Of all the material I could dip into here, I think it makes sense to start with The Day of the Doctor, the one and only televised Doctor Who story to actually feature the War Doctor as anything other than a cliff-hanger or an implicit ghost.
The question I am asking as I examine these stories is, of course, whether or not the War Doctor is qualified to identify as the ‘Doctor’ we know today. This must be understood largely as an ideological thing, a matter of the character and his principles; events outside the text, and the particular details of his era, will be studied more closely in the next post.
The answer to this question seems obvious, at least initially. The Name of the Doctor signals it pretty clearly with the Eleventh Doctor’s assertion that the War Doctor was “the one who broke the promise”. Ten minutes into The Day of the Doctor, the very same incarnation describes him as “a man with more blood on his hands than any other, a man who would commit a crime that would silence the universe”. We’re meant to hate him, or at least, fear him. That’s what the surface reading says. That’s the conclusion all the evidence presented to us up until this point indicates.
And yet, what is the War Doctor actually doing when we encounter him for the first time in Day? Not committing any atrocities. That’s because the Eleventh Doctor loses his narrative authority the second the shot transitions from the painting of the Time War (i.e., a fundamentally prejudiced reconstruction of events) to the Time War itself, as it’s happening, with no apparent voice. At this point, the War Doctor is not some fearful thing to look back on, but the Doctor of the moment – and he’s saving children (and it’s not the only time – in the short story The Stranger, the War Doctor is doing the same thing). Some Daleks might get blown up in the process, sure, but anyone familiar with the rules of the show are aware that Daleks are kind of a moral exception (in fact, it’s bonus points if you hit them in the eyestalk).
We know Moffat’s always been keen on this view of the Doctor: strictly non-interventionist, until emotions beckon him to save the lives of children, because a child’s cry will always be louder than the arc of history and all associated rules. The War Doctor may be said to have abandoned many of his principles, but that untiring instinct to protect the innocent only seems to flourish in this particular incarnation. The scene is structured, altogether, like something from a superhero film: there’s a panoramic view of chaos, a focus in on a group of individuals, and the intervention of the hero just before the fatal shot is fired. The Doctor is a hero here.
To be clear, this isn’t some subconscious slip on the part of the writer, an inability to faithfully sketch this deviant incarnation of the Doctor. No, Moffat is absolutely aware of his intention, which is to set John Hurt up as an incarnation of the Doctor who has as much of a right to that name as any other. Any shot of him carrying a gun is balanced by a scene of banter with Billie Piper; any hand hovering over the big red button is balanced by him sitting thoughtfully with his fellow incarnations and drinking tea. If we are to see The Day of the Doctor as a story about the War Doctor – which is disputable, but is also nonetheless a reading which might work for this project – then his future incarnations are not a contrast with the purpose of showing him up as a monster, but components in a moral choice, a chance for him to approach his decision through a consequentialist lens. In other words, he is the Doctor, making a decision about his future, and allowed a rare insight into that future. A future which is definitively his, even if it seems unrecognisable: “Same software, different face”.
It is telling that, reminiscing on their past, the War Doctor chooses to recount the second half of the Dicksian promise:
TENTH DOCTOR: Never cruel or cowardly.
WAR DOCTOR: Never give up, never give in.
The Tenth Doctor, living with the guilt of the Time War, longs for a solution which avoids the seemingly unavoidable cruel/cowardly dichotomy of action/inaction. The War Doctor, on the other hand, clings to the only power he has left, which is his resilience, and finds another way because he refuses to give in and concede to the ‘solution’ of genocide. Both men are, in short, as much ‘the Doctor’ as the other, but they draw on different aspects of themselves, find different sources of meaning.
The lion’s share of work on the War Doctor must go to Big Finish, of course. That’s not to say that Hurt got Big Finish’s finest work – his range is a rocky and inconsistent one, and were this a review blog I’d probably only recommend half of his stories. But all in all, he managed twelve hour-long instalments, the same length as a new series of Doctor Who on television, each actually starring Hurt in the role, so this is clearly a significant window into his era.
