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Monday, November 25, 2013

Review: Doctor Who, "The Day of the Doctor"

Grade: A-

Verdict: Mixing nostalgia, continuity tip-toeing (as well as patching), and one of the most clever scripts that the new series has ever employed, The Day of the Doctor is the first time that a muti-Doctor team-up has worked and properly contributed to the series in which it's a part of. Additionally, it was a fine celebration of all things Doctor Who, though not without a "Wha...huh?" moment or two.

Doctor Who Anniversary Specials aren't just a mixed bag. In general, they're pretty terrible. Sure, the idea of multiple Doctors from the show's long and storied history is a neat idea in theory, but as "The Three/Five/Two/Four etc Doctors" has shown us, this effort never really works out to particularly engaging television. Then again, those various celebration serials never had a writer the caliber of Steven Moffat. 

I've been a long supporter of Steven Moffat over the Russell T. Davies era for its intricate plotting, reliance on an overall arc, and the other-worldly performance of Matt Smith. That's not to say I didn't enjoy David Tennant in the role, but I never felt like the stories quite did his work enough justice beyond the stand-alone highlights that disregarded Davies much more loosely constructed season-long storylines. When I heard that the special was going to specifically highlight the Davies invented Time War, which has always floated in the background of "New Who" as a scarred part of the Doctor's past, I had some trepidation and bad memories of the Tennant finale "The End of Time". You know the one, with the hoodie wearing electro-Master and Timothy Dalton chewing the scenery like his life depended on it? I try very hard to forget it too. Luckily, Moffat has a far defter hand at work.

Though the way "The Day of the Doctor" opened fed that initial fear induced fire, with Clara (Jenna Coleman) riding into the TARDIS on a motorbike and then seeing the TARDIS being carried by helicopter. Fear immediately struck me that this special episode was headed to bigger cinematic territory in the sense that "everything must be bigger than ever" that television shows that make the jump to the big screen often do. After that painful opening subsided, the episode settled into a quite nice groove focusing on a message delivered to the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) from Queen Elizabeth I (Joanna Page) by way of UNIT Brigadier Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave). The message entrusts the Doctor to curate a vault at the National Gallery that is filled with Time Lord art and artifacts. 

One of these pieces is a 3-D painting entitled alternatively "Gallifrey Falls" and "No More", focusing on the fall of one of the major cities of Gallifrey during the Time War. This triggers flashbacks to the War Doctor (John Hurt) determining if he will utilizing an all powerful weapon called "The Moment", who takes on the personification of Rose Tyler/Bad Wolf (Billie Piper), to destroy the Gallifreyans and Daleks before war destroys the galaxy. The plot setup involving Queen Elizabeth's gift to The Doctor also allows viewers to flashback to the Tenth Doctor's "courtship" of Queen Elizabeth I. After a long-simmering planned Zygon invasion of Earth is uncovered, a fissure in Space/Time opens up and allows all three Doctors to meet, first in Elizabethan England and then far beyond.

While there are many plaudits that I can ascribe to "The Day of The Doctor", the most important one is just how tight the plot is. Throughout the course of the 80-minute long (and thankfully commercial-free) story, there was nary a wasted moment and each storyline thread that featured its own Doctor was captivating in its own right. I was particularly impressed with just how well Moffat was able to bounce back into the lighter-more carefree matter in which the tenth Doctor usually acquits himself. Additionally, The War Doctor, a character created specifically for this special that occupies a space between the Eighth and Ninth Doctors is a unique animal, carrying the long-held psychological wounds of a never-ending war. Hurt is terrific in this new part, and brings a level of gravitas that is invaluable throughout. 

"The Day of The Doctor" serves two very important functions in the context of the series, at an in-show level the entire plot of the special revolves around absolving the Doctor of his greatest sin that had marked him since the Eccleston days of the relaunch: the destruction of Gallifrey. Throughout the new series, and through his varying incarnations, The Doctor has carried the guilt of this responsibility through three separate forms of the character. The way Moffat is able to tackle this area, relieve the Doctor of his guilt by retroactively saving Gallifrey, and do so without compromising the character arcs of the previous seven seasons of the show is commendable. While the rules of time travel in Doctor Who seem to constantly shift and sway, Moffat has by and large subscribed to the idea that "everything that will happen was always meant to happen" such as the pre-destination that is in place with characters like River Song, Clara Oswald, the eventual fate of the Ponds; and whenever these fixed points in time are taken off their path, chaos ensues (see: "The Wedding of River Song"). 

When Gallifrey is saved, and the War Doctor, on his way to becoming the Ninth Doctor, and the Tenth Doctor, on his way to meet Ood Sigma and learn about his final fate, both forget the events of the episode, Davies character work still stands. It's highly possible, as this is part and parcel with Moffat's time-travel creed, that this is what always happened and the people of Gallifrey were never destroyed at all. At the same time, the Eleventh Doctor is able to move forward with the knowledge that he can fully move on from the horrors of The Time War, which is where Moffat has always wanted to take the show anyhow. The script itself sums up the dichotomy between Tennant's and Smith's Doctors as "The Man who regrets" and "The Man who forgets". Both descriptions are incredibly accurate depictions of the two differing show-running philosophies of Davies and Moffat. Now that the Eleventh Doctor has this knowledge at hand, he has a potential direction: "Find Gallifrey", which given the somewhat wanderlust nature of the character, is a refreshing change of pace, even if we know deep down it won't be Smith's interation of the character that does it.

