Does it sound too gushy to say writing this one was a real privilege? I’m sure it does. But it was, I felt lucky to do it. And the for the first time, the decision was also made to cover one of the attendant web-only mini-episodes.
From DWM #468…
“And the world is watching,” said the chap in the BBC1 continuity booth before pressing the big red button for Doctor Who. On the occasion of his 50th birthday, with an episode screening simultaneously in 94 countries across six continents, the Time Lord had succeeded in accomplishing something so many of his foes never could. Global domination!
The Day of the Doctor is the biggest, most explosive, most ambitious sortie the programme has ever launched. Even though Steven Moffat had been adamant this story mustn’t feel like an exercise in digging up the past, by the end of the 75 minutes it had claimed a whole host of territories from the last half-century. Many of us surrendered at the first shot, with the wholly unexpected and beautiful inclusion of the original title sequence. But still it rolled on, annexing Doctor Who’s purple patch from the 1970s (Tom! Oh, Tom!), planting flags in its pivotal TV return from 2005 and even reconnoitring the near-future of 2014 (Peter Capaldi is the Doctor!).
When the – yes, it’s now official – 12 incarnations gazed out upon us at the adventure’s end, it was like the generals of an occupying force trooping onto the balcony. Doctor Who has us in its power, more so now than ever.
I loved The Day of the Doctor, even though, my overriding emotion as 7.50pm GMT tick-tocked closer was fear. Stupid, isn’t it? But it’s a testament to how much this programme means to me. On the occasion of its golden jubilee, with the world watching, this was to be its most important statement. Luckily Moffat proved to be the right man to steer the programme through the maelstrom. Unlike me, unlike almost everyone who also holds Doctor Who dear, come the moment he was fearless. Fearless enough, in fact, to profoundly rewrite the programme’s history, forever complicating how we will number the different incarnations of the character (looking forward to seeing the revised DWM writer’s guidelines) and nullifying the show’s biggest idea since it returned to TV – Gallifrey falls no more.
As a result, this was an adventure that recognised the series’ magnificent history – and our secret hopes for a bundle of nostalgic kicks – but converted all that into pure energy. A story that gives Doctor Who a fresh momentum as it journeys on into middle age.
Complicated but cogent, reverential and irreverent, the movie-sized production gave us every dimension of Doctor Who… albeit anchored in the series’ modern history. Granted, we began in black and white at Coal Hill School, but Moffat is savvy enough to realise that for millions of viewers, the mythology really starts in 2005, and as a result, most of the action is set below stairs during David Tennant’s 2009-10 swansong The End of Time. True, the absence of Christopher Eccleston does misshape something that otherwise would have felt like a tidy summation of the last eight years, but the script – and Moffat’s scripts never take the form we expect – turns this into an advantage. John Hurt’s War Doctor is thus allowed to take on a slightly different status to a returning incarnation. His version is a Doctor who bridges what we’ll begrudgingly call the ‘classic’ series and the new. He is the voice of the first eight, making tart remarks about the decisions taken when reinventing the programme for the 21st century. There are numerous, lovely bits – his assumption that his successors are the companions, his grumping about the way they “talk like children” and his contained fan-rage regarding the amount of kissing in the show nowadays. “Is there a lot of this in the future?” he asks. “It does start to happen,” confesses the version we’re still going to call the Eleventh.
But is John Hurt the Doctor? Well, yes, that’s no longer up for debate, even though my anticipation was his story, and his existence, would be packed up into a box at the end of the adventure and put away forever. As it happened, that box was his very own TARDIS (roundels!) whereupon he regenerated into the man who would then set his coordinates for BBC1 on the evening of 26 March 2005, time-locking this whole sequence.
However, I ask again: Is John Hurt the Doctor? For me, maybe not. That might simply be my own weird resistance to this Johnny-come-lately, or perhaps one could argue that until his final moments, he actually wasn’t the Doctor at all. It’s only when redemption arrives that Hurt seems to find the levity, the slight silliness that truly lies at the character’s hearts. This, perhaps, is as close to an ‘origin’ story as the time traveller could and should ever get. And one that can only really be told on this special day.
Someone else, however, who resolutely is the Doctor is David Tennant. It’s a great testament to him, to how present he seems in the role, that as we drift from Matt Smith’s version to his own who’s arsing about with Elizabeth I in that meadow, very little recalibration is required. It just feels like Doctor Who; extra scenes from days gone by, with our leading man still greedy for the role and still loving it. Likewise when Murray Gold’s score strikes up a few old favourites (‘Flavia’s Theme’, as Russell T Davies would have it), this is all of a piece. Well, not quite. Moffat being Moffat, there is a little bit of nose-thumbing at some of the Tenth Doctor’s past hero moments. His “I’m the Doctor, I’m 904 years old…” speech deflatingly delivered to a rabbit is one such example. The incredibly shoehorned “I don’t want to go” gag another. All the better for it. Doctor Who must never hold itself in high regard.
