In the United States, we are approaching the holiday in which we give thanks for all we have, and for a lot of people, that includes the massively popular sci-fi series Doctor Who. The show has recently turned toward sprawling, overarching plots courtesy of new show-runner Steven Moffat (who is also currently doing Sherlock), and the 50th Anniversary Special’s release this past Saturday, Nov. 22nd, attempted to both resolve—or at least prolong—the massive cliffhanger from the end of the last season and appeal to the most masturbatory inclinations of the fandom.
Honestly, it did pretty damn well. Note: I will be discussing plot stuff and using spoilers wantonly.
“The Day of the Doctor”
Plot: Following the revelation that there is an unseen incarnation of the Doctor (John Hurt), The Eleventh—er, Twelfth, but we’ll go with Eleventh for easy discussion—Doctor (Matt Smith) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) move on with their lives and faff about until they are called to the Tower of London to do important Doctor-y things. Eventually, Eleven meets up with the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) and the War Doctor (which is a stupid name but has been generally used by just about everyone) just as the latter is about to destroy all of Gallifrey and the Daleks to end the Time War—an event that will kill billions but ideally save the entire universe. Along with some periphery stuff like invading Zygons (alien shape-shifters), Eleven, Ten, and War discuss this massively important act of destruction that will haunt them for the rest of their life.
The start of this special was rough. The pacing was all off, with the mood all over the place and numerous throwbacks to the series (look! A scarf! It’s a reference!) that really are there for no other reason than for fans to go, “I caught that!” But hey, it’s an anniversary special. I get it. Luckily, this complete lack of direction fades out once the three Doctors are actually brought together. Once this happens, the show manages to maintain its status as a fun BBC show aimed at all ages while simultaneously presenting some truly interesting moral dilemmas.
Doctor Who is, I would argue, at its best when it does not forget that having a guy in a suit act silly is not what makes the show interesting. There are some interesting questions to be asked of a 1,200-year-old alien that travels around the universe, and even more importantly, there are some interesting stories that can be yielded from all the various people that the Doctor meets on these journeys. When Doctor Who remembers that characters are what make a show interesting, it soars. When it decides to drop in some aliens like Daleks and go, “Hey, recognize these things? Aren’t aliens cool?”, it falls flat on its face.
So I was relieved when, about a quarter to a third of the way into the special, the focus was brought to the characters. War Doctor has to kill billions, something that goes against his fundamental principles, and he knows that he will be forever hated based on the way Ten and Eleven treat him. He will be treated as though he were not a Doctor at all, and thus he will be denied the right to exist as himself. That is some heavy stuff. But the dialogue is not overly-preachy, and I’m actually pretty impressed at how humor and each Doctor’s unique characteristics—touchstones of the series—manage to permeate each scene. Moreover, there is still a sense of fun and adventure in this whole debacle, so the episode also does not forget that Doctor Who is meant to appeal to a wide audience. The scene where all three are in a dungeon but don’t bother to check if the door is locked was notably entertaining and fitting of the show’s humor.
The most powerful emotional moment, though, is when Ten and Eleven decide to “push the button”—i.e. activate the device that will destroy Gallifrey and kill the Daleks—accepting that they are not different from the War Doctor: they are all the same, and the War Doctor did what he absolutely had to do. The acceptance of all aspects of oneself is important in a series where the same character wears different faces and has different attitudes, and it reaffirms the unity that underpins the various incarnations of the character.
Still, the decision not to push the button—while logical for a show in which killing billions might not fly for an anniversary special—does detract from the moment, and to me represents one of the key issues of the entire show: anytime the writers do something brave or interesting, they totally undermine themselves and tie a bow on the issue. When Ten and Rose become separated forever, that is a powerful moment. Audiences loved that character dynamic, and ending it on that note has stuck in the minds of almost all Who fans. Then, the writers added an episode where the two get to meet again, undercutting the weight of their (previously) final interaction.
The Doctor killing all the Time Lords—his species—has been a defining characteristic since the series was rebooted in 2005. It substantiated most of the emotional gravitas of the character. Now, that entire plot-line has been tied up so that he killed the bad guys and saved all of his people by putting them in a painting. I get that it’s a show for all ages, but why take away the emotional weight that the writers spent so much time building? That’s what can set a show apart in the first place!
While it did rub me the wrong way a bit, I will admit it was exciting to watch all the Doctors work together. The stakes are high, and the way that Moffat gets all the Doctors on screen at once is warranted and fun. It’s a lot better than a reference to a scarf. That’s how you celebrate a show’s history without winking at the audience and watching them go “Squeeee!” So I do applaud Moffat and the other people working on the show for both hammering out an important plot line, maintaining a sense of fun, and having a nice dedication to a show that’s been running for 50 freakin’ years.
Overall, “Day of the Doctor” is great fun for fans of the series and possibly one of the better episodes, although it reaffirms many of the show’s flaws. I can’t say for sure how Whovians will feel, as that fanbase can be absolutely nuts sometimes, but I think that it ultimately goes above the baseline that some Who writers settle for, even if it does not quite reach the heights of the series in general.