November 25th was not the date of Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary. But it was close enough. It was the day I got to watch the 50th anniversary special in a movie theatre. Doctor Who in a movie theatre! Even just a couple of years ago, I never would have believed it. More than that, the theatre was packed. I arrived about an hour in advance and it was already difficult to find two seats side-by-side so that I could save one for my wife, who wouldn’t be arriving until closer to the start time.
It took time to sink in that I was in a theatre full of Doctor Who fans! And there were all kinds there, too: men, women, young, old. A few were cosplaying—as the eleventh Doctor or the TARDIS or an Ood. Others just had an accessory or two, like a sonic screwdriver, or, as in my case, just wearing a Doctor Who-themed t-shirt (I had a Dalek t-shirt on). Surprisingly, I didn’t see any children. It was a 7:30 showing, so not late, yet the youngest people I saw were around 18 to 20. Other than that, however, there was a wide diversity of people there.
Seven-thirty seemed to take forever to arrive. My wife got there around 7:15 and the time continued to tick slowly by. But eventually, show time arrived. Of course, there were the requisite trailers to then get through, but there was also a rather funny specially recorded sequence with Strax explaining the rules of theatre etiquette, as well as Matt Smith and David Tennant introducing the 3D element. It was probably around 7:45 when “The Day of the Doctor” actually started, but it was well worth the wait.
I’ve never shied away from criticising Steven Moffat’s writing on Doctor Who. Anyone who has read my previous reviews knows that I’ve had issues with much over the last couple of years. However, I also don’t shy away from giving credit where credit is due. “The Day of the Doctor” is hardly a perfect episode—it suffers from a number of typical Moffat-isms—but it is highly enjoyable and entertaining, and works well as both a celebration of Doctor Who’s past and a look forward to its future (even if I have concerns about where that future might take it). There are many moments throughout that make me smile and still others that make me want to squeal with delight (this was particularly true on my first viewing). There are also moments that frustrate me, but most of those only really do so when I stop to think about them after the episode is over. While the episode is still going, it’s possible to ignore most of them or even not notice them at all. And that’s a pretty good thing.
I mentioned in my review of “The Name of the Doctor” that Moffat’s series finales tend to follow the same basic pattern. While not a series finale, “The Day of the Doctor” could certainly fall under that umbrella as well. It follows the same basic formula, with a “timey-wimey” plot, a problem on a massive scale that ultimately causes no damage whatsoever, and a nice big reset button at the end. But there is one thing “The Day of the Doctor” does a little differently. While the Time War figures prominently, the story is much more personal than usual—and I really like that.
Since Doctor Who came back in 2005, the Time War has been heavily mythologised in the programme. While I sometimes see fans clamouring for the Time War to be told in full in either the series or a movie, I actually think this would be a very bad idea. Nothing actually appearing on screen will ever live up to the images created in our minds by the few descriptions we’ve been given. Getting glimpses of the Time War, such as in “The End of Time” or here in “The Day of the Doctor” is as much as the show should ever do. Indeed, even the little we see of the Time War in this episode is already disappointing. We see an incredibly mundane-looking war (I know war should never be thought of as “mundane”, but I say that merely as a point of comparison regarding its visual attributes in a work of entertainment), with Daleks zipping about blasting things. There are lots of bog-standard explosions and surprisingly few people getting caught in them. All this pales in comparison to the Could’ve Been King and his Army of Meanwhiles and Neverweres mentioned in “The End of Time”. Along with the Nightmare Child, the Skaro Degredations, and the Horde of Travesties, these few words paint a picture in our minds that could never be duplicated on screen. Given Moffat’s love of time paradoxes, I’m kind of surprised he didn’t attempt to create some sort of paradoxical combat scenes in our glimpse of the Time War here—or perhaps he did, but the budget just wouldn’t allow it.
However, this mundanity does nicely demonstrate how futile attempting to show entirety of the Time War would be, and Moffat has made the very wise choice to keep the story to a personal level instead—the story of the Doctor and the terrible decision he must make (or already has made). The Zygon plot keeps the story grounded and nicely juxtaposes the bigger threat of the Time War. It lets us see the Doctor’s inner journey much better than the Doctor wandering around a battlefield would. Given how over-the-top Moffat’s finales generally are, I’m very pleasantly surprised to see him keeping the 50th anniversary special somewhat toned down. It is still “event television”, but it manages to be thrilling without being frenetic.
