Features Published 27 November 2013

The Day of the Doctor

Our writers discuss Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary Special.

Tom Wicker

“Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice and somewhere else the tea is getting cold. Come on Ace, we’ve got work to do.”

(Seventh Doctor, Survival)

It’s the late 1980s, winter. A little boy lies in bed, wide awake. He has school in the morning and should be asleep, but his head is full of dinosaurs and Daleks. Wrapped in an out-sized, multi-coloured scarf, he’s spent the evening playing Doctor Who in the back garden – only retreating inside when he could no longer feel his fingers in the biting cold.

He sits bolt upright. What’s that sudden burst of light in the corner of his room? Could it be a rift in the space-time continuum? What future event could be so great that it could tear a hole in the fabric of reality?

He edges closer. He can hear voices. And they’re talking about a 50th anniversary….

Tom Wicker: The original series of Doctor Who was cancelled in 1989. I was nine years old. In the December of that year, I have a vivid memory of sitting on my bed – bookshelf crammed with dog-eared Doctor Who Target novelisations to my left and wardrobe with scrawled-on TARDIS windows opposite – writing to Father Christmas for more stories. I hoped for it as much as snow that winter.

I was overjoyed when Russell T. Davies so triumphantly brought the series back in 2005. And since then, my view of the show has always been two-fold: as both a (sometimes reluctant) adult and from the perspective of my younger self. So much so, that waking up on Saturday – The Day of The Doctor – felt like Christmas morning had arrived a month early.

But perhaps this review of Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary episode shouldn’t be started by a diehard fan. After all, this is Exeunt. We should avoid the easy route. (And my nine-year-old self is protesting at the notion of going first.)

So, I’m going to put the responsibility on your shoulders, Tracey. Leaving aside the hoopla and fan hysteria, do you think The Day of the Doctor – also screened simultaneously in cinemas across the UK and the globe – made for good telly?

Tracey Sinclair: Sometimes, I think I like the idea of Doctor Who more than I like the actual show. I had fond memories of it from childhood and was excited by the revival, and I find myself thrilled at an instinctive, emotional level that it has, in a relatively short time, re-established itself as a part of British culture. But somehow that has failed to translate into becoming a regular viewer – even with David Tennant, my favourite recent Doctor, I only managed about half of the episodes, and the latest series lost me completely.

I think Matt Smith is an excellent Doctor, but I dislike Clara intensely as a companion (she seems to be a collection of wisecracks and verbal tics rather than an actual person, useful to dish up whatever emotion or action the plot requires without it having any basis in personality). I have serious reservations about Steven Moffatt’s showrunning abilities – he seems to bring a very narrow worldview to such an expansive show, and I’m not alone in thinking he isn’t great when it comes to writing women (or, indeed, anyone except straight while males), as evidenced by his infuriating take on Irene Adler in Sherlock. So while I was excited by the hoopla around the anniversary celebrations, I went in fully prepared not to like the episode itself very much.

In the end, though, I found myself pleasantly surprised, and felt there was an awful lot to love in there. The geeky thrill of seeing Tennant and Smith together was reinforced by the genuine chemistry between the pair, and they sparked beautifully off John Hurt’s wounded, cynical ‘War Doctor’, who had pleasingly little patience for their boyish gambolling and flamboyant posturing. The story was nicely redemptive and positive for an anniversary story with plenty of emotional heft, and there were enough fan-pleasing touches in there to keep you smiling without over-cluttering the story and making it simply a rehash of old times. I could have done without the Queen Elizabeth storyline – it’s an unfortunate strand to Moffat’s show that he can’t seem to envisage a woman who isn’t swooning over the Doctor, and the way he behaved with her actually made Ten seem like a bit of a dick. But there were some great lines (notably the Derren Brown joke, and the offhand reference about what the Americans would do with a device that rewrites history) and enough spine tingling moments that as a piece of TV – rather than a piece of TV history – I thought it worked. I might even watch the next series.

Matt Smith in The Day of the Doctor. Photos: BBC

Matt Smith in The Day of the Doctor. Photos: BBC

Tom Wicker: Completely agree about Tennant’s Ten. It was a misstep in what was otherwise a well crafted depiction of inner struggle as conveyed by three different versions of the same character. The scene in which Tennant’s Doctor confronts Smith’s about ‘forgetting’ the Time War and Hurt’s disgusted War Doctor rejects them both was spine-tinglingly good. The three actors stepped up to the plate and really sold the anger and pain that has driven the Doctor since 2005. It worked well alongside their comedic interplay. And, my God, doesn’t Hurt just radiate gravitas?

