Reflections on the Time War, Doctor Who at 50, and Why the Doctor Will Survive
In the crucible of the Time War, when the Gallifreyan city of Arcadia fell to the Daleks, the Time Lord known as the Doctor lands his TARDIS in a firestorm to announce his intention of ending the centuries-long conflagration. The TARDIS materializes in its iconic police box shape, startling a Gallifreyan soldier retreating from the Daleks. The Doctor (John Hurt) steps from the TARDIS, his shadow projected onto a wall by the flames ravaging Arcadia. In his gravelly baritone, the Doctor says, “Soldier, I’m going to need your gun.” As the Daleks massacre Gallifreyan civilians en masse, the Doctor blasts a message into the concrete wall: “No more.” Their sensors detecting the Doctor, the Daleks halt and shift course, to convene on the Doctor’s location. The Daleks advance and chant—“The Doctor is detected! Seek! Locate! Destroy!”—moments before the TARDIS hurtles through a wall and twirls, rips, through the advancing Daleks.
This scene from Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary special, which aired on 23 November 2013, finally dramatizes a mysterious plotline from Russell T Davies’s 2005 re-launch of the series: the Time War. In the Doctor Who mythos, the Doctor shoulders the devastating burden of ending this war (which threatened to shred the universe itself to tatters) by expunging the combatants (the Daleks and the Time Lords) alike from the fabric of reality. The lingering trauma of this choice has haunted each of the Doctor’s regenerations in the revived Doctor Who: Christopher Eccleston’s 9th Doctor—a regeneration forged in the Time War’s flames—smoldered as he attempted to bury the coals of war in his memory, while David Tennant’s and Matt Smith’s Doctors temper their regret with (for Tennant’s 10th) a fawning fascination with humanity and (for Smith’s 11th) a penchant for zanily gesturing whilst speaking at a breakneck rate. The 50th anniversary pits Tennant’s and Smith’s Doctors against Hurt’s War Doctor, the regeneration held responsible for the genocidal acts that finished the Time War.
In the Whoniverse, as Doctor Who fandom has termed the show’s in-story history, the events of the Time War were allegedly “time locked,” meaning that the war’s history remains forever sealed; as such, even the Doctor and his TARDIS could not re-enter the war’s timeline. But the series has broached the Time War before, most notably during Tennant’s tenure as the Doctor. The 2008 episode “The Stolen Earth” features a Dalek who penetrated the time-locked events and subsequently went insane, while Tennant’s two-episode swansong (2009-2010’s “The End of Time”) featured the Time Lords breaching the time lock to re-integrate war-torn Gallifrey in the universe, at the significant cost of hauling the Daleks back with them.
So, it was inevitable that show-runner and head writer Steven Moffat would risk encountering those twin specters of every franchise—melodramatic solemnity and nostalgic kitsch—by introducing viewers to the Time War in a global simulcast. After all, John Hurt’s War Doctor is a brusque and wry tragic hero, a warrior struggling to save his wit, his soul, and his sensibility in the face of an impossible decision. Likewise, the special featured numerous salutes to the show’s fifty-year run, hazarding a saccharine display of nostalgia. Here are several of the episode’s Easter eggs: the episode’s title sequence is the rippling vortex from the first 1963 series with William Hartnell as the Doctor, immediately followed by the first episode’s opening frames in black and white; the episode’s three Doctors occasionally utter their predecessors’ catchphrases, such as 3rd Doctor Jon Pertwee’s famous “Reverse the polarity”; Tom Baker, the 4th Doctor, has a cameo opposite Smith’s Doctor; and the special concludes with a tableau featuring all the Doctors, including the War Doctor.
But it’s the somberness of Hurt’s Doctor, opposite the spunky demeanors of Tennant and Smith’s Doctors, that balance this celebration on the ledge that Doctor Who has always trod: that perilous ridge between bleak drama and garish camp. This is where the Daily Mail’s Jim Shelley gets it wrong, in a spasmodic and bitter review that misreads Doctor Who as if the programme sought the intensity of, say, period drama Downton Abbey or crime thrillers like Luther and Broadchurch. Shelley pans the special as “neither scary nor funny enough,” “far too zany,” and “delusional”—while praising only the wisdom that Hurt brought to the role.
Shelley’s review smacks of high seriousness, a snobbish concept lifted from eminent Victorian Matthew Arnold’s The Study of Poetry and anachronistically plopped into the twenty-first century. This high seriousness blinds Shelley to what has made Doctor Who thrive for five decades: the belief that seriousness and fun need one another. Part of Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary celebrations, the one-off movie An Adventure in Time and Space dramatizes this melding of somberness and soul in the programme’s dawn. In rehearsing the pilot episode, William Hartnell (David Bradley) grills Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine) about when the TARDIS set will arrive. Hartnell says,
“I need time to plot out the buttons, you see. […] I need to know what they all do. What if I press something to open the doors, and then the next week I use it to blow us all up? […] The children will spot it, you see, if we try and fudge it.”
Hartnell set a trend that the show would follow: Doctor Who is fun, but a fun bound by its own conventions. And this is what makes the show thrive—serious production values that embrace the Whoniverse’s lead, whether a regeneration should lead to the dour demeanor of a Hartnell or a Hurt, or the campiness of Tom Baker’s 15-foot-long scarf or Colin Baker’s Technicolor plaid blazer or Smith’s penchant for donning any fez he encounters.
It was never Daleks nor Time Lords nor Time Wars alone that launched Doctor Who on its fifty-year voyage, but the show’s embrace of its protagonist’s morality, its narrative conventions, and—most importantly—fun for the audience. If the Doctor remains a man who can oscillate between manic energy, the otherworldly reality of the Whoniverse, and his serious promise to be “never cowardly or cruel,” Doctor Who will carry us through time and space for decades more.
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