The varied and extensive spread of DOCTOR WHO related programming laid on by the BBC across its TV and radio platforms from mid-November 2013, in the days before the 50th anniversary of Britain’s longest running science fiction series aired on Saturday November the 23rd, included special editions of children’s magazine show favourite Blue Peter on CBBC in which the nation’s kids were shown how to make their own hide-behind cushion (with a special TARDIS-shaped pocket for storing biscuits, should one require a quick snack in the middle of being by turns excited and terrified) and encouraged to phone-in with ideas for designing their own monster -- which was then hastily assembled for a special DOCTOR WHO party edition of the show on the morning of the big day. Meanwhile, for the adult fans, there were intelligently thought-out and eruditely delivered documentary appreciation pieces such as Mathew Sweet’s Culture Show special “Me, You and Doctor Who”; and the young adult-orientated BBC3 joined in the fun with its usual brand of superficial ‘talking head ‘fluff, which contrived to illustrate one of the main themes of a show about time travel by actually managing to dilate it just through the sheer triteness of its programming (clips from 1960s William Hartnell episodes set to a Rihanna backing track for gawd’s sake!), filling up several long evenings with similar such guff while making it seem like it had all lasted a great deal longer. A selection of original Big Finish audio dramas, readings of novelisations, and numerous documentary pieces were compiled and broadcast nightly across most of the BBC’s radio stations for a whole week beforehand; and Mark Gatiss’ superb drama “An Adventure in Space and Time” nostalgically recreated the heady days of programme-making at BBC Television Centre in the 1960s, and was a highlight of the BBC2 November schedules with its poignant dramatization of DOCTOR WHO’s unlikely beginnings and the stories of some of the organisation’s key outsiders who were responsible for making it such an enduring success story against all the odds. And let’s not forget the marvellous “The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot”: a surprise, red button digital exclusive, written and directed by Peter Davison, which imagined the remaining classic era Doctors Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy desperately trying to get themselves into the anniversary episode (even if only disguised as a Dalek or under a sheet in the background) in what was a joyous, tongue-in-cheek comedy with Peter Jackson guest starring.
But even though the BBC had undoubtedly pushed the boat out to mark this landmark celebratory year in a way that must have made that small beleaguered section of the public who had no interest in the show entitled to feel -- if only for a few days – much like those of us who don’t follow sport felt for several weeks last summer during the blanket 2012 Olympics coverage, for many there was only one celebratory moment that really mattered: the unveiling of the 50th anniversary special of the show itself -- 50 years to the day that DOCTOR WHO was first broadcast at 5.16 on that momentous Saturday evening (with a repeat the following week) all those years ago back in 1963. This was a moment that current show runner Steven Moffat had clearly thought about, prepared, agonised and sweated blood over for months as he attempted to craft an episode charged with striking the delicate balance between celebrating the past and looking forward to the future. How do you showcase fifty years of history without making the end result feel like a backward gazing museum piece, even if it is one that’s being broadcast in 3D on prime time Saturday evening TV? In fact this turned out to be a moment the BBC almost managed to ruin with its After Show Party spectacle (yes, bloody BBC3 again!), which resulted in possibly one of the most embarrassingly inept and cringeworthy live TV debacles seen for several decades, only just about salvaged by the professional enthusiasm of broadcaster and presenter Zoe Ball. But, more specifically, Moffat’s task actually involved him having to reconcile two intimately related but entirely separate and different legacies, one with its origins in the the BBC of the 1960s and the other in one of the biggest TV success stories of the early 21st century.
The timing of this anniversary, and therefore the 75 minute special episode Moffat had to come up with in order to adequately celebrate it, is particularly interesting. Although it is of course 50 years since the series began, there is still that TV black hole of some 16 years or so to be reckoned with, during which DOCTOR WHO was not on television screens at all in any shape or form aside from the occasional satellite TV retrospective season. After having been unofficially laid to rest during the late-eighties at a time when it was seen as a moribund and old-fashioned dinosaur by the BBC bosses of the day, and with one attempt at a revival in 1996 having already conspicuously failed, the show’s triumphant return in 2005 was skilfully stewarded by Russell T Davies and BBC Wales in such a way that the series was able to retain all of its most cherished and recognisable iconography (such as the blue police box-shaped TARDIS and its hexagonal control column) while employing modern production techniques and adjusting the show’s emphasis just enough to be able to appeal to a savvy new audience of children as well as adult fans who still remembered the classic series from their youths. It was also consciously tailored to appeal to younger adults who perhaps were only vaguely aware of the show’s history, having grown up during the fallow period when the brand name was only being kept alive at all by the hard-core fans through the flourishing New Adventures novel range, the Big Finish Productions audio dramas and the doughty publishing phenomenon that was (and is) Doctor Who Magazine -- which continued to enjoy a respectable circulation during a time when it appeared that the series would never again see the light of day at all. Most noticeably, the new version of the series was unparalled in its success at bringing on-board an audience of teenage girls, by making the primary perspective of the new show that of the Doctor’s latest companion, Rose Tyler, played by Billie Piper, creating for her a believable character with a realistic family and an attitude to life that the contemporary young viewer could understand and identify with. Davies pulled off the not inconsiderable trick of bringing back a show still filled with fan-pleasing monsters from the ‘60s and ‘70s like the Daleks and the Autons, the Master and the Sontarans, while still managing to make it as a thoroughly modern piece of 21st Century TV.
