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Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor (Review)

Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.

– Clara sums up the Moffat era in a nutshell

The Day of the Doctor was a suitable anniversary celebration for Doctor Who, feeling like Moffat had borrowed more from The Three Doctors than The Five Doctors in piecing it together, allowing for multi-Doctor interaction grafted over a fairly generic Pertwee-era alien invasion tale. (“Not now!” the Eleventh Doctor protests as the multi-Doctor tale intrudes on his paintings mystery. “I’m busy!”) In terms of scale and spectacle, The Day of the Doctor falls a little bit short. While it looks lavish and clearly had more than a little bit of money thrown at it, the episode lacks a strong central narrative thread.

Instead, it serves as a meditation on who the Doctor is and what that means in the grand scheme of things – looking at the tapestry of his life and character, and trying to reconcile everything that the show was and ever could be. It’s the story of the War Doctor in the Time War, of the death of the classic show and the birth of the new, suggesting that the rift left by the cancellation can finally be healed, that the bridge can be crossed and that wounds might finally be closed.

Well, most of them, anyway.

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The Three Doctors…

The absence of Christopher Eccleston feels like it casts a shadow over the production of The Day of the Doctor. He gets a quick cut away to stock footage from The Parting of the Ways, and a nice little introduction from John Hurt (“I do hope he’s a little less conspicuous”), but it seems like an important part of the celebration is missing. Eccleston was, after all, the actor who played the lead role when it returned to television, and played a large part in convincing people to take the revived Doctor Who seriously. Of course, Eccleston was never going to return for the anniversary special. There’s no blame, that’s just the way things are.

So The Day of the Doctor feels a little strange. There are quite a few points where it feels like Moffat is trying to dance between the rain drops of continuity here. He wants to tell a story about the last days of Gallifrey during the Time War, but Russell T. Davies already did that in The End of Time. Without Timothy Dalton appearing for a small cameo, we instead cut to another bunch of Time Lords who are doing something similar at the same time with only the most fleeting of references to what we’ve seen of the other last days of the war. (“They have their own plans.”) To describe it as a little convoluted is an understatement.

Eye see you...

Eye see you…

Indeed, the decision to create the War Doctor (or the Hurt Doctor) seems like the idea that might have stemmed from Eccleston’s initial reluctance to appear. It isn’t a bad idea by any stretch, and there’s something very telling about the fact that – in the wake of The Day of the Doctor – the Ninth Doctor spends his entire tenure wearing the same leather jacket as his genocidal self. He also wears all that sin and the guilt over his jumpers. Which is consistent with the characterisation of the Ninth Doctor, but it really feels like the Ninth Doctor is the only revival Doctor who isn’t forgiven by the end of The Day of the Doctor.

The Moment’s decision not to show the Hurt Doctor his direct successor feels a little bit passive aggressive, doesn’t it? There’s never any real discussion of the fact that the Hurt Doctor is being shown his Tenth and Eleventh iterations as part of it “It’ll Be a Wonderful Life”, while the Ninth is glossed over. Imagine how awkward that would be. “You’ll go through a year of pretty severe post-traumatic stress disorder and have a Northern accent.” Of course, this is a result of forces outside the show’s control, and it makes sense not to draw attention to Eccleston’s absence, but it remains quite conspicuous. The Ninth Doctor is not absolved.

Steering clear...

Steering clear…

Because, after all, The Day of the Doctor is dedicated to absolving the Doctor. It’s about wiping away the original sin of the revival, the genocide of the Daleks and the Time Lords. It’s something that Moffat has clearly been building towards since The Eleventh Hour, with the Eleventh Doctor’s succinct summary of the events of the Time War to a young Amy. Which feels a little appropriate. The Great War did, after all, end at eleven o’clock on the eleventh of the eleventh. So The Eleventh Hour itself could be said to refer to the true end of the Time War – a war the Eleventh Doctor describes as “the war to end all wars”, to cement the comparison.

