Monday 25 November 2013

Reviews in Time & Space: The Day of the Doctor

Day of the Doctor promotional poster

So it's finally here. On the 23rd November at precisely 17:16pm the very first episode of Doctor Who aired, and at the time I'm sure no one thought we'd still be here 50 years later. The show has experienced some turbulent times over the years, but in the last eight years has arguably bounced back bigger and stronger than ever, and was in perfect position to celebrate its golden anniversary in style. There have been plenty of wonderful productions to celebrate this momentous occasion - Big Finish's own multi-Doctor crossover audio "The Light at the End", Gatiss' moving docudrama about the birth of the show "An Adventure in Space and Time" and even a wonderful skit of Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy (that's Doctors 5, 6 and 7) going on an epic quest to earn a place in the anniversary special. Each has served a different purpose and celebrated in its own special way, but this is the big one - the television 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, appropriately titled "The Day of the Doctor".

This special 75 minute episode sees 10th Doctor David Tennant return to the show for a special crossover that introduces John Hurt as a new, forgotten incarnation of the Doctor. In the last days of the last great Time War between the Time Lords and Daleks, this war-beaten Doctor seizes Gallifrey's ultimate weapon to make the ultimate sacrifice to end the conflict once and for all. As the weapon's interface takes on a familiar (or rather unfamiliar) face to show the War Doctor where his decision will lead him in life, he meets up with the 10th and 11th reincarnations of the Doctor and becomes wrapped up in a Zygon plot to take over the Earth - in both Elizabethan England and modern day! Can the two Doctors accept the man they once were? And is he also proud of the men he will become?

Hurt, Tennant and Smith in The Day of the Doctor
"They're screwdrivers! What are you going to do, assemble a cabinet at them?"

Ever since those final moments of season seven finale "The Name of the Doctor", I've had very mixed feelings about the addition of a ninth forgotten incarnation. It's certainly a huge bombshell and something great for story purposes, but the idea of throwing established numbering off is something that didn't sit with me well. However after the frankly brilliant minisode "The Night of the Doctor" featuring the long overdue return of Paul McGann, I was willing to give it a fair shot. John Hurt is absolutely superb as the War Doctor, adding a much needed adult quality that has been missing from the newer Doctors and something many hope to see return with Peter Capaldi next year. His performance not only gives off the aura of a war-hardened Doctor who can make the decisions the others never could, but also of a tired old man who had to give up all the values he lived by. Seeing him react to his successors is very reminiscent to the 1st Doctor's reactions in "The Three Doctors", and his comments about how young the Doctor looks, using the Sonic Screwdriver as a weapon and the ever-ridiculous "Timey Wimey" catchphrase just go to show Doctor Who isn't beyond poking fun at itself sometimes.

The War Doctor meets The Moment
"No more."

Then we come to our already established Doctors, and welcome back a lone wandering 10 to the show. Tennant's absence hasn't changed the character a bit, with his romantic swagger playing off brilliantly against Matt Smith's excitable manchild Doctor. The two can go from complimenting each other to bickering within seconds, though having a much stabler relationship than the rocky rivalry of the second and third Doctors. They may have their differences, but put together Chinny, Sand shoes and Granddad are an unbeatable team.

Despite having three Doctors, the episode runs fairly low on companions but each of them certainly have their presence known in the story. While Clara doesn't get to do a whole lot in the show, she continues to act as the 11th Doctor's moral compass, guiding him back on track of becoming the hero he was once was and away from the forgetful hermit he seems to have become. Billie Piper returns but not as Rose Tyler, instead playing The Moment's interface - taking on the shape of the Bad Wolf. Billie Piper played a big role in bringing the show to modern audiences so her inclusion is welcome, but Rose's story is done - adding anything else to it not only needlessly extends things, but also pays disservice to every other companion that's served after her. She sparkles in the role of the "Bad Wolf", adding a level of seniority to the character Rose Tyler could never have and giving the War Doctor something it doesn't seem like he's had in a long, long time - a companion.

The Daleks storm Gallifrey as Arcadia falls
The Time War is finally realised. Flames are obligatory.

This episode features two different monsters, neither of which have a particularly central focus but are very much necessary to the overall story. It would be wrong to do a 50th anniversary episode without the Daleks, and finally depicting some Time War action is a fantastic way to give Who's greatest villains the gravitas they seem to have lost over the last few years. It's only a brief snippet, but in our first proper foray into the event that's rocked Who for the last eight years we saw Dalek battleships blasting the surface of Gallifrey and the creatures ready to fire on a cornered family amongst a sea of flames and destruction. The squad's defeat at the hands of the War Doctor also served to illustrate a much tougher incarnation, literally ploughing his TARDIS through them. The sheer carnage of the Time War is something we'll probably never see properly realised onscreen (not just due to budget constraints, but also to keep the show family-friendly), but if this is all we get then I think it served the purpose well.

The Zygons return in "The Day of the Doctor"
They're baaaaack...

The "modern" portion of the story saw the return of another classic monster, one that's garnered quite a following despite having only appeared in one story before. The Zygons are back, and as one of the only monsters to genuinely terrify me as a child it was nice to see the design largely unaltered (once again the fangs were unnecessary though). Though one could argue that their story thread was dropped rather quickly once it stopped being a metaphor for the Doctors' story, it served its place very nicely in the grand scheme of things and secured yet another great monster as a part of the modern revival. Plus the whole shape-shifting aspect of the Zygons allowed for Tennant to have some really brilliant lines.

Our first glimpse of the next Doctor
The forehead from the future.

Getting all the old gang back together at this stage was impossible, and playing a multi Doctor story like the classic series did seems like a bit of a pipedream - actors change and not everyone will be able to suspend their belief like the more dedicated fans can. But Moffat was sure to give every Doctor a place in the special, with every incarnation of the Doctor coming together at the end to save the day. And that isn't just 12 Doctors, as we also get a brief cameo of what is yet to come in Doctor Who - a man who's eyes and forehead is more than enough to make any fan squeal in joy. Other nice little nods to the past include Clara's new job at Coal Hill School (with a certain I. Chesterton as Head of the Governors), UNIT's flowchart of the Doctor's past companions and of course the appearance of the museums curator. While arguably more fan pleasing than anything that'll have real relevance on the future of the series, this touching exchange really does go to show that revisiting old favourites is never a bad thing.

Tom Baker returns
"I never forget a face..."

From the moment the original 1963 title sequence came onscreen I had a feeling Doctor Who fans were in for something special, and I feel honoured to have watched this episode along with thousands of other fans at the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Celebration in London. This is easily one of the best episodes of Doctor Who since its revival in 2005, and will certainly go down as one of my favourites in the show's entire run. With tribute to the past, "The Day of the Doctor" addresses what the series has become and just as importantly, where it goes from here. Here's to another 50 years!

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