(This article has been modified so that its text will not appear on index pages)
So we are now officially less than 30 days from the world 3D premier of the Doctor Who fiftieth anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor. If you go by the buzz in Doctor Who fandom, it is sure to be a huge flop, watched by no one and the final death knell for this dying series, because no one wants to watch rubbish with character development and emotions and girls when they could be watching monsters in rubber suits. If you go by anyone else in the world, it’s probably going to be spectacular.
Of course, for those in the know, the big mystery of this special is the nature of the character introduced in the final scene of May’s season finale, The Name of the Doctor, played by John Hurt, who frequent readers of this blog will remember from his role as “The guy who says the sentence ‘Welcome to the penis farm,’ in Tender Loving Care.” For those who’ve forgotten, or those who are inexplicably reading a blog post about the most recent season of Doctor Who without having actually seen it, Series 7 of Doctor Who ends with the Doctor and his traveling companion Clara lost in some kind of metaphysical wasteland that represents all the days of the Doctor’s life as a result of the two of them jumping into a “time scar” created from the corpse of a future version of the Doctor (Insert “Jumping the Doctor’s Bones” joke here), for reasons which are straightforward but I’m like 250 words in and haven’t actually said anything yet. The Doctor identifies the older man as “Me, but not The Doctor,” briefly explaining that the Hurt character is an element of himself who “broke the promise” implied by his name. Hurt explains that this promise-breaking was done “Without choice, in the name of peace and of sanity,” and while the Doctor does not deny that, his final word on the matter is to declare that this mysterious act was, all the same, “Not in the name of ‘The Doctor’.”
And then, in case your mind wasn’t completely blow, reality itself intervenes.
By which I mean that no sooner has the Matt Smith Doctor declared that the John Hurt character is, by virtue of his promise-breaking, not “The Doctor” than the fourth wall comes suddenly crashing down as the nondiagetic frame of the show’s end credits suddenly intrude into the diagesis of the show, for what I think is the first time in half a century [I will however note here that the opposite has happened twice: in part 4 of 1965’s The Time Meddler, the faces of the TARDIS crew appear over the credits, and in 1982’s Earthshock, the credits play, sans theme music, over a close-up of Adric’s broken badge. We may also wish to note that 1966’s The War Machines and The Tenth Planet both used distinctive typefaces and font effects for their intertitles and credits, reflective of the computerized natures of the respective antagonists], to tell us that this episode is “Introducing John Hurt as The Doctor” — the real world, the one we live in, has just stepped in to rebut The Doctor: John Hurt is The Doctor, whether The Doctor likes it or not.
In his analysis of The Crusade, psychochronographer Philip Sandifer points out that the common understanding of what a cliffhanger is for and how it works almost completely misses the point: we commonly assume that the point of the cliffhanger is to leave the audience wondering for a week whether or not the hero is going to be killed off in the pre-credits sequence of the next episode. Indeed, when 2005’s Aliens of London ended with The Doctor in the throes of electrocution, basement-dwellers across the UK waddled instantly to the internet to post about how the show had been RUINED FOREVER[There are of course legitimate reasons to complain in this case; the teaser ran before the closing credits, giving viewers who wished to avoid “spoilers” no chance to change the channel. This would be changed for subsequent multi-parters. Also, the resolution to this particular cliffhanger was “The Doctor decides to not just stand around and die,” which is a bit disappointing.] since the “Next Time…” teaser clearly showed the Doctor still alive, thus ruining the suspense since we now knew that the Doctor would be in the next episode past the opening scene.
This is clearly ludicrous. The show is called Doctor Who. If you seriously thought that the character named “The Doctor” in a show called “Doctor Who” was going to be Killed Off For Real in the first scene of the second episode of a two-parter in the middle of the season, you are so televisually illiterate that it boggles the mind that you managed to sort out which side of the TV to watch. Of course The Doctor is going to get out of this. Of course the Doctor is going to save the day. And more than that, the solution the Doctor comes up with at the 10 minute mark isn’t going to work; the one he comes up with at the 35 minute mark is. Will the companion die? Possible, but not from being shot by a nameless mook two minutes in. TV doesn’t work that way. The perp who our wisecracking cops have got dead to rights with 20 minutes left in the show didn’t do it. (Insert angry fanboys insisting that I’m totally wrong about this because of Katarina [Sara Kingdom wouldn’t count], or Tasha Yar, or Jesse or Susie, or the third season of SeaQuest, where they indeed did reveal that a random collection of characters whose contracts weren’t renewed had indeed died off-screen as a result of the very straightforward “The boat gets hit by a mine” cliffhanger from the previous season’s finale. They still aren’t going to kill off the Doctor For Reals in the pre-credits sequence).
