This article contains spoilers from the start.
When a surprise prequel episode starring 8th Doctor Paul McGann crash-landed, fans of Doctor Who could rejoice in a short that filled a huge gap in the show’s history. With a mature, battle-worn Doctor at the helm the 7 minute episode seemed to apologize for the show ever been taken off air and it is because of the tight, witty script that fans could hope for a satisfactory 50th anniversary episode and perhaps long for more from the 90-minute-Doctor commanded by McGann.
Steven Moffat’s last two series of the show, whilst entertaining, have descended into the ridiculous and were it not for a powerful 5th series we might have already questioned if the show had once again had its timey-wimey. Even series 7 cliff-hanger ‘The Name of the Doctor’ for all its scale and self-referencing seemed just that little bit too complicated and, as a result, that little bit unsavoury.
With perhaps one of the most difficult scripts in TV history to wrestle, Moffat has managed to strike the perfect balance with the hugely entertaining ‘The Day of the Doctor’. Delicately paying homage to 50 years of history, the writer and second star of New Who has boldly reminded fans what made them love the show in the first place with a tale of alien invasion that might just secure the next half-century.
The story finds Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith called into U.N.I.T. to investigate an escape at London’s National Gallery, something that calls back to his visit to Elizabethan England in a previous form. In the distant future, John Hurt’s War Doctor declares “no more” to the Time War that laid waste to the Universe and he must face his conscience, and that of the weapon he plans to use, before he commits the unthinkable. Pulled together by a universe threatening plot device (or something), the Three Doctors set out to save the Earth and later themselves.
Despite a clunky introduction – a product of the frantic way the past few series have been directed – the episode gathers pace quickly. The selves-deprecating play between the Three Doctors echoes not only the show’s past (“Ooh you’ve redecorated, I don’t like it” – a loving call back to Patrick Troughton) but propels the episode forward with mischievous humour.
From Smith’s boyish eccentricity, to Tennant’s laconic wrath, the interplay between the Doctors never once lets you doubt that they are all the same software, different casing. Moreover, John Hurt’s moral dilemma in which he must decide to destroy Gallifrey or not has been built up since the show regenerated and it is not the sacrilege that some fans have professed that Moffat has undone the Doctor’s darkest hour and made it one of his finest. Rose’s role in this, placed at epistemic distance from Ten, is dealt with supremely and Moffat has showed great restraint to not make this a cloying reunion. Even Ten’s final line in the episode, harking back to his last words before his emotional regeneration, is knowingly used by Moffat and remarkably creates the same effect.
Moffat also shows bravery by using the Zygons as the villains of the episode as the shape-shifters having only appeared once before in the series’ history. Yet the identity crisis that arises probes a depth in the story that compliments the multiple Doctors in its foreground. While their stratagem is reliably familiar and tied up somewhat too quickly, they serve their purpose well and it’s a bold move by Moffat to not dole out a generic extermination-filled adventure.
Background characters also compliment the episode nicely with Osgood an onscreen representation of every fan who has ever dared to look up from beyond their sofa. Adorned with a 4th Doctor scarf, she is the ‘science-y’ sweetheart of the story, something that Clara sadly isn’t. Whilst the Impossible Girl what-turned-out-to-actually-be-quite-possible does have the odd moment, she still doesn’t feel like a character beyond the tagline that accompanied her introduction. Watching her orbit around the surface story, it is as though we never really got to care about Laura Palmer at all.
Hurt, the War-Doctor, seems to have been written with the early Doctors in mind, an experienced man worn out when he meets his boyish younger selves. His ability to silence the two upstarts cements his place as acting royalty and the show must feel graced for his presence. It is also somewhat wonderful that in his short screen time here, he is still identifiably the Doctor, something again that affirms the identity of the Time Lord that creates the hypnotic mystery of the show.
A much later scene in the episode gives a wonderfully ambiguous cameo to Tom Baker, returning perhaps as the 4th Doctor, perhaps as another. It’s a gorgeous moment that launches the story into its next saga and one cryptic enough to sidestep any over-sentimentality.
The subsequent final shot of the episode, with Smith joining his previous incarnations in a postcard like catharsis, is the final bow to the audience and gives the past-Doctors their own rightful place in the 50th without the worry of complicating the story (some dodgy-photoshopping aside). An honourable mention here to a charming skit by 5th Doctor Peter Davison, created in tandem to the 50th, that sees the classic Doctors fight for inclusion into the episode.
What Moffatt does brilliantly throughout is present a narrative that reminds the audience why they love the show they are watching. In reaffirming the Doctor’s benevolent identity and creating a resonant moral dilemma that harks back to Tom Baker’s tough decision in ‘Genesis of the Daleks’, Moffat’s bold decision is to celebrate the show by giving it new depth and new direction. Yes there are moments that the logic seems thin, and there are the odd gripes that spill over from the main series, but as an embodiment of 50 years of a show’s history, and more importantly of a children’s show, this episode is not so much a regeneration as a rejuvenation.
To call the show Event-TV would probably be a well-worn trope, but having simulcast around the globe it is important to understand Doctor Who’s place at the forefront of science fiction television. From its simple origins in tinfoil, to the dazzling Hollywood-level special effects now, Doctor Who is here presented at its finest. Colourful, powerful, mischievous – the episode is a celebration of the past with a few crowd-pleasing eyebrow raises to the future. Gallifrey rises.