian kids dance around maypoles and dress like renaissance children? Is this a stupid question? I thought Gallifrey was thousands of years ahead of us, after all the 1st Doctor, 50 years ago, made a point of telling Ian Chesterton that his people were moving though space time while they were figuring out the wheel, so does it really make sense that their kids would look and play like 16th century tadpoles?

Other than that, just little things, Steven. I don’t like Zygons really; they look like something you’d find in an oceanic trench (but the running gag it set up with Tennant insulting Elizabeth was almost worth it). UNIT: I know it had to be in there but let’s be honest, it was of a time and that time is not now. You’re not Russell Dust – why use them? Capaldi’s angry eyes: nice to see them but where was he at the end? Shouldn’t he have been there, standing amongst his selves? After all, he helped disappear Gallifrey along with everyone else. Clara’s teaching: when did she get her QTS? I thought she was a child minder? Is the Coal Hill school now one of Gove’s academies? What would Barbara say if she knew that unqualified staff were now taking lessons there? And finally, why didn’t Clara already know the backstory to Hurt’s Doctor before she and Smith were standing in front of the Arcadia painting? Are you saying that following the climax of The Name of the Doctor she neither asked for more information nor got any? Man, I miss the days when the role of companions was to ask questions.

So that’s it Steven, congratulations on your mostly successful 50th anniversary Doctor Who – probably the most difficult episode to write in the show’s history. Given the scale of the challenge and the weight of expectation you handled it well. Sure, some plot points made little sense (The Doctor spent all his lives working out how to put Gallifrey in a parallel pocket universe? Er, what?) but you managed to pack in all the Doctors, a rabbit and some tits into a 75 minute monster and come out smelling like Amy Pond. No mean feat. Above all you made a show that gave cynical bastards like me hope that the Christmas farewell for Matt Smith may be worth watching and that Capaldi’s new Doctor will mature a programme that’s always thrived on reinvention just when it needed it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a clinical suite to return to. Happy anniversary!

Yours in time and cyberspace,

Ed

More to sate your anniversary cravings:

The Distant Past:

Deep Time:

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