Years ago, a little more than a decade now, EB Games put me and thirty-odd other managers through a pilot management training program. Our instructor was a man by the name of Harry Friedman. He had created a sales management training program, and EB wanted to see if it would work for the company. I remember something he said in one of the seminars, and it’s stuck with me all these years. He was talking about hiring employees, but I realized that what he said applied just as well to creative endeavors:
You can polish crap, but at the end of the day it’s still crap.
That piece of wisdom came back to me as I was walking down Baltimore Street yesterday afternoon. The Baltimore Science Fiction Society was holding a screening of “The Day of the Doctor,” the Doctor Who 50th-anniversary special, and I’d gone. I took the train in from Hunt Valley, then caught a bus, which though it was the right bus went out of service far from my destination, and then I walked the remaining distance, probably twenty-five blocks, because it was easier. Upon leaving, I decided not to fool with the busses at all, and I walked straight into downtown and picked up the light rail there. That left me a great deal of time, alone with my thoughts, to reflect on “The Day of the Doctor.” And that brought me back to, “You can polish crap, but at the end of the day it’s still crap.”
In the moment, I loved it. When I thought about it, I didn’t.
There’s something about Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who that makes it well suited to a communal experience — I’ve experienced that twice in my life now, the first time at the “Asylum of the Daleks” screening in New York — but that wasn’t why I loved it in the moment. It hit all sorts of fun buttons and ran off an hit more fun buttons before I could stop an think about the buttons it had just hit. And the crowd, who was giving emotional feedback as things were unfolding on screen, reinforced the feeling of fun.
Then, as I walked into the city and the sun fell behind the skyscrapers downtown, I started to think about what I’d seen. Some of it I liked. Some of it I thought was really clever. And some of it didn’t make any sense at all. I was forced, once again, to confront the reality that, like Brannon Braga’s Star Trek: Voyager work, Steven Moffat writes popcorn that is best consumed with the brain turned off.
The cleverest thing about “The Day of the Doctor,” the thing I think Moffat deserves great credit for, is the way he wrote the RTD era, not by rewriting the text but by rewriting the assumptions that underlay that text. We’ve known for eight years that the Doctor ended the Time War, that he used the Moment and locked Gallifrey in a Time Lock, and he destroyed both the Time Lords and the invading Daleks. What we learned yesterday is that that’s not precisely true. The Doctor had the Moment, the Doctor intended to use it, but he found a different and very unexpected solution, one that produced the result that the Doctor has believed to be true for 400 years, but wasn’t what actually happened. The Doctor is at last absolved of the guilt he has carried for centuries (and that has overhung Doctor Who since its return in 2005) for that final, genocidal act against his own people because he saved them, essentially, in the Bottle City of Kandor. In true Marvel Comics fashion, “Everything you thought you knew about the RTD-era was wrong!”
Not quite as clever, but still very interesting, was the role that Billie Piper played. Piper, as I imagine everyone knows, was Rose in the first two seasons of the relaunched Doctor Who, and she was an integral part of the series’ success. Russell T. Davies realized, rightly, that television audiences in the 21st-century needed more out of an audience identification character than Doctor Who had done in the original run of the series, and thus she was a fully realized character in her own right, and the stories had as much to do with her as they did with the Doctor. The Piper that appeared in “The Day of the Doctor” was not Rose. The promo pictures for the special showed Piper in tattered clothing, suggesting a post-apocalyptic setting. For some reason, I thought she might be an avatar of Bad Wolf, the temporal energy that possessed Rose at the climax of the first season in “The Parting of the Ways.” I’m a little muddled about who she was; she’s the sentient interface of the Moment (the ultimate Gallifreyan weapon), but John Hurt’s Doctor also calls her Bad Wolf. Perhaps she was both — time itself as a weapon. She plays an intriguing role in the story, conscience and muse to a Doctor who has seen great horrors, even participated in them, who has had enough and wants to end it. And she gives him the gift of seeing who he will become if he goes through with his plan, and he gets to see how his own conscience will weigh upon him. She is, in a way, the Ghost of Christmas Past.
The thing I was most intrigued by was John Hurt’s Doctor. We learned at the end of “The Name of the Doctor” that the Doctor had an incarnation who was unworthy of the name “the Doctor.” “What I did, I did without choice, in the name of peace and sanity,” he told the eleventh Doctor in the dreamscape of his timeline, who retorted “But not in the name of the Doctor.” We learned recently in “The Night of the Doctor” that Hurt’s Doctor was the successor to Paul McGann’s Doctor and the Doctor who fought the Time War. Now, in “The Day of the Doctor,” we saw that Hurt’s Doctor desired to end the war — and himself — after centuries of life. I’ve long wanted to see John Hurt as the Doctor, so the revelation that he would be a heretofore unknown incarnation of the Doctor was a delight. I was curious to see how the episode would deal with a Doctor who had been forced by circumstance to do dark things “not in the name of the Doctor.” I don’t know that “The Day of the Doctor” entirely succeeded there. Oh, Hurt was a delight (and I imagine that he was the Doctor’s Merlin incarnation), but I didn’t feel that he was any darker than any previous Doctor. For that matter, I’m not sure why Hurt was strictly necessary as a forgotten incarnation of the Doctor; the role could have been filled with McGann or Christopher Eccleston. There’s always been a bastard lurking beneath the Doctor’s surface, and I wanted to see a Doctor who had had centuries of being an unremitting bastard and what that would do to him. What we got was a tired Doctor who hadn’t yet done the thing that his successors had blamed him for and made him unworthy of the name “Doctor.” In that sense, Hurt’s Doctor didn’t quite work. In retrospect, Hurt’s appearance feels very much like an excuse for stunt casting a name actor as the Doctor.
