First off, a couple of disclaimers : this is one of those reviews that’s going to pre-suppose a fair amount of knowledge about the BBC’s Doctor Who from the outset, so if you’re not at the very least a casual viewer of the show, you’re going to feel pretty lost right from the word go. So, ya know — newbies beware. Secondly, it’s well-nigh impossible, at this point, to discuss The Day Of The Doctor without indulging in some pretty serious “spoiler talk,” so if you’re part of the legion of “spoiler police” that apparently have nothing better to do than troll around the internet looking to play seagull (fly in, make a lot of noise, shit all over everything, and fly back out) with any review that gives away any plot points whatsoever, now would be a good time fuck directly off. Major “spoilers” do, in fact, abound here, so — you’ve been warned.
Now, with all that out of the way —
For those of us who have been “Whovians” for a long time, the 50th anniversary really has been something of a “pinch me, I gotta be dreaming” type of year, hasn’t it? Especially for us sad souls who stuck with fandom during the so-called “wilderness years” between 1989 and 2005, when the 30th anniversary gave us the debacle that was Dimensions In Time, the 35th anniversary gave us — well, nothing, I guess — and the 40th anniversary essentially went unnoticed, even by us, because we were all too busy speculating about what the just-announced-at-the-time new series would end up looking, feeling, and being like.
Our only frames of reference, then, for how the BBC would celebrate a major anniversary with the show as a going concern were the 10th, 20th, and 25th anniversaries. For the tenth, there wasn’t much by way of hoopla and tie-in merchandising and the like, but we did get The Three Doctors (why I’m saying “we” here I have no idea, as I was barely two years old at the time and had never, to my knowledge at least, seen the show — but whatever), which was not only the first big “reunion story,” but a pretty cracking good adventure, as well, that introduced the now-legendary figure of Omega into the Who mythos.
For the 20th, it has to be said that the Beeb pulled out all the stops. For one splendid year there they seemed to be willing to acknowledge that this creaky little cheap show that they tried their best to keep out of the public eye really was a genuine global phenomenon despite their best efforts to make it anything but, and we got a slew of anniversary-themed books, toys, magazines, posters — you name it.
And there was Longleat. Ah, yes, Longleat. Fandom’s own Woodstock. The biggest single Doctor Who-related event ever, tales of it still abound — and, like fish stories, grow with each re-telling — to this day. I wasn’t there. I was a 12-year-old kid in the US. But we heard about it, even without the benefit of instantaneous online communication. It sounded great then. It sounds even better now. Memories, real or imagined, of Longleat frankly eclipse anything else as far as the 20th anniversary is concerned, especially since the special 90-minute “reunion story” we all got to see, The Five Doctors, was a rather tepid affair at best.
I’ll tell you what, though — warts and all, The Five Doctors was a key moment for American fans for one simple reason : we got to see it first. That’s’ right, us poor yanks, who had yet to see William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, or, in most cases, even Jon Pertwee reruns — we sad former colonists who had been subsisting on a diet of the same Tom Baker and Peter Davison stories over and over again ad infinitum — we got the anniversary special a matter of hours before it was shown on its own native soil. There was a quiet message being sent here — try as the suits at the BBC might to present an image on the home front as a broadcasting organization that specialized in period costume dramas and in-depth news (remember when there was such a thing?), internationally, they knew which side their bread was buttered on. Doctor Who was their number one worldwide property, and the booming American fan market was where the action was. Let’s just not tell the folks back in the UK, shall we?
Following on from that, though, something curious happened — more or less immediately after admitting that an international breakthrough was taking place, with a Doctor Who convention going on, quite literally, every weekend in one major American city or other, Auntie Beeb suddenly remembered that the show was an embarrassment. At the very same moment that an ever-hungrier North American fan base was clamoring for more Who, the powers that be decided to give us less. In these days before mass-released DVD or even VHS, a famished fan can only subsist on the same set of re-runs over and over again for so long, and the BBC effectively killed its own golden goose by putting the show “on hiatus” for 18 months — then giving us drastically shortened seasons when it did, in fact, quietly return.
As a result, the 25th anniversary was a complete disaster, both at home and abroad. Very little recognition was given to the occasion from official quarters, and the “special story” broadcast to commemorate what should have been a proud milestone instead was a limp little Cybermen three-parter called Silver Nemesis that essentially followed the exact same plotline as the recently-concluded (and far superior) Remembrance Of The Daleks, only with different villains.
All in all, it was an anniversary well worth forgetting.
