Whew!!! After six long months of waiting, “The Day of the Doctor,” the 50th Anniversary Special of Doctor Who, aired today, November 23rd. It was so very cool that it was broadcast here in the States on BBC America at the exact time it was showing on the telly on the other side of the pond.
Ever since “The Name of the Doctor” back in May, there has been a ton of speculation about who, exactly, the mysterious previously-unseen incarnation of the Doctor, played by John Hurt, really was, and why he was the Doctor’s “secret.” Indeed, “The Day of the Doctor” dealt with exactly that.
I’m really relieved that I managed to view the mini episode that the BBC debuted online a week ago. Every time they had one of those in the past, I’ve somehow missed them, and didn’t catch them until months later. Which was a shame, because those short segments had some nice character material, such as the development of the Eleventh Doctor and River Song’s relationship. But as soon as I started seeing that a bunch of people were posting links to “The Night of the Doctor” on Facebook, I decided to check it out. And, wow, was I genuinely surprised.
“I’m a Doctor. But probably not the one you were expecting.” Oh my god, it’s Paul McGann! Seventeen years after his sole television outing, the Eighth Doctor returned. I’m glad the BBC managed to keep the lid on this, because it was such a shock. I thought McGann was brilliant in the 1996 television movie, and he’s done great work continuing as the Doctor in the Big Finish audio plays. I’m thrilled he was given the opportunity to bring closure to the Eighth Doctor, to show how that incarnation ended.
“The Night of the Doctor” is such a brilliant inversion by Steven Moffat on the typical Doctor Who formula. You have a set-up where the Doctor arrives to rescue Cass from her crashing spaceship. At first it seems very similar to many other times when the Doctor gained a new companion. But the instant she finds out that the Doctor is a Time Lord, she pulls back in horror & anger. She literally would rather die than be saved by one of them, because of the horrific carnage that has been wrecked all across the universe in the war between the Time Lords and the Daleks. After the ship crashes on the planet Karn (first seen in “The Brain of Morbius”) the mysterious Sisterhood is able to revive the Doctor for four minutes, and offer him a chance to select the shape & personality of his next regeneration. And the dying Doctor, who previously refused to fight in the Time War, now believes that his inaction has prolonged the conflict and led to Cass’ death, as well as countless others. He chooses the path of a warrior, and regenerates into John Hurt’s “War Doctor.”
As we see via his reflection at the end of “The Night of the Doctor,” the War Doctor actually started out with a young body. By the time “The Day of the Doctor” opens, on the final day of the Time War, he is now a haggard, weary old man. The implication is that he has been fighting for decades, perhaps centuries. Having witnessed carnage & destruction on an inconceivable scale, the War Doctor finally vows “No more.” He seizes the sentient Time Lord doomsday device known as the Moment. He intends to use it to totally destroy Gallifrey and the Daleks, finally ending the Time War before all of reality is consumed by it.
Arriving in a barren desert with the Moment, the War Doctor reluctantly prepares to commit genocide. However, the Moment peers into the Doctor’s future time stream and projects an Interface in the form of Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) to communicate with him. The Interface asks the War Doctor if he is truly certain he wants to take such an apocalyptic action and wipe out billions of lives in an instant.
Elsewhere / when, in present day London, Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) is now a school teacher at Coal Hill School, a call back to the very first episode, “An Unearthly Child,” and the characters of Ian Chesterton & Barbara Wright (when “The Day of the Doctor” opened with the original 1963 series credits, I think I made a “squee” noise or something). Receiving a message from the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith), she zooms off on her motorcycle to meet him. Before the two can start off on their latest trip, UNIT snatches the TARDIS by helicopter grappling hook and whisks it away to the National Gallery. Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) needs the Doctor to investigate a mystery involving strange artwork hidden in the museum’s basement, paintings dating back to the reign of Elizabeth I (Joanna Page), specifically events in 1562, when the Queen was romantically involved with none other than the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant). There’s a complicated plot afoot involving the shape-shifting Zygons, who plan to use stolen Time Lord technology to conquer the Earth.
(Tennant once commented that his favorite Doctor Who monsters from when he watched the series as a child were the Zygons, and he would have liked for his Doctor to meet them. I’m glad he finally had that opportunity. Besides, they were just too cool not to eventually bring back to television.)
The Moment Interface generates time fissures, bringing together the War Doctor with his two later incarnations. The Interface wishes to show the War Doctor what sort of man he will become if he chooses to destroy the Time Lords, a man who hundreds of years later is at first constantly haunted by the death toll, and who even later is furiously struggling to forget all that, to blot out who he once was, and the terrible action he took.