Or, at the very least, the end of the massive shadow cast by the Time War over the series. While there were still occasional references to the Time War during the Moffat era, it was pushed very much to the background. Indeed, the run of episodes leading up to the fiftieth anniversary (including episodes like Hide and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS) featured more mention and discussion of the Time War than the rest of the previous Moffat era put together.

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A shadow of his past self…

Moffat concedes this point here as the three Doctors discuss the Time War in the Tower of London. As the Hurt Doctor ponders how many children were murdered in the end of the Time War, the Tenth Doctor discovers that the Eleventh Doctor has forgotten how many children he murdered. “I moved on,” Eleventh Doctor confesses when pressed on the matter by his direct predecessor. Moffat’s Doctor Who has very much been about moving past the tragedy and angst of that Time War back story. Which makes The Day of the Doctor a fairly effective capstone to the tenure of the Eleventh Doctor.

In that respect, the placing of The Day of the Doctor within the time line of the Tenth Doctor is quite clever. Moffat has placed The Day of the Doctor as late in the Tenth Doctor’s chronology as possible – between The Waters of Mars and The End of Time. While this does create the rather surreal sequence of character continuity where the Tenth Doctor saves Gallifrey and exiles the High Council in rapid succession, it makes a great deal of sense from a character point of view.

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Hanging on in there…

The Waters of Mars was very much the logical climax of Davies’ vision of the Doctor as a man wrestling with his darkest urges while left entirely to his own devices. The Water of Mars is the story about “the Time Lord Victorious”, the point at which the Tenth Doctor stops thinking of himself as the sole survivor of a genocidal war and begins to re-conceptualise himself as the victory of some impossibly large conflict.

In the context of Davies’ Doctor Who, it served as the point where the Tenth Doctor really had to go. This was the point where the Tenth Doctor’s fatal character flaw – his hubris – had reached critical mass and had begun to collapse in on itself. So the notion of “the Time Lord Victorious” was never directly dealt with in the context of The End of Time. It was instead a thematic link, suggesting that the Time War had tainted the Doctor just as it tainted all other participants.

Because it can't be a celebration of Doctor Who without the Daleks...

Because it can’t be a celebration of Doctor Who without the Daleks…

Featuring the marriage between the Doctor and Queen Elizabeth I, The Day of the Doctor is clearly situated in the gap between the two stories, as the Tenth Doctor is desperately running away from his own pending regeneration. Moffat even inserts an affectionate jab at the hubris of the Tenth Doctor’s regeneration. “I don’t want to go,” the Tenth Doctor muses at the end of The Day of the Doctor, prompting his successor to explain, “He always says that.”

Still, The Day of the Doctor is quite a clever piece of retroactive character work for the Tenth Doctor, explaining how the Tenth Doctor “got over” the whole “Time Lord Victorious” thing. It also perhaps explains why – on some level – the Eleventh Doctor was always more at peace about the Time War and its consequences than his two direct predecessors. Indeed, Moffat stops just short of giving the Tenth Doctor a nice floral lei as he departed on his adventures, making it clear that he is heading very directly towards his regeneration.

Thinking inside the box...

Thinking inside the box…

There’s a nice nod to Terrance Dicks as the Doctors meditate on why they chose that name – what “the promise” was when they took it. “Never cruel or cowardly,” the Tenth Doctor ruminates, which sounds like the most laudable of goals. It’s telling that The Night of the Doctor was predicated on the fact that the Eighth Doctor was too much of a “good man” to commit genocide. Quite a lot of Moffat’s tenure has involved reflecting on just how much of a “good man” the Eleventh Doctor is.

