The Day of the Doctor is the 799th episode and commemorative fiftieth anniversary special for the longest running science fiction television program in the world, Doctor Who. To mark the occasion, the BBC arranged a limited cinema release, the largest global simulcast in history, a historical telemovie, a few fantastic online prequels and more hype than you can poke a sonic screwdriver at.
The result: a tremendous body of work that lived up to expectations, celebrated the past and changed the shape of the show’s future.
For the uninitiated, Doctor Who follows the alien Time Lord named the Doctor as he travels through time and space in a spaceship called the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) disguised as a 1963 Police Box, which thankfully for him and his revolving door of companions, is bigger on the inside. In the event of severe injury or death the Doctor’s species can cheat death by regenerating into a new incarnation of the same character portrayed by a different actor. To date, depending on who you talk to, there have been eleven of these incarnations.
In 1989, after twenty-seven years and seven incarnations, Doctor Who was cancelled and after a misguided American-produced 1996 telemovie failed to generate enough interest for a series of Eighth Doctor adventures it seemed the story would only go on in the beloved spin-off novels and audiobooks. Finally in 2005 the Ninth Doctor reinvigorated the flame with Rose and as they say, the rest is history…
The Day of the Doctor begins with the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) and his companion Clara (Jenna Coleman) joyously planning their next time-travelling vacation before being summoned to the National Library by alien investigator agency UNIT’s Chief Scientific Officer Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave). Four minutes in and it’s clear the special is going to be saturated in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nods to the show’s rich history. There are more Easter eggs lying about the set than the Cadbury factories in late March.
As a multi-Doctor story it was always going to present a certain set of challenges. Casual viewers may find it difficult to follow in places and will certainly miss half the fun going but the diehard fans that have watched every episode have little to criticise. It is a far more streamlined approach to a complex story from a head writer than has no problem dabbling in the convoluted side of storytelling. The script does start a little clunky swinging from Doctor to Doctor with little thread but a fez but once everybody is in the same century and the Eleventh Doctor has something to do everything falls into place.
Dual plots in three time zones offer a host of time-travel shenanigans and are real crowd-pleasers. These involve the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) and Queen Elizabeth I (Joanna Page) investigating the reintroduction of classic Doctor Who villain the Zygons in 1562 and the mysterious War Doctor (John Hurt) wrestling with his conscience and the sentience of a planet-destroying weapon called “The Moment” (Billie Piper). The use of Piper as the Moment rather than her fan favourite character Rose Tyler was a major shock but allowed the dynamic between the three Doctors to take centre stage and allow Jenna Coleman to shine in her best performance as a quick-witted and savvy companion. I was not a Clara fan before this but now I’m beginning to be persuaded.
It’s interesting to note that the Doctors all unite very close to their regeneration. In the series canon it serves as the Tenth and Eleventh’s Doctors penultimate adventure and the sole televised story with the traumatised War Doctor. Their contrasts are obvious – the War Doctor needs nobody and is jarred to be confronted with the Moment’s kind conscious, the Tenth Doctor is lonely and seeks to fill the void of lost companions with the Queen of England and the Eleventh Doctor has battled his demons and emerged the other side a happier man with Clara by his side. The scenes in Elizabethan England really explore the dynamic of the Doctor and call the series out on a few home truths. It will be telling to see how much of the War Doctor’s criticisms the Eleventh Doctor takes on board in his final story.
The acting quality is paramount and better than the majority of Hollywood blockbusters of the year. Smith and Tennant play an effortless double act and raise the bar higher and higher for incoming Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi. It’s hard to believe that it’s been three years since Tennant hung up his trench coat because he delivers every line of science fiction jibberish, humour and emotion with the same speed and tenacity as Smith. In his brief time before uniting with Smith and Hurt I felt like I was watching a 2009 special I’d somehow overlooked which could slot in quite nicely between Waters of Mars and The End of Time.
Hurt was the wildcard choice and while his plot was an unexpected alteration to the show’s longstanding lore his acting quality cannot be criticised. He brought unexpected warmth to the weary soldier and played a very challenging character with quality. Piper, as always, was brilliant and thrived at the chance to put a twist on her familiar character while Coleman is starting to get more confident as she irons out Clara’s kinks. One-off guest star Page’s hilarious performance will be remembered fondly while newcomer Redgrave may find herself with a recurring role alongside the Twelfth Doctor (remember, her fictional father did two serials with the Second Doctor before becoming a staple of the Third Doctor’s tenure).
The story’s conclusion is divisive to say the least. On first viewing I thought the peace treaty between UNIT and the Zygons was rushed and uninventive, but on second viewing it wraps the second act in a nice bow and accelerates the plot while moving a potentially tedious negotiation scene to the background in favour of a chat between the War Doctor and Clara, which just seems more appropriate for the anniversary special. It gives enough time to understand the Time War and the state of mind of the War Doctor and the Ninth Doctor are in leading into the newer episodes of Doctor Whoand by extension, the frame of mind that the reinvigorated Eleventh Doctor is in when he conjures his cunning solution to save his home planet.
At the end of the day, television is a business built on ratings and although the worldwide syndication and merchandise deals put Doctor Who in a good place it still has to remain fresh to avoid the same fate it faced in 1989. At a time when most shows are looking to close the curtain Doctor Who has pulled the rug out from the vigilante lone ranger clunking through the universe and gave him a purpose – find and save his planet from the parallel pocket universe he condemned them to. In doing so we open a Pandora’s Box of possibilities and plotlines with new characters, landscapes and situations to explore and invigorate viewers for many years to come.
The Day of the Doctor is a solid slice of pop culture and an inventive way to reinvigorate the show while tipping its hat to the days gone by. It is not without a few minor faults however it is clear that all involved consider this a labour of love and that compensates for the few nitpicks. If you’re a Doctor Who fan you were already sold and if you’re not it might be worth picking up The Eleventh Hour or The Christmas Invasion so you know what’s going on.