Journeys end, but hell bent we continue on

In her TARDIS Eruditorum entry on “A Good Man Goes to War,” El Sandifer laid out the theory of narrative substitution, which she identified as the definitive technique of Moffat’s tenure as Doctor Who showrunner. A narrative substitution is, as the name implies, the substitution of one narrative for another; specifically, it is the creation of an expectation that a story will be one kind of narrative, only to reject that narrative (usually on ethical/political grounds) and tell a different kind of story.
In “Face the Raven”/”Heaven Sent”/”Hell Bent” (which I am choosing to treat as a single three-part story despite “Face the Raven” having a different writer and director than the other two) there is a series of substitutions, each rejecting the previously established story as an insufficient answer to a single question: how do we get rid of Clara?
Which is a question that needs to be answered. Jenna Coleman, her actress, is leaving the show, and even if she weren’t, every companion has to leave eventually. And it’s not like it hasn’t been explored before; both Oswin Oswald and Clara Oswin Oswald, “echoes” of Clara that predated her first true appearance on the show, died at the ends of their episodes, “Kill the Moon” has Clara announce her departure after a fight with the Doctor, the Series Eight finale ends with what appears to be a final goodbye between the Doctor and Clara as they each pretend to no longer need the other, and the following Christmas special contains a sequence in which the Doctor meets and says farewell to an elderly Clara.
But each of these departures was rejected as inadequate. The problem of Clara is that she was originally introduced as a narrative substitution; she is presented as a mystery (“Why is the Doctor meeting identical women with similar names in very different times and places?”) and the Doctor (and audience) is then rebuked for treating a person as a mystery when the answer turns out to be “She’s a perfectly ordinary person who made a very brave and dangerous choice.” The downside of this substitution was that Clara had to spend an entire half-season appearing to be the most generic companion ever; it’s really only after the Eleventh Doctor regenerated into the Twelfth that we could finally start seeing how extraordinary this “perfectly ordinary person” could be. Clara is a fierce protector of both the people she loves and the innocent; she is someone whose heart has been broken and healed; someone who loves children and teaching, fights fiercely for justice, loves traveling and experiencing new things, has an open mind, lies glibly, can see the humanity in a grotesque alien and the monstrosity in someone who looks completely human, and uses words as her main weapon.
She is, in short, the female Doctor fans have been clamoring for (well, the fans worth knowing, anyway) for years. All she’s missing is a TARDIS, immortality, and a companion of her own.
Given that, how can we say goodbye to her?
Well, she’s a human daring to be the Doctor. A mere mortal posing as a Trickster God. So that gives us our first answer; in “Face the Raven” she has Rigsy transfer the death sentence laid on him by Mayor Me to herself, hubristically assuming that she will be able to cheat the inevitability of death itself (since that is clearly what the Raven represents here). But she can’t; only a true immortal like the Doctor can. Her hubris is lethal; as Me reveals when the Doctor persuades her to lift the sentence, the complex rules of the Raven mean that Me could have lifted it from Rigsy, but now that he has transferred it to Clara she cannot. (Why Rigsy can’t is not explained, but must simply be accepted, the rules of death being as immutable and unfair as death itself.)
And then the first narrative substitution kicks in, as the Doctor rejects that Clara has done anything wrong, rejects the very moral schema in which hubris is a punishable crime (as of course he would and should), and instead begins learning and planning to go after the (unidentified at this point) people who used Me to bring this about and get his attention. Hubris has been rejected as a narrative, but instead we are getting a simple fridging: Clara dies not because of who she is and what choices she made as a character, not in a way that is at all respectful of her agency, but as a plot device to move the Doctor’s character along to the next plot point in his story.
Clara is having none of that, and soundly rebukes the Doctor before his rampage has even begun. Instead we get her death as the anti-fridging; she embraces that her choices have brought her to this point, orders the Doctor not to take revenge on her behalf, steps out proudly to stand and face the Raven where all others have run, and dies on her feet.
“Heaven Sent” opens with the Doctor trying to reject this again, announcing that he is doing exactly what Clara told him not to, ordering the unseen creators of the castle to fear him. But this is quickly subsumed by the puzzlebox of the castle itself, which by the time the Doctor finds clothes hung by the fire, identical to the sopping wet ones he’s wearing, and then after putting the dry clothes on replaces them with his own wet ones in exactly the same position, is clearly that Moffat standard, a complex but very clever puzzle with a timey-wimey solution.
