With many months of hyped build-up, as well as 50 years of fan expectations, the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor” had an uphill climb to fulfill expectations. Happily, it succeeded. While not the best episode ever for the series, it hit enough of the right notes to be an excellent tribute to the show’s long history.
Writer/show-runner Steven Moffat was wise to veer away from the high concept, end-of-the-universe plots that tend to dominate special episodes of Doctor Who. There were two storylines competing for screen time here. One plot was a standard invasion storyline but the second plot, about the Doctor(s) and the repercussions of his actions in the Time War, was the heart of the episode because it dealt with the character’s guilt. Along with current Doctor Matt Smith, David Tennant returned for the special, along with John Hurt as the War Doctor. There are lots of Easter eggs and little treats thrown in for long-time fans, and two of them were sure to get fanboy/fangirl squeals from the viewer.
Don’t read any further if you want to avoid spoilers…
The Day of the Doctor opens with a surprisingly retro moment, as the original title sequence from the William Hartnell era begins the fun. Immediately following that is a close recreation of the opening moments of the original pilot An Unearthly Child. We cut to current companion Clara (Jenna Coleman), who is—in another delightful Easter egg—teaching at the Coal Hill School, which is where the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan attended school in An Unearthly Child. Surprisingly, the episode doesn’t pick up the thread of the cliffhanger from “The Name of the Doctor”, and there has apparently been a considerable time-jump between episodes, because we see a joyful reunion between Clara and the Doctor (Matt Smith.) Their reunion is interrupted by UNIT, who summons the Doctor to help them figure out some strange goings-on. Jemma Redgrave is back as Kate Stewart, daughter of classic series fan-favorite Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart. Kate is assisted by a young woman named Osgood, who wears a Tom Baker scarf and looks like she’s on her way to comic-con. The painting motif is revisited once again, as paintings are used for sending warning messages through time. A painting from Queen Elizabeth the First depicts the fall of Gallifrey, the Doctor’s home planet.
This segues into the last day of the oft-discussed Time War, which has been such a big part of the show’s backstory since 2005. The Doctor’s oldest, deadliest enemies, the Daleks, are invading Gallifrey and the Time Lords are on the verge of defeat, while the universe is on the brink of collapse due to the side-effects of the Time War. The war actually seems surprisingly conventional considering it’s between two of the most brilliant, advanced races in all of time and space. Sky-trenches are a nifty idea, but we expect something more unique, such as the cool Time War horrors described by the Doctor in “The End of Time”. Actually, these Time Lords seem much more reasonable and level-headed than the corrupt Time Lords last seen in “The End of Time”. Sadly, there is no reappearance by Timothy Dalton as the tyrannical Rassilon.
Into this chaos steps the War Doctor, a hitherto unknown incarnation of the Doctor played by John Hurt. The War Doctor’s origins were covered in the recent mini-episode “Night of the Doctor”, where Doctor Eight (Paul McGann, in a welcome return) regenerated into Hurt’s War Doctor. The War Doctor has decided that the war must end, before all time and reality collapses. He raids the Omega Arsenal (another shout-out to the classic series) and steals the ultimate weapon—the Moment—and plans to destroy not only the Daleks but his own people as well.
Before the War Doctor can utilize it however, he is interrupted by Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) who mysteriously appears. We find out that this Rose is the embodiment of the Moment’s artificial intelligence who has a conscience and is trying to get the user to reconsider before activation. Strangely, the Moment picks the image of a companion the Doctor hasn’t met yet to manifest as. To make it more complicated, the Moment picks the Goddess-like ‘Bad Wolf’ version of Rose from “Parting of the Ways”. (Although with a better sense of humor.) She needs to teach the War Doctor a life lesson. This combo character has the ability to open up time portals, giving the TARDIS a rest, and creating a way for the multiple Doctors to meet. It also works as a set-up to get laughs out of 11’s fez fetish.
Elsewhere (or else-time), Doctor 10 (David Tennant) is having a Harlequin romance with young Queen Elizabeth (Joanna Page), who’s corseted cleavage is on display. Doctor 10’s ultra-cool sex-symbol image is focused on, to differentiate him from the oddness and faux-cool of Doctor 11. The Ten/Queen Liz romance—which was foreshadowed in “the Beast Below”—is thankfully interrupted by the return of the Zygons. It was good to see the shape-shifting alien villains again. They only appeared once before, during the Tom Baker era in “Terror of the Zygons” and they had untapped potential. It’s too bad they didn’t bring the Loch Ness Monster with them again. The transformative nature of the Zygons leads to a running gag of Doctor 10 continually making incorrect guesses about who’s really a Zygon. (The scene where he threatens a bunny rabbit provides a good laugh.)
