Doctor Who–The Day of the Doctor

“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be – be one.” – Marcus Aurelius

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

Tricky things, anniversary shows. Although this was celebrating 50 years, technically there’s only been two previous attempts – The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors (no, I’m not counting Dimensions in Time). They have to be crowd-pleasers, they have to encompass the show’s ever-growing mythology, and yet they also have to be accessible to viewers who don’t necessarily have the extensive knowledge of the show’s past that us fanboys have. The Three Doctors works rather well in that regard, while The Five Doctors doesn’t. But what about Day of the Doctor?

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Well, for me it struck the balance fairly well. Like the previous two, it centred on the Doctor’s home, and its people – the Time Lords; also like the previous two, it sought to rewrite what we thought we knew of them. And most importantly, like the previous two, it had a meeting of multiple Doctors. But while there were continuity nods aplenty, none of them were so vital to the plot as to leave the casual viewer puzzling over them.

Any anniversary show is necessarily going to reflect the time in the show’s history that it was produced. This was determinedly a Steven Moffat story, with all his usual tropes – time paradoxes, a tricksy non-linear narrative, and the spunky young companion coming up with the solution when the Doctor couldn’t. How much you enjoyed it probably depended on how much you like Moffat’s style. As I know quite a few fans who don’t care for it, I imagine there’s quite a love/hate thing on the internet forums right now.

For me though, while I have certain issues with Moffat’s style, this was hugely enjoyable, an example of a screenwriter who knows how to put a story together. All the elements introduced were cleverly used to resolve the plot, and it felt like a weightier plot than either of the previous two. Yes, in The Three Doctors the entire universe was at stake; arguably it was here too. And in The Five Doctors, the stakes are Borusa’s immortality – in a somewhat confusing narrative, the actual jeopardy to the Doctor and his companions is not altogether clearly defined.

Here, though. it was all about the Doctor himself – everything else, even the fate of the universe, was secondary. This was all about the greatest moral dilemma the Doctor has ever faced, the one that’s hung heavy over the show since its 2005 return. It was about the Doctor seeking redemption for the worst things he’s ever done – ending the Time War by destroying both the Daleks and his own people. This was heavy stuff, embodied in John Hurt’s impressively weary War Doctor; and yet Moffat didn’t forget that, as a celebration, this was also meant to be fun.

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There was spectacle and humour aplenty, the latter mostly derived from putting together three Doctors to resolve, this time, multiple plots – plots which all cohered into a single one, their connections becoming obvious as the story went on. The spectacle was provided by the depiction, previously only hinted at, of the epic Time War, with a convincing depiction of its last day, the fall of Gallifrey under a massive Dalek onslaught. Meanwhile, Matt Smith’s Doctor was investigating some peculiar paintings in the National Gallery’s mysterious ‘Undergallery’ on long-concealed orders from Queen Elizabeth I, while David Tennant’s Doctor was back in 1562, actually hanging out with the Virgin Queen as he tried to deal with an incursion by shape-shifting aliens the Zygons.

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That this all cohered into something that made sense was quite impressive. It helped that Moffat refrained from the temptation to cram in as many returning Doctors, companions and monsters as possible, which is what made The Five Doctors such a jumble. Instead, the story focused on just three doctors, and funnily enough they had the same dynamic as the ones in the original Three Doctors – the most recent pair bickering in a comedic (and self-referentially funny) way, while John Hurt served as the ‘elder statesman’ to shake his head wearily at their juvenile behaviour.

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The irony being – as with The Three Doctors, again – that the oldest-seeming Doctor was actually the youngest. Both David Tennant and Matt Smith switched easily from humour to pathos when the script needed them to reflect that, showing the ‘War Doctor’ what he would become as a consequence of his decision – “the man who regrets, and the man who forgets”.

He was summed up thus by Time Lord super weapon the Moment, the “galaxy eater” – a sentient weapon with a conscience that could stand in judgement on its wielders. The idea of a super weapon that’s near-unusable because of its conscience is a clever one, but it’s not Steven Moffat’s; I presume he was channeling Douglas Adams, who conceived of such a thing as a central plot point in Life, the Universe and Everything. Here, the weapon manifested itself as a representation of the Doctor’s past (“or is it your future? I always get those two mixed up.”) – Rose Tyler. But in her fearsome, all-powerful, Bad Wolf persona.

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This was a clever way of getting the popular Billie Piper into the show without needing to go through the tortuous hoops needed to retrieve Rose from the parallel universe. Thankfully, Piper seemed more able to speak through her own teeth than in her previous appearance, and acquitted herself well as a far more weird and alien character than Rose.

All three narratives played out satisfyingly, with nods to the past aplenty. The contemporary plot started with a bang, as Clara (now rather improbably a teacher at Coal Hill School) motorbiked her way into the TARDIS, which was then gratuitously picked up by a helicopter and deposited in the centre of Trafalgar Square, on the orders of returning UNIT honcho Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave, as much fun as last time).

