‘This is the Battle of Demon’s Run. The Doctor’s darkest hour. He’ll rise higher than ever before and then fall so much further.’ I really disliked this when it broadcast. Moffat keeps coming back to the idea of whether the Doctor is a good man: ‘Good men don’t need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many.’ Fresh from having killed Flesh-Amy to prove a point he massacres a fleet of Cybermen then puts together a hit squad to raid Demon’s Run and rescue Human-Amy and her new baby. All because he’s very, very angry.
At the time, when this looked like it was leading somewhere, maybe that worked for people. The idea of a healer becoming a warrior, another Moffat keeps returning to, is illustrated both by Rory the nurse becoming a Centurion and, inversely, Strax the soldier becoming a battlefield medic. At the end of the episode, River suggests the Doctor’s path has led him to this point, ‘The man who can turn an army around at the mention of his name. “Doctor.” The word for healer and wise man throughout the universe. We get that word from you, you know. But if you carry on the way you are, what might that word come to mean?’ All very Time Lord Victorious.
But has the Doctor really been heading down this dark path for a while? It’s hard to square this episode with the jolly high jinks of the pirate episodes, or the fantasy of The Doctor’s Wife. The eleventh Doctor’s hubris has been evidenced more in a casual attitude towards cause and effect and the laws of time than inexorable progress towards becoming a warlord. Perhaps it’s supposed to be a longer game, the butcher of millions who ended the Time War is still in there, somewhere, I suppose. But The Doctor’s Wife aside, the Time War hasn’t really hung very heavily over this incarnation, ‘the man who forgets’. So, what exactly is this supposed to be the end of?
is it supposed to be the telos of the Doctor Moffat wrote in The Eleventh Hour, an episode explicitly mentioned by “the fat one” and “the thin one” (yuck)? ‘He once chased the Atraxi off a planet, then called them back for a scolding.’ The Doctor who scared off the alien spaceships over Stonehenge and instigated the genocide of the Silence. But the eleventh Doctor hasn’t largely been like that. He hews to Gareth Roberts’ vision of a scatterbrained improviser, not a notional Doctor of War who strides through his adventures like Daniel Craig in a slo-mo trailer. I suppose that version is in the mix, but even here, ‘the Doctor’s darkest hour’ when ‘he’ll rise higher than ever before and then fall so much further’ it’s hard to really discern in Smith’s performance the hubris and nemesis the script is determined to communicate.
It’s not that Smith isn’t capable of that – as seen in his role as Daemon Targaryen in House of the Dragon. It’s just that the character he’s defined over the past 18 months is, like the seventh Doctor, a modern spin on Troughton’s cosmic hobo. So, doing this story before a darker turn has been established is like if Cornell had tried to do the New Adventure Love and War after the end of Season 24.
But even so, this might have been possible if the scripts this series had shown us that the future Doctor killed at Lake Silencio was a shadier, battle-hardened version locked in an endless war – like Lawrence Miles did in Alien Bodies (a story that seems to have significantly influenced Moffat). Instead, he’s just the same but 200 years older.
And as well as failing to clarify which Doctor Kovarian is fighting, the script is equally vague about the Doctor’s enemies. What has Madam Kovarian got to do with the Silence? What is this war all about? So much relies on an outcome that many viewers found wanting – an outcome we still don’t even really understand (we know the Doctor died in a terrible final battle on Trenzalore, but even that’s a muddle when we get to it). So, we’re left with a script that on the one hand presents a Doctor so feared that Madam Kovarian and her allies have gone to war to stop him (River seems to imply, with some justification), and on the other still wants us to see the Doctor as ‘beautifully unaware that he’s a hero’, battling the evil eyepatch lady and saving Melody.
It’s a shame this is such a mess because it’s full of great moments: the panel slicing shut, implying the Fat One’s decapitation. The spooky Headless Monks and their ‘attack prayer’. The origin of the Time Lords (the energy of the untampered schism, apparently). The Doctor says, ‘Hello’ to River just like Idris said hello to him. I like the Doctor getting a team together from across time and space, and the future Paternoster Gang are immediately a fun trio. The ominous scenes of Vastra and Dorium working out that they’re caught in a trap are brilliant.
But this is all crammed into a story built around taking the mick out of a JNT catchphrase: Rory and Amy’s hanky-panky in the TARDIS (at least Gaiman just borrowed one of JNT’s joke story titles), and which relies on an earlier, largely discarded vision / ill-defined future version of the eleventh Doctor to make sense. In 2011, this is the point Doctor Who came perilously close to jumping the shark for me. I feel the same in 2022.
Dr Who will return in Let’s Kill Hitler
Next Time: The New World