I very nearly called this review 'Never Mind the Zygons'. For the who front story is essentially a rehash of 'The Sontaran Stratagem', despite the fact no-one liked that one much the first time round. (There's even a gag where Doctor Ten wrongly outs Elizabeth, based on us recognising its an almost exact copy of his rightly outing Martha.) Except instead of dealing with haunted satnavs, it's more of a period farce set largely in an Elizabethan forest. And except the ending is a rehash of 'Cold Blood', another story no-one liked that much either. An ending is so sudden, so spliced in, so in violation of what went before that it feels like those moment when Spike Milligan used to stand up and announce the end of the sketch. Oh, and except with Zygons. They seem decided on so arbitrarily you wonder if their copyright was coming up for renewal or something. (Though at least, their not being Slythene, we were spared more fart jokes.) Never mind them...
Yet if you feel like you're not even being asked to take this seriously, that's because you're not. We've all been waiting since May for the promised dark story about the un-Doctor. We get fed a little of his back-story to begin, then are rushed off for something far more frivolous. It's there to make the dark stuff darker when it reappears.
There's precisely one point of association – oh alright, it's the Zygons. Or more precisely, their habit of disguising themselves as humans. This leads to the climactic scene in which two sets of humans sit facing each other off, a perfect mirror image. Whereupon Doctors Ten and Eleven fly in. Humans duplicate, while Doctors differ. Ten and Eleven are a team because each brings something individual to the table. But the blessing is mixed. That capacity to differ also leads to the un-Doctor.
Notably, however, there's not much of a dynamic to Ten and Eleven rubbing shoulders. If anything it underlines how great their similarities are, certainly compared to the audacious differences between the Doctors of old. No, the verbal sparks fly only when the un-Doctor shows up. This is partly down to having someone of John Hurt's calibre aboard. As when Derek Jacobi briefly played the Master back in 'Utopia' you just wish it could be like this all the time.
But there's also one of Moffat's sleights of hand that actually works. You almost forget he's a Doctor you never followed, but come to treat him as an honorary star of Old Who returned to sound out his successors. Like a disdainful grandparent, he castigates their lack of grammar, their action poses with sonic screwdrivers and gets all harrumphy about the prevalence of kissing in the future. (Moffat has effectively confessed to channelling Hartnell for those scenes.) These moments are the high points of the front story.
Even more than usual, the episode's full of points where past and future collide in one image. Oil paintings turn out to be 3D, inside the Tower of London is a high-security secret headquarters. The Old and New, you see, have met.
But of course this is just the front story, there to lull us into the notion that the un-Doctor is a Doctor. When the Zygons disappear, which they do pretty much at the press of a button, the old problem reasserts. He can't be a Doctor. He's done something unthinkable for the Doctor to do. But had he any choice?
There was a precise moment which pulled me into actively watching the revived show, which happened in the second episode - when the death of the Time Lords was first revealed. It removed a whole lot of encumbering baggage and moved the show on, liberated it from being mired in backstory. But it also portrayed a new, more damaged Doctor than we had been used to. As I said at the time “this ‘never go home’ theme becomes the main thread of the series.”
But the thread is not the garment. Most of us assumed straight away that it was the Doctor himself who offed the Time Lords. He's never got on terribly well with the in-laws, after all. And who else does the stuff in his universe? We didn't necessarily need any of that spelt out.
At first the show had the smarts to suggest it would never show us the Time War, and went to lengths to block it off. It had simply happened while things were off air, so our chance had been missed. It became the shadow, the great unstateable, the elephant in the living room.
Except of course they never knew when to leave alone. It's like a kid sneaking his hand into the cookie jar. First his fingers go for a few inconspicuous crumbs, but before you know it he's back and has his fists full of the things.
True, a similar thing did happen in Old Who. Gallifrey should never have been named, let alone visited. I knew that even as a child. But where would you break the crumb trail? At 'The Deadly Assassin'? Perhaps even 'The Time Meddler'? With each little slice taken out of the mystery, we seemed to be gaining as much as we were losing.
Not such a problem this time. This is more like showing the War with the Machines in the Terminator films, first having the sense to keep the thing off-screen but culminating with risible inevitability in 'Terminator Salvation'. And in many ways we now have 'Doctor Who's 'Terminator Salvation.'
All of which, ironically, could easily have been avoided if audiences could simply be credited with a little imagination. The crux of the episode is no more the war scenes on Gallifrey than it was the silly Zygons. It's set in one room, empty except for the un-Doctor himself, the ultimate weapon and it's conscience. (Actually an externalisation of his, of course.) At no great surprise to anybody, it's this which leads to the most memorable scenes. (Perhaps owing a little to Baltar and Angel Six in 'Battlestar Galactica', but no matter.)
