Recent Dorkiness

A Charming Bit of Genocide: Dr. Who Turns 50 in Grand Style

So this past weekend saw a pretty major dork milestone: Doctor Who turned 50! And, as the headline says, did it in grand style, with a feature-length special that not only continued the on-going story of Matt Smith's incarnation of the Doctor, but also served returning Doctor David Tennant well, featured innumerable nods to classic moments from the show's history, and introduced John Hurt (!) as a previously-unknown version of the Doctor who fought in (and ended) the Time War.

Apparently through the power of his fauxhawk alone...

Apparently through the power of his fauxhawk alone...

It was funny, it was charming, it was sad, and it made a fundamental change to the show as we know it. It was the most fun I've had in front of my TV in ages, and-- What's that? What's Doctor Who? Seriously? But... Well, alright. Let me back up a bit. Doctor Who Logo Doctor Who is the longest-running science fiction show in television history, launched by the BBC in November of 1963. It stars a heroic time traveling alien known only as The Doctor, who takes a variety of human companions off on fantastic adventures through time and space. He travels in the TARDIS, an alien time machine that's bigger on the inside than the outside, and which is stuck in the form of a now-anachronistic British Police Box. Adventures in time and space being dangerous business, the Doctor dies from time to time, but that's okay! Because his race has the ability to regenerate whole new bodies with slightly different personalities to keep up the fight. Simultaneously silly and terrifying, horribly child-like and wondrously violent, and above all else quintessentially British, it's sent children scurrying to hide behind the couch and adults down a rabbit hole into their own youth for decades. It's a classic, an institution, and most people either love it or hate it. I, obviously, fall into the “love” category. I've been watching, off and on, since the first Tom Baker episodes hit America sometime in the mid-1970s. (Tom Baker, of course, being the fourth actor to play the Doctor, his penchant for growing new bodies when he dies being an excellent way for the producers to replace the lead when he wants to move on.) Anyway. Watching. For most of my life. Off and on. I'd fallen into an “off” period this past year, I must admit. The loss of Amy Pond...
(best companion ev-ahr in my estimation)

(best companion ev-ahr!)

...was hard for me to get past. I didn't warm to the new girl (Clara), and a couple of weak scripts early on in the new series made me wander away. And when I checked back in later, I managed to catch Neil Gaiman's second outing writing the show, which... Look. I really like Gaiman most of the time. But his Who work, well... It makes the cardinal Who sin of sliding from “silly” over into “cute.” And as long-time visitors to the nerd farm know... I can't abide cute. But where was I? Ah! Yes! I wandered off the most recent series. I knew I'd come back, of course. Can't mourn Pond forever, after all. I mean, I even got over Sarah Jane, and (TMI) she was my first schoolboy crush. So when I heard about John Hurt getting involved, my ears perked up. And I certainly wasn't going to miss the 50th Anniversary Special, so... Tuned in, lots of fun, Who faith renewed. Why was it so good, though? Well, for all the reasons I outlined above, before you so rudely interrupted to ask me what the hell I was talking about. But also... Actually, you know what? Things are going to get rather SPOILERY from here on out. So let me hide the rest of my comments... after the jump.

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.

Doctor Who 50th

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:

Billie 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.

Matt Smith

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.

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About Mark Brett (418 Articles)
Shaved Yeti. Alien. Writer of stuff. Read my fiction at http://reportsfromthefieldblog.wordpress.com/. Read my thoughts on comic books and other dork culture ephemera at https://dorkforty.wordpress.com/.

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