But there was one lesson Davies and the BBC Wales team had undoubtedly learned from the failure of the 1996 British-American-Canadian financed TV movie to take off and be developed into a full-fledged TV series (actually it got respectable ratings in the UK but failed to pass muster with US audiences, and thus was not commissioned by the FOX Network): that lesson consisted in not allowing the show to get unnecessarily bogged down by its formidable forty years’ worth of continuity. The TV movie had sometimes confused the issue somewhat for anyone who’d never seen the series before, by spending far too much of its time explaining concepts such as regeneration as though it had for some reason to actually show Sylvester McCoy changing into Paul MacGann’s eighth Doctor, even though the majority of the new audience wouldn’t have known either of them; it was also full of gratuitous mentions of WHO lore such as the planet Skaro and the Daleks, even though they had nothing to do with the story actually being told in the film. Obscure references to Time Lord mythology such as the Eye of Harmony, proved to be fan-pleasing pieces of continuity but would’ve meant absolutely nothing to anybody not already intimately familiar with the series’ lengthy history. The TV Movie -- beautifully designed and as grand a spectacle as it often was -- failed to sort out the core elements of the series from the superfluous features that could’ve been brought in gradually later, and tried to regurgitate 30 years of backstory and history onto the screen all at once in a baffling, incoherent misfire of a plot.
In contrast Davies made his first episode of the 2005 series feel like it truly represented a brand new start: a year dot that required no previous investment in order to understand it, but which was still relevant to the old fans who were delighted to see the series return and could still recognise the essential elements of the show they had known in what he’d done with it. Davies invented a backstory for the newly unveiled ninth Doctor that was contingent on something called The Time War, and this was as new a development and came as just as much of a surprise to classic WHO fans as it did to the audience who were finding the show for the first time. The Time War was a clever means of introducing important concepts from the series’ past which would continue to be relevant to its future (such as the Doctor’s combative relationship with the Daleks and the idea of him being a time travelling alien from a distant planet), while neatly evading the need to have to explain a lot of the complex lore that had also built up in the meantime in relation to the Doctor’s origins as a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. Davies did this by finding a pretext to explain why all those other Time Lords didn’t seem to be around anymore. Suddenly, this new Doctor had nobody else in the Universe: it was in many ways as though all that past history of his had never happened. Especially as this Doctor seemed again reluctant to talk about his past at all -- just like the old one had in the days before the Time Lord mythos had become an established feature of the show’s lore. Now viewers of all ages, old and new, learned for the first time about a terrible catastrophe which had occurred in the Doctor’s chronology, sometime between his eighth and ninth incarnations (or so we thought at the time, but I’m sticking with the old regeneration numbering system for reasons to be explained later) – or, in other words, while the series had been off the air. At the core of the new version of the show there was still the traditional idea of the Doctor as a benevolent alien who had spent his long life as a wanderer in space and time, doing good deeds wherever he went in his familiar blue box of a time machine, and battling for the underdog against injustice and violence wherever he found them in the Universe. But, we learned, at some point he’d also become involved in a terrible war, fought between his people the Time Lords and the evil warlike race of metal-encased mutants known as the Daleks. This war was fought on an unprecedented scale throughout all points in time and eventually became so ferocious that it threatened to destroy the entire Universe, leaving the Doctor feeling like he had no other option but to commit mass genocide and destroy his own race along with the Daleks, in order to save the rest of the Universe from being taken down in the crossfire between two uncompromising foes.
As a result, the Doctor we encountered during that first 2005 series, played marvellously by Christopher Eccleston, is a very much more tortured sort of a figure than any of the earlier eight incarnations fans would’ve remembered from the classic series run or the TV Movie attempt at a continuation: hair cropped and dressed down in dark leather jacket and jumper, this was a traumatised being still very much haunted by chronic survivor guilt: his eccentric mannerisms, jovial quips and child-like wonder at the beauty of the Universe had always been part of the make-up of the personality of all the previous incarnations of the Doctor, however different they may have been on the surface, and this was all still there behind the ninth Doctor’s forced chirpiness and madcap grin; but in Eccleston’s portrayal such traits now seemed like a mask, desperately being used to hide behind by someone who could no longer bear to look at himself in the mirror, and who was essentially crippled by anger and self-loathing. This gave new depth and meaning to his relationship with new companion Rose, who became no longer just the latest in a long line of seemingly random strays the Doctor tended to pick up on his travels, but someone who also gave as much back to him emotionally through her ability to keep him centred, and to remind this ancient time traveller of his core values of compassion and kindness, as he gave to her by opening up her horizons and revealing an endlessly diverse and glorious Universe to her, transporting her away from an empty humdrum life on a council estate composed of work, chips and sleep and giving her a tantalising new perspective on existence, with all the new dangers and (ultimately) tragedies this entailed.
