The absolute barrage of Doctor Who related content over the last few weeks plus my own lack of practice with writing these sorts of reviews over the last several months have conspired to make this one of the more overwhelming experiences in writing I’ve endured. Add to that the mad tangle of plot and emotion which was “The Day of the Doctor,” and this has all the makings of incoherence. However, I shall follow the Doctor’s example of trying even if it means failing and will add my two cents to what is quickly becoming one of the landmark episodes of Who history.
Like most Steven Moffat episodes (especially the recent finales) “The Day of the Doctor” requires several viewings. While repeat viewings do not always lend understanding (I’m looking at you, “The Wedding of River Song”), “The Day of the Doctor” actually does succeed in a kind of Whovian logic. The tripartite structure is essential for the Doctor’s ultimate revelation. Like Moffat’s earlier episode “The Girl in the Fireplace,” it is difficult to say when this episode takes place exactly. While most Who episodes are set in past, present or future, “The Day of the Doctor” flips effortlessly between all three, celebrating the breadth of the show’s locations and settings over the last 50 years. (Well, I suppose the Time War stuff may also be past, but the setting is so technologically advanced and futuristic as to count for the same thing, and it is never made entirely clear exactly when in time the Time War occurs in any event).
That alone would have been enough reason to include the Zygon/Liz I subplot, but it serves a greater function than that which some reviewers are failing to recognize. As the War Doctor says, he isn’t shown “any old future,” but “exactly the future [he] needed to see.” The Zygon plot to invade 21st century London via the stasis cube and Gallifreyan oil paintings is what inspires the idea of how to save Gallifrey (think of it as cup of soup, if you like). In addition, the thematic resemblance between Kate Lethbridge-Stewart’s willingness to sacrifice her city to save the world (and the later Doctors’ clear disapproval of this plan) to the Doctor’s impending use of the Moment further emphasize the importance of this apparently unrelated plot-line to the larger, more mythological story. While undeniably left unresolved, the Zygon plot was never the heart of the story but rather the Moment’s means of communication to the War Doctor, rather like the Christmas ghosts changing Scrooge’s mind and heart by showing him key moments in his past and future. Plus, we are gifted with the delightful resolution to the recurring Elizabeth I jokes, completing the circle which began six years ago in “The Shakespeare Code.”
As much as I enjoyed the stuff with Liz I and the Zygons, and think they are essential to the story, they are clearly not the point of the story. The point is the Doctor and his gradual evolution. Moffat wasn’t lying when he said this story would be all about the Doctor. In effect, what we are given is a physicalization of the Doctor’s thought process over 400 years, poignantly and succinctly represented by a trinity of Doctors. John Hurt’s War Doctor is exhausted, burdened with responsibility and world-weary, yet appropriately naive and unsure. He is embarrassed at first by his successors’ youthfulness. “Do you have to talk like children?” he asks. “What makes you so ashamed of being a grown up?” As C.S. Lewis said, “To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; These are the marks of childhood and adolescence.” David Tennant’s 10th Doctor, passionate as always, is “the man who regrets,” recalling his heartbreaking and remorseful scenes in episodes such as “Gridlock,” “Last of the Time Lords,” and “The Waters of Mars.” The 10th Doctor feels most strongly, whether it be grief, anger, or happiness. He is still stuck in the mire of his own emotions, unable to change or let go. Furthest along the spectrum is our protagonist, Matt Smith, the 11th Doctor. Although all Doctors are one and the same, the 11th is the one who is present for the audience. He is oldest, he is current. The 11th Doctor, “the man who forgets,” has always been more aloof than his immediate predecessors. Though not uncaring, his story has spent less time dwelling on his own past, and now we know why: He has repressed, and consequently has regressed. He is a Peter Pan, embracing childishness as a means to keep the unbearable weight of guilt at bay. However, he has not been static. The loss of Amy and Rory, his comparatively long life, and the more sensible influence of Clara have done him good, and in the second half of series 7 we’ve seen a more mature and wise Doctor than any so far in New Who. Consequently, it is he who changes his mind. As prefigured in “The Forest of the Dead,” the Doctor benefits from his own long years of thought and experience (“future me had all those years to think about it…”). What makes Doctor Who magical is that he can actually use this knowledge to go back in time and make a better decision.