And then it isn’t, as it becomes clear that this puzzle has no solution. This is just the Raven again, the inevitable death, the futility of trying to escape. The castle, the Doctor realizes, isn’t a puzzlebox but a torture chamber, specifically designed to make him suffer. It is a reification of his grief for Clara, the inescapable prison of mourning someone who is lost. Only that’s not a narrative that can survive long in Doctor Who either; he imagines Clara telling him to move on, and futility is answered not with the cleverness to solve a puzzlebox, but the determination and sheer bloody-minded stubbornness to punch the same spot in a diamond wall for billions of years. There is an old and rather inaccurate saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result; here we see that cleverness is only enough to figure out the trap. Actually getting out requires insanity, doing something completely futile so much that it stops being futile.
Which brings us back to the revenge narrative. The Doctor may have let go of Clara, but he did so with the rage and passion to push himself through a wall of diamond and into the next episode; in “Hell Bent” that same rage provides the motivation and his secret knowledge of the Hybrid, the mystery dangled in front of us all season, his leverage in conquering Gallifrey.
And then the whole narrative up to this point, both the “Face the Raven” substitution and the “Heaven Sent” substitution, is rejected. The Doctor doesn’t really know what the Hybrid is better than anyone else, and he hasn’t been trying to avenge Clara; all of this was a plan to bring Clara back. To use Gallifrey’s resources to pull a Chrono Trigger, returning to the frozen instant of her death to snatch her away from the Raven in a way even it can’t follow. His plan succeeds; he and Clara work together to descend into the Cloister, steal a new TARDIS, and run away.
But then Clara’s heart doesn’t resume beating. Another substitution, as this becomes a story familiar from the Russel T. Davies era of the show, a story of how being with the Doctor is wonderful, but ultimately unhealthy. The Doctor is all about escape, which is precisely what he and Clara were doing on Gallifrey, “stealing a TARDIS and running away.” And escape is not always possible or advisable; “Hope is terrible on the scaffold” as Ohila tells him. He has to let go of Clara; she is dead, has been dead for billions of years, and the Doctor is tearing the universe apart in his denial of it. As Me points out, the two push each other to extremes, which is probably why Missy got them together in the first place.
This was a recurring problem of the Davies era. The Doctor changes his companions, opens to them an entirely new world. Rose ultimately threw herself into that world completely and was swallowed up by it. Martha ultimately rejected it completely, choosing to leave the Doctor and live out her life on Earth, even joining UNIT, an organization which exists to maintain a barrier between the world of the Doctor and “normal” life on Earth. And Donna… Donna was an ordinary woman who proved extraordinary given the chance, a normal human who became the Doctor. Like Clara, she wouldn’t stay forever, but would never leave. She’d rather die than lose her experiences with the Doctor–so the Doctor took the choice away from her, wiped away her memories, destroyed what she’d become in order to keep something that looked like her alive.
Now, briefly, we see Moffat telling the same story, and he rejects it. Firmly and absolutely, Clara refuses to become the next Donna. The past is hers, and she will not allow the Doctor to take it away from her. She would rather die; that is her choice, and her choice is really all that matters here. The confrontation between the Doctor and Clara, their argument over the neural block, is a profound rebuke to the staggering violation the Doctor committed against Donna in “Journey’s End.” Like her death in “Face the Raven,” Clara refuses to allow her agency to be stolen from her in order to give the Doctor something to be sad about in the rain. Her past belongs to her, and so do her present and her future.
So: Clara retains her agency. Both vengeance and grief are rejected when they are more about the Doctor’s story than about saying goodbye to Clara. And death is an inevitability that cannot be cheated.
But this is Doctor Who, and summer can last forever if you steal a time machine. Clara’s death is a fixed event, which means that until she decides to finally go back to Gallifrey (which, I suspect, will be around the time her memory fills up and she realizes her choices are to die or to become like Me), she cannot die. So she steals a time machine and goes off to explore the universe with her companion, Me.
Like I said, all she needed was a TARDIS, immortality, and a companion. The Doctor-Donna was wrong, the hubris of the Tenth Doctor made flesh, and had to be destroyed. The Doctor-Clara is wrong, the hubris of Clara Oswald made flesh, and it is glorious.
After all, another word for hubris is rebellion; another word for reaching above your station is transcendence. Clara Oswald rejects your narrative, and substitutes her own.
Bravo, Mr. Moffat.
Edited 7/6/19: Corrected El Sandifer’s name and gender and made a couple of other minor grammatical edits.