But instead of remaining just an anonymous itinerant explorer, The Doctor now also became someone whose reputation often preceded him wherever he went: in the years since the show’s return aliens have often quaked at any mention of the Doctor or ‘The Oncoming Storm’, and though companions continued to come and go, all of them were to prove vital in some form or other to keeping the Doctor from going off the rails: both the following tenth (David Tennant) and eleventh (Matt Smith) incarnations are very much products of the dark legacy of the Time War established by the Russell T Davies era and inherited in 2010 by the new show-runner Steven Moffat. Tennant’s Doctor could be cheeky and charming and energetic, but also dangerously manic and unstable when deprived of human companionship for too long a period; a result, we presumed, of his tendency to agonise over whether or not he had made the right decision all those years ago when he destroyed his own people. Smith’s Doctor plunged himself into a series of intense friendships with his human companions, creating quite a bizarre backwards-in-time set of family relationships centred around himself, Amy and Rory, and their daughter River Song, in an effort to distract himself and perhaps forget the horror of what he’d done; and there was an even weirder relationship struck with Clara Oswald -- who turns out to have been present in an endless succession of fragmented iterations throughout his entire life of travel in the TARDIS.
The 50th Anniversary episode comes, then, eight years after a re-launch that introduced a transformative wrinkle in the show’s mythology that begat us the lonely Doctor -- a war survivor with a guilty conscious and a hidden past. And this resulted in an entirely new metre coming to predominate in the show, which became noticeable by the way it altered the portrayal of the Doctor’s relationships with his companions, who now became much more obviously essential elements of his story, helping to keep him sane and centred but also enabling him to bury the darker traumas of his past behind more flirtatious and sometimes romantically orientated interactions with them. This story has now become as much a part of the series’ DNA as any other fact you might pluck from its wider history. The post 2005 series has developed a rich legacy of its own and is not far off celebrating its own tenth anniversary. Furthermore, there are now distinct ‘eras’ discernible throughout this recent history, each with a radically different feel about them. Some of them have come about largely without design as TV production methods, budgets and styles of storytelling have continued to change and develop. Look back at the Eccleston era now and you are looking at a time before smart phones and tablets existed: those episodes now form as much of a record of a specific moment in the history of British social and cultural identity as do the classic era stories from the ‘60s, ‘70s or ‘80s. There’s even an episode set during what was then a future imagining of the 2012 London Olympics which already looks completely anachronistic.
But something else has also happened during this time, which was quite unexpected and couldn’t have been foretold in 2005 when Russell T Davies probably never dared dream that the re-launched series would get a run that lasted longer than three or four years: younger fans whose parents weren’t even born when the show started in 1963 have rediscovered the show’s past. Classic era DVDs now regularly top the DVD charts and parents who grew up with the series in the ‘70s and ‘80s have re-introduced their own offspring to stories that were filmed and recorded to entirely different production methods and routines and under vastly more primitive conditions than today’s TV drama is made. DOCTOR WHO is a brand designed to appeal to both casual viewers of prime time TV and to fans of several generations standing who are now familiar with its complex history both on-screen and behind the camera. The show has also garnered a huge international following in the last eight years, selling an image of modern Britain to America and countless other countries around the world. “The Day of the Doctor” is Steven Moffat’s attempt to address all of this -- every last bit of it -- in one insanely ambitious endeavour which sets out to harmonise the modern post 2005 series with the show’s wider heritage, while seeking to do so in the cause of effecting developments which have the potential to result in the biggest change in emphasis since the early 1970s when, come the 2014 series, Peter Capaldi takes on the role of the 12th (or 13th depending on how you look at it) Doctor during the upcoming Christmas special.
The starting point for all of this came at the very end of series Seven with the revelation in the final seconds of the episode “The Name of the Doctor”, that another hidden incarnation existed in the Doctor’s past: someone who had given up the right to use that name so that he could become a warrior tasked with ending the Time War once and for all, at whatever the cost. This was further elaborated upon in the mini-episode “The Night of the Doctor”, released to BBC iPlayer a few days before the broadcast of the anniversary episode, in which Paul McGann was finally given the opportunity to confirm the legitimacy of his place in the cannon, even though his entire tenure since the TV movie had existed only in the shadowy realm of novels, audio dramas, animations and comic-strips rather than television. Not only was he finally allowed a proper regeneration scene, denied him with the handover to Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor, but he also got to name-check companions who had been created specifically for his off-screen adventures and which will only be familiar to fans of the eighth Doctor non-television franchise … Thus, in just seven minutes of screen time, Moffat managed to please the hard-core fans by paying tribute to a previously under-valued classic era Doctor; bring the eighth Doctor audio drama range into the fold, confirming it as a now 100% officially sanctioned part of WHO history; and join the dots of McGann’s lengthy but largely unseen reign, which only exists in this vast wealth of non-television material, and the future direction of the current show by explaining how the eighth Doctor’s decision to regenerate into John Hurt’s War Doctor leads to that barely explained period during which the Doctor committed the genocidal act that he’s been atoning for ever since.