When Tennant and Smith do meet – something that, thankfully, the story gets to reasonably quickly – their relationship is… well, it’s very sweet. They’re like brothers, chiding each other affectionately about the chin or the sandshoes, but in truth thrilled to be together. The instant when they both express delight at the other’s reading glasses (“Ooo, lovely!”) is adorable. These two incarnations are arguably the most similar the Doctor has ever adopted, and yet when we’re able to compare and contrast, it’s clear there are fundamental differences. Eleven is flappier and sillier. Ten is more buccaneering, but nervier. He is also the conscience. Both, however, are on the back foot when they interact with Hurt’s version, whose old school gravitas positions him as the William Hartnell in this three Doctors jamboree.
Into this mix, I believe it was right not to have Billie Piper reprise her role as Rose. No disrespect to those who’ve arrived since – and specifically not the excellent Jenna Coleman – but because she was there at the Second Coming, there’s something talismanic about Rose Tyler. She has a gravitational pull that rivals the Doctor’s own, and the response to her by both the late-period (at a guess) Tenth incarnation and the Eleventh would have knocked the story badly off course. Better to invoke her as an icon rather than a person.
Past multi-Doctor stories have, cliché tells us, under-delivered on plot. That doesn’t seem the case with The Day of the Doctor, which comes replete with the kind of turns and revisions we expect from Moffat. And preoccupations. Duplicates are a running theme of his stint so far in Doctor Who, although this time out we can forgive him in that it facilitates the Zygons’ long overdue comeback. Their reinvention is mostly faithful to the design classic of 1975, maybe a little less gelatinous than before, but the horrible drooling, the gruesome shape-changing sequence with Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, and director Nick Hurran’s sharp, atonal cutting between shots of their fanged mouths ensures their status remains as one of the scariest ever to stalk our hero.
In addition, this tale also features another of Moffat’s fixations. And it’s an odd one. A mild obsession with covert subterranean collections that house galaxy-shaking gizmos. They come in triplicate here, from the Under Gallery to the Omega Arsenal to the Black Archive. All plot contrivances? Maybe now in in the sober light of day… when I’m trying to think of things to say. But in the sweep of the story, I didn’t dwell on it. I was more taken with the sight of a pair of ruby shoes among UNIT’s assortment of trinkets. River Song’s? Or, more romantically, maybe Dorothy’s from The Wizard of Oz, because there’s no place like home.
For the first few years of Doctor Who, our hero was a runaway. For the first few years of new Doctor Who, he was an orphan. But now, thanks to be the biggest and boldest revision since the Time War, the Doctor has something he considers a home beyond the TARDIS. Personally I applaud the decision to repeal the idea that the Doctor one day committed genocide upon his own people, because I don’t think my Doctor would ever have done such a thing. While I’m cautious about the idea of the Time Lord being given a quest – which is something that smacks of one of the mooted, but never booted, US versions of the show during the 1990s – I’m thrilled that after all these years, his story can still change.
The Day of the Doctor has been a fearless campaign. It marches on, knowing exactly what Doctor Who is, thanks to the words of Terrence Dicks, quoted here as a vow: “Never cruel or cowardly”. There’s confidence. Well-placed confidence. Enough to challenge its leading man by putting him in a room with Tom Baker. That voice! The camera, remaining fixed on the back of his head knowing we’re desperate to see him again. Tom! And when we finally do, there he is. The Doctor! Now so old, but still so magically our hero, and so magically Tom Baker, shushing and rubbing his nose and being inventive and silly. But Matt Smith isn’t diminished by comparison. Both he and Doctor Who have enough stature to measure up to anything. Even memories of times gone by.
The last 50 years of adventures have all been leading to this – the days still to come. Doctor, the world is watching…
The Night of the Doctor
Reviewed by Graham Kibble-White
Doctor Who mini-episodes or prequels or whatever you want to call them haven’t been the business of The DWM Review before. Only because one has to invoke a sanity clause from time to time – it would be impractical to cover everything. This one, however? Sanity clause be damned, it’s so gloriously mad it demands a few words.
Slipped onto the internet one Thursday lunchtime, it’s like a police box in the Louvre. Since it has no call to be here, the art lies in the fact that it is here. Because really and truly, there was no need to bring back Paul McGann (or the Sisterhood of Karn, actually), other than to please us die-hards. Which it did. Lots.
That McGann was so effortlessly the Doctor – his Doctor – confirms what Philip Segal and Big Finish have always known. What Steven Moffat, actually, has always known: McGann gets it. His is one of the best Doctors we (mostly) never had. Why else would Moffat gift him with such a showstopper of an opening line – “I’m a doctor, but probably not the one you were expecting” – a line that, doubtlessly, immediately found its way onto a million unlicensed t-shirts.
Not only is this run-out for the Eighth a treat, it’s also a righting of wrongs, finally finishing the story that began in 1996 and connecting up the most disparate bits of Doctor Who into the bargain. From Sylvester to Paul and now to John. It’s like filling a gap in our DVD collection. More than that, its pulls on other strings, with its hello to “Charley, C’rizz, Lucie, Tamsin, Molly…” drawing in the whole world of audio adventures that have done so much to keep the flame alight. Today, Big Finish, Doctor Who anointed you as canon.
And on the occasion of his big birthday, the Time Lord – because he’s kind and he’s surprising – decided to give us, his most faithful friends, a gift. He needn’t have. But how wonderful that he did.