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Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

Thoughts on The Day of the Doctor

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, marked by an anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor. This special was simulcast in 94 countries and 15 languages, setting a new Guinness world record in the process. In many countries, including the UK, it was also shown in theatres in 3D. My roommate, her daughter, and I bought our tickets as soon as they went on sale. Last night we queued up to get into the theatre, which was packed full of fans waiting to see the three Doctors and learn the truth about John Hurt’s incarnation of the renegade Time Lord.

Spoilers, of course.

When Steven Moffat took over as the showrunner of Doctor Who, I was happy and optimistic. The episodes of the show that he had written were among the best of the new show. And, for the most part, I’ve enjoyed Moffat’s era of Doctor Who. Yet of late I’ve been disappointed with some of the story arcs, and in general I’ve found Moffat too keen on creating fascinating but inexplicable paradoxes, to the point where the resolutions of some of the stories seem trite and a little contrived.

So when I went into the theatre, it was with both excitement and trepidation. Would Moffat deliver a show worthy of the 50th anniversary? Would it be too convoluted? Too rushed? How could they possibly do it justice in only 75 minutes?

We had a good audience in the theatre. As soon as the lights faded out, and after the hilarious introductory messages from Strax and the Doctor(s), the audience fell silent. There was the occasional rustle of popcorn bags, but that was it. We laughed frequently, for Smith, Tennant, and Hurt realized the humour of Moffat’s script with enviable ease. And, as the credits rolled, we applauded. Because, thankfully, it really was just that good.

I’d go as far as to say it was absolutely brilliant.

The big reveal, insofar as these things go, is that the Doctor did not destroy Gallifrey in the Time War. Or rather, maybe he did, but thanks to interference from Clara and the Moment, the weapon he used to do it, he changes his mind and has his future—and past—selves save Gallifrey. In doing this, the Doctor takes Gallifrey out of time, putting it in stasis in a pocket universe in such a way that it appears, to everyone else, that Gallifrey has been destroyed.

Unlike many of Moffat’s stories, this retcon actually makes a lot of sense. On the surface it leaves most of the past ten years of continuity unchanged: because the previous Doctors don’t remember this adventure, they still think they destroyed the Time Lords and feel guilty about it. Only four hundred years later, subjectively, does the Eleventh (Twelfth?) Doctor realize what actually occurred. In an excellent case of having his cake and also eating it with gusto, Moffat keeps the Doctor as a war criminal/hero while also dangling before us the possibility of resurrecting Gallifrey and the Time Lords.

And so the Doctor has a quest and a direction. He needs to find Gallifrey. Certainly there are plenty of questions now. What kind of people will the Time Lords be, if he manages to free them from stasis? In The End of Time, Rassilon and the High Council were portrayed as mad, power-hungry, barely better than the Daleks. Also, if the Doctor didn’t actually use the Moment to wipe out both Daleks and Time Lords, what does this mean for any Dalek vessels that weren’t in orbit of Gallifrey? Or were they all there, and the Doctor’s comment about them calling for reinforcements if they knew the truth was just a joke? Because if not all the Daleks were there, surely some would have survived following the end of the Time War, since the Moment was simply replaced by Gallifrey’s disappearance, which caused the Dalek fleet to destroy itself with crossfire.

The 50th anniversary special revisits a crucial part of the new series’ mythos—the Time War and its effect on the Doctor as a character—while also offering a new path for the series’ future. In bringing together the three Doctors, the special allows us to better understand why these Doctors act the way they do. As the War Doctor observes, the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors are very childlike because they associate adulthood and maturity with their dark predecessor. The special also honours the half-century of history, with shout-outs and allusions to old companions, previous Doctors and adventures, and even a touching cameo from Tom Baker.

At first I was a little disappointed by Clara’s relatively unsubstantive role in the special. I hate when the companion seems sidelined to the role of spectator or commentator, which she seemed to be for much of the show. Upon further reflection, though, her role is huge. Her tears and her pleas are what eventually allow the Doctors to realize there is another way, an alternative to using the Moment. If Clara hadn’t been there, the three Doctors would still have committed their terrible crime. On its 50th birthday, the show acknowledges one of its most important aspects: that the companions who travel with the Doctor are more than tourists; they are an essential component of the Doctor’s extended moral universe. Without access to their more limited perspective, the Doctor becomes lost in his own vast perception of the entire situation. And, to be honest, I think the Doctor is at his best when he has someone to impress. Alone, John Hurt’s Doctor is resigned to taking the “easy” way out. With Clara as an audience, and the other two Doctors available to help, he has the ability to be brilliant.

John Hurt was perfect for the role of the War Doctor, able to convey melancholy and regret as well as impatience and impertinence in equal amounts. Similarly, it was a joy to see David Tennant back in his suit and tie. He and Matt Smith make the most of their time on screen together, mocking each other in the self-absorbed way that only the Doctor can. The three Doctors together make the anniversary special … well, special.

As far as penultimate appearances go, for Matt Smith this was a great one. I’m sad to see his time as the Doctor end. It feels like we just got to know him. But I’m looking forward to the Christmas special, and after seeing what Moffat delivered here, I’m more optimistic he will be able to give us the regeneration story that Matt Smith deserves.

I’m also very glad I happened to be living in England during the 50th anniversary. There has literally been a Doctor Who mania here for the past few months, intensifying this past week into a big media and cultural event. Doctor Who has an international fandom, as its record-setting simulcast can attest; however, as a cultural icon, it is uniquely British, and I’m privileged to be immersed in that.

Here’s to some more answers, and yet more questions, in a month’s time.