Stewart Pringle: I thought it was proper 50th Anniversary stuff, in the same way that The Five Doctors was a lovely, self-referential tribute for the 20th, The Day of the Doctor had all the elements you could want thrown into the mix and shaken up like a bottle of champagne. Is it a classic Doctor Who episode? No. Am I likely to to show it to skeptical friends to justify why I own more Daleks than pairs of trousers? Probably not. But it’s was a monster-mash of epic proportions that simultaneously payed tribute to the history of the Doctor and the history of the show, and that’s no mean feat.

John Hurt and Billie Piper in The Day of the Doctor. Photos: BBC

John Hurt and Billie Piper in The Day of the Doctor. Photos: BBC

Stewart Pringle: John Hurt was terrific as The Ninth Doctor (get used to it, yeah?), belying his sudden shoe-horning in to the chronology and proving himself so much more than a plot convenience. His scenes in the chaos of the Time War were thrilling, and he played war-ravaged well, but the revelation was his ability to capture the softer tones of the Doctor. His youthfulness compared to the more sprightly Eleventh and Twelfth (GET USED TO IT) went deeper than a throwaway line, and his puncturing of the catchphrases that have developed since 2006 was smoothly judged. It’s a credit to both Moffat and Hurt that they created such a compelling incarnation, every bit the match of the more established Doctors he shared screen with, in such a short amount of time and with so many time-hopping, galaxy shredding fireworks going off around him.

It’s the brilliance of Hurt’s piece of the action that makes the worst of the episode’s failings all the more egregious. The plot-holes and leaps in logic get a free ticket, to be honest, because this is an anniversary episode and because Doctor Who is often a bit like that and because, really, who gives a fuck?

The problems lie in the things that Tracey brought up, to be honest. Clara still isn’t a character, she’s a cipher for plot, and that line at the end about her having saved the day rang horribly false. I’ll actually defend Moffat to the death in his portrayal of Amy and Rory Pond – I’ve read plenty of criticisms of the pair and I don’t agree with any of them. For my money they were a great pair of powerful, flawed characters who were allowed to flourish in so many ways that spoke to their characters rather than their place in the universe of the all-powerful Doctor. But Clara’s just rubbish, really, isn’t she? And despite the best efforts of Jenna Coleman, she didn’t get any better here.

Tom Wicker: I’d agree about Clara to an extent. It’s in no way Jenna Coleman’s fault, and freed from the distancing mystery of who her character was last season, I thought we – as the audience – were able to get closer to her. I always thought it was a fundamental mistake to make our eyes and ears in the TARDIS (and the Doctor’s life) one of the show’s maguffins. It put a wall up between her and us and seemed to make it difficult for writers other than Moffat to give her much personality beyond wise-cracking and speaking extremely fast. That’s still a problem here, and one I hope they address when Peter Capaldi takes over from Smith at Christmas.

Joanna Page as Elizabeth I in The Day of the Doctor

Joanna Page as Elizabeth I in The Day of the Doctor. Photos: BBC

Stewart Pringle: Elizabeth I was a travesty too, despite some strong comic work from Joanna Page. One of Doctor Who’s strengths from day one (or day 60, at least) has been its ability to illuminate history in a surprising and thought-provoking way. It’s always used short-cuts and it’s usually lampooned, but reducing one of Britain’s most fascinating historical figures (master-strategist, poet, cold-blooded murderer) into a giggling floozy is just not good enough. Russell T managed to give her a saucy nod that was loads of disposable fun, but this was just lazy and (whisper it) a bit misogynistic. I want to beam my way through the 50th Anniversary with pride at one of the increasingly few things Britain can be truly proud of in the 21st century, not cringe or shift uncomfortably in my seat.

