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Nov 24 2013

First (and unenthusiastic) thoughts on ‘The Day of the Doctor’

I was asked a short while back if I’d penned an ‘I hate Steven Moffat’ post of the now-familiar kind. Having seen ‘The Day of the Doctor’, this is it.

I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.

I hated it.

[Major spoilers follow.]

I didn’t hate everything about it. A few aspects of it had me grinning brightly.

  • John Hurt is the Doctor! Now entirely and officially. (How’s the numbering affected by this, incidentally?)
  • Peter Capaldi! (And, to a lesser extent, Christopher Eccleston!)
  • Gemma Redgrave’s face twisting slimily into a Zygon: nightmarish. Good luck sleeping tonight, children. (On top of this, a sterling mention of the Brig.)
  • The Hartnell opening titles, and the I.M. Foreman sign!
  • The round things.
  • ‘I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but at the time, so did the Zygon.’
  • Clara being a teacher (getting much needed character development). More so, Clara on the motorcycle.
  • Eleven. People argue whether Smith or Tennant’s better. As far as I’m concerned, the argument’s over.

Speaking of which, though… things I didn’t like were legion.

  • Ten. I know you probably love him. I don’t. And this episode showed him at his babbling, abrasive worst. The Elizabethan scenes, especially early on, were an enormous weak spot. Oh, and… about that:
  • SO MUCH WASTED TIME. An hour in, I was still waiting for plot developments I cared about. 75 minutes is a long episode, but a painfully short feature film, which apparently was what this aspired to be, cinema showings and all. You do not have time to mess around with screwdrivers, fezzes, rabbits, picnics, helicopters or royal weddings. (Regarding the helicopter in particular, the lampshading ‘Why didn’t you just knock?’ did nothing to aid plausibility. It backfired, in fact.) Clara’s door-opening payoff made me laugh, but not enough to make up for the precious minutes wasted on its set-up, and all this is especially frustrating from a writer singularly skilled at prologues where lots happens rapidly (c.f. ‘The Pandorica Opens‘, ‘The Name of the Doctor‘). To specify what I think was a core problem…
  • TOO MANY PLOTS, only one of which I cared about. Zygons hiding in the National Gallery could have been a strong mid-series episode – the statues scene was inspired, even if it a little too reminiscent of the clock-smashing in ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ – but I struggled to give a damn about it here, especially with all the complicated shapeshifting. I know I can’t have been the only one who found Ten romancing Queen Elizabeth a wholesale come-down after Daleks laying waste to Arcadia. Just because Moffat can spin several plates at once doesn’t mean he should, and in fact this made the whole thing rather joyless in my eyes.
  • I am sick of the overly self-referential nudge-nudge-wink-winking of Moffat’s scripts – the War Doctor bristling about lip-locking being a prime example, on top of the recurrent ‘timey wimey’ lines, which I’ve never found as funny as he seems to think they are. In moderation, this sort of thing is nice. Used as much as it’s used currently, it makes everything feel like a Children in Need sketch. (Remember those ‘Space‘ and ‘Time‘ clips? No? I’m sorry I reminded you.)
  • On the point of lip-locking, I’m no prude, but does anyone else feel the raunch is just over the top now? The Ten/Elizabeth smooching felt out of character even for an exceptionally romantic Doctor, and the ‘compensation’ line was frankly awkward on a teatime family series. (Eleven’s ‘tight skirts’ moment in ‘Nightmare in Silver’, which has ‘Moffat insert’ written all over it, remains the all time low.) Relatedly:
  • Steven Moffat can’t write women. I know this is blunt – I’m sorry – it’s just true.Rose/Bad Wolf/the Moment’s flirting with John Hurt’s Doctor early on was just out of character (see above), even accepting this wasn’t actually Rose (see below). It felt like Billie Piper was reading Irene Adler’s lines from Sherlock… or River Song’s from Doctor Who. Or Amy’s, early on. Or Oswin’s. Or indeed Elizabeth’s in the same episode, who felt (as Ten did, actually) like a panto character. Osgood meanwhile, bespectacled and with a hopeless, geek girl hero-worship crush, was Molly Hooper in a scarf.It’s not that writing women requires some special or distinct approach. Moffat’s women, with the odd exception, are just tropes rather than characters, and often repetitions of the same tropes. His habit of cavalier sexism in dialogue (‘She’s been brainwashed, it all makes sense to her. Plus, she’s a woman… shut up, I’m dying!’) doesn’t help: the ‘prettier sister’ line was just uncomfortable, and Elizabeth’s ‘Men!’ comment cements her status alongside River and Irene in the ‘sexy man-haters to be conquered’ camp. Further, the gags about Ten repeatedly insulting the woman he was seeing simply felt cruel.