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The spectacle of that sequence was satisfying if entirely unnecessary to the plot; and since when does the TARDIS have convenient handholds in its base? Also, it would be nice to see UNIT not portrayed for once as incompetent and/or morally dubious. But I’ll let that slide. It was nice to have references to Lee Evans’ character Malcolm, but a shame he didn’t appear. I got the impression that inhaler-dependent, scarf-wearing Osgood may have been written in as his replacement. Still, she was fun. The scarf was a nice touch (I’m pretty sure it was one of the officially-licensed BBC ones) and it was surely more than a coincidence that she shared a surname with hapless Sgt Osgood from The Daemons.

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Back in 1562, Joanna Page was a suitably haughty presence as Elizabeth I, the subplot neatly filling in the hints about her in both The Shakespeare Code and The End of Time. So the Doctor really did marry her, but as a result of an ill-conceived bluff to uncover what he thought was a Zygon imposter. And presumably he did actually have sex with her, hence his reference to her historical nickname of ‘the Virgin Queen’ (“well done, Doctor”). Presumably his abandonment of this marriage was what led her to proclaim him her “mortal enemy” at the end of The Shakespeare Code, though it seems a trifle odd that she would forget to revoke his position as head of the Undergallery.

All this was tied together by the Time Fissures generated by the Moment, a plot device which was reminiscent of The Five Doctors. It enabled Moffat to have his usual fun with time paradoxes, embodied perfectly by the fez – picked up in the present day by Matt Smith, then flung back to 1562 where it was thrown into the Fissure to end up on Gallifrey on the last day of the Time War, then brought back to 1562 again by John Hurt, where presumably it was later preserved in the Undergallery by the Queen, ready to be picked up in the 21st century by Matt Smith and start the cycle again. Meaning that the fez was a temporal anomaly which had no beginning or end to its existence.

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But the main use of the time paradoxes was to rewrite the Doctor’s own personal history, something Moffat seems to delight in almost as much as enfant terrible author Lawrence Miles. He’s already had continuity effectively rewritten by rebooting the Universe in The Big Bang; here he got to undo Russell T Davies’ backstory of the Doctor as a war-shattered man plagued by survivor’s guilt, by allowing him to never make the decision that haunted him from the first Eccleston season up until now.

Presumably RTD is all right with that. And Moffat also got to have his cake and eat it with the somewhat contrived explanation that the time-streams were “out of sync” meaning that, apart from this brief moment, the Doctor will always think he really did commit genocide, only now realising, as Matt Smith, that he hadn’t.

That’s precisely the sort of convoluted reasoning that makes a lot of fans less than keen on Moffat’s style of storytelling, but I thought it worked quite well. It also explained why multi-Doctor stories can’t just be resolved by the later Doctor remembering what he saw in his earlier incarnations (despite what Time Crash claimed; I’m guessing that’s not canonical now).

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Whatever you think of the admittedly complex plotline though, this was made really special (as in previous efforts) by that very multi-Doctor action. Smith and Tennant had an excellent, easy chemistry from the first, hugely reminiscent of the bickering between Pertwee and Troughton. The dialogue was first rate as each mocked the other’s tropes, Tennant referring to Smith as “chinny”; Smith berating Tennant for his “sand shoes” and skinniness, along with his tendency to cop off with anything that moves.

Hurt also got to lampshade that last, in an tacit acknowledgement of how the Doctor has developed from his earlier celibacy to a romantic hero. Watching the reluctant snog between Ten and Queen Elizabeth, he asked Eleven, “is there a lot of this in my future?”, to which Eleven resignedly replied, “it does start to happen, yeah.”

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And it seems that, despite the revelation of a previously unseen incarnation, they are still to be referred to as ‘Ten’ and ‘Eleven’, with Hurt’s version to be known as ‘The War Doctor’. That’s all very well, but I can still count, you know. Still, Hurt was a welcome presence, his “posh gravity” a nice counterpart to the more colloquial and frenetic babblings of his successors. Moffat even got to have some well-aimed pops at his own dialogue style – “timey-wimey? Why can’t you talk like grown-ups?”. He also nicely punctured the recent trend of poking the ever-present sonic screwdriver in front of you as if it were a weapon – “it’s a screwdriver! What are you going to do, assemble some cabinets at them?”

It was also Hurt who gave the necessary gravitas to the Doctor’s ultimate decision to use the Moment to destroy both the Daleks and his own people, a moral dilemma up there with the Fourth Doctor’s indecisiveness about wiping out the Daleks (never mind that the Seventh blithely blew up their entire star system). It rang decidedly true when he pondered how much good his regret would result in, and was hugely emotional when both Ten and Eleven ended up agreeing with him, helping him take that final step, but not alone, because it was the only time when no decision could be “right”.

