WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS.
Almost a month has passed and I’m on the road to recovery back to my ‘normal’ self, not that he’ll be around for long because in exactly 8 days from now I’ll be even more emotionally compromised as Matt Smith bows out with the Xmas special – The Time of the Doctor. But let’s talk about The Day of the Doctor, the 50th anniversary of a show that has enticed two generations and will go on to entertain many more.
Where to even begin?
First of all, it’s no easy feat for a television show to reach its fiftieth birthday – especially these days where shows are cut down for cancellation with such ease, a fate which Doctor Who sadly suffered in the late 80s. But here we are today, the show stands tall as the BBC’s most beloved programme and draws in millions of viewers with every episode. The Day of the Doctor drew in 10.2 million people in the UK alone, but has been given a Guinness World Record for the largest simulcast ever – aired in cinemas and on televisions in 96 countries across 6 continents, pulling in over 77 million viewers worldwide – this really was the day of the Doctor. Well done, Doctor Who!
I watched this episode (though it would probably be more accurate for me to call it an ‘event’) with a large number of people in my university’s lecture hall, the atmosphere was fantastic as all the Whovians poured in. People gasped, laughed and dropped their jaw on the floor at all the right moments throughout the episode, it’s nice to be in a room with people who are just as excited and enthused as you are which is the perfect way to celebrate something you’re passionate about. By the end, we were all out of our seats giving a standing ovation – the only other time that I’ve seen this happen was when I went to see The Dark Knight Rises last summer. We poured our libations to the genius of Steven Moffat and the cast & crew of Doctor Who, then retired for the evening.
But let’s move on and talk about the episode itself!
Set some time after the events of The Name of the Doctor, the Series 7 finale where the Doctor’s greatest secret was discovered, both Clara and the Doctor have escaped his timestream and appear to have gone back to the status quo of living normal life and travelling. Clara has become a teacher at Coal Hill School, for the uninitiated this is the school which the Doctor’s granddaughter, Susan, attended with her two teachers (and the show’s first companions) Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright. I did have a bit of a nerdgasm the very moment the episode began with the original opening titles accompanied by the slowly panning shot of a police officer walking past the I.M.Foreman scrapyard sign of Totter’s Lane. It was a beautiful way to open the episode by referencing the opening of An Unearthly Child, the very first episode.
Numerous references to the Classic Series pop up throughout the episode, some subtle and not so much. One of the subtle ones can be seen when Clara is riding her motorbike to the TARDIS and she passes a clock that reads 5:16pm – the adventure begins for Clara at the exact same time the first ever episode of the show aired for us. Ian Chesterton is also referenced on the sign for Coal Hill School, as well as Anthony Coburn (the writer of An Unearthly Child) who is apparently the headmaster.
Showrunner Steven Moffat managed to perfectly mix together a story that focuses on plot, character development and fan-service. The narrative has three stories going on – the Zygon plot with Queen Elizabeth I and the Tenth Doctor, the present day investigation at the National Gallery with the Eleventh Doctor, Clara and Kate Stewart (daughter of Brigadier Alistair Gorgon Lethbridge-Stewart, one of my favourite characters), and the final day of the Time War with the fall of Gallifrey’s second city – Arcadia. The latter story is of particular importance not only because this is the first time we’ve actually had a glimpse of the Time War itself (which only took 8 years and 2 showrunners…) but because it prominently features John Hurt as the War Doctor – the man who ended it all by burning the Time Lords and Daleks with the Moment, who is brilliantly portrayed by Billie Piper.
“If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cry of strange birds and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you?”
Some of these references are so subtle, I doubt that we’ll ever actually find all of them. I think that there’s an interesting link between this line and the scene in The Day of the Doctor to which it relates, as the former has the Doctor describing the wonders of the universe to his companions while the latter has him standing in the place he described as he prepares to burn two almighty civilisations.
While I’m not a fan of Rose’s character (loved her in Series 1, but everything else after that fizzled out for me), I’m so glad that Billie Piper was playing a different character altogether but using the form of Rose. Rose’s story is done, it should have been done in Series 2 when she left, but for some reason she had to be brought back to have her story finish again. Moffat himself has said that he didn’t feel the need to add any more to that story because it doesn’t really have anywhere left to go (especially in the context of this episode), and the only people who are really going to be disappointed by this are those ardent ‘shippers’ on Tumblr who really aren’t worth pandering to anyway. The Moment was a perfectly befitting role for Billie to take on (works beautifully on a thematic level) and I think she played the role with a great mixture of emotion and humour – mocking the War Doctor and, at the same time, showing him the men he is destined to become through his curse of surviving the Time War while everybody else burns.
So let’s talk about John Hurt and the War Doctor, shall we? This is what I’d been most looking forward to seeing because I love John Hurt, he’s something of a legend already in science fiction as he portrayed Kane in the first Alien film who is the very first victim we see as his chest is torn open in the middle of dinner. He’s also appeared in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Harry Potter and V for Vendetta as significant characters, he brings across a great sense of gravitas and has aptly been described the rest of the Who cast as being able to floor you with just a single movement of his eyes. So it’s totally understandable to me when Steven Moffat said that saying “let’s get John Hurt in Doctor Who” was a completely natural decision.
The War Doctor is an incarnation that the Doctor has hidden away, somebody he’s ashamed of, because he was the one who fought in and ended the Time War. Moffat has spent the last 3 years of his tenure as showrunner exploring the various nuances and dichotomies of the Doctor’s personality, looking to provide an answer to the very first question raised by the show – doctor… who?
