Writing an anniversary special is something of a poison chalice at the best of times. Writing a 50th Anniversary special for a show that has to appeal to all ages in prime time and has a rabid fan base who have memorised every detail of the shows inconsistent continuity and will pick it to death is and all of those people expect references to their memories of the show…. Well Moffat was the script writer on the day it wasn’t possible to get it right really wasn’t he?
No, The Day of the Doctor is not the perfect Doctor Who episode. It can’t be, because it has too many roles to fill. But that said, it does a lot of things right.
So let’s just get the weaknesses out of the way at the beginning.
- The Zygon plot is pretty much by the numbers for modern Who and it doesn’t get what you’d call a satisfactory resolution.
- This is a giant honking retcon. If you care about such things.
- OCD fans are going to be foaming at the mouth about numbers
- There are a good number of big ideas that are thrown out there without explanation or follow through.
- The Time War remains largely unseen and while what we do see is an epic battle, it also lacks any actual… you know.. time elements.
All of the above is true and lets be honest somewhat typical of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who in general. The show was in fact packed with Moffatisms both good and bad. ALthough the longer running time does help to alleviate the over-compression that I’ve felt about recent episodes
Unlike previous multi-Doctor stories, time travel was actually central to the story-telling here and threaded throughout. There are mirror constructs throughout the story as well. Moffat knows his story structure. The story is also meta-commentary on the show itself, another thing that Moffat is fond of.
It’s All About Matt Smith
This is an 11th Doctor story (no I’m not wasting my time on the stupid numbering debate and neither should you) and it follows the emotional beats of Matt Smith’s Doctor as we’ve been exploring them since his arrival.
Other Doctors are present, but it’s made very obvious that this story changes nothing for them. It does however change the current Doctor’s perspective.
By introducing The Curator at the end Moffat both signals a new theme/direction to pursue in future seasons and also (don’t forget the meta) winks to the audience and says.. but guess which actor won’t be there to see it through.
Mirror Structures Everywhere
Right from the beginning we have references and mirror structures. The opening sequence directly copies that of the very first episode. Then Smith hanging from the TARDIS mirrors his first episode The Eleventh Hour.
But that’s just the start of it.
We learn about the Omega Arsenal. And just how bloody were the Ancients of Gallifrey anyway? Later on we learn about UNIT’s Black Archive. Similar anyone? It could also be seen as a direct replacement to the defunct Torchwood.
The structural mirroring goes beyond that though because we get The Moment from the Omega Arsenal and we discover there’s a nuke under The Black Archive. The parallels are obviously not accidental. This is a direct mirror to the Doctor’s intention to destroy Gallifrey. Murdering millions to save billions as Kate Lethbridge-Stewart puts it. But as Tennant responds:
"This is not a decision you will ever be able to live with."
"What I did that day was wrong. Just wrong."
There has to be a better way right? After all. This is Doctor Who. There’s always a better way. It’s a central tenet of the show.
And of course there is. In fact the final solution is another bit of structural mirroring being the exact method they used with the Sonic Screwdriver earlier on.
Nicely done Mr. Moffat.
Meta... Meta... Meta...
Being a Doctor Who anniversary special you have to address the fans directly and The Day of the Doctor does that in spades. In fact there are so many little references I can’t even attempt to catch them all.
-The clock near the beginning that showed the exact time the first episode of Doctor Who was broadcast
- Ian Chesterton as school governor
- Tennant not liking the changes to the TARDIS
- Osgood and her scarf (two for one)
- The way when menaced by Zygons people press themselves back into a corner
But there are much bigger meta-discussion and structures at play here. The direct reference to The Three Doctors is not accidental as this episode is clearly partially patterned against that. Certainly far more so than The Five Doctors.
Here John Hurt (fabulous in the part incidentally) taking a similar role to William Hartnell as the crotchety old man while Matt Smith is clearly The Clown (Patrick Troughton) and yes David Tennant is The Dandy notice how they played up his tendency to woo the ladies? Hurt even gets a Hartnell line near the end when he regenerates.
Hurt serves another purpose here as well. A purely meta one. He acts as an old-school Doctor and directly lobs some of the criticisms that long-time fans have had of nu-Who:
"Am I having a mid-life crisis?"
