“The Day Of The Doctor” is the story of three men. Or perhaps it’s the story of one man, or maybe even thirteen. It’s the story of all the different kinds of person that the Doctor can be, and what they mean to the universe, not to mention to each other. Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary special takes its time to determine just whose Doctor’s story this really is. For much of its running length, the most important Doctor is the one who doesn’t consider himself the Doctor at all. John Hurt’s warrior incarnation is the effective protagonist, as he is forced to consider not only whether he can make the ultimate sacrifice to end the Time War but also whether he can live with the sort of man he will become if he makes that choice. It’s only in the final 20 minutes that Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor steps back into the limelight, as Clara reminds him that he is neither a warrior nor a hero. He’s not better, necessarily, but he’s different. He’s the Doctor, and that’s what allows him to figure out the escape from the ultimate impossible trap that is the Time War, even if it takes him two tries and 400 years.
The great joy of “The Day Of The Doctor”—of all the multi-Doctor stories, really—is seeing the various incarnations of the Time Lord interact. Both Matt Smith and the returning David Tennant are in fine form, and the 10th and 11th Doctors prove to be a very funny double act. The 11th Doctor marvels at his predecessor’s impossible skinniness and offers this “matchstick man” the mocking reassurance that what he gets up to in the privacy of his regeneration is his business. The two also play well against John Hurt’s War Doctor; after the initial fear and distrust of their forgotten incarnation subsides, the two Doctors start putting down each other as though they’re trying to score points with, well, their granddad. David Tennant gets the biggest laugh of the special when, in response to the War Doctor’s disbelief at the 11th Doctor’s use of the phrase “timey-wimey,” he leans in and offers the bald-faced lie: “I have no idea where he picks that stuff up.” While the War Doctor has his own distinct role to play, he is also there to serve as a de facto stand-in for all the Doctors of old, responding to his ridiculously youthful older selves much as one might expect William Hartnell or Jon Pertwee would. He at first treats the Doctors much as he would children, politely asking whether these two are the Doctor’s companions.
In the prison cell, the War Doctor asks his successors why they must always talk like children and what makes them so ashamed of being grown-ups. It’s a line brimming with meta-commentary, doubling as the grouchy old-school Doctor Who fan’s lament for the brash ridiculousness of this new incarnation of the show. But the response to that question is what brings “The Day Of The Doctor” back into focus, as the two Doctors articulate just why they dread the sight of their predecessor. The pronouns are important here; the 11th Doctor refers to “The day you killed them all,” while the 10th Doctor corrects this as “The day we killed them all.” The 11th Doctor claims there’s no difference, but it’s apparent just how much his perspective on the Time War has changed from that of the 10th. He has forgotten—or, perhaps more accurately, chosen to forget—the 2.47 billion dead children on Gallifrey that his predecessor once counted. In that the moment, the 10th Doctor appears just as disgusted by his future as he by his past. The Moment (who, yes, looks just like Rose Tyler in post-apocalyptic haute couture) defines them as “the man who regrets” and “the man who forgets,” and neither life seems all that palatable to the incarnation who must decide whether to bring their timeline into being.
The most audacious aspect of the anniversary special is the 11th Doctor’s decision to rewrite the last day of the Time War and save Gallifrey. In so doing, “The Day Of The Doctor” redefines the fundamental question that has shaped the new series, and that’s whether the Doctor was right to commit double genocide in order to end the Time War. Until now, it’s not a question the audience has had sufficient knowledge to answer; the issue turns on whether Gallifrey, the Doctor’s home, was beyond saving. The 10th Doctor’s regeneration story, “The End Of Time,” is the only other story to properly deal with that issue, and it presented the exact opposite conclusion, as the Time Lords there had become so corrupt, so evil that they were willing to destroy the entire universe to enable their own survival. Reconciling “The Day Of The Doctor” with “The End Of Time” is difficult in strictly narrative terms, not least of which because I’m pretty sure they are both set on that very same last day of the war. If nothing else, one has to assume that Rassilon’s High Council of Time Lords and the General’s Gallifrey High Command maintain extremely separate jurisdictions.