I absolutely loved the interaction between Matt Smith, David Tennant, and John Hurt. Steven Moffat scripted some superb material for them, with each version of the Doctor alternating between trying to outdo his other selves and congratulating them on their (and therefore his) brilliance. It led to a lot of genuinely funny moments, as well as some very heartfelt ones. Smith was his usual great self, and Tennant slipped effortlessly back into the role. As for Hurt, he was absolutely brilliant. As the War Doctor, he had the quality of an eccentric, rather mischievous grandfather figure, shades of the Doctor of old. At the same time he so effectively projected this sorrowful, almost physical burden weighing him down from the long years of fighting.
Even after seeing the man (men?) he will become, the War Doctor is still ready to activate the Moment, and with a heavy heart prepares to press down on the Big Red Button… yep, it literally is a Big Red Button. Previously, when futilely attempting to figure out how the Moment worked, he had wished for one of those, and finally the Interface provided him with just that. The Tenth and Eleventh Doctors, having come to accept the necessity of what he / they did, are ready to activate the Moment with him, and shoulder the burden & guilt.
Clara, however, begs them to find another way. She reminds the Eleventh Doctor of what he told her in “The Name of the Doctor,” that when he chose his name he made a promise to himself. Now she urges him to find some way to keep that promise. The trio of Doctors realizes that, on their own, none of them would be able to figure out how to alter time and save Gallifrey while still defeating the Daleks and ending the Time War. But pooling all of their knowledge together, and the power of their TARDISes, they can use the aforementioned technology pilfered by the Zygons to freeze the entire planet in an instant of time and transport that into another reality (or something) leaving the billions of Dalek spaceships to obliterate themselves in their own crossfire.
Next thing you know, you have a dozen TARDISes circling the besieged Gallifrey, as every one of the past incarnations of the Doctor end up working together to enact this plan. Did I say a dozen? Actually it’s thirteen, as Peter Capaldi appears in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it surprise cameo as the future Twelfth Doctor.
Later on, back in 2013 at the National Gallery, the War Doctor and the Tenth Doctor both say their farewells. They each know that when they return to their own point in the time stream, they’ll forget what happened, that they chose to try to save Gallifrey rather than destroy it, at least until they reach this moment in time as the Eleventh Doctor. Finally on his own, the Eleventh Doctor sits, looking at a painting of the final day of the Time War, a painting alternatively known by two names, “No More” and “Gallifrey Falls.” He wonders if he really did succeed in saving his people. And then the museum’s eccentric curator approaches him and, referring to the painting, states that it actually has one title: “Gallifrey Falls No More.” The Eleventh Doctor realizes that the plan worked, that somewhere his home world once more exists. Oh, yes, and the fellow playing that odd curator is a certain Tom Baker.
All in all, I think that “The Day of the Doctor” was an excellent anniversary story, especially given time & budgetary constraints, the availability of actors (Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee have all passed on, Eccleston was very likely not interested in participating, and everyone else who has played the Doctor looks much older than they did back in the day), and the simple fact that if Moffat had tossed in too many elements of the past, the story might have been incoherent and collapsed under its own weight. If you want a really great 50th anniversary story with appearances by all eleven Doctors, numerous companions, and a whole bunch of monsters, pick up the twelve issue comic book series Prisoners of Time, which I’ve blogged about a couple of times. And if you want an anniversary story starring all of the surviving actors who played the Doctor in the classic series (Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann) there is the audio adventure “The Light at the End” out now from Big Finish. But as far as the television format goes, I think that “The Day of the Doctor” was probably almost as good as it gets.
Really, my only major criticism is that the plotline of the Zygon invasion is sort of left unresolved. The Doctors force Kate Lethbridge-Stewart and the Zygons to sit down and negotiate a peaceful settlement, but we never find out the outcome of that. I really hope that at some point in a future episode that gets addressed. It would be interesting to see the Zygons again as, despite their typically belligerent actions, they probably aren’t truly evil (or at least not as evil as, say, the Daleks or the Master) and the only reason why they want to invade Earth is because their own planet was destroyed.
So, was it worth the wait? Yeah, it was. “The Day of the Doctor” was great because it demonstrated just why the Doctor is such a great hero. Despite his many flaws, he tries to use intelligence instead of violence to solve problems, and he genuinely wants to preserve life instead of destroying it. He’s seen the worst that the universe has to offer, and he still does his best to remain true to his principals. And, yes, unfortunately sometimes the Doctor fails. Sometimes he ends up in a no-win situation where he either cannot save the day or he has to compromise his morals in order to save the most lives. But afterwards he always resolves to try harder next time, to be a better person in the future.
Here’s to the next fifty years of Doctor Who.