After watching “The Day of the Doctor,” Doctor Who’s 80-minute 50th anniversary special, I needed some time to myself to reflect. The overwhelming excitement as a fan combined with the size of this milestone made it difficult to separate fandom from critiquing a well-crafted story. Regardless, this crazy and entertaining cocktail of sci-fi folklore was a beautiful tribute to the show’s lineage but also the dawn of a new era in the show’s lengthy mythology.
For the many plot points here none of them felt very important but they all surrounded the bigger picture which was The Doctor as an individual discovering his purpose and identity. Quick to forget but still haunted by his duties in the Time War he is forced to meet his regrets head on when he encounters his Tenth incarnation (David Tennant) in 16 Century England and the dark horse of his many incarnations, the figure known as the War Doctor (John Hurt). The latter is the man who fought in the Time War and initiated the final movement to end it by destroying both the Daleks and the Timelords. The War Doctor is literally in the moment deciding if the choice he is about to make is right but he is aided by a living conscious being in the form of one Rose Tyler. Along the way a plot is being unraveled involving Queen Elizabeth I, ancient Timelord paintings, and the Doctor’s famous shape shifting foes, the Zygons, making their first appearance in 38 years.
The Doctor, as Clara clearly states, has characteristics that define each persona; Ten is the hero, the War Doctor is the warrior, but Eleven is conflicted on his identity because he tries to hide his past and even his present identity. It’s a fitting theme; not one incarnation should define who the Doctor is only that he is one man with a title and a credo that is important in every facet of his existence. This is also an ode to fans that have seen numerous incarnations over the years from the show’s inception in 1963 to its revival in 2005. The conflict that the 11th Doctor faces comes from his own past as the Tenth Doctor clearly resents his successor’s desire to forget and the War Doctor represents acknowledging just that. All three internally though question their past and for the War Doctor potentially present actions.
This conundrum provides a great intersect for the Doctor’s relationship with Clara. She has seen via her own path the many faces of the Timelord and to watch her friend with such a love for life contemplate the death of countless Timelords (over 2 billion by Ten’s count) because there is no other way. Clara is no longer a plot point she is a friend and confident which is the best kind of Doctor/companion relationship and because she has seen what she has seen she knows the Doctor’s situation better than most.
The series regulars give their all as usual but it’s the guest cast that really shines. Tennant jumps right back into the role of the 10th Doctor as if he had never left. He is funny and charming as always but he shines the best alongside Smith forming a sort of double act. Much like previous times the Doctors have met each other there is a bit of tension but it always falls into place for some great comedic moments. Combine these two with the War Doctor and you get a trifecta of space timey entertainment.
John Hurt more than anyone should get a standing ovation for this one off as the lost incarnation of the Doctor. He is a man with the biggest decision to make and it makes him a tragic figure who doesn’t believe his right to exist is valid after the actions he is about to commit. The sympathy of the character combined with his interactions with his successors make him far more than a potentially dark and ominous figure. Hurt busts out the legendary acting chops he has been displaying for years showcasing a tired figure but also one with enough wit to fit right in with the other Doctors. Tennant and Smith play off of him as siblings impressing their grandfather and the best moments are when the War Doctor knocks the cheesy, catch phrase spouting nature of his future selves.
Even with three Doctors in the room I know for some the lack of one Christopher Eccleston was probably a bone of contention. It’s publicly known that he turned down the opportunity to return but some have already complained that we shouldn’t have seen him briefly in the regeneration sequence at the show’s end. From a narrative standpoint and considering we got to see Paul McGann return to regenerate into Hurt this was logical. We now have no gaps in the Doctor’s regenerative history but the mystery remains.
Our non-Doctor guest star Billie Piper was given a very poignant role as the face of the interface of the Moment, a centian life form that takes the form of one Rose Tyler, although the War Doctor is not familiar with her just yet. This is another fan grumbling I’m noticing that people have to look at from a narrative standpoint. Yes, it’s not actually Rose, and despite her stating it it’s not technically the Bad Wolf either but where would there have been room logically to bring the real Rose back? Do we open the parallel world again? Uninteresting. The Tenth Doctor isn’t even the main focal point of the story so carting out all the feelings again would serve no purpose in a rather deep story. Piper gets all the credit here in her performance because she doesn’t have to put on doe eyes and a cockney accent. She is foreboding, solemn, and funny which works well being basically the conscious of the War Doctor that he is lacking with such a big, meaty decision.
Beyond the journey of our hero there is time for laughs and time to reflect on the shows’ lineage. Need we forget that this is a 50th anniversary celebration and that means more than a fair share of nods to the past. Using the original opening title sequence, recreating the opening scene of “An Unearthly Child,” Coal Hill School, the UNIT dating controversy, Captain Jack’s vortex manipulator, even the Zygons are a classic throwback. Then, there were the two big surprises. Let’s start out with the wonderful shot of all the Doctors using their TARDIS’ to freeze Gallifrey with the wonderfully placed stock footage of all the classic incarnations. Oh, and we got a glimpse into the future with a brief shot of Peter Capaldi, well Capaldi’s stoic eyebrows, controlling the next Doctor’s ship. In a rather fitting if almost stunt casted cameo Tom Baker is seen playing the museum curator who explains to the Doctor that Gallifrey is still out there. At almost 80 years old Baker still has a stoic presence with the twinkle in his eye that made him the longest serving Doctor on television. Was he actually the Doctor? He seemed to know an awful lot about what the Doctor should expect next. Who knows really but that is the mystery that this show always perpetuates.
No stone goes unturned here but the show takes great care not to weigh itself down with throwbacks. This is a show about moving forward and we get a new chapter in the show by bringing back Gallifrey at the show’s end. The time war was a way to instill the drama and limitations of the Doctor to a 21st century audience but it limited his progression as a character. By the end of Series 7 it was starting to feel like the Doctor’s journey was only going so far but now he has a purpose again; he must find Gallifrey wherever it is out there. Sure, it wasn’t what most of us expected when they said a new chapter would be revealed but it gives the show meaning again.
The Doctor is still changing but now we know where he is going next. “The Day of the Doctor” is a crazy and wonderful mess that features many big ideas but one central plot point; the story of what one man means to the universe regardless of what form he takes. With Smith’s tenure coming to a close next month and Capaldi’s beginning next fall, “The Day of the Doctor” provided fans new and old a glimpse into the past, present, and future of the longest running science fiction series in the world; same software different casings.