“Am I having a mid-life crisis?”
The War Doctor upon meeting his Tenth and Eleventh incarnations, The Day of the Doctor.
As fans, we can be our own worst enemies – we’re possessive and high maintenance about our favourite TV program. We can get into such frenzied speculation about new Doctor Who episodes – long before they’re even broadcast. By the time they arrive we leave ourselves exhausted and mildly depressed, bemoaning that it was never as good as it should have been. We set the bar so high that we inevitably set ourselves up for a fall.
As Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor approached, the anticipation seemed to reach almost pressure cooker proportions. We all seemed so disenchanted with the varying quality of the episodes in the second half of Series 7 and the way the Clara/Impossible Girl plotline had just fizzled out that we wanted – in fact desperately needed – the 50th anniversary special to meet, if not exceed, our wildest expectations. Now, with the special behind us, I’d have to argue we can breathe a huge sigh of relief, assured that the series has a great future ahead of it.
Impressive ratings and box office receipts aside, the surest sign of the success of The Day of the Doctor has been the positive feedback from critics, casual observers and even some fans who have been modern Doctor Who’s biggest detractors. Of course, there will always be fans that have to rain down on the victory parade, with whines most notably about the serial’s climax but then I figure those individuals were never going to be satisfied anyway. The Day of the Doctor works because it doesn’t take itself too seriously (even though the theme at its heart is very earnest) and it is accessible to even the most casual viewers. It also manages to carry enough Easter eggs to please die hard Whovians without bashing casual viewers senseless around the head with 50 years of history and continuity.
Steven Moffat has miraculously pulled off the great escape. In just 75 minutes, he delivers an epic story that is part space opera (the Time War), part farce (the Zygon plot to oust Queen Elizabeth I), part comedy (the three Doctors meeting), part contemporary thriller (the mystery in the National Gallery and the Zygon takeover of UNIT’s Black Archive) and part morality tale (the War Doctor’s terrible decision and the effect it has on the Doctor’s subsequent incarnations). Moffat melds an unlikely mesh of genres into a compelling, exciting and enjoyable whole – and to boot manages to shoehorn in not just three but 13 Doctors and set the series up for some very exciting years to come.
So why, against all the odds, does The Day of the Doctor work so well? As I’ve said above, the episode isn’t a tortured, navel-gazing, self-obsessed and dark morass. It celebrates the Doctor with a sense of fun and optimism, despite the grim back story at its heart, and that helps to engage its audience – both fan and non-fan – from the get-go.
Whether consciously or not, Moffat employs a tested storytelling technique that was first pioneered by Charles Dickens in arguably one of literature’s first “time travel” tales – A Christmas Carol. Like that classic text (and indeed Moffat’s own Doctor Who Christmas special of the same name three years ago), The Day of the Doctor is the story of a man (the War Doctor), who with the counsel of a ghostly apparition (the Moment), visits his future in a bid for redemption. He doesn’t like what he sees (he is appalled by the immaturity and denial of his future selves) but it inspires him to change and alter course in the present. As a result, he rediscovers hope – and in the bargain restores optimism to the men that he will become. What better story could one have asked for in Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary year? This is a vastly more enjoyable, preferable tale to some angst-ridden, dark and humdrum narrative with a monstrous, sinister Doctor at its heart – something I think we all suspected the War Doctor might be when he was first introduced in The Name of the Doctor.
The standout performer of the episode is undoubtedly John Hurt, eclipsing the incumbent in Matt Smith and the returning David Tennant as the titular character. For someone in a guest star capacity, Hurt is utterly convincing from the outset as the War Doctor. There is no doubt he is a grizzled veteran who has been scarred by centuries of war and is haunted by the terrible choice on his plate - even before he has pressed the big red button. Yet Hurt also plays the role with grace, compassion, humility and dignity – there is no sense that he is a vengeful, embittered, ruthless character at all, as we’ve occasionally seen in the modern Doctors (Eccleston, Tennant, Smith) and even some of the classic Doctors (McCoy, Tom Baker and Colin Baker). He is indeed shunned and repressed by his other incarnations for doing the right thing for the common good.
