Television anniversary stories in Doctor Who are strange affairs. They have to strike a balance. On one hand they are expected to cram in fan-pleasing moments to acknowledge the rich history of the series, to be fronted by multiple versions of the Doctor, and they demand the presence of iconic monsters; and on the other hand they have to have a decent but straightforward plot, a narrative that will appeal to the widest possible demographic, and hook the many family generations who enjoy having Doctor Who in their lives. Previous anniversary stories have tackled this balancing act with varying degrees of success.
The most prominent television specials are those celebrating the 10th and 20th birthdays - The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors. The 30th was an EastEnders less than charitable cross-over called Dimensions in Time, shot in an unimpressive 3D process, and over which we should draw a discreet veil. The 40th was quietly left to the books, audios, and animation of the so-called 'Wilderness Years' but all of which were put into the shade somewhat by the September 2003 announcement - Doctor Who was coming back onto telly.
So, The Day of the Doctor follows in this tradition and, on the whole, tips the balance favourably in most directions, even upping the ante in the 3D stakes with a spectacular presentation on the Red Button service and on thousands of cinema screens. One of the most mind boggling aspects to The Day of the Doctor is the global impact it made. It confirmed Doctor Who as a truly global brand, a worldwide phenomenon, with the 75-minute special simulcast in 94 countries. That's millions of people all watching Doctor Who, all around the world, at the same time on the same day. Barry Letts and John Nathan-Turner must be looking down, from whichever afterlife they may occupy, with a mixture of pride, jealousy and awe.
Mind you, if anyone wanted to relive the sheer embarrassment of Dimensions in Time BBC3 were on hand to provide a Proustian rush of car crash television of the highest grade with their Doctor Who: The After Party. The lasting image of it is of Steven Moffat with his head in his hands surrounded by 50 years worth of uncomfortable looking former Doctors and companions as all his hard work was instantly undone by Zoe Ball's horrific time-delayed interview with inarticulate members of pop combo One Direction.
I digress. For such an anticipated event, The Day of the Doctor is primarily a rather intimate story about the central character, about the last of the Time Lords. Yes, it has scale, spectacle, shock and awe but when it boils down to it, Moffat's script forges many connections to anniversary stories past and present with a similar focus on the mythical figure of the Doctor.
The Day of the Doctor revisits the mythology of the Doctor and his responsibility for ending the Time War, by destroying both the Time Lords and the Daleks. It explores the themes of his legitimacy and culpability, through the character of the War Doctor, themes which reflect the very essence of the character and are very much in tune with ideas in The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors.
‘The Name You Choose, it’s like, it’s like a promise you make. He’s the one who broke the promise’
Before I demonstrate what I mean by this, we need to go back to the finale of the last series, The Name of the Doctor. Moffat obviously has to answer the big question - just who is this Doctor played by John Hurt, who completely delivers on his casting, revealed to us in the closing moments of the episode? Stepping into his own time stream to rescue Clara, the Doctor comes face to face with an old man, the man with no name or at least one who has given up the name of Doctor.
An illegitimate offspring who has, according to the Eleventh Doctor, forsaken his name. 'The name you choose, it's like, it's like a promise you make. He's the one who broke the promise,' explains the Doctor. Essentially, the old man is the bastard, the black sheep of the family no one really likes to talk about. He's done a terrible thing.
Other incarnations of the Doctor and other Time Lords have at one point or another been shunned or gone off the rails. In The Three Doctors, the Time Lords come under assault from one of their own - stellar engineer Omega, left to go mad in the anti-matter attic of a black hole. To save themselves they turn to the Doctor, the embarrassing relative brushed under the carpet and exiled to Earth. It takes the combined forces of three Doctors to put the universe back on track and their success legitimises the Third Doctor. Until then, he was marooned on Earth, unable to completely fulfil his desire to travel the universe again, righting wrongs, never being cruel or cowardly. He is forgiven and properly takes his place within the echelons of the other Doctors.
When we get to The Five Doctors, the Doctor is again dragged into a 'family' feud. This time old mentor Borusa has been seduced by the darkest machinations of the Time Lord legacy, corrupted by the promise of immortality. The Doctor, still very much a renegade tolerated by the Time Lords, comes to the rescue. His reward is to take up his official duties as Lord President of his own people, but he has his own legitimacy to look after. Rather than conform, off he goes in the TARDIS again. After all, that's how it all started.
