Nov 28, 2013

[TV] Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor (50th Anniversary Special)

When I post reviews of TV shows, I do my best to tackle them by season. But in the case of the 50th Anniversary Special, The Day of the Doctor, I figured that the special episode deserved a review all of its own. And this is a little quirky since I delayed posting a formal review of the 7th series of Doctor Who precisely because I was waiting for this episode.

To round out this review, I'm also factoring in the two prequel mini-episodes aired before the big anniversary day - these being The Night of the Doctor and The Last Day. It may not seem like much, but it just helps better capture the entire 50th anniversary celebration properly.

And let's face it - a lot of us Doctor Who fans (or Whovians if you will) have been eagerly waiting for this episode ever since the series finale that first introduced us to John Hurt as being another incarnation of the Doctor. Given the promise of a story that would give us a better idea of what had happened during the now infamous Time War that is so often alluded to by the reboot incarnations of the Doctor starting from the Ninth, it has certainly been an event of much speculation and general curiosity. This special episode meant to address that and include a lot of fan pandering as well.

Synopsis: The Day of the Doctor is the 50th anniversary special of the long-running British science fiction TV series Doctor Who and may be considered as the 799th episode (if you count such things). Among other things (some to come of course), the episode got into the Guinness Book of World Records for having the largest ever simulcast of a TV drama having appeared in 94 countries in both 2D and 3D on November 23, 2013.

In The Night of the Doctor, we see the Eighth Doctor being urged by the Sisterhood of Karn to take a more active role in the Time War and find a way to stop it. Given how even a man of his reputation could not escape the universal hatred the universe has developed for all Time Lords and their terrible war, he eventually relents and agrees to take a potion that will help him become more of a warrior in his next regeneration. Thus he becomes the War Doctor (John Hurt) and goes off to fight in the war. In The Last Day, we are given a glimpse of the frontline when the Daleks finally invade the Time Lord home planet of Gallifrey itself.

In the actual episode, Clara (Jenne Coleman) receives a message from the Doctor (Matt Smith) to rendezvous at the TARDIS. As they prepare for a new adventure, things are interrupted by a UNIT helicopter picking up the TARDIS and bringing them to Trafalgar Square, where they are met by Kate Stewart, who now heads UNIT. She bears a sealed message from Queen Elizabeth I and presents a painting of the Fall of Gallifrey as her credentials. The painting is an authentic piece of Time Lord art that looks like a 3D image given it is a moment in time forever preserved in stasis. But the painting is just a way to get the Doctor to believe that the message is authentic - there's another mystery entirely in the secret Undergallery.

The painting brings us to a flashback of the Time War and the War Doctor is back on Gallifrey just as Arcadia falls. He repeatedly states "No More" and eventually steals a powerful weapon known as "The Moment" from the Time Lords and intends to use it to destroy both Daleks and Time Lords in order to save the rest of the universe. But this weapon is unique because it is sentient and actually possesses a conscience. This manifests as the Bad Wolf version of Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), who then questions the War Doctor in his decision to end things. Using her tremendous powers, she is able to open time fissures to link the War Doctor with his Tenth (David Tennant) and Eleventh incarnations to make him face the potential consequences of his intentions.

The episode is overflowing with subtle nods and references to past Doctor Who episodes, as any anniversary special should. I won't spend time going into them - there internet is already teeming with many such lists, a lot of them already captured on the Wikipedia page dedicated to the episode. Go on and read up if you're curious. But the inclusion of such elements wasn't to a degree that it interfered with the plot or distracted you from the story. And that's a really good thing since it's far too easy to go overboard for these sorts of things.

The anniversary episode represents many things. On the one hand, it is a celebration of 50 years of Doctor Who, and thus is a celebration of the many, many fans of the show all around the world. Thus you get the Easter Eggs and the very central element of having multiple Doctors involved in the story. But at the same time, this was a pivotal episode for the future of the show and setting a potential direction for the next 50 years (we hope). And in that sense Moffat certainly made sure to give himself a lot of narrative wiggle room.

The big question that many fans have been asking since the end of Series 7 is just how many Doctors there are and what this means for the future of the franchise. The main challenge is the fact that it was established during the Classic era that a Time Lord only has 12 regenerations, and thus 13 physical incarnations. Thus characters like The Master were obsessed with finding ways to gain additional regenerations in order to continue living and gathering more power to themselves. And with Matt Smith already due to be replaced by Peter Capaldi during the Christmas special later this year, we're really coming to the end.

The answer of course is that there are indeed 13 incarnations of the character that we've come to know as The Doctor, however due to the events of the Time War he has pretty much disowned one of his incarnations. Thus there are only 11 Doctors at this point in time with the other figure being one deemed unworthy of the name. This fact helped explain the anger of the Ninth Doctor (Christopher  Eccleston), the sadness of the Tenth and the regrets of the Eleventh. They even managed to squeeze in a possible explanation for why the Doctor has become increasingly young since the 2005 series reboot - and it all sort of worked for me.

As much as the show gave us a better look at the Time War, it really wasn't the true focus of the story. At the end of the day, it was just part of the setting - more backdrop material for everyone to work in. The really important aspect of the story is the struggle of the War Doctor to come to terms with what he intended to do. At the same time, it was also the story of his later incarnations being made to face the part of themselves that they had tried so hard to forget and come to terms with that part of their lives. The end result is quite the complex examination of self with the Bad Wolf Rose acting as the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, in a manner of speaking. So yes, this does mean I'm sort of comparing John Hurt's character to Scrooge. And it sort of fits the mode.

Did I want to see more classic Doctors return for the movie? A part of me would have loved that, but that probably would have been going too far. That would just distract us a bit too much from the plot and muddy things to no end. The decision to go with Tennant and Smith as the primary figures was a good one, although I do wish that Eccleston had agreed to reprise his role as the Doctor his one time. We'll see what the future will hold in that regard.

Was The Day of the Doctor the best Doctor Who episode ever? Oh hardly - and it was never intended to be anything like that. You can't pander to fans and make a truly excellent story - just look at the somewhat silly Zygon story arc that was cute but not really all that important. But it was a great episode and a great celebration of the legacy of the show. And yes, I squealed and hooted when the multiple TARDIS's came out and worked together to implement the final solution to things. Campy moments like that are what made the show - and ultimately the series - fun.

Thus The Day of the Doctor is still a big win for me and it gets 5 little references to the show's amazing history out of a possible 5.

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