Thoughts on Kill the Moon

So, uh, this latest Doctor Who episode has been a bit controversial, hasn’t it? Much of that controversy seems to fall into three camps:

  • The episode is taking a strong anti-abortion, misogynistic stance.
  • The episode is pro-choice, and emphasizing that pro-choice means pro-choice, in favor of people having options and making their own decisions.
  • The episode isn’t about abortion at all and people are getting upset over nothing. As in most debates, this seems to be the angriest group.

My own view? I think it comes down to how you choose to read a particular relationship that can be taken either way. We’ve got the creature hatching, the people of Earth, and the three women with the bomb, and they can be read at least three different ways. First, the creature hatching could be just another unknown alien who is wrongly feared and turns out to be harmless if left alone, putting the people of Earth in their usual position as angry xenophobes and the women with the bomb in the position of the Doctor and companions, advocating an ethos of wonder and life and all that good stuff–as usual, with one rejecting and having to be taught by the others. There are a couple of arguments for this read, which is the read in which the episode is not about abortion: first, that the alien is in the process of being born, and abortions do not normally occur during labor, and second that the creature is hatching from an egg, which means there is nobody (more accurately, no body) whose autonomy is being violated by its presence. The abortion read is thus an unfortunate implication in an episode that’s really about pretty much the same things as “The Beast Below” or any of umpteen other stories in Doctor Who‘s run.

However, there are counterarguments to both the arguments I just mentioned. First, late-term abortions are performed when the pregnancy is life-threatening, and there is a risk that the destruction of the Moon will cause serious damage to the Earth and its people, so neither of the arguments I cited in the previous paragraph necessarily hold. This leads to the second read, in which the creature is a fetus being incubated by the Earth, putting the people of Earth collectively in the position of its mother. They choose to abort, and are overruled by Clara, Courtney, and the scientist (was she even named? I never caught it if she was), who act in the position of the anti-abortion government and force the Earth to carry through the risky and difficult labor. The strongest support for this position are Courtney’s repeated declaration “It’s a baby!” and refusal to even consider killing it as an option, and Clara’s teary rejection of being given a choice as patronizing. Read this way, the episode is pretty clearly repeating the misogynistic arguments of anti-choicers, denying the agency and autonomy of the collective mother in favor of the moral judgment of a tiny minority.

But there are arguments against this reading, too, the biggest being that the first read makes both Clara’s final confrontation with the Doctor and her ensuing conversation with Danny afterthoughts, while the second badly misunderstands what Clara is saying in that confrontation–she’s not angry that the Doctor left her to make a choice on her own, she’s angry about him denying her information that would have been useful in making her choice and his general condescending attitude. Which brings us to the third way to understand the relationship between the three players: to see the hatching creature as a fetus threatening the well-being of the women on the moon, and the people of Earth as voters in a democratic government that nonetheless lacks the moral authority to tell those three women what to do in regards to a choice that impacts them directly. In this read, the episode is emphatically pro-choice, as it says not even a popular vote with (note the visual pun) one hundred percent turnout can legitimately tell a person what to do when their bodily autonomy is on the line.

And I do think this is the strongest reading, for a number of reasons. One is that visual pun, and another that shows up a bit later: the button Clara and Courtney press to cancel the bombing is, as indicated by the bombs’ display, the ABORT command. Further, the women standing around the bomb fall rather neatly into a couple of archetypes involving trios–and yes, I know I’ve been rather hard on archetypal readings in the past, but that’s because I find they are often used in constraining and limiting ways; I’m all for making characters serve as multiple contradictory archetypes simultaneously or otherwise using them in ways that multiply, rather than restrict, available readings.

One way to read the trio of women is as representing Women with the tired old “triple goddess” routine. They slide quite neatly into the roles: Courtney is a child, and hence the Maiden; Clara is the next-oldest and takes care of children for a living and the possibility that she has children on Earth in 2049 is floated, making her the Mother; the scientist is the oldest of them, starting to show wrinkles, and emphatically rejects the notion of having children, making her the Crone. It’s a reductive and excessively reproductive way of defining Women, but perhaps a reproductive approach is not entirely inappropriate when discussing reproductive rights.

Contradicting and coexisting with that read is one in which they represent a single woman via Freudian nonsense: “disruptive influence” Courtney serving as the id, the scientist–professionally rational and the one endorsing going with the judgment of society as a whole–as the superego, and Clara mediating between them as the ego. Again, a silly way to construct a person, but still a read reasonably well supported by the episode. In this read it’s interesting that the “It’s a baby!” attitude is associated with the unreasoning, over-emotional aspect, while “I fail to see the moral dilemma” is associated with the most rational aspect. This is pretty accurate where the abortion debate is concerned. Admittedly, the waters are somewhat muddied by Clara’s decision not to destroy the creature, but again, that’s because in this read the episode is attempting to navigate the nuance between being pro-choice and rejecting the anti-choice narrative that pro-choice activists are genocidal fetus-haters.

