The Day of the Doctor Review
Clint Hassell gives his verdict on the 50th anniversary special.
Have you ever had a Christmas where all you wanted was just one, specific gift? Forget the vacation from school or work, spending time with loved ones, or the joy of colored paper, carol singing, or festive cookies – your Christmas was going to be made (or ruined) solely based on whether or not your fervent wishing and hinting to Mom had paid off, and Santa had delivered that one, specific present under the tree.
For me, Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary celebration was like Christmas. During the final few minutes before the start of “The Day of the Doctor,” I was literally giddy with excitement, much like my seven-year-old self all those Christmases ago – a feeling I’m not sure I’ve experienced in my adult life. What was the one, specific gift I wished for? Literally, all I wanted was to see Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor. “The Day of the Doctor” could have smelled like a gassy Slitheen and I wouldn’t have cared because I got what I wanted the moment Eight stepped from the shadows as “a Doctor – but probably not the one [I was] expecting,” in “The Night of the Doctor.”
Having opened my favorite gift a few days early, so to speak, was I still pleased with what followed in “The Day of the Doctor”? How could I not be? True, many of the episode’s epic moments had been revealed and/or telegraphed beforehand – John Hurt as the incarnation of the Doctor between Eight and Nine, the exploration of the Time War, the return of Gallifrey to the narrative, the appearance of the Daleks and the Zygons, the Cyberman cameo, the presence of all of the previous Doctors via stock footage and newly-recorded dialogue, the War Doctor’s regeneration into Nine, Tom Baker’s appearance playing a character other than Four – leaving Capaldi’s cameo as the one, true surprise of the outing. (And, let’s be honest, it would have been incredibly cruel to leave an already-cast, life-long fan, like Capaldi, one episode shy of appearing in the fiftieth anniversary celebration.) However, a spoiled plot point or guest star appearance is no less enjoyable if well-executed, and “The Day of the Doctor” also entertained in certain other surprising ways.
For example, the opening scenes were amazing in their scope. Doctor Who always tries to make series premieres, finales, and Christmas specials feel grand in scale – and showrunner Steven Moffat turned much of Series 7 into a string of blockbuster-style epics – but even the scenic footage filmed in Dubai, Spain, and the United States pales in comparison to that shot for “The Day of the Doctor.” There is little doubt that many scenes were lensed with the big screen in mind, and the result is certainly cinema-worthy. While Matt Smith hanging from the TARDIS recalls the opening of “The Eleventh Hour,” the extensive use of location filming in “The Day of the Doctor” adds a level of believability missing from the Series 5 premiere. Similarly, the effect of Clara riding the antigrav motorcycle from the highway into the TARDIS may be the most impressive example of “bigger on the inside” in 50 years, and certainly bests the well-intentioned-but-not-quite-perfectly-executed shot of the Doctor pulling Clara from the street, into the TARDIS, and then onto a plane, from “The Bells of Saint John.” Later in the episode, the footage of the Daleks invading Arcadia dazzles, both with the amount of action, but also in the level of detail, giving us the most comprehensive look at Gallifrey thus far. Is the increase in production values on “The Day of the Doctor” the reason why Series 8 (ironically, Capaldi’s first full series) is scheduled to contain only twelve episodes? OK, I’m fine with that – this was worth it.
Another pleasant surprise was how much of the fiftieth anniversary special not just referenced, but relied upon the past. For all that Moffat claimed he did not want to acknowledge Doctor Who’s golden milestone by looking back, he sure chose to focus on an event that predates the current series. It’s weird too, because, honestly, the Time War isn’t that important to the show’s narrative, as it was really only conceived by previous showrunner Russell T Davies as a means to remove years of complex mythology involving the Time Lords and Gallifrey, distilling the storyline down to just “Doctor/companion/TARDIS/Run!” for the new audience of the revived series. Save for brief moments in “Gridlock” and The End of Time, there has been precious little Gallifrey in the current Doctor Who series, so an audience unfamiliar with the classic serials has little reason to care about the planet, except that it’s the Doctor’s home – a sort of mental “I know I should care,” as opposed to actually being invested. Am I happy to see the Time War? Yes! (Though I wish we could have seen even more! Why did it start in the first place? How did events progress to such a fearful, savage point? Why has the name of the Time Lords been tarnished across the universe?) However, while I’m happy that the narrative of the show has a fairly complete through line from One through to Twelve, I realize that Moffat’s choice to explore previously-unseen details of the Time War is more service to the long-standing fans than to the modern audience – a gutsy move that I hope inspires renewed interest in Gallifrey.
Finally, I was surprised at how much John Hurt’s character sounded like “the Doctor.” The clips of the War Doctor seen previous to “The Day of the Doctor” portrayed him as somber and grim. The Doctor has always had layers; he is charming and adventurous, dashing and smart, caring and funny. Seeing Hurt imbue his character with these qualities elevates his appearance above stunt casting. Further, despite occurring during Eleven and Clara’s timeline from the audience’s point of view, and despite featuring returning fan-favorite David Tennant, the new character of the War Doctor is truly the main character of the story. He is the dynamic protagonist that changes – albeit by seeing his future selves, a genius plot device which allows the episode to focus on the best aspects of Ten and Eleven. Seeing the three Doctors bicker amongst themselves recalls, well, The Three Doctors, which is pretty cool.
Clara’s opening line, a quote by Marcus Aurelius – “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one” – summarizes not only the basic plot of the anniversary special, but also the entire revived series of Doctor Who. Truly, much of modern Who has focused on the Doctor struggling to be a good man, following the events of the Time War. Contemplating genocide in “Dalek.” Lying to Martha. Bragging about controlling space and time to Adelaide. Bitterness in sacrificing himself to save Wilfred. Being willing to kill a space whale. Abandoning Amy countless times. His “marriage” to River. Murdering Solomon. Almost killing Kahler-Jex. Not trusting Clara. It’s incredibly fitting that, after so much thematic discussion of the Doctor-as-haunted-adventurer, “The Day of the Doctor” absolves Eleven of his guilt, giving him – and the series – renewed purpose and vision for the future.