Stephen Moffat has managed the impossible: a fiftieth anniversary special that lives up to the hype.
This episode had a huge weight of expectation upon it. This was the main event in a week full of celebrations. The fans, the press, the normal folk – everyone was expecting something amazing. Even people who normally wouldn't watch Doctor Who were tuning in. It had to be fantastic, and it was.
Creating a special that lives up to such hype, and to fifty years of backstory, is no small ask. In fact, it's nigh on impossible. Already, fans were complaining because only the modern series was being represented, with only the tenth Doctor returning for the big event. They were absolutely wrong, though. For a start, it would be impossible to have every Doctor involved directly, running around and getting in on the adventure. Three of them are dead, most of the rest are significantly older than they were when they played the part, and Christopher Eccleston said no. Yet, Moffat manages to create a story that more-or-less holds together, wraps up the last eight years of the series, and celebrates the series right back to its beginnings in 1963. From the opening moments, paying homage to the opening of An Unearthly Child, The Day of the Doctor recognises the debt it owes to that early production team and their remarkable creation.
However, there will be many millions of kids watching across the globe (Across the globe! Simultaneously broadcast in ninety-four countries!) who know the series in its new form. Naturally, then, the special focusses on the last eight years of developments, and there's only one place that can go: the Time War. I never imagined we'd see as much of the Time War as we have now, and while it would be beyond the scope of the BBC to show all of time and space burning, what we do get is a terrifying look at Gallifrey invaded by the Daleks. Appropriately for an episode that is also being shown in cinemas across the world, the flashbacks to the last day of the War are truly cinematic. What's more, we see Gallifreyans – not Time Lords, but ordinary Gallifreyan people. It's not often we think of Time Lords as having children, but that's what we see here, and what the Doctor has spent centuries dwelling on.
It's a shame that Eccleston declined to be involved, though not a surprise. However, had he said yes, we wouldn't have got his newly revealed predecessor. John Hurt is playing the Doctor. There is no bad here. A genuinely legendary actor, a man of astonishing talent, guest starring in our little show. And my word, he is fantastic. As Moffat said in interviews, the ideal event would be to have William Hartnell to come back and meet his young replacements, but since this is impossible, we get something perhaps even better. A brand new incarnation of the Doctor, representing not only the Time War, but the old guard. Hurt stands in for all the old men who once led this series, passing judgment on his sprightly successors. While we expected a dour, dangerous warrior incarnation – and we do get that, especially in that awesome moment when he batters a squad of Daleks with his own TARDIS – Hurt's Doctor is far more than that. Still recognisably the Doctor, he has a charm and a twinkle that makes him incredibly likeable. It takes the edge off his impressive gravitas.
David Tennant is as good as ever. He's still got the cheeky charm and the energy, but being slightly older, he can handle the darker scenes better than ever. He and Matt Smith are brilliantly matched. It's like two brothers, a little jealous of each other, driven by competition, but full of love for one another. They're fantastic together. Tennant's Doctor gets the piss ripped out of him, which is gratifying, the smug sod - “You can talk, Dick van Dyke!” but Smith doesn't go unscathed. The tower scene is perhaps the most effective in the episode; a modern Three Doctors, with the elder statesman playing dad to his squabbling successors. However, this plays up the wonderfully peculiar idea of having younger men playing older versions of the elderly character. Add in a little “timey-wimey” cleverness and some genuinely funny dialogue, and this a scene to cherish.
Only slightly less inevitable than Tennant returning is Billie Piper. We always expecting to see her again (and again, and again), but to his credit, Moffat avoids the obvious and doesn't bring her back as Rose. In fact, she doesn't interact with Tennant on screen once, which is a strange decision, but not once is this missed. Having Piper play the Moment (as Rose, as the Bad Wolf) is a lovely touch. Sadly, she's not terribly good, and lacks chemistry with Hurt. Piper's a surprising weak link in some otherwise excellent scenes. However, there are plenty of astonishingly good performances on offer here, so many that it would be difficult to go into them all. Perhaps best is a very dignified performance by Jemma Redgrave as Kate Stewart, but also worth praise are Ingrid Oliver as Osgood, Ken Bones as the Gallifreyan General, Peter de Jersey as Lord Androgar, and Joanna Page as Queen Elizabeth I.
