I was not expecting to like “The Day of the Doctor”. Not at all. Nearly everything we knew about the story ahead of time made me cringe a bit: a multi-Doctor story; Billie Piper back; a “new”, stunt-cast Doctor whose place in continuity was uncertain; Zygons; the Time War. Add to all this the fact that Steven Moffat has not been at his best the last season or so, and I was just sort of dreading what would become of the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who.
Thing is, every single thing I was dreading defied my expectations by turning out surprisingly well; which meant that, when the end-credits rolled, I found myself surprisingly in love with the damned thing, and jazzed to see what the next 50 years bring!
Before I continue, there’s one key point I want to call out very early on — I originally had it later in the review, but this has gotten long and I don’t want it to get buried.
Moffat’s gotten a lot of flak in the last two years—most of it earned—for what seems to be rather sexist writing. It was one more reason I wasn’t entirely looking forward to this story. Moffat doesn’t really seem to be treating women very well in these stories, and as a result the Doctor himself seems not to be very good to the women in his life.
But in “The Day of the Doctor”, it’s entirely the women who actually save the day! The Conscience, Clara, Kate, Osgood, Elizabeth…it’s their insights and actions that actually drive the plot and allow the Doctors to function. The Doctor literally could not have done any of what he does in this story without all of them. Both of the “older” Doctors acknowledge this explicitly about Clara, in particular, toward the end. It doesn’t fix or excuse some of Moffat’s past sins, but it does demonstrate that he is capable of doing better!
That done, let’s start with each of my “dread” points and talk about them.
A Multi-Doctor Story
I know lots of people disagree with me on this point, but it’s my firm opinion that all three previous televised multi-Doctor stories kinda sucked, really. Oh, they were all fun in their own ways, but as stories they were all really pretty weak. The Five Doctors, for example, gets mired in setting up the gathering of all the Doctors and Companions, and then tries to track too many people through a plot that’s unoriginal and paper-thin. So, while I was expecting it to be fun to see David Tennant in the saddle again, I wasn’t expecting having multiple Doctors to do anything really positive for the overall story.
What I didn’t reckon with was the degree to which the modern series has become about the Doctor. The classic series never was. The classic series was about the things that happened when the Doctor showed up places, but it was very, very rarely about the Doctor himself.
By making “The Day of the Doctor” a story actually about the Doctor, in particular about the Doctor’s troubled conscience about the Time War, and making it a story that might finally resolve that, once and for all, they gave us a truly good reason to involve multiple Doctors, each at a different stage in processing those events. We all go through that sort of processing, of course, and you could tell a story that simply showed each one dealing with it in turn.
But Moffat has always exploited the fact that he’s telling a story about time travel, sometimes to the detriment of coherent plots. One great way to exploit that is to set up the Christmas Carol scenario, but actually have the Scrooge-figure—in this case, The Doctor—directly interact with, and react to, himself.
Which leads us to the Ghost of Doctors Future…
Billie Piper Back
I loved Rose. I was sorry to see Rose go. But I really, really hated the way she returned in “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End”, because frankly, she spent most of the story being a whiny, self-centered little snot. Of all the many things about “The Stolen Earth”/”Journey’s End” that made no sense whatsoever, her return was easily the most nonsensical and gratuitous feature. I was expecting this to be more of the same.
Brother, was I ever wrong.
First of all, Billie Piper herself was on the absolute top of her game, here, and clearly having a blast. She delivered a nuanced performance that often said as much with a look or a gesture as with dialogue.
Second of all, it made perfect sense that the Conscience of the Moment would chose the form of the Conscience of the Doctor. That was Rose’s role, after all. It’s arguably been the role of all the Doctor’s new-series companions, but Rose was the first, and set the pattern. Forget about the almost-love-affair between the two; Rose’s value was always that she humanized the Doctor even at his most PTSD-fucked-up.
Stunt-cast Doctor Whose Place in Continuity Was Uncertain
I won’t say that I hated the idea of John Hurt as the mysterious not-Doctor introduced at the end of “The Name of the Doctor”, but I was deeply skeptical of it, for certain. The last real stunt-casting the series did—Timothy Dalton—was largely wasted, I felt, on a one-dimensional scenery-chewing baddie. I simply didn’t trust them make it worthwhile to have attached such a Big Name as John Hurt and, oh by the way, probably mess with continuity in the process.
The short episode, “The Night of the Doctor”, that pushed to YouTube a week before the anniversary, helped a bit, even though John Hurt himself barely appeared, by at least solidifying the continuity question. This would be the War Doctor, coming between McGann and Eccleston. Moffat argued in interviews afterward that he simply could never see McGann’s Doctor actively fighting in a war, and we know Eccleston’s Doctor was newly regenerated at the beginning of “Rose”. That provided a perfect opening to add a Doctor, and the hell with the numbering scheme!