  • Switching back to Bad RoMents (I heard it’s a song), why bother casting Billie Piper if not as Rose? I realise this is a rock-and-a-hard-place problem: if we’d had the vintage ’06 Rose-Ten drippery most expected, I’d also be complaining. In fact, I thought the character succeeded, but thanks to Piper’s performance and despite the script. Via the witches in Macbeth and Tina Turner in Mad Max, she gives a great mystery-desert-sorceress, and has more to work with than she ever did as a companion, but her actual casting felt perfunctory.
  • Similarly, and with no need of further verbiage: what the fuck was going on with that 79-year-old-Tom-Baker cameo?
  • The way the Doctors turned on an apparent sixpence from destroying Gallifrey to saving it felt wildly odd. It took nine lives, one death and assurance of the physical cosmos being destroyed for this to happen. One would think the War Doctor had slightly more resolve, having exhausted other options, than to be swayed at this point by a tear from Clara.
  • Likewise, saving Gallifrey should not have been that easy. We’ve been told Time Lords were the inventors of black holes, able to hop lightly between universes and eradicate, if need be, all material existence: it seems just possible that prior to opting for the latter, as The End of Time told us they did (and surely this would be worth mentioning as a decision-making factor?), they’d have considered ways to save their planet – not least ones based on apparently everyday technology. Paintings, for God’s sake. Seriously, no one thought of this?
  • How did those paintings, by the way, even reach Elizabethan England?
  • In more abstract terms, I’m sick of Moffat’s tendency to have his cake and eat it, saving everyone or bringing back the dead, handing the Doctor victories through ‘timey wimey’ paradox on paradox, thinking third options up at every turn. A tradition of the series has been that someone (nearly) always dies, that moral compromises have to be faced and hands are sometimes forced by universal laws.Especially considering how many of its audience are children, this is brave, mature, important storytelling. I liked, for this reason, the comment to Hurt’s Doctor by Tennant’s and Smith’s, ‘You were the Doctor more than anybody else: you were the Doctor on the day it wasn’t possible to get it right.’Like JK Rowling’s Snape, he’s a man whose heroism stems from the courage to take necessary steps with no alternative when others are unwilling. Should there be an alternative, then, provided by the writer? We shouldn’t forget either in all of this that The End of Time made the (inventive) point Time Lord society no longer deserved saving; that war had made it as monstrous as the Dalek enemy. This point was reprised as recently as ‘The Night of the Doctor‘, so it seems odd that it wasn’t in play here. I sensed briefly, wrongly as it turned out, that the Doctors would somehow mitigate Gallifrey’s annihilation – saving its billions of children, perhaps. This still seems more compelling than the contrived, too-easy resolution of the episode.
  • I’d looked forward to seeing the Doctors arrange to meet in a fantastic way, a little like series five’s invitations across time from River to the Doctor. The Christmas Carol style ‘Here’s your future – now make a decision’ gambit? It played as hackneyed and dull, especially only three years after Who adapted Dickens’ plot.
  • I confess I wasn’t living for the stock footage of past Doctors. It convinced in ‘The Name of the Doctor’, where it was used creatively. It didn’t here. (Why, more to the point and excellent though it was, were all thirteen Doctors involved in saving Gallifrey? How did they know about this plan? And if they all remember doing it, why does the War Doctor – body number nine – still try to use the Moment, embarking on a plan his past selves all averted?)
  • It seemed very strange to show a single planetary battle as the decider of the War, conflicting with what I felt previous dialogue implied. I’d always imagined a conflict spanning all of time and space, not just isolated physical battlegrounds, like Enterprise‘s Temporal Cold War but better and less cold. (‘Ten million ships’, the Ninth Doctor told us in Dalek, burned – a bit many even for Gallifrey, surely?)
  • Especially with all those people dying nearby, what did the War Doctor hope to achieve by writing ‘NO MORE’ on a wall in gunfire?
  • Why regenerate John Hurt at the episode’s conclusion? I’d hoped, especially after his arc this story, that the character might turn up again. He might still, I suppose, snatched from between his birth and this episode, but that bitter early self is less interesting than one reconciled to being the Doctor. On the off-chance Eccleston ever did say yes to coming back, it’d be nice too to have had Hurt on hold for a regeneration proper.
  • Also, ‘wearing a bit thin’?! Time Lords don’t just spontaneously die. (Fine, William Hartnell did. But he regenerated his bloody costume.) And how exactly wasn’t he wearing thin during the Last Great Time War?

