Before we get down to the business of saying what happened in this Very Special Episode of Doctor Who, let's stop for just one second and acknowledge how insane it is that not only is Doctor Who fifty years old, but that it is something people are celebrating. When the series returned a mere eight years ago, it's reputation had sunk to an utter low. It was a campy irrelevance that had been all but abandoned by the BBC, destined to be forgotten by all but its most ardent fans. Much like The War Doctor (John Hurt), it was a secret to be hidden away and ignored, at least as far as executives were concerned. Hell, the thirtieth anniversary was marked by one of the most legendarily terrible things to ever air on British television. All credit should be given to Russell T. Davies and his team who, despite a run that was of incredibly variable quality, successfully resurrected an icon of British science fiction and took it to heights of popularity unimaginable in 2005. To go from that to having a global simulcast of an episode on television and in cinemas is truly unprecedented.
So, when we last left The Doctor (Matt Smith) and Clara (Jenna "No Louise Anymore, Apparently" Coleman) in "The Name of The Doctor", they had just encountered The War Doctor, revealing to Clara and the audience that there was an incarnation of the Time Lord we had not previously met; the one who did what had to be done, and ended The Time War by destroying Gallifrey and killing his entire race. A man who carried out a monstrous act for a noble reason, and who his subsequent regenerations tried desperately to forget, for reasons of trauma and grief (that are also continuity friendly for writer Steven Moffat). To clarify the chronology, the utterly brilliant short "The Night of The Doctor" was released in the run up to this special, establishing that the Eighth Doctor, played by Paul McGann in the ill-fated 1996 film, chose to regenerate into Hurt's War Doctor so that he would become the warrior needed to defeat The Daleks, whatever the cost to himself and his people.
Now, not only do we get to see more of this grizzled and beaten warrior, we are also shown just how he ended the Time War. Smith's Doctor is making travel plans with Clara - who has become a teacher for some reason and begins the episode with a thematically appropriate quote from Marcus Aurelius (“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”) - when the TARDIS is whisked away by helicopter to the National Gallery by agents of UNIT, operating on the orders of Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave). Once there, she shows The Doctor something that truly shocks him; a 3D oil painting (PUT ON YOUR GLASSES NOW) depicting the fall of Gallifrey's second city, Arcadia. It's a piece of Time Lord artwork which, much like the TARDIS, is bigger on the inside - it captures a moment in time and preserves it, and this particular moment includes the arrival of the War Doctor as he sets his deadly plan in motion.
Cue a flashback showing the War Doctor as he steals The Moment, a doomsday weapon with an artificial intelligence so powerful that it developed a conscience. That conscience takes the form of Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), who tries to convince the War Doctor not to use it and make himself a monster. To that end, she opens up a time fissure which connects the War Doctor's time stream to that of both the Eleventh Doctor and the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant), who is gallivanting about with Elizabeth I (Joanna Page), the original owner of the painting. After a brief bit of business in which Ten proposes to Elizabeth, believing her to be a shapeshifting Zygon (turns out it was actually their horse), he is joined by Eleven and War. It's here that the fun really begins.
There's something hugely thrilling about seeing actors from different eras of a series come together. It taps into the same excitement that gave us Universal monster showdowns like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, horror mash-ups like Freddy vs. Jason, and even that one episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 where Joel returned to The Satellite of Love; it's just cool seeing characters who share a universe (or could conceivably share a universe) coming together and interacting with each other. The important thing, though, is how those characters are used, and one of the great strengths of "The Day of The Doctor" is the fun it has throwing these three very different versions of the same character together. Tennant slips back into the role like he's only been gone for a long weekend, rather than three years, and has an absolute blast making fun of Smith - who he refers to as "chinny" - and getting to play a befuddled genius all over again. From a craft point of view, it's delightful seeing the subtle differences between Tennant and Smith; the latter owes his energy to the former, but it's cool to see how Tennant tempers his energy with a pensiveness, while Smith has a mad, whirling dervish quality to him. These differences have always been apparent, but they're much more pronounced when you can do a side by side comparison.
Alongside the dueling young, energetic Doctors you have John Hurt, who plays a much slower, taciturn version that chimes nicely with Smith and Tennant, as well as the general tone of the episode. He has a fun line in snide remarks about how young his future selves look and how immature they seem with their talk of timey-wimey stuff, but he's also weighed down by the terrible destruction he has seen and importance of his present task. There's a significant and appropriate weight to the contemplation he gives to destroying his own people, but since he has yet to pull the trigger, he doesn't quite grasp why Ten and Eleven regard him with such disdain and horror. Time travel makes for some strange and intriguing dynamics. Hurt also does a great job of suggesting the bloody history of his Doctor, making it seem as if he's been playing the character for years, rather than minutes.