Admittedly it doesn't make much sense for it to manifest as Rose, a companion he's yet to meet so will have little psychological impact on him. (Though Moffat admittedly covers this with a very 'Who' line - “past and future, I always get those two mixed up.”) Of course it's really an excuse to get Billie Piper on board. But there is a way it's fitting. The old Doctor was the conscience of his show. In the fabled sabotage scene in 'Genesis of the Daleks' (an essentially similar moment), he pontificates “do I have that right?” while Sarah Jane urges him to just join the bloody wires. But with the new Doctor, the one who's been through all this, things are turned upside down. Now it's the companion who's the conscience, effectively his human side. (So gormlessly literalised in the TV movie.) As he confesses to Donna “sometimes I need someone.” The Moment Interface (as it's called) isn't Rose. But it's doing a Rose-like thing. Clara, notably, is also against pressing the button.
We pride ourselves on being able to take grittier and more mature storylines these days, where our heroes are put in the bleakest and most inescapable situations. But of course it's like a teenager demanding their independence. We don't want what we say we want, we want it all to end nice and cosily and to be tucked safely up in bed. The result is storylines which set up parameters like bonds of steel, then in the last instance simply ignore them. (A classic example would be 'Source Code'.)
You have probably already guessed why I am mentioning all of this now.
The un-Doctor shows up in the Elizabethan farce and livens things up. But the Two Doctors then show up in his bare, existential room – and their presence takes something away. The big, fat button. It's such a nuclear analogy it feels like events weren't enabled by time portal Elizabethan paintings after all but by some old anti-nuclear leaflet that fell in from the Eighties. And oddly, for someone who went on all the ban-the-bomb marches in those times, I just wanted them to press the button. Reincarnation isn't so bad a metaphor for repressing a memory, the way we humans might get a new flat or haircut. Supposing they'd actually acknowledged what they'd done, accepted their previously repressed dark side? But of course they don't. Instead the necessity to do so just magically evaporates.
The Time War was once the ultimate in time locked. Nothing gets in or out. Bonds of steel. That gets explained away with a knowing look. Logistically, is saving Gallifrey by displacing it in time a narrative cheat or a Houdini escape? The internet will be abuzz with debate on that until I get bored. (Actually for a long time after that. But then I will get bored very quickly.) It simply doesn't matter. Something else is more important.
It's been established and re-established that the Time War made the Time Lords as terrible as the Daleks. As late as the 'Night of the Doctor' minisode, which went out barely a week before the episode itself, this was still the case. The pilot reacts to the classic “bigger on the inside” line not as a promise but a threat, and unhesitatingly chooses death over rescue. (A moment which is, quite honestly, stronger than anything which happens in the actual episode.)
All of which is swept away in a puff of feelgood. Their mutual animosity is no longer threatening the universe. The Time Lords, now chiefly represented by children, are instead under unprovoked Dalek attack – in some Pearl Harbour moment. Their High Command regard the Doctor as a bit of an unpredictable maverick, but that's about the worst thing you can say of them. (And that's something he'd probably say of himself.)
There feels something distinctly fannish at the heart of all of this. Let's go back to the Elizabethan forest, and the idea Hurt in is actually playing Hartnell. An anniversary cannot help but make you recall beginnings. And the Doctor started out as someone distinctly unheroic. The most infamous example of which was his contemplating bashing someone's brains out with a rock, to aid his getaway. For some fans that has rankled for years, and they've invented ever-more-elaborate means to explain it away.
Moffat is a fan-turned-pro. I can't help wondering if that moment festered in his brain, until the rock became a doomsday device and the single man expanded into a planetful of children. It was a misdeed, a poison in the show's system, a wound which needed to be cauterised. It had to un-happen. And that needed an un-Doctor. If Hurt is in fact Hartnell that would explain the peculiar absence of references to the Doctor's past selves, his long history of opposing war and saving lives, and the peculiar emphasis of the effects of his actions upon his future selves.
Plus the news that from now on the Doctor will be tracking down Gallifrey... Post-Hartnell, the Doctor's name cropped up no more than twice in story titles - 'The Three Doctors' and then 'The Two Doctors'. Since then, and starting with 'The Doctor Dances' (itself a Moffat episode) it's mushroomed. In the last few episodes alone we've had 'The Name...', 'The Night...' and now 'The Day of the Doctor.' Even if I felt the Doctor needed rescuing from being a killer with a rock (which I don't), this seems to do him a greater disservice.
'Doctor Who' was never about the Doctor. The Doctor just performed a narrative function. He's a classic example of the emblematic hero, his actions the cosmic equivalent of riding into town to right wrongs, then riding out again. In his universe he represents something universal. To impose all that 'hero's journey' stuff on him diminishes him. He wasn't originally made a wanderer because no-one had thought of anywhere for him to go. He was made a wanderer because, fundamentally, that's who he is.
Giving a fan creative control... it's like giving a toddler a puppy. They love what they've got, but they don't understand it. So, somewhere along the way, they're going to end up killing it.
Coming soon! Something about Old Who. (Well it has been fifty years…)