Ultimately, though, all three of these readings seem reasonable and supported by the text, as I’m sure are a multitude of others. This is a justified controversy, and I think a good one, as it seems likely to, in among the usual fractious debates, produce some conversations worth having.

Transgender horses, the Doctor, and real names

Moffat-era Doctor Who gets a lot wrong about gender. “Susan the horse” in “A Town Called Mercy” is a great example of how badly it’s handled as a matter of course–let’s deliberately raise the existence of trans* people so that we can make a joke about how funny it is that they exist! While also suggesting that it’s a choice! (This Tumblr post covers it much better than I ever could.)

But very rarely, it gets something right. Susan’s chosen a name for herself, and it tells you quite a bit about her (which the Doctor deliberately ignores in calling her “him.”) That becomes important in “The Name of the Doctor”: “The name I chose is the Doctor. The name you choose, it’s like, it’s like a promise you make.”

A person’s real name is always the name they choose to be known by. Just because most people default to the name their parents picked doesn’t make that their real name. Just because the government may insist they use a particular name on forms doesn’t make that their real name. A person’s real name is the one they introduce themselves with.

Trying out the Doctor Who RPG…

Only done character creation so far; are party consists of a PTSD-afflicted combat medic descended from a certain Victorian detective’s sidekick (me), a Peace Corps lifer with a knack for improvised technology, a soldier fresh from putting down the Ood Rebellion, and a talking dog with telekinesis (the party diplomat, obviously).

Not having played yet, I can’t say much about the system, but character creation was fairly straightforward and easy, and already just from looking at the rules it’s clear both that there’s a fairly hefty random factor to actions (somewhat mitigated by the use of degrees of success/failure, but still) and that combat is heavily de-emphasized (the turn order is determined by choice of action rather than a stat or roll, and talking, running, and nonviolent action all go before attacking). So they are clearly trying to get the mechanics to reflect the spirit of the show. 
Once we get another session in a few weeks, I’ll let you know if they succeeded. 

Save Derpy (Doctor Whooves and Assistant)

Pop between realities, home in time for muffins.

Let’s talk about a pair of boxes.

In his excellent, ongoing project TARDIS Eruditorum, Phil Sandifer discusses the so-called E-Space stories of Doctor Who, a period in which the Fourth Doctor and his companion was thrown into an alternate universe by a deep-space encounter with a phenomenon referred to as a Charged Vacuum Emboitment. Sandifer makes the point that “emboit,” etymologically, looks like it should mean “to place in a box,” and a Charged Vacuum Emboidment is therefore a box containing a vacuum that has a charge differential across it, not a bad description of a CRT television screen. The TARDIS, in other words, smacks into the TV screen and ends up slipping into another universe (read: TV show).

Sandifer has a lot of fun with this concept of emboidment throughout the rest of the series, and of course he does not fail to notice the presence of another prominent box that contains the series, the TARDIS.

As I noted in my article on Time Lords and Terror, the TARDIS is a mobile version of a classic staple of British children’s literature, the everyday object that contains liminal space. Well-known examples include Narnia’s wardrobe, Harry Potter’s Platform 9 3/4, and (most importantly for the work we’re tackling today) Alice’s looking glass. These gates to another world normally lead to a new space where adventure can occur; what makes the TARDIS near-unique is that the space within it is entirely liminal; it is when one emerges that one finds oneself in a new world.

This pair of boxes is a large part of what gives Doctor Who its longevity; the power of the TARDIS is that it can emboit almost any genre or story, bringing it into Doctor Who and playing with it.

Early in the fan-made audio drama series Doctor Whooves and Assistant, Ditzy Doo mishears “paradox” as “pair of box,” spawning a minor running gag through the rest of the series. This is, of course, a complete coincidence, but it’s a fun coincidence. Let’s run with it.

Interestingly, just as the rigid structure of Ace Attorney ensures that any crossover with it becomes Ace Attorney with some unusual guest stars, the flexibility of Doctor Who has the same effect. Because Doctor Who is so readily able to emboit any other story it comes across (even, contra Sandifer, “the story where the Doctor is a serial rapist”–you just have to add the final twist that it was the Valeyard or the Dream Lord), almost any fanwork crossing Doctor Who with something else will tend to deform toward standard Doctor Who with characters from that something else as companions. Friendship Is Magic has the slight advantage in this regard of having no humanoid characters, but in the end this just means that Doctor Whooves and Assistant evolves toward standard Doctor Who with Friendship Is Magic characters as companions and a pony-shaped Doctor.