The meaning of the name ‘Doctor’ itself has been gradually deconstructed over the course of Series 6’s arc, as it gets to the point where the name no longer means ‘wise man’ and ‘healer’, but instead means ‘mighty warrior’. He’s the man who can “turn an army around at the mention of his name”, as River tells him after the battle of Demons Run – he’s but a shadow of the man who fled Gallifrey in search of adventure and exploration. By Seris 7, the Doctor has been working on deleting himself from every database in the universe to slip back into the shadows and start afresh. But even then, there’s a stain on his name which requires a great deal more than a universal reset button to sort out.
The universe might’ve forgotten him, but the knowledge that he’d abandoned the promise he made when he assumed the name of ‘the Doctor’ stayed with him. I was really happy to see that the promise itself was stated in the episode, it was a beautiful moment where the three Doctors are humbled by the view of Daleks wiping out masses of Time Lords and Gallifreyans.
Never cruel or cowardly. Never give up, never give in.
As the War Doctor prepares to use the Moment to wipe out the Time Lords and Daleks, she shows him the future – his future, the future that he will live following his survival of the Time War. This is something which I thought was absolutely brilliant, a weapon which can ask you “are you sure you want to do this?” before you pull the trigger, as the Moment grew to be so advanced it developed its own consciousness and sense of morality.
It was perfectly fitting that the Moment took the form of Rose, I thought, as she was the one who helped the Doctor recover from his grief from ending the Time War. The Doctor’s companions have always been his moral compass, the people who keep him in-check and stop him when he’s about to go too far. Clara also fills this role in beautifully, as she is the one who reminds the Doctor who he truly is, she is the one who answers the Question in the end and thus enables him to rewrite history, save Gallifrey and finally allow him to move on. For the first time in a long time, we’re going to have a Doctor who hasn’t been born out of fire or loneliness, but hope which should take the show in an interesting new direction.
One of my favourite parts of the episode is when the War Doctor asks Ten and Eleven whether they ever counted the number of children he killed on Gallifrey, Eleven has forgotten while Ten remembers the figure exactly. The War Doctor simply looks at them and says that he doesn’t know who either of them are. It’s a beautiful display of irony that the War Doctor is the one who says he can’t even recognise himself in the two men standing before him, despite the fact that he’s the one who has to end it all and yet he’s the only one who cannot imagine himself doing so. It’s Clara who recognizes that the War Doctor is the innocent here because he’s the only Doctor present who hasn’t actually done it yet. This ties back beautifully to her arc in Series 7 as the person who saves the Doctor because she does it for him again here, making him realise that there is another way, that time can be rewritten.
This all ties back to the very first line of the episode which Clara tells her students at Coal Hill School:
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
The Doctors decide to waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be and instead decide to be one. The future has not yet been written for them, they’re at the tipping point where there is the potential for change, and all they needed was the willingness to have “failed doing the right thing, as opposed to succeeding in doing the wrong”.
And how is this accomplished? How else but by calling upon all your other selves to save Gallifrey, what an absolutely epic moment it was when we heard the First Doctor call the War Council as all the TARDISes appear out of a nebula (which, you may have noticed, is shaped exactly like the Time Crack from Series 5), and that glimpse we got at Capaldi’s eyes… The collective gasps in the room at that point, the collective gasps around the world, I think is a testament to just how powerful the show is in gauging such overt emotional reactions from people. It’s no wonder that it’s the BBC’s best drama…
“I didn’t know I was well off, all twelve of them…”
“No sir, all thirteen!”
All thirteen Doctors come together to keep their promise, restoring Doctor Who once again to a show about the triumph of intellect and romance – the slate has been wiped clean, the show has come full circle, back to what it was from 1963-1996. The Time War’s climax was the one moment in the Doctor’s life when he did give up and resorted to using brute force and cynicism to solve a problem, and now he can move on. There are those who have said that this invalidates the development the character received, but no… it really doesn’t. In his mind, he still burned Gallifrey, he still killed those 2.47 billion children and wiped out two almighty civilisations in one move, and as a result he says he never wants to see this again.
Another thing that people moaned about was the Zygon subplot of the episode, the thing which brought the three Doctors together. Some have said that it felt rushed or pointless, but those people just seem to have missed the point, in my opinion. The Moment sends the Doctors on this adventure to show them that they must always look for a peaceful solution, that there is always a way to solve a problem without violence and in the end we see a peace treaty being made between the two Kates. The bit where Zygon Osgood hands human Osgood her inhaler was a beautiful piece of symbolism of cooperation, people seem to not understand that in a visual medium you are much more open to the idea of showing and not simply telling the audience something.
Overall, I think that The Day of the Doctor was an absolutely fantastic episode. It had the perfect formula nailed down, all the ingredients which make an episode of Doctor Who great. The cinematography alone is something to be proud of, the 3D aspect didn’t feel at all forced and complimented the story perfectly – even adding something interesting to the lore. My favourite moment had to be when the three Doctors are inside the battle of Arcadia painting and send a Dalek smashing through to the Black Archive while they walk out in slow motion, accompanied by Murray Gold’s badass musical score.
I personally cannot wait to see what Peter Capaldi brings to the role, I’ll miss Matt Smith more than anything but at the same time I’m very much looking forward to Capaldi’s arc. Moffat certainly wasn’t lying when he said that The Day of the Doctor celebrates the past of the show and looks to the future, and it’s a bright future indeed for this show which I hope to see go on for another 50 years. The final, ultimate message of The Day of the Doctor becomes evident as all the Doctors stand together in the final shot of the episode – that sometimes the longest way round is the shortest way home.