Wednesday 27 November 2013

Doctor by Doctor (Sidestep 4)

The Missing Link

John Hurt, 2013

The forgotten Doctor. The War Doctor. The Hurt Doctor. The Renegade. The Warrior. Call him what you will, John Hurt is the Doctor. In a bold move, Steven Moffat has inserted a previously unknown incarnation into the Doctor's timeline. It's strangely appropriate that he is, in fact, the ninth incarnation of the Doctor. There have been so many ninth Doctors now that it's getting tough keeping track, and it's ironic that the official ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston, turns out to actually be the tenth. However, to avoid having to renumber the last three Doctors, Hurt's version is destined to be known as the War Doctor, the only one without a number.

It's impossible to overstate how major a coup the casting of John Hurt is. Hurt is probably the most distinguished and respected actor to ever play the Doctor, even when compared to the likes of Eccleston, Cushing and Troughton. There's a hilariously off-the-mark review of The Day of the Doctor on Amazon that suggests he is “best known as the voice of the dragon on Merlin.” a fabulously ignorant comment that overlooks acclaimed roles in Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Elephant Man, Alien, The Naked Civil Servant and I, Claudius. He holds four BAFTAs and two Oscars. Hurt is a big deal, his husky tones instantly recognisable, bringing an immediate air of authority and gravitas to the role of the Doctor. In story terms, he stands in for the elder Doctors of the series' earliest days; a reminder of when the old man looked like an old man.

Maddeningly, there are some fans who actually see this as a waste. Some are angry that Moffat has created a new incarnation of the Doctor, seeing it as shortening the Doctor's lifespan by using up one of his regenerations. Never mind that he will surely come up with a get-out clause or some kind of plot development to give the Doctor more lives – these fans are opposed to that too. Yes, there really are fans of Doctor Who who would rather the series end than go against a decades old continuity point. Others see it as wasting John Hurt, by using him for a single special rather than casting him as the Doctor full time. Quite how they expect this to happen is unclear – a seventy-three-year-old man is not going to sign up for thirteen episodes of action drama made to a punishing schedule, let alone one as in demand and as expensive as John Hurt. Getting him in to play a one-off incarnation is a gift, and we should make the most of it.

The Doctor's ninth incarnation came into existence at the decision of the eighth. At the insistence of the Sisterhood of Karn, long-standing rivals of the Time Lords, the Doctor, after who-knows-how-long watching from the sidelines, to become involved in the Time War that was ravaging the universe. The Doctor demands to made into a warrior, his regeneration specifically tailored to make him into a soldier. The regeneration leaves him young, fresh-faced, tousle-haired – not unlike the younger eighth Doctor. A clever use of footage from Hurt's early career – I am reliably informed it is from The Ghoul, which saw him co-star with Peter Cushing – gives us this incarnation's very beginnings in The Night of the Doctor. “Doctor no more,” mutters this new man, gazing at his new face.

When we catch up with him, centuries have passed. We can surmise that the eighth Doctor lasted for a long while, but that's nothing compared to the Warrior. He appears a good forty years older than in his first moments, which for a Time Lord, must have taken hundreds upon hundreds of years. The War Doctor says he's about four hundred years younger than the eleventh Doctor, aged around 1200. This suggests the War Doctor ends his life at around eight hundred years old, which also, unexpectedly, suggests the ninth Doctor spent a whole century travelling before encountering Rose Tyler. We can't surmise the War Doctor's longevity, however, since the ages given in the new series do not correlate at all with those given in the original run. One possibility is that the Doctor started counting his age over from the beginning of his Warrior incarnation, but this is supposition.

His physical appearance reveals his long life; he is silver-haired, grizzled and, unlike most incarnations, proudly sports a beard. He dresses in a fashion that is mostly practical, as one might expect from a man who spends much of his time in a war zone, but there is still a Doctorish flair to his look. He wears a waistcoat and scarf that bring to mind the clothes of his previous self, but topped with a distressed leather jacket. In fact, it appears to be the same jacket as worn by Eccleston, although even more battered. Eccleston's Doctor swapped his for a less fatigued copy as the series progressed, so perhaps he's bought a few in the same style? Or maybe the jacket regenerated with him! The oldest item he wears is a bandolier, which he took from the body of gunship pilot Cass in the first seconds after his regeneration. It's a clear statement: he's a soldier now.

The new Doctor rejects his title from the off, distancing himself from his other incarnations. Really, though, he's lying to himself. The various incarnations of the Doctor are all versions of the same man. “Same software, different casing.” It was the eighth Doctor who decided to become a warrior, and notably, the ninth, tenth and eleventh Doctors all accept responsibility for their actions in the War. The Doctor doesn't claim not to have fought, or not to have destroyed Gallifrey. Yet he buries the version of himself that actually did the deed, refusing to acknowledge him or even refer to him as the Doctor. It's a twisted sort of rationalisation that lets the Doctor absolve himself of some of the guilt – a sort of “It was me, but it wasn't me,” splitting of hairs.

