The anniversary specials of the programme have always generated interest, but Doctor Who in 2013 is a mainstream success in a way it hasn't been since Dalekmania in the 1960s. It is probably no exaggeration to say, therefore, that "The Day of the Doctor" is probably the most eagerly awaited episode of Doctor Who since "Rose". It has to satisfy the wide mainstream audience that will tune in, whilst keeping an eye on the fans, some of whom remember William Hartnell, some of whom were not even born when Christopher Eccleston was the Doctor. It has to pay tribute to the 50 years of television history that preceded it, whilst trying to tell an engaging story. It is a pleasure to state that the episode manages to succeed in all of these aims on a level that genuinely surprised even me.
More so than any of the other anniversary specials, "The Day of the Doctor" works as a regular Doctor Who
adventure, this one being a fiendish plan by the Zygons to take over
the Earth. The use of the pictures as suspended animation makes that
part of the plot seem like a bright and breezy season opener, with the
added bonus of featuring a well-loved adversary from yester-year.
However, although the Zygon plot is easily enough to sustain a story in
itself, taking place in two time zones and featuring a Zygon Good Queen
Bess, this is only the gateway into a deeper story. For the pictures are
relics of Gallifrey and of the darkest day of the Doctor's life...
The key thing the audience remembers from Anniversary specials is the
current Doctor meeting with past incarnations and here, we have the very
welcome return of David Tennant, playing the Doctor like he'd never
been away. Joining him is the incarnation we must now call the 'War
Doctor' played by the legendary John Hurt. I stated at the end of his
era that I thought Tennant was the best leading man the show had had
since Hartnell and Hurt is an acting legend, one of the finest in the
world, who has always been thoroughly mesmerising in every role he has
played. I can think of no better praise for Matt Smith than stating that
he completely holds his own in the presence of Hurt and Tennant. Moffat
uses the three Doctors more intelligently than his predecessors did –
we really get a sense of the centuries dividing them. The War Doctor is
definitely the warrior that his predecessor chose to be, but he has not
made the key decision that has haunted his successors. It is also a good
choice to have a previously unknown incarnation be brought to the fore –
the War Doctor has no nostalgic connotations, so he can stand in for
all the previous incarnations more effectively, which makes his
criticisms of his successors' characteristics all the more potent. Some
portions of fandom criticise the perceived modern overuse of the sonic
screwdriver, which is alluded to by the War Doctor and then it is shown
why the sonic is used so often, as, for the first time this century, the
Doctor is locked up! The War Doctor initially has little respect for
the flippancy of his successors, but it becomes clear that it is a
coping mechanism for something he has not yet done. Little kisses to the
past abound, from the title sequence to the fulfilled promise of all
the Doctors making an appearance.
Nick Hurran manages to make the episode both completely epic, with the
stunning fall of Arcadia and also very low key in the quieter moments.
The 3D photography really serves the epic space battles well, but the
episode never devolves into a mere 3D showcase. The design is opulent
and contains great little touches – apparently the original version of Le Radeau de la Méduse
contained no humans! Hurran assembles a great cast, with the very
welcome return of Jemma Redgrave as Kate Stewart, a fun turn from Joanna
Page as Elizabeth and her Zygon double. There is also the wonderful
Ingrid Oliver as Osgood (related to a certain UNIT technician who
assisted at Devil's End?) Jenna Coleman continues to sparkle as Clara,
whether impersonating witches or out-thinking three incarcerated
incarnations of the Doctor. However, there are two minor parts that made
my jaw drop – a brief flash of Peter Capaldi's eyes and (possibly) the
first uttered words of the Twelfth Doctor; and the return of the most
iconic actor to play the Doctor in the 20th Century. Whoever the Curator
actually is, it is a true joy to see Tom Baker again!
The decision to rescue Gallifrey may not be acceptable to some, but the
way in which it is brought about is excellently constructed. Moffat
wants to rescue the Doctor from the burden of committing the genocide of
the Daleks and the near omnicide of his home planet. We found out the
importance of the name of the Doctor and now we find out what must be
done in that name. The emotional consequences are still there, as the
Ninth and Tenth Doctors forget what the War Doctor did in his final
days. The Doctor has had many titles given to him, but where once he was
Death, the Destroyer of Worlds, he is now the more famous aspect of
Vishnu, that of Preserver < / pretentiousness >. Moffat's script is
superlative, writing and rewriting myth with aplomb, without losing the
little touches of humour.
I remember "The Five Doctors" when the programme was in the autumn of its success and I also remember Remembrance of the Daleks and Silver Nemesis
when the winds of winter were blowing. The story looks back at the
programme's history, but makes sure that it does not rest on its laurels
and makes a decisive step forwards into the future. In this November,
50 years after it started, "The Day of the Doctor" is another highlight
of a glorious second summer that shows no sign of coming to an end. Long
live Doctor Who!
NEXT: "The Time of the Doctor"