After the past series, I was sure that my favorite show was doomed. Not only could Steven Moffat not resist the temptation to be misogynist, it seems he couldn’t write real characters, let alone plots that made any type of remote sense. I was convinced that it was time for the Moff to go, before he ruined everything I loved about the show.
It’s a little off-putting to be proved wrong. But in this case, it was wonderful all the same. Because The Day of the Doctor was awesome. Spoilers below.
The show is among the best of television because of its variety. It can go from cracking jokes to fighting monsters to deep conversations to running to heartbreaking deaths in a matter of minutes. And it did all of that this time. And it did it all brilliantly.
Appropriately enough, this anniversary was an exploration of what it meant to be the Doctor. And even with all the meta-commentary over the years on this subject--from companions, from onlookers, from the Doctor himself--I don’t think I can ever have enough on it. And I would never have dreamed that when we’d have three Doctors together, that they would be so much more than a class act. They were that--but they also redefined their past, present, and future.
The episode’s best performance was from John Hurt, hands-down. He was walking in as the newcomer, and yet still managed to capture the spirit of the older Doctors, with a large portion of despair, bitterness, and anger that the war had wrought in him. He fit into the story, in with Ten and Eleven, and did a wonderful job. Although I’m kind of resistant to him becoming the Ninth Doctor (if only because I don’t want to renumber them), I do think he’s earned a place. He also played wonderfully off of Billie Piper--who although she was good as the Conscience of the Moment, I’m having a hard time not being bitter that we were tricked into thinking that Rose Tyler would actually return. She never spoke with David, and it made me sad.
But since there’s too much that I wish could have been included or referenced, I think I’ll stick to what was in the episode. Starting with the surprise return of Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor in the minisode, I should have guessed the level of love and fan nods that went into it. The old opening theme, all the references connected to UNIT and the Brigadier, the tying-up of the Queen Elizabeth gag, Coal Hill School, reversing the polarity twice, and Osgood’s scarf—there’s a complete list somewhere, I’m sure.
The Zygons were, in the end, a distracting villain. And though I’d like to see them again when they’re more central to the plot, it was appropriate that the focus of the episode was on the three Doctors. They were, after all, who we’d all come to see. That, and how they all deal with the mystery of the new series—the Time War. What was once a plot device to bring the show back without too many complications has now become a major issue and part of the story—but that’s always the way with this show, isn’t it? After all, regenerations were a device once upon a time. And if we thought that we’d dealt with the Time War during David’s last hurrah in The End of Time, we got a different perspective this time around. Rather than dealing with the arrogance of Rassilon and the Council, now we saw the life of the civilians of Gallifrey and the military commanders. And boy, what a different life it is.
Although I would like a fuller explanation of what Eleven was doing in those 300 (?) years he spent alone/with River, I’m at last coming to accept that he did age 300 years that we didn’t get to see, and it’s not just some gag of Moffat’s. That said, the portrayal of Ten and Eleven as “the man who regrets and the man who forgets” is utterly heartbreaking. Part of me wants to shake Eleven, to scream at him just as Ten does, to ask him how he can possibly forget. But we’ve seen what kind of life the man who regrets leads. It’s not a happy one.
And yet, while so many fans lambast David’s darkness and angst, I don’t think those characteristics are absent from Matt’s character—they’re just buried a bit deeper. He still is the Doctor, and the Doctor has always been running from things. He will always make the hard decision, when no one else is willing or able. John Hurt’s Doctor is the epitome of that trait. But he also still embodies the promise he made himself: “Never giving in. Never giving up.” After easily and handily saving the earth from the Zygons, they must together confront the decisions they’re about to make, or have made. And it is the realization that Eleven and Ten would do it again—that radical acceptance of the situation, and of their actions—that allows them to take ownership of the situation and find another way out. Because they would perform the deed again—double genocide in order to save the universe—they do not have to. It’s dialectical decision-making at its finest.