The power of the cliffhanger is great, but it never did the thing we usually describe it as doing. Doctor Who has long obsessed over cliffhangers. There must be a cliffhanger at the end of every episode in the classic series. This was often a problem: for big event serials, it meant that you basically had to burn half an hour up front, in order that the last scene of episode one could be the shocking, shocking reveal that in a serial entitled “The EvilbadPlot of the Daleks“, the antagonist wasn’t going to be the officious bureaucrat who’s spent the last half hour having the Doctor arrested for trespassing, but will, in fact, be The Daleks [I will however, concede that the cliffhanger for part 1 of Big Finish’s Legend of the Cybermen is the best damned thing ever, because the reveal of who it is that is attempting to conquer the Land of Fiction comes when a ring modulator voice asks the Doctor “PLEASE SIR MAY I HAVE SOME MORE?”]. Or, possibly worse, if you find you’ve written a perfectly fine story where there doesn’t happen to be a particularly tense beat at the 25 minute mark, you end up like the cliffhanger in the middle of Dragonfire, where The Doctor, for no clear reason, decides he really wants out of this story all of a sudden, so, in a calm moment with nothing chasing them or anything, he climbs over a hand rail and intentionally falls off a cliff[In an utterly sublime moment of redeeming the ridiculous, this was one of the clips they selected for the climax of The Name of the Doctor, showing Clara’s various avatars rescuing the Doctor from Simeon’s interference throughout his lives. So yes, that stupid, pointless cliffhanger in 1987? The Great Intelligence. All of a sudden, every stupid, pointless weak cliffhanger can be explained as the interference of one of Simeon’s avatars, while every pat resolution and lucky save can be credited to Clara. Fantastic.].
What I’m getting at here is that our response to a cliffhanger is not to spend a week wondering if our hero will somehow escape. The cliffhanger at the end of the show serves essentially the same purpose as the first scene of an episode of Columbo. We’re not watching to find out whodunnit; we’re watching to find out how Columbo’s going to catch the murderer[Notably, Columbo himself typically knows whodunnit not long after we do. What he spends the bulk of the episode doing is looking for a way to prove what he suspects.]. The typical episode of Columbo begins with a very clever person committing what they think is the perfect crime (Or committing an impulsive crime and then performing the perfect cover-up), and we spend the episode wondering what did we miss? What clue did we — and the murderer — overlook that’s going to be their undoing? Thus it is with Doctor Who cliffhangers — no one in their right mind is going to spend a week biting their nails and wondering “Will the Doctor escape?” No, you spend the week — well okay, you probably just spend the week going about your usual business. But you might from time to time devote a minute or two to anticipation, and when you do, what you’re wondering is how our hero is going to get out of this. What did you miss? (Incidentally, the whole reason I went down this tangent is that I was thinking that Richard E Grant was in an episode of Columbo. As it turns out, I have no idea what I was thinking of.)
It’s a chance for the audience to match wits with the showmakers. Can I figure it out before you reveal the solution? And more, which of us can come up with the better solution? The Everybody Wins [For values of “Everybody” approaching “reasonable people”. I realize that for a sizeable percentage of old-fashioned Doctor Who fans, there can be nothing in the universe worse than someone else proving more clever than they are, so such a scenario will be met not with delight but with six months of grousing about how their solution is really better.] scenario is that I come up with a really clever solution, but the showrunner has something even cleverer. The Bad End[Again, things are backwards if you’re one of those sorts of fans, in which case, this is the best ending, since your goal is not to enjoy a television show, but to prove how much smarter you are than anyone else] is if I come up with something clever, and the showrunner comes up with something stupid. And, of course, there’s that rare magical moments when you’ve actually guessed right, which are a lot of fun, though they don’t actually say anything about whether you or the showrunner is particularly clever, rather, they convey that you’ve both done a good job as this whole “communicating concepts and connections using the medium of television” thing. You’ll get really good at this if you watch enough television.
