I’m not going to lie. I have really mixed feelings about Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary special. On the one hand, I was squeeing for dear life alongside millions of other Whovians worldwide as I watched this special when it was broadcast simultaneously around the world. I was a bleary-eyed wreck for the rest of the day, given “broadcast simultaneously” for me meant waking myself up when it was still dark, but I had no doubts at all that it was worth it. The episode was a roaring success, a perfect celebration of Doctor Who’s fifty years. It was written as a “love letter” to the fans, and I, zealous initiate to the fandom that I was at the time, felt adored. On the other hand, the über-fan in me can’t help but put aside my gushing adoration for the special as a Doctor Who episode and agonise, as only an über-fan can, over the huge ramifications what happened in this episode has for the ongoing narrative of the show. I mean, what happened in The Day of the Doctor was big. Huge. It changed the past and present of the show, and marked out its future. And, I hate to say it, but I’m not sure I’m okay with that.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I’ll start out this review with what I liked about the episode: everything. Or almost everything, as I’ll explain. The Day of the Doctor is some of the best produced, best written Doctor Who in the show’s now almost-52-years-and-counting history. It was only appropriate that, for the show’s golden jubilee, it revisit what’s not only the biggest in-story event in the show’s history, but the event that separates the old series from the new. Eight years of listening to the Doctor’s angsty emo moaning about the Time War, and we finally get to see the damn thing — and the Doctor’s critical role therein. It was a coup on Steven Moffat’s part to write in a heretofore unseen incarnation of the Doctor, conceived as the Doctor who fought in the Time War — and ended it. We were treated to stunning scenes of John Hurt as the War Doctor duking it out with Daleks at the Fall of Arcadia. It shortly became clear what this momentous episode was about when the scene soon changed to a derelict old barn, wherein the Hurt Doctor caressed apprehensively a strange, ominous-looking instrument. “Oh my god,” gasped millions of fans in unison. We’re witnessing that moment. To see the Doctor in the moments before he ends it all; that is truly special. The tortured, tormented expression in the Doctor’s eyes said all.
The story goes on to explore the Doctor’s frame of mind before and after he made the fatal decision to activate the Moment and end the Time War. To end it all and live is the Doctor’s punishment for activating the Moment. To see what he becomes after is the Moment’s attempt to dissuade him. The Doctor’s interactions with his past and future selves are, inevitably, spiked with levity and humour, but there’s equally a heavy solemnity to the proceedings given that, when the Doctor meets himself, he’s forced to confront who he is, especially when one of the selves he meets is the self he’d rather forget, that represents what he hates about himself. The Tenth and Eleventh Doctors are confronted, even shaken, by meeting their dark, shadowy past life whose memory they’ve done their best to repress, and whose reappearance has inevitably conjured up traumatic memories and uncomfortable truths. But for the War Doctor, meeting his future selves is an enlightening experience; he’s encouraged to see that he’s the Doctor again, the man who saves worlds, but yet he finds his post-war incarnations unrecognisable. “I don’t know who you are, either of you. I haven’t got the faintest idea.” As the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors are characterised as “the man who regrets” and “the man who forgets”, and their juvenile behaviour portrayed as a conscious aversion to what they used to be, the episode introduces a fascinating spin on the Doctors of the modern series. The trauma and regret over his actions in the Time War is depicted as having fundamentally changed the Doctor on an emotional level, has shaken his very conception of self to the core, leading him to be the way he is, even to the extent of running from himself. It’s compelling, absorbing writing.
But then it gets complicated. The War Doctor, having seen his future, is, everything considered, enheartened by what he’s seen, and decides that he’s doing the right thing back on that barn on Gallifrey. The Tenth and Eleventh Doctors follow him. It almost seems at first like the Doctor, his post-war selves, has reconciled himself with the decision he made.
“All those years, burying you in my memory.”
“Pretending you didn’t exist. Keeping you a secret, even from myself.”
“Pretending you weren’t the Doctor, when you were the Doctor more than anybody else.”
“You were the Doctor on the day it wasn’t possible to get it right.”