The story of “The Day of the Doctor” is really the story of how the classic era and the modern eras of the series were finally joined together and the lengthy gap between them sealed, uniting them both as one tradition, all as a result of the most recent incarnations of the Doctor (it would have been even more piquant if Eccleston had consented to take part in the shindig) finally learning to accept the previously unacknowledged black sheep in their ranks, who’d been denied so comprehensively until that point that his existence had been all but wiped from the Doctor’s memory.
Steven Moffat’s pre-publicity for the episode used all of the show runner’s customary talent for misdirection to divert fans away from aspects of it that were going to be overtly celebratory of the show’s history. Yes, we knew the fondly remembered classic series monsters the Zygons would be back for the first time since their one and only appearance in 1975’s “Terror of the Zygons” -- and of course the Daleks were bound to make an appearance. The joint return of David Tennant and Billie Piper was also much foregrounded in the promotional press. But many older fans were annoyed by the apparent side-lining of the classic series Doctors and a concentration on ‘gimmicky’ presentational aspects aimed at getting the show mainstream press attention. Thus, not only was the anniversary episode to be shot in 3D and broadcast in special live screening events at cinemas all around the UK, but it was also set to break the world record for the largest simulcast TV event in history, with 94 countries across the globe participating and getting to see the episode at exactly the same moment in real time.
In fact, this idea that the anniversary special would be looking to the future and was not too bothered about celebrating the past -- deliberately promulgated by Steven Moffat in the months leading up to broadcast – would turn out not to be quite true (Moffat said afterwards that he’d always known that all of the Doctor’s would have to be involved in it somehow, and that he was going to have to spend all of his time in the lead-up lying about that fact) as Moffat had in fact cooked up an ingeniously entertaining story in which the future direction of the show becomes intimately bound up with the results of restoring the Doctor’s full history to the eleventh Doctor’s memory, and hinges on bringing back large chunks of previously buried lore from the classic era to relevance once again in a way that also completely transforms our understanding of the events that formed the Doctor’s post 2005 character as originally envisioned by Russell T Davies as part of his plan for successfully bringing the series back to TV.
This is surely only possible now because of the huge success of the re-launched series over the last eight years, and, more importantly, the interest newer fans have begun showing in that wider series history, including the popularity of archive material from its ‘60s and ‘70s incarnations, when DOCTOR WHO was a very different beast from what it has become today. The level of excitement which attended the announcement of the recent rediscovery of previously lost Patrick Troughton stories “The Enemy of the World” and “The Web of Fear” testifies to that fact. It seems to put us at an interesting crossroads as Peter Capaldi prepares to take over the role, becoming the first older Doctor of the new era (the oldest in fact since William Hartnell, although Moffat has been at pains to emphasise that there is going to be nothing 'elderly' about Capaldi’s portrayal of the Doctor) in the process of replacing the youngest actor ever to take on the part: it seems we may have reached a point that could be somewhat analogous to the latter years of the John Nathan-Turner era, when many believe the series became too bogged down with its own continuity to be accessible to a wider audience. The difference is perhaps that the series has nurtured and maintained a large mainstream audience during the last eight years, and a larger chunk of that audience than ever before has become genuinely invested in that history; we can only wait and see how this pans out, but storytelling methods have become vastly more sophisticated, editing denser and faster-paced, and audiences have proved themselves capable of keeping up with incredibly complex story arcs while viewing figures have, on average, largely remained steady.
For now, this anniversary episode deals with the problem of how to acknowledge and incorporate into one story 50 years’ worth of a TV history that’s as much about change and renewal as the constancy represented in its icons like the TARDIS and the Daleks, using a deft touch that proves once and for all that, whatever some fans may feel about the so-called ‘Disneyfication’ of tone under Moffat’s stewardship, this is still a man completely consumed by love for a show that he himself grew up with and obviously still obsesses over. The episode starts wonderfully, with an intro that revives Bernard Lodge’s original, still utterly beguilingly strange-looking ‘howaround’ feedback loop opening titles from 1963, accompanied by Delia Derbyshire’s eerily abstract arrangement for Ron Grainer’s theme music, which then fades all too quickly into a recreation of those historic opening moments of the very first episode, “An Unearthly Child”. But as the colour is turned up, we discover that the patrolling bobby strolling past the gates of Forman’s Junkyard has this time become a present-day police officer in padded flap-jacket and, intriguingly, we also discover that Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) is now working as a teacher at Coal Hill School and the former science teacher companion to the first Doctor, Ian Chesterton, is the Chairman of the Board of Governors. The show’s past and present are instantly brought together as one cohesive whole in just a few seconds as Clara, having received a message from ‘her Doctor’ (care of a breathless, floppy haired colleague who obviously ‘secretly’ has a thing for her) zooms off on a motorbike to join him in the TARDIS.