Let’s start at the very beginning, then, with The Innocent, an episode which I’m quite fond of. Want to read the Doctor’s typically verbose self-introduction? Well, you’ll be disappointed:
REJOICE: Who are you?
WAR DOCTOR: No one.
Yup, that’s it, and it’s about as simple as it looks, unless Briggs is aiming to mimic the tale of the Cyclops in some twisted parallel, which would seem to be completely unlikely if the second boxset didn’t feature an overtly Homeric odyssey into Dalek civilisation. Anyway, that’s beside the point.
Cute as it is, The Innocent plays out just how you’d expect a War Doctor story to play out. Rejoice – a character so optimistic that her name doesn’t just mean celebration, but unbridled celebration – continually attempts to boost the Doctor’s self-esteem, help him find his identity, while with angst mode on full, the Doctor rejects each of her proposals as ludicrous. He tells us he’s a monster. And he seems to have a point:
REJOICE: Just because you have to fight doesn’t mean you’re a monster; it’s not that simple.
WAR DOCTOR: Oh yes, it is. Throughout the millennia on countless worlds, people have bleated that war is complicated, unfathomable, as if it were some mystery disease without a cure, but it isn’t true. War is very simple. All you have to do to wage it is become a monster. And that’s what I am. And I’m… sick of it.
I’m not going to refute Briggs’ message here, which is that complicating and justifying war has historically been a mistake and that, when it’s war for the sake of war (as opposed to, say, overthrowing a corrupt regime), both sides are usually as bad as each other. It’s a stance Doctor Who stands by, for the most part. What can be brought into question is how far this applies to the Doctor himself. As in The Day of the Doctor, there’s great dissonance between actions and words. The Doctor claims that he is a monster, cynically reminds the Keskans that “Nothing is sacrosanct if you want to survive a war”, urges them to relinquish their democracy and, yes, is to some extent unDoctor-like. But what his solution? It’s not to strike out against the invaders. It’s not to force a culture of pacifists to take arms. He keeps the Keskans safe inside their own bubble by generating a force-field around their planet, echoing not the Homeric sacking of cities alluded to in A Thing of Guile, but the kind of tactics used against the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War. And that… that seems very Doctor-like, somehow.
Things go a bit pear-shaped (in more than one way) in the first series finale, The Heart of the Battle, in which the Doctor brazenly shouts down the one pacifist character in the episode. “Brothers and sisters?!” he questions, raising his voice. “You sound like some kind of happy-clappy maniac!” That’s not all he has to say to peace-loving Seratrix, either. He calls him “deluded”, and claims that “None of this would have happened if Seratrix and his cohorts hadn’t tried to make peace”. Now, it is indeed hard to imagine any Doctor uttering such sentiments – thankfully, Hurt is no exception. It would be tempting to buy into Briggs’ narrative and declare that the Doctor has fundamentally changed beyond recognition, but it’s the very fact that this seems so out of place that tells us he hasn’t. Dare I say it, it’s in many ways easier to view this warlike Doctor as a translation of Briggs’s views than it is of the character’s. The Heart of the Battle feels like a slip-up and nothing more.
(It’s also worth saying in Briggs’ defence that the Doctor does elaborate that Seratrix’s pacifism being the cause of the terrible events is “a testament to what a sick place the universe has become”; he reminds his team that “a hope for peace… should be a good thing, a noble thing; but instead that hope could have led to the destruction of everything good in the cosmos”. The point seems to be that the war itself is to blame, and that pacifists aren’t inherently bad. Still, the “happy-clappy maniac” line reads as deeply uncomfortable, and I’m not even a pacifist.)
The first series resolves with a Doctor who proclaims that he is “monstrous”, that he has no choice but to become a monster like those he is fighting, and one gets the sense that Briggs might be quite a big fan of the Dark Knight trilogy. When Matt Fitton takes on the finale of the second series, the Doctor ends up in a very different place. Fitton reverses the dynamic of the Doctor believing himself to be monstrous and the companion trying to inspire him to love himself again; by positioning Cardinal Ollistra as the companion-figure, he makes her the centre of the Doctor’s identity crisis, telling him constantly that he’s a warrior now that he’s “Gallifrey’s greatest hope and deadliest weapon” and must find “the most pragmatic solution”, and has the Doctor himself be… well… the Doctor. In this episode, the Doctor fights for peace and tries his utmost to find a middle ground between the Daleks and Time Lords in a failed attempt to regress both civilisations back to an era of rural trade. The failure doesn’t matter, in the end.
