Happy 50th Birthday Doctor Who!
Hope you had a great time. I did.
Seriously, be they Fez, Panama, or broad-brimmed floppy, hats off to Steven Moffat and the cast and crew of The Day Of The Doctor. So good I watched it twice on the same night. And I’ve never done that with a Doctor Who episode. Ever.
It’s the kind of mad, crazy stuff we do for a special occasion.
Was it the greatest Doctor Who story every told? No. I don’t think it could claim to be that. For one thing, it featured one of my pet hates – the undoing of time and its attendant (and often convenient) confusion over who remembers what of the events that have occurred. Or haven’t, as the case may be.
When John Hurt asks, “Is there a lot of this in the future?” he might as well have been talking about temporal rewrites instead of snogging. But that is just one of the many brilliant moments that outweighs concerns over such trifles as plotting and tired old tricks. Who needs trifles when you have a birthday cake like this?
The Day Of The Doctor is one of those tangled webs that Moffat weaves so wonderfully well – that also leaves you with the sense that it would all unravel if you tugged at a single thread. The difference, I suppose, is that this is woven from such winning material that I honestly don’t feel like pulling at those threads. Which, I know, is very superficial and shallow of me but if a slice of cake tastes good and leaves me satisfied why would I want to go all critical on it like some nitpicky Paul Hollywood on a Great Whoish Bake-Off?
Sure, it raises questions – such as, is the Gallifrey that returned to menace Earth in The End Of Time the same one that the Doctor is now thinking of going searching for? – and others, probably enough to fill a NOW That’s What I Call Doctor Who Continuity Questions 86 – but right now I’m not especially hungry for answers.
This special was everything it needed to be – with some delicious extras. It told a story that felt both epic and personal. It embraced present and future and past (even while rewriting it). It gave us not just the three Doctors I’d been given to expect, but all thirteen! Without the overcrowding we had in previous anniversary specials. It had Daleks and Zygons (a representative D to Z of Doctor Who monsters, if you will). And if 3D didn’t give me headaches I could have popped along to the cinema to enjoy it all on the big screen.
As it was, it felt sufficiently big-screen on my telly, with all manner of good stuff spilling out of the frame like mysterious figures breaking out of time pictures in a gallery.
It was, in short, a celebration. And a fantastic one at that.
Matt Smith was on fire. Tennant was a thankfully toned-down and lighter-hearted version of his Doctor. John Hurt was phenomenal, a true gem. Clara chides his Doctor for being ‘the life and soul shortly before gracing him with an affectionate farewell peck on the cheek. For a ‘forgotten Doctor’ who didn’t deserve the name of Doctor, he perfectly embodies all the essential Doctorish qualities. Further, he combines the gravitas of a warrior weighed down by a heavier pair of hearts with a ready humour and wit and a kind of bemused despair of his younger (older) selves that is a joy to watch. He’s given numerous opportunities to shake his head at some of the elements I’ve remarked on myself – the excessive snogging, the sometimes infantile behaviour, the babbling and the catchphrases and the pointing of the sonic screwdrivers ‘water pistols’.
It is in some respects an implicit recognition that there are many fan voices out there and they’re not always approving of everything but they’re still very much included on the party invitations. In any case, it’s inspired material from a writer who understands his audience and knows that we love this show as much as he obviously does.
Hurt is the life and soul of the tale, right at the core. The moment when Ten and Eleven join him so that he won’t have to face his fateful decision alone brings the best kind of lump to the throat, the best kind of tear to the eye. A moment that should have a capital M – except that would confuse it with the ultimate WMD.
Then again, the Moment itself couldn’t really compete with the countless glorious moments liberally sprinkled throughout.
Kate Lethbridge Stewart. Derren Brown as UNIT’s go-to cover story for strange events, the photo board in the Black Archive. One Doctor snogs a Zygon and the other doesn’t let him forget it. Comedy Zygons. Ferocious, scary Zygons. The Two Elisabeths. Three Doctors! “This has all the makings of your lucky day.” Peter Capaldi’s staring eyes! All thirteen Doctors! Osgood and her Tom Baker scarf and obvious fangirl crush. Tom Baker! Et cetera et cetera. The list could go on, but it’s worth stopping on that one because it was an arresting, magical moment. When Tom’s rich, unmistakeable tones break in on Matt Smith’s Great Curator reverie, that produced the best kind of shivers. One more crowning glory on top of all the others.
If I were to cite key disappointments they would amount to things like the Time War resembling any other war. I'd imagined it as something like Call Of Duty meets Mass Effect meets Curse Of Fatal Death. (Maybe it was, we might never know.) But this was the ultimate battle and you could argue that there’s a message in the fact that all wars are ultimately the same.
My biggest 'gripe' though would be that John Hurt was so bloody brilliant that I’m now sad that we didn’t have a full season of his Doctor fighting said Time War. But imagination is frequently better than whatever might be realised on TV and in terms of glimmers of what might have been, well, this was one of the brightest. Fantastic! as Doctor No.9 was always so fond of saying.
On a more technical note, I guess the closing image with all the Doctors could have been better rendered as some looked distinctly 2D. But it remains an enduring image and a fitting tribute to all those actors who’ve played this most prestigious of parts. A perfect birthday card on which to close.
A 50th anniversary is a monumental milestone in the history of any TV show and Moffat faced a monumental task. To succeed to any degree would have been a remarkable achievement. To succeed to the extent delivered by The Day of The Doctor is nothing short of a miracle.
So, all in all, this is much less a review, more a thank you note. I doff my Fez to all involved. And wave my scarf in the air. And twirl my bow tie.
The candles on this birthday cake are still burning brightly.