Aired 23 November 2013
It’s not often that a franchise gets to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary with such pomp and circumstance, especially one that is still actively churning out fresh and exciting stories in multiple media and is arguably more popular than it’s ever been before, and so understandably ‘The Day of the Doctor’ carries a heavy burden as it needs to deliver homage to its past while telling a strong story that can launch it into a new era.
Right from the beginning, it’s clear that everyone involved managed to achieve that balance perfectly as the original title sequence and opening merges seamlessly into the present. Steven Moffat makes the wise decision to tell his lively tale more in the style of classic Doctor Who, sure to appease fans both old and new. At the core of the story is a rather straightforward invasion of Earth by the shape-shifting Zygons, making their first appearance since 1975’s ‘Terror of the Zygons,’ as they emerge from paintings in London’s National Gallery. The Zygons are triumphantly realised here with some superb costuming and practical effects, and their slow invasion through Time Lord art works wonders as an underlying air of uncertainty regarding who is human who is Zygon is created.
Yet among the business of the Eleventh Doctor and Clara being summoned to the Tower of London to assist UNIT, there’s also a terrific three-hander between Matt Smith, David Tennant, and John Hurt as three incarnations of the Doctor. Tennant’s Tenth Doctor, in particular, was haunted by the actions he took in the Time War, and though Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor doesn’t seem to be so overtly troubled, it’s a clever narrative to twist to bring the darker War Doctor- the man who actually made the decision to end it all and the man all three versions refuse to accept as the Doctor- into contact with his future selves to understand the ramifications of his choices as well as what his thoughts will be with the benefit of hindsight.
This approach works on another level as well, though, as it allows Hurt’s War Doctor to almost be a spectator of sorts for the adventure at hand, able to use his observations here when making his ultimate decision. Even though the War Doctor knows that he has made the decision, he still wrestles mightily with the decision to push the button on the Moment weapon that will annihilate all of Gallifrey, including the multitudes of children whose fate he has been shouldering for so long. Matt Smith is superb here as he expresses the regret and remorse he has been carrying internally, and Tennant magnificently brings out his rarely-seen but unforgettable rage as he chastises his two other selves for still taking this choice rather lightly.
Although this proves to be one of the emotional highlights, the episode is full of stellar scenes with more than the occasional nod to the past. Starting out rather darkly, director Nick Hurran shows off his blockbuster capabilities as the most intense look into the Time War yet occurs within the Time Lord painting Gallifrey Falls. The brief glimpse of the Daleks here shows just how ruthless and damaging they can be, and the sheer scope of utter destruction and despair gives a terrifying visual to the Time War storyline that has been eight years in the making.
Especially in recent years, Doctor Who has been a very confident programme, and here it shows that it’s unafraid to poke fun at itself. As the three Doctors meet up through a time rift- interrupting Tennant’s Zygon-hunnting adventure with Queen Elizabeth I- there’s more than a little fun had at the newer Doctors’ expense. In a sense, John Hurt provides a voice within the show for those critics outside of the show, in quick succession pointing out the youth of his predecessors, the youth of his future companions, the more romantic undertones of the modern series, the increasingly MacGuffin- y sonic screwdriver, and even the catch-all phrase ‘timey wimey.’ Hurt is given glorious dialogue throughout, and he delivers every line fantastically. All three versions forgetting to check the lock on a door and coming up with an insanely over-complicated plan to get through it is an incredibly rewarding moment of levity as well.
As strong as both the testiness of Hurt’s Doctor and comaraderie of Smith and Tennat’s Doctors are, though, it’s ultimately the resolutions and the companions’ roles that will be as much of a talking point as anything else. Even though the Zygon storyline doesn’t quite reach its full potential because of how much else the episode needs to get through, it is still a very clever concept to have both the humans and human-form Zygons forget which side each is on so that they have to work together on a peaceful resolution. Kate Stewart and Osgood as the UNIT players of focus do well in the double roles, though it still feels as though there is an unexplored aspect to this side of the story. Hopefully a more concrete resolution manifests in the future.
Heading up to the decision to push the button, though, events head precariously close to having Tennant and Smith become complicit in order to ease their previous self’s guilt. The ramifications of this are obvious, even if it would only be Smith’s Doctor who would remember them, but fortunately the Moment’s manifestation as Billie Piper—cleverly appearing only to Hurt at a time before he traveled with Rose- and especially Clara prove vital to averting this. While it’s a shame that the Bad Wolf reference doesn’t get more than a fleeting moment of recognition from Tennant given how important that storyline was to his Doctor, it was still a nice nod to the past of the modern series of Doctor Who to have Billie Piper included. More importantly, though, is just how vital Clara is becoming to events. Proving instrumental into getting the Doctors to think of another alternative, Clara is quickly becoming one of the most important characters in the long history of the programme, and Coleman continues to portray determination and emotion fantastically.
The visual of all thirteen- upcoming Doctor Peter Capaldi even makes a fleeting cameo- Doctors in their TARDISes to enact their plan is a treat, and it at least satiates the desire to include the past Doctors a little bit since including the actors in the story more could have detracted from the story quite easily. Saying that, the prolonged appearance from Tom Baker as the curator of the museum is undoubtedly one of the biggest highlights of the story and a genuine surprise for those viewers left unspoiled. The prolonged and casual conversation between Matt Smith and him seems to hint at a deeper understanding, and the combination of humour and seriousness Baker brings back to the screen is pitch perfect, but it’s the understanding of Gallifrey Falls’s alternative title No More that is the biggest takeaway here, sending the Doctor on a quest to find Gallifrey when realising the full title is Gallifrey Falls No More. This is a tremendous starting point for a new era of Doctor Who going forward, and it’s only fitting that the longest-tenured Doctor would be the one to deliver it.
Russell T Davies decided to stay away from events of the Time War proper, but now that Steven Moffat has opened the door for at least a glimpse, there are countless possibilities for that still shrouded time going forward. The Time Lords and Gallifrey are back at least to some extent, and the Doctor’s newfound desire to find them is an intriguing plot point given what he has been through in recent regenerations. There are plenty of other fascinating aspects that could gain importance later on as well- the Omega Arsenal and the TARDIS-proof Black Archives that seems to serve as a fundamental history of the Doctor- and those along with the clever nods to the past and innate humour of the Doctor meeting himselves all help to create a truly memorable anniversary special that hits as many positive notes as it possibly can without becoming overburdened and collapsing under its own weight. The War Doctor may never be on screen again, but John Hurt certainly made the most his one appearance and, alongside the return of Tennant’s Doctor, helped change both the past and the future of the show convincingly, no easy feat after fifty years.