It’s hard to be cross for too long when there’s so much of The Day of the Doctor to just whole-heartedly adore. The Zygons got a smashing come-back, complete with a truly gruesome transformation scene and a great time-leaping master-plan. The Daleks were looking hard as nails, and the shots of their assault on Gallifrey gave them back a touch of majesty that they’ve been missing for a good few years. The way Billie Piper was re-introduced was great, avoiding treading on the toes of Davies’ wrap-up for Rose and instead providing vital insight into the fatal Moment. There may have been a touch of Moffat-recycling in the time-rift fez business, as there was in the Dalek cross-fire conclusion (the same schtick having done for the Weeping Angels in Blink) but her scenes with Hurt were delicately moving and funny at the same time. If that’s the last we see of Piper, it’s a great swan-song for one of Doctor Who’s unexpected treasures.

Tom Wicker: Oh, yes, I’m with you about Billie Piper too. I was also pleased that she didn’t reprise Rose Tyler. That character – and her relationship with the Doctor – had been done to death even before Russell T. Davies gave up his seat to Steven Moffat. Having her play The Moment alluded to Rose’s role as the conscience in Christopher Eccleston’s and Tennant’s Doctors’ lives without re-treading old ground. And wasn’t she good? Wild, alien and inscrutable, she held her own against Hurt. She’d have made a good Time Lord in an alternative universe…

Overall, I thought this was a lovely celebration of the series. But I’m still not sure how I feel about the re-writing of the Time War. What I’ve loved about 21st-century Who is the conflict at the heart of the Doctor, which The Moment brilliantly articulates here as an impulse to save others forged by his burning guilt at killing the Time Lords and the Daleks. When Eccleston’s Doctor joyfully exclaims, ‘Just this once, everybody lives!’ at the end of The Doctor Dances, we cheer because we know the very real loss behind his happy disbelief. Moffat gets around this by having Tennant’s and Hurt’s Doctors forget Gallifrey is safe once the three go their separate ways. But, for this viewer, that isn’t enough – I still remember. And as much as I appreciate that it gives the Doctor a new mission – to find his home – it feels as though something has been lost in the process.

Also, what about all the Daleks still on the planet when the 13 Doctors froze it in time? And the genocidal High Council? These are the kind of plot points that get swept up in the rush of the moment but chafe afterwards.

Stewart Pringle: The wrap-up of the Time War was inevitable, and probably necessary, but it was still a little sad to see Davies’ masterful re-imagining of the Who-niverse come to a close. The multi-TARDIS ending looked fantastic though, and if there was a snifter of cakes being both had AND eaten, it couldn’t have ended any other way. The shadow of the Doctor’s genocide has tended to push the Time Lord to the centre of the show’s moral universe, his own actions weighing heavier on every episode than those of the people and worlds that he visits, and that can’t go on forever.

The show had been wrestling with the scale of The Doctor for a few series now, with Moffat killing him and deleting him and erasing him without really being able to cope with his significance. Now that he’s back for good and his mass-murder elided we can get back to some proper adventuring, and the Quest for Gallifrey seem to be exactly the breath of uncomplicated, Saturday-matinee air that the show has been crying out for.

Because as cool as it’s been, running full-pelt towards life and the future is always going to be better, more Doctor-ish, than running away from death and the past, isn’t it?

Tom Wicker: Oh yes, and in all kinds of ways, the episode was just joyous as a celebration of Doctor Who‘s sheer balls-out ambition over the past 50 years. And Tom Baker’s cameo at the end was beautifully ambiguous: a love letter to the past that acknowledged the fourth wall without blowing it open and leaving narrative rubble everywhere.

Besides, any criticism I might have of this episode is but a drop in the ocean of my unabashed love for a brilliant, eccentric and uplifting show, where intelligence wins out over muscle every time.

Stewart Pringle: I was explaining to someone last Sunday that when I criticise Doctor Who in some way, that’s only to be considered in the context of other Doctor Who stories. Even Timelash ranks above pretty much anything else on TV ever…

… and with that, the light blinks out of existence. The boy creeps back into bed and pulls his quilt up to his chin. He smiles. Doctor Who might be gone for now – but not forever.

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Tom Wicker

Tom is a freelance writer and editor, based in London. He has acted in the past, but the stage is undoubtedly better off without him on it. As well as regularly contributing to Exeunt and OffWestEnd.com, he reviews for Time Out, has reviewed Broadway productions for The Telegraph. He has also written for The Guardian and the online world affairs magazine openDemocracy.

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