Review: “The Day of the Doctor,” Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary Special

Let’s just get this out of the way first: “The Day of the Doctor” was a damn great tale of Doctor Who. I mean, seriously. This historic episode has three Doctors sonic-ing a Dalek to oblivion as Murray Gold’s “I Am The Doctor” bombastically triumphant theme trumpets in the background. How cheesy-cool was that?

After 50 years of evil aliens, alternate histories, deadly plagues, ghosts, beasts, and just about everything else under the sun, the fact that we can still get an episode of Who that excites, thrills, and surprises is – to quote the Ninth Doctor – fantastic.

Somehow, this was a classic Who tale (an alien threat, clever timey-wimey feints, disaster averted) but I still didn’t see it coming. A more-than-fair share of criticism has been tossed in Stephen Moffat’s direction during his tenure as executive producer, but that’s a win in my book.

Anything could happen! For instance, a Fez.

“Surprises” is the key word here, I think. That was the dominant word in my head after watching it twice today. I had many theories bumbling around in my head (and heard many more being tossed around.) I knew 95% of it would be bunk, but I was truly surprised how this one went.

We knew we’d see the return of fan favorite David Tennant, and we had heard that Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler was in tow. The logical conclusion? The Doctor and Rose from that alternate dimension would somehow make their way back to this dimension again. Totally wrong.

With Rose Tyler and Clara Oswald in the same story, we must have some great companion talk. Nope, they never interacted once. It wasn’t even Rose, really.

The War Doctor (John Hurt) is supposed to be the worst of all Doctors — the one who so failed the name “Doctor” that he isn’t even counted among the eleven. So, we must see the fierce warrior he chose to be; the Doctor unchained, if you will. Negative, Ghost Rider. If anything, the War Doctor’s weariness of a war long fought made him even more unsure of himself.

So what did we have? Moments of brilliant levity. Moments of strength and grandeur. Moments of reflection and poignance. A classic Who enemy that hasn’t been seen in decades. All packaged up into one fantastic 76 minute mega-episode (mini-movie?)

But don’t worry: I started a very long time ago

Let’s start from the beginning: The classic black-and-white titles open up, fading to a British bobby patrolling near I.M. Foreman’s scrap yard. Nearby, Coal Hill School is in session.

(Of course, our Whovian historians would immediately recognize that this is a near-exact description of the beginning scenes of Doctor Who’s first episode in 1963! Also, classic Who fans: note the Chairman’s name on the school sign…)

Clara, having graduated from babysitting the worst children in the universe, is now a motorcycle-riding teacher at Coal Hill School. She receives a summons from the Doctor, and they set out to go for cocktails on the moon (they’re pretty much dating now.) Suddenly, they’re being carried away (literally) by UNIT on the orders of Kate Stewart (once again played by the talented Jemma Redgrave.) They have a problem with paintings in the Undergallery, a hidden installation of art “too dangerous for public consumption.” (Probably more sculpted penises in that collection than Stewart would like to admit.)

Included in that collection are Gallifreyan 3D paintings, which the Doctor explains aren’t really paintings — they’re moments frozen in stasis in a pocket of time, preserved in an image. Queen Elizabeth I kept one illustrating the Last Day of the Time War, called “No More” or “Gallifrey Falls,” depending on whom you ask.

Two other 3D paintings, however, are missing its subjects: the figures in the image have vanished, and, based on the destruction patten of the glass frame, they appear to have broken out from within the image itself.

So Much for History

In England 1562, the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) and Queen Elizabeth I (Joanna Page) are frolicking and romancing. In an attempt to expose a Zygon threat (a race of shape-shifting “big, red, rubbery things covered in suckers”), he accidentally proposes to the Virgin Queen, threatens a rabbit, and becomes King of England. He’s Tennant, so that sounds about right.

In his own point in the timeline, the War Doctor is set to end the Time War before the violence between the Time Lords and the Daleks rips apart the universe. He steals the last Forbidden Weapon from the Omega Vault: a sentient, galaxy-eater named Galactus “the Moment.” When activated, it would destroy that whole part of the universe, consuming Time Lords and Daleks alike. As the War Doctor attempts to figure out how to activate the weapon, lamenting the rare use of a big red button, the Moment’s sentient interface appears in the form of Rose Tyler’s Bad Wolf, glowing eyes and all.