Most tellingly, Doctor Whooves and Assistant‘s serial nature (to date, four of the six stories occur across multiple episodes) causes it to develop a similar property to Classic Who, which is that it is nigh-impossible to marathon. (A fact which I learned to my dismay this past week.) The pacing of episodes makes attempting to watch them back-to-back extremely grueling, which isn’t helped by the fact that this is amateur work. Most of the episode ideas are quite good, but the execution is sometimes lacking, most notably with the painful age-regression sequence in Episode 5 and the interminable, mediocre musical numbers in Episode 8 Part 2. Like the classic series, there is quite a lot of padding, especially in the crossover with Doctor Whooves Adventures that comprises episode 7, where the split across two series means that many scenes depicted twice, those which aren’t frequently have to be summarized for characters that weren’t present, and on top of that many ideas and debates are recycled for no apparent reason. Coupled with the lack of any banter between the two Doctors (the primary source of entertainment value in any multi-Doctor episode) and the total run time of three and a half hours, this makes episode 7 the most grueling slog of the series. (Though it could be rather a lot worse–the same writer, under another pseudonym, is responsible for the vile “Ask Discorded Whooves” Tumblr.)

At the start, the series seems to invert the emboitment which Doctor Who usually performs. The first story, which takes place across episodes 1 through 3, places the Doctor entirely within Friendship Is Magic. Indeed, his presence is entirely irrelevant; he ends up (together with Ditzy Doo) witnessing but not influencing the events of the Friendship Is Magic premiere, reflecting his and Ditzy’s roles as background ponies. The next story, episode 4, appears to continue this trend of placing the Doctor on the fringes of a Friendship Is Magic episode, as the Doctor returns to Equestria for Winter Wrap-Up and is guided through the pony holiday by Ditzy. However, once the two of them stumble upon and thwart an alien invasion of Equestria, the story becomes one of the most familiar and well-established story structures for Doctor Who, the pseudo-historical.

In a pseudo-historical, the Doctor lands in an established period of history (or at least, that period as filtered through the popular consciousness), but rather than interacting with that history itself, he instead deals with some science-fictional menace that threatens to disrupt that history; examples from the most recent Doctor’s run include “Cold War” and “Vampires in Venice.” However, because Doctor Whooves and Assistant takes place in the world of Friendship Is Magic, the equivalent to history is aired episodes of the show; it is thus the stories set in the “present day” of the program that function as pseudo-historicals.

In other words, episode 4 (as well as episode 6, which is set during “Over a Barrel”) emboits the Doctor within an episode of Friendship Is Magic, but then emboits that episode within a standard Doctor Who formula. Episode 5 then takes this further by placing all of Equestria within a Doctor Who episode. In this episode (on of the series’ best), the Doctor travels to the future of Equestria only to find a Cyber-pony invasion underway, having an adventure which is both recognizably in Equestria and in a Doctor Who episode (notably, the episode’s climax is reminiscent of both Doctor Who‘s “Closing Time” and Friendship Is Magic‘s “A Canterlot Wedding”).

The most recent episode, episode 8, is notable for introducing the first real continuity to the series, something which is much more pronounced in Doctor Who than Friendship Is Magic (the vague hints of a season-long arc in Season 4 of the latter notwithstanding). The presence of another time traveler, the introduction of a new companion, and the first defeated villain to swear revenge all suggest that the series is starting to develop an overarching plot in addition to the individual stories making it up, becoming more serialized and thereby more Who-like.

In the end, Doctor Whooves and Assistant has little to say about Friendship Is Magic or Doctor Who. Increasingly, it is just a fan-made Doctor Who audio drama with a lot of pony puns. But that’s a fairly entertaining thing to be, especially if taken in chunks no larger than a half-hour or so.

My biggest problem with the Doctor Who Christmas special…

Is that the collective fandom deathwish represented by harping constantly on the regeneration limit has now been legitimized. The premise of Doctor Who is infinitely extensible; the only thing that can end it is the viewers not wanting it to continue, and that’s what the regeneration limit has always represented. By explicitly giving the Doctor a new cycle as opposed to saying the limit is gone forever, the series has embedded the limit even more strongly into the series’ DNA. That the Doctor will eventually run out of regenerations and die permanently is now inevitable. It might be in 2060 with the 23rd Doctor or 3015 with the 405th, but it is unavoidable now.

Continuity Poison

The problem starts with Tolkien. I mean, I’m sure the impulse existed before him, but he legitimized it and made it the dominant approach of a particular school of writing. Tolkien referred to it as “secondary creation” or “sub-creation”; we call it worldbuilding.