So then, does the anniversary special invalidate the major themes that “The End Of Time” kicked around? Honestly, I’m not sure, though I think they can coexist when understood in terms of the Doctor’s evolving perspective. Nothing (except possibly the Daleks) is entirely good or entirely evil; here, the 11th Doctor chooses to remember the good of Gallifrey and so save it from destruction, but the 10th Doctor was forced to focus on the evil in “The End Of Time.” After all, the most important moment in David Tennant’s final episode is when the Doctor, who repeatedly refused to kill the Master, picked up a gun to take on his own people, even if he struggled to follow through on that hard choice. Although the 10th Doctor no longer had the War Doctor’s capacity to commit genocide, he still seemed to believe it was the correct course. He was still so scarred by the Time War that he could not dare hope for anything from his people, and Rassilon did not disabuse him of that notion. But the 11th Doctor is different. He has allowed himself to forget the worst of the Time War, and in so doing he has restored the possibility of someday finding his way home. He’s able to give that hope not only to Gallifrey but also to his earlier incarnations, even if the shifting timestreams mean his predecessors won’t remember his gift for long.
What’s at issue in “The Day Of The Doctor” isn’t the morality of the decision to destroy Gallifrey; after all, the latter-day Doctors come to accept the War Doctor and offer to help him push the big red button. Let’s not forget that it’s Clara—and, in her way, the Moment—who refuses to accept that there is no place left for the Doctor’s defining promise: “Never cowardly or cruel. Never give up, never give in.” It’s the earlier Doctors who repeat those words, but it’s the 11th who dares to see the path not of the warrior or of the hero, but of the Doctor. It’s crucial that the sole companion present is the one who points out that there could be another way, because Doctor Who needs that human voice just as much as it needs its alien in a police box.
The question that Steven Moffat’s script is really concerned with is whether there’s such a thing as a scenario without choice. He clearly believes that there isn’t, although the Doctor has to break all the laws of time 13 times over in order to prove the point; in terms of what the Doctor accomplishes, this is arguably the most unabashedly optimistic episode in Doctor Who history. But it’s very much up to the individual viewer to decide whether this fatally undercuts the Doctor’s emotional journey in the new series up to this point. On balance, I would say that it doesn’t, but never before has Steven Moffat so relied on the impossible logic of time travel to drive the Doctor’s character arc. The emotional burdens carried by the 9th and 10th Doctors are part of what enabled the 11th Doctor to develop this new perspective. As he says, with four centuries to consider the situation, he has changed his mind, and he’s in the unique position to change the original outcome. Maybe his new decision doesn’t entirely make sense—indeed, there’s plenty about “The Day Of The Doctor” that doesn’t entirely make sense—but that’s when 13 TARDISes and a whole bunch of rousing stock footage shows up, and it’s difficult not to get caught up in the triumph of that moment.
Indeed, it doesn’t seem right to approach this purely as a story, not when so much of what happens here is defined by celebration. There are all the references, of course: the original opening theme; the initial shot of Totter’s Lane, complete with policeman walking the beat; Clara’s new position at Coal Hill School, where Ian Chesterton is listed as Chairman of the Governors; the impossibly long scarf worn by UNIT scientist Osgood; the “Greyhound Leader” callsign that once belonged to the Brigadier; his daughter Kate Lethbridge-Stewart’s reference to the “Cromer” incident that also featured three Doctors and took place in the ‘70s or ‘80s, depending on the dating protocol; the reappearance of Jack Harkness’ vortex manipulator; the War Doctor’s final observation that his body is wearing a bit thin, just as his original incarnation once observed—and those are all just the obvious references. So much of what happens in “The Day Of The Doctor” is determined by the need to tell the most epic story of the Doctor’s lives, not to mention incorporate as many familiar faces as is feasible.