However, fezzes off please, everyone, for Matt Smith. What a beautiful performance he gives in this episode, just the right balance of humour and sadness, holding his own against two other Doctors played by well-loved actors. The last run of episodes gave him too few opportunities to show what he is really capable of. It's hard to escape the feeling that this is an actor who has yet to show us his best. He's going to go far, this one.
There are a couple of elements that let the episode down. The Zygons are brilliantly realised, but their plot is left dangling, with the, admittedly very clever, negotiation between them and UNIT left unresolved. Perhaps we'll find out the resolution in a future episode; after all, it's unlikely we've seen the last of those costumes. (As an aside, it's great that David Tennant got to face the Zygons – they are, after all, his favourite monsters.) Jenna Coleman is excellent as Clara, sharing some real chemistry with Smith and putting in a sparkling performance, but the character never really comes into her own, a consequence, perhaps, of having three Doctors and a whole host of supporting characters to deal with. And, while it's not really the fault of this episode, there is no explanation of how she and the Doctor escaped the Doctor's time stream in the previous episode, which irritates. The events are referenced, but a line to satisfy our curiosity would have been appreciated.
Still, these are quibbles. The frenetic plot culminates in the most joyful climax, the final fifteen minutes of the episode given over to the Doctor's triumph. It's a ballsy move, totally rewriting the backstory of the series since its revival. The Doctor rewrites his own history, saving Gallifrey from destruction and hiding it away somewhere in space and time. And with such style! This is where it all comes together, with all the Doctors storming to the rescue. With footage of all eight classic Doctors, and a specially highlighted clip of Eccleston (taken from The Parting of the Ways), all fifty years of the series are celebrated together in this triumphant moment. “All twelve of him!” snarls the General, and then, oh yes, that brief thrilling cameo. “No sir, all thirteen!” Just a glimpse of Peter Capaldi's eyes, full of fire, and we have the complete baker's dozen in one wonderful scene. What a gift.
Finally, once Tennant and Hurt have said their goodbyes, and all (well, most) of the plot has been resolved, we get an extra, unexpected treat. Tom Baker, the elder statesman, the earliest surviving Doctor, returns for a few beautiful minutes. As mad and as magnetic as ever, he shares a touching scene with Matt Smith, bridging the generations. Just wonderful.
And thus onto that final, symbolic scene, Smith's Doctor standing proud with his eleven predecessors, looking out over the universe, the Rendered perfectly, it's a wonderful image to end on. Gallifrey is saved, and so is the Doctor's soul. Now, he has a new mission. In a complete reversal of the original set-up of the series, which had him on the run from his own people, the Doctor is now on a quest to find them. But first, Trenzalore awaits...
The eleventh Doctor: He's still claiming to be 1200 year old, but also says that he's so old that he can't remember if he's lying about his age. While we're still calling him the eleventh Doctor, we now know that he is, in fact, the twelfth incarnation. He's begun to move on from the events of the War, and is now more concerned about his fate at Trenzalore.
The tenth Doctor: Says he's 904, and is travelling alone, which I think puts this after he loses Donna at the end of series four. He referred to his affair with Elizabeth I in The End of Time, in which he is 906, suggesting it took place after his call to the Ood-Sphere in The Waters of Mars. It's likely, then, that this happens shortly into his side-trip. He still thinks he has amazing hair. He makes a twat of himself by threatening a rabbit.
The War Doctor: As we saw in The Night of the Doctor, John Hurt's Doctor is in fact the ninth incarnation, and regenerates into Eccleston's “ninth Doctor.” He is four hundred years younger than the eleventh Doctor, so is about 800 (and no, none of this fits with the Doctor's age in the original series).
The first Doctor: Surprisingly gets some lines we've never heard before, addressing the War Council of Gallifrey. These are apparently the work of John Guilor, who is credited simply as “voice-over artist.”
The Curator: It's not 100% clear, but Tom Baker's character is heavily implied to be a future incarnation of the Doctor, reusing a favourite face and now retired to become Curator of the gallery, as appointed by Elizabeth I. So the Doctor should be OK for a few more regenerations yet.
