Doctor Who, Death, Responsibility & The Summer of Unanswered Questions by Adam Bunch

[Spoilers for previous episodes, but not the anniversary special]

There have been plenty of scary moments in Doctor Who. The gas-mask boy. The angels. The carnivorous shadows of the library planet. But there's nothing quite as unsettling as seeing the Doctor cry, like he did in this summer's season finale.

We've seen dread in our Doctor before, of course. The end of David Tennant's run was soaked in it; the Tenth Doctor sensed the end of his time drawing near. But then we got Matt Smith; the Eleventh was such a happy Doctor, joyful and energetic, miles away from the tragic emotional unraveling of the Tenth. The raggedy man in the fairy tale life of Amy Pond. At the height of his powers — saving Amy, saving Rory, escaping the Pandorica, rebooting the entire universe, avoiding even his own preordained underwater-astronaut-fueled death — it was easy to forget that he, too, someday, will die.

But all that's changed now. The end of the Eleventh has been in the air all season, ever since Amy and Rory started staying home more often than not. His dark side has been rising to the surface, too, something that happened to the Tenth before the end. "The Doctor lives his life in darker hues day upon day," as the Great Intelligence says. This season has been full of references to it: the sliver of ice in his heart. Meanwhile, the prophecy of Trenzalore and "the fall of the Eleventh" loomed. The clock kept ticking. Matt Smith has now been the Doctor for as long as David Tennant was.

Of course, as sad as it will be to see Smith go, the death of the Doctor shouldn't be all that distressing. After all, as Clara's mum says, "The soufflé isn't the soufflé, the soufflé is the recipe." The Doctor will just regenerate; we'll get a new face, new clothes, new quirks, and the Doctor will live on.

Except that once we got to Trenzalore, we learned there might be even more at stake than just the regeneration of the Eleventh. It's here, we're told, the Doctor dies. For real. Forever. And there are hints it might not be too far into the future: the TARDIS tomb still has the same crack in the window that it got near the beginning of this episode; it still has the same control room as the one the Doctor uses now. Plus, there are old storylines suggesting Time Lords may only be able to regenerate 12 times — and now that we know about John Hurt's "War Doctor," it seems the Doctor may only have one more regeneration left. The season finale hinted at a more terrifying truth than we've had to face in a long time: even the Doctor — the wonderful all-knowing alien who has escaped one life-threatening situation after another on our TV screens for 50 years now — will die someday. Like, really, properly die. Just like the rest of us.

"This man must fall as all men must," the faceless whispering men whisper in the graveyard on Trenzalore. "The fate of all is always dust."

Mortality is enough to make even a Time Lord cry. "He doesn't like endings," as River points out. But that, frighteningly enough, might not even be what he was crying about. His grave has been discovered, but now so has his secret. And his secret touches on another part of Sartre's existential equation: Responsibility.

Even the Doctor has to make choices in the world — and his are particularly weighty ones. Entire species can live and die based on the Doctor's actions. He's forced to live with that. We've known for a good long while now that the Doctor has been running from one of those choices: whatever it was he did to end the Time War, and countless Time Lords and Daleks with it. The actions taken by John Hurt's War Doctor were so terrible that the Doctor doesn't even want to consider him as a true part of himself. But we saw in last week's mini episode that the Eighth Doctor chose that warrior-like incarnation on purpose. "Blood-soaked," the Great Intelligence calls him. And it's true. There is blood on our Doctor's hands. Not just John Hurt's.

"The soufflé isn't the soufflé, the soufflé is the recipe." But during the Time War — when it mattered the most — the Doctor changed his own recipe. He chose to be a warrior, not a peace-maker. And he's done it plenty of other times, too. He blew up the dinosaur trader, was willing to sacrifice the Wild West doctor to the cyborg until Amy talked him out of it, and has kept plenty of dark secrets from Clara. Even all the way back in the 1970s, when the Fourth Doctor was being played by Tom Baker, he considered committing genocide against the Daleks. The only reason he wasn't forced to make the choice is because he was interrupted in the middle of making it. The blood on the hands of the Tenth is at least part of what helped to drive David Tennant's Doctor into some deeply dark places during the final days of his run. And in the 50th anniversary special, it looks like Matt Smith's Doctor is about to come face to face with some even darker ones.

