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REVIEW: Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special, “The Day of the Doctor”

Written by Robert Wallis

WARNING:

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Time flies, doesn’t it? One moment you’re settling down for dinner in the wake of the Kennedy assassination and might just happen to catch the first episode of this new, little BBC sci-fi show; all of a sudden, it’s fifty years later and the whole nation is gearing up for the prestigious anniversary special of a veritable British institution.

Following the most recent, uneven series of Doctor Who, my expectations surrounding “The Day of the Doctor” were somewhat diminished: Matt Smith‘s third year on the show was defined by ambitious concepts and generally lazy writing. However, the preceding mini-episode “The Night of the Doctor”, released in the buildup to the special and which featured only the second (and presumably last) onscreen appearance of Paul McGann‘s Eighth Doctor did a lot to renew my confidence. More than simply just taking on-board the self-proclaimed blockbuster approach of Doctor Who Series 7, “Day of the Doctor” was going to be one for the true fans, and, indeed, it was.

I watched the special first at Shaftsbury Avenue Cineworld with friends then immediately again by myself when I got home. The first viewing was purely for me – I’ve been a fan of the show since I was about twelve and, growing up in the great Who drought (1989 – 2005), used to tune in to UKTV Gold on weekend mornings to watch reruns. The second viewing on my laptop screen over a cup of tea allowed for a touch more objectivity. While my inner fanboy hasn’t quite ceased his hallooing, I can say, in the very least, that the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special was good.

There was a comfortable blend of the epic and the discreet from the off. From the use of the original title sequence to the opening shot of a policeman’s shadow on a brick wall (ala the very first episode of Doctor Who), “Day of the Doctor” began with clear evocations of the show’s past and callbacks straight from the off, but also, appropriately, managed to look forward to its future. Tracking shots of Clara on a motorbike, speeding off to meet The Doctor, were suitably cinematic, especially in 3D – the shot of her driving straight into the TARDIS recalled a similar moment in the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie, though here accompanied by a seamless transition to the phone box’s extra-dimensional interior. The BBC have clearly spent some money; as a fan and license payer, I can say it’s worth every penny.

The initial plot of “Day of the Doctor” was somewhat perfunctory. However great it is seeing Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor dangling over Trafalgar Square from the base of an airborne TARDIS, you couldn’t help but feel it a case of semi-centennial window-dressing. Thank Heavens then for David Tennant, John Hurt, and the Fall of Gallifrey.

After eight years of teasing, Doctor Who has finally given us an (albeit limited) look at the Time War, the devastating conflict responsible for the destruction of both the Daleks and The Doctor’s own people, the Time Lords. While it couldn’t quite fulfill the promise of abstract monsters such as the Nightmare Child, it nevertheless gave us some impressive Terminator-esque, futuristic battle sequences. Even if the Daleks, as Who‘s most iconic enemy, never quite got the showcase they deserved – it’s difficult to remember them actually killing them – it allowed for a much-needed insight into the trauma The Doctor underwent all that time ago. “The Day of the Doctor” is all about the guilt that stems from this action, even 400 years later for Smith’s incarnation, and, in the end, the possibility of redemption.

In fact, the whole special is structured around the decision of Hurt’s War Doctor as to whether or not to use The Moment, a legendary Time Lord weapon of almost infinite power. Based on The Doctor’s own words as far back as Series 1 of New Who, “Dalek” (“I watched it happen. I made it happen!”), we know The Doctor has, will, and did bring the war to an end at the cost of the total annihilation of both sides, only himself excluded. While this later proved to be not quite the case*, it nevertheless provides a good opportunity to introduce Hurt’s 8.5th Doctor to meet with his Tenth and Eleventh incarnations. As a multi-Doctor story, though – like the “Two”/”Three”/”Five Doctors” before it – “The Day of The Doctor” is all about the meet-up.

Though it evoked a full range of emotions, “Day of the Doctor” had me beaming like a child, but no more than when Smith, Tennant and Hurt shared the screen. Brought together by Billie Piper‘s Moment, an embodiment of the doomsday device’s “conscience”, as a lesson to the predecessor, their interaction was a delight: Smith’s ebullient gesticulations, Tennant’s cheeky grin, Hurt’s weary exasperation. As in previous cases, each of their takes on the character of The Doctor manage to be strikingly different yet quintessentially the same.

