Review: Doctor Who – The Day of the Doctor

The first time Doctor Who has time-travelled

The Day of the Doctor

In the UK/US/anywhere in the world, even hermits’ caves: Saturday 23rd November

For weeks now, we’ve had pictures and interviews and trailers and more trailers and minisodes and clips, ramping up the tension and expectations for the 50th anniversary special of Doctor WhoThe Day of the Doctor. Secrets, such as Paul McGann’s Doctor getting a minisode of his own, had been kept and the fact the episode was even showing in cinemas in 3D meant naturally expectations were high for huge revelations and cameos that would BLOW EVERYONE’S MINDS! EVERYONE’S!

Of course, given:

  1. The BBC’s budget
  2. The inexorable march of time aging anyone from the old show almost to unrecognisability
  3. A runtime of not even an hour and a half and
  4. The fact that the British TV special effects industry isn’t quite on par with Hollywood’s

the chances that The Day of the Doctor would get anywhere close to satisfying all those expectations were pretty poor, especially once Steven Moffat started telling everyone The Day of the Doctor was going to reset the show for another 50 years.

Except… somehow we got something about as close as humanly possible to what people wanted. Well, except for the loons.

Was it any good?
So I saw the episode first in the cinema in 3D and then on TV in 2D. This was probably a mistake.

Sure, I got to see Ron Burgundy trying to fathom Doctor Who’s name. I got to see Strax explain cinema etiquette and declare film piracy a ‘war crime’. And I got to see the Matt Smith, David Tennant and John Hurt Doctors discuss 3D cinema and how it wasn’t as good as the 12D cinema they’ll have in 50 years’ time.

Yet there’s something about 3D that makes a film or TV episode more of a roller-coaster ride so on first viewing of the episode, I was pleased but a little unimpressed and thought the middle sagged a bit. In fact, by the end of it, I was spending more time working out whether John Hurt had got Christopher Eccleston’s lines or some older Doctor had always been intended to be in the episode and Ecclescake’s work had simply got given to the other nu Whos.

However, back at home, on second viewing and with 3D and expectations put to one aside, I really liked Day of the Doctor a lot more. In some ways, most of the episode felt a little irrelevant. The idea of the Hurt Doctor being given the reverse It’s A Wonderful Life treatment and being shown what the universe will be like if he pushes the big, red Time War-ending button was a good one. However, a Zygon invasion that gets foiled by a bit of running around and screwdriving waving by the united nu Whos, Tennant and Smith, isn’t that exciting or 50th anniversary-ish, no matter how many pictures of former companions and name drops to the UNIT stories of days gone by there are. Indeed, for a big chunk of the episode, it felt a lot more like a mere sequel to Terror of the Zygons than anything really that exciting, special or anniversaryish in its own right.

Yes, we got, some clever Stevie, timey-wimey stuff in the structure, and the 3D Time Lord art was equally clever (more so down the cinema, where there was actual depth to the paintings, than on TV). But with the show’s best and most important bits effectively book-ends to this central zygon story and with those important bits let down a bit by some poor CGI and sets and Billie Piper not even playing Rose Tyler, it felt like a wasted opportunity.

But a second viewing and ignoring the plot endeared the episode to me a lot more. Effectively, despite Hurt Doctor being a post-McGann Doctor, the story worked well as a dialectic between classic Who and nu Who, making character points out of the differences between the two styles. Complaints by old school fans that there was too much kissing, the sonic screwdriver was being used as a weapon, that the Doctor never used science and planning to get himself out of scrapes any more, and that he talks like a kid rather than a grown-up were made text – the result of traumatisation from the Time War and the decision to distance himself and try to forget his decision.

Stevie’s habit of throwing out both continuity references (Cromer/Three Doctors, motorcyle/TV movie, the UNIT dating controversy, Ian Chesterton the governor of Cole Hill School near Foreman’s scrap yard, et al) and zingers left, right and centre meant it was also possible on first viewing to miss out on some of the intra-Doctor ribbing – I didn’t spot Smith’s mocking of Tennant’s mocking of Hurt’s posh accent (“That’s good coming from you, Dick Van Dyke”), for example – and although some might have thought the Doctor’s spending so much time with Elizabeth I rather than a former companion was another wasted opportunity, I would quietly disagree (IT WAS JOANNA PAGE, YOU IDIOTS. HOW MUCH BETTER WAS THAT? 2,000,006 TIMES, THAT’S HOW MUCH).

But ultimately we were all there for the bookends, the supposed game-changers we were promised. Most of that has now been shunted to the Christmas episode, by the looks of it, now that Stevie has confirmed that Peter Capaldi will be the 14th, not 11th or even 13th Doctor.

Nevertheless, we still got the rewriting of history to save Gallifrey, an (almost) regeneration from Hurt to Eccleston to add to our previous McGann to Hurt regeneration, Daleks, Time Tots, the fourth Doctor who might also be a future Doctor (is his final line from Logopolis now ‘The Moment has been prepared for’? And if the Watcher was the Doctor all along, does that mean he was actually a future Doctor?) and all 13 Doctors lined up. We have a new quest for the Doctor, which we haven’t had really since The Key To Time and the ‘Let’s Get out of E-Space’ seasons of classic Who. And let’s not forget we also got our first real bit of time travel by Doctor Who (as opposed to Doctor Who), with a glimpse of Peter Capaldi as the Doctor before we’ve seen the regeneration.

So yes, we didn’t get all surving classic Doctors, all the surviving companions fighting every villain ever – with the aid of CGIed, animated and waxwork versions of their dead comrades – as I’m sure some people would have wanted. And yes, slightly sadly, we didn’t get Jack Harkness, River Song, Amy, Donna or anyone else from the nu Who period, other than Kate Lethbridge-Stewart. But we were never going to get that.

Instead, we got just about the best we could have got under the circumstances and probably about as much as we could have got and still had a halfway reasonable story that wasn’t just a neverending, hugely complex series of cameos (“Hi, yes, I’m Turlough – I tried to kill the Doctor, but then we sort of ended up pals, but then I returned to my home world and then appeared in a spin-off book, but through some wormhole effect, I’m going to help the Doctor for precisely two minutes before mysteriously disappearing.” Possible, but that way lies insanity and Dimensions in Time). It could have looked less cheap and possibly not been so fixated on zygons and Elizabeth I, but in combination with The Night of the Doctor and the Christmas special, I reckon this was a cracker.

And, if you look closely, pretty much the reset of Doctor Whback to where it was before Russell T Davies’ aesthetic took over. Interesting move, Stevie. Let’s see where it takes us.


  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.