The Moment forces the War Doctor to consider if this action is truly right. Reminiscent to the Dickens’ Christmas Carol (and, by extension, the Doctor’s “Christmas Carol” Christmas Special), the Moment shows him what will be of his lives in the future if he follows through, tearing a time fissure in the fabric of reality and connecting the War, Tenth, and Eleventh Doctors together in 1562.

Because I got it wrong, I’m going to make you get it right.

They discover that the problem with the 3D paintings in present day and the Zygon troubles in Renaissance London are not-so-surprisingly related. The Zygons wish to conquer the Earth, but only after a sufficient level of technological advancement has collected on the planet. To bide their time, they’re using the stasis cubes to lock themselves in the paintings for a few hundred years, breaking out in 21st century London.

The modern Zygons find their way to a secret UNIT vault, the Black Archive, where all kinds of dangerous alien artifacts are stored. Stewart locks herself and her scientists with their dopplegangers, threatening to kill them all (including England and, probably, most of Europe) to save the rest of the planet from the Zygon threat.

The Doctors attempt to intervene, traveling to the present through the “No More” painting in that aforementioned Dalek destruction victory march. Since the three Zygons are copying the three UNIT employees exactly (memories included), the Doctors trigger a memory filter to make them forget which ones are the invaders and which ones are the humans. As a result, they are forced into peace discussions because they will be both forced to consider both sides.

In seeing that his future selves are strong enough to deal with his actions and in seeing that the universe is one where humans and Zygons can actually be hold peace negotiations, the War Doctor returns to his point in the timeline, ready to activate the Moment. The Bad Wolf interface brings the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors to join him in activating the galaxy eater. They join the War Doctor, alleviating some of his burden by saying that the War Doctor doesn’t have to do it alone. That, unlike the problem with the Zygons, three (re)generations of Doctor see this as the only possible solution.

But is it?

Hello. I’m the Doctor. Sorry about the Dalek.

As they get ready to press the button, The Eleventh meets Clara’s tearful gaze. She reminds them that the name “The Doctor” is a promise: never cruel or cowardly, never giving up, never giving in. The Moment shows them the images of the war torn Gallifrey and of the innocent people trying to survive the crossfire. The War Doctor realizes that this was the whole point of the Moment shifting the Doctor’s timelines together at these specific times: to show that mutual destruction isn’t the only answer. The Doctors Three resolve to change the past. (This, interestingly, also marks the moment in the War Doctor’s timeline where Clara’s intervention averted the Doctor making a fatal mistake.)

In what is perhaps the greatest of the Doctor’s triumphs, all the Doctors in the 50 years of history come together to save Gallifrey (including the soon-to-be introduced Twelfth Doctor!) I can’t put into words just how cool this moment was. They brought in stock footage of the old Doctors – something they’ve certainly done before – but this wasn’t just a flashback. All of the Doctors throughout time were working together. That’s not something you see every day.

As the Daleks launch their massive attack on the planet itself, the thirteen Doctors in their thirteen TARDISes work together to lock Gallifrey behind a giant stasis pocket universe, based on the same idea behind the 3D paintings. With the planet hidden away in an unknown dimension, the Dalek attack fires upon itself, destroying the entire fleet.

Who Knows?

In the final scenes, Lady Clara and the Doctors Three return to the Undergallery to share a cup of tea in front of “No More.” They take a moment to fix the retcon as much as possible, by stating that the non-present day Doctors will have no memory of these events because of twisted time lines. Sure.

Satisfied with himself and with his future, the War Doctor returns to his TARDIS. Likely in light of the weariness caused by his time in the war, his regeneration begins and hints of Christopher Eccleston begin to appear before the scene cuts away.

The Tenth Doctor asks about his future, where the Eleventh warns him of his burial place at Trenzalore. In order to make sure his final words as the Doctor will forever be the same, Tennant leaves with a “I don’t want to go.”

Clara leaves the Doctor to his thoughts in front of “No More,” when the curator of the museum appears. In a shocking surprise, the curator is revealed as an elderly fourth Doctor (Tom Baker), who hints that the Doctor will “revisits a few” old faces in the future. When looking at the painting, the curator also reveals that the name isn’t actually “No More” or “Gallifrey Falls,” but “Gallifrey Falls No More,” indicating that their plan actually worked.