It seems that the time travelling blue box no longer holds its previous antipathy towards Clara: she is now able to get the TARDIS doors to close automatically by the click of her fingers – a trick normally reserved only for the Doctor. As a helicopter sent by UNIT’s science department -- which is led by scientific advisor Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), the daughter of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart -- kidnaps the TARDIS by the rather primitive method of attaching a giant claw to it and airlifting it across London’s skyline to an urgent rendezvous in Trafalgar Square at the bottom of the steps leading to the National Gallery (with the Doctor hanging precariously from the bottom throughout), the simplicity and oddness of those original titles are contrasted with the bombast and spectacle of the show’s modern-day incarnation, with Murray Gold’s “I am the Doctor” music cue providing a dynamic soundtrack to a credits sequence clearly conceived for no other reason other than to show off Britain’s capital city in glorious 3D to the ninety-four counties of the Simulcast-watching world. A typically convoluted Moffat plot then unfolds connecting the Fall of Gallifrey’s Second City of Arcadia on the last day of the Time War with the darkest moment in the (War) Doctor’s (John Hurt) past; and a frivolous tenth Doctor (David Tennant) escapade in the Tudor countyside, involving a rogue Zygon and a buxom young Elizabeth I (Joanna Page).
The initial device used to connect these seemingly disparate elements of narrative involves the eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) and Clara being ushered into the ‘Undergallery’ – a secret vault where every known deadly danger to England has been hidden away – and which now has its home at the National Gallery. The Doctor was once made its Curator by the Queen of England … Queen Elizabeth I that is -- and a piece of 3D Time Lord art called either “Gallifrey Falls” or “No More” (which is in fact a piece of actual time, frozen in stasis inside the picture frame) serves as the Queen’s credentials, issued to prove that the Doctor has not been brought here under false pretences. This piece of art is also, literally, a memory from one of the Doctor’s past lives frozen in time, and prompts an extended Proustian flashback to the most traumatic period in his long history during what he calls: ‘the war to end all wars between my people and the Daleks,’ fought by a forgotten incarnation of the Doctor: ‘the one I don’t talk about. The one I’ve tried very hard to forget.’ Something similar occurs when he captures a glimpse of a Tudor era portrait of his tenth incarnation, depicted in doublet and frilly rusk, alongside a resplendent Good Queen Bess, which takes him back to the period referenced in several previous David Tennant episodes when he is supposed to have secretly married England’s Virgin Queen.
The Gallifreyan flashback is where “The Day of the Doctor” gets to play up to all the more epic qualities entailed by the mythology of the Time Lords and the mystique of the Doctor’s home planet, but on a fantastic scale that could never have even been approached during the classic era of the series. This is the section of the narrative where DOCTOR WHO is briefly allowed to be more Star Wars than “Star Wars” -- as director Nick Hurran mixes the most spectacular battle scenes with the most beautiful, painterly and intricate CGI work the series has ever seen, displaying jaw-dropping overhead shots of the city of Arcadia besieged by Dalek saucers, while on the ground the city erupts in flames as civilians are mercilessly rounded up and exterminated by battle-ready, grit-encrusted Dalek solders. It’s also where we meet the War Doctor in his natural environment: one of ceaseless suffering and horror (some of it, no doubt, created by him) and for which all the qualities of compassion and kindness that have previously defined him as the Doctor have had to be set aside. John Hurt is pretty amazing here, bringing great gravity and a sense of tragic weariness to his portrayal of a morally numb version of a Doctor who has been around for centuries fighting a war that has almost drained him of the last vestiges of who he once was. His own people – once a peaceful non-interventionist race, dedicated to using the great power afforded them by their development of time travel technology to maintain order in the Universe – have become warped by years of battle and fear born of the threat of extinction; it’s here that we see how they have become a people entirely mobilised for war, its leaders holding their emergency sessions in the War Room of the Gallifreyian High Council while standing around a big oval table like the one in “Doctor Strangelove”, plotting last ditch strategy. It is here that we learn that the Time Lords’ Omega Arsenal has been breached by the War Doctor and a mega weapon called The Moment -- the deadliest in the universe, also known by its soubriquet The ‘Galaxy Eater’ -- has been stolen. This is a weapon that looks like a carved wooden box full of intricate brass gears, but which houses an operating system so sophisticated it became sentient. The War Doctor discovers what that means when The Moment designates its interface take the form of someone of great significance from his past lives (or is it his future?) to test whether or not John Hurt’s grizzled war veteran really wants to go through with the momentous act of destruction he is about to commit by ‘opening windows into his future’ and taking him on a journey that will show him the person(s) he will become if he presses that big red destruct button.
This is Steven Moffat revisiting once again the most famous 19th century time travel sci-fi story of all: Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. The story recycles the Ghost of Christmas Future motif already borrowed by Moffat in his first Christmas episode, with Hurt’s Doctor now placed in the same position as Michael Gambon’s Kazran Sardick from the 2010 Christmas Special, while the Doctor’s role in that story is now taken by a glammed up Billie Piper -- not playing Rose Tyler this time (thankfully! – opening that whole ‘romance’ can of worms again would have really bogged things down) but a rather sultry version of Bad Wolf Rose instead. This time, though, the War Doctor gets to meet and interact with his future incarnations (under guidance from Bad Wolf Rose, who is invisible to his future selves) when both he and Matt Smith’s eleventh Doctor are united with Tennant’s incarnation in 1562 by way of a three-way time fissure connected by the eleventh Doctor’s fez. The whole ‘Zygons in Elizabethan England’ plot strand then, which introduces the tenth incarnation and then becomes the focus for the merry romp of an adventure the three Doctor’s embark upon in the middle portion of the episode, is a means of allowing the War Doctor to see how the genocide he is about to commit will affect the personalities of his tenth and eleventh incarnations, and it starts off being played rather more for laughs than one might have expected, and seems, initially at least, to have been aimed at the show’s younger viewers as a counterbalance to the seriousness of the rather more heavyweight themes underpinning the rest of the episode. In their one and only previous appearance on the show, 1975’s “The Terror of the Zygons”, the Zygons were a bizarre slimy alien aberration whose ability to shape-shift became the locus of a Gothic tinged Doppelgänger motif constructed by writer Robert Banks Stewart in such a way as to highlight the uncanny elements in the story. Here it becomes the punch-line in a series of mistaken identity gags involving David Tennant’s Doctor (who is portrayed as a bit of ladies’ man who gallivants about the Universe with women swooning at his Converse wherever he goes) repeatedly confusing Gloriana for ‘a shape-shifting alien from outer-space’.
