People seem to be confused by the events in “The Day of the Doctor,” especially the part about how the Moment was never fired and the effects of this. In specific, there are a lot of questions on the internet about whether or not all the events of the past eight years of the show actually happened, and how does the events of The End of Time fit in at all. I think I pretty much understand and accept the new reality, but I decided to try and trace my thoughts through all of it and see if it came out coherently.
First, I want to point at a very famous quote which I think stresses the way we need to look at this issue: “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff.” (Tenth Doctor, “Blink”) Couple that with another quote: “Every great decision creates ripples, like a huge boulder dropped in a lake. The ripples merge, rebound off the banks in unforeseeable ways. The heavier the decision, the larger the waves, the more uncertain the consequences.” (Seventh Doctor, “Remembrance of the Daleks”) In order to make all of this make sense, we have to view time like a Time Lord does: seeing not only the immediate effects, but the multiple time streams that can branch off from a single action.
The action in question is the refusal to fire the Moment and, instead, call all of the Doctor’s incarnations to freeze Gallifrey in an instant of time. From our viewpoint, Gallifrey stands and the Doctor no longer needs to mourn and regret his destruction of his people. Thus, the Ninth Doctor should not be angry and vengeful, and the Tenth Doctor is no longer the Man Who Regrets. This appears to invalidate the last eight years of the show. I posit that the last eight years of the show still stands, because from the viewpoint of a Time Lord, Gallifrey both stood and fell.
Here’s a visual aid for this. In it, I refer to the Doctors by their actors’ names rather than their numbers. Also, please note that the black arrows are the Doctor’s personal timeline, not the absolute universe time, though these blur into each other for a bit.
The horizontal timeline is the history we have seen in the show since 2005. Eccleston regenerates into Tennant, who deals with the Time Lords trying to come out of the time lock then regenerates into Smith, who will regenerate into Capaldi. The timeline is not to scale, as Eccleston and Tennant together didn’t live ten years, while Smith has lived over four hundred.
Just before Hurt regenerated into Eccleston, he fired the Moment, which obliterated Gallifrey and the Daleks (and a hell of a lot of other planets and species), creating the personal misery of the next three incarnations. In “The Day of the Doctor,” Tennant and Smith return to the Moment, just before it is fired, and with Hurt, come up with and enact an alternate plan to trap Gallifrey in an instant of time, obviating the need to fire the Moment. An alternate timeline is created, an alternate universe, in which the Doctor has no action to regret.
At the instant that Hurt does not fire the Moment, he becomes two people: the Doctor from both timelines. He returns with Tennant and Smith to the museum, but their timelines are not in sync. When he leaves in his TARDIS, the timelines re-sync: one with a War Doctor who fired the Moment (the horizontal line), and one with a War Doctor who didn’t (the vertical line). Neither can remember the actions of the other.
Which timeline does the show follow? It follows the original timeline. Smith went back and changed the fate of Gallifrey, but returns to his own timeline, the one in which it originally fell. He does not become the Eleventh Doctor from the timeline in which Gallifrey survived, and this is supported by the fact that when the timelines re-synced, he doesn’t have memories of a different past than what we’ve seen. (As this would be a huge plot point, I’d like to assume that the writers would have told us this if it had happened.) He does know that Gallifrey didn’t fall, because he knows what he just did.
Meanwhile, Tennant returns to the only timeline he knows, the one in which Gallifrey fell. When his timeline resyncs, he cannot remember what just happened either. You might argue that from the moment that the time fissure started opening, his timeline split in two, one in which the fissure didn’t appear and one in which it did, and he returned to the former, which is the “real” show timestream, thus forgetting.
A few other points about the figure.
- Tennant appears in “The Day of the Doctor” sometime after “The Waters of Mars” and before The End of Time. In The End of Time, he lands on the Ood Sphere and mentions he had been traveling, one point of which was getting married to Elizabeth I.
- Some people have wondered where the events of The End of Time fit into “The Day of the Doctor,” so I tried to indicate that. The attempt to escape the time lock could have happened at any time before the Moment was fired.
- I marked alternate Eccleston with a (?) because I am not convinced that Hurt would have regenerated into Eccleston in that timeline. With the outcome of the war so different, his regeneration may have resulted in a completely different man.
Where exactly is Gallifrey in this diagram? It’s trapped in an instant of time, so it could be anywhere: it isn’t necessarily in either of the two timelines. In fact, I would say it’s outside of both, in its own little time pocket somewhere.
So there. Yes, it’s wibbly-wobbly as well as timey-wimey, but I think it makes sense and explains why we continue to regard what we’ve seen in the show as having happened. I definitely welcome any comments, feedback, and criticism, as I love working through theories like this and would love to see any holes that I’ve overlooked.