So there's a pattern. The Doctor is in and out of favour, always having to prove himself to his fellow Time Lords by often battling against other members of the family who've got themselves into a pickle. When we get to the The Name of the Doctor and The Day of the Doctor, Moffat takes the idea and makes it the central tenet of a long evolving backstory of which we've previously only had glimpses and mentions: the Time War.
The darkest day in Time Lord history, the Time War between Gallifrey and Skaro has ultimately been responsible for the survivor guilt of the Ninth and Tenth incarnations of the Doctor, the last of the Time Lords after he commits genocide. Behind this act lies the mystery of the Doctor with no name, the old man played by John Hurt and, at the heart of The Day of the Doctor, his redemption. This is, in part, the story of legitimising the War Doctor.
The War Doctor, as we know, came into being during the six-minute prequel The Night of the Doctor when the dying Eighth Doctor regenerated at the behest of the Sisterhood of Karn who foresaw the unravelling of the universe as the Time War raged. The Doctor was transformed into the warrior they believed could halt the disaster. The implication here and in The Day of the Doctor is that the War Doctor spent many years fighting to halt the atrocities committed by both sides in the War.
‘The final scene of David Bradley and Matt Smith in An Adventure in Space and Time is rather like the Tenth and the Eleventh respecting and legitimising the actions of the War Doctor’
Moffat therefore takes up the reigns of the mythology created by his predecessor Russell T Davies and pulls the narrative back from its 'year zero' implications. Even when Davies brought the Time Lords back in The End of Time, he was very careful to put them and the renegade Master back into the time lock from which they'd briefly escaped.
The Doctor was still, at that stage, left scarred by his act of genocide and Davies clearly felt it was legitimate for the character to continue as 'the lonely god' with a massive chip of inner conflict still on his shoulder. However, at that point he handed the show over to Steven Moffat who took the Doctor on a slightly different journey.
The day before The Day of the Doctor (that sounds weird) BBC2 gave us An Adventure in Space and Time, a dramatisation of the creation of Doctor Who in 1963. Uncannily, the central themes in Mark Gatiss's script were concerned with William Hartnell's personal battle to be 'legitimate' as an actor and escape his own troubled background. The drama's effect was to reconfigure Hartnell's place in the pantheon of actors who have played the Doctor, to understand the conflicts in his personal life that were expressed in his attitudes towards the part, his relationships with fellow cast and crew members.
In a strange, unexpected way the two mythologies converge. Or maybe not. Maybe Moffat and Gatiss had a conflab over a sweet sherry. Well... who knows. Who knows, eh. Moffat reaches back into past fictional narrative and frames the Doctor's authenticity within the greater arc of the Time War, and the emergence of his alter ego the War Doctor, to resolve an existential and moral crisis. At the same time, Gatiss lovingly recreates the past within a television production context, makes us rethink our attitudes towards Hartnell's abilities as a performer and resolves the First Doctor's important position in the family line of actors who went on to play the part.
The final scene of David Bradley and Matt Smith in An Adventure on Space and Time is rather like the Tenth and the Eleventh respecting and legitimising the actions of the War Doctor, acknowledging the debt they owe to him in The Day of the Doctor. John Hurt is or becomes the Doctor because they take responsibility for him. The Day of the Doctor's wonderful cameo featuring Tom Baker as 'the curator' also operates in a similar way. The past and the future overlap. One cannot exist without the other. Tom, as elder statesman, is saying to Matt, and similarly the Fourth Doctor is asking the Eleventh Doctor, not to forget those whom have served, whether in the Time War or in Lime Grove D. These scenes don't just serve as a kiss to the past, they - to put it in Moffat-ian terms - positively snog its face off and use tongues.
Oh... (starts sounding like Tom Baker)... and what kisses, eh. What kisses. The hypnotic swirls of the original title sequence, the programme's title in its original font, the original Derbyshire arrangement of the title music and a policeman on the beat as the shipping forecast drifts in the air. An Unearthly Child bleeds into The Day of the Doctor as the policeman, in monochrone, gains colour and passes by 76 Totter's Lane and the Coal Hill School where today its Chairman of the Governors is one I. Chesterton. He must be a ripe old age.