It’s farcical, knockabout stuff, and the comedy writer still lurking within Steven Moffat is able to generate more than a few witty lines and plenty of absurdist situational humour from the tenth Doctor’s plan to expose the Zygon invader going increasingly awry. He even sometimes allows himself the luxury of gently mocking the Tennant Doctor’s tendency to get mawkish and grandiloquent, with a scene where Tennant delivers his ‘I am the Coming Storm’ speech from “The Voyage of the Damned” to a rabbit while believing it to be a disguised Zygon -- when in actual fact it really is just the innocuous woodland bunny it appears to be. The sight of one of these ‘big red rubbery things covered in suckers’ waddling around in a field in broad daylight arguably takes one of the classic series’ creepiest, most flesh-crawling creations and turns it into a cute joke, hardly any more scary than the Slitheen, who could just have easily been used for this aliens-take-over-the-world-disguised-as-humans plot. But then this really does seem to be intended to play almost as though it were a pastiche of a plotline from a standard episode, but contained within a story that is really about something else completely. “Gavin and Stacy” star Joanna Page’s portrayal of the young Queen Bess takes its cue here from Moffat’s Blackadder-ish writing, which, for comedic effect, treats her as though she’s akin to a love-struck teenager, emphasising once again the frolicsome nature of these initial sequences while also referencing past episodes by providing an explanation for how the Doctor managed to get himself hitched to her, a fact we’d already been made aware of in “The Shakespeare Code” and which has been referred to in other episodes since. This part of the story also affords us a rather gratuitous cleavage shot from Page, which I can only imagine was some sort of oblique reference to Peter Davison’s regeneration scene: a moment famously overshadowed (literally) by Nicola Bryant’s bust, clad in a diverting low-cut top, leaning into view across Davison’s Doctor in his final death throes … but then, really, this episode is so packed with references to incidents and past companions from classic episodes that one begins to imagine them everywhere!
The Zygon invasion plan turns out to be just as crazy as their Loch Ness plot from the 1975 adventure, leading one to suspect that this particular species of alien enjoys concocting convoluted invasions of other planets just for the heck of it, and isn’t all that interested in actually bringing its schemes to fruition. In the case of this bunch, despite losing their home planet in the first days of the Time War, they’re still prepared to wait it out for hundreds of years frozen as figures in the landscape of some Time Lord stasis-cube artworks stored in the National Gallery, awaiting exactly the right moment at which to launch their world dominating scheme! How all these Time Lord works of art actually got there in the first place is glibly skated over at the end by having the tenth Doctor make a meta reference to the fact that most episodes seem to leave a few loose ends or plot holes to puzzle viewers, before its revealed that a future retired version of the Doctor called the Curator (Tom Baker) actually acquired them in ‘extraordinary circumstances’?! Although the concept of figures in a landscape painting either moving or disappearing is a creepy one that crops up in ghost stories quite often, the Zygons are only intermittently menacing after it is revealed that they have emerged in modern day London through the Trojan Horse paintings and are now ready to take-over the world disguised as important UNIT personnel. Despite some mock scary scenes in which we see the Doppelgänger Kate Stewart vomit orange slime and transform into her true rubbery, sucker-covered form, once the Zygons manage to gain access to the alien tech stored in the top secret Black Archive in the Tower of London, they’re actually pretty hapless and bumbling, tripping over UNIT science officer Osgood’s (Ingrid Oliver) fourth Doctor fan scarf and – most ridiculous of all – being completely unable to recognise themselves when in human form -- allowing the real Queen Elizabeth to overpower her alien likeness and take his place, explaining her success by proclaiming: ‘I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman but, at the time … so did the Zygon!’