Certainly, criticisms can be levelled against the Tenth Doctor. He comes into The Day of the Doctor off the excesses of “the Time Lord Victorious” from The Waters of Mars. While episodes like Turn Left argue that the Tenth Doctor is undoubtedly a heroic figure who does more good than harm, Russell T. Davies was happy to suggest that the Tenth Doctor was capable of morally questionable decisions. His decision to depose Harriet Jones in The Christmas Invasion led to the Master conquering the world. His conduct towards the Master was certainly clouded by his own personal issues.

doctorwho-thedayofthedoctor4

Fez Who?

In contrast, Moffat is less ambiguous. The absence of the Doctor leads to lives ruined and friendships destroyed and stars dying and the universe ceasing to exist. And it’s not just something the show has broached once or twice. Pretty much every season finalé of the Moffat era is predicated on the idea that the Doctor not being around is a very bad thing. While experience would suggest that Moffat’s Doctor isn’t necessarily a good friend to have, he is a good man in the grand scheme of things.

So the return of Gallifrey and re-writing of history makes sense as a change to the Doctor’s character. It washes the blood of two billion children off his hand, as Moffat points out. After all, the Doctor is meant to be a character who saves children. Appropriately enough, the episode even goes back to Moffat’s first official Doctor Who scripts, The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances. The Day of the Doctors is “everybody lives!” writ on a universal scale, and an ability to wash away the stain left by committing genocide.

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More to the point…

That’s not to suggest that the Time War was a bad thing, or that Russell T. Davies made a mistake. That’s not the point of The Day of the Doctor at all. The series needed to relaunch with a clean slate. It needed a conscious break from the past. The destruction of Gallifrey and the concept of a Time War allowed for that. It provided an opportunity for Doctor Who to find its own feet and its own identity and to welcome in casual viewers without alienating them with an overly dense mythology.

In more artistic terms, the Time War was the perfect metaphor for the show’s cancellation. It was the death of everything, the collapse under the weight of the show’s own history and mythology. The Night of the Doctor shifted the burden of the wilderness years off Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor. After all, that seems an unfair weight for the Eighth Doctor to carry, given he’s had under two hours of screen time, but was also appearing on BBC radio plays between the second and third (and third and fourth) seasons of the revival.

doctorwho-thedayofthedoctor

Somewhere the tea is getting cold…

The Hurt Doctor has decidedly low self-esteem, having the misfortune to exist as the Doctor at a point in time where there was no Doctor Who – in the gap between Paul McGann and Christopher Eccleston. “I’ve lost the right to be the Doctor,” Hurt proclaims at one point. Later on, having witnessed the ingenuity of his successors, he reflects, “Great men are forged in fire. It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame.” Urging the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors to live their lives, he pleads, “Go on, be the Doctor that I could never be. Make it worth while.”

The Hurt Doctor is an appropriate title for the Doctor, and not jsut because he’s played by John Hurt. As with so much of Moffat’s writing, it leans rather heavily on the fourth wall. “Why is there never a big red button?” the Hurt Doctor wonders at one point, perhaps a rather cheeky nod at the decision to discontinue the BBC red button service, or just a nice coincidental reference to the difficulty that viewers on Sky almost had accessing the 3D broadcast of the episode.

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A good man goes to war…

Indeed, The Day of the Doctor plays quite well into Moffat’s grand themes. Moffat likes playing with storytelling in his Doctor Who. It’s not uncommon to hear his characters recite nursery rhymes. The Angels Take Manhattan finds Rory trapped inside a book. Silence in the Library features a child watching Doctor Who on television. Here, paintings come to life. Figures burst out of the frames holding them, in a rather nice nod towards the episode’s 3D broadcast.

And so The Day of the Doctor is full of cheeky references to the past. Some of these take the form of typical continuity references. There is a board with all the companions on it – even Kamelion! However, there are also quite a few external references to the history of the franchise itself. I like the idea of the Zygons, a Hinchcliffe era monster, hidden away in a basement with “art too dangerous for public consumption.” That is the Hinchcliffe and Holmes era in a nutshell, isn’t it? Similarly, I like the incorporation of Terrance Dicks’ stock description of the character into the show’s back story itself.