It is not, in itself, necessarily a bad idea; in some ways it is a precursor to certain aspects of postmodernism. In essence, Tolkien’s idea (most clearly expressed in his “On Fairy Stories”) is that fictional worlds can in some sense be said to exist; that the setting of a fictional story (and in particular a fantastic story) can be at least metaphorically treated as having a material reality in some alternate plane, called into being by the author and then dutifully reported as events unfold.

In some ways, this may be a useful approach for some authors. It is not too dissimilar from the phenomenon some authors describe whereby they create characters, develop those characters’ motivations, and then let the characters “act out” the story while the author “watches.”  Really, of course, this is simply a mental exercise that produces character-driven stories–wherein lies the key difference between this and the “world building” approach, namely that a character-driven approach produces a story that emerges organically from the motivations and actions of the people in it, while building a world produces an empty stage set with no characters on it. (Notably, Tolkien’s fiction output does not arise directly from his world building, but rather uses his world as a backdrop to tell stories about people. Even then, the “guided tour” aspect of The Fellowship of the Ring in particular is difficult to dismiss.)

The real problem is when this “secondary creation” theory gets applied to criticism. The criteria which define a quality world quite simply have nothing to do with the criteria that define a quality work of fiction; for our purposes, the most important criterion to talk about is logical self-consistency. 
That this is not really a very important element of fiction should be obvious, but just in case it is not, consider this: Citizen Kane is rightly and widely known as a cinema classic, an extremely solid character study that is also a masterclass in cinematography. It represents one of those rare moments when the quality of an entire artform leaps forward. 
It also contains a glaring plot hole that renders the entire plot of the movie impossible, one which multiple viewers have commented on, but which nonetheless most viewers never notice.

Does that plot hole make it any less solid of a character study? No; Charles Foster Kane remains a fascinating character and the slow unspooling of his story a rich and rewarding experience. Does the plot hole make the movie’s cinematography any less massive of a leap forward? Again, no–the two have nothing to do with one another.

And yet, in the aesthetic that emphasizes continuity and consistency, such “errors” are seen as inherent flaws.

Nonetheless, this is the dominant aesthetic of geek communities. Most recently (at least that I’ve seen), there is the discussion surrounding the upcoming Doctor Who Christmas special. Rumor has it (and yes, I regard articles in Radio Times based on interviews with Stephen Moffat to be rumors) that the Doctor will regenerate in that story, and further that Moffat considers Tennant’s partial regeneration in “Journey’s End” to count as a Doctor, meaning that including John Hurt, Matt Smith was actually playing the Thirteenth Doctor all along, not the Eleventh. Why is that significant? Because a throwaway line in an episode aired thirty-five years ago (an episode which most fans of the current series have not seen) implied that there can only be thirteen Doctors, after which he dies for good.

Never mind that, in combination with the implication of eight Doctors prior to William Hartnell in “The Brain of Morbeus” (only a few episodes before, and written and produced by the same team as, “The Deadly Assassin,” the source of this throwaway line), the clear intent is that the Tom Baker Doctor was the Twelfth, not Fourth, and as such nearing the end of his life span. Never mind that there have been throwaway lines since that claim the Doctor has hundreds, thousands, or unlimited opportunities to regenerate. Never mind that “The Deadly Assassin” was itself attacked at time of airing for depicting Gallifrey and the Time Lords dramatically differently than past episodes. Never mind that the insistence on this nugget of pointless continuity creates a necessity to either retcon it away (which will upset continuity-obsessed fans) or put a time limit on a series that could otherwise run forever.

No, say supporters of this aesthetic. It is wrong, a mistake, to ignore a previously established continuity point. They demand that the future of any long-running work be a slave to its past. To them, it doesn’t matter that Kane dying entirely alone is thematically appropriate, it’s still a “mistake” that invalidates the otherwise excellent film that follows.

It’s understandable why this aesthetic has such a strong hold on geek culture. First of all, it requires only a very shallow understanding of any sort of critical theory, while rewarding attention to detail and an encyclopedic memory. For a variety of historical reasons, geek culture is dominated by fandoms, and social status within a fandom is established primarily by demonstrations of commitment to the object of that fandom, and the demonstration of arcane knowledge is one of the easiest ways to test that commitment. The ability to spot continuity errors even allows one to demonstrate arcane knowledge superior to that of the creators (who, for most work, just don’t care about niggling continuity details)–where normally the creators hold the highest position of honor in a fandom, nitpicking continuity allows a fan to temporarily elevate themselves above that position.