I think this was the most emotionally gratifying moment in the story. The Doctor, having been tormented and agonised over what he did for centuries, loathed and reviled his own flesh since the fateful day, finally makes peace with himself, finally allows himself to see that what he did he had to do. He was prepared to do the terrible deed all over again because he knows that it’s what had to be done, and that he had no other choice. “Thank you,” croaked the War Doctor, an expression of supreme serenity and comfort, that of a man at peace, having replaced the anguish and dread which was there before.
But then a teary shake of the head from the pretty girl in the corner, and the Doctor decides that, actually, no, this is all wrong, and that, actually, he’s been hiding a bit of Time Lord jiggery pokery up his sleeve for precisely this eventuality. It’s okay, all! No Time Tots need perish today! This is where my “mixed feelings” come in. If the story had resolved itself with the Doctors making peace with their decision in the knowledge there was no other way, it would have been perfect. I’m not saying I hate the resolution — I’ll admit even I was grinning broadly when the Doctors were exulting excitedly when they realised there was another way — I just think I would have much preferred it never happened. I set out my reasons at length (but with less coherency) here, but I’ll delineate them very briefly here.
Firstly, the resolution positively screamed deus ex machina. What the Doctor did was supposed to be inescapable, but lo! and behold, the Doctor whips out a bit of Time Lord trickery to save the day without needing to spill a drop of Gallifreyan blood. How very convenient. Secondly, the resolution seemed to backtrack on what literally just happened in the Doctor’s emotional reconciliation with his decision, his acknowledgement that the decision he made could not be avoided. The script sets up the message that sometimes there is no “right” answer to a problem, that sometimes inconvenient, even terrible, decisions have to made which are inescapable. This was the one time the Doctor couldn’t just fly in and save the day, crying “Geronimo!” or “Allons-y!” with the hero music blaring in the background. And then it immediately backtracks by portraying the Doctors doing exactly that. Is the message that there is a right solution to every problem? That the Doctor will always save the day? Really? Thirdly, I’m not sure I like what the resolution means for the Doctor’s character. The Doctor’s actions in the Time War, and particularly his decisive role in ending the Time War, defined the character of the modern Doctor. Common to all the modern Doctors was how the guilt and remorse over the Time War affected him. It added compelling mystique and emotional depth to the Doctor’s character. Now that the Doctor knows he actually saved, not burned, Gallifrey, that element of the Doctor’s character that made him so interesting is now gone. Moffat has tried to find other ways to make the post-DOTD Doctor interesting, such as questioning the Doctor’s morality (for the umpteenth time), but the “Am I a good man?” stuff in Series 8 was inevitably going to ring distinctly hollow after this. I’ve tried to condense my critiques as much as possible because I don’t want to bore my long-suffering readers with an extended rant, but, as I said, I do more justice to my gripes here, if you want to read them.
For all my regret over the continuity implications of this story, I must emphasise that I still love it to bits. I couldn’t help loving it, even if I tried. It’s just a fantastic script, fantastically produced with fantastic performances and contributions by all involved. Billie Piper was entrancing. David Tennant’s still got it, in buckets. John Hurt was a presence to be contended with. Ingrid Oliver as Osgood was adorable. Tom Baker’s cameo was utterly mesmerising, the great man delivering in those moments what was possibly the best little bout of acting he’s ever contributed to the show. The sub-plot concerning the Zygons was captivating in its own right, and could easily have made up a quality Doctor Who story on its own. All the affectionate references to the last 50 years of Doctor Who were a gratifying treat, in the way the kinds of confectionery pastries that melt in your mouth are. It was watching this and the other 50th Anniversary specials, after all, that spurred me to go back and watch the classic stories for the first time. The last word, though, has to go to the three men who were given the honour of playing the titular character on this great occasion, and who each acquitted themselves with distinction. Matt Smith, David Tennant and John Hurt were an absolute joy to watch together. Their dialogue and interactions were what made this story. I honestly can’t remember laughing more at Doctor Who than I did watching the three Doctors together. “It just occured to me. This is what I’m like when I’m alone.” Indeed.
Despite my very considerable gripes, I’m succumbing to the temptation to give this story top marks, in spite of myself. It’s just an absolute triumph, in every way that matters.
Great review! Watched this recently and it was absolutely brilliant. Really liked the emotional story line. John Hurt was absolutely amazing as the War Doctor, as as Matt Smith and David Tennant.
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