The real meat of this episode is, of course, in the War Doctor’s relationship with his future incarnations and their attitude towards him for having done what they don’t realise he has yet to do in his own future, as they’re all forced to join forces and work together to counter the Elizabethan Zygon plot. Hurt’s Doctor is given essentially the same function in the story as that which was handed to William Hartnell for “The Three Doctors” reunion: the grumpy veteran elder statesman, who, when he sets eyes upon his future incarnations, is appalled by the frivolity of his replacements. In that instance Harnell’s first Doctor memorably dismissed Pertwee and Troughton for being ‘a dandy and a clown’. Tennant and Smith here get to indulge in some similar amusing instances of the traditional multi-Doctor name-calling and bickering, as well: the eleventh ribs his ‘matchstick man’ predecessor for his ‘Dick Van Dyke’ accent and his ‘sand shoes’; while the tenth refers to his replacement as ‘chinny’. Their one-upmanship is mostly centred on penis envy-style comparisons of their sonic screwdrivers amid much juvenile arm-waving and quipping. Amusingly, when Hurt’s older, war-weary Doctor first claps eyes on the pair of them he immediately mistakes them for his latest companions (‘they get younger all the time!’ he ruefully chuckles to himself) and is utterly dumbstruck when he realises that these are his future selves, a fact which sets him to pondering ‘am I having some sort of a mid-life crisis?’
Hurt is brilliant here at conveying the War Doctor’s disappointment at these ‘men who act like children’, and who he is one day destined to become. You can hear the sheer frustrated confusion in his voice as he genuinely wonders: ‘why are you pointing your sonic screwdrivers like that? They’re scientific instruments not water pistols!’ As well as fulfilling the traditional older Doctor role in a multi-Doctor story, this banter is also consciously working on two other levels: first, we’re being provided with a narrative back story rationale for why the Doctor’s persona has become younger since the 2005 revival (and why he has behaved quite differently to the Doctors from the classic series): ‘what is it that makes the two of you so ashamed of acting like a grown up?’ asks the War Doctor at one point, before realising by the way that his ’replacements’ both look at him, that the answer to the question is him, and the act of genocide he is about to commit in ‘the name of peace and sanity’. As a result of that act, the tenth is still angry at him-self and has become ‘the man who regrets’, while the eleventh has lived for several hundred years more and has now become ‘the man who forgets’, being no longer even able to remember the exact number of children who died on Gallifrey because of his actions. This introduces a spark of antipathy between ten and eleven, as well as the very obvious edge which is shared between themselves and the War Doctor, but in the end they do manage to come together in a way that illustrates how they are still very much the same man underneath it all. Tellingly, although they are able to concoct ‘a cunning plan’ for escaping their prison cell in the Tower of London by using their sonic screwdrivers to run a four-hundred year program replicating the harmonic resonance of the atoms used to construct the prison door, none of them bothers to check to see if the door they are escaping through is actually locked in the first place, thus proving that for all their brilliance they are all still in need of the common sense humanity of a companion like Clara Oswald to help them out.
But the other level at which the War Doctor’s bemusement with the future versions of him-self works is more of a ‘meta’ comment on how the nature of the show itself has changed down the years, while remaining essentially the same programme. One of the biggest changes during that time has been in the Doctor’s willingness to engage in romantic interactions and flirtations with the female sex, and this is used throughout the episode in a knowing way to illustrate the difference between the series’ past and the present: when the Bad Wolf Rose interface used by The Moment to communicate with him starts flirting slightly with the War Doctor, he is completely oblivious to it (‘the interface is hot,’ mutters the War Doctor while examining the outer casing of the cuboid weapon. ‘I do my best!’ purrs ‘Rose’) and as he comes to respect and admire his future selves after gradually realising that for all the existential pain which has been forced upon them in the aftermath of the Time War (and which has been responsible for making them act the way they do) that they are still better men than he, he reacts with contemplative fascination when he witnesses his tenth incarnation snogging the Queen of England: ‘Is there a lot of this in the future, then?’ he asks Matt Smith’s Doctor; ‘It does start to happen, yeah!’ the eleventh sheepishly replies. The irony in the War Doctor’s acceptance of his younger, louder, brasher incarnations is that it merely hardens his resolve to go through with the act of mass murder he feels is necessary to save the Universe, knowing that although he will be reviled and his existence will be denied by his remaining incarnations, his future selves will go on to greater things because of it: ‘great men are forged in fire,’ he decides; ‘it is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame!’
This, though, is where writer Steven Moffat gets to pull his latest Timey Wimey (Hurt’s Doctor is disgusted by the use of that term as well!) narrative trick on viewers. After the Zygon invasion plot is rather hastily set aside with the aid of a quick memory wipe and some John Rawls style ‘original position’ negotiation, this momentous episode, in which some of the most expensive-looking special effects thus far seen in the show had earlier been utilised for the show stopping Time War sequences, in fact comes down to a simple, intimate conversation in which four people (five if you count Bad Wolf Rose) stand about in a wooden shed in the desert facing a great big red, Davros-patented ‘Total Destruct’ button while considering the fundamental values of DOCTOR WHO. The words of one of the great statesman of English letters (not Charles Dickens this time, but Terrence Dicks, of course) are alluded to as ‘Rose’ commandeers some of Dicks’ best stock phrases from the ‘70s Target Book cannon to explain what the Doctor, and that ‘wheezing, groaning noise’ the TARDIS makes, actually stand for and what they mean to people like us, thus inspiring all three Doctors to come up with a last-second plan that allows them to take a different course from the one which was apparently irrevocably set forth for the Doctor eight years ago at the start of Russell T Davies’ revival of the series.