"They're screwdrivers. What are you going to do? Assemble a cabinet at them?"
"Timey what? Timey Wimey?"
"Are you capable of speaking without flapping your hands about?"
"Is there a lot of this in the future?" - Referencing Tennant kissing Queen Elizabeth.
"Oh for gods sake! Gallifrey stands" - Referencing Allons-y and Geronimo.
But he also serves as notice that…. it’s changed okay. Nu-Who is not the same as old Who. But that doesn’t make it worse. Throughout the episode he is the odd one out. In several places Tennant and Smith’s Doctor’s are showing working in unison. Clearly parts of the same whole. Hurt stands apart. A different era. Someone whose experiences have shaped him very differently.
And yet in the end he respects the newer Doctors:
"How many worlds has his regret saved to you think?"
"Then all things considered. Time I grew up."
Yes thats directly referencing the on-going plot but it’s also talking about how the show has changed. In the old days the Doctor did save people. But it was almost by accident. He stumbled into situations and did the best he could. With perhaps the exception of Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor he wasn’t trying to save the world.
What would modern Doctor Who be without the witty banter hmm? Well we got that in spades and here I think Tennant got some of the best material:
"It's a machine that goes ding"
"You are basically just a rabbit aren't you?"
"We're confusing the polarity!"
"The round things! I love the round things! What are the round things?"
I also, incidentally love and miss the roundels. They’ll come back eventually.
We also discovered that when you put the cleverest person in the room in the room three times over they all miss the obvious solution. The door isn't locked.
Who Is The Doctor
If you were to ask me what this episode was really about, I would say it was an exploration of what it means to be The Doctor.
While fans are busy wasting their time arguing over whether we call him 8.5 or 9 or Theta Sigma they are sadly missing the far bigger points that were being made. Bad Wolf Rose’s dialogue hits the nail on the head when talking about the arrival of the TARDIS:
"That sound brings hope to anyone who hears it. Anyone Doctor. Even you."
What is the Doctor? According to this episode he’s a promise:
Never cruel or cowardly
Never give up. Never give in.
But above all he is the bringer of hope. He makes things better. And there was one point in his history when he himself had no hope. And the only person who could bring him that hope… was himself.
"You were the Doctor on the day it wasn't possible to get it right."
"You don't have to do it alone."
"Either I destroy my own people or let the Universe burn."
Physician heal thyself.
Yes it’s a retcon. It’s a giant stinking retcon. But Doctor Who doesn’t have continuity. It never did. That’s a fan construct. It’s ever changing ever evolving. And while the battle damaged Doctor made an easy entry point for new fans and gave depth to the character for those who didn’t already know his whole history… Well the behavior it really never did sit well with the Doctor’s core character did it?
Stop Sweating The Small Stuff
Fans have a tendency to fixate on the small and largely unimportant details. LIke the correct number of Doctors and the regeneration limit. In this episode Moffat basically tells us to stop wasting our energy. It will all get squared away.
First we have the thirteenth incarnation of the man who calls himself The Doctor showing up. And at no point do they feel the need to actually assign numbers to themselves. Then we have what it’s strongly hinted is a future incarnation re-using a favorite face put in an appearance basically telling us the regeneration limit is no big thing.
"In years to come you might find yourself revisiting a few. But just the old favorites eh?"
Moffat also has Smith explicitly say both that he doesn’t remember how old he is and that he might be lying. So can we stop worrying about exactly what age he is at various stages? It doesn’t matter.
A Few More Thoughts
I really wish we’d had this version of Rose in the Tennant era. She was so much more appealing than the character we actually got.
John Hurt is wonderful as an older and war weary Doctor. As much as I love Paul McGann his Doctor couldn’t have pulled that off. And no… neither could Eccleston’s.
Speaking of which.. really Chris? You couldn’t have come back to give us the 1 minute of footage we needed for a proper regeneration?
The Doctor Is Going Home…. Eventually
So let’s wrap this up in a bow. We get a big celebration of what came before. A re-tuning of where we are going next. Oh and lots of fun along the way.
No it’s not a perfect story, but I don’t think you could make an anniversary special that got any closer.