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Screwdrivers at the ready!

Appropriately enough, The Day of the Doctor is fascinated with the relationship that exists between the classic series and the revival. “The moment” serves as a conscious break in continuity between the two, and John Hurt’s decidedly older Doctor repeatedly draws attention to the differences between the classic show and its spiritual successor. When the Hurt Doctor confronts his older selves, he can’t believe that they are him. “Are you his companions?” he asks. “They get younger all the time.”

The Hurt Doctor finds himself repeating the phrase “wibbly wobbly timey wimey”, as if trying to figure out why he would ever talk like that – let alone act or look like his older selves. “Am I having a mid-life crisis?” he demands, trying to settle on an explanation for his David Tennant and Matt Smith. “What is it that makes you so ashamed of being a grown-up?” the Hurt Doctor ponders, voicing a common complaint that the Doctor himself tends to be more youthful and energetic (with a shorter attention span) since the show came back. I also liked the dig at the pair for holding the sonic screwdriver like a “water pistol.”

doctorwho-thedayofthedoctor1

It doesn’t work on wood…

(Indeed, as the bridge that exists between the classic show and the revival, the Hurt Doctor even gets to voice some of that “the show’s too sexy now” criticism that has been popping up since the revival went back on the air. Watching the Tenth Doctor make out with Queen Elizabeth, the Hurt Doctor ponders, “Is there a lot of this in the future?” All that the Eleventh Doctor can offer is, “It does start to happen.”)

It’s quite telling that The Day of the Doctor has Hurt echo a lot of the same complaints that Moffat had the Fifth Doctor make in Time Crash. There’s a sense that Moffat’s Doctor Who is a show that very desperately wants and needs the validation of the classic series. After all, the entire plot of The Day of the Doctor is about the Hurt Doctor staring into the franchise’s future and trying to decide whether that future is a worthy heir to his legacy.

Let Zygons be Zygons...

Let Zygons be Zygons…

While The Day of the Doctor does feature the Hurt Doctor receiving validation from his successors – “you were the Doctor on the day it wasn’t possible to get it right” – that feels more like Moffat validating the various forms that Doctor Who took during the wilderness years; the off-shoots and projects that filled the long gap between Survival and Rose. After all, The Night of the Doctor confers legitimacy upon Paul McGann’s radio plays; the presence of Kate Stewart is an homage to the direct-to-video releases.

It’s telling that – on top of casting Richard E. Grant as the big bad of this fiftieth anniversary season – Moffat even found a way to include David Warner (in Cold War) and Arabella Weir (in The Doctor, the Widow & the Wardrobe) in the show’s seventh season. Grant, Warner and Weir have all played alternate versions of the Doctor over the years. As such, it makes sense that the season has built towards an explicitly alternate version of the Doctor.

The moment is here...

The moment is here…

Hurt represents an older version of the character judging his successors, but he’s also an embodiment of the big gap in the show’s chronology. He’s just a personification of the schism that took place at the end of the classic series. “I’ve had many faces, many lives,” the Eleventh Doctor concedes. “I don’t admit to all of them.” It’s important that the Eleventh Doctor doesn’t give a number. The Doctor was infinite during the gap between the classic show and the revival. He was Nicholas Briggs and Richard E. Grant and Derek Jacobi and David Warner and even Rowan Atkninson.

The Hurt Doctor is just a nice symbol of that continuity schism, of that gap that exists in the space where Doctor Who was off the BBC and was so many different things all at once. The Day of the Doctor is about taking those things and acknowledging them and owning them. It’s about preserving the characterisation of the Eighth Doctor in The TV Movie by refusing to make him responsible for mass murder. It’s about incorporating a character from a forgotten direct-to-video film. It’s about acknowledging the existence of companions who only existed in audio.