But in the end, of course, it was John Hurt himself that sold it, in the first few minutes of his appearance in “The Day of the Doctor”.
Whenever a new actor to play the Doctor is announced, people flail about whether he’s really the right man for the job. I always take the same attitude: as long as his first full story convinces me he’s really the Doctor, that’s all I really care about. Up until this point, they were 11 for 11, so, for example, I had no qualms about Peter Capaldi. Because while there are Doctors I like better than others, they’ve never actually gotten it wrong.
This is no exception. John Hurt convinced me, not so much with carving “NO MORE” into the wall with a blaster as by his interactions early on with The Conscience of the Moment, and then his first interactions with his other selves. The former was all gravitas, as we might expect from the Warrior-Doctor; but the latter showed signs of the mischief and humour that all other incarnations of the character have shown as well. There wasn’t much Troughton to be found in the War Doctor, but quite a lot of Hartnell and Pertwee, and of course, that additional touch that every new actor to the role brings himself.
Now, I’m only sad that we probably won’t see any more of Hurt in his days as the War Doctor.
Maybe I’m in the minority, but I never much cared for the Zygons or for the one story they featured in classically, so I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to seeing them return.
Their shape-shifting capabilities, however, provide an interesting counterpoint to the multiple Doctors. While a Zygon retains its own personality and memories, it also absorbs the memories and some of the personalities of the person it’s duplicating, which is what allows for the near-perfect mimicry. When used maliciously, this allows the Zygon to exploit both physical and emotional weaknesses of their victim—for example, taunting Osgood about her “pretty” sister[*]. However, the Doctor is able to turn that around when he makes the Zygons and UNIT personnel forget which one’s which. Now, they’re just different aspects of the same people, working together…
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
[*] This is clearly the character’s own insecurity talking, since I found Osgood to be a perfectly attractive Geek Girl type!
The Time War
When the Time War was first introduced, I thought it was bloody brilliant. It was a perfect way to put both Old School Fans and new viewers on an even footing, with neither side having a real advantage. Yes, Old School viewers knew the character’s convoluted history, but the Time War sort of invalidated a lot of it, leaving everyone learning about who the Doctor was now at the same time.
Once you’ve decided that your hero is also a double-genocide, you can’t just drop that on the floor or sweep it under the rug. No matter how triumphantly the Doctor saves the day going forward, no matter how justified it seems in the face of things like Rassilon’s clear psychosis in “The End of Time”, it’s almost impossible to completely redeem such an act. And so, it’s never really stopped haunting the Doctor, and really shouldn’t.
The trouble is…it’s all gotten sort of boring. It’s not that we really expect the Doctor to just get over it and get on with life (at least, I didn’t). It’s just that the actually having to deal with it periodically in stories was getting dull. The Lonely God thing got old around Series 3. In short: while a brilliant idea at the outset, the Time War has now become the corner that Doctor Who is painted into.
I was honestly not expecting that this would be the story that would find a way to get out of that corner! Going into it, I assumed that this was simply going to be the story where we saw what actually happened, and got to witness the flaming wreckage first hand.
One aspect that I hadn’t really thought about before, though, was the distinction between “The Time Lords”, who are glossed to have become as bad as the Daleks in the end, and “the people of Gallifrey”. There’s always been strong hints that not every Gallifreyan is a Time Lord, but all previous talk of the Time War justifies the Doctor’s actions by implying that there were no innocents. This story started out by shifting that ground, and from that moment forward made it almost imperative that a better answer be found before the end of the story!
Then, about two-thirds of the way through my first viewing, I actually entertained a notion that was even more audacious than the one they actually pulled off, but probably not as good for the series long-term. For one brief moment, I was convinced that the War Doctor was not going to press the Big Red Button, but that he was going to be alone when he changed his mind. Under those circumstances, the entire continuity from “Rose” forward would have been erased! The War Doctor would have regenerated into someone other than Christopher Eccleston and the Regeneration Limit would have been circumvented by rewinding three incarnations!
The end-game they did come up with does almost as much to change the game as that would have, but without as much damage to existing continuity. The War Doctor becomes Eccleston (you can see Eccleston’s brow and eyes in the last seconds of the regeneration), and between anomalously synchronized time streams and regenerative amnesia (which we’ve seen before), he comes to believe that he pressed the button and Gallifrey burned.