Of course, the plan to eliminate the Daleks is the worst example of timey-wimey I’ve ever seen, but when you catch glimpses of all Thirteen Doctors (including Peter Capaldi), it’s hard to care. And then we’re forced to say goodbye. The War Doctor regenerates, the Tenth Doctor utters his heartbreaking last lines, and the Eleventh Doctor is told by the curator that the title of the painting is “Gallifrey Falls No More.” And I don’t know about the environment you watched the episode in, but a packed bar of over 200 Whovians screamed when a grandfatherly Tom Baker stepped onscreen. It was absolutely brilliant, and I’m so glad that secret was kept.
And so the Doctor has a new mission, and the show has a new direction—to find Gallifrey. To go home. And it’s hard to believe that I didn’t think of this before, because in hindsight it seems obvious—how could the Doctor ever recover from killing his own people? He can’t, not really. Not unless it never happened in the first place. And yet, Moffat somehow managed to make it a reversal that still gives the characters of Eccleston, Tennant, and Smith incredible validity and real reason for being tortured souls. And for that, I guess I can applaud him.
Of course, there was more to enjoy that weekend. Parties, specials, cosplay, interviews galore. But what might have best captured the show was one of the under-promoted things--An Adventure in Space and Time. I am not an old series fan. But I was blown away by this story of the origins of the show. No matter if you remember “An Unearthly Child” the day it aired or you just started watching the show last year, I guarantee that if you’re a Who fan you will fall in love with it as well.
Mark Gatiss has been known within the show for some solid episodes, but also some rather unremarkable ones. But there’s no question that he outdoes himself here.
A young woman fighting to make it in the male dominated world of television. “One year to get in or get out,” she tells herself. A new head of Drama deciding to take chances. An aging actor tired of being typecast, yet afraid that those roles are his only option. An inexperienced Indian director trying to make it into the racialized Boys Club.
And they’re all trying to make it with what they have. But what they have isn’t much. They’ve got no budget to speak of, scripts that don’t get in on time, a broom closet for a studio, and a set designer who doesn’t want to make them a TARDIS.
But it’s enough. And though it takes a rewrite of the pilot episode (the original had the Doctor as even grumpier than we know him, if you can believe it), it makes it onto the air--right after Kennedy is assassinated. Verity demands a rerun, and she gets it.
It’s the right stuff, too, as the audience recognizes in a scene where Verity passionately defends the Daleks despite Sydney Newman’s insistence that there be “no bug-eyed monsters.” And somehow, the show slowly grows, going from making it to wildly successful. And all their lives change. Waris Hussein gets other job offers, rather than doors slammed in his face. Verity gets the credit she deserves. But it’s at this point that the movie switches, from a story of the woman who helped Doctor Who get made to the story of the man who was the first of many faces of the show.
One of the best scenes features David Bradley coming out of his old shell, when kids accost him in the park, asking for autographs, or preferably, to be chased by Daleks. He becomes a happier man--he is kinder to his wife, he reconnects with his granddaughter. The show becomes everything to him.
But we all know how this ends. Time passes, and people depart. Verity leaves. And Hartnell gets older. And sicker. But here’s the thing--you may know exactly how it ends. But that doesn’t make it less of a joy--and a sadness--to watch. You love watching the struggle to get it on the air. You love watching it become a hit. You love watching it continue on through the years.
David Bradley has outdone himself. He really carried the weight of Bill Hartnell on his shoulders, just as Hartnell carried the weight of the show on his, for so many years, until it was finally lifted off. His final day of filming is simultaneously one of the most joyful and sad things ever. Patrick Troughton is waiting in the wings. And a face we know all too well from the modern day makes an appearance.
So if you missed it, make sure you get a copy of the DVD or else download it through iTunes. It’s well worth it. Also, have a look at the free spoof featuring a bunch of familiar faces, The Five-ish Doctors Reboot, and prepare to be impressed by a bunch of old actors who know how to have some good fun at their own expense.