Hurt’s no-nonsense Doctor is the perfect foil to Smith’s and Tennant’s more eccentric Doctors and enables Moffat to send up many of the series’ in-jokes (many of which he invented). The War Doctor’s expressions of disbelief at the inappropriate use of the sonic screwdriver – “They’re screwdrivers! What are you going to do? Assemble a cabinet at them?” – and his horror at the other Doctors’ expressions – “Timey ... what? Timey wimey?” – are priceless and make for some fantastic comedy moments in the episode, lightening the tension and bleakness that could have overwhelmed this tale.
In fact, the banter and comedy between the three Doctors is successful precisely because Moffat doesn’t shy away from bringing the Doctors together. One of the problems with other multi-Doctor reunions in the past – notably in The Five Doctors – is that efforts were made to keep the Doctors separate for the bulk of the narrative (often on the misapprehension that the actors themselves would simply not get along). Moffat avoids that trap in The Day of the Doctor and happily displays all the Doctors in their true light – warts and all!
Yet as great as the comic moments are, Moffat knows how to deliver scenes and dialogue with the three Doctors that have great pathos. One of the most powerful moments between the Doctors comes in the dungeon when they discuss the ramifications of the Time War. There are terrific performances from Smith, Tennant and Hurt as the War Doctor is appalled by the indifference of his future selves – “the one who regrets and the one who forgets” – and the Tenth Doctor is horrified that the Eleventh Doctor could almost forget the high cost of his actions.
Tennant and Smith have both said they were in awe of working with a “living legend” like Hurt but neither of them show it in their performances. They both demonstrate the vast acting range that their characters demand, with both of their Doctors slipping between moments of humour, earnestness, sadness and anger. Tennant steps almost effortlessly back into the part, as if four years had not elapsed at all, and he and Smith are both at their most imposing when their Doctors are actually staring each other down and not clowning around (eg “For once, I’d like to know where I’m going.” “No, you really wouldn’t!”).
Understandably, with such an ambitious storyline and a stellar cast, you’d be forgiven for forgetting this story features companions. It seems on a first viewing that Jenna Coleman doesn’t get an awful lot to do – but in fact Clara is possibly the most important character in the story. It is quick thinking on Clara’s part to steal the vortex manipulator from the Black Archive and travel back to rescue the Doctors (and subsequently embarrass them by revealing they’ve been in an unlocked cell!). That’s always an impressive trait in a companion but it is also Clara who proves to be the catalyst for change – it is her compassion and emotion (which Coleman conveys so well) that finally persuades the Eleventh Doctor to look for a different way to end the Time War.
It has been said numerous times through the life of the modern program that the companion is the Doctor’s conscience, that she can show him another way. This was Billie Piper’s function back in Series 1 as Rose Tyler and that sentiment was repeated by Donna Noble in The Runaway Bride when she told the Doctor he needs a companion to rein him in (something he lacks as the War Doctor). Clara proves integral in that respect. In this story, more than any other, we are again reminded that the Doctor’s conscience is not just dictated by his own morals but by his companions’ humanity. Without a conscience, the Doctor could be elevated to making god-like decisions with the most terrible consequences (as we saw with his “Time Lord Victorious” stance in The Waters of Mars).
Even the Moment – in the unexpected form of Rose Tyler – fulfils a similar role to Clara, showing the War Doctor that there is an alternative. It is to Moffat’s credit that he devises a unique way to bring Billie Piper back to the series without contradicting or undermining the events of Army of Ghosts/Doomsday and The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End. Casting Piper as Rose’s Bad Wolf persona borrowed by the Moment is a stroke of genius – and tests Piper’s own acting calibre. She meets that challenge, delivering a performance which, like the three Doctors, exudes sadness and subtlety one moment and then a cheeky, naughty and suggestive disposition the next (“Look at you, stuck between a girl and a box. The story of your life, eh, Doctor?”). This is definitely not the type of acting Piper could have delivered if she’d simply returned as Rose. Some fans may reasonably argue that the Moment could have been any of the Doctor’s companions from the modern series (eg Amy Pond or Donna) but Piper’s performance vindicates the decision to cast her – to have gone with a high profile comedienne like Catherine Tate, for example, would have actually detracted from the Moment’s characterisation and importance in the narrative.
Similarly Tom Baker’s surprise cameo as the enigmatic curator would also have not worked as effectively if it had been one of the other classic Doctors – Davison, Colin Baker or McCoy. Baker instils enough mystery and charm into his dialogue, all while reminding us of his “Doctorish” charisma, to keep us guessing about his identity (is he a future Doctor? An older, alternative version of the Fourth Doctor? A Watcher-like entity? The Moment in another guise?). Indeed, the curator’s ambiguity makes Baker’s appearance all the more memorable – and I doubt his performance could have been matched if one of his successors had taken the same part.