If ever the Doctor deserved such a complete victory, it is the 50th Anniversary. Say what you like, I don’t believe that this cancels out the last 7 series of story, either. Far from it, they are vital to his character development. The War Doctor was prepared and perfectly capable of using the Moment: His capability for violence and warfare is still an undeniable part of his character, and he is scarred by years of terrible acts besides just act of ultimate destruction. Furthermore, Moffat made sure that in the process of unweaving their tangled timelines the earlier Doctors lose their memories. The integrity of the Doctor’s journey is protected. The 9th Doctor will be born into incredible sadness and self-loathing, and his suffering will start a chain reaction of introspection and heroism which will eventually lead the 11th Doctor back in time to save Gallifrey all over again in a perfect loop. “Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff.”
That time-honored and oft-quoted phrase of course made its way into the 50th (“I have no idea where he picks that stuff up,” says 10, hilariously throwing 11 under the bus) and brings me to my next point: How many huge laughs were packed into this episode. Besides making the Doctor think all sorts of deep thoughts, this is the other (and equally important) function that the multi-Doctor format serves. John Hurt’s outsider War Doctor is suitably disapproving and puzzled by the other two. “Are you capable of speaking without flapping your hands?” he asks the 11th, who responds with another overzealous gesture. He compares their use of the sonic screwdrivers to water pistols, and when both fly into the fray with their silly catchphrases, he lets out and exasperated, “Oh, for God’s sake.” As he’s regenerating, he ironically hopes for smaller ears in his next incarnation (apologies, Chris Ecc).
The real hilarity, though, is between Tennant and Smith. Hurt holds his own, but we don’t really know his Doctor. For the jokes to mean anything, they have to come from and be directed towards characters and actors that we have personal investment in, and the 10th and 11th dish it out in fine form. The screen sparkles whenever they’re sparring together, as when 11 tells 10 to reverse the polarity. Both brandish their screwdrivers, and 11 points out that nothing’s happening.
10: We’re both reversing the polarity.
11: Yes, I know that.
10: I’m reversing it, you’re reversing it back. We’re confusing the polarity.
The barrage of insults between “Chinny” and “Sand Shoes” is delightful, but just as much fun (if not more so) is when they see eye to eye, as when they each notice the other’s “brainy specs.” One of the funniest moments is when the TARDIS desktop starts glitching, and 11 joyfully exclaims:
11: Hey look, the round things!
10: I love the round things.
11: What are the round things?
10: No idea.
That air of nostalgia accounts for many of the episode’s sweetest moments. A number of 10th Doctor tropes returned with Tennant: A “machine that goes ding!,” a white steed, his bittersweet final words. The 11th Doctor, too, was at his madcap best: Throwing his fez through wormholes, hanging out of the TARDIS like in “The Eleventh Hour. Seeing the two of them together just reinforces how exceptionally well both played the role, complimenting rather than rivaling each other, emphasizing different aspects of the Doctor’s many-faceted personality. “Same software, different face.”
Appropriate as it is that this episode focuses on the Doctor, however, the female leads still have crucial parts to play. I’ll get to Billie Piper’s role in a bit, but for the moment it is enough to say that both fulfill the thematic role of the companion. Current companion Clara sticks by the Doctor, prompting (all versions of) him to make the good, compassionate decision. It is vital that all three of them have their hands hovering over the Big Red Button, ready to push, and it is Clara’s tear-stained face which prompts the Doctor to pause and rethink his actions. “I just never pictured you…” she says to her Doctor. It is she who communicates the 11th Doctor’s regret to the War Doctor. As much as this is the Day of the Doctor, there is no Doctor without a Companion. This is what the War Doctor lacks. His fate is changed when he finds that this time (as the Face of Boe predicted) he is “not alone.” As the noble Donna articulated with remarkable insight all those years ago, sometimes the Doctor needs someone to stop him. Even three Doctors are not enough. Clara does stop him and instructs him to “be a Doctor.” And of course he does.
