The problem with creating a 50th anniversary special for Doctor Who is finding a story that not only has space for all 13 incarnations of the titular character, but one that actually warrants multi-Doctor involvement. It’s not like the Doctor should be going around and dropping in on himself every other week for tea and scones.
In current Who lore, there’s pretty much only one thing big enough to justify the Doctor calling up his own selves as reinforcements. The Time War was a rather brilliant concept introduced by showrunner Russell T Davies in 2005 so that he could sweep away the clutter of too much complex backstory continuity and free the show up for its reboot for a brand new audience complete with a new, dark and angst-ridden central protagonist unlike any Doctor previously seen in the classic era. It did its job superbly – but also became such a huge part of the show’s mythos that it was impossible not to prod and poke it further over the years. Even though RTD’s successor Steven Moffat has been less inclined to utilise it since he took over, the spectre of the Time War has continued to loom over the show and the character with an ever-increasing weight. And that’s because there was an unforeseen problem.
Put simply: the Time War ended when the Doctor annihilated two whole civilisations. That’s bad enough, even if one of them is the Daleks; but when the Doctor is responsible for the genocide of his own people it leaves a stain on our supposedly heroic character that becomes increasingly untenable. The pivotal moment is when you frame the emotionally loaded but entirely warranted question, “How many children did you kill?” as indeed the 50th anniversary special does. Once asked it cannot be taken back, and you soon realise that this act cannot be allowed to stand. No matter how much you try and rationalise it or quarantine off the guilt of the heinous atrocity onto one disowned incarnation of the Doctor, no matter how much the Doctor suffers with the burden of his actions, it will never be enough: a Doctor who did this can no longer be our or anybody’s hero. And that is a big problem for the show.
But how to undo it? The Time War is a script device expressly fashioned to be both unavoidable and unalterable. It cannot be undone – that’s the point of it – and yet it must be. Where to find a solution to this, a workaround that doesn’t undermine the Doctor’s original decision to act as he did by suggesting there really was another way all along and he just didn’t think hard enough before pushing the button on two civilisations? What could conceivably have happened between then and now that could possibly make a difference and provide the answer? Nothing has changed in the series, except that time has moved on and we’re three Doctors further down the road; either one of these more recent Doctors has the answer … Or maybe it’s the fact that there are now a sufficient number of Doctors to achieve the impossible if working in concert where there weren’t before. And so, the multi-Doctor story is born, as much through story-led imperative as for the need for a fan-pleasing anniversary celebration.
Of course having 13 incarnations actually sharing screen time would be a nightmare cavalcade of confusion even if it were technically possible, so instead Moffat takes inspiration from the first multi-Doctor story (1972’s “The Three Doctors”) and limits the field to the two most recent versions (Matt Smith and David Tennant) who are watched over, guided, chided and hilariously mocked by a curmudgeonly older incarnation (John Hurt, introduced briefly at the end of season 7, and whom fans have since correctly surmised was the previously unknown version of the Doctor who actually “pushed the button” to end the Time War.) It turns out that Doctors Ten and Eleven don’t bicker as much as we expect them to – in fact they mainly get on riotously well, but then you’d rather assume that the Doctor’s biggest fan in the room will always be the Doctor himself. When there is discourse and argument between the pair it’s for very real dramatic purpose rather than just for comedic effect.
Smith proves a very generous actor and there’s no sense of his asserting his current ownership of the lead role. Tennant reappears first in his own little Elizabethan comedy romp which sees Moffat skilfully recreating the RTD era’s style, and within seconds it feels like Tennant has never been away – he’s still utterly perfect in the role and a joy to see him back. Perhaps even more startling is John Hurt’s success in creating his own distinctive, never-before-seen Doctor especially when you learn that he was cast very much at the last minute and then arrived on set direct from a previous job, with none of the months of preparation and deliberation that others who have played the Doctor have benefited from in fashioning their version of the character. Yet he too is immediately right and authentic alongside Tennant and Smith: I guess it’s that sort of ability that you know you’re getting when you’re hiring someone of Hurt’s calibre. The only thing I wonder is whether Hurt thinks this is just another one-off acting gig in a long and illustrious career, quickly moved on from? If he does then he might be in for a shock when he finds out like many before him just how, once an actor falls into the orbit of the show – and especially one who has actually been the Doctor – there is no escape from the force of gravity exerted by it. Welcome to the fan convention circuit, Mr Hurt – don’t bother looking for the way out, there isn’t one.
