Doctor Who: showrunners, companions, and turning 50

Okay. It’s come to this. A week and change later, I find I still have some opinions regarding the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who and some of the discussion that’s come out of it. Now, I had thought I could limit those opinions to “Day of the Doctor is so good, I want to watch it many more times,” but certain criticisms have popped up here and there and, well, here we are. With a blog post about Day of the Doctor.

Which will be filled with spoilers. Seriously. Filled. This is not a conversation I can have without spoiling the episode, so if you haven’t seen it, come back Wednesday when I’m talking about something else.

No, really. Stop now. Spoilers coming soon. For the 50th anniversary and a handful of things that lead up to it.

Okay. Those of you who have seen Day of the Doctor… allons-y.

The Moffat question

Let me begin by saying that I understand that there are people in the world, some of whom I like and respect, who aren’t crazy about Stephen Moffat. It’s a more controversial issue than I would have expected four years ago when I heard he was taking over. There are those who think he’s better at individual episodes than season arcs.

I admit: his season arcs tend to rely on the same gimmick. Open with something big an inexplicable (the crack, the impossible astronaut, souffle girl), spend the middle of the season wondering how this could be, then end by revealing the puzzle piece that makes it all make sense, and reveals all the bread crumbs along the way. Some people don’t dig this. And to those people, all I can say is that I accept this, I just don’t agree. I mean, his predecessor, Russell T. Davies, also had basically one trick: say “bad wolf” or “Torchwood” or somesuch once per episode then explain why in the two-part finale, more often than not while drowning people in Daleks.

That’s going to be an important point later.

In the end, Stephen Moffat has written nearly all of my favourite episodes, before and after taking over the series. And now that he’s in charge that happens way more often. For me, each season since 2005 has improved on the one before it, and if you don’t agree… I’m sorry you’re not enjoying the show as much as me. There’s really nothing else I can say. Our opinions vary and I’m not going to try to bludgeon you into changing yours. What I’m doing later in this blog is, instead, addressing some of the flaws in specific arguments I’ve been seeing. But first, a bit more background.

The companion issue

Another frequent criticism that turns up about Doctor Who nowadays is how it handles women. An internet comedienne whose work I enjoy used a clever term for it when she called current companion Clara Oswald “a hottie with a body but no plottie.” She’s certainly easy to look at…

Sorry, sorry, lost myself for a second there…

…but doesn’t really have her own story. And yes, in season seven, that’s hard to argue. The nature of Clara’s introductory plotline means that, unfortunately, she doesn’t really get to participate in her own story. That’s a fair cop. Hopefully she’ll have something more extensive next year. But she does fit into a larger companion archetype I’ll be getting to in a minute.

First, though, I’d like to remind everyone of two women Stephen Moffat introduced to the Doctor Who universe: Amy Pond and River Song. Amy Pond’s story is of a woman caught between two lives, two lives that are actively poisonous to each other: a life of running from world to world, experiencing unbelievable wonders and life-threatening terrors with the Doctor; or a simple, human life, home, family, career, and Rory. Yes, fine, these two worlds can be boiled down to the two men in her life if that’s how you’re going to try to spin it, but she is not defined by her men. Rory ultimately becomes part of both worlds, and in any life, Amy is nobody’s accessory. There’s a reason she and Rory are called the Ponds and not the Williamses. And River Song… well. River Song is a key part of a star-crossed love story crossing centuries and galaxies.

The point is, I would argue that Amy and River are just as developed, just as strong, and possess just as much agency as any companion from the Russell Davies era, and probably way more than most companions from the old school.

Because, well, Doctor Who hasn’t always been rigorous about writing its women. You think Clara lacks her own story? Go back to the 80s. Colin Baker years. Check out Peri Brown.

Shown here, demonstrating literally all she contributed in her two years in the Tardis.

The role of the companion in the old times was phrased best in the episode Terror of the Autons: “someone to pass you your test tubes, and to tell you how brilliant you are.” But that’s the 60s, 70s and 80s for you. These days we’re aware that women are real human people in their own right, and more to the point potential viewers, and we’d like the companions to be more than eye candy running around asking “What’s that, Doctor?” And they are. I put it to you that since the 2005 relaunch, companions have served one important recurring purpose.

