I’m sure it doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone that The Day of the Doctor is my favorite episode from the Matt Smith era. Frankly, this episode is my favorite episode of Nuwho thus far. For me, The Day of the Doctor typifies the very best of Doctor: it has genuinely funny bits, it has a weird looking alien that I’m sure children will try to imitate and because it is the 50th anniversary special it has a bunch of little Easter eggs that hark back to the earlier era of Doctor Who. It is no wonder that this episode has been described as “a love letter to fans.” However, the episode also deals with a pretty dark chapter in the Doctor’s life, the day he committed double genocide and killed not only the Daleks but also annihilated his own planet.
Since the show came back the Doctor’s role in ending the Time War has always been in the background. As viewers we knew that he performed such an action, and in some episodes we can see how his role in the war has shaped him, noticeably through his anger and self-hatred, but at the same time, it has never been the central aspect of his character or the focal point of an episode. As a result, as audience members we consciously and intellectually knew that the Doctor killed the Daleks and destroyed Gallifrey but we didn’t need to fully imagine what it meant for our hero and beloved character to kill billions of people. But in this episode Moffat has no qualms about forcing us to confront the full gravity of the situation as well as the impossible choice the Doctor had to make: kill billions of his own people, including children, or allow the whole universe to be destroyed.
I know that while watching this scene, my chest tightened up a bit at the mention of children. In every other episode, when the Time War was discussed, it was talked about in such an abstract way that it was easy to forget that the Doctor killed people. Yet in this episode, Moffat bluntly points out that the people the Doctor killed aren’t just faceless beings, but they are actually living beings. They are children. Even if you are like me and you don’t have children, I’m sure we can all think of kids who have touched our hearts. Kids whose lives have brought us so much joy, happiness, and silliness. Kids whose presence we couldn’t imagine not being around. Then imagine them cruelly snatched away, even if for a “good” reason. Even if the action that took them away was necessary for the greater good of humanity the pain would be unbearable.
The thing about war is that it is almost always presented as necessary and actions, even those that decimate the environment and kill thousands, millions, (or in the Doctor’s case, billions) are always justified as stating that such action needed to be taken in order to prevent an even greater loss of life. But even so, rarely do citizens, (especially those not having to directly fight in or experience war) think about what such actions truly mean. What does it mean to bomb a city or a town? What does it mean to say that hundreds of thousands of people are dead? Who are these people? Not all of them are enemies, in fact most are probably just citizens who are caught in the cross-hairs of a battle they never asked for. In war, many of those who die are in fact children.
Yet it’s easier to not think about that, especially if we can pretend that war is an unpleasant reality that happens somewhere else. It is easy to view war in real life, the same way we view the fictional Time War when the Doctor would discusses it during the earlier seasons: as an abstract concept that was necessary and should be quickly forgotten.
But despite all the funny gags between the three doctors, Moffat brings us back again and again to the children:
As most of the readers of my blog know I am in seminary. But what I haven’t discussed is the subject matter that I have spent years researching: the consequences of war, especially on those called to wage war. War leaves a devastating impact on those whom a nation calls to perform acts that the average citizenry would never in a million years imagine doing. War not only impacts one physically or mentally but spiritually. In regards to the consequences of war, most people have heard of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) but not as many people have heard of moral injury. Moral injury is defined as, “Perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that deeply transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” In their book, Soul Repair Dr. Gabriella Lettini and Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock Brock explain, “Moral Injury is the result of reflection on memories of war or other extreme traumatic conditions. It comes from having transgressed one’s basic moral identity and violated core moral beliefs.”
It is important to note that moral injury does not just occur when someone witnesses or actively does something that society would consider to be “wrong” (a term that is relatively useless in a war zone) but it can result from actions that are necessary in order to save lives. Moral injury impacts one’s view of the world and also one’s understanding of who they are. Those experiencing moral injury often wonder: “Who am I, in light of what I have witnessed/done? Can I reconcile the person I was before experiencing moral injury, with the person I am now?”
We can see how the Doctor’s action to end the Time War has impacted him to the core. He hates himself, he repeatedly defines himself in terms of what he did and didn’t do during the war and multiple times he has wondered if the universe would be better off without him. In the midst of the light-hearted series, we are given glimpses into the Doctor’s troubled soul. And the fact that the Doctor did what needed to be done, does not ease his pain or guilt. Every relationship is impacted by his actions in the time war-he finds it hard to confide in people, to let them know who he really is and what he has done, he views himself as a danger to others and therefore tries to prevent himself from getting close to people. It is clear that the Time War is an event he would like to forget.
Yet no matter how hard the Doctor has tried to forget, he can’t. The Time War lingers on in his mind and heart. The Doctor knew he didn’t have any other choice. It was Gallifrey or the universe. He chose the universe. Yet he still needs to deal with the consequences of his action:
I’ve mentioned this before but what I love about Doctor Who is that if you just want to watch a fun, silly romp around the universe as a form of entertainment, this show is for you. If you want to think more deeply about difficult notions such as love, loss, death, and war, this show is also for you. In The Day of the Doctor, both the audience and the Doctor are forced to confront head on what it means to have the lives of billions of people in one’s hands. What must it feel like to have to make a decision to kill some people in order to save an untold number of others? Especially when it seems as if there is no other way. “No other way.” Isn’t that how war is often described? I’m not asking to get into a debate about the ethics of war nor am I interested in arguing about pacifism or just war theory, what I am interested in is pointing out how we as a society and a species often limit our imagination and are unable to envision new possibilities. At one point the Doctor believed that he had no other choice. He had to kill billions of people or the entire universe would be annihilated. And the Doctor’s action in destroying Gallifrey was not “wrong” or “evil,” The Doctor needed to do what was best to prevent the time war from enveloping the universe. It was the lives of a certain number of time lords in exchange for the lives of all those across the universe… and so often in the real world, the options are just as stark. But what happens when we can imagine new possibilities?
Part two next week!