I think the extra thirty minutes over the standard 45-minute length of most episodes helps a great deal with this, too. Recent Doctor Who has tended to be very rushed and poorly paced. I’m not calling for a return to the pacing of the old series—I don’t deny those 60’s and 70’s six-parters were usually heavily padded. However, I do believe that in the last couple of years, the pacing has become too rushed. The episodes try to do too much and actually end up doing very little. The pacing was much better during the ninth and tenth Doctors’ times (although certainly not always perfect). With “The Day of the Doctor”, its extra time lets the story breathe a little, and for a nice change, the pacing is just about perfect—with one exception.
“The Day of the Doctor” actually has a moment of what I would consider padding. And that’s the opening with the helicopter, which just seems rather pointless. Part of the problem, I suppose, goes back to the whole not-living-up-to-expectations problem. The filming of this scene attracted a lot of media attention, and I guess I just expected it to be part of a more dramatic moment in the story. Instead, it really doesn’t do anything other than be a visually impressive way of getting the Doctor involved. It has no effect on the rest of the story and has no real dramatic impact. However, once that scene is over, the episode is able to get under way and the pacing works very well.
The performances in “The Day of the Doctor” are also a large part of what makes it good. John Hurt is wonderful as the “War Doctor”. He expertly mixes some typically Doctor-ish traits in with a somewhat embittered, weary incarnation. His interplay with the other Doctors is wonderful. Indeed, the interplay between all three Doctors—both when they’re working together and when they’re bickering over trivial things—is great fun to watch. David Tennant slips effortless back into the role like he never left it, and Matt Smith tones down some of his manic-ness to really get to the heart of his version of the Doctor. I’ve frequently criticised Steven Moffat’s character development, but he does a really good job here with the Doctor himself, and this is helped along by the three actors portraying him.
This is not the case with Clara, however. I don’t, in any way, hold anything against Jenna Coleman, who is doing her best with what little she’s given. Yet Clara remains a non-entity. She has no emotional range and no discernible personality beyond witty speech. It’s never really clear why she hangs around with the Doctor. Coleman has good chemistry with Matt Smith in their scenes together, but without any character motivation, chemistry just isn’t enough.
There is a brief moment where it looks like Clara is actually going to get some character development (now that her mystery has been solved, it’s certainly overdue!). The opening scene showing her teaching would be a perfect opportunity to delve into her desires and motivations. Yet it’s gone in a flash. After a brief question from the Doctor about how the new job is going, there’s no mention of it again. Clara just kind of follows the Doctor around and sheds a few tears at just the right moment to motivate him. She doesn’t really get to be a person. It’s a shame as even the one-off characters fare better. Osgoode, a brand new character, gets more development in this one episode than Clara has received in nine (alas, Osgoode’s development relies solely on stereotypical female tropes like jealousy of her better-looking sister, but at least it’s something).
I feel Billie Piper’s role in the story is handled well. Having the Moment choose to appear as Rose is a good way to have Rose back without actually bringing her back from the other universe again. It’s a bit of a shame she doesn’t get to interact with the tenth and eleventh Doctors, but it makes sense in the context of the story, so this isn’t really a criticism.
On the other hand, I think Queen Elizabeth is not used quite so well. Her presence is mostly as a vehicle for comedy—either through the tenth Doctor insulting her while incorrectly believing her to be a Zygon in disguise, or his undesired marriage to her, and so on. Even the paraphrasing of the real Elizabeth’s famous speech about being a weak and feeble woman doesn’t live up to the original. In fact, having her say that the Zygon also had the body of a weak and feeble woman rather defeats the point of that speech. I do like that the story picks up on the line in “The End of Time” when the Doctor mentions marrying Elizabeth, but I do wish she had a more fleshed-out character.
Of course, character problems are hardly something new in Moffat’s writing, and “The Day of the Doctor” actually fares better in this regard than most of his recent stories. There are other problems in the story that are fairly typical of Moffat, too, not the least of which is the dreaded reset button.