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Dramatically, it would have made perfect sense to end it there. But that would have been a hell of a downer for an anniversary celebration. And it was perfectly in keeping with the show’s spirit of improvisation triumphing over impossible adversity that, with Clara as inspiration, the Doctors came up with an alternative. The solution of putting Gallifrey into stasis – just as the Zygons had in the paintings – was a perfect payoff to the concept having earlier been established in the other plot.

As was the way it was implemented. In typical Moffat style, he’d thought through the implications of having multiple Doctors, and demonstrated it in the earlier, seemingly throwaway comic scene of them locked in the Tower. If the calculations to disintegrate the door would take the sonic screwdriver centuries, then if the earliest one started the calculation running, the latest would have a version of the screwdriver in which the calculation was complete.

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This paid off when, faced with the near-insurmountable problem of calculating how to put an entire planet into stasis, Eleven revealed how it could be done: “you might say I’ve been working on it all my lives.” And cue the triumphant, punch-the-air moment of every single incarnation turning up in their TARDISes. Not even being represented by archive footage and some impressionists where necessary undercut the power of the scene. And just when you thought it couldn’t get better, the future Doctor turned up, tantalisingly represented only by a close shot of Peter Capaldi’s eyes.

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In waiting for the climax of the plot to deluge us with past Doctors, rather than trying to cram in as many as possible from the start, Moffat avoided the problems of The Five Doctors and delivered a genuinely triumphant and euphoric ending. Yes, it does also, in a way, reset the series. The Doctor now has a new purpose – to find and liberate the frozen planet of Gallifrey, and all of his people, from their prison in a frozen moment in a parallel universe. But let’s not forget, the previous specials reset the series too. The Three Doctors ends with Pertwee’s exile to Earth lifted, the Doctor free to roam space and time again; while The Five Doctors ends with Davison going “on the run from his own people, in a rackety old TARDIS” – just how it all started.

Of course if he finds Gallifrey, it may not be what he was expecting – certainly the Time Lords’ previous reappearance, under the sadly absent-here Timothy Dalton, revealed them to have been changed by war into something near as bad as their foes. Plenty of potential there though – and under Moffat, it seems time will always be mutable, as we saw throughout this episode.

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Along the way, there were so many glancing references to the past that even now, after two viewings, I’m not sure I’ve caught them all. The opening, with the original 1963 music and title sequence; Coal Hill School, Head of Governors: I Chesterton; I M Foreman scrapyard; all those former companions’ photos pinned to the board at UNIT’s Black Archive; Jack Harkness’ Vortex Manipulator; Kate’s mention of the ‘Cromer Incident’ in the “70s or 80s depending on the reference”; and of course, the Zygons. It was great to see them back after their single, well-remembered appearance in the 70s. It was also fitting that the Daleks popped up, but probably a good thing that they were almost incidental to the plot.

Not to mention the ever-changing TARDIS interior, which meant we got the well-remembered classic line, “you’ve had this place redecorated, haven’t you? I don’t like it.” We finally got to see the link between old series console room and new as the “desktop glitched” – those classic roundelled walls with the Eccleston/Tennant console. “Ooh, the round things! I loved the round things! Er… what are they?” “No idea.”

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Probably the most significant thing from the past that turned up was, quite unexpectedly, Tom Baker. It was an affecting, moving scene informed by Tom’s real feelings as he talked of what appeared to be the Doctor’s future, retiring as a museum curator and perhaps revisiting some old faces, “but only the old favourites”.

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Sweet, yes, but a bit of a slap in the face to other ‘classic Doctors’ (who at least got a look in with Peter Davison’s marvellously funny behind the scenes spoof The Five(ish) Doctors). And while I do like the scene with Tom, it’s hard to disagree with those who say it’s self-indulgent in the extreme. It does at least imply, though, that the Doctor might have future incarnations beyond Peter Capaldi…

While I liked that scene in isolation, I’d venture that in singling out Tom over the others it felt a bit of a misstep. But it was one of very few in the episode. Did it live up to what I’d been expecting as a celebration of the longest-running sci-fi series in the world, a piece of British culture that’s been instrumental in shaping my life, my friends’ lives and those of so many others? Well… no. Nothing could have. But I think what we got here was something pretty special, and well able to hold its head up alongside those other tricky anniversary specials from the past. Here’s to another fifty years Smile

“Clara sometimes asks me if I dream. Of course I dream, I tell her. Everybody dreams. ‘What do you dream about?’, she asks. Same thing everybody dreams about, I tell her. I dream about where I’m going. She always laughs at that. ‘You’re not going anywhere, you’re just wandering about.’ That’s not true. Not any more. I have a new destination. My journey is the same as yours, the same as anyone’s. It’s taken me so many years, so many lifetimes, but at last I know where I’m going. Where I’ve always been going. Home. The long way round.”

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1 thought on “Doctor Who–The Day of the Doctor”

  1. I’m so glad I read this. After all the trailers and missing the programme, this filled all the gaps for me, Thanks Simon.

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