Whatever happens, short of his final death, when the dust clears the Doctor will have to go on making decisions. To save lives or to the end them. He'll have to bear the responsibility and keep making choices. That is, as Sartre and Camus and Heidegger and all the existentialists point out, what it means to be alive.

It's risky business not just for the Doctor, but for showrunner Stephen Moffat too. Every new episode of Doctor Who threatens to change the recipe of the Doctor. "You have to keep making [episodes]," as Moffat said in a recent interview. "And they're really difficult – I haven't mentioned that enough – they're really hard to do and they're really easy to get wrong." Lord knows that's never more true than when you have a villain and a companion literally thrown into the Doctor's open wound of a timeline, re-writing the entire history of the show — and then, on top of all of that, you add a whole new secret Doctor nobody ever knew about. The anniversary special promises to add even more surprises, more ingredients added to the mix, more possibilities, more responsibility.

But that's what it means for a TV show to be alive. And while it looks like the Doctor might be headed to some very dark places, maybe that's not so surprising. Maybe the recipe for the Doctor is much darker than he'd like to admit.

The Summer of Unanswered Questions

Here are some other questions that have been kicking around in my head since the season finale:

- Who gave Clara the phone number of the TARDIS back in "The Bells of St. John"?

- Why doesn't Clara see any future Doctors in the Doctor's timeline? Is the universe about to reset somehow?

- What did Clara read in The History of the Time War? And where did she see his name?

- Are we going to see River Song again? A lot of people seem to think we won't. But we've been waiting for the Doctor to tell her his name since all the way back on the library planet. And he still hasn't. Nor have we seen the first time she meets him.

- Why did the projection of River continue to appear in the TARDIS tomb even after Clara leaped into the Doctor's timeline? And why could the Doctor touch her?

- That wasn't the fall of the Eleventh, right? We've still got all that "no creature can speak falsely" stuff on Trenzalore still to come? And does that mean this is what the Silence were trying to stop? Or something else, yet to come?

- Is the War Doctor the secret? We've all known that the Doctor committed genocide against the Daleks and the Time Lords for a good long while now. Does the War Doctor do something else? Something worse?

- So what exactly did the Great Intelligence do once he got into the Doctor's timeline? We mostly just seem him standing around looking menacing. And what does Clara do to save him? "I was born to save the Doctor." How exactly? Where'd the leaf come from? Plus, what does it mean that the Doctor went into his own timeline even though that seems like it's supposed to be even more dangerous than Clara or the Great Intelligence doing it?

- How lame is it that Strax can just bring people back to life? Jenny had such an amazing death and then: whoops, no, she's fine, never mind.

- "Surrender your women and your intellectuals," Strax says. Really?

- What was with all the ice and snow references this half-season? How about all the Rose references embedded everywhere?

- Is there a particular reason the villain for this half-season was the Great Intelligence? Is that story done yet?

- The Great Intelligence says the Doctor will someday be known as "The Beast" and "The Storm." He can't possibly meant "The Beast" from the episode "The Beast Below," right? Do we still have the Beast Doctor and the Storm Doctor to look forward to?

- Will Peter Capaldi's Doctor be evil? Will he be the Valeyard? (And if so, is it a coincidence that we know from old episodes that the Valeyard is Jack the Ripper and that Madame Vastra tracked down and ate Jack the Ripper and that Jack the Ripper is historically thought to have been the Duke of Clarence and that the man in jail at the beginning of this episode was known as Clarence DeMarco?)


Read about the Torontonian who created Doctor Who here. Read nine quick thoughts on last week's mini episode here. Read previous recaps of Doctor Who episodes, beginning with the episode before this one, "Nightmare in Silver," here. Learn about the Doctor's very first secret from 1963 here. 
Adam Bunch is the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at


Anonymous said...

We did see the first time River meets the Doctor - as Mels on the day she regenerates. (Let's Kill Hitler)

Adam Bunch said...

Ah, thanks. Always found that bit confusing(/stupid).

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