Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor

This, folks, is the big moment. The reckoning.

“The Day of the Doctor”, the film-length 50th anniversary special of Doctor Who, written by the deeply passionate and idiosyncratic showrunner Steven Moffat, who had really lost his golden touch when it came to his mixture of horror, comedy, and emotional drama since the beginning of the season.

This had the potential to be horrible. Not only did the big hook of the episode – introducing a “Forgotten regeneration” of the Doctor played by the legendary John Hurt – irrevocably retcon the last decade of the show, but the episode would be about the Last Great Time War, the mind-bending universal holocaust which Moffat’s predecessor adamantly stated they “could never show on screen”, because how do you show a war fought with time as a weapon, in boring old causal 3-dimensional space?

And yet, I thought it was good. No, I absolutely loved it. And initially, I wasn’t quite sure why, but after some thought I think I’ve figured it out:

You see, Moffat is passionate and idiosyncratic, but whether these are strengths or weaknesses depends on the viewer. He’s connected to certain aspects of Doctor Who on such a deep level that his stories have all sorts of logical hiccups and confusing plot points, but they don’t really matter to him (or, he hopes, you) because he really cares about exploiting that connection for all it’s worth to make you laugh, make you cry, or make you scared to turn off the lights.

This guy turned out the lights.

The reason I didn’t like the last season of the show is because after Amy Pond and her graciously henpecked husband Rory left, I lost that connection. There had been an attempt to introduce us to the new companion beforehand so we cared about their relationship, but it didn’t work because she was so generic and uninteresting of a character. Moffat had been developing her for months, carefully planning out her arc, so the feeling was there for him…but not the audience.

With “Day of the Doctor”, though, he’s taken a big step back. Now the connection is not with the character, but the show. The episode is a celebration of Doctor Who, purely and simply – if you’ve liked the show at any point, you’ll enjoy quite a bit of it here, since there’s been a concerted effort to include bits of all the different incarnations of the show – from the crazy historical shenanigans of the 1960s’ missing episodes, to the Mission Impossible in space-style plotting of Sylvester McCoy’s time, and everything in between.

And hey, if you don’t like the show, there’s something for you too!

