Here we are at last, the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special. After so many rumours, spoilers and discussions floating around this momentous event, does the special live up to the hype, expectations and the promise of honouring the series’s 50-year legacy? So, for God’s sake, let’s find out! Allons-y! Geronimo!
In the present, the Eleventh Doctor is recruited by UNIT to help with strange goings on involving paintings in the National Gallery. He is brought before a particular one, ‘Gallifrey Falls’, and remembers the last day of the Time War immortalised in the painting. The Time War Doctor has the Moment and is planning to use it to wipe out Daleks and Time Lords alike. The Moment’s sentient interface, however (in the form of the Bad Wolf/Rose Tyler), decides to show him his future selves before making his decision. As he is investigating, a time fissure opens to his past, as his Tenth incarnation and Elizabeth I are dealing with Zygons. All three Doctors meet in Elizabethan England, and uncover the Zygon’s plans to take over future Earth. As the Zygons enact their plan in the present, a stand-off takes place between Kate Stewart, two UNIT scientists and their Zygon duplicate. The Doctors intervene and save the day, while the War Doctor decides to use the Moment. The other two and Clara join him and prepare to do what needs to be done, while Clara and the interface inspire them to find another solution. All three Doctors decide to freeze Gallifrey – with the help of all previous incarnations and their TARDISes – in a single moment in a parallel pocket universe, leaving the Daleks to destroy each other in the crossfire. They muse about their unsure victory at the Gallery and how the past incarnations will forget these events, each other Doctor going on his way back to his place. As the Eleventh Doctor talks to the museum curator about the painting ‘Gallifrey Falls No More’, he realises Gallifrey was indeed saved and decides to seek it out.
A quick skim through the above would make it seem as if the episode is hardly a 50th anniversary celebration at all, but rather an extended episode. In some respects, the special is just that, the Zygons appearing as the monster of the week. In fact, despite the fact that it served as a showcase of the future for the War Doctor, we didn’t even get to see how the Zygon situation was ultimately resolved. With multiple Doctors, the special gives us the bonus of having the Tenth, Eleventh and War Doctors interact. They play off each other so well, with such chemistry between Matt Smith and David Tennant and John Hurt’s Doctor also getting in on the fun and being as snarky with his future selves, combined with a neat mixture of innocence and gravitas as can be expected from the pre-red-button-pushing War Doctor.
We have the presence of two companions, Bad Wolf/Rose/Moment and Clara, who act as the conscience of their respective Doctor. The former works so well because it’s not actually Rose herself, skirting over the fact that the character’s latest re-appearances had been somewhat unwarranted and allowing Billie Piper to play the more jovial Rose we first got used to. Clara, on the other hand, I’ve absolutely adored while watching this episode, as she becomes one of the strongest companions since Doctor Who came back in 2005. Name of the Doctor had her save all incarnations of the Doctor from the Great Intelligence, but here she gets to remind him of who he is in one of the more beautiful and emotional scenes of the special.
The performance of the other ‘companions’ of the episode is just as good. Kate Stewart and UNIT make a welcome return, including a brilliant reference to Brigadier Letherbridge-Stewart. Joanna Page plays a wonderful and feisty Elizabeth I, whose love shown in the special does underpin why she later came to hate the Doctor by the time of The Shakespeare Code after he abandoned her. Ingrid Oliver’s Osgood serves as a lovable nerdy Doctor fan girl with a better-looking sister (after her and Malcolm, I think there are quite a few in UNIT these days) – “nice scarf” and all – but she also gets quite a bit to do and does not let her “defect” keep her down.
On the technical front, the episode is well-shot, excellently paced, and the music used (though unfortunately involving nothing new from Murray Gold) was excellent. So the episode is obviously a labour of love for fans of Doctor Who, but is also, amazingly, a good episode in its own right.
The 50th Core of the Episode
More importantly, the special also manages to go in deep into the question of just who the Doctor is. The War Doctor is made to realise what the core of the Doctor is by seeing his future incarnations doing what they do best: “never cruel of cowardly … never give up, never give in” to hopeless destiny. The end of the Time War proves the perfect test for this promise, with its end demanding the sacrifice of innocents for the greater good. In the end, being the Doctor, neither warrior nor hero, he manages to find his own way. That is what the Doctor is, what his promise is, to seek another solution to make people better, where it seems most impossible. Much like the different screwdrivers running on the same programming, this promise is what remains constant in all the Doctor’s incarnations (thanks for the analogy, Moffat!). As the War Doctor muses, when he fails, at least he fails to the right thing rather than succeed at doing the wrong. If that doesn’t perfectly encapsulate Doctor Who these past 50 years, I don’t know what does or will.
