Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The Day of the Doctor

Starring: Matt Smith, David Tennant, John Hurt, Jenna Coleman, Billie Piper, Joanna Page, Jemma Redgrave

Written by: Steven Moffat

Directed by: Nick Hurran

Zygons have invaded 16th century England; something terrible is happening underneath the National Gallery; and in a far-away time and place, a very old man is about to make a choice that might change the universe forever. The Day of the Doctor has arrived.

By this stage, I’m going to assume that anyone with any interest in the matter has seen the special at least once…but nonetheless:

Still here? Excellent!

It took a while for the celebrations to really get going – I still say that the BBC missed an obvious trick by not broadcasting classic episodes throughout the year, which would have been simplicity itself – but we’ve had a veritable embarrassment of riches throughout November. The clip shows and the like have been fun if…well, typically clip show, but the Beeb has surpassed itself in the last few weeks. Mark Gatiss’ drama, ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’ was a glorious, heartfelt and moving tribute to the pioneers who created the show, while the online short ‘Night of the Doctor’ was a wonderful surprise, bringing Paul McGann back to film his regeneration, and is sure to have won him a whole host of new fans. Perhaps taking pole position for best of the side projects was Peter Davison’s ‘The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot’, the epic tale of three former Doctors – Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Davison himself – doing everything they can to get involved with the 50th special. But of course, the jewel in the crown was always going to be the anniversary special itself.

It’s something of an understatement to say that there was a certain amount of expectation for ‘The Day of the Doctor’. Fifty years worth of expectation, in fact. Would it honour the history? Ignore it completely in favour of a dramatic story? How many Doctors would there be? Would it answer all the questions Moffat has raised over his time at the helm? Well..yes, no, not as many as you might have hoped, but more than you might have expected, and no. Of course not. We’ll probably never get all the answers to Moffat’s plots – he didn’t even fully resolve the cliffhanger from the last episode, for heaven’s sake. And perhaps he made a rod for his own back with the last series of episodes, which were distinctly hit and miss.

It’s ok. Whovians the world over have been reminded that actually, Moffat is a bloody good writer. And just as important, he knows his stuff when it comes to ‘Doctor Who’.

First things first. The main question. John Hurt – Who he? Speculation has been rampant since his appearance at the end of ‘The Name of the Doctor’, although answers seemed to be suggested from the ‘Night of the Doctor’, proving him to be a regeneration after Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor, and therefore the Doctor involved in the Time War that has so dominated the show’s history since its return in 2005. Given his billing as the War Doctor, for all the build up as the person who did something so horrific that subsequent incarnations of the Doctor have refused to even acknowledge his existence, never mind that he could be a Doctor, you might be forgiven for expecting a character something like the Timelord equivalent of Bruce Willis than the weary old man we see. True, utilising the TARDIS as a battering ram is a rather more aggressive action than we’ve seen in recent years, it takes a while for his teeth to show. It isn’t a criticism of Hurt, who is as good as he always is – it isn’t necessarily a criticism at all, merely an observation that expectation is not always met, particularly by Steven Moffat. It should also be mentioned that there is perhaps a fundamental flaw in positioning Hurt’s Doctor as the one who committed unspeakable acts, given that Smith’s gloriously be-fezzed and wacky Doctor has at least three on-screen acts of genocide to his name. And of course, the Doctor – whether portrayed by Christopher Ecclestone, David Tennant, or Smith – has not been shy about reminding people, largely his enemies, that he ended the Time War. See one of the more famous quotes from Smith’s run, in ‘The Doctor’s Wife’:

“Fear me; I’ve killed hundreds of Timelords.”
“Fear me; I killed all of them.”

So there is a certain lack of logic in Hurt’s Doctor’s very existence…but then, to borrow another line from Smith, “Never apply logic to Who!” Certainly, I wasn’t pondering this question while watching. His scenes with Billie Piper are powerful stuff, and he seems to draw the best out of Piper, who has improved greatly as an actress since leaving the show (not that she was bad then). Fittingly though, it is his scenes with Smith and Tennant that see him at his best; in fact, they are easily the finest moments of the episode.

But more of that later. Although the Time War and the War Doctor are the dramatic focus of the episode, they are held within a framework of other plots that bring in the other two Doctors. Tennant’s strand, set in the past as Ten romances the Virgin Queen, is the weakest; fun but disposable, and let down by a lacklustre performance from Joanna Page as Elizabeth 1st. Tennant himself makes up for that somewhat, getting many of the episode’s funniest lines, with his romantic swagger turned up rather inappropriately to eleven, but taken apart from the wider arc, it’s rather daft, almost slapstick, without decent chemistry to anchor it. Smith’s strand, with mysterious shenanigans underneath the National Gallery, is far more interesting. Jemma Redgrave, one of the better guest stars of recent years, makes an excellent return, getting to turn in two decent performances for the price of one, not to mention one of the more compelling moral debates. The Zygon invasion plot, although weak in its initial stage, is actually a fascinating idea, and would have benefited from an episode or two dedicated purely to it, rather than utilising it as a sub-plot.

Of course, it was unlikely that the episode was going to focus on anything other than the Time War, no matter what might have been speculated, and what we see doesn’t disappoint. True, it might have been nice (in that horrifying way that global destruction can be entertaining when fictionalised) to have seen something more imaginative; much of the action that we see is Daleks fighting people in odd outfits with laser guns, and is therefore little different to any other SF action scene, which is disappointing given the four dimensional nature of it, but you have to make allowances for budget and time. Besides, the real interest is in the discussions, the moral debate over how to end the War, and whether it will be worth it.

Really, that is what so much of the show has been about, at root, since the revival eight years ago. But as the War Doctor would say, ‘No More’. Debate will probably rage until the hundredth anniversary about whether the change is justified; without going into too much technical detail, it seems to me to work perfectly well as an explanation of previous canon, rather than an alteration. More importantly though, it feels like a change for the better, and a change that is incredibly appropriate for this milestone.

I do not claim to be an expert on the show’s history and canon prior to the modern era, but it is definitely a darker, more dramatic beast than it once was, and this is in large part because of the Time War. The show may never have been sunshine and butterflies, but when it returned, it returned with a brooding protagonist quite clearly suffering from PTSD following the genocide of his entire people – including, as this episode shows, 2.47 billion children. And that was fine, and has been the background responsible for some of the show’s greatest moments…but it isn’t the entire character. The Doctor is not just the person who ended the Time War. Yes, ever since the show started, he has had a long tradition of stopping conflict, but he isn’t a warrior – hence the entire plot of ‘Day of the Doctor’. He’s a healer, an explorer, an adventurer. And in ‘Day of the Doctor’, Moffat has managed to fully reconcile the brooding, damaged, all-conquering myth with the grumpy old man who just wanted to see the universe.

The Doctor has hope again. What could be a better 50th birthday present?

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