Billie Piper’s role is similar but more interesting. She is, it turns out, not Rose Tyler but a projection of the Moment: A weapon of mass destruction “so advanced that it became sentient” and developed a conscience. What a fascinating, quintessentially Doctor Who idea: Kind weaponry with a mind of its own. The Moment does not want to be used; She (or it) muses on the deaths of the billions of children and the miserable fate in store for the Doctor should be go through with it. Fascinatingly, the Moment chooses the form of Rose Tyler for its representative. Billie Piper turns in yet another scene-stealing performance, reminding us of her tremendous skills. She plays a character not much like Rose at all. Indeed, she sounds uncannily like TARDIS as embodied by Idris in “The Doctor’s Wife,” which is quite appropriate as both are sentient machinery. In fact it’s so close I can’t believe that Moffat and Piper didn’t design her with that in mind. There’s the worn and wild clothing, the posh accent, the confusion about tenses and timelines, and the jokes about their attractiveness to the Doctor:
Idris: I think you call me…Sexy. / 11: Only when we’re alone!
The War Doctor: The interface is hot. / The Moment: Well, I do my best.
That is not to say that the appearance of Rose is unimportant, however. If any character were to embody the Doctor’s conscience, it is surely Rose Tyler (The only other clear choice would have been Sarah Jane, although Lis Sladen has sadly passed away). I cannot think of a more fitting choice for the role, and it stands as one of Moffat’s most genius ideas in his entire Doctor Who oeuvre.
The Moment is also, however, Bad Wolf, emphasizing its omniscience and omnipotence. The Moment has really orchestrated this entire story, and while the idea of a compassionate weapon is comforting it is also chilling. As one of the Time Lords points out, “How do you use a weapon of ultimate mass destruction when it can stand judgement on you?” Ever since its first mention in “The End of Time,” the idea of the Moment has evoked myth on a Biblical scale, and Moffat’s evocative interpretation has suitably lived up to that grand vision.
Speaking of the mythic, I think it’s only fitting to end with the Curator as Moffat did (barring the obligatory final shot of all the Doctors together). First of all, having Tom Baker in the 50th anniversary episode is so obvious that one couldn’t blame Moffat for including him even if the idea didn’t really make sense. What Moffat did, however, is so much more beautiful and suggestive than I would have imagined from what is, ultimately, a fan-service cameo. Who or what is the Curator? In his own words, “Who knows?” The ambiguity of his identity is absolutely delicious. Is he a future incarnation of the Doctor? He certainly seems to be. He and the 11th know each other – neither ever forgets a face. “If I were you, oh…,” he catches himself, “or perhaps I was you. Or perhaps you are me. Or maybe it doesn’t matter either way.” Will we ever find out exactly who (or when) the Curator is? Honestly, I hope not. Wearing the face of Tom Baker, the oldest surviving and most iconic actor to ever play the part, he is more than just another incarnation of the character. He is the show. He is the show itself, looking the character in the eye, and telling him that it will all be alright. That this story is a happy one. “You have a lot to do,” he whispers, eyes full of remembrance and anticipation. Whatever the Doctor does, whatever he chooses, the adventure will be worth watching. This scene is nothing short of exquisite and truly poetic, and thank you Tom Baker for agreeing to appear.
And so Moffat sets the stage for the next chapter of the story, but who knows (who nose?) what that will even look like. The Doctor’s potential retirement as the humble and kind Curator is directly contradicted by his knowledge of his own dark fate on the Fields of Trenzalore, and rumor has it that he’ll be facing that fate rather soon. Similarly, the single intense shot of Peter Capaldi’s fierce glare was (to me) simultaneously thrilling and disturbing. What exactly will this 12th (if that’s even his number) Doctor be like? Will he be truly at peace, or will this knowledge of his planet’s safety change him in more surprising ways? Time will tell. As long as we are still asking that question of the new Doctor, this show will keep on going, and quite right, too.