Okay, so it’s been several hours and I finally have my thoughts in order on “The Day of the Doctor,” which, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past week, is the 50th Anniversary special of the longest-running science fiction television series in history, Doctor Who.
If you’re unfamiliar with the basic premise of the show, the Doctor is a very old time-travelling alien who runs around in his time machine, the TARDIS, through time and space. If you want to know more, hit up Wikipedia because trust me, it’s gonna get reference heavy here…
I’ve been excited just as much as anyone else for this. In my excitement, I’ve been watching videos about the classic series, browsing the official wiki, the TARDIS Data Core, and started listening to the Eighth Doctor audio dramas that have been produced since 2001.
Why that last one? Well, following the events of Season 7 of Doctor Who last spring, we were introduced to a previously unseen version of the Doctor, played by British acting legend John Hurt, known as the “War Doctor.”
What helped the series get off the ground when it relaunched in 2005 is that it established the Doctor as the last of his kind, after he was forced, during the Last Great Time War between his people, the Time Lords, and their arch-enemies, the Daleks, to take out both sides, as we’ve seen in previous seasons. The War Doctor, it turns out, was the incarnation that actually accomplished this horrific task.
He was also deliberately created by the Eighth Doctor, who, at the end of his long, long existence, was running around trying to mitigate the damage caused by the Time War but realized he needed to end it directly. If you want to know more about that, watch this amazing short film the BBC released a week ago:
So yeah, long story short, the War Doctor was a choice the Doctor made. He succeeded in his goals, but his actions were so dark that the Doctor subsequently chose to forget that incarnation’s entire existence. Yowza.
So what’s the story of the special itself? Well, the current Doctor, the eleventh (Matt Smith) and companion Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) are hanging around in Shoreditch, London where Clara is now a teacher at Coal Hill School (the same school shown in the very first episode of the series, where the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan was a student). However, they’re interrupted by the TARDIS being airlifted by helicopter to the National Gallery, where UNIT (basically, the WHoniverse answer to SHIELD) troops led by Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), daughter of the Doctor’s old boss, Brigadier-General Lethbridge Stewart, is waiting for them. The Doctor is shown preserved instructions from Queen Elizabeth I and a 3-D painting of the last day of the Time War and other 3-D paintings; their glass has all been broken and the figures inside the old paintings have disappeared.
Meanwhile, in Elizabethan England, the queen herself (Joanna Page) and the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) are having a nice romantic picnic. The Doctor proposes and Elizabeth joyfully accepts, but then the Doctor leaps up, whips out a mechanical device and, when asked what it is, says “A machine that goes ‘Ding!’”
The machine actually is meant to detect the alien race known as the Zygons, who are shape-shifters; the Doctor accuses Elizabeth of being one, but it turns out…it’s her horse!
Meanwhile, on Gallifrey, the War Doctor has stolen a device from the Time Lords: a sentient, galaxy-destroying weapon called the Moment. He has the intention of using it to wipe out both the Time Lords and the Daleks to prevent any further destruction, but the Moment’s conscience appears to him in the form of the Tenth Doctor’s love interest, Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) and implores him to find another way.
In all three of these timelines, portals appear at the same moment and these three Doctors are drawn into an adventure together that might just rework how the Doctor sees his past, present and his future…
This was a remarkable episode, both in its existence (again, longest-running sci-fi show in HISTORY) and the way it was broadcast (it was simulcast around the globe at the exact same moment in 75 countries). But at its heart, this was a terrific story.
The second David Tennant appeared on screen as the Doctor for the first time in five years, it was like he had never left. As usual, he was brilliant and it felt like showrunner and episode writer Steven Moffat felt rejuvenated just using this specific incarnation again. Matt Smith, whose tenure as the Eleventh Doctor has been really uneven and dark, especially the back-half of this past season, was in fine form. He turned down his manicness and really drove home the point that yes, this is an alien who is over 1,000 years old we’re rooting for here.Hurt had a difficult task in front of him, but he pulled it off, giving us a Doctor consumed by anguish from years of war and the thought that he had to make an impossible choice.For their part, Jenna Coleman and Billie Piper were terrific. Coleman made Clara just as plucky as she’s always been and Piper, although not exactly playing who I was expecting, was great and subdued, giving what could have been a filler part wonderful depth.
As I said, Moffat’s script was dynamite, proving that–however odious his many faults are–he does have a lot of talent and it was on display here. This honestly might be his best work on Who, period, since the immortal episode “Blink.” He offered two big surprises–that I’m not spoiling–that not only changed the nature of his own run on the show but the entire legacy of the show itself. It was great.
Director Nick Hurran, who I’ve never heard of in connection with this show before, gave this the greatness it needed, keeping people on the edge of their seats the whole time. Overall, this was a stellar episode, a stellar tribute and a great big birthday card for one of television’s best shows.
Now for the Christmas special…