Fast forward a quarter century and things couldn’t be more different. Doctor Who is the shit, as far as the BBC is concerned. This is is a new iteration of Who, of course, broadcast by a new BBC that, for good or ill, has its eye more on its balance sheets than its purported reputation. Fans around the world are lapping it up, Who-themed merchandise is ubiquitous, and the money machine is rolling. Of course the 50th anniversary is going to be the biggest multi-media juggernaut the BBC has ever undertaken, what do you think they are — stupid?
Full disclosure — I’m something of a curmudgeon when it comes to Doctor Who. I miss the days when the cracks showed and the creaks could be heard. I loved the inventiveness that the Philip Hinchcliffes and Robert Holmeses and Barry Lettses and Malcolm Hulkes (among too many others to mention) were forced to either find or fall back on to make silk purses out of sow’s ears. I loved the first season of the new series, to be sure, but it’s been leaving me feeling increasingly unimpressed ever since. Under Russell T. Davies’ stewardship, I felt it became bland and formulaic. Under Steven Moffat’s. it’s become bland, formulaic, and overly impressed with itself.
But never once did I consider throwing in the towel and walking away. No sir (or madam). You always keep hope alive for the home team.
And so here we all are — November 23rd, 2013, exactly 50 years to the day from the broadcast of An Unearthly Child, and all of us, everywhere around the world, get to see The Day Of The Doctor, the culmination of an entire year of set-to-overdrive mass-marketing, at exactly the same time.
But was it any good? And, furthermore, are we all still a bit too giddy to even care?
Well, having watched it twice now, I feel the time has come to give it at least something of a fair-minded analysis, even if the glow of the occasion hasn’t faded entirely just yet.
Indications were that we would probably very well be in for a monumental-type story that would shake the foundations of everything we knew and shake up the Etch-A-Sketch all over again. After intense months of speculation, the Night Of The Doctor mini-“webisode” (and thank you thank you for bringing back Paul McGann !) confirmed that John Hurt was, indeed, a “missing Doctor” that none of us had known about before — furthermore, he was no ordinary Doctor, he was “The War Doctor,” whatever that means. We figured there would be Daleks. We knew David Tennant and Billie Piper were returning. We assumed we’d be plunged back into the Time War — and, once it was announced that Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith would be departing come the Christmas special, we guessed that we might finally get some inkling as to what his (far too heavy-handedly) forthcoming demise at a place called Trenzalore was all about.
We got some of that. And something else that we probably weren’t expecting, as well — an accessible, “stand-alone” story featuring the return of fan- favorite monsters the Zygons. For a time, at any rate.
There’s some rather bland set-up material (that once again bastardizes the memory of U.N.I.T., this time doubling the insult by throwing The Brigadier’s daughter into the mix) with Smith and current companion Clara (played by Jenna Coleman) at the outset, then we do, in fact, go back into the Time War with John Hurt’s War Doctor, then we get re-introduced to Billie Piper (not, mind you, as Rose Tyler — in fact, she seems to still think she’s working on The Secret Diary Of A Call Girl here), and then, after cribbing much of the basic multi-Doctor story set-up idea from both The Thee Doctors and The Five Doctors, writer/head honcho Steven Moffat takes a turn and gives us a somewhat nifty standard-issue Zygon -invasion story that pretty much works, even if he did rip the core idea straight from Grant Morrison’s old Doom Patrol story “The Painting That Ate Paris.” No real harm in that, mind you — Doctor Who has often been at its best when liberally “borrowing” from other works.
Then, though, things do go a bit pear-shaped (again). After lots of fairly successful three-Doctor banter, some good, old-fashioned breaking out of jail cells (that were never locked, but that’s another story), some running around in corridors (yes!), and some nifty little doppleganging that should adequately thrill n’ chill the kiddies in the audience (and ,okay, some of us grown-ups, as well), Moffat does something — I dunno. Curious, I guess, if you’re being generous, and stupid and/or lazy if you’re not.
After spending over 40 minutes bringing the human/Zygon confrontation to a head, getting them all in a room, and employing a very nifty conceit to flat-out force them to negotiate, he drops the whole story. We never find out how it ends. And we’re back in Time War territory again. Only this time with a bigger Deus Ex Machina at the center of it than even anything RTD ever gave us — a big Hellraiser-box-on-steroids with a gleaming red button that the Doctor can push to just end everything.
And he does. Or did. But he doesn’t anymore.