So it seems like possibly writing a wordy blog post about what I think might happen on The Day could not possibly have any downside for me. I mean, other than scoffing and derision, and possibly looking like a giant idiot. The way I see it, in the unlikely case that I am right in some of my guesses, I will be hailed as an oracle by the twos of people who still read this blog in light of its long hiatus and the fact that hardly anyone ever read my blog to begin with. If my predictions turn out cleverer than reality, I will be hailed as the clever boy who revealed the emperor’s nudity by the fives of old-school fans I’ve spent most of the pop-up asides insulting. If my predictions turn out to be Quite Clever But Not As Clever As The Real Answer, it will serve to bring even greater glory to the cleverness of the proper answers. And there’s this one other way things could play out where my predictions turn out to be not only wrong but also stupid, but let’s face it, me making that kind of mistake is just unpossible.
I don’t have any special inside information about the content of The Day of the Doctor, so nothing I say here should be, strictly, considered a spoiler. All the same, I will reference events from throughout the series history as well as material from advertisements and interviews. And I dunno, maybe some people would consider a wild guess to count as a spoiler if it turns out to be right. So you’ve been warned.
I am he and he is me (And we are all together, goo-ga-joob)
Let’s not mince words here. The big question of The Name of the Doctor‘s cliffhanger is “What’s the deal with John Hurt?” There are other, smaller questions, like “How are the Doctor and Clara going to get out of this?” and “So is everything wrapped up with The Intelligence?” and “How will the Doctor evade his predestined death on Trenzalore?” and “How does this lead into Matt Smith turning into Peter Capaldi?”, and “Is there any chance that an alien will burst out of John Hurt’s chest?” or “What does any of this have to do with the Silence, who were so determined to stop the Doctor making it to Trenzalore that they were willing to blow up the universe?” or “Is there any way we can entice John Hurt into saying ‘Welcome to the penis farm?'” or “What about Scarecrow’s brain?” or “Can’t we get beyond thunderdome?” but those are all secondary concerns. The real question, the one that we really care about is, “
Where do I get the decals with John Hurt’s name on them to correct the obligatory timeline page at the beginning of my copy of the Programme Guide? What does it mean that there’s this old dude we’ve never seen before is The Doctor (or even “Me but not The Doctor”)?”
For the sake of clarity, I will use “The Doctor”, unqualified, to refer to the character of the Doctor in general, and “Matt Smith” (erroneously) to refer specifically to the incarnation thereof played by Matt Smith. And because I’m feeling cheeky, I’m going to refer to the John Hurt character, due to his being explicitly identified as an oath-breaker, as “The Warlock”.
The question of “Who is The Warlock?(To which the answer is “Yes,” because tired old hackneyed “Who”-based puns are practically a sacrament in this fandom)” is, like the TARDIS, bigger on the inside. The overwhelming majority interpretation of fandom is that this question should be interpreted as “In which of the thirteen allotted incarnations of The Doctor did he become The Warlock?” But this interpretation in and of itself makes a big assumption that may not be fully justified: that for him to be “Me” relative to The Doctor, he must slot somewhere into the sequence of bodily regenerations established as being how it is that Time Lords can evade death and shows about Time Lords can evade being cancelled when their leading man leaves. This view, while, I freely admit, is the most likely, overlooks another possibility for what The Warlock could be, one which is fiendishly clever in its complexity: something else.
That is to say, consider what we are actually told. Clara says that she’s seen all the Doctor’s incarnations, but not The Warlock. The Doctor says that the Warlock is “me, but not The Doctor”. John Hurt, in an interview, described himself as playing “A part of The Doctor”. There is actually nothing here that explicitly declares him to be one of the incarnations of The Doctor. The conventional view, that The Warlock is a heretofore unknown incarnation, is accepted not because it has as yet been revealed, but because no one cares to think of another option.
But, you might say, surely there is no other option! There’s only one way for a different actor to be The Doctor, and that’s regeneration! You’re a stupid, illiterate fool for thinking otherwise!