Skipping the mostly uninteresting third series, it’s worth completing the Big Finish section by examining The Enigma Dimension, the last story John Hurt ever produced for Doctor Who. Like The Heart of the Battle, it’s a Briggs story; but surprisingly, it’s also a genuine masterpiece – possibly the best of the whole lot. The series reintroduces Leela, setting off on immediately familiar (yet still uncertain) territory, forcing the Doctor to confront the person he was, in the presence of someone who knew his old self. Leela, speaking on behalf of plenty of confused listeners, raises a question we’ve heard asked but seldom answered:
LEELA: But why would you deny your own name?
WAR DOCTOR: Because I am no longer worthy of it, because to wage this war I’ve had to do things that the… that he would never have even contemplated.
LEELA: And yet… I recognise you. I see in your eyes; I see you are the same man.
Leela understands the Doctor’s point, but in spite of everything knows that he is the Doctor. John Hurt’s final line of the Doctor is, depressingly – but utterly fittingly: “I am a warrior, like the rest of the Time Lords, and perhaps… I am the very worst of them all”. This is a retort to Leela, who again tries to assure the Doctor that he is the same man she used to know; he believes that her perspective is “outdated”. Naturally, the Doctor gets the last word. Leela is silenced to allow the Doctor the role of narrator. But Leela is not convinced. That tension between self-image and truth remains unresolved. Ollistra, hilariously, tells the Doctor to “just keep telling yourself that”, when he tells her that he isn’t called the Doctor anymore. Three seasons in, even the warmonger has had enough.
Engines of War is in many ways the War Doctor story to interest me the least, but I feel I ought to cover it. It’s generally a predictable turn of events – the Doctor meets an impressionable companion who goes and dies on him, killed by a sadistic Time Lord, prompting his use of the Moment. It makes The Heart of the Battle seem subversive. All the same, George Mann ought to be applauded for keeping the Doctor’s conscience out of the angst. Again, the Doctor himself remains relatively untarnished. Have a read of this passage describing Cinder’s experience:
Then the Doctor had come along, tumbling out of the sky in his magical box, and in a few short hours had forced her to face up to this, to recognise that perhaps there were things that could be done, that nothing was quite as impossible as it might seem. There were different ways of fighting back. She wasn’t quite sure what he intended to do with the information he gleaned here on Moldox, but she knew it wasn’t simply for his own gratification. He was getting involved, because he wanted to help, wanted to make it all stop.
The Doctor’s plight is seen as a noble thing, his choices seen as impossible moral quandaries. The greater the disgust at war, it seems, the greater the admiration for the character who persists through it.
The War Doctor’s appearance in tie-in comics is far more elusive. In the IDW instalment The Forgotten, Hurt appears in the company of his other incarnations, but obscured by the Tenth Doctor. He is both accepted as an incarnation of the Doctor and rejected by his other incarnations, which is a remarkably yet also terribly obvious approach.
In Dead Man’s Hand, each of the Doctors has to defend their gravest actions. The War Doctor chooses to remain silent: the Eighth Doctor steps in to defend him. This is almost an inversion of the panel shown above; the War Doctor is too steeped in self-loathing to stand up for himself, but another incarnation, by speaking on his behalf, acknowledges him as the Doctor. And no wonder it’s Eight – the other Doctor excluded from the Doctor-elite of Definite Classic and Definite New, the group unplagued by Eight and War’s wilderness anxieties (more on their relationship next time).
The War Doctor is a recurring character throughout the second year of Titan’s Eleventh Doctor Adventures, and features what we’re coming to see as a classic perspective switch: the first few parts treat the Eleventh Doctor as a kind of narrator, reflecting over his life, before Alice (his companion) returns to the Time War and starts to see things from the War Doctor’s perspective.