These are only my initial thoughts, of course. On repeat viewings, they might change – and I’ll certainly be rewatching. Come to think of it…

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23 comments

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  1. 1
    carlie

    YES, I’m glad I’m not the only one who wasn’t really happy with it. On the whole, it was serviceable as a holiday special neat romp kind of episode, not the huge big important weighty thing we were marketed.

    I liked, for this reason, the comment to Hurt’s Doctor by Tennant’s and Smith’s, ’You were the Doctor more than anybody else: you were the Doctor on the day it wasn’t possible to get it right.’ “

    I thought right then oh, they’re going for real character development with the Doctor, he’s going to struggle with it and come to terms with himself and start to heal from the immense guilt…. oh, nope, he’s just going to be clever again. Got it. And only on the advice of Clara, the end all and be all of the Doctor these days. And that kiss she gave him was creepy – they’re getting far too romantic-y with the two of them given that he’s just had his wife die on him.. well, sort of.

  2. 2
    mordred

    Yeah, me too. Both the people I watched the episode and most commentators on the web seem to be absurdly happy with the story. I actually enjoyed most of it, unlike Alex it seems, (okay, I could have lived without the Zygons…) but the end ruined it for me. One point I always liked about DW was that it’s hero wasn’t really one. All the Doctors had their darker aspects, in the new series this was mostly realized by the memory of the time war and I anticipated to see more of the Doctor’s dark side with John Hurt’s version. As carlie wrote, the moment they found a way out of what was shaped up to be a great piece of character development, it all fell apart for me. Now it’s fluffy bunnies and rainbows all around.

    And in the future we might see the Time Lords again. I had about enough of them by the Invasion of Time…

  3. 3
    Alex Gabriel

    On repeated viewing, I don’t think I stand by all by above objections, but I do stand by most of them.

    @mordred (#2): I don’t actually have a problem with bringing back Gallifrey, in principle. I wanted that to happen in The End of Time. It’s just that if you’re going to do something as emotionally and logistically momentous as that, you need to do it with appropriate heavy lifting, not in the last 20 minutes of a largely-unrelated story.

  4. 4
    mordred

    I’ll probably watch the episode again this evening, maybe I’ll see it a bit different after that.

    @Alex (#3): While I agree to disagree with you on the Time Lord’s return in principle, I absolutely agree with you about the way it was handled.

    This might actually have mad a decent story arc, a season or two of hints and the Doctor finally realizing that Galifrey is not lost and he got a chance to bring his people back, Would still not have made me happy about their return but could have been the basis for a some good stories.

