Thursday, 5 December 2013

"The Day of the Doctor"

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 M├ęduse 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"