Assuming the rumors are true, it’s fairly obvious to me what Moffat’s trying to do: retcon away the regeneration limit while he can, so that he doesn’t have to keep hearing about it from continuity-obsessed fans for the entire Capaldi run. Hopefully, he will accomplish this by doing away with regeneration limits altogether; the worst-case scenario is that the Doctor gets a new, specific, relatively small number of regenerations, because that will only serve to confirm the limit. (Ideally, the episode would simply ignore the limit, have the Capaldi Doctor refer to himself as the Fourteenth, then flip off some LINDA members who complain about it, but that scenario is sadly unlikely.)

Unfortunately, the underlying problem will remain: Geek culture is wedded to an unsophisticated and inflexible aesthetic that insists on treating fiction as a window into another world, as opposed to a deliberate construct assembled from multiple smaller constructs, each the product of specific authorial choices not necessarily bound by any prior choice. No matter how many creators tell them “Canon is not a word we use in the office” or “Starfuries travel at the speed of plot,” or “A wizard did it,” it seems they will continue to insist on nitpicking based on a simplistic “literalism” not that different from the hermeneutic employed by Christian fundamentalists. I honestly have no idea what the cure is, except perhaps better education.

We have to find them before ponies start to panic (Day of the Doctor)/Where I’ve always been going: Home, the long way around (Princess Twilight Sparkle)

Saturday was a day of new directions.

It often is, of course. Biblically, Saturday was the day after creation, a long deep breath before history began. In real life, as the day after the workweek ends for most of us, it’s a day for the sort of leisure activities that make self-discovery and expression possible, the day when we connect with friends or work on our hobbies and interests. Life-altering experiences tend not to happen when we’re going about our regular routines, and there’s rarely time for much else on workdays.

But this particular Saturday–the most recent, as of the time of posting–was in particular a day of new directions for the two current shows I follow most closely, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic and Doctor Who. Both episodes were milestones; “Princess Twilight Sparkle” marks the beginning of the fourth season of Friendship Is Magic, meaning it now has more seasons than the other two My Little Pony TV series combined–and later this season will surpass them in combined episode count, as well. More impressively, of course, this was the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who, which is a massive achievement for any television show (not quite a record, however; Guiding Light predates television and lasted until 2009). It was also, by the way, the largest simulcast of a drama to date, and the 123rd episode/serial of the series to use “The Thing of the Stuff” as a title.

Both were highly entertaining episodes, but not quite in the top tier of their respective shows. What both did do, however, was dramatically transform key elements of the show, removing long-standing plot devices and introducing new ones.

Interestingly, while my prediction partially happened (and neither my hope nor fear occurred) for “Princess Twilight Sparkle,” “Day of the Doctor” was everything I feared, nothing I predicted or hoped for–and yet both episodes were entertaining and satisfying. Part of that is that “Day of the Doctor” did something I have been wanting (but not daring to hope for) ever since the episode title “The Next Doctor” was announced years ago: a multi-Doctor special in which a future incarnation appears. Part is just the sheer fannish joy of seeing thirteen doctors on screen together, even if nine of them are stock footage. (Though I will say, with the sole exception of his last scene, and much as I love John Hurt, his part could have gone to Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor, and it would have been a stronger episode for it. Admittedly, that last scene does make him checking his ears in the mirror in “Rose” retroactively hilarious.) And it was wonderful to have Hurt stand in as the voice of classic-fan criticisms of the new series, criticizing the kissing, the way his successors held their sonics, the catchphrases, the youth of the new Doctors… it helped tremendously to reduce the weight of self-importance that threatens always to overwhelm any episode created as a celebration of a milestone.

“Princess Twilight Sparkle” in many ways was similar–both had strong running themes of time and memory, with significant flashbacks and a menace from the past, long-buried, emerging in the present. “Princess Twilight Sparkle” was rather lighter, of course, being mostly concerned with how Twilight and her friends deal with her new role as princess, and reassuring the audience that this will not derail the show or her character. A number of lines seem to be there just to reassure fans, such as Rarity saying that they need to meet to talk about redecorating her loft, Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie contradicting Rarity’s claim that every pony dreams of becoming a princess, and Twilight’s nervous freakout (now with added flight-based physical comedy).