Considering that the special is billed as a spectacular commemoration of the series, it is interesting just how prepared Moffat et al. are to let it be melancholic. Each post-revival version of The Doctor has been grappling with grief and trauma over what he has done, with some being more pronounced (Eccleston) than others (Smith), but this is one of the few instances in which the show has tackled this aspect of the character head on, going so far as to invent an iteration of the character whose main role is to induce grief in the others. Merely by being in the same room as Ten and Eleven, War gets a glimpse at the toll his actions will have on his future selves, and there's some lovely tension between Smith, Tennant and Hurt as they all realise the different ways in which their characters respond to the destruction of Gallifrey; Ten regrets, Eleven forgets, and War struggles with the dilemma of whether or not to murder billions to save countless others.
Moffat's script nicely handles the different stages of grief represented by each Doctor, and adds genuine emotional weight to the scene in which they briefly decide to destroy Gallifrey together, as well as a sense of tremendous triumph when they decide to team up with all the previous versions of The Doctor (represented by stock footage) and one future one (we get our first glimpse of Peter Capaldi as the Thirteenth Doctor, albeit only using his unmistakeable eyebrows) to not destroy Gallifrey, but transport it to its own micro-universe. In a touching postscript, it's established that War and Ten won't remember the events of their adventure, so they will still live with the memory of having committed genocide, even though that was not the case. It's a neat, slightly wonky way of tiptoeing around continuity, but the actors sell it and the show powers through in its usual cavalier manner.
Despite its ruminating on grief, "The Day of The Doctor" is also a celebration of the show's rich, varied history. In contrast to the incredibly small-scale "The Night of the Doctor," "The Day of The Doctor" is a genuine spectacle with impressive production values and a scope befitting the anniversary. Even little scenes like the transformation of the shapeshifting Zygons are convincingly disgusting, while the scenes of the Fall of Arcadia display little of the cheapness that usually characterises the show at even its most extravagant. They're scenes of a grand space opera on a massive scale, with all the death and destruction that entails. You'd almost think the series making it to a half-century was a big deal or something.
There are also references aplenty for fans of the show, though the special doesn't get so bogged down in referentiality that it becomes incomprehensible or insular. The original, black and white opening credits and theme tune are used to spine-tingling effect; there is a nice little nod to the fact that there has been a precedent for three Doctors being together at once; and the moment when all the Doctors appear, even as archive footage, is wonderfully handled. I've been down on Steven Moffat's plotting for a while now, particularly when it comes to handling big-picture, meta-narrative stuff, but he can do great work on an episode to episode basis. The plot of the special isn't the cleverest he's written, and it occasionally feels more busy than exciting - I've barely touched on the fact that the main villains of the special, the Zygons, are intent on conquering the world by stealing the identities of UNIT agents - but when it comes to the big, emotional moments, Moffat absolutely nails it. He even writes well for Piper, who plays a great variation of Rose as a Cassandra figure, and Clara, who gets to be a fun character now that all that tedious mystery stuff is out of the way.
This special feels suitably epic, with a decent plot that serves as a great springboard for a reverential exploration of what the show does well; adventure, questions of morality and the tricky, fluid nature of heroism. It even ends with a renewed sense of purpose, as Eleven is told by Tom Baker(!) that Gallifrey was saved, and all he has to do is find it. Hopefully this augurs well for the future of the show, with a simple quest serving as a narrative spine, rather than the elaborate mysteries of recent years. Even if we get back to the frustrating norm, this was a bright shining example of why Doctor Who has endured for so long, as well as one of the best things the show has done in years. Here's to the next half-century!
- I wasn't a big fan of all the Elizabethan stuff, which felt tonally out of whack with the rest of the episode, though it was completely in keeping with Tennant's run on the show, and really added to the sense that he'd never been away.
- "Look at you, stuck between a girl and a box. Story of your life, hey Doctor?" Oh, Billie, how I've missed you.
- "It was the horse. I'm going to be king!" Oh, David, how I've missed you.
- Tennant doing his dick-swinging thing to an innocent rabbit is something that you'd have to really mess up for it not to be funny. They did not mess it up.
- Nice classic science fiction tropes on display in the special, particularly the "two people who look the same, choose the right one!" stuff.
Note: An earlier version of this review mistakenly said that Paul McGann played the Ninth Doctor when he actually played the Eighth. This has been corrected, so please put away your sonic pitchforks.