What’s interesting, though, is that, intentional or not, there’s been one hint of the actual outcome for years, now. In “The Sound of Drums”, The Master does not ask The Doctor what happened to Gallifrey. He asks him where Gallifrey is! If Gallfrey really had burnt, then its crispy remains should be orbiting its sun, but apparently it wasn’t!
Now, at last, we can move on past the Time War in good conscience, with hope that some day, somewhere, the Doctor will rediscover Gallifrey. They may not be very happy with him, but they’ll still be alive!
And Now, On to Other Fun Stuff
Involving UNIT, with which the Doctor has long been associated, was a smart move, especially having introduced the character of Kate Stewart last season. I really hope we get to see more of this character in the future, because I really enjoy her — she was easily the highlight of the otherwise questionable “Power of 3″, and here she shows that she may be a scientist, but she lacks none of her father’s resolve in the face of danger.
Osgood (named, presumably, for Sergeant Osgood from The Dæmons) is another character I’d like to see again. When I first saw the press photos of her in the Tom Baker scarf, I assumed she was more or less just a “gimmick” character. Instead, she’s a Real Geek Girl, a fangirl of the Doctor, clearly, but also a scientist in her own right, and quite a clever one, too. The capper, for me, was her last scene, in which she and her Zygon duplicate figure out which one’s which (because the real Osgood had retrieved the inhaler before escaping), and both choose to keep quiet and continue the charade, recognizing that it’s really the best for everyone concerned.
I haven’t mentioned Clara, yet, and that seems like an odd omission now that I’m this far along in the review, because she’s the current companion, and it seems like I ought to have more to say about her. But really, the main thing I have to say about her is that she is finally fulfilling the promise the character showed from the beginning. Having her be a person and not a mystery is a huge win, because Jenna-Louise Coleman really is very good at her job and deserves a character that’s more than just a cypher. If this trend continues, we’ll all be much, much happier.
I’m somewhat more mixed on the role of Elizabeth I, and the performance by Joanna Page, which was a little over the top. I did like the fact that Elizabeth proves clever enough to be a foil for the Zygons, herself, though. I’m less sanguine about the fact that this sub-plot is more typical of Moffat’s treatment of the women in the Doctor’s life, but on the other hand, it was already established as far back as “The Shakespeare Code” that the Doctor and Elizabeth I had history and it wasn’t all good
And, oh, yeah…the Doctors
As I said earlier, this story is in many ways a play on the Christmas Carol scenario: a man who has become somewhat lost to his own conscience being forced to face the consequences of who he’s been. The fun part, though, is the way the scenario plays out when “Scrooge” is actually three different aspects of the same man. The Conscience fulfills the role of the ghosts in Dickens’ story really only in as much as she facilitates the meeting. Once together, the three Doctors are each the ghosts to one another! Given that the non-Time War plot with the Zygons begins in 1562 with Tennant’s Doctor’s efforts to foil the scheme, Ten is really the Present Doctor; Eleven the Future Doctor; and the War Doctor is the Past.
This is actually a bit of a risky structure—after all, Eleven is our “current” Doctor and we don’t want him upstaged. Fortunately, he really isn’t. The script manages somehow to keep all three aspects in balance, giving them each just enough screen time to be meaningful without overshadowing or overpowering the others. Together, the three of them really have two problems to solve, but for the most part, the War Doctor hangs back from the Zygon problem, letting Ten and Eleven be fabulous together and ultimately concluding that both are at least still trying to be The Good Man.
And this is, in my opinion, one of the more brilliant parts of the story. The Conscience has set out to convince the War Doctor not to press the Big Red Button. Her plan comes within millimeters of backfiring, and that’s fantastic. No, not because I think the Doctor should have pressed the button, but because the series all too often does not give us a realistic possibility that things will go wrong! But here, the danger is real, and what’s more, since we’ve already been convinced for the last eight years that the Doctor did the only thing he could do to end the madness, we’re not even sure we want him to change his mind!
And then the other two show up, with Clara in tow. And Clara does what New Series companions do best: reminds the Doctor to be who he wants to be: the man who makes things better.
And here, once again, Moffat shows that he does occasionally, really understand the implications of the way the Doctor lives. We all have regrets. We all have things where we think later on, “If only I’d done THIS instead of THAT, it all would have gone much better!”. Only here, with time travel and a willingness to violate causality a bit, that’s actually possible! Something different can be done, and a new future be made!
In the end, of course, continuity is preserved by a somewhat flimsy, timey-wimey premise that their unsynchronized timelines will cause them to forget. But going forward, now, we can do something different, and something much more hopeful and positive.
And I honestly can’t wait to find out how it turns out! I’m excited about Doctor Who again. If that’s not reason enough to have fallen in love with “The Day of the Doctor”, I don’t know what is!