Both episodes are heavily about visiting moments that have been teased from the beginning (well, a beginning in the case of Doctor Who, namely the 2005 relaunch)–the rise and fall of Nightmare Moon, Celestia and Luna’s battle with Discord, and the origin of the Elements of Harmony for Friendship Is Magic, the Time War and fall of Gallifrey for Doctor Who. In the case of the former, it was more or less what we expected, except that the origins of the Elements of Harmony were something of a surprise–they originate from the newly introduced, crystalline Tree of Harmony, which we must assume is the axis mundi of Equestria, its World Tree. Crystal trees have actually always been a personally relevant symbol for me, since they visually resemble a neuron and thus can be both the axis mundi and the axon, the Tree of the World and the individual soul. All of that now feeds into the Elements of Harmony–vessels of light representing aspects of the self, fruit of the Tree of the World (which is also, of course, the twin Trees of Life and Knowledge) that is also the soul–which are now revealed to have been the Sephiroth all along. Of course the focal Element manifested as a crown–it’s Kether!

The Time War, on the other hand, is depicted exactly the way I feared: as a series of explosions and laser beams. But I’m okay with this, because all we actually see is the final battle of a war of attrition that has stretched across all of history. I am willing to accept the beam weapons and fire as the Kardashev IV equivalent of being reduced to throwing sticks and rocks at one another. And yes, Clara is depicted as being Essence of Generic Companion, but in a brilliant twist, Ten and Eleven take on the companion role as well (Hurt–was he cast just so his character can be referred to as the Hurt Doctor?–explicitly names them as such) and together the three of them do what the companions do. Remember my (well, Phil Sandifer’s, really) breakdown of the four essential elements of Doctor Who: the TARDIS is the extradiegetic space that connects all conceivable diegetic spaces, the Doctor is the man who goes into those spaces, the monsters give him something to fight against once he’s there, and the companions give him something to fight for. That is what the War Doctor has lost that makes him no longer the Doctor, and it is what the Moment, Clara, Ten, and Eleven collectively give him back. (And why I adore that he earns his space in the ending credits as all the Doctors whoosh by, just after McGann and before Eccleston.)

What both episodes do, as I mentioned at the start, is take their respective series in fascinating new directions. In the case of “Day of the Doctor,” it’s a massive plot transformation. A big part of the premise of the new series has been the Doctor’s status as the last of the Time Lords, the sole survivor of Gallifrey. His survivor’s guilt has haunted all his new series incarnations, most visibly Nine and Eleven–but Gallifrey has been too important a part of the series’ history to stay gone forever. We’ve always known that sooner or later it has to come back. Yet ironically, by bringing Gallifrey back from the dead and giving the Doctor a quest to find it, the show creates a way to keep it gone forever. The universe is vast and the Doctor has no idea where to look–he can continue wandering at random forever now, always hoping to find Gallifrey.

The confirmation that Gallifrey stands (in direct contradiction to Rassilon’s claim in “The End of Time” that it must either rise or fall) from Tom Baker as a future Doctor repeating a past face. At last the show has firmly exploded the silly fan obsession with the regeneration limit! Including Hurt, Capaldi ought to be the last Doctor according to that one throwaway line in a crap episode everybody insists on treating as absolute fact despite being contradicted repeatedly in later and better episodes. At the same time, given Baker’s age, the pace of the series, and how long Doctors’ tenures tend to last, it is highly unlikely that we will see a future incarnation of the Doctor played by Tom Baker–which means the Doctor can never retire.

The transformation of Friendship Is Magic is, to a small extent, a change to the premise–the Elements of Harmony are now gone. However, they only ever really factored into five episodes: the premiere, the two Discord episodes, “Magical Mystery Cure,” and “Princess Twilight Sparkle.” They are not really an essential part of the premise, any more than Twilight being a unicorn and not a princess is–as Applejack and Twilight discuss in the episode, it is the continued friendship between the characters that matters. More important by far is the promise of the episode’s ending: a fruit has emerged from the base of the tree, a crystalline box (six Elements, plus three cutie marks, plus this box: it is the tenth and lowest Sephirah, Malkuth, the Kingdom, which is to say the World) with six locks opened by unknown keys. The very strong implication is that those keys will be created or found in episodes to come, an explicit story (as opposed to character) arc. The show has never had one of those before, and the possibilities it opens up are enormous. Not so much in the quest itself (presumably, they will collect the six keys and acquire the Infinity Gauntlet/Triforce/Conscience Machine by the end of the season), but rather in the very idea of a multi-episode arc. Unlike Doctor Who, Friendship Is Magic‘s premise is not inherently infinitely extensible, and as such fiddling with the structure of the show like this on occasion can have a profound regenerative effect. On the other hand, it is a sign that the show is starting to struggle to find stories within its original structure, necessitating the new one.

So, in Doctor Who, we have the promise of an end that opens up immortality, and in Friendship Is Magic we have a new beginning as a sign of aging. Either way, these upcoming seasons are going to be something new. My shows are evolving.