With the gallery of multiple Doctors and companions, and the broader implications their presence has on the broader Whoniverse, it’s all too easy to forget about the UNIT and Zygon sub-plot. The Zygons, making a comeback after almost 40 years, are sadly peripheral to the story and could just as easily have been any other shapeshifting monster, eg the Slitheen, the Krillitanes or (perish the thought) the Abzorbaloff. Nevertheless, the costumes are beautifully recreated and menacing and the transformation of Kate Lethbridge-Stewart into the Zygon leader is downright creepy. Credit goes to the supporting cast who play both humans and Zygons interchangeably, especially Joanna Page as the Queen. In the scenes where she plays both the real Elizabeth I and the Zygon duplicate, Page’s performance is so flawless that even on repeated viewings it is difficult to fathom who is the Queen and who is the impostor! The Zygons are recreated well enough to warrant a return appearance in the near future.
Aside from the impressive scope of the story, the episode is a visual tour de force. Growing up as I did in the last years of the classic series, Doctor Who was often ridiculed for its phoney monsters and cheap production values. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that one day I would sit in a cinema and not only watch an episode in 3D but an episode that is almost a feature film in its own right. Nor could I ever have imagined, given the contempt the brass had for the program in the late 1980s, that the BBC would finally realise that Doctor Who was a program worth spending money on.
In just the opening minutes alone, we see impressive aerial shots of the London cityscape as the TARDIS is hoisted to the National Gallery, followed by the CGI flashbacks to the Dalek attack on Arcadia. Nick Hurran’s direction also features some lovely visuals such as the imposition of the War Doctor’s eyeline on the Eleventh Doctor’s face as he recalls the final day of the Time War. The 3D elements also impress, notably with the Gallifrey Falls oil painting (although 3D tends to get lost on yours truly as I become engrossed in a story!). It’s taken 50 years but finally with The Day of the Doctor, Doctor Who has peaked – it has gone from being a shoestring program in the dingiest studio on the BBC’s backlot (the infamous Lime Grove Studio D in the 1960s) to occupying its own backlot in Cardiff and being made with the money, care and love that it truly deserves.
Most importantly, The Day of the Doctor proves to be not just an “eighth anniversary” episode (some devotees of the classic series worried that the episode would only honour the modern series) but a true 50th anniversary instalment that homages the whole series. The recreated Hartnell title sequence and the opening sequence at Coal Hill School (which bleeds from black and white into colour) beautifully recreates the opening moments of An Unearthly Child (even the brief exchange between Clara and Tom in the classroom is reminiscent of one Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton all those decades ago). The various other Easter eggs – encapsulated mostly in dialogue (“I didn’t know when I was well off – all 12 of them!”) echoing famous lines from across the years and some subtle visuals – also show that this is a serial that respects Doctor Who in all its eras, and not just the modern era.
The climax has obviously been controversial with some fans who contend that Moffat has blatantly rewritten history (again the types that would have been dissatisfied no matter how the story ended). Far from contradicting continuity, Gallifrey’s fate offers exciting story possibilities (and in my opinion was inevitable - if the Guardians of the Green Lantern Corps in the DC comic book universe can be similarly destroyed and revived, why not the Time Lords?). It also ties in with the episode’s theme of hope. The Doctor provides the Time Lords with a fighting chance for life, seemingly against all odds, and in turn gives himself hope and a new purpose. The closing moments of the serial are a wonderful visual spectacle – the Doctor is finally at peace and unison with his other selves, looking to the future. Steven Moffat promised to deliver an episode that would set up Doctor Who for the future – and he has succeeded beyond our wildest expectations.
In years to come, The Day of the Doctor will no doubt come under increased scrutiny from fans and its skeletons will be laid bare. But for now, as a tribute to the program’s 50th anniversary, the episode has been an outstanding success. Far from having a mid-life crisis, there is plenty of life in the old Doctor yet and there has never been a more exciting time than now to be a Doctor Who fan. I personally hope that the modern program, as it moves into its eighth full series and into another era with a new Doctor, will use The Day of the Doctor as a platform to go in exciting future directions and scale even loftier heights. Only the sky’s the limit!
Long live the Doctor! Many happy returns!