The Doctor Who 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor started and ended with glorious, fan-pleasing nods to the series’ past. And what came in between worked brilliantly too – but perhaps not in the way many fans hoped or expected.
Great men are forged in fire. It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame, whatever the cost.
Thanks to a time fissure, the Tenth (David Tennant) and Eleventh (Matt Smith) Doctors are united with John Hurt‘s War Doctor in an adventure which spans 16th century Elizabethan England, present day London and the end of the Time War between the Time Lords and the Daleks.
With Gallifrey on the verge of falling to the Dalek fleet, the War Doctor intends to use The Moment to end the war at the cost of annihilating both factions. But the weapon has a conscience of its own which it projects in the form of the Bad Wolf version of Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) to show him the future that awaits him.
In the present day, UNIT airlifts Eleven’s TARDIS to Trafalgar Square, where Kate Lethbridge-Stewart shows the Doctor and Clara a sealed letter from Elizabeth I and a three-dimensional painting depicting the fall of Gallifrey’s second city. Meanwhile in 1562, Ten’s flirtatious picnic with Elizabeth is interrupted first by shape-shifting Zygons intent on conquering Earth and then Eleven’s arrival – but not before he has proposed to the ‘Virgin Queen’, who he subsequently marries.
The pair are joined by the War Doctor and thrown into a dungeon in the Tower of London, where Eleven carves a message into a wall allowing Clara (Jenna Coleman) to use Captain Jack Harkness‘ Vortex Manipulator to simultaneously escape Zygons who have suspended themselves in paintings for centuries and rescue the Doctors. They attempt to return to 2013 in Ten’s TARDIS to stop Kate nuking London to protect the planet from the Zygons, but the Tower of London has been TARDIS-proofed. However, a phone call gets Gallifrey Falls moved to the Tower, the Doctors gain entry via the painting and are able to deactivate the bomb and persuade humans and Zygons to negotiate peace.
The War Doctor returns to The Moment to do what is necessary to end the war, but is joined by Ten and Eleven so that he does not have to do so alone. However, at Clara’s behest, Eleven changes his mind. Calling on all his incarnations – including Eleven’s successor-in-waiting (Peter Capaldi) – 13 Doctors in 13 TARDISes encircle Gallifrey and shift it into a pocket universe of its own, freezing the planet in a single moment and causing the Dalek fleet to wipe itself out in its own crossfire.
The Doctors return to the present day to say their goodbyes, uncertain if their plan succeeded. The War Doctor begins his regeneration into Christopher Eccleston‘s Ninth Doctor. Eleven, left alone to contemplate the painting, meets a museum curator (a surprise cameo by Fourth Doctor Tom Baker) who tells him that its real title is in fact an amalgam of its two names: Gallifrey Falls No More. Re-energised by the survival of his people, the Doctor resolves to find his way home.
Where does one begin in attempting to review this 75-minute special? Let’s start at the end by saying that my heart dearly wants to give this episode ten out of ten but, like the Doctors and their big red button, I can’t bring myself to do it. I’ll come to the reasons why in a bit, but let’s start with a summary of what was good – for so much of it was very good.
I’m sure some fans will complain about the lack of other Doctors and companions and the limited role played by both the Daleks and the Time War. However, I think it was unrealistic to expect more characters, which would have come at the expense of the story and the interaction between the characters we did have. And what we did see of the war was executed with stunning visual effects which would have looked at home in a Hollywood blockbuster.
Ultimately the Time War itself is not the main thrust of the episode. Its function is merely to fill in the gaps relating to the Doctor’s role in ending it and to serve as a backdrop to the real story: a morality play about the consequences of the decisions the Doctor shoulders responsibility for everywhere he goes, where sometimes he must accept losses or make sacrifices to serve the greater good – something which is routinely glossed over from one episode to the next. Condemning his own people in order to defeat the Daleks and save the entire universe is simply the most extreme example of this, but one which has the effect of traumatising his successors, with Bad Wolf Rose neatly summarising Ten and Eleven’s personalities as “the man who regrets and the man who forgets”.
The big action scenes are there in the first quarter of the story to provide the ‘wow’ moments, but the real gems are to be found in quieter, character-driven scenes, in particular the playful interaction between Ten and Eleven, which sways between gentle sibling rivalry – Eleven’s jabs at the “sand-shoes” worn by “match-stick man” – and genuine affection.
Steven Moffat loves to fill his stories with grand sci-fi concepts, and this special is overflowing with them. Stasis cubes which allow Time Lord art to be bigger on the inside. The Zygons invading the future by burying themselves in artwork in the past. (And the Doctors stealing the same trick to gain entry to the Tower of London.) An inventive use for the familiar sci-fi trope of memory wiping. Hiding clues in plain sight: both ‘Gallifrey Falls No More’ and the apparently innocuous phone call taken by a minor character which turns out to be Eleven folding back over his own timeline to get the painting moved to where it needs to be.
But there are also satisfying character beats for all the principals. Clara recognises that the War Doctor has not yet committed irrevocably to his actions, then gives Eleven enough pause to accept that it is possible to change the outcome. The War Doctor is recognised as being worthy of the name ‘Doctor’ by two future selves who he admires greatly. And Ten and Eleven come to terms with their past – by first accepting their predecessor’s actions and then successfully altering them.
In so doing, Moffat follows through on his tease about the 50th special “changing the narrative”. With Gallifrey still out there and his people alive, the Doctor is no longer the last of the Time Lords and has a reason to stride towards his future rather than run away from his past, stumbling randomly from adventure to adventure, as he has done all his lives. It’s a subtle but stunning shift in the modern show’s raison d’être.
The episode wasn’t all perfect, however.
The single weakest part of the episode is the Elizabeth I/Ten schtick. Joanna Page‘s chemistry with Tennant feels forced, her characterisation is a long way removed from common perception of the Virgin Queen, and the running joke of Ten repeatedly mistaking her for a Zygon quickly wears thin.
Also, the logic behind the presence of Rose seems tenuous in the extreme. We have seen the TARDIS project holographic images of former companions to the Doctor before, but why does The Moment show the War Doctor Rose, a companion neither he nor any of his predecessors know or would have any empathy towards? Wouldn’t Cass, the girl Paul McGann‘s Eighth Doctor dies failing to save in the prequel Night of the Doctor, have been a more appropriate choice? (Obviously, in reality it was a way of shoe-horning Billie Piper into the story.)
Those are relatively minor quibbles, however. Enough to stop me from giving the 50th anniversary special a perfect score, but nowhere near enough to dampen the warm glow I felt at the end of it. This story was never going to live up to the quite astonishing level of hype that surrounded it. The fact that it even came close to delivering on its promise is something to be applauded rather than criticised.
Happy birthday, Doctor. Here’s to the forthcoming Christmas special, Peter Capaldi and the next 50 years!