‘Waste no more time about what a good man should be. Be one.’
Ironically, Clara is there teaching her pupils. How she made the leap from nanny to teacher is open to debate but she's already framing the examination of the Doctor's conscience at the heart of the episode by quoting Marcus Aurelius: 'Waste no more time about what a good man should be. Be one.' Off she speeds, at 5.16pm of course, to meet the Doctor in a bravura sequence where she rides her motorbike through the TARDIS doors and into the console room in one continuous shot.
The spectacle, which looks great in 3D, is ramped up even further by a dazzling sequence where the TARDIS is airlifted by U.N.I.T to Trafalgar Square. A global brand needs to emphasise its essential qualities so the spectacular views above London and the familiar London landmarks cleave more to the Russell T Davies school of showmanship than Moffat's, but this a title sequence designed to grab your attention.
With images of Derren Brown's home filled with flowers of apology from U.N.I.T after using him as a cover story for such stunts, the episode moves on to the story proper. Sealed orders from Elizabeth I bring the Doctor, Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) and Osgood (Ingrid Oliver), the scarf wearing U.N.I.T scientist, to the National Gallery where a piece of 3D Time Lord art, a painting of the Fall of Arcadia, Gallifrey's second city, and entitled No More or Gallifrey Falls, is on display.
Elizabeth is sending him a message and for the Doctor it is a painful reminder of the last day of the Time War when 'the other me, the one I don't talk about' fought in the war on 'the day he killed them all.' There's slippage between 'he' and 'I' - denial working overtime it seems - as director Nick Hurran uses a close up of Matt Smith's eyes and transposes upon them the lines of age from John Hurt's face, underlining the fact that within the youthful Smith's visage the older man lives on.
This confessional allows Hurran to use the concept of the 3D painting, a slice of frozen time, to great effect. The camera swoops into the painting and the last day of the War bursts into life. It is an exceptional, spectacular sequence as the Daleks bombard the Time Lord city, buildings explode, ships whizz by and citizens attempt to scramble to safety. That primal fear that children have of the Daleks is brought home effectively in a scene where the Daleks round up survivors, including the children clutching their toys. It's a heady mixture of Star Wars and reportage that breathtakingly culminates with the War Doctor slamming the TARDIS into the Daleks and knocking them over like skittles.
The words 'No More', blasted into the wall by the Doctor, serve as a reminder of his fall from status as conscientious objector and now reluctantly getting his hands dirty. It's also the first of many clues in plain sight, a familiar Moffat trait, that echo the sentiments of the drama. A dying Dalek puzzles over their meaning. No more hiding the dark Doctor's legacy and no more anxiety about the fall of Gallifrey and his hand in it, perhaps?
From here we are whisked into Gallifrey's War Room. When did the Time Lords last take up arms on such a scale as this, when did they last have generals leading them into battle? No wonder the Doctor was a reluctant bystander, no wonder Cass shrank back from being rescued above Karn. The Time Lords have become war mongers to be feared and not respected. If you wanted evidence as to why the Sisterhood of Karn needed a warrior to fight on the side of the universe then look no further. We might talk about the Doctor's authenticity being compromised by the existence of the War Doctor but it seems his peers have undergone something of a similar transformation.
‘...the Moment, a super-weapon so powerful it developed sentience.’
There is some stunning design work on screen here befitting a big screen epic. The Time Lords look splendid in a form of battle gear that merges the Gallifreyan symbols of old with the new graphics created for the series since 2005. The lighting is particularly effective with searchlights sweeping over figures caught in silhouette and dappling faces in the half dark.
We discover that the Moment, a super-weapon so powerful it developed sentience, has been taken by the Doctor. It is this weapon, this Moment in the hands of the Doctor, which finishes the Time War. As if to confirm his previous messages and intentions, the War Doctor serves notice on the Daleks and Time Lords: 'Too long have I stayed my hand. No more.' As the Doctor searches for a way to operate what looks like a super-sized version of Hellraiser's Lament Configuration, he is visited by the machine's interface and conscience.