And it as much as it’s about “admitting” to everything, it’s also about connecting the classic show and the revival. Because, despite some cosmetic differences, The Day of the Doctor exists to affirm that this is definitely the same show. That continuity definitely exists between the old and the new series, and that it is all part of one gigantic tapestry of Doctor Who. Even some of the crazy “out of continuity” stuff like Kate Stewart or Lucie Miller. I’m surprised that The Day of the Doctor didn’t drag the Shalka Doctor and the Cushing Doctor into continuity somehow.

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Don’t mention the War…

Describing the screwdriver, the Bad Wolf boasts, “Same software, different case.” She’s obviously talking about the Doctor himself, as she concedes. More than that, though, she’s talking about the show. Doctor Who might look and sound a bit different; the structure may have changed; the pacing might be a lot faster; but it’s still Doctor Who. It’s no coincidence that the Zygons are the villains here; aliens whose entire schtick is creating copies? That feels thematically appropriate from an episode about when two very different cases can hold the exact same content. And that’s a pretty effective theme for the show’s fiftieth anniversary.

Appropriately enough, the rather flimsy story running through The Day of the Doctor involves the escape of monsters from the show’s past into its present. The Zygons are among the very few remaining iconic aliens who haven’t appeared in modern Doctor Who, so their involvement here is important. However, there’s a bit more to it than that, as we’ll come to in a moment. Interestingly, Moffat doesn’t just tie the show’s past to its present; he ties the present to the past.

doctorwho-thedayofthedoctor12

I Hurt myself today…

Moffat is playful here. Conversing with the curator of the museum, suggesting that there may be some future where the Fourth Doctor does return to work for U.N.I.T., the Doctor ponders how the past and present relate to one another. “If I were you… perhaps I was you, of course,” the possibly!Fourth Doctor muses. “Or perhaps, you are me. Congratulations. Or perhaps it doesn’t matter either way. Who knows.” The past and the present aren’t necessarily separate entities, particularly on a show about time travel. They co-exist and bleed into one another.

Here, the Zygons are revealed to be refugees from the Time War. This is no surprise. After all, Rose featured the Autons as refugees from the Last Great Time War. However, there’s something very interesting here. The Zygon home world isn’t destroyed here. It was already destroyed in Terror of the Zygons, back during the seventies. “The Zygons lost their world,” we’re informed. “It burnt in the first days of the Time War.” However, we’ve already seen (or at least heard of) it burn. This isn’t Moffat re-writing history. This is Moffat connecting history. They are, after all, “invading the future from the past.”

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Talking to himself…

In Terror of the Zygons, the destruction of the planet was described as “a recent catastrophe.” As such, the destruction of it during the Time War is clearly intended to be the same destruction. Writing this way, Moffat clearly intends Terror of the Zygons to be about fall-out from a piece of continuity that won’t exist for almost forty years. “Wibbly wobbly timey wimey” and all that. It’s a rather clever piece of retroactive continuity, for all sorts of geeky reasons.

On a purely pedantic level, it really builds off Russell T. Davies’ famous assertion that Genesis of the Daleks was the first shot of the Time War. As such, the Terror of the Zygons, which aired a few months later, really would be “the first days of the Time War.” More than that, though, it cements a thematical tie between all the “war in heaven” back stories of various Hinchcliffe and Holmes stories (Terror of the Zygons, The Brain of Morbius, The Talons of Weng-Chiang) with the ultimate “war in heaven” back story of the revival’s Time War.

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The TARDIS’ previous Tennant…

However, while reaffirming the links to the show’s past, Moffat is also willing to make a few criticisms. In this respect then, The Day of the Doctor feels like it’s building on the themes that Robert Holmes suggested in The Two Doctors. The inclusion of the Zygons here is rather pointed. Terror of the Zygons is a classic series story that ended with the Doctor effectively wiping out the Zygon race. This was acceptable, of course, because they looked like monsters.