Look, we all know that this show has strayed pretty far from its roots. “You can’t change history, Barbara! Not one line!” has given way to a new “philosophy” of “time can be re-written.” But this, well — let’s just say that the very events that gave birth to the Ninth (or I guess that should now be Tenth) Doctor, Christopher Eccelston, and in turn his successors in the role — well, they’re just no more. The past seven seasons of the show? Well, I guess they still happened — but now, apparently, not the way we saw them. At least not anymore. And the Doctor is most certainly no longer the “Last Of The Time Lords.”
So — what does it all mean? Shit, I dunno. Gallifrey still exists. In a painting. It never stopped existing (except, ya know, when it did). And whereas the entire history of Doctor Who is based on the concept of a Time Lord running away from home (even though that mythology was developed nearly a decade after the show first aired) — a point that was re-emphasized in The Five Doctors with Fifth Doctor Peter Davison”s famous “Why not? That’s how it all started!” line — now we’re told that the Doctor is going “where I’ve always been going — back home.”
So, ya know, all that Trenzalore stuff we’ve been building up to? Forget all that. It’s Gallifrey or bust now, folks!
I guess all this should be exciting — and maybe, on paper, it is. I like being thrust into unknown waters as far as Doctor Who goes. Even though I’m a bit of a self-admitted sad old traditionalist, as stated earlier. In the days when all we had going were the Eighth Doctor BBC novels, Lawrence Miles’ much-maligned Interference, which basically set all of Who continuity on its ear (for a time, at any rate) excited me. And all this could well do the same — if I had more confidence in the current show-running regime to get things right. Which I don’t. Buuuuuuttttt —
They did get some things here right, unquestionably. The “old school” opening shots in black and white, complete with vintage theme music, were marvelous. The direction by Nick Hurran was energetic, pacy, and cinematic (in a good way) throughout. The Three Doctors redux portion of the story, with John Hurt functioning as a William Hartnell stand-in, was a joy to watch. Clara seems to be coming along nicely as a companion and was essential to the proceedings here without overshadowing them — as Davies had a tendency to do with Rose, in particular. And as for that ending —
Okay, it was about as subtle as a neo-Nazi march through downtown Tel Aviv in broad daylight, I’ll grant you — Clara : The curator wants to see you. The Doctor (sitting, as Clara exits) : Okay. A curator. I’d like to be a curator. I’d be a good curator. Curators are cool. I should retire one day. Maybe I’ll be a curator when I retire. Yes, that’s it, I’ll retire and be a curator. In fact, I bet in some “timey-wimey” way I’ve already done that. And this curator guy who’s about to talk to me, shit, who are we kidding? It’s me. Or another of me, at any rate. It’s Tom Baker. He’s here. In the building. That’s Tom Baker standing right behind me — but still : it was. Tom Baker. Standing right behind him. And yes, the dialogue was trying too hard to be mysterious and momentous and came off instead as clumsy, but cone on, people. There he was. The Doctor. My Doctor. And I deserve to smile for the rest of the day for that reason alone. And so do you.
So who knows? Maybe a partial changing of the guard is all that’s in order here. Maybe Moffat just needs to scrap all the baggage that’s hanging on Matt Smith — baggage that, okay, “The Moff” himself put there, but let’s not nitpick here — and start fresh with Thirteenth (did I get that right?) Doctor Peter Capaldi, who actually makes his brief debut in this story in another very cool (if, yeah, very gimmicky) moment. Maybe a re-write of the last seven-plus seasons is just what — sorry! — the Doctor ordered. Maybe it’ll be good for him to go home again. If — and only if — once that’s all over, he follows the best advice his Ninth (excuse me, I guess that’s Tenth) persona ever gave : “run for your life!”
I’ve been waiting a good few years now for Doctor Who to relieve itself of the burden of its own excesses and get back to the strength — and dare I say beauty — of its core premise, as so splendidly told in Mark Gatiss’ awe-inspring TV movie (and the real highlight of the 50th anniversary so far) An Adventure In Time And Space — a mysterious traveler making his way through the the past, the present, and the future of the whole, entire universe in a rickety old blue police box that’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. That, right there, is all we’ve ever needed.
The Day Of The Doctor did enough , glaring flaws notwithstanding, to make most any fan — including this one — feel more than just a little bit giddy throughout, and I’m reasonably thankful for that, but it came up short in terms of re-setting the table in the kind of fundamental fashion I’m still hoping to see. It rattled the cupboards, and that’s a good first step, but we’ll have to see where and how the pieces fall after the Christmas special, which has rather stolen its thunder as the big “event” piece of Doctor Who for the year. We seem to be heading straight into the heart of Who mythology and continuity for one last (I hope, at any rate) big blow-out. So, yeah — let him go home again. If that’s what he needs to do to run away.
After all, that’s how it all started.