The 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who was excellent. I could have asked for them to reduce some of the gratuitously cheeseball scenes, but by and large it followed through on its promise of revisiting the Doctor’s darkest day during the Time War quite well.
Spoilers after the cut!
Like the comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, “The Day of the Doctor” goes to some lengths to work in bits from the series’ past (many of which are referenced on the episode’s Wikipedia page), but fortunately, unlike League and more like the James Bond film Die Another Day, the references don’t overwhelm the main story. The opening sequence (from the first Doctor era) and the bit at Coal Hill School are cute little gimmicks, but really I have no interest in trolling through the episode for all the other minutiae, most of which are irrelevant to the story. (Another place for more such sifting – but with some interesting stuff, too – is this Bleeding Cool article.)
The structure of the first half of the story is rather clever, being written as the beginnings of separate adventures of the tenth, eleventh and war Doctors, until they all converge. As a structure wonk, I loved this. The structure of the rest of the story is a bit messy, especially the lack of a denouement to the Zygon plot thread. True, the episode focuses on the important stuff (the war Doctor), but I think having two main plots requires that you do justice to them both. Of course, there was the hint Osgood and her doppelgänger had figured out who was real and who was Zygon, so maybe Moffat plans to follow up on this in the next season.
John Hurt as the war Doctor is terrific, being both war-weary and sarcastically impatient with his future selves’ idiosyncrasies. Hurt brings gravitas to the role while still being capable of delivering the more lighthearted lines. We’ve been waiting for years for stories of the eighth Doctor (though we got a short one in “The Night of the Doctor” prologue to this story), and now I’d rather like to see some of the adventures of the war Doctor (grim though they might be).
The interplay among the three Doctors is very well done. It evokes the interplay among the first three Doctors in “The Three Doctors”, with two of them bickering and the third calling them both out as fools. (And the tenth and eleventh Doctors are both incarnations of The Fool; I’ve remarked before that I don’t think there have ever been two consecutive Doctors who were so much alike as these two.) David Tennant and Matt Smith clearly had tremendous fun filming the episode, and it shows in how their Doctors are both critical and envious of the other, in the wittiest way possible, of course.
I wonder how much of the script was firmed up after Christopher Eccleston declined to participate. His ninth Doctor had a bad case of PTSD, still reeling from his actions in the Time War, and his season with Rose is essentially a chronicle of him trying to get his head on straight. By contrast, the tenth and eleventh Doctors have distanced themselves from the Time War and can react to the war Doctor’s presence with both their hearts and their heads, something I’m not sure the ninth Doctor would have been able to do. (I still wonder what exactly the eleventh Doctor has been doing for four hundred years. He’s got to be the longest-lived of any Doctor except the first, at this point.)
In any event, the essential point of the story is to both show what made the tenth and eleventh Doctors into the men they are. “What is it that makes you so ashamed of being a grown-up?” asks the war Doctor, when as he asks we know that it’s him who’s responsible for that. But it also gives them closure regarding what he did, and also redeems him: On the day there was no right choice, he still found a right choice. And thematically the story is another example of what we saw during the Tennant specials, that the Doctor without a companion is a man lost and adrift. And the war Doctor has clearly been alone for a very long time.
Bringing in Billie Piper as the voice of The Moment was a nice nod to the Eccleston and Tennant eras without just bringing Rose back without a role for her to play in the story. And she absolutely knocked her part out of the park, possibly her best performance in the series.
The reason there was no role for Rose to play is that Clara has turned into a terrific companion in this story. She’s not a girl like Rose who’s a bit in awe (and a bit in love) with the Doctor, she’s more like Donna in that she’s a mature woman who deals with the Doctor as an equal. She figures things out, the Doctor trusts her, and she serves as the his ground to humanity.
Okay, the cheeseball stuff I could have done without: First, the airlifting of the TARDIS to Trafalgar Square. I suspect this was done mainly for the 3-D viewing, and to give Matt Smith a chance to clown around, but I hate this sort of slapstick, except for those rare times when it’s the Doctor initiating it. Second, the gratuitous exposition and the bringing in of the other ten Doctors during the saving of Gallifrey. Sure, seeing Peter Capaldi was a nice surprise, but otherwise this scene didn’t make much sense (how did all the other Doctors know to get there?). I think they should have stuck to just the three Doctors involved in the story. Blasting the Dalek out of the painting (just how real are those paintings?) also didn’t make much sense, since the implication at the end of the episode is that that particular painting was not in fact where Gallifrey was hidden away.
On the other hand, I’m willing to give them some leeway for the scene with Tom Baker: The dialogue was satisfying and written ambiguously enough that maybe it makes sense, or maybe it doesn’t. And of course Baker is my favorite Doctor, so it was great to see him in the show one last time. (Aside: The fourth Doctor had at least one didn’t-make-any-sense counterpart, the Watcher from “Logopolis”, not to mention all those replicas from “The Leisure Hive” who we just have to assume were all taken care of, so it’s not like there isn’t precedent for this sort of thing.)
And then: I’ve been a fan of Murray Gold’s incidental music for the series through the Matt Smith years, and his key melody has a nice evolution here during the opening credits. I also quite like his theme for Clara. Good incidental music can really help lift a show or film to a new level, and Gold is a good example of that.
Overall, a tremendously fun episode. It’s hard to see how Matt Smith’s swan song in this year’s Christmas episode could top this one.
Oh, one last thought: After watching “The Big Bang” again, I noticed that the eleventh Doctor’s sonic screwdriver has actually about 1900 years older than we think. I wonder what else it’s been calculating in all that time?