The Doctor saves the day. The companions save the Doctor.

And not just from Daleks, Sontarans, or the Silence, although they do that as well from time to time. The companions save the Doctor from himself. From what he might become when left to his own devices. Look at this bonus scene, in which Amy learns about past companions. “I can’t see it anymore,” he says. On his own, the universe is just stuff with bits in. With someone, it’s once again a place of wonder. And there are other moments, from Russell Davies onwards:

Rose Tyler, Dalek: “[The Dalek]’s not the one pointing a gun at me… And what are you turning into?”

Donna Noble, Runaway Bride: “I think sometimes you need somebody to stop you.”

Amy Pond, A Town Called Mercy: “This is what happens when you travel alone for too long!”

Rose Tyler saved the Doctor from his guilt and fury over the Time War, helped him grow from the cynical, irritable, traumatized survivor played by Christopher Eccleston to the charming, best-friend-to-all galactic hero that was David Tennant. Martha Jones helped get him past the trauma of losing Rose (Martha was just 10’s rebound girl, and you’re going to say Amy is less dynamic? Get off my lawn). Donna Noble reminded him that even if he can’t save everybody, there is still value in saving somebody. Amy kept him going when the weight of years and his many failures threatened to pull him down (and kept him from killing a star whale). And Clara… Clara pulled him out of a self-imposed exile brought on by one heartbreak too many, and then did the impossible to save him from a thousand thousand deaths at the hands of the Great Intelligence. And she still had a trick left to pull, which I’ll discuss as I finally, 1200 words later, get around to the 50th anniversary.

The Time War

So aside from the general discontent some fans have with Moffat and the “women in Who” issue, the point of contention I’ve seen most often is that Day of the Doctor undoes something that’s been a central part of the series since the relaunch (do remember that phrasing, I’m coming back to it), the idea that the Doctor is the last of the Time Lords. That in order to save all of time and space from becoming collateral damage in the war between the Daleks and the Time Lords, the Doctor killed both sides, wiping out his own race. In The Day of the Doctor, 13 Doctors join forces to alter that moment, to save the Time Lords from destruction by freezing all of Gallifrey in a single moment, frozen in a 3D oil painting, waiting for the Doctor to find a way to restore it.

People then complained that this “erased” a key portion of the series. This article claims that an important element of Doctor Who is grief, and that under Stephen Moffat that has been lost.

And I’m calling bullshit on all of that. All of it.

To explain, I’ll divide the history of Doctor Who into four periods: The Old School or the original series (I’m not versed enough in its history to be able to divide it by showrunner, and that’s not important to my argument); The Wastelands, where Doctor Who was reduced to Big Finish audio dramas and one unfortunate American TV movie; the Davies Era; and the Moffat era. The article claims that Moffat doesn’t really kill as many people as Davies did, and that even when he does, the death gets undone a few episodes later at most. Amy’s parents, Rory, Strax, Jenny, Clara, none of them stay dead.

But I contest the assertion that because none of the main characters die for very long there’s no grief in the Moffat episodes. Losing Amy still rips the Doctor in half. Madame de Pompadour dies young, and dies waiting for her Doctor to return. Losing Rory hurts Amy enough that erasing him from history can’t heal the wound. Vincent Van Gogh still takes his own life. Guest stars still die by the dozen. And the Doctor spends his entire relationship with River knowing and dreading how it ends.

But beyond that is the idea that grief is central to Doctor Who. I disagree. I disagree completely and wholeheartedly. It’s been a big part of his character for the past eight years, sure, but remind me… what anniversary did we just hit? Was it eight? Or was it FIFTY.

Being the last of the Time Lords, having had to kill his own people, is a recent invention. It’s something Russell Davies added. It’s not present in the Old School. There’s no trace of it in the Wastelands. There are eight Doctors and 42 years of stories in which Gallifrey and the Time Lords not only aren’t dead, but are a huge part of the mythos. And yet people like the author of that article say that in opening the door to their return, Stephen Moffat has ruined something vital to the series, and I simply cannot agree with that. But for now, let’s look at it narratively.