If I might for a moment call our attention back to the pair of serials that bookend the tenure of the well-loved fourth Doctor, Tom Baker. (As an article I read some years ago noted, “If you don’t know who Tom Baker is, close your eyes and think Doctor Who. That’s him.” Unless you thought of David Tennant instead.) Near the climax of 1974’s Planet of the Spiders, the Doctor’s old friend, the Abbot K’anpo Rimpoche, a Time Lord who had retired to become a Buddhist monk, is overcome after helping to protect our heroes from the forces of the titular spiders. To the surprise of Sarah Jane Smith, the abbot’s young apprentice Cho-Je vanishes as the abbot seems to die, and a moment later, K’anpo is reinvigorated as he transforms bodily into the likeness of Cho-Je, and in that form he would reappear at the end of the serial to help the third Doctor, by then dying of radiation poisoning, to trigger his regeneration. They had just introduced the notion that a Time Lord could, under some circumstances, manifest a tangible physical projection of a future incarnation. Many fans would later assume this to be what happens when in 1979’s Destiny of the Daleks, the Time Lady Romanadvatrolundar “tries on” a number of appearances before settling into the form of Lala Ward (Though there are other theories). The concept would be revisited in earnest in 1981’s Logopolis, Tom Baker’s swansong. There, a strange, ethereal being with indistinct features haunted the Doctor and his companions for much of the story, and was taken by the Doctor as a harbinger of great peril. At the end of that story, as his companions looked on in wonder, this strange being, dubbed “The Watcher” physically merged with the gravely injured Doctor, triggering his regeneration into the fifth of his canonical lives. The dialogue about what has happened is surprisingly vague; we are told only “The Watcher; so he was the Doctor all along!”, with no explanation as to how this is possible, how the characters have deduced it, or indeed, what it even means. But both fans and official publications alike interpret this to be another instance of the same phenomenon observed with K’anpo and Cho-Je: The Watcher is a physical prefiguration of the Doctor’s impending regeneration. The Watcher’s indistinct form is taken as a result of the Doctor’s comparatively lesser skill and mental dicipline at such manifiestations, compared to a trained monk, and indeed, the subsequent regeneration is depicted as far more traumatic, requiring considerable recovery time.
Additionally, in 1986’s The Trial of a Time Lord, the Doctor’s nemesis, The Valeyard, is described by The Master as an amalgamation of the darker parts of the Doctor’s character, “somewhere between your twelfth and final incarnation.” This is almost invariably interpreted to mean that The Valeyard is the Doctor’s penultimate incarnation (This is explicitly the case in the official novelization of the story), but it could equally be interpreted as something akin to the Watcher; a projection created by the twelfth Doctor to prefigure his pending regeneration (This view was, indeed, once dominant among fans, but lost favor over time).
Perhaps, then, The Warlock is some kind of Watcher form: a psychic projection created by one of the Doctors, but then somehow curtailed before he could become reality. This would certainly explain how The Warlock could be “Me, but not The Doctor,” and “A part of the Doctor”: he would be in some ways a separate and autonymous entity, in other ways an incomplete extension of The Doctor, and in still other ways a Doctor that “wasn’t”. Indeed, some fans have theorized outright that The Warlock simply is The Valeyard. We could easily enough see how the Doctor’s ultimate victory at his trial (and if one is into the excesses of the Wilderness Years, how the Doctor’s subsequent extreme actions to prevent this Other form of himself from manifesting) might have left that part of the Doctor’s timestream in some kind of Schrodinger’s Cat-like “Both is- and is-not- at the same time” state.
I’ll confess that I do not find this possibility especially compelling. My reasons are largely aesthetic. Michael Jayston is still alive — he even reprised the role for a Big Finish audio in 2003 — and it seems rather a slight that they’d recast him. More to the point, though, The Valeyard is, frankly, crap, and I don’t like the idea of them bringing him back one bit. And more, the whole notion of The Warlock as some kind of rogue or foresaken Watcher seems somehow too easy and also too naval-gazey.
But let’s put the idea of Watchers into our back pocket for a while, because while I’m going to dismiss out of hand the idea that The Warlock is a Watcher himself, we may yet have some other use for the idea.
Even if I dismiss the Warlock-as-Watcher idea, though, I hope I’ve at least proven my basic premise: that there may be a viable option to explain the Warlock as something other than a heretofore undisclosed incarnation. Thus, we must reframe our central question, “Who is the Warlock?” to account for this possibility. I would like to decompose the question into four smaller questions, which I hope to tackle in turn:
- What is the nature of the existential relationship between The Warlock form and the eleven known incarnations of The Doctor?
- Insofar as the Doctor’s life can be arranged into something resembling a line[As opposed to a wibbly-wobbly sort of ball], where does The Warlock fit into it?
- What did The Warlock do (without choice, in the name of peace and of sanity) to break the promise
- How was The Warlock’s “banishment” from the Doctor’s life realized, and what does it entail?
So far, I have acknowledged two possibilities for the first of these questions. Several others occur, but as I’m fast approaching one of the longest posts I’ve done here, that will have to wait for the second part of this series.