Perhaps the jettisoning of the name “Doctor” allows the War Doctor to act in ways that he wouldn't normally countenance. He can perform terrible acts in battle, half-justifying them to himself by not being the Doctor while he does it. It isn't clear what title he goes by during the War years, although the majority of others involved seem to continue referring to him as Doctor. He gets quite angry when the interface of the Moment refers to him as such, but as she says, that's the name in his head. The Daleks certainly refer to him as such, but then, “Doctor” has always been a dirty word to them. (It's a mystery why the Dalek info-stamp seen in The Next Doctor doesn't include this incarnation. OK the Doctor never refers to him in his own rundowns, but the Daleks would surely recognise this version more than any other.)

We've seen more of the Time War now than we ever expected to see, but the vast majority of it remains lost, time-locked away. We have only snatches of what happened to the Doctor during those long years of war. References to the Nightmare Child, the Fall of the Cruciform, the Meanwhiles and Never-Weres and the Skaro Degradations all sound ominous, but they tell us little. We've only seen the Doctor fight on the very last day of the War, taking down a squadron of Daleks using his TARDIS like a battering ram, before making off into the wilderness with the Moment, ready to doom Gallifrey. On the surface of it, the Doctor's hatred of this incarnation – of himself – is due to his decision to destroy his own people, but there must surely have been other atrocities during the War. This Doctor already has blood on his hands.

It isn't clear how involved the Doctor was with the House Military. He can demand a gun from an overwhelmed soldier at the Battle of Arcadia, but the General of the War Council refers to him as a lunatic and seems to want nothing to do with him. Knowing the Doctor, he wouldn't have taken to following orders with ease. Whatever he has done, by the last day of the War the guilt is clearly bearing down on him. He is tired, angry and even suicidal, admitting that he has “no desire to survive” his actions with the Moment.

Yet, for all his battle-hardened weariness, he is still the Doctor, and still displays many of the Doctor's perennial traits. He is witty, sarcastic, and compassionate. Encountering his future selves brings out his waspish side, but also reignites a spark of hope and joy. As he observes, his future incarnations seem frightened of being grown up, using childish turns of phrase. Following the War incarnation, the Doctor's regenerations make him progressively younger. It's a further distancing of himself from his wartime past. When he made the final, fateful decision to destroy Gallifrey, he was an old man; by becoming younger and younger physically he is trying to prove he is a different man.

Ultimately, the Doctor comes to realise he cannot win the War. Sick of the carnage, of time and space burning, people dying and being resurrected only to die again, the Doctor returns to Gallifrey on the day of its fall. Gallifrey couldn't hope to repel the Daleks. The War Council was hopelessly lost, the High Council turning to more and more terrifying schemes to ensure their own survival. Ultimately, with the Daleks poised to take Gallifrey and Rassilon ready to destroy all of creation to secure his own life, the Doctor took the Moment, Gallifrey's greatest weapon, and withdrew to the wastes of Outer Gallifrey to activate it. The Doctor activated the Moment, destroying the Time Lords and the Daleks and dooming himself to an eternity of regret.

Except, that isn't how it happened. Not any more. The cornerstone of the new series' backstory has been overturned. The Day of the Doctor saw the Moment, its psychic interface taking the form of the Doctor's own saviour, Rose Tyler, save him from having to make this most appalling decision. A vision of his own future gives him strength and hope, and between three of his personae, he comes up with another option. Perhaps having three Doctors present sparked bigger ideas in their head. Perhaps the eleventh Doctor has had centuries to wonder what he could have done differently. Perhaps all the War Doctor needed was some hope. All thirteen extant incarnations of the Doctor cross their own timelines to assist in shunting Gallifrey into a pocket dimension, at the very moment the Dalek fleet launches its final attack. Gallifrey is hidden, somewhere in space and time, kept in stasis, but safe. The Dalek fleet annihilates itself in its own grotesque attack. Gallifrey is saved, and so is the Doctor.

Sadly, due to the effects of crossing his own timestream (and to maintain the narrative of the last eight years of Doctor Who on television), the War Doctor is unable to retain his memory of the new timeline. For the outside universe, it will look as though Gallifrey was destroyed, and it's the same for the Doctor. All he will remember is taking the Moment with the intention of detonating it, and waking up afterwards in the TARDIS, with Gallifrey gone. Yet the guilt he carries with him through his next three incarnations will make him tougher, stronger, and more compassionate. The loss of Gallifrey inspires the Doctor to fight even harder to do the right thing, across the universe. And from the eleventh Doctor's present, with his memory of the intervention intact, he is vindicated. The War Doctor is, truly, the Doctor – just as he always was.

Entering his TARDIS, the War Doctor immediately begins to regenerate. It's not quite clear why this happens. All we get is a self-referential suggestion that he is “wearing a bit thin.” Certainly, he is an old man, but he has seemed in good health so far. Perhaps the cumulative damage of the War was more extensive than it appeared. Or perhaps it's simply time. In the original timeline, the Doctor activated the Moment, and while he was sentenced to live, we can presume the effect was enough to trigger his regeneration. To maintain the Doctor's personal history, he had to regenerate then, as soon as he stepped back into his own timestream. And, gleefully, he does so, ready to leave his life as a warrior behind, and become a new man again. He burns with energy and regenerates into his tenth incarnation – the so-called ninth Doctor. There's even a glimpse of Eccleston amongst the flames. Appropriately, this undreamed of incarnation has granted the Doctor a new past, and prepared him for a new future.

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