    Thinking about all that Time Lords being back made me realize what mostly bugged me about the ending of DotD:

    Where will the series be going from here? The big black spot in the Doctor’s past has been erased, the Time Lords might be back some day – what will the future writers do with that basis? There is the chance to make the Doctor into an shiny hero at this point. I hope they don’t take it.

    Also: What was that about the Doctor know having a goal for his travels, to find a way home? For me that really clashed with the way I always saw the Doctor.

  5. 5
    pentatomid

    I agree completely.. This, especially, was something I felt pretty much immediately upon watching the episode:

    It seemed very strange to show a single planetary battle as the decider of the War, conflicting with what I felt previous dialogue implied. I’d always imagined a conflict spanning all of time and space, not just isolated physical battlegrounds, like Enterprise‘s Temporal Cold War but better and less cold. (‘Ten million ships’, the Ninth Doctor told us in Dalek, burned – a bit many even for Gallifrey, surely?)

    As for Moffat’s inability to write women. Yeah, that much has been painfully obvious ever since Irene Adler…

  6. 6
    pentatomid

    I disagree with you on one thing though… Ten beats eleven any day.

  7. 7
    carlie

    Watching The five-ish Doctors reboot made a lot of the pain go away.

  8. 8
    Alex Gabriel

    @carlie (#7)

    Yes!

  9. 9
    Christoph Burschka

    Regarding the helicopter in particular, the lampshading ’Why didn’t you just knock?’ did nothing to aid plausibility. It backfired, in fact.

    That scene was one perfect example of How 3D Ruins Everything. It served no other purpose than to show off with an aerial shot right in the beginning. (I’ll admit it looked pretty cool in 3D, though.)

    This might be paranoid, but I’d also consider the idea of holographic Time Lord art as the story pandering to the effects.

  10. 10
    Gregory in Seattle

    I don’t have high expectations for the second serial to begin with, so I rather enjoyed The Day of the Doctor. Then I read your analysis. All of the flaws you helped me see cannot now be unseen. Thanks a lot.

  11. 11
    Trebuchet

    It was ok. Even pretty good. But not as good as The End of Time, which we watched just afterwards.

    Regarding the regneration of the War Doctor, he had to regenerate into number 9, Eccleston. Who should have been in it.

  12. 12
    Leo Buzalsky

    One would think the War Doctor had slightly more resolve, having exhausted other options, than to be swayed at this point by a tear from Clara.

    Gonna have to disagree here. I was thinking this morning about the episode “Left Turn,” with the parallel universe where Donna Noble is not around to snap the Doctor out of his fit of rage at the Racnoss and ends up dying. Actually, that even led me back to read up on “The Runway Bride” and was reminded that Donna tells the Doctor that he should not travel alone. Those episodes, I would think, establish an idea that the Doctor (or at least the Tenth…now Eleventh?) needs a companion to save him from himself.

  13. 13
    CaitieCat, getaway driver

    Just saw it this morning.

    Yeah, I’m pretty much over the Moff now. I think it was Clara on the motorcycle that did it. I felt like, “Oh, Moff thinks that Manic Pixie Dream Girls are cuter when they’re waifishly butch on a bike!” I should have known from “Let’s Kill Hitler”.

    And they had to stick in another sonic screwdriver=penis moment, which wasn’t funny the first time 11 did it, and has not aged well. Just…no. We don’t need any of this Earth-thing called “toxic masculinity”, kthxbye.

    Bleh.

  14. 14
    Alex Gabriel

    @Leo Buzalsky (#12)

    Agreed – my point is just that it should have taken more effort in this case.

    @CaitieCat (#13)

    Good point about reprising the ‘companion on a motorbike’ trope. I must say I liked it on Clara, though. Not sure why – perhaps there was just an air of the 60s there which chimed well with Coleman’s portrayal?

  15. 15
    cpps

    I must disagree on one point. I don’t think this movie can be taken as evidence that the 11th doctor is more awesome than the 10th even though, and I say this as someone who thinks that the 10th is vastly superior to the 11th, 11 was clearly more awesome in the movie. The problem is that Tennant’s Doctor is defined largely by his interesting and complicated relationships with his companions. Moffat’s inability to write women therefore also becomes an inability to write a decent 10th Doctor. It just comes out as awkward snogging with a woman he appears to have no real connection with but nonetheless marries because Moffat finds it funny to drag out the shrewish wife trope.

  16. 16
    Darkling

    I watched the Day of the Dr and although I enjoyed it, I did feel unsettled and having read your review I agree with a lot of the points you make. I guess the stand out for me is how easy it seemed to be for him to save Gallifray. I wonder/hope that this become s a plot point for the next series.In the DotD he’s communicating with a general who seems to be conducting the defence and this general although sceptical about the madmen agrees to this plan. In the End of Time. It was the President and the council who were preparing the “ultimate sanction”. None of whom we saw. The fate of the master and the president were left unresolved and we’ve not seen any of them since.

    So (wishful thinking cap on) what effect will bringing Gallifray back have? I think that there is an interesting direction to go from here. In some ways what we have here is a point where the Doc has grown up a little.. Prior to this point it, he’s been running from home. However now with the time war he come to realise what he’s lost. Still, the question is, has he brought back his home or something that looks like it from a distance, but has changed.

    During the End of Time the point was made that the war had changed his people. So what has he brought back? By saving the innocents, has he brought back something as bad or worse than the Daleks?

  17. 17
    miles

    Okay as somebody who hasn’t watched Doctor Who since the 80s (when I wasn’t even a teenager yet), I started reading this and my brain turned to gelatin. I’m very tempted to try and get into it – but it’s a show that has been on FOREVER(ish).

    I loved Torchwood, and as I understand that’s a spinoff of a sort (I assume due to Harkness’ references to “the doctor”)

    I’ve got netflix and I swear I saw it there – where should I start or will I be lost jumping in this late?

  18. 18
    Alex Gabriel

    @miles (#17)

    Various potential points of entry, depending how completist you are, include:

    Doctor Who[: the Movie] (1996).
    ‘Rose’ (series 1, episode 1 – 2005).
    ‘Smith and Jones’ (series 3, episode 1 – 2007).
    ‘The Eleventh Hour’ (series 5, episode 1 – 2010).

  19. 19
    miles

    Netflix says it has episodes for Dr. Who running from 1964-1989 and 2005-2011.

    Guess I’ll start with 2005! Thanks, I think i might be over my jumpkneedeepintoashowthat’sbeenrunningforeverphobia.

  20. 20
    Callinectes

    Does anyone else remember the Valeyard? He was one of the sixth Doctor’s villains who tried to steal his remaining regenerations. It turned out to be the physical manifestation of the Doctor’s dark side that was produced during his twelfth regeneration. I wonder if we’ll be seeing him? Richard E. Grant mentioned him by name at the end of the series, and the Dream Lord could well be his incipient form.

  21. 21
    Shatterface

    Moffat can’t write women – unlike Davies who though a woman being brought back to life as a concrete sex-toy for Marc Warren is inspirational.

  22. 22
    cpps

    @21 Yeah, that episode was pretty horrific in that respect. I don’t think anyone is saying that Davies is consistently awesome, only that Moffat is consistently rubbish. If he ever manages to write a companion who isn’t a manic pixie I will be over the moon with joy. I’m not holding my breath though.

  23. 23
    pentatomid

    Shatterface @21,

    Noone is saying Davies was infallible, but at least his companions were pretty well rounded characters (eg. Rose and Donna) and not mindless moffatomatons. Moffat has screwed up on pretty much every female character he’s ever written (in the whoniverse or in other fiction).

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