That’s why Billie Piper returns to take the Rose-like form of the Moment. This is one of those compromises between story and celebration that likely won’t please everybody; there’s no sensible way to bring the actual Rose into this story without even more exposition than there already is, but it wouldn’t really feel like a proper 50th anniversary special if David Tennant was the only person to put in a return appearance (we’ll get to the third returning player in a moment). Piper absolutely isn’t playing Rose, but there are enough little touches of humanity and humor—her reaction to the fez is perfect, for instance—to make her feel like more than the glorified plot device that she is. The presence of the Zygons and UNIT is more easily justified; the former’s centuries-long, painting-dependent invasion plan would make for a good story in its own right, and it works well as narrative and thematic support for the central Time War story. And Steven Moffat finds a funny way to split the difference with the payoff to the long-running Queen Elizabeth gag, revealing that the Doctor’s apparent courtship of and marriage to Joanna Page’s monarch was part of a botched effort to expose Zygon infiltrators.
But that still leaves Tom Baker. The final scene between the 11th Doctor and the Curator rests somewhere outside the normal storytelling parameters of Doctor Who. Whoever this man is, he probably isn’t the 4th Doctor, though he might be a far-future incarnation who has, as he put it, decided to revisit some of the favorite old faces. Even 30 years removed from his last on-screen performance as the Doctor—not counting “Dimensions In Time,” because nobody in their right mind counts “Dimensions In Time”—Baker is able to recapture some of the old magic of the 4th Doctor, a figure alternately playful and terrifying. He manages to out-alien Matt Smith, which is no small feat; the 11th Doctor’s joy is palpable when he gazes upon this impossible man and hears his cryptic promise of Gallifrey’s survival. Really, Tom Baker is the only person in the universe capable of providing a sufficiently bonkers ending to an already insane anniversary special. He’s not the 4th Doctor, but he’s not just the Curator either; in that scene, he is the entire Doctor Who mythos personified, here in human (or Time Lord) form to take a bow and offer congratulations to those who were there when the show passed the half-century mark. “The Day Of The Doctor” definitely isn’t perfect, but then Doctor Who was never concerned with anything so tiny as perfection.
- It says something about Doctor Who’s unique stature that we can pretty much take for granted the fact that John Hurt, acting legend, showed up to participate in the anniversary special, so let me just take a moment to mention how terrific he is in the role. He’s predictably great whenever called upon to play the haunted warrior, but he’s sneakily brilliant as the Doctor, too—his idle comment about why there’s never a big red button immediately establishes that, yes, he’s still the Doctor. Also, his petrified look when the Moment tells him his punishment is something to behold.
- “Are you capable of talking without flopping our hands about?” “Yes! No!”
- “Is there a lot of this in the future?” “It does start to happen, yeah.”
- Another great moment: The Doctors’ shared indignation at the thought of an unlocked prison door. It wouldn’t be a proper Doctor Who anniversary special without the Doctors spending some together in a cell.
- Incidentally, for those wanting to see some more classic Doctors and their efforts to make it into the 50th anniversary, go watch 5th Doctor Peter Davison’s wonderful 30-minute special, “The Five-ish Doctors Reboot.”
- “Geronimo!” “Allons-y!” “Oh, for God’s sake!”
Next time: We’ll be back this Christmas for Matt Smith’s final story as the Doctor, but first why not join us for our look back at the first three seasons of the new series? I started with “Rose” last week, and I’ll be looking at “The End Of The World” and “The Unquiet Dead” tomorrow. But first, there’s one more thing we need to discuss…
“The Night Of The Doctor” (originally released 11/14/2013 on YouTube)
If “The Night Of Doctor” had ended after its 30-second prologue and opening credits, I would have come away satisfied; I’m the sort of irredeemable diehard for whom the return of Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor means that much. But for its remaining six minutes, this mini-episode doesn’t coast on the inestimable goodwill it generates with its shock opening. Indeed, it accomplishes something no new series ever quite did, which is to bring home the full emotional toll of the Time War to the Doctor. With phenomenal economy of storytelling, “The Night Of The Doctor” takes some of Doctor Who’s most iconic story beats and brutally inverts them. In less than a minute, Steven Moffat’s script and the performances from McGann and Emma Campbell-Jones make it clear that Cass is the perfect companion; the warmth with which the Doctor says “I’ll show you” signals the start of his latest grand adventure with his newest best friend, with his standard reassurance that the TARDIS is “bigger on the inside” just the first glimpse of the wonder to come.
