The post-War Doctor and character progression [SPOILERS for new-era Doctor Who stories]

In my last post, I wrote about a few of the continuity questions raised by the events of “Day of the Doctor”. While that is always going to appeal to my geeky fanboy side, the questions I started asking with deeper interest, both as a fan and as a writer myself, were the ones about character development and character progression. It’s all very well talking bout how this event or that one affects the events in other stories, but what really matters is how the events affect the emotional significance of the characters’ decisions and behaviour. In this piece, I explore the Doctor’s development post-Time War, and draw a life lesson from it all.

We now know what the dark and tormenting past was that the first season of “New Who” hinted at. We’ve seen the next-but-one and the one-after-that Doctors described as “the man who regrets and the man who forgets”. So what sense can we make of the Ecclestone, Tennant and Smith Doctors’ other stories in the light of these declarations at the triggering switch of The Moment?

War Doctor: “Go back. Go back back to your lives. Go and be the Doctor that I could never be. Make it worthwhile.”

Matt Smith Doctor: “You were the Doctor on the day it wasn’t possible to get it right.”

David Tennant Doctor: “What we do today is not out of fear or hatred. It is done because there is no other way.”

Together: [The promise of the name “The Doctor” was] “Never cruel or cowardly. Never give up, never give in.”

Some stories gain an extra significance knowing that they follow after this big event. Others are more confusing, or even contradictory. Some of them show the Doctor as either cruel or cowardly, as either angry or hateful.

Ecclestone Doctor’s “Empty Child/The Doctor Dances” two-part story, already one of the most poignant and spooky stories, gains still more significance – the Doctor pleading, “Just once, let everybody live” means so much more when you think he’s coming from the moment where he not only has to let everybody die, but has to pull the trigger himself (at least, at that stage in his being, he believes that’s what happened).

But more disturbing is “Dalek”, still featuring Ecclestone as the Doctor. Here, he encounters what he believes is the last surviving Dalek in the universe. His hatred, fear and cruelty are painfully apparent. It is hard to see in these actions the soul tormented by is own decisions, unless we are to believe that the Doctor is projecting his hatred of himself onto the Dalek. Without a doubt, this Doctor is ready and willing to act in hatred, seeking revenge for suffering caused by the Daleks in the Time War. He seems to have fallen well short of the promise he says his name means.

In “The End of the World”, too, the Doctor is willing to stand in judgement, awarding life or death almost on a whim: when the defeated Lady Cassandra pleads for her life (albeit with an imperious, “Moisturise me!”) the Doctor simply tells her it’s time for her to die, and lets her shrivel up. It’s hard to square that decision with the guilt-ridden Doctors immediately before and after him Is it that the action of standing in judgement over two entire species (the Time Lords and the Daleks – his own people as well as his mortal enemies) has, at this stage of his grieving process left him feeling able, even entitled, to stand in judgement over everyone? Evidence of the Doctor perhaps reassessing his character after these types of events might be assumed from the classic line from Matt Smith Doctor in “A Good Man Goes To War”: “Good men don’t need rules. Now is not the time to discover why I have so many.” (It’s intriguing and illuminating that in the light of this that his predecessor, Paul McGann Doctor, is told in “Night of the Doctor” that in his mind, “Doctor” and “Good Man” mean the same thing, and seems to accept this assessment of his mentality.) We’ll come back to “A Good Man Goes To War” later, for more evidence of progression, and of what might have happened in between.

Tennant Doctor also has some challenging moments from the point of view of making sense of his progression. The most dramatic point is one of those “newly poignant” scenes. In “The Fires of Pompeii”, the hellfire and destruction that he saw on Gallifrey, and himself unleashed, must have seemed to be repeating itself in miniature. No wonder he would have despaired, and chosen to believe that he couldn’t save the day. Because if he saves Pompeii, then maybe he could have saved Gallifrey, too? It takes his new and bolshy companion, Donna, to remind him that he might not be able to save everyone, but he can save one family and get away with it. Arguably, this episode and “The Beast Below” (in which Amy Pond reminds Matt Smith Doctor that there’s a more compassionate way, a way in which everyone can be saved, by recalling his values for him) show the best evidence of the Doctor healing – these are the days on which he was able to atone, and get it right where, as the War Doctor, he was unable to.

