The plot involves a meeting between three different incarnations of the Doctor, something which is never supposed to happen but which has of course happened to the Doctor three or four times before (Doctor Who being the sort of show that gleefully contradicts itself whenever possible). Everything revolves around John Hurt, who plays the War Doctor, the incarnation of the Doctor that ended the Time War between the Time Lords and the Daleks by destroying both races utterly. Yes, in that dim period when the Doctor was off TV…
(Because, yes, Doctor Who was off TV from 1988 to 2005, surviving as a series of radio plays, novels, comics, and an unfortunate American TV movie that the fans embraced in spite of its not-Britishness.)
…when he was out of our sight, the Doctor committed genocide. It was a last desperate attempt to stop all of time and space from burning, making two entire races extinct to save everyone else who ever lived. It was the right decision, the only possible decision. But it’s haunted the Doctor throughout the modern series, a dark stain coloring every action and relationship. It’s been eating him alive behind the joyous, mad facade he puts up for his companions, a constant reminder that no matter how much good he does, he still feels like a monster inside. And now, we finally get to see it happen.
Hurt steals The Moment, a Time Lord weapon of ultimate destruction. But (in a plot movement that would really only make sense on this show) the Moment’s user interface has become sentient, and demands a voice in how it’s used. So it manipulates time and space to show him the consequences of his actions (which is to say, the modern show). And so, the three Doctors meet.
Understandably, there’s some tension.
Hurt finds Tennant and Smith ridiculous, with their waving hands and silly talk and youthful good looks. Now, this always happens when a Doctor meets his predecessors. It’s an irresistible bit of comedy gold. Smith and Tennant go at it some, too, spitting out scornful nicknames for each other like “Matchstick Man,” “Chinny,” and “Sand Shoes.” But it’s Hurt who really scores the most points, rattling off a stream of complaints that neatly critique the modern series in comparison to the old, a stream that culminates with him shouting, “You speak like children! Why are you so ashamed of being an adult?!”
Tennant and Smith’s only answer is a long, sad, angry stare directly back at Hurt. And suddenly, the real Doctor snaps into focus. If being a grown-up means committing genocide, that stare seems to say, then maybe retreating into childhood isn’t such a bad reaction. It’s a great moment, a defining moment, and it’s made all the better because it comes, unexpectedly, out of a hoary old Who comedy schtick.
So at this point, it’s looking bad for Hurt ever activating the Moment. It’s obviously damaged his future selves deeply, crippled them in fact, and turned them into addle-brained man-children.
(I especially like the line the Moment delivers to Hurt just before all this happens: “They think this future is real, but you can still change it.” Which implies that the whole modern Who series might just be a figment, an It’s a Wonderful Life possibility that will only come to pass if Hurt does this thing that the Moment doesn’t want him to do. It’s chilling to think of Our Heroes, these Doctors we’ve invested so much time and emotion in, as nothing more than visions. I mean, they obviously weren’t going to erase two of the most popular performers ever to take the role, but still. It gave me a terrible hollow moment, and that’s a wonderful thing for fiction to do.)
(The Moment, by the way, is played by Billy Piper:
(Piper once played Rose Tyler, the first companion in the modern series. She does a nice job here, making the Moment playful, caring, and creepy all at the same time. Why did it choose to look like Rose? She plucked it out of the Doctor’s timestream to make him more comfortable talking to her, not realizing that he hadn’t actually met Rose yet. Like so many things involving the Time Lords, it appears that the Moment is whimsically addled.)
But where was I? Ah, yes. It wasn’t looking good for Hurt activating the Moment. But then he sees Tennant and Smith in action, inventively stopping a human official (the Brigadier’s daughter, if you know who that is) from making the same terrible decision Hurt is weighing (albeit on a smaller scale). He takes delight in their solution, and sees that, despite the personal harm he’s about to cause himself, the universe is a better place because of it.
So the genocide is on again. He goes back to his own time, his hopeless situation, and prepares to rip a chunk out of his soul. But then, in a moment that (I’m not ashamed to admit) choked me up, hope arrives, as it always does, in the form of the TARDIS. Smith and Tennant have come after him, and (inspired by Clara, doing what companions do best) they find a different solution.
So, uhm, boom.
The defining act of the Doctor’s life has now no longer happened. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that at first. I liked having that darkness at his center. It gave him character. It gave him depth. It gave him something to throw himself against. But writer Stephen Moffat played this smart. There’s a running question throughout the episode of how many children were on Gallifrey (the Time Lord homeworld) when the Doctor wiped it out. How many truly innocent lives were destroyed, along with the corrupted ruling class? It’s a number in the billions, and just before the end, we’re shown a bunch of them in the flesh, screaming and running for their lives.
It puts a real face on the act, and makes you realize that, no. That’s not something you want the Doctor to do. Character development be damned, it’s an unforgivable act. And if the Doctor is going to be your crazy best friend, your whacky favorite uncle, the man who brings hope when all is hopeless… It’s not a line he should ever have crossed.
This is not an argument you’ll hear me make very often. I’m a noir guy. I like my heroes conflicted, and with something ugly in their past. But the Doctor… No. He is and always has been purely a children’s character. Even the modern series, which is written with both kids and their parents in mind, is still, at its heart, a show for children. There’s an innocence to it that’s part of its charm, an innocence that they’ve always hinted exists only because the Doctor is there.
The world around him isn’t a nice place. There are aliens that will kill, subjugate, or eat you. There are bad people, and sick societies that make life for most of us drab and uninteresting at best. But the Doctor, just by being who he is, makes that go away for a while. And thank god for that.