At a meta-textual level though, "The Day of The Doctor" also serves as a multi-focal celebration of all things related to the series. We received little hints that something like this was coming when Arabella Weir and David Warner, who have both played alternate versions of the Doctor in Big Finish Audio productions, had guest starring roles in recent episodes. This ramped up even moreso when a quasi-official Doctor, Richard E. Grant, was cast as a recurring villain last season. But the idea that we would get a fully fledged "alternate version of the Doctor" to costar within the special itself solidifies the all-encompassing attitude to all areas of Doctor Who fandom that Moffat is embracing. For Moffat, it isn't just a matter of bridging the classic series to the new (as he did by bringing back Paul McGann to reprise his TV Movie role as the Eighth Doctor in the mini-sode prequel "Night of the Doctor" or having a surprise cameo appearance by Tom Baker, the most famous of the Classic-era Doctors, as the museum curator) but tying in direct to video characters (Kate Stewart) and mentions of audio-only protagonists (Charley Pollard and Lucie Miller for example). In the lead-up to this remarkable milestone, all Doctor Who media gets its time in the sun; and for a property that was kept alive for around 15 years when its television incarnation was kept dormant, it owes a tremendous debt to those creative endeavors and the fans that hold those variations near and dear. "The Day of the Doctor" encapsulates everything that is wonderful about Doctor Who, and in its way is very similar to Skyfall in how "everything old is new again".

That's not to say it doesn't have a few stumbles, the actual mechanism that causes both The War Doctor and the Tenth Doctor to forget their actions here is a little hand-wavey, and there is additionally a little bit of a continuity issue related to the Tenth Doctor's marriage to Queen Elizabeth. If he forgot the events of this episode, how did he remember that he was married to her at the beginning of "The End of the Time"? In addition, the character of Osgood, played by Ingrid Oliver, is also a bit of a waste. While I assume she was there to provide a human angle for the conflict, she fell a bit flat plot-wise. And related to that point, what exactly was the resolution to the Zygon and UNIT conflict? It could be argued that Humanity and the Zygons were approaching attempts at understanding one another, but it feels a bit like "The Day of the Doctor" never wraps that particular sub-plot before the closing credits. In all though, these are minor quibbles, which are unavoidable when you're dealing with something that's aiming for grander scale than your typical episode of the series.

Most importantly though, it's just really fun. The Day of the Doctor is everything that works best about Doctor Who, gross looking aliens, incredibly clever time travel concepts, and a compellingly fun adventure yarn. It's the best Fiftieth Anniversary Special we could have asked for, and who could have thought that eight years ago this would have even been a remote possibility? Now, there's a cause for celebration!

Questions to ponder:

- Who was Tom Baker really? The Fourth Doctor? A future incarnation of the Doctor living out his days filling in his inherited role as a curator revisiting a favorite face? A fourth wall breaking wink at the audience? All of these? We'll never know, but it was wonderful to see him.

- Is it possible that the Ninth and Tenth Doctors' attachment to Rose is a subconscious reaction to the War Doctor's interactions with The Moment?

- How about that Peter Capaldi cameo? We still don't know much about his Doctor other than those eyes we saw, but this is the first time that we've ever gotten an inkling of a future Doctor before a regeneration has occurred. Neat!

- Coming this Christmas: Silence will Fall! And I will most likely be clutching my TV screaming: "Don't go!!!" I'm glad though that Moffat is returning to the prophecy arc that was introduced in Series Six (with little hints of it since the beginning of the whole run). But I will very much miss Matt Smith's towering performance in the role. He is definitely MY Doctor.

- The BBC did a really tremendous job with the Anniversary Celebration, beyond just showing Doctor Who 24/7 in the week lead-up, the ancillary mini-sodes and specials really added a good deal. While I already mentioned the "Night of the Doctor", which I loved to pieces, we also got "The Five-ish Doctors Reboot" which is a parody tie-in to "Day of the Doctor" featuring the actors who played the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors and a ton of cameos. It's very cute, and in its own way, kind of essential for the experience. Lastly, there was An Adventure in Space and Time, which is a bio-pic retelling of the creation of the series in 1963. It's a bit of a trifle and commits alot of bio-pic "cardinal sins", but enjoyable enough if you have nothing else to watch. David Bradley is pretty tremendous as William Hartnell, so it has that going for it.

- I also would like to say how amazingly inventive I thought the "same software, different case" scene was relating to the calculations of the sonic screwdriver. That's a Moffat thing if I've ever seen one. The man is very astute, folks.

- Did you notice that all three Doctors were headed for a regeneration after the events of this episode? We get to see The War Doctor begin the transformation into the Ninth Doctor, but you might not realize that both the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors were headed to their ends in "The End of Time" and "The Time of the Doctor" respectively, both being Christmas Specials. "The Day of the Doctor" also acts as a multi-pathway for viewers (either new or, more likely, viewers who want to see the previous adventures through new eyes) as you could conceivably follow The War Doctor turned Ninth Doctor directly to Season 1, Episode 1/"Rose", the Tenth Doctor turning into the Eleventh Doctor in "The End of Time" and then begin the Moffat era, or forward with the Eleventh Doctor before he turns into the Twelfth. This idea is particularly valuable to those who started the series when Matt Smith began, but may have found the earlier Davies stuff a little too rough, particularly production-wise, to surmount. That feeling of knowing the character a little better could help, at least in theory. 
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