Where does Tennant Doctor fall short? In “Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks”, he comes very close to giving up, seeming to despair that every time he faces the Daleks, somehow they survive and he “loses everything”. That sentiment makes a lot more sense in the knowledge of how the War Doctor was driven to the decision to use The Moment. But it does sound like falling short of the promise. We can say, however, that in that story he ends up risking everything to foil the Daleks’ plans and thus redeems himself, restoring the promise in the end.

For cruelty and hatred, there are the punishments he metes out to his adversaries in “Human Nature/Family of Blood”, in which the defeated foe muses at the end that the Doctor fled not out of fear for himself, but to protect his enemies from his wrath (see, again, that quote from “A Good Man Goes To War”). When they forced the issue, he created extraordinary “punishment fits the crime” captivity for each villain in the story. Can it be said that these were done, “not out of fear or hatred”? It’s hard to be sure. Maybe that was, actually, the only way to protect others. Was his decision to hide “cowardly”, if he might have forced such punishments sooner? Again, the story doesn’t relate and maybe the only way to trap the baddies was by the stratagem used in that story.

The part where we see the story starting to unravel is towards the end of the Tennant Doctor’s span. In “Stolen Earth/Journey’s End”, yet again the Daleks have survived somehow, and yet again the Doctor seems to lose everything in resolving it. Donna’s brief period as “DoctorDonna” ends with him having to wipe her memory of all her adventures with him. In its own small way, this can be drawn as being like another failure, another day when he couldn’t get it right.

The next four adventures essentially are without a companion – bystanders are recruited into that role instead. What we see emerge, most vividly in “The Waters of Mars” (the penultimate story for Tennant), is a railing against fate, and a determination to use his powers to rewrite history according to his will. Knowing now what the great trauma was in the Time War, and just why he would want to change time and save everyone, reveals perhaps his angry desire to save the Mars Base crew, whom history says should die in order to inspire the next generation of star travellers. At the end, he is thwarted by the actions of the crew, once again denied that bridge back to relieve his own suffering.

The Doctor up to this point seems to have multiple strands of emotional consequence following his encounter with The Moment. On the one hand, there is self-justification (“I couldn’t have done anything else, it was impossible to save them” – e.g. Fires of Pompeii) and on the other hand (made explicit as the War Doctor observes his future selves forcing the humans and Zygons to make a peace treaty), a will or need to prove himself powerful enough not only to save everybody (The Doctor Dances), but to rewrite that original fateful decision (The Waters of Mars). Self-justification also comes in the form of asking, “Did I have the right to stand in judgement?” and then subsequently claiming that right to himself (The End of the World, Family of Blood etc), perhaps arguing he has that right precisely because he has been forced to make those terrible decisions before.

And so we come to the Matt Smith Doctor. These three strands seem still stronger throughout his tenure. If anything, at times he becomes far more of a “Dark Doctor” than we ever see John Hurt’s War Doctor being. It is this Doctor, not the War Doctor, who is told that his name has become synonymous with “warrior” or “battle” on thousands of worlds, even though on so many others it is the word for “healer” (again, A God Man Goes To War). It is this Doctor who had to be reminded of what it means to be The Doctor, on his very first trip with Amy Pond (as mentioned, “The Beast Below”). It is this Doctor who condemns an entire race to oblivion in “The Vampires of Venice”. It is this Doctor who is happy to let those who care about him believe he is dead, in order to escape his past (I forget exactly which episode that was, but looking at the list of titles, probably “The Wedding of River Song”?).

But he knows these strands within himself and despises himself for it. In “Amy’s Choice”, he recognises the true identity of the Dream Lord because, “There’s only one person who hates me that much. Me.” In “A Town Called Mercy” he seems willing to accept it when a war criminal wanted for genocide likens himself to the Doctor. After “Day of the Doctor”, we can perhaps see why the Doctor would have had a hard time refuting the claim after all, in terms of his own self-image.

What, then, is the character development from (pre-)Night of the Doctor through to (post-)Day of the Doctor? How does it all unfold?

McGann Doctor talks about staying out of the Time War and “helping where I can”, he’s tried to be neutral and simply reduce the harm done by the combatants. Finally, the Sisterhood confront him with the dilemma. When told he must fight, the Doctor says he would rather die. They tell him, “You already did. The question is how many millions will you let go with you?” His path to The Moment is already set. He says, “Make me a warrior. I don’t suppose there’s much use for a Doctor any more.”