Another Doctor that didn’t quite work for me, though for different reasons, was David Tennant. At the beginning of the year, when it wasn’t clear who was going to be in the fiftieth anniversary special, I remember some friends making impassioned arguments why Tennant shouldn’t be involved. I don’t remember the arguments posed, alas, but I remember my response. I did want to see Tennant return, because he would have to play a new facet to his character. For once, Tennant’s Doctor wouldn’t be the smartest, cleverest man in the room because there would be a Doctor who knew more, experienced more, lived longer, and, most importantly, remembered this. We would see a new side to Tennant’s Doctor as, for once, he was in someone else’s adventure. We didn’t get that. What we did get was a character who had no narrative purpose at all except to get the MacGuffin plot going. Don’t get me wrong, Tennant had a lovely rapport with Matt Smith and I was thrilled to see it, but there wasn’t a scene where I felt Tennant was essential. Again, I thought there was going to be a payoff when, in the shack, he hears Hurt say “Bad Wolf” and he would have second thoughts about the plan that Hurt and Smith were coming up with, that he might believe this was a trick, but no, there’s no payoff to Tennant’s appearance at all. Tennant’s Doctor was superfluous to needs. The story would have functioned without him with minimal rewriting.
As for the MacGuffin, that would be the Zygon plot. In the 1560s, the Zygons have impersonated Queen Elizabeth I and have some sort of secret lair beneath the Tower of London. In the 2020s, paintings that aren’t actually paintings explode in the National Portrait Gallery, and from those paintings emerge Zygons. The whole purpose of this plot is to introduce the concept of the stasis paintings and to bring Smith and Tennant together, but once that is done Moffat loses complete interest in the Zygons. Was their lair destroyed in the 1560s? Were they definitively stopped in the 2020s? We have no idea. There was a point, when the Tennant and Smith Doctors have tricked the humans and Zygons into negotiating a peace treaty that I had an “Oh, damn!” moment — neither knew who was human and who was Zygon in human form, so when the Zygon handed her human counterpart the inhaler she needed two of the people in the room knew who they really were — but there was no payoff to that. This is a typical Moffat problem; he sets up a Plot MacGuffin, and then dispenses with it when it no longer serves his purpose.
The climax is puzzling. On the one hand, it suggests that the Doctor has always known that the Time War would happen as all thirteen Doctors — William Hartnell to Peter Capaldi — arrive to save Gallifrey. At some point during Hartnell’s time, he began a calculation in the TARDIS that didn’t complete until Smith’s or Capaldi’s incarnations, a calcuation that would place Gallifrey within a Zygon stasis painting. On the other hand, it states that the two past Doctors most involved, Hurt and Tennant, won’t remember (Hurt, because he regenerates immemdiately into Eccleston) or will remember only fuzzily (Tennant, because we see that Smith does fuzzily remember some of this). At least Hurt’s Doctor regenerated, absolved of the guilt of what he was about to do, no longer the mass-murderer of billions of innocents as he had planned, yet for four hundred years three Doctors will continue to think of themselves as the nightmare that never happened.
In the moment, all of those things that bother me now worked. I enjoyed seeing Tennant slip back into his Converse trainers and make ridiculously over-the-top and overly dramatic speeches. I was moved by John Hurt’s plight, especially when the Moment brought the tenth and eleventh Doctors to the shack as he was about to press the Big Red Button and end it all and they weren’t about to let him do it alone. In private, I might’ve squealed as past and future Doctors rushed to Gallifrey’s rescue or when the Curator (who, by the way, appears in Amelia Williams’ novel Summer Falls) appeared at the end to discuss the painting known variously as “No More” or “Gallifrey Falls” with Smith’s Doctor.
By the way, the Curator? I think he’s exactly who he appeared to be on screen. I don’t know how. I don’t care how. Magic suffices.
It’s in retrospect, when I don’t need to keep up with the story’s forward momentum and can think about what it’s doing and why, that I begin to dislike “The Day of the Doctor.” It was pretty to look at, generally well-made, and very much less than the sum of its parts. Maybe it’s not polished crap. Maybe it’s just a flawed piece of work. It wasn’t very deep, it wasn’t quite an anniversary special — it was the culmination of the last eight years, not the last fifty — but in the moment “The Day of the Doctor” was fun. It was popcorn.
And in the right time and place, popcorn sufficed.