Some have pointed to the audacity being displayed by Moffat in his willingness to completely rewrite a fundamental piece of lore previously established by his processor, but what Moffat has actually done here is merely recycle exactly the same device he’d previously used to set up the arc which ran throughout season six, but this time on a much more ambitious scale: previously, both we as viewers and the Doctor’s companions, Amy and Rory, saw the Doctor killed and cremated in episode one of the season run, and were assured that what had occurred could not be rewritten or undone. The trick was, of course, that what we saw did happen, and it did play out again at the end of the series … it’s just that what we thought we were seeing the first time around was not what was ‘actually’ happening. The same thing occurs with the apparent destruction of Gallifrey here: nothing has actually had to be re-written to make this angle work, everything still plays out in such a way that it still looks exactly like it would have done had The Moment been used by the Doctor in the way he’s always assumed it had been (Gallifrey is still gone and the Dalek fleets are still destroyed) -- it’s just that the event the Doctor has been beating himself up over all these years ever since the show first returned to our screens in 2005, never actually happened in the first place – Gallifrey is merely gone because it’s been transported to a pocket Universe, and the Daleks simply destroyed each other in their own crossfire! So it is that the themes which have characterised Steven Moffat’s entire term as show runner throughout the Matt Smith era, predicated on how our memories are the stuff from which we construct a story about ourselves and thus create our very identities (and what the consequences are for the self when those memories are lost, misinterpreted or tampered with) – turns out to have been a central component of the Doctor’s own sense of who he is all along, with all of his past incarnations (plus a scowly-looking future one) brought in with help from some ‘body doubles’ and CGI tinkering for the final money shot where all twelve Doctors are pictured united as one and together agsin in the eleventh Doctor’s newly invigorated dreams, indicating that the dark spot in the Doctor’s psyche is finally healed. Tom Baker’s curator (supposedly a future Doctor with the face of ‘one of the old favourites’) turns up to set the future course of a protagonist now freed from the heaviness of a guilt which played its role in demarcating a line between the classic era and the modern that has now been dissolved … but first of all there’s the small matter of the no-longer-last Time Lord having apparently reached the absolute limit imposed by convention and lore on his ability to regenerate.
We know that the regeneration issue is finally and necessarily going to have to be addressed in the Christmas episode, thus enabling Peter Capaldi to become the twelfth Doctor (or the thirteenth if you insist on counting John Hurt’s incarnation, even though he doesn’t accept the name of the Doctor until the moment of his regeneration), but what’s interesting is the fact that Capaldi’s casting re-establishes an older Doctor again and at just this particular moment, after a story in which the Doctor’s youthfulness and the adolescent nature of his behaviour in his last few lives has been made an issue, if only in a humorous way. It suggests that his man-child period might be at an end and that not only have the two eras now become solidified in both the Doctor’s and the public’s imagination, but that the series is also about to undergo one of its periodic changes in focus, akin to the leap that took place between the Troughton era and the Earth-based Pertwee period; or between the Quatermass plots and ITC action-adventure influences central to the third Doctor’s reign and the influence of classic Gothic horror on the early part of Tom Baker’s tenure. Only time will tell whether such speculations will prove to have any weight behind them, but one thing’s for certain, Moffat’s “Day of the Doctor” provided exactly the right mix of celebration for the 50th anniversary while setting up intriguing possibilities for the immediate future of the show. Although this surely must be the last time Moffat gets away with this re-boot-the-narrative-without-re-booting-the-series style magician’s trick of plot construction without it becoming boring, he’s pulled from his familiar bag of thematic obsessions once again, for hopefully one last time, to produce an extremely entertaining, life-affirming episode which confronts the Doctor’s darkest hour and brings him back at the end of it all to being someone who more closely resembles the figure we knew of old, but now as the inheritor of the world that was created in the classic series wake by Russell T and Steven Moffat for the new millennium. Where we go from here we can only wait and see, but the possibilities have just become just that little bit more intriguing than they were six months ago.
“The Day of the Doctor” comes to DVD and Blu-ray with 5.1 Surround Sound and looks excellent, with the Blu-ray edition also featuring the episode in both 2D and 3D versions. “The Night of the Doctor” mini-episode is of course included and is an essential building block in tying together the lore of the post 2005 series with that of the ‘90s TV movie and the classic era before it, and there is also a brief and rather throwaway extra scene included called “The Last Day”, which takes place on Gallifrey just before the final battle on the last day of the Time War. Also included is a 15 minute Doctor Who Confidential-style behind-the-scenes Making Of narrated by Colin Baker and a 45 minute BBC America documentary called “Doctor Who Explained” which brings back past Doctors and companions from both modern and classic eras to discuss what makes the Doctor the Doctor and the series such a special part of British culture. Finally there are the two BBC teaser trailers transmitted in the months leading up to the big day. The only disappointment is that the BBC didn’t see fit also to include Peter Davison’s hilarious half-hour comedy “The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot”, which became as much of a highlight of the anniversary as the main celebration special itself for many fans, but this release is of course essential, and is bound to be re-watched many time between now and the Christmas Special on the 25th December.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!