What makes this such a major story point is the tragic necessity of the Doctor’s choice. The Doctor was forced to kill his own people because it was the only way to end the Time War and the horrors it unleashed, like the Horde of Travesties, the Nightmare Child, the Could-Have-Been King with his army of Meanwhiles and Never-Weres, and all of the forbidden weapons the Time Lords unleashed in a vain attempt to stop the Daleks. It had to end.

The Time War had to end. Not the Time Lords. Yes, many of the Time Lords had been twisted into something terrible by the horrors of the war, but not all of them. Not the over two billion children. And what makes it worse? At least, in that moment, he thought he was also putting an end to the Daleks. But he didn’t. He really, really didn’t.

See, people also complain about how easily they broke the “time lock” that kept anyone from travelling in or out of the final years of the war. But Moffat wasn’t exactly the first to do that, was he? The time lock has been broken over and over and over again, mostly by the Daleks. One Dalek escaped the Time War in Dalek, only to self-destruct. But the Dalek emperor also escaped the war and rebuilt an entire army of Daleks, only to be wiped out by Bad Wolf Rose. But the Cult of Skaro had also escaped, with an army of Daleks. Their army was sucked into the void between universes and most of the cult was wiped out in a slave revolt, but Dalek Caan escaped, punched through the time lock, and then escaped again with Davros and another Dalek emperor who built yet another Dalek army. Yes, the Doctor clone and Donna wiped them out as well, but one ship survived, found the last progenitor device, and rebuilt the Dalek empire for realsies. And that’s not even mentioning the Master and Rassilon in Out of Time.

So you’re telling me that the Daleks can do all of that, escape their own genocide no less than four times, but the Doctor finding a way to save his own people is ruining something?

Doctor Who is not about grief. Doctor Who is about wonder. It’s about intellect, romance, and hope, children, hope triumphing over brute force and cynicism. On the worst day of his life, the Doctor burned his own world to end a war and wipe out the Daleks, and the Daleks lived. If there was a way, any way, to end the Time War without killing his own people, why shouldn’t he take it?

And that’s what The Moment, the doomsday machine so powerful it became sentient and grew a conscience, tried to offer him. Another way. It has the power to burn a galaxy, but doesn’t want to, so instead it used its power to break the rules of time and open a hole out of the time lock, allowing three incarnations of the Doctor to come together, allowing the War Doctor to see what he would become in the wake of his horrible choice.

And allowing Clara Oswald to remind all of them of who the Doctor is. Of the promise he made in naming himself the Doctor: neither cruel nor cowardly, never give up, never give in.

Wonder, not grief, captured by
Wonder, not grief, captured by

Clara saves the Doctor, so that the Doctor can save Gallifrey, by doing what the Doctor does: something impossible. And something wonderful.

That doesn’t ruin the series. That embraces it. And nothing was changed or erased: the older incarnations forget, and the weight of the horrible decision is left in place, because, as they ask, how many worlds did he save out of that guilt? They simply give him a chance to save his own people. They undo something from the Davies era, an era I remind you represents 10% of Who history, and in the process, they open up the door for the return of a huge portion of the mythos that the Davies era cut out. Romana, his Time Lord companion from the 70s; Time Lord enemies the Master, the Rani, and Rassilon; and dare I hope? Dare I hope against all hope? He may yet fulfill that ancient promise he made to his granddaughter.

I can watch Sons of Anarchy if I want to watch a series of bad things happen to people because of their mistakes. This is Doctor Who. This is a series where anything can happen if you’re clever enough, if you dare to hope enough. Where every impossible choice has a better option if you’re willing to find it.

And if that ruins the show for you? I’m sorry, but we have not been watching the same show. And I think I prefer mine.

Author: danny_g

Danny G, your humble host and blogger, has been working in community theatre since 1996, travelling the globe on and off since 1980, and caring more about nerd stuff than he should since before he can remember. And now he shares all of that with you.

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