Never is this clearer than when the three are locked up together in the Tower of London – the special gives us some slightly unnecessary closure as to the source of Queen Elizabeth I’s antipathy towards the Tenth Doctor (he proposed to her, rescued her from a Zygon, married her, then did a runner). In any case, the show gives us an insight into the Eleventh Doctor as a man in denial about his past, whose manic energy is grounded in a refusal to ever stop moving. Tennant’s Tenth, meanwhile, is all too aware of his past selves’ actions – he carries around in his head the number of all the children he sacrificed in ridding the universe of the Daleks, hence, perhaps, his all-out heroics. Hurt, meanwhile, was a perfect choice for the War Doctor, trauma etched on every line of his face, so worn-down and desperate from all the horrors that he’s seen that he’d borrow a gun to blast a parting message on a wall – “NO MORE” – before running off to commit double genocide.

A Doctor who would smash the TARDIS through a wall and obliterate a team of Daleks is not the man we know and love; he has renounced the very name he once adopted, and, indeed, is more than ready to renounce his life. He’s wracked with self-doubt and self-loathing, but, more simply than infusing him with a spark of optimism, the main event of “The Day of the Doctor” is to undo the foundation of the whole of New Who.

Showrunner Steven Moffat‘s script cleverly distracts us with a plot that concerns a former British monarch, UNIT, and possible Zygon invasion. The Doctors’ involvement in this is fairly passive in that, though the Tenth and Eleventh start up investigating different ends of the same case – one in the past, the other in the present – they only really feature in it at the very end and the (presumably happy) conclusion takes place entirely off-screen. Our investment in them has to do with the Time War. After all, alien invasions have been a near-weekly event for most of the last five years. Along the way, however, this storyline introduces numerous concepts – paintings that contain real things, real people, being the most notable – Moffat is setting up the real coup d’etat: undoing the canonical destruction of Gallifrey.

The Daleks may have survived, scattered to the winds, and the Time Lord High Council, exiled to another dimension, but The Doctor’s home world disappeared from existence. The ripples of this defined Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor, and, as I’ve said, both his successors to date, but now, it seems, Gallifrey had simply been misplaced, yanked from its position in time and space by a congregation of Doctors, all The Doctors (yes, ALL of them). The sheer glee that accompanied this turn of events – there’s Hartnell, there’s Davison, there’s Peter freaking Capaldi! – made up for the slightly neat, conveniently non-specific ability to make this happen. It was, in any case, a brave move.

With Matt Smith leaving the role in just over a month and after eight years back on the air, Doctor Who is looking to shake things up a bit. Since Christopher Eccleston first told Rose Tyler to “Run!”, the show’s done just that – from Shakespearean London to the end of the universe and beyond. After so much aimless travel, though, maybe it was time The Doctor and his companion(s) were running towards something.

This last season of Doctor Who has been perhaps the most ambitious in conception and execution of the show’s whole run, but hugely inconsistent for it. Too often the episodes wrote themselves into a corner or else ran out of energy before the end. “The Day of the Doctor” was Who with an unlimited budget, the chance to do anything. What we got was ill-thought-out proposal on the part of the Tenth, the Eleventh Doctor pretending to have a job, and John Hurt’s “Doctor on a day it wasn’t possible to get it right”. Maybe it was possible to greet the tide of expectation surrounding the 50th anniversary special; all I know is that it was touching, that it made me laugh, and, most of all, hopeful about the show’s next half century.

 

ADDITIONAL NOTES (IN ABUNDANCE)