Back in 2013, Doctor 11 and Clara have discovered that the Zygons are using paintings as a form of suspended animation to allow them to travel from Elizabethan England to the present. One of the Moment’s/Rose’s portals serves to bring 10 and 11 together. There is a fun minute with the two Doctor’s meeting and reacting to each other, including comparing Sonic Screwdrivers. They even get to “reverse the polarity” together. After 10 finishes his obligatory kissing-the-girls scene (The whole repeated meme of the Doctor smooching with every girl on the show has outlive its purpose. The sexualization of the Doctor is already been established and the shock-value designed to vex traditionalist fans has faded through overuse) the War Doctor arrives, and proceeds to steal the scene. The wonderful Hurt more than holds his own against the established Doctors, treating them like children. He even gets to call them on always brandishing their sonic screwdrivers like weapons, although they’re harmless. (“What are you going to do? Build shelves?” he asks.) There are some nice scenes where the three Doctors are locked up together, while back in the present, there is a reference to “the Three Doctors” by Kate, and an amusing Men-In-Black homage about the memories of UNIT agents being wiped for security reasons. Clara steals a vortex manipulator that used to belong to Captain Jack Harkness and goes to rescue the Doctors, all of whom were too busy with their clever escape plan to realize that the door to their cell was left unlocked.
The script paused for a pointless scene of Doctor 10 marrying Queen Elizabeth (I have the same problem with the Doctor’s frequent marriages as I have with his constant kissing. In the last two years he’s married River Song, Marilyn Monroe and Queen Elizabeth. What’s the point?) and then we return to the present where Kate and Osgood are planning the rather extreme tactic of nuking London as a way of stopping the Zygons. Fortunately, the Doctor arrives, and even though he fails in convincing Kate that her strategy is a bit of overkill, 10 and 11 create a peaceful but entirely bizarre solution by brainwashing the Zygons and humans so that none of them remember if they are the aliens or not. (Yet another amazing ability of the sonic screwdriver.) Even more odd is that this whole Zygon/invasion plot is never resolved. The Doctors just leave the confused foes alone to settle the invasion by themselves. The Doctors have to attend to another plot-point.
The big finale comes when the War Doctor, having learned the wrong lesson from his time-trip, is returned to the Time War by Rose/Moment/Bad Wolf (pick one) and is about to commit his genocidal action. Shockingly, he is joined by 10 and 11 who–despite years of guilt and regret–choose to join their former incarnation in destroying their own people, so they can all share the responsibility. Once again, its Clara to the rescue, as she becomes the voice of reason and convinces them that there may be a better method for a guy called the Doctor to use than genocide. The three doctors decide to join forces and win the Time War without destroying the Time Lords, much to the relief of the Moment/Bad Wolf Rose. She’s so happy in fact, that she calls in the cavalry, in the form of the other nine Doctors. Archival footage gives us a fleet of blue boxes manned by Doctors One through Eight, as well as Eccleston’s Doctor Nine. This scene brings us the first of two fan-gasm inducing cameos, as future Doctor Peter Capaldi joins the assault, helping the other Doctors move Gallifrey out of the way, causing the Daleks to destroy each other in a cross-fire. This time Gallifrey is not destroyed or Time-Locked or whatever happened to it—it’s now frozen in time in an alternate universe. This event sets up the story arc for year eight where Capaldi’s Doctor will go in search of his displaced, trapped home.
The epilogue saw the War Doctor officially re-adopting the name of the Doctor, and flying off, only to begin his regeneration. One of the most disappointing things was that Chris Eccleston did not return for a cameo, in the regeneration scene. We cut away from the regeneration to watch 10’s departure, and a reprise of his disappointing final words “I don’t want to go”, which worked a lot better in this context. The final moments of the episode leads to the biggest fan “Oh my God, that’s so cool!” moment, when classic series Doctor Tom Baker—who played the immensely popular Doctor number Four—appears as “the Caretaker”. The exact nature of this character is left deliberately vague, but regardless, it was great to see the awesome Tom Baker interacting with Matt Smith’s Doctor.
The episode was not without its flaws but it served as a terrific homage to the show’s 50 year history. The interactions between Smith and Tennant were great (I love the jibes they took at each other, especially when 11 calls 10 Dick Van Dyke) and Hurt stole the show as the grim and grizzled War Doctor or Doctor 8.5. (Do we have to change the numbering of the later Doctors now?) Billie Piper gave probably her finest performance as Bad Wolf/Rose/the Moment, but to be honest, there was really no point to her being in this episode at all. The Moment should have been an earlier companion or even an earlier Doctor, someone War Doc would know and trust. Clara is finally coming along as a companion. After a slow start, she’s becoming to the Doctor what Rose was supposed to be but never really was. We were repeatedly told that Rose ‘fixed’ the Doctor and was a good influence on him, although nothing on screen showed us that. Clara, however, continues to be the Doctor’s rock-steady foundation, and acts as the Jiminy Cricket to his Pinocchio.
The show could have been longer (90 minutes would have given more time to tie up the aborted Zygon plot) but at 75 minutes, it’s still a treat. It was great seeing Tennant again, even if his role was not really necessary for the plot to advance. John Hurt has secured his place in Doctor Who history in a single episode, and Matt Smith gives a fun penultimate performance as Doctor 11 (or is it 12 now?) His last appearance will be in the Christmas special next month, when Capaldi takes over the TARDIS.
Overall, the 50th anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor” succeeded in doing what it needed to do…it was a fun episode that paid the proper tribute to what came before, reaching back as far as Hartnell. So happy birthday, Doctor Who, and let’s see what the future will bring.