So, how did you do? Personally I managed to get through the whole of the week without picking up any spoilers. Well, any new spoilers, but we should probably leave that until later on. If you haven’t seen The Name of the Doctor yet, there will be explicit Spoilers later on, so pay attention and stop reading when we get to the pantomime dame.
I fear that three years’ exposure to Moffat scripts and particularly his brand of season finale (and, by the way, doesn’t it feel weird that this was still technically only the end of Matt Smith’s third season as the Doctor? With all these mid-series breaks, it feels like he’s done four or five) has innoculated me to the majority of his tricks and games, because while The Name of the Doctor was dazzling and breathtaking while I was first watching it, I’m already getting the distinct impression that there was less going on here than met the eye.
That said, judged just on first impressions, Moffat writes a brilliant season finale – much of the time this felt like the 50th Anniversary Special had come six months early. I couldn’t decide which moment in that opening montage stunned me most, seeing a colourised William Hartnell, revisiting that notorious Dragonfire moment, or realising they’d actually found someone else prepared to wear the sixth Doctor’s costume. As usual there were big ideas and potentially format-shifting concepts being casually chucked about, winning reappearances by favourite characters, and some really good jokes.
But, then again, wasn’t it just the Doctor finding himself in some obscure metaphysical bind, with the universe as we know it falling to bits, and sanity being restored only through the Doctor doing something timey-wimey and his friends going to great lengths to preserve him? I’ve seen that in both the previous Moffat series conclusions. It’s all a bit abstract, and – potentially worse – thoroughly Doctor-centric. Perhaps Moffat’s most brilliant achievement is to find a way to sneak what are essentially fanfic stories onto BBC1 on a Saturday night.
That said, you have to admire his legerdemain – for this story to work, it really needs a villain of substance. The fact that the Doctor’s adversary is the famed Great Intelligence gives its presence a heft that goes some way to make up for the fact that we’ve no idea what it fundamentally is, who its new friends are, or how they function together. The fact that the Intelligence was reintroduced half a dozen episodes ago works the trick of concealing how arbitrary its powers on this outing are.
I was all set to criticise this episode for being ridiculously over-hyped in terms of ‘the Doctor’s greatest secret is finally revealed’ and ‘prepare to question everything you thought you knew about the Time Lord’, but of course I was looking the wrong way: the final scene of the episode came as a total surprise, and… oh, look, we’ve reached that cut-off point I was talking about. Spoilers follow the dame.
(The beautiful thing about that photo, is that if you don’t know who it is it’s almost impossible to tell.)
Part of me is quite pleased John Hurt made his debut as… well, is he playing the Doctor or not? Definite mixed messages, but the credits say he is. So let us refer to him as the Lost Doctor. Anyway, I heard that Hurt was coming as the Lost Doctor about ten days ago, the news was all over certain bits of the internet and while I’m slightly annoyed to have had the climax semi-spoiled for me, at least I can now write about the appearance of the Lost Doctor with a clear conscience.
The reaction to the Lost Doctor’s introduction that I read seemed to be almost wholly negative, most of it – unfortunately – on the grounds that ‘another regeneration has been pointlessly wasted’ – I gave my opinion on this sort of thinking a few years ago and don’t really want to go through it again. Criticising Moffat for behaving as if he’s the boss of Doctor Who also strikes me to be missing a small but key fact: namely, that he is the boss of Doctor Who.
My instinctive assumption was that Moffat had written a script for the three 21st century Doctors, and that Hurt was involved only because Christopher Eccleston had declined to take part: he was, basically, filling in for a Doctor unable or unwilling to participate in an anniversary special. Well, if nothing else, a brilliant actor like John Hurt is a better replacement than unused footage from an abandoned story or film inserts making heavy use of idiot boards.
However, having seen how the Lost Doctor has been introduced, I’m not quite so sure he’s just standing in for the ninth Doctor: there seems to be a bigger story involved here, with this being a very distinct and unusual incarnation. The obvious conclusion to jump to – and I wouldn’t be surprised if Moffat were going to wrong-foot the audience again – is that the Lost Doctor comes from the heart of the Time War, between the McGann and Eccleston incarnations. (Funny: it did occur to me ages ago that, prior to The Next Doctor‘s flashback clips, there was no on-screen confirmation that the Eccleston Doctor was McGann’s direct successor.)
The implication seems to be that the Lost Doctor has somehow lost the right to use his own name, due to some terrible crime or other he committed. (Could this be the use of the Moment to destroy Gallifrey and the Dalek fleet?) Who decided this? The other Doctors? If nothing else the suggestion that ‘the Doctor’ is not so much a name or title as a status that can be earned or lost is a curious one – but not totally without precedent.
Yes, I’m thinking of The Brain of Morbius and its bevy of previously-unhinted-at pre-Hartnell incarnations. Did they also lose the right to the title ‘the Doctor’, or did they simply predate the adoption of it? Personally I suspect the latter – thus, when the Time Lords refer to ‘the first Doctor’ in The Three Doctors they really mean ‘the first incarnation of this particular Time Lord to call himself the Doctor’. One consequence of this would be that the eleventh Doctor is actually the nineteenth incarnation overall.
The Thirteen Life Rule dogmatists have probably turned purple and fallen over already, and are doubtless pointing out that Mawdryn Undead not only reasserts the regeneration limit but specifies that the Doctor has only eight left, effectively ruling out any pre-Hartnell incarnations. I concede that The Brain of Morbius and Mawdryn Undead appear to explicitly contradict one another – but then again Mawdryn Undead appears to explicitly contradict most stories from the UNIT era, and not many people seem willing to take its side in that particular tussle.
Anyway, the precise details of the regenerative process are still somewhat shrouded in mystery, and there have been hints that the limit of thirteen is not wholly inflexible. Taking a title instead of a name seems to have been an unusual occurrence amongst Time Lords, and usually the mark of a renegade. Could something so significant have an effect on the regenerative cycle, to the point of resetting it? I am probably either indulging in a wild flight of continuity cop fantasy, or over-thinking, or both.
I am virtually certain that none of the above will be addressed in the 50th Anniversary Special. To be perfectly honest, just the prospect of seeing John Hurt as an (apparently ‘bemused’) incarnation of the Doctor, not to mention the return of the Zygons – and of course David Tennant – has me quite excited anyway. All right, so for me, this series has flopped more often than buzzed – but the potential for greatness is integral to every second of this show. I just hope that potential gets realised as much as it should come November the 23rd.