  • As the War Doctor says, the Tenth and Eleventh Doctor are both childish in their own ways: they both posture, act out. Still, if anyone made them afraid of being an adult, it was him.
  • Joanna Page‘s Elizabeth I alternates between being a wet blanket and a hard-ass. I think I’m most annoyed with her, though, because she keeps butting in on Doctor-time.
  • The Doctor’s comparing screwdrivers is cute. What’s more interesting is their use as a metaphor for The Doctor’s themselves: “different case, same software”.
  • The Third Doctor’s “reversing the polarity of the neutron flow” gets a look-in, even if they do screw it up. Doesn’t change the fact that neutrons are neutral and therefore don’t have a polarity to change.
  • Moffat seems to have gone out of his way to make the Eleventh Doctor the mentally quickest. If Hurt’s is “a warrior” and the Tenth just “a hero” does that make the Eleventh somehow truer?
  • On rewatching, the episode definitely foreshadows Kate Stewart being replaced by a Zygon. There’s a strange musical sting as she heads off-screen at one point; when she comes back she’s definitely been replaced.
  • War Doctor: “Timey-wimey?” Tenth Doctor: “I have no idea where he picks that stuff up.”
  • As always, Moffat’s dialogue is great. Once again, he gets a laugh out of a horse, too.
  • Osgood is almost definitely only hear because Clara can’t be in too places at once. Still, she does have a Tom Baker scarf and that inhaler is a nice testament to human strength/frailty. She even gets to live!
  • From the time they enter the Black Archive, you know those memory filters are gonna come into play. They are something of a deus ex machina, though – nothing new there, then. :-p
  • When the idea is first floated about the War Doctor not using The Moment, it suggests that Moffat might be about to completely rewrite the continuity of new Who. Thankfully, nothing that destructive.
  • Even with the threat of nuclear explosion, the Zygon threat all feels a bit low-key. Also, why a nuclear bomb? Wouldn’t a large incendiary device of any sort pretty much do the trick without wiping London off the map?
  • Hurt’s War Doctor feels, to an extent, like Old Who passing judgment on the New. Tennant and Smith have been two of the youngest Doctors to date – it makes sense he might mistake them for companions.
  • And who knew the sonic screwdrivers could repel Daleks?!
  • Who doesn’t love the roundels?
  • There are a few plot holes to account for. Wasn’t it suggested that the painting The Doctor’s hid out in *was* Gallifrey? Also, why did no one check under the sheets in the lower gallery?
  • Shouldn’t the second “the” in “The Day of the Doctor” be capitalized? He is supposed to be the definitive article, even if there are twelve of him – soon thirteen – running about in time and space.
  • Am I the only one who can’t imagine William Hartnell’s Doctor weaving the TARDIS around Gallifrey in sync with all his other incarnations?
  • I might be reading too much into it but the Big Red Button on The Moment seems to be a knowing reference to the “reset button” criticism common to so many New Who stories.
  • Those time fissures look a lot like the time scoops from the revamped DVD version of “The Five Doctors”.
  • Poor guard, working there for 10 years with no idea time’s passed. That’s gotta screw you up.
  • This episode really threw in everything but the kitchen sink. And Christopher Eccleston. At least we got a non-Rose Billie Piper. Every time they’ve brought the character back since “Doomsday” it’s been to diminishing returns.
  • Her mocking Hurt’s Doctor was compelling. He seemed so, well, hurt by her mocking repetition of “No more”. It also served to set her apart from the real Rose pretty quickly, too.
  • The Cup-a-Soup’s a great analogy (just add time).
  • How exactly do you TARDIS-proof?
  • That shot of Peter Capaldi’s eyes over the top of the TARDIS console was electrifying.
  • John Hurt happening to regenerate just then was a bit dramatically convenient. The whole thing was such a tease, too, cutting away just at the point of transition between him and Eccleston.
  • Why does Gallifrey High Command refer to The Doctor as a madman and a fool? The War Doctor was bred to fight for them, so you’d think they’d have some appreciation for his abilities.
  • The Dalek fleet wiping itself out was unconvincing. Sure there weren’t even a few left to go rampaging across the universe? Also, didn’t the Dalek Emperor specifically reference The Doctor having destroyed them?
  • And David Tennant gets a slightly more dignified “I don’t want to go”. What is it with the BBC using that phrase this week to tug on my heartstrings?
  • Is Tom Baker as the curator supposed to be a future Doctor modeled on “an old favorite”. He’s so weird and camp and haunted, it’s hard not to feel like he’s an older, wiser version of the character gone back to guide his younger self.
  • That line of Doctors at the end was really unconvincing. I know most of them are either dead or too old to convincingly play the character anymore, but some of that CGI was really shoddy.
  • If the next series does follow a single plot thread, it’ll be the first Doctor Who series to do so since “The Trial of a Time Lord” back in 1986 (though I’d prefer “The Key to Time”. Who wouldn’t?)
  • The Eleventh Doctor knows where he’s heading to, but we know where he’s going, and soon. Trenzalore…

 

Hope you’ve enjoyed my review. All things being equal, I’ll be back to review the Christmas Special sometime between the air time and New Year.

About the author

Robert Wallis

You can also read Rob's work at www.ofallthefilmblogs.blogspot.com.