Rose Tyler, or the Bad Wolf version of her, is plucked from the Doctor's future memories as a ghost of Christmas to come to show the Doctor, or the man who claims to have lost the right to be the Doctor, the consequences of his action in a war where all of space and time is burning. She wants to show him the man he will become, the last of the Time Lords, in order to inform his decision to use the Moment and complete the mutually assured destruction of Gallifrey and the Daleks. Billie Piper is quite different here, reprising her attitude as the Bad Wolf in command of the vortex seen at the end of The Parting of the Ways. Here she is again, a sentient weapon determining the Doctor's destiny. It's a strange, precise performance and quietly disturbing to see a Rose Tyler so unlike the Rose Tyler we all knew. She informs the War Doctor his punishment is to become the last survivor of the war. As the future Doctors know the first rule of survivor's guilt is you don't talk about survivor's guilt. You try and bury it. The Moment is trying to uncover what happens when you find meaning and make sense out of these experiences.
Much of this ties into Moffat's perennial themes about memory, remembrance and forgetting, Not only does he imbue his creatures with powers to erase memory and change perception but he also taps into the power of memory with the Doctor and his companions. In The Day of the Doctor this is writ large in the Moment's determination to get the future Doctors to remember their forgotten incarnation via 'a tangle in time through the days to come', to remember the millions of children killed on Gallifrey. The Moment offers a way for Moffat to intertwine the lives and actions of the Doctors and to remember the forgotten.
So far so good.
Queen Elizabeth I has brought the Doctor to the National Gallery and the crucial painting. Her message to the future has been handed over to the Doctor by U.N.I.T and the painting of Gallifrey, a slice of time frozen in Time Lord art by an unknown artist, is evidence of her true credentials. In a bizarre subplot we discover that the Time Lord art is being used by Zygons in the past to bide their time, hide inside the works of art, and emerge to invade the future.
The mood shifts from sombre reflection to something of a romp as the Tenth Doctor's hijinks with Queen Elizabeth (Joanna Page) in 1562, which pick up some continuity references from The Shakespeare Code and The End of Time, not only show him marrying her through a case of mistaken identity but also reveal the Zygons' plan. The return of the Zygons is handled particularly well and the make up and costume designs are more or less unchanged from their 1975 appearance. Hissing and roaring into view, they look very impressive and imposing. However, their presence is merely a sub-plot to get us to a position where their knack for hiding inside Time Lord paintings offers a potential way of saving Gallifrey as the Daleks bombard the planet.
The Zygon plan is to invade the planet by breaking into U.N.I.T's Black Vault of alien technology by impersonating Kate Stewart and Osgood. It provides a parallel narrative to the Doctor's own dilemma. Kate Stewart finds herself face to face with her Zygon counterpart with no choice but to blow the Vault up with a nuclear warhead and kill millions to save billions. The Doctor complicates matters by using the Black Vault's security system, which wipes the memories of people who work there (Moffat re-employing his tropes again), to confuse the Zygon and human identities in the room. No one knows whether they are Zygon or human. The two parties are therefore left to negotiate from this standpoint, unable to justify their use of the nuclear weapon for fear of wiping out the wrong side. This is what philosopher John Rawls calls the 'original position' - in which a group must decide how to negotiate together fairly and equally without prejudice and also deprived of knowledge which would unbalance the situation - and the so called 'veil of ignorance' theory which Charlie Jane Anders also explores in her review on io9.
The sub-plot is certainly a mirror of the War Doctor's own activities on Gallifrey. Both feature a Vault full of deadly weapons, both involve making a decision about the future of millions of lives. The Moment is the War Doctor's conscience, encouraging him to meet his other selves and for each to understand the gravity of what he does. Clara is the equivalent, looking upon her Doctor with fresh eyes, particularly when all three Doctors decide to share the responsibility of their actions in destroying the Time Lords and the Daleks. If, as the Moment suggests, the War Doctor is reborn then who is he reborn as? How does he deal with the consequences of this holocaust in all his future choices, his future lives? And as Clara suggests, which rules apply when regeneration could lead you to forget the traumas of the past? Hence, we get that very interesting scene between the three Doctors where generational differences define their attitudes towards the Time War. It's a very interesting view of how we all cope with traumatic, world changing events, everything from the assassination of JFK to the terrorism of 9/11. The War Doctor discovers that his future selves are 'the man who regrets' and 'the man who forgets'. Generations - or regenerations - need to be reminded of these terrible events. After all, it's part of being grown up.