Monster, Monster, Monster: The Zygons are back, making their first appearance since their debut thirty-eight years ago. They always seemed like a monster that should have returned, and have done numerous times in the expanded universe material, but this is their first time back on TV. They are a brilliantly recreated here, faithful to their original design but improved with modern techniques. The transformation from the fake Kate Stewart to the true Zygon form is wonderfully revolting.
Links and references: Too many to list them all, and no doubt plenty I haven't spotted, but here goes:
The opening with the policeman and the sign for I.M. Foreman's yard is a homage to the opening of An Unearthly Child.
Clara is now teaching at Coal Hill School, seen in An Unearthly Child and Remembrance of the Daleks. Ian Chesterton is now governor, and the headmaster is a T. Coburn – a reference to Anthony Coburn, writer of AUC.
The Daleks come out with their classic line from The Chase: “Seek Locate Destroy!”
On Gallifrey the High Council are in an emergency session – leading to Rassilon's plot as seen in The End of Time. Androgar states that they've failed – presumably due to the tenth Doctor's actions I that story.
In another reference to his final story, the tenth Doctor says “I don't want to go.” (In the words of my friend Candi – oh, the feels!)
Fake Kate requests info on a file codenamed “Cromer,” detailing the events of The Three Doctors. (“I'm fairly sure that's Cromer.”) Cheekily, it's said to be under either the seventies or eighties depending on the “dating policy.”
Dialogue references to The Three Doctors include "you've redecorated - I don't like it," and "I didn't know when I was well off."
The Black Archive was first featured in The Enemy of the Bane on The Sarah Jane Adventures. It has photos of everyone who has travelled with the Doctor on TV. Interestingly, it appears to show Sara Kingdom standing with Mike Yates.
It also contains Captain Jack's vortex manipulator. The activation code is 1716231163, the exact time and date of the initial transmission of An Unearthly Child.
The time rifts that allow the Doctors to interact look rather like the “ice cream cone” version of the time scoop that was used in the remastered version of The Five Doctors.
Kate refers to Malcolm, presumably the scientific advisor played by Lee Evans in the 2009 episode Planet of the Dead.
Miss Osgood's name might be a reference to Sgt Osgood, a UNIT soldier who appeared in The Daemons.
Hanky Panky in the TARDIS: What Doc Oho refers to as “the shallow bit.”
David Tennant is still terribly handsome, and he's hardly showing the extra three years (which is more than can be said for Billie Piper, who seems to be showing about ten). The tenth Doctor marries Elizabeth I, which he says means he is “going to be king.” But he won't be, he'll be Prince Consort.
Jemma Redgrave is my current older woman crush. Jenna Coleman remains stunning. And anyone who thinks that Ingrid Oliver (Osgood) isn't pretty needs their eyes checked.
Once, you had to buy the DVD to get extras. Not anymore. While I didn't see this in the cinema (this being an almost religious experience for me, I chose to do it at home, with drinks), I am reliably informed by my co-conspirators that it is suitably impressive in 3D, and that there were two extra intro scenes regarding cinema etiquette and the use of 3D glasses, from Strax and the Doctors respectively.
A making of documentary was also screened, along with a live afterparty show, plus numerous extras throughout the day, including a Blue Peter special. The best elements are to be found online though. There are two prequel mini-episodes. The Night of the Doctor, a wonderful gift to the fans, bridging the gap between the old series and the new, bringing back Paul McGann for one day and regenerating him into John Hurt. Then there's The Last Day, not as exciting but still well done, showing us the first moments of the Fall of Arcadia (no revealed to be Gallifrey's second city). It's suitably grim, although considering the Time Lords are using plain sight techniques to spot Dalek incursions, it's no wonder they were losing.
Finally, and most enjoyably, is Peter Davison's half-hour extra-special anniversary production, The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, which simply has to be seen. Good sports everyone who took part; it's a real treat.
Ten: “That's not the Queen of England, that's an alien duplicate!”
Eleven: “And you can take it from him, because he's really checked.”
Elizabeth: “I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but at the time, so did the Zygon.”
Ten: “Never cruel, never cowardly.”
War Doctor: “Never give up, never give in.”