The story actually resolves itself quite logically and somewhat satisfyingly. The means to save Gallifrey is really quite clever and works well (although the logic that the Daleks would perfectly annihilate themselves in their own crossfire is stretching things a little—surely they’d stop shooting when they realised what was up). The problem is that it undoes so much that has come before, robbing those things of some of their effect. Admittedly, from an in-universe perspective, nothing has really changed. It’s just been revealed that things didn’t happen the way we’ve previously thought they happened (Moffat is very fond of this trick). The Doctor never actually destroyed Gallifrey; he just believed he did. And because the ninth and tenth Doctors (and the eleventh up until the point of this story) will continue to believe they destroyed Gallifrey, it doesn’t change the effect on the Doctor. However, from a narrative perspective, things have changed massively. Previous stories were written with the assumption that the Doctor really did destroy Gallifrey to end the Time War. So while the effect on the Doctor may not have changed, the effect on the viewer certainly has—and this is a problem. The viewers can never see the Doctor’s guilt in the same way again, and that guilt has been a major, defining part of the Doctor since Doctor Who returned in 2005. When we look at the Doctor, we will no longer see a man who was forced to commit a terrible atrocity, who had to go against everything he believes in in order to save the universe. We will just see a man who has forgotten the truth. That just doesn’t have the same gravitas.
Of course, only people who rewatch earlier episodes (something only fans do with any regularity) will have to deal with that aspect. Casual viewers who only watch new episodes will never have to worry about the effect on the Doctor’s guilt. But there’s another problem at work here, too: the fact that Moffat keeps doing this sort of thing over and over again. There are no consequences in Moffat’s Who. Rory dies multiple times and comes back. Strax dies and comes back. Jenny dies twice in the same story (“The Name of the Doctor”) and comes back both times! Anything bad that happens is always undone. The universe is rebooted. The stars go out and then come back. Moffat seems to think that something really nasty occurring (such as a character dying) ups the threat and tension—and he’d be right if the events stuck. But constantly having the worst happen and then undoing it actually has the exact opposite effect. It removes the threat entirely because the viewers don’t need to worry about anything. I’ve brought this up multiple times in my reviews and I’ll keep bringing it up as long as it keeps happening. There is far more tension in watching characters overcome a problem and survive than there is in seeing them die and then come back to life. If characters die, it should be shocking, and (in the vast majority of circumstances) they should stay dead. There are valid ways and reasons to bring a character back to life, but that should be a rare event and certainly shouldn’t happen every time.
More than this, in “The Day of the Doctor”, Moffat has gone beyond just undoing the calamities of a single episode or a single season. He has undone events that have hung over the show for eight years, since before he took over as showrunner, and he has brought back to life an entire planet full of people. It this were a one-time thing, I wouldn’t have as much problem with it, but it’s just the latest in a long string of “undoings”.
I’m also disappointed that we don’t see any of the bad side of Gallifrey in “The Day of the Doctor”. Indeed, apart from a brief mention of the High Council having their own plans (presumably referencing “The End of Time”), this story seems to present Gallifrey as a planet full of innocents. Yet this goes against what we’ve previously learned. I’m particularly surprised by this because “The Night of the Doctor” (also by Steven Moffat and which was released just before “The Day of the Doctor”) wonderfully illustrates how bad the Time Lords have become through Cass’s fear of them.
“Look on the bright side. At least I’m not a Dalek.”“Who can tell the difference any more?”
Cass goes so far as to refuse to let the Doctor save her simply because he’s a Time Lord (she also becomes a rare example of a dead character staying dead in Moffat’s Who). Of course, there should still be innocent and good people on Gallifrey, and it’s good to see that—it makes Gallifery a multi-faceted world—but it’s not good to ignore the bad just because you’re trying to emphasize the innocent lives at peril. Honestly, I think the Doctor’s decision would hold far more weight and importance if we saw that the good people of Gallifrey (be they children or beleaguered generals) exist amidst a tyrannical ruling class. It demonstrates why the Doctor believes so strongly that he must destroy Gallifrey along with the Daleks, but also why that destruction is a terrible tragedy.
But problems with the reset button aside, I really do enjoy “The Day of the Doctor”. The plot does hang together well, and there are numerous moments that I absolutely love. Of course, the appearance of all the Doctor’s incarnations (including the next one!) is pure bliss. It absolutely makes my heart leap for joy. Considering that there is a brand new line of dialogue for the first Doctor in there (recorded by a voice-over artist), I rather wish they had taken the opportunity to get the living classic Doctors to record new lines for this scene rather than take lines from old episodes. However, that’s a minor nitpick and overall, I really love this moment. It’s a great way to acknowledge every Doctor without attempting the impossible task of writing a story with every Doctor in it.