But that isn’t what happens. That description of the TARDIS now instills fear and hatred in Cass, who would rather die than be so much as touched by a Time Lord, let alone rescued by one. Even as Cass recoils from him, the Doctor doesn’t fully admit the gravity of the situation, offering the slightly flip excuses that he may be a Time Lord, but he’s one of the nice ones, and at least he’s not a Dalek. Yet when Cass deadlocks herself on the other side of the hatch, the Doctor never hesitates, sacrificing his own life in a doomed attempt to save someone who he barely knows, someone who blindly despises him. In that moment, Moffat and McGann distill all that it means to be the Doctor, as the eighth incarnation meets his end in a way every bit as heroic as the more epic fates of some of his counterparts. When the Doctor later observes that there’s no need for a Doctor anymore, the audience knows he is right because they just him live up to his highest ideals, and the universe rejected him in the most heartbreaking manner.
It’s appropriate that the crashing starship deposits the Doctor on Karn, making its first on-screen appearance since the Tom Baker serial “The Brain Of Morbius.” A mystical, matriarchal offshoot of Time Lord society, Karn is just the sort of relic of classic Doctor Who that could never exist in the post-Time War cosmos of the revival; as such, it’s the perfect place for the last classic Doctor to meet his fate. Despite the best efforts of Clare Higgins as Ohila, the whole business of regenerative potions is decidedly goofy, but it doesn’t matter. The point of that sequence is to see how the Doctor comes to accept his place in the Time War, as Ohila alternately begs and manipulates the Doctor to save the universe, even if it means abandoning all he ever stood for. Even for those who haven’t been following the Eighth Doctor’s audio adventures, McGann conveys just how a brutal a choice this is for this particular incarnation, who so joyously embodied the romance and the idealism at Doctor Who’s core.
“The Night Of The Doctor” is a staggering achievement, with so much to say and suggest about the Eighth Doctor, the significance of his chosen name, the full horror of the Time War, the Ninth and Tenth Doctor’s subsequent character arcs, and the entire Doctor Who mythos. It took 17 years, but Paul McGann finally got the on-screen adventure he always deserved.
- Just before he regenerates, the Eighth Doctor acknowledges his companions Charley, C’rizz, Lucie, Tamsin, and Molly, offering the first acknowledgment of the Big Finish audios in the series proper. It’s a beautiful moment for many reasons, but I particularly appreciate how it gives this Doctor a sense of depth. “The Night Of The Doctor” really is the culmination of a long-building character arc, just one that didn’t happen to air on television.
- “Where are we going?” “Back of the ship.” “Why?” “Because the front crashes first, think it through!” That is such an Eighth Doctor exchange. A lot of this is down to McGann’s note-perfect delivery, but Steven Moffat deserves credit here for how well he writes for this Doctor; he isn’t just giving McGann a bunch of lines clearly designed to be said by Matt Smith. Indeed, that brings up a basic reason why I’m actually glad McGann got this mini-episode instead of a supporting role in the anniversary special. For these seven minutes, he gets to be the incumbent Doctor once more, ceding the spotlight to nobody.
- There’s basically nothing left of the TV movie in McGann’s performance or Moffat’s script, although there is the updated and improved version of the Eighth Doctor’s original outfit. Still, there is one likely inadvertent connection: In the TV movie, the Doctor’s would-be companions Grace and Chang Lee die and are subsequently resurrected by what can only be called Time Lord magic, and the Doctor welcomes them back by telling them that they’ve been somewhere he’s never been. It seems appropriate then that the Doctor would indeed die and be brought back in his final adventure.
- It warms my heart to see so many people clamoring for the Eighth Doctor’s return in a full-length episode. While I really can’t imagine a spin-off is going to happen—it wouldn’t be fair to Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor, for a start—I will say this much. In 1983, Doctor Who marked its 20th anniversary with its multi-Doctor extravaganza “The Five Doctors.” Two years later, just because everyone involved felt like it, Patrick Troughton and Colin Baker teamed up for “The Two Doctors.” So there’s just a little bit of precedent for Capaldi and McGann to share an adventure in 2015 or so. That sounds pretty good to me.