TV Happy New Year! I hope you’ve enjoyed the almost Doctor Who free month on the blog, though it’s fair to say that the one review I posted, that review, was the busiest post by quite some margin, not that I pay attention to such things obviously (over a thousand!). Now that last year’s over with, I’m going to try and find some measure of sanity about that. This was never meant to be a Doctor Who blog. It just sort of became that last year, just as it becomes a blog about the Liverpool Biennial now and then or Shakespeare, or everything, or nothing. Usually nothing. Nevertheless, Happy New Year!
Anyway, back to Doctor Who and after cogitating on it some more since the broadcast and the iPlayer rewatch, I’ve decided that actually The Time of the Doctor is a thrilling, extraordinary piece of television even if it’s not a thrilling, extraordinary piece of Doctor Who. To put what amounts to a meditation on aging and mortality on Christmas night between Call The Midwife and Eastenders masquerading as family drama (which to some extent neither of those are) was a very brave and commendable thing to do, even if the result was by turns baffling and uneven. Like some other episodes, its reputation will no doubt grow over time.
Something I didn’t address in that original review, mostly because it was already three thousand words long and I’d spent the best part of Boxing Day writing the damned thing, was the mechanics of the regeneration. As is so often the case, my theories about how all of that would be dealt with through the utilisation of River Song’s energy in Let’s Kill Hitler proved to be wronger than a wrong thing which is wrong about everything, proving to be far simpler and indeed for more old school Who with the Doctor merely being granted a whole new regenerative cycle by the Time Lords, which is what it is.
The method of revealing the Eleventh Doctor’s mortality was interesting, simply having him divulge it in the middle of the episode, though to be sure that was dulled somewhat by Moffat himself “revealing” as much beforehand in interviews right down to the inclusion of what amount now to two different incarnations of the Doctor both played by David Tennant. We’ll talk about that in a moment. But the point is, like so much of the episode, the really exciting stuff, the stuff which should have been a major discovery or at the very least been revealed dramatically was sectioned off into reported speech and exposition.
That’s especially true when you consider the range of options available, like pretending the metacrisis regeneration didn’t count so that all of this mortality stuff sat on the shoulders of the Twelfth Doctor (thereby making sense of the business at Lake Silencio) (yeah, right), chasing around the universe fully aware of what’s happening (though it’s true by making the Eleventh Doctor the last one it does make sense of the business in Let’s Kill Hitler). We can be wonder exactly when Moffat decided this was the Doctor’s last incarnation. When he thought up the War Doctor? Before then?
My preferred option, at least in terms of the melodramatic options, was for the Doctor to assume he’s dying then regenerate anyway and for him and us be left with the mystery of exactly how he managed to beat the rules. Had he miscounted? Was the rule only meant for him? This would have added an extra level of jeopardy because he’d never quite know if the next time he regenerates it’ll be his last. We’ll know different because we know the thing will continue for, y’know, like, ever, but it would be a constant reminder to the Doctor of his own mortality and also temper is god-like status somewhat.
Yet in the end, this is probably the best of the lot. Choosing something from the show’s history and thereby underscoring how in the show’s fiftieth year that history has now become an even more integral part of the revival, it elegantly kicks the problem ahead another thirteen incarnations so that whatever production team is working on the show in fifty years time (or whenever) will essentially be faced with the same problem and gifted the same story opportunities which could just as well include any of the ideas in the previous few paragraphs in whatever format Doctor Who is being made then.
What’s interestingly been misunderstood by a lot of viewers is the mechanics of this particular regeneration. The actual regeneration happens when the Doctor throws his arms out and destroys the alien fleet with the flames, in a scene which seems to deliberately echo the similar scene with Melody Pond in Let’s Kill Hitler with the Nazis when she’s still in her regenerative cycle. The scenes in the TARDIS afterwards are when the Doctor’s body is breaking in the new regenerative cycle, which is why he looks young again, he’s rebooting. The shift to Capaldi is that new regenerative cycle kicking in.
The Stolen Earth/Journey's End have been messed about with too now, I suppose. The Time of the Doctor gives us confirmation the the Tenth Doctor did regenerate then but kept the same face and apparent personality. But does this mean Tennant effectively and perhaps unknowingly played two different incarnations of the Doctor? That the one who was running around in the 2009 specials is a different man and yet the same man? Would the Tenth Doctor pre-metacrisis have made the same decisions as he does during The Waters of Mars et al? Shouldn't there be two Tennants standing here?
The other thing I didn’t talk around in the review was Trenzalore and the extent to which the Doctor’s changed history. The Doctor hasn’t changed history, I don’t think. Trenzalore is still potentially in his future ready to be robbed by whoever makes off with his actual remains ready for the auction in Alien Bodies. It’s just that it didn’t happen during The Time of the Doctor. So everything which happened in The Name of the Doctor still could and should. Unless I’m completely wrong and misunderstood the ending just as I did with The Day of the Doctor. Presumably it’ll be explained away in some exposition in the next season.
Right then, onwards with the wild speculation about what Capaldi’s first season will contain. One of his first lines is, in relation to the TARDIS, “D’ya happen to know how to fly this thing.” Assuming this isn’t just some old fashion post regenerative malaise, Moffat could take that single line and run with it. What if, when a Time Lord has been gifted a whole new regenerative cycle, it also takes much longer for them to gain their memory back. So when the “Eleventh” Doctor talks about remember every moment of when the Doctor was him, the irony is that he doesn’t, that like the Eighth Doctor post The Ancestor Cell, he only remembers bits.
That opens up all kinds of interesting narrative possibilities. If, for example, the TARDIS, which has shown a surprising amount of self-awareness post The Doctor’s Wife, practically has to fly itself or at the very least land itself, so that her behaviour is very much like it was fifty years ago screen time, the Doctor and his companion never knowing where they’re going to end up next (even if, as with back then, its usually some time in Earth’s history anyway). This would also take away the idea of the TARDIS as taxi service and make it a genuine lifeline and jeopardy magnet just as it was in the old days.
Plus if the Doctor can’t remember his own history, perhaps he’ll have to rely on Clara who’s somewhat seen it all, creating a shift in the dynamic of the classic companion relationship because it’s the Doctor asking all of the questions of his friend about what to do to fight the antagonists and how to work his sonic screwdriver. This will be even more acute because “Eleventh” so assiduously went about removing himself from history apparently so “Twelfth” can’t even really rely on own legend. If the Daleks do know who he is now though, that makes them an even greater threat because they know what he’s capable of but he doesn’t.
Which makes the loose arc of the next series about the Doctor getting his memory back so that he can control the TARDIS again. There are some reasons this is also unlikely. If you’re Capaldi and finally able to play the Doctor, would you want to play a version who doesn’t remember his own history? Also we know the Patternoster gang are back thanks to the Blue Peter competition and unless the TARDIS somehow manages to land in their company in its random trip through the universe it seems unlikely we’d go there unless the TARDIS and Clara decided that they needed their help.
Either way I think this is the kind of out of the box thinking which Moffat should be heading towards if he’s going to reimagine the series again. As has been pointed out to me by separate people in different places, Moffat has pretty much undone most of what Russell T Davies wanted to do, which is probably as it should be. But what I would like is a return to old fashioned Who storytelling, of simply landing in a place with no other reason than random curiosity and heroics which aren’t about filling in the gaps of a story arc. In other words, more of The God Complex and less of The Rebel Flesh. Oh and no more sodding time paradoxes.