On the other hand, the series’s lore is, of course, expanded further in a major way by changing our knowledge of the War Doctor and the Time War. Some may feel as if the change to the conclusion of the Time War may have ret-conned the pathos out of his run’s Doctors, but I have to respectfully disagree (and I’m not alone). By having the past Doctors forget what transpired during the special – which such multi-Doctor specials usually have happen – the destruction of Gallifrey and the death of their race remain an emotional reality; they will have “have to live with that”. Much like The Impossible Astronaut and The Wedding of River Song, the salvation of Gallifrey was always fact; it’s just that the Doctor didn’t realise it until he had to ensure it. Moreover, it was the guilt around having killed so many which hardened to Doctor’s resolve to find an alternative in the first place.
While the inclusion of the War Doctor was made to compensate for Christopher Eccleston’s refusal to return to Doctor Who, the most is definitely made of it. The reason the War Doctor was never mentioned before is made palatable by the utter disgust and dread with which the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors look at him until they come to understand him again. To hammer the point home, we see their reactions to the poignant casualty of Gallifreyan children; the Tenth remembers the number, while the Eleventh has moved on and would rather forget. In reaction, the War Doctor himself would initially prefer to die rather than become “the one who regrets” and then “the one who forgets”. Seeing them together, it becomes apparent just how much the Time War has clearly scarred these aspects of the same man, so it’s understandable that he comes to detest and disown his involvement with it. At the same time, seeing these particular versions of himself helps the War Doctor be shown “exactly the future [he] needed to see” in order to come up with his solution. In a way, the Ninth Doctor would probably not have helped much due to his proximity to the events at hand and his intense feelings about them. In one of the touching moments of the special, the War Doctor is finally given his due and realises that he is indeed a Doctor after all, even if for the last moments of his life; the tragedy is that he will be shunned by future Doctors because he can’t remember the truth.
Nods to the Classics
The opening reproduces that of the first ever Doctor Who episode, An Unearthly Child and segues to a policeman walking past an ‘IM Foreman’ sign. Also harking back to the episode is Clara working at Coal Hill Secondary School, where Ian Chesterton is now listed as being on the board of directors.
Later, a board in the Black Archive has the photographs of all known companions of the Doctor. In one moment, we have Clara looking at one of Susan, which was a great nod to the show’s history by bringing together the first and latest companions.
And, needless to say, we also have the appearance of all incarnations of the Doctors to save Gallifrey, and even and appearance by the thirteenth incarnation! Thankfully even the Ninth Doctor got a little bit extra screen time too. It’s ultimately a bit of fan service, but it was still a nice turn of events to witness nonetheless.
Finally, that last appearance by Tom Baker was just such a wonderful treat. The online Doctor Who fandom was quite adamant in wanting the surviving classic Doctor Who actors appear. Of course, while I completely understand this desire, they are too old nowadays to have this done to great effect. On the other hand, having them appear as cameos would be somewhat disruptive story-wise; who wouldn’t notice older Doctor look-alikes? Firstly, the older actors and several Doctor Who crew – both past and present – did band together to bring us the brilliantly funny The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot. Secondly, I give so much extra credit to Moffat for managing to appease both sides of the fandom by having Tom Baker appear in the actual special as a hinted future form of the Doctor who can re-use his old faces too. Needless to say, I really look forward to finding out how the possibilities opened with this appearance will play out. If it’s never touched upon again, it will remain an amazing nod to the classics and a little bit of mystery that the series doesn’t need to resolve. The Guardian recap nails the sentiment best: “And that beautiful and suggestive moment from Tom Baker at the end is probably all the more powerful for leaving a question mark. The road to hell lies in trying to figure out where that fits in with canon. That sort of analysis sucks the romance from the room. I think the best way to think about that is not to think about it at all and just drink it in. Sometimes, magic just happens.”
Just in case I missed anything, take a look here for a list of Easter eggs.
Another thing Moffat promised was that a new direction would be given to the show. In this respect he definitely delivers. As narrated by the Doctor himself in the final dream sequence scene, his journey will now change from running away from Gallifrey to returning home.
Well done Moffat and the BBC crew for giving us a worthy celebration of the show’s 50 years by reminding us who the Doctor is meant to be and giving us so much to look forward to! Happy Birthday Doctor Who!
As much as I’ll miss Matt Smith, I’m sure we’ll see him again in future (the 100th Anniversary for sure), so I say bring on the Christmas special!
- Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor (Review) (them0vieblog.com)
- The Day of the Doctor Review (ladygeekgirl.wordpress.com)
- Doctor Who: “The Day of the Doctor” Review – IGN (ign.com)
- Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor Review (denofgeek.com)
- This is the Moment. Doctor Who: “The Day of the Doctor” (tor.com)
- “The Man Who Regrets and The Man Who Forgets”: ‘The Day of the Doctor’ Review (ravingsanity)
- Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor (Review) (them0vieblog.com)
- “The Doctor” Trilogy: Breaking the Rules (doctorwhotv.co.uk)
- ‘Doctor Who’: 10 Things You May Not Know About ‘The Day of the Doctor’ (bbcamerica.com)