It’s unsurprising, then, that when the Eleventh Doctor first begins to piece the plot together, he urges: “Oh no. Don’t be about him, don’t be about him, don’t be about him…” This incarnation thrives on the War Doctor’s abandonment of a name: it allows him to dehumanise his counter-part. This is the Doctor before The Day of the Doctor, too, so there’s not even the semblance of acknowledgement there. He’s keen to place the blame straight away: “This is all him, isn’t it?” It’s almost okay for him, like a kind of coping mechanism, to blame his past self, to project all his crimes onto one incarnation and then forget that incarnation.
The artwork itself could be said to ‘monster’ the War Doctor. Have a look at this panel: it’s the Eleventh Doctor’s vision, presented accordingly through the Eleventh Doctor’s perspective (his mind’s eye, if you like).
Eleven seems to almost be faintly glowing in a white light, as if reflecting on darker days, now in more enlightened times. The War Doctor rises behind him, an avenging god figure, holding a ludicrously-sized gun next to a pillar of skulls. It’s exaggerated, it’s inaccurate, it’s stupid. Which rather suggests that we shouldn’t trust such an account, doesn’t it?
There’s a little more ambiguity in the War Doctor’s methods, as he appears to destroy a whole culture when he banishes the Cyclors: “Deicide via ascension”, as he describes it. But when he expands on his plan (“I’m going to take away a people’s belief and leave them godless. Rip the heart out of a planet’s history, become the greatest villain the Overcasts could have ever imagined”), it’s only really The Rings of Akhaten against a darker locale. The Doctor is a liberator, freeing the reluctant oppressed, unshackling the chains of the cave-dwellers. Those sorts of acts aren’t just Doctor-like, but typical of only the most Doctorish of them all: the Troughtons and Capaldis of this world.
As the story resolves, the role of narrator shifts onto Alice. As a companion, Alice is, in a sense, unable to distinguish between the two Doctors, and so they begin to almost bleed together. The creative detail here is astonishing – the artist goes to the effort of giving Eleven and War a matching colour-scheme too!
That’s some really astonishing mirroring.
In what should be a familiar line to anyone who’s read this far, Alice tells the Doctor: “You sound different, but your eyes… I can see you in there. You’re the Doctor”. With both Alice and Leela’s testaments under his belt, and across two different mediums, the War Doctor has been endorsed as the Doctor by his past and by his future, with Eight in The Forgotten speaking on behalf of the wilderness. The show in its various forms, in the end, works almost as an independent sentient force to find space for this incarnation in its mythos.
Any negative attitudes within the show towards the War Doctor stem from the fact that the Doctor himself acts, as he must, as a kind of consistent moral authority within the series. He will always, to an extent, play the role of the narrator; and when it comes to recounting his own history, he will naturally become an unreliable narrator. His own account of himself, his belief that he is a monster, is thus held in tension with the implied author (i.e. the show)’s account, which is that the War Doctor is a good man in an impossible situation, and crucially it is this narrative which is validated by companions, friends, strangers, even Cardinal bloody Ollistra.
No one except the Doctor himself really believes that the War Doctor is ‘a man with more blood on his hands than any other’, or ‘the greatest monster of them all’, because plain and simple that is not the Doctor we see in any medium. We don’t see a Doctor who’s taken lives, manipulated people into taking their own, even fought on the front line in our understanding of what it means to fight.
In the end, the War Doctor’s rejection of his own name is nothing more than a rash decision. What sort of man doesn’t have a name, anyway? It’s ludicrous, and even Briggs totally gets that. The nature of Doctor Who stories may distort around the character, and the show in this format would have been unequivocally unsustainable – but Hurt remains, unchangingly, the Doctor. In a universe of chaos, when heroes become monsters, the one constant that remains is the protagonist: a man who tries his best, and who is able to look straight at the end of all things, and imagine a world beyond.
“He whispered something to me. Something important. Then, with a calmness that I knew was intended for me, he took the psilent songbox. He picked up the duplicate of the tracker that had been in my neck, and he used all the swirling chronal power to simply reverse its origins. And I watched him, in an era of death and suffering… create…”