The revival has been a bit shrewder with the notion of monsters. This makes sense. After all, we’re more conscious of judging people on what they look like these days, and the idea of monsters that are inherently evil because they look strange has unfortunate implications. Moffat cleverly roots this storytelling shift in the Time War, suggesting that the Doctor is less likely to be willing to condemn an alien race to death as a result of his conscience.

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He Rose to the challenge…

“How many worlds do you think his regret has saved?” the Hurt Doctor asks Clara. “Look over there. Humans and Zygons working together in peace.” Appropriately enough, even the flimsy alien invasion story at the heart of The Day of the Doctor has a happy ending, with humans and Zygons coming to understand one another rather than simply trying to wipe one another out. In that respect then, Moffat argues, the present does have some advantages over the past.

It’s a very valid criticism of classic Doctor Who. That said, including it in the anniversary special is a decidedly bold move from Moffat. These anniversaries are usually purely celebratory affairs, so even including a veiled criticism (and it is quite heavily veiled unlike Holmes’ critique of nostalgia in The Two Doctors) is a very interesting choice. Naturally, it doesn’t drown out the feel good factor of the anniversary special, which is suitably overwhelming.

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The writing’s on the wall…

“At last I know where I’m going,” the Eleventh Doctor muses at the end of the episode. “Where I’ve always been going. Home. The long way round.” It may have taken eight years, but Doctor Who has finally come completely home.

You might be interested in our other reviews of Matt Smith’s third season of Doctor Who:

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11 Responses

  1. Your reviews always make me look at things in a different light. And I love checking them out after just seeing the episode (I really need to find the time and go back and watch older Doctor Who episodes.)
    I loved the episode. Loved the connections it made and the way it was all drawn together, as well as the way Tennant and Smith bounced off each other. There were a lot of moments, for me, where I just couldn’t stop grinning, especially towards the end. Just a shame it’s a month until the Christmas episode!

    • Still, a month is less than the gap between The Name of the Doctor and The Day of the Doctor!

      Thanks for your kind words. I hope that people get something from the reviews.

      With regards to going back and watching older episodes, I’d suggest carefully dipping your toes into the water. They’re an acquired – but delightful taste.

      If you want recommendations, I’d recommend starting with a short-ish one, a four-parter. Possibly Curse of Fenric or Remembrance of the Daleks with Sylvester McCoy, or the Caves of Androzani with Peter Davison. Caves of Androzani is one of my favourite Doctor Who things ever, with only The Girl in the Fireplace in contention against it. If you’re feeling bold, maybe an earlier one like Spearhead from Space with Jon Pertwee (which was an obvious inspiration for the first episode of the revival) or anything from the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era with Tom Baker (The Ark in Space, Brain of Morbius, Robots of Death, come to mind).

      • Cool, thanks for the recommendations! My media studies teacher in school actually showed us the very first episode. Everyone in the room was like “what? Black and white? Rubbish!” but me and my mates loved it. Think, as far as I remember, it was shortly before Doctor Who came back. Yeah, she was awesome. But yeah, I’ll try to check those ones out at some point.

  2. I can only echo wonderinggrace’s comment. Your reviews are engaging and thought provoking, and, as someone with a weakness for silly humour, the captions always elicit a chuckle! Same goes for your reviews of The X-Files first season. Sorry if this is being cheeky, but is there any chance of you continuing those into the second season and beyond?

    **SPOILER ALERT, just in case**

    As for The Day of the Doctor, I loved it. I’ll confess to being unconvinced early on, but by the scene of the thirteen Tardises converging on Gallifrey, complete with the Capaldi cameo, I was sold. Everything else was just icing on the cake at that point!

    • Thanks very much for your kind words!

      With regards to The X-Files, I really enjoyed the first season. I’d hope to do the second season some time next year, if all goes to plan and no surprises come up.

  3. Love your review.
    Thanks.

  4. Incredible review. You always get me to think about things deeper than I ever would have otherwise. Also, quick question: where did you get the shots of Tennant in his TARDIS? I don’t remember him in his TARDIS in the speacial.

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