Then there’s Tom Baker’s surprise appearance at the end. There was a collective gasp in the theatre when his voice was first heard. I’ve since read a lot of theories as to who the Curator really is as the scene leaves it deliberately vague. To me, it seems obvious that he’s a far-future incarnation of the Doctor who has somehow learnt to control his regenerations and has chosen to look like an older version of his fourth self (thus the line about revisiting faces, but only the old favourites). In this way, it also serves as an acknowledgement that the Doctor will surpass the 12-regeneration limit. Still, there’s nothing definite here, so the Curator could turn out to be someone completely different. Whatever the case, Tom Baker owns the scene. It is simply sublime in every way.
There are also a number of subtle nods to the past for keen-eyed viewers to spot. I’ve found a bunch, but I’m sure there are more to find on future viewings. Clara teaches at Coal Hill School, the school the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan attended. The sign out front lists I. Chesterton (Ian, on of the first Doctor’s companions) as chairman of the board, and W. Coburn as headmaster (Anthony Coburn wrote the very first Doctor Who episode, “An Unearthly Child”). In UNIT’s Black Archive, there are pictures of the Doctor’s various companions, including a very odd one showing Mike Yates and Sara Kingdom, two characters who have never met in the series—an adventure we’ve never seen perhaps? And the Moment refers to the sound the TARDIS makes as a “wheezing, groaning” sound—a great nod to the description used throughout the old Target novelizations.
There are also a number a small plotholes in the story—little things that are mostly ignorable and don’t really detract from the viewing experience. What happened to the vortex manipulator Clara used to reach the past? How did the Zygons get a hold of Time Lord technology to be able to implant themselves in the pictures? It doesn’t seem to be something they developed on their own. And how exactly do the three Doctors use their sonic screwdrivers to blow up a Dalek? Considering John Hurt’s Doctor (what do we call him now—the ninth? the eighth and a half?) earlier scolds the other two that the sonic is a tool, not a weapon, this seems an odd moment.
I should also mention the 3D, something that’s very new to Doctor Who. To be honest, I’ve never liked 3D. It gives me a headache (I’ve read that this is apparently true of roughly 10% of the population). When I first learned the special was to be in 3D, I wasn’t interested. I resolved to watch it in 2D. It was the draw of seeing the special in the theatre that won out over my dislike of 3D. However, to my surprise, I didn’t get a headache. Although there was an adjustment period where everything looked a little wrong, I soon got used to it and the 3D generally didn’t seem intrusive like it usually does. In fact, it actually seemed kind of natural. There were one or two moments here and there when I suddenly noticed the unnaturalness of the 3D (not sure why they happened), but I quickly overcame those moments, too. I’m curious now to see another movie in 3D (this was actually the first I’d seen since Avatar, which left me with a splitting headache) just to see how it affects me. Perhaps the technology has advanced more than I realized.
So on the whole, I feel that the 3D actually works well in “The Day of the Doctor” and adds to the experience. There are a couple of moments, however, where it draws attention to the limits of the special effects. This is most noticeable in the end scene with the twelve Doctors lined up together. When I saw it in 3D, it was very obvious that, apart from Hurt, Tennant, and Smith, they are played by stand-ins with the original faces superimposed on them. To be fair, it’s not a perfect effect in 2D either, but it does look better.
And so, that brings us to the end of the first fifty years of Doctor Who and the beginning of the next fifty. Perhaps the best thing about “The Day of the Doctor” is that it doesn’t just celebrate the past. It celebrates the future too. In the days leading up to the fiftieth, a lot of fans expressed disappointment that the special wouldn’t feature all the classic Doctors and that it wouldn’t be enough of a celebration of the past. However, as much as I may criticize Moffat’s writing, I do agree with him on this point. It would have been impossible to include every Doctor and tons of old companions (and still make it good), and the show really does need to look to the future as well as the past. I have my concerns about where the future is looking towards (I think the destruction of the Time Lords was one of the best ideas the show has ever had and I’m not fond of them being brought back), but I can accept it as it has to look towards something. That said, I suspect that many of those fans who were so concerned about a lack of celebrating the past were pleasantly surprised by “The Day of the Doctor” as it may have given them more of a celebration than they expected. It certainly did for me. It’s not perfect, but it sure is a hell of a lot of fun.