With new resolve, the Eleventh Doctor moves on knowing that the next part in his journey is the search for his home.

Conclusion

“The Day of the Doctor” truly was an excellent episode. It has everything you want in an episode of Doctor Who. An healthy amount of levity to make you laugh. Defining character moments. Classic alien villains. Of course, with this being a special one, we get fan service nods like the many allusions to old episodes, but it’s much more than that. Every actor on screen from the various Doctors to Queen Elizabeth to the asthmatic Doctor fangirl Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) played their parts perfectly. The entire thing just felt like a well-oiled machine from top to bottom. Sure, there was some hand wavy stuff that occurs to bring the story together, but nothing that wasn’t easily overlooked in light of how much I enjoyed it.

50 years. Just try to think for a second what has happened since 1963. Mass adoption of the color television. The moon landing. Vietnam War. Berlin Wall. And Doctor Who was there for it all, playing on BBC. Although the original, classic run would end shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Doctor Who has remained in the collective consciousness so strongly that the 2005 revival has exploded in popularity all over the world.

Having lived through times of actual history and having to deal with all of its own history, the show needs shots in the arm to the canon and to the mythos to keep it going for as long as it has and to make it interesting for the future. In the same way that DC and Marvel have changed so many things from the Golden Age, so too must Doctor Who be massaged and coaxed into something reminiscent of the old, but undeniably new.

“The Day of the Doctor” does just that. With Matt Smith’s exit in one month (single tear), Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor (13th?) initial trajectory will be based on the events of this earth-shattering episode.

Other thoughts:

  • I was lucky enough to catch this simulcast in a threatre in 3D. It’s obvious, but worth mentioning: the 3D really added to the 3D-ness of the paintings, which you can’t tell at all on the television broadcast.
  • We didn’t actually see Rose, but a visual interface taking the form of Rose. Some love her and some hate her, but I would have liked to see “Rose” again. Actually, since this was her Bad Wolf/God mode form, it would have been a very nice connection to past events if this was actually her when she absorbed the heart of the TARDIS. During that moment, she could see and manipulate all of space and time, so it wouldn’t have been a stretch. Maybe it wouldn’t have worked within the overall narrative, but it would have been pretty great.
  • The reason why John Hurt wasn’t “one of the Doctors” was because he didn’t live up to the name. Now that we see he has, are we renumbering? Or is it “7, 8, War, 9” from here on out?
  • Props to the costuming department: the Zygons actually looked pretty great. For rubbery things covered in suckers.
  • Hand wave 1: Why wouldn’t they remember they’re aliens, but remember the memories of whom they were impersonating such that they could hold a debate? Even if that were somehow possible, couldn’t you just, you know, try to transform back?
  • The Tenth Doctor’s inability to discern his wife, the Queen, from the Zygons is wonderful.
  • The Eleventh Doctor’s inability to merely walk past a fez is wonderful.
  • The fact that the regeneration from War to Nine is cut early only makes obvious that Christopher Eccleston wants nothing to do with this series anymore. They actually booed this in the theatre.
  • “Oi! Matchstick man!”: Was Eleven quoting Donna Noble?
  • Over a millennium of wisdom in the Doctor, and none of them tried to open the door.
  • Re: kissing. It does start to happen, yeah.
  • We love the round things on the TARDIS, but we have no idea what they are.
  • I usually use this space to call out lines that I enjoyed/laughed at the most. There are too many to list.
    But I couldn’t get away without mentioning this exchange:
    “Timey what? Timey-wimey?!”
    “I have no idea where he picks that stuff up.”
  • Or this one: “We’re both reversing the polarity. There’s two of us: I’m reversing it; you’re reversing it back again. We’re confusing the polarity!”
  • Or this one: “It was the horse! … I’m going to be king.”
  • Or this one: “They’re screwdrivers! What are you going to do? Assemble a cabinet at them?!” God, so many great ones.

Grade: A+. If there are fixed points in Doctor Who canon, “The Day of the Doctor” is one of them. And it was awesome.

Written by: Dwight Tejano

Dwight is the founder of Open the Fridge, which he started in 2008 and rebooted in 2010. Due to the nature of early adopting, his bank account is normally empty. He likes to sing in world-renown choruses to forget such things.

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