We never learn what, exactly, the War Doctor did or experienced that was so terrible while he fought the Time War, we are only told that he has been fighting it for a long time before he comes to The Moment. He has finally reached breaking point: “No More!” I had assumed, after his appearance in “The Name of the Doctor” that this “Doctor who broke the promise” had been led down a slippery slope into darkness; Night of the Doctor seems to amplify this, but it has two slippery slopes: first, the gradual despair of neutral McGann Doctor, then the tipping point of “Night of the Doctor”, and then the slide into being a warrior, not a Doctor.

At times, this makes the final decision to use The Moment to destroy Daleks and Time Lords alike, seem if anything less traumatic. Surely it was the slide downwards into “Warrior” – those dreadful things he supposedly saw and did in the name of winning the Time War – that would have haunted him most? Or maybe it’s just those Gallifreyan children that made the difference, in his mind? (After all, it was a weeping child that got him involved in The Beast Below.) It might be argued that “fighting this war” might have meant, “fighting against this war” and that the War Doctor went straight from his regeneration to Arcadia, but a distorted brazen reflection shown a the end of Night of the doctor implies a much younger-looking face. The implication is that the War Doctor has fought for a great many years before finally despairing and turning to The Moment to end it all.

So the War Doctor makes the terrible moral calculus: destroy two entire species because their reckless antagonism was causing the entire universe to be destroyed. Two species wiped out, to save countless billions of other species. As Matt Smith Doctor says, “You were the Doctor on the day it wasn’t possible to get it right.”

But this tired, hurting War Doctor becomes the Ecclestone Doctor. He remembers the drastic measure to which he was driven, but he also remembers the viciousness and cruelty, the great harms done by the Daleks – it was they who drove him to that deed, they are to blame. He is angry, he hates, he fears, he wants them to suffer. But they already burned. Until, in “Dalek”, he meets a surviving one and we see all that come to the surface. In The Doctor Dances, we see the flip side of that – the anguish, the need for some great miracle, that proves that sometimes everybody lives.

From here, the weight of the moral calculus continues to drag the Doctor downwards. As he progresses through two more lives (Tennant and Matt Smith Doctors), his emotions seem to become less focussed and start to colour his relationship with the rest of the cosmos, not just the Daleks. More and more, his companions become not witnesses but anchors, the people who stop him drifting into complete moral relativity and megalomania. They remind him who he is, as Clara does in Day of the Doctor – “You do what you’ve always done. Be a Doctor.” If anything, it seems as though the War Doctor is given the blame by his successors for what they became, rather than for what he did.

But the War Doctor asks Clara, “How many worlds has his regret saved, do you think?” This darker Doctor still burns to put right what he could not, and the War Doctor thinks maybe it’s worth it because it’s a motivation for good (just as the Tom Baker Doctor muses, in “Genesis of the Daleks”, about how the menace of the Daleks motivates so many worlds to creativity and peace, so maybe some good comes of even their evil). As dark as the Doctor becomes, he is still motivated to save people. It is just that he is more willing, it seems, to destroy in order to do so. In Day of the Doctor, it seems as though meeting the War Doctor is what makes the Doctor so determined to make a peace – it reminds him of what he lost in terms of his moral compass, when he used The Moment.

Redemption is the theme for Day of the Doctor – not the transient redemption that has driven the Doctor to “get it right this time” ever since, but actual self-forgiveness for the original act. One way or another, he now feels that he was “good enough”.

As it turns out, it was all a sham. Though War Doctor and Tennant Doctor won’t remember it, it turns out that there was another way, and Matt Smith Doctor may remember what they really did, going forwards (I wasn’t clear on that when I wrote on Saturday, but having re-viewed it, I think maybe he will remember).

– * –

I looked at this from the point of view of tracking the character’s progression. The thing that leaps out at me is that the overall moral of this story is the importance of forgiving oneself in order to be able to make healthy decisions for the future – although War Doctor views the guilt as a good motivation, ultimately it led to many more bad decisions, or at least, dubious and painful ones. The same is true of humans, as well as fictional time-travelling aliens. Trying to fix our own problems by fixing others’ may seem good, but if it’s done for our benefit, not theirs, it neither helps us nor them as much as we would like. Fix ourselves for our own sake. Help others because it is right.

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About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
This entry was posted in Philosophy, Reviews, Writing about writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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