A Spoilery and Highly Opinionated Review of The Day of the Doctor
Published November 28, 2013 | By Shawna
Before I get to the critical analysis of the ending, which I consider problematic, (although others disagree) let me just take a moment to say ‘Wow!’ Overall I loved it. Actors David Tennant and Matt Smith were in top form, and their characters played off one another well, sometimes arguing, sometimes working in perfect synchronicity. The episode offered a ton of little in-jokes and payoffs for diehard Whovians–we finally find out what happened between the tenth Doctor and Elizabeth I. There was a lovely, convoluted, timey-wimey plot with a healthy dose of Doctor angst revolving around his role in the end of the Time Wars.
Which leads me to the big problem I had with the movie. (and before anyone starts screaming, I’m not negating the achievement of the episode, or the joy and wonder and genuine awesomeness that is Doctor Who.) But a lot of what I loved about the new Who, and what sets in apart from classic Who (which I love for a different set of reasons) is the underlying edginess that comes from a Doctor haunted by his past. He’s still dancing through the universe merrily saving planets and civilizations with a minimum of bloodshed. But now there’s a sense of what he’s capable of if pushed. And there’s a shadow of grief and guilt and loneliness under the happy-go-lucky. Marshmallow fluff with a core of black iron.
Writer me was in awe. Good writing teachers tell you to find the thing that’s worse than death for your protagonist and make him or her face it. To give your protagonist an impossible choice where anything he does, including doing nothing, has unbearable consequences. Setting up opposed-to-violence, every-species-has-a-right-to-live Doctor with a scenario where he has to utterly obliterate the Daleks and his own people, or else let them destroy the universe with the war between them, to make him violate everything essential to his core personality or let billions and billions suffer and die through his inaction– wow. Just, wow. I bow before my masters.
At least, I bowed before my masters before they took a sledgehammer to their own work. Giving the Doctor an easy out, letting him go back and rewrite his own history so he doesn’t have to destroy his own people, feels to me as lame as the ‘it was all just a dream’ device clumsy beginning writers use.
And that’s quite apart from the issue of crossing one’s own timeline. Which has been winked at before, I know. But this isn’t asking the viewer to wink. It’s asking the viewer to put out both eyes with a hot poker. Which I could still forgive in favor of a greater narrative good, but this is not a greater good.
Yes, OK, they tried to salvage it by saying that the ninth and tenth Doctors will still remember having destroyed Gallifrey, even if it now no longer actually happened, but to me it feels hollow. It feels too much like what writing teacher (and NY-Times bestselling author) David Farland cautions against. Victory with little or no real cost. The Doctor no longer had to choose between two horrible outcomes. Now he just gets to pull a happy ending out of a hat like he does in in so many other episodes.
So, still loved the movie/episode. Still glad I went to see it in 3-D. But I felt they missed an opportunity to take it from good to beyond amazing. Imagine the emotional impact if the Doctor, after struggling to change things, after thinking he’d found a way– is again faced with the same dilemma, having to make the choice anew to destroy two species, his own included, in order to save the universe. Chills run down my spine.