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.

  • Craig Grannell

    “Stevie has confirmed that Peter Capaldi will be the 14th, not 11th or even 13th Doctor.”

    Meh. Moff lies all the time, and they said “all 13 of us” and we saw the eyebrows of doom. Perhaps Capaldi's the first of a new run, although I'd have hoped Capaldi would have been the last of the 'old' Doctor, thereby enabling things to go a bit more random after that somehow (perhaps the first Doctor as a woman, which would then make narrative sense).

    As for DOTD, I enjoyed it a lot, and also the McGann prelude. The one thing I think's a crying shame in all this, though, is how buried the Davison half-hour jape has been. That should have been on BBC Three instead of that truly risible after party.

  • They said “All 12 Doctors” and then said “all 13” when Capaldi Doctor arrived, which doesn't make a lot of sense. But End of Time mini-regeneration counts, apparently, and the whole thing about Smith's Doctor getting to his own grave at Trenzalore only makes sense if it's Doctor Smith's grave as well as the Doctor's final grave, or else he's a regeneration too soon. So I'm inclined to believe Stevie.

    More than that, I'm inclined to believe Stevie wouldn't want to leave the 13 incarnations reset to anyone else and would want to do it himself.

    The Davison thing was great. The After-Party was unwatchable. Worse than the Jubilee coverage

  • Rullsenberg

    THank you Rob – lovely review. And yes Craig, the Davison piece was a GEM. loved it. Should be everywhere being compulsory viewing for all.

  • Mark Carroll

    Your points about addressing changes in “reimagined” versus classic are interesting; I hadn't noticed, and now I wonder where the show is going. I am also happy that the Daleks are now looking a bit less powerful than they were, if being knocked about a bit can again now so damage them.

    Overall, it was quite good, I thought. Nothing could live up to the hype, and I found the Elizabethan Zygons a bit summarily addressed, and not fitting quite comfortably with the whole Time War side of things — there wasn't quite enough time for it all — but, for instance, I thought the use of Billie Piper actually quite good. And, every scene with John Hurt worked.

  • tobyob

    Now I want Big Finish to produce audios that feature the Curator and Kate Stewart, with Osgood in tow.

  • JustStark

    I can't find a quotation of the actual line and I hate the Tom Baker era so I don't own the story, but I think The Deadly Assassin just says that Time Lords can only regenerate twelve times, thus leaving open the possibility of a Time Lord only having twelve incarnations if one of them regenerates but doesn't end up with a new body (as they may be saying happened to Tennant).

    Full thoughts below.

  • JustStark

    Hm. Well, there was basically no actual plot, but then, that was never really on the cards, was it? it's not like The Five Doctors had a plot, either.

    It did come across a lot like fix-in fan fiction, though, which was slightly annoying. I've never been a fan of the kind of stories which go back to 'fill in' bits that were left deliberately ambiguous (if the bits were supposed to be mysteries with answers to be revealed that's one thing, but if they were supposed to never be shown because the attempt could never match up to the reality — and frankly, the Time War in my head was far more interesting than a bunch of spaceships firing ray guns at a planet and Blitz flashbacks — then I can't help but be disappointed).

    It's interesting that they seem to be replaying the Eighth Doctor books: The Doctor destroys Gallifrey, he spends a long while trying to forget, eventually he realises he can get it back and goes off on a quest… except unlike with the Eighth Doctor books, precisely no one was demanding that the new series Doctor go on a quest to find Gallifrey. Davis got away with what Richards was trying but failed to do; and Moffatt has thrown that achievement away a bit.

    (I'm not sure about the idea of giving the Doctor a quest, though, either: I don't think that ever really works. Why not just send him to look for his father Ulysses, if that's what you're going to do? However, at the rate Moffat burns through plots, I can't see the quest lasting much longer than the Christmas episode, so that's hardly worth being a thing.)

    It had some good lines, though. But you know me: I'm always saying I would like a plot, even though I knew it wasn't going to happen.

  • Craig Grannell

    Maybe this is an attempt to acknowledge that Doctor Who had a history before 2005 and bring some of that back. There was always a bit of a sense of whitewashing during RTD's run, which Moffat has addressed a little more.

  • JustStark

    All the stuff it addresses, though — the Time War, the Doctor's dark decision, etc etc — is all from the new series.

    Yes, there are a couple of gags about UNIT dating, etc (though UNIT still didn't get its proper name back) but this is still fundamentally fill-in fan fiction for the new series.

    (It also continues Moffatt's annoying obsession with children: what stops the Doctor from destroying Gallifrey is the thought of the children? So he'd be fine with burning billions of adults? Only children count, morally, is that what we're supposed to take away? It's just bizarre.)

  • JustStark

    Oh, and with regards to:

    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

    Surely it was so obvious from the beginning that Eccleston wouldn't want to be involved (given that he has put Doctor Who firmly behind him) that there can't have been a version of the story with him in it, or at least not one that was more than the broadest outline?

  • Thanks!

  • Give it a few years and you never know…

  • The rumour is that Eccles was actually quite interested in showing up and there were a couple of meetings, but someone senior (no names mentioned but not Stevie) was rude to him so he decided not to bother.

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