The repartee between Tennant, Smith and Hurt crackles vividly and the generational differences are played for comedy as well as for drama. Hurt's Doctor is distressed ('Am I having a mid-life crisis?') to find his future selves talking and behaving like children. Moffat takes his cue from The Three Doctors here, with Hurt more or less the sterner Hartnell figure quite appalled at 'Sand shoes' and 'Chinny' and we even get a re-run of the redecorating the TARDIS interior gag ('Oh, you've redecorated.' 'I don't like it.'). Like their sonic screwdrivers and their own bodies, the various TARDIS interiors appear on screen as a phasing, single interface and Hurt's TARDIS is wonderfully old school and comes complete with 'the round things'.
The Zygons, while excellent in the scenes they appear, are merely a means to an end for Moffat. Their attempt to conquer the Earth is simply a mechanism to find the solution to the War Doctor's problem, namely the use of the Gallifreyan art to store the war torn planet and its population in a slice of time. Leaving the Daleks to shoot themselves to pieces as Gallifrey disappears still maintains a certain truth, that they annihilated each other in the War after all, but this is another example of how Moffat is willing to take great chunks of lore (over which there is no ownership, let's be clear) and simply rewrite it for his own purposes. Thus, Russell T Davies' modus operandi for the Doctor, established in 2005, now allows for the potentially lost Time Lords to survive. A reboot along the same lines as Clara jumping back into the many lives of the Doctor to save him, the resetting of time in The Wedding of River Song and travelling back down your own timeline to bring the universe back in The Big Bang. All told in Moffat's customary non-linear, multiple points of view and hanging narrative modes where paradox and predestination dominate the story.
‘the retired curator of the Under Gallery, a man with a very familiar face...’
The War Doctor is transformed, authenticated, legitimised as a 'proper' Doctor because he was 'the Doctor more than anybody else' when he took the brave decision to burn Gallifrey and the Daleks. He takes his place in the line-up, the warrior to the Tenth's hero, and in direct line to the Eleventh Doctor who has discovered what he has forgotten. He's always made things better, he's always been a doctor. The title is a promise, a promise that writer Terrance Dicks originally made, that the Doctor is 'never cruel or cowardly'.
Moffat's coup de Théâtre for the 50th Anniversary is, of course, the bringing together of 13 Doctors to power the transfer of Gallifrey into the parallel pocket universe. The Time Lords and their TARDISes collectively work together and we get a brief, but thrilling, glimpse of Peter Capaldi who, in a single glare to camera, seems to signify the very hope the Time Lords and viewers of the series are looking for. His imminent arrival, as an actor the same age when Hartnell took the role, may well have triggered Moffat's reflections about maturity and authenticity in the conversations between the other Doctors.
To cap it all we also get a remarkable scene with Matt Smith and Tom Baker. The passing of the baton in many ways, heartfelt and emotional, as the retired curator of the Under Gallery, a man with a very familiar face, pauses to reflect on the future. He catches the spirit of the Anniversary by suggesting to the Doctor he may care to recall some other faces and 'in years to come, you might find yourself revisiting a few but just... the old favourites, eh?
The fourth wall and the Fourth Doctor melt away as the distinctions between Tom and the character vanish. He stands in a gallery that looks like the interior of a TARDIS. It's what we've all known all along. Tom and the Time Lord are interchangeable. Images and words shift and the painting, we discover, is actually called Gallifrey Falls No More. The Eleventh Doctor is given his quest. To find the lost Gallifrey. 'I can only tell you what I would do, if I were you... Oh! If I were you... perhaps I was you, of course. Or perhaps you are me,' muses the Fourth Doctor.
Who knows. But the Doctor's going home.
Review: Frank Collins – 2013
Frank is a freelance writer and film and television researcher. He has contributed to a number of books and websites about British archive television and cinema as well as recent television series including work for Moviemail, Frame Rated, Arrow Video and Indicator. Publications include The Black Archive #31: Warriors' Gate (2019), I.B Tauris's 'Doctor Who: The Eleventh Hour - A Critical Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era' (2013) and 'Doctor Who - The Pandorica Opens' (2010).
His website is called Cathode Ray Tube
Published on May 28th, 2021. Written by Frank Collins for Cathode Ray Tube and shared with permission for Television Heaven.