Sadly there’s no return of any beloved past companions, but it does mean that Clara’s (Jenna Coleman) position in the special edition is unassailed. She’s wonderful here, seemingly freed to be bright, confident and utterly delightful now that the “Impossible Girl” mystery has been thankfully put to bed. She actually intervenes at a crucial moment with just the right question at just the right time, in an instance of the way that “The Name of the Doctor” implied that her splintered self would need to intervene to save the Doctor time and again throughout his many lives, with a nudge here and a push there.
There is, however, the return of one more familiar face for the anniversary: Billie Piper turns up, but in a surprising role that is emphatically not Rose Tyler. Piper seizes the opportunity to do something new and unexpected with relish and is genuinely brilliant. So much more mature and advanced in her acting now, she’s completely compelling as she spends almost all her time on screen nose-to-nose with the legend that is John Hurt – and fully holding her own.
We have one more recent guest star returning to the show for the occasion, with Jemma Redgrave reprising her role as UNIT boss Kate Stewart from 2012’s “The Power of Three” and just as wonderful in her sophomore appearance as she was in her first. Somewhat less successful is her scientific advisor Osgood who feels like a thin re-write of Lee Evans’ character of Malcolm from the 2009 special “Planet of the Dead.” The part is played as well as it can be by Ingrid Oliver but the scarf is a clumsy and heavy-handed nod to the past and simply looks a little silly. Just about narrowly avoiding the same fate is Joanna Page’s Elizabeth I, which flirts dangerously (and knowingly) close to Miranda Richardson’s famous comedy portrayal of the character in Blackadder II but thankfully the writing just about keeps it on the right side of the line.
Speaking of the writing, the script for the 75-minute Who-fest is one of Steven Moffat’s best contributions to the series: while it’s stuffed full of the sort of non-linear, timey-wimey shenanigans that we’re getting just a little too used to these days for the show’s own good, it’s more disciplined in how these are used and for once they’re not employed to fry our brains into a state of agitated irritation by a show trying to be too clever for its own good. Instead, this is a story that pitches things just right on every level, and is meticulous to a fault in ensuring that everything that it going to be used in the plot later on is carefully established and put in play early on. The ending, for example, is no deus ex machina but is instead a large-scale example of the same plan that the three Doctors formulated to escape from the dungeon in the Tower of London – before Clara found a more obvious solution to the problem that had eluded the three geniuses.
There’s only two places where the plotting falters. Unfortunately the first is a rather big flaw in the anniversary jewel: the B-plot featuring the Kate Stewart, the Zygons and the Black Archive simply stops. It isn’t resolve, the Doctors just have pressing business elsewhere and duck out. Who knows what happens to the people left in a Zygon version of a Mexican stand-off? You could easily write your own ending to that story of course, but I’m not sure that you should have to just because the show got bored with one object and tossed it aside for the next shiny bauble that caught its fancy. It’s not a terrible or fatal oversight – the whole storyline was only ever really there to occupy the kids with some light-hearted running around while the serious stuff is going on elsewhere – but it’s still odd and irksome not to provide any sort of resolution at all. (I’m resisting the temptation of saying that we should just let Zygons be bygones in this case…)
The second place where the plot goes out of the window is in the final scene, when the Doctor meets the Curator. There is almost no way in which this scene can possibly make the slightest narrative sense with what’s going before it (either in this episode or in the whole of the 50 years of Doctor Who.) It’s pure writerly indulgence. And you know what? It’s utterly fantastic, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I wouldn’t rewrite it, not one line, merely in a vain attempt to have it make “sense.” Sense is overrated anyway, especially compared to the prospect of the couple of minutes of television magic that ensue as current Doctor Matt Smith comes face-to-face with the man who always will be the Doctor – the definite article, you might say. It’s a beautiful, historic moment to see Tom Baker return to the show for the first and only time since he left the role over thirty years ago, a moment I honestly thought would never happen and that I would never be around to see if it did. I’m so very glad that I was wrong.
It was the perfect way to cap what had been an immensely satisfying 50th anniversary special, one that had pulled out all the stops to deliver everything that millions of fans around the world had been hoping, yearning and praying for. If there were people still left dissatisfied by what they got on November 23 then I wonder, what more could possibly have sated them?
My thanks to everyone who made this 50th anniversary so very special. That’s not only Moffat, Smith, Tennant, Hurt and everyone who worked on “The Day of the Doctor” directly, but everyone who made it possible to reach this point: Eccleston, McGann, McCoy, Baker, Davison, Baker, Pertwee, Troughton and Hartnell as well as Sidney Newman, Verity Lambert, Waris Hussein, David Whittaker, Richard Martin, Douglas Camfield, Barry Letts, Terence Dicks, Philip Hinchcliffe, Robert Holmes, Douglas Adams, John Nathan-Turner, Anthony Coburn, William Russell, Jacqueline Hill, Carole Ann Ford … Oh, you know who you all are. I just hope that at long last the 50th celebrations have made it crystal clear to everyone just how wonderful a thing it was you have all helped create and how many lives it’s touched over the course of five decades.
But of course that’s just the start, so here’s to the next fifty. Doctor Who should always be looking ahead and can never be allowed to stand still, but rather must forever be moving on to the next adventure.
So keep on running, you clever boy. And remember.
Postscript: One criticism fans had had of the plans for the 50th anniversary was the exclusion of the actors who played past Doctors and companions, but the moment has been prepared for in the form of the rather brilliant “The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot,” a 30-minute The Thick of It-style fly-on-the-wall ‘documentary’ spoof shown on the red button and online. It’s written and directed by none other than Peter Davison, who also stars in it along with Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy as three former Doctors lobbying hard and rather pathetically for a part in the official anniversary special, which ultimately descends into farce. Made with considerable love and affection for the series, it also features an absolutely staggering array of cameo appearances by just about everyone who has ever been connected with Doctor Who over the years. I have no idea whether the trio genuinely did end up with their ‘cameo’ in “The Day of the Doctor” in the manner depicted here, but I so earnestly wish it to be true that I never want to find out to the contrary. I loved it: after the moving nostalgia of An Adventure in Time and Space and the 21st century action of “The Day of the Doctor” it was just the ideal, glorious way to round off the birthday celebrations by allowing us to kick off our shoes and have some unbridled fun. The icing on the 50th’s cake.
Post-Postscript: Also on the red button was a rather nice 13 minute making-of featurette entitled “Behind the Lens”. While reasonably typical DVD extra fare, it did succeed in making me all nostalgic for the good old days of a proper episode of Doctor Who Confidential and is certainly worth tracking down and having a watch.
Post-Post-Postscript: As for the astonishingly amateurish mess that was the official BBC3 “Afterparty” show, the less said the better. In fact I’ve already purged it from my brain and now refuse to believe it even happened in the first place. Maybe you can re-write history, at least in the direst of emergencies …
The Day of the Doctor is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on December 2, 2013 in the UK. The Blu-ray includes a 3D version for those with compatible players and televisions. Doctor Who returns on Christmas Day – and points out that as a result of John Hurt’s addition to the role call of Doctors, our hero just ran out of remaining regenerations. Maybe Peter Capaldi turned up too late after all …