Steven Moffat is by turns brilliant and incredibly frustrating. He certainly falls well short of the genius of Russell T Davies. Fortunately, this story was Moffat at his best.
The most exciting bit is the question of continuity. Having seen the mini-episode “Night of the Doctor”, which explains how Paul McGann’s Doctor became John Hurt’s Doctor and set up the backstory for the main event, understanding how the Doctor’s emotional story pans out is big.
We now know beyond doubt that there are more than thirteen incarnations. We see thirteen faces, there’s the issue of the scene where David Tennant regenerates into… David Tennant (making technically fourteen incarnations already). Now, it seems, there are more faces beyond Peter Capaldi that are yet to be met (although, apparently, some are repeat editions – no more spoilers than that!)
The question then becomes, what was the point at which the Doctor’s lives were reset? Doubtless large numbers of fans have their theories already. I also have mine. It seems to me that there are two immediate ideas: the first is that the Watcher in Logopolis was not just a regeneration, but was a whole new set of regenerations. Tom Baker’s dying Doctor says, “It’s the end. But the moment has been prepared for” could mean that it’s the overall end – he’s run out of lives, and only something extra could restore him. The other idea is that the draught served to Paul McGann’s Doctor by the Sisterhood, in “Night of the Doctor”, was the reset. The Doctor is told that he didn’t survive the spaceship crash – what if that means he was out of lives at that stage? The Sisters, needing someone to put an end to the Time War, choose the Doctor and to use him, he has to live again. Thus, a new set of lives are needed. Another idea is that the Tennant-into-Tennant regernation, because of its unusual circumstances, made the reset, although that feels harder to justify. The Doctor retains his appearance by using left-over regeneration energy from the hand severed in his regeneration from Christopher Ecclestone. One might argue that doing that somehow fed a feedback loop that rebooted the entire cycle of thirteen lives.
This question matters, because whichever explanation is true, it means that there were other lives before the one portrayed by William Hartnell. And then we want to know, how many? And, will we ever see them? In the original Brain of Morbius (where, if memory serves, we first met the Sisterhood) there’s a blurred sequence of faces appearing after the Doctor’s known faces, which had counted backwards. Why do we never hear of these lives? Will there be stories that reference them, the way that Night/Day of the Doctor reference the mysterious and unknown “War Doctor” that was John Hurt’s incarnation? How many lives remain until another reboot or resurrection of the Doctor’s regenerations is needed? Is anyone actually counting any more?
The biggest continuity issue this raises is that in Trial of a Time Lord, we are told that the Valeyard is the Doctor himself, “between his twelfth and final lives”. He wants to earn a new set of regenerations or lives by effectively stealing them from his former self, in a trade-off with the Time Lords. In the build-up to Day of the Doctor, I was wondering if John Hurt’s Doctor might be the one who became or had been, the Valeyard and as part of his service, or a reward for his service, in the Time War, he was awarded a new set of lives. It might have tied in to why the Doctor had tried to forget being him, that he’d been willing to make that sort of move. But as it turns out, the involvement of the John Hurt “War Doctor” doesn’t seem to have been in that style at all.
“Last” was often taken as meaning “thirteenth”, but it doesn’t necessarily follow – especially as we now know for sure the Doctor has more than thirteen lives. That the Valeyard wanted extra lives implies he was coming to the end of a cycle of thirteen, though. The question left unanswered is whether the Valeyard was at the end of the current set (in which case, it couldn’t be the Watcher that was the reset, because that reset after the 4th Doctor, and the Valeyard was confronting the 6th), or some future set – meaning that there’s a future Doctor who will be potentially even darker in mindset than the War Doctor, and who turns into the Valeyard.
It also raises the difficulty that the Time Lord Commander on Gallifrey, in Day of the Doctor, remarks “All thirteen of them” – implying that there are no more than thirteen Doctors. Maybe there are only thirteen that the Time Lords know about? In that case, why don’t they know about the earlier ones?
Here, it gets really spoiler-y. Sorry.
That “all thirteen of them!” remark comes as every face of the Doctor (most by the magic of clips taken out of context and pieced together) appears on the Time Lord scanners, and the Doctor’s various selves team up to provide a way out of the jam. The Doctor (Matt Smith, the latest version until Capaldi steps into the role) announces that he’s been working on the problem for all his lives, even though up until this point, only Tennant and Smith (the most recent two) plus Hurt’s “War Doctor” even know what the plan is (and even then, it’s only Smith’s Doctor who comes up with it, having had four hundred extra years to think of a solution). So how did the other Doctors – Hartnell through to McGann, and Ecclestone – know what to do and when? At what point do the “present-time” Doctors (Smith, Tennant, and Hurt) communicate with their former selves?
We’re told that they’ll all forget their meddling in their own timestream – even Matt Smith’s Doctor will, this time, compared to the other multi-Doctor events where the present-day Doctor seems to remember, at least. So how is it possible that he’s been working on it all his lives? How could the Hartnell Doctor remember that he needs to be solving the puzzle? This is also why the “present day” Doctor(s) had to coordinate the past selves.
I’m doing a hand-wavey thing where between coming up with the plan and executing it, there’s a boring bit that wasn’t televised that would have been “Oh, hi past self, you must be my future self, look, here’s what we need to do” repeated ten times (since Capaldi’s Doctor was there, but the Doctor doesn’t remember any of it, that means they must somehow have tracked down their future self as well, or hidden a cunning message for him). And the line about all my lives was just a bit of an exaggeration (the Doctor does that from time to time, it seems).
Fortunately, for Doctor Who, continuity errors aren’t problems, they’re material for future stories. I really want there to be a story eventually, that explains when the reset happens, and one about why we don’t hear about those earlier lives before Hartnell.
[EDIT TO ADD] Oh yeah, I forgot to mention (and this is where it gets really, REALLY spoiler-y) – in “The End of Time” (where Tennant regenerates to Smith), the Time Lords emerge from a pocket universe stasis-y type thing (memory is vague) with the intention of wiping out all of existence. These Time Lords are led by a President calling himself Rassilon (but it’s not obvious to me that it is the Rassilon, revered as the one who made Gallifreyans into Lords of Time, I tend to think it’s a megalomaniac styling himself as the successor to Rassilon). In Day of the Doctor, the Doctors combined shunt Gallifrey into a pocket universe stasis-y type thing (this time, the explanation was a bit vague, not my memory) and let the Daleks’ crossfire wipe each other out (intriguingly, similar to the line-of-sight trick used in “Blink!” to trap the Weeping Angels). The other big question – the one I forgot to mention before hitting “publish” – is whether the Time Lords in The End of Time were the same ones as the ones in Day of the Doctor (they didn’t look the same, but that’s no guide given that they regenerate!) The impression from the Ecclestone series was that the Daleks and Time Lords wiped out each others’ timelines to the extent that neither had ever existed – certainly, in “Dalek” the Doctor is surprised that even one Dalek remained in existence, and the ending of Day of the Doctor doesn’t make it clear why the Daleks would have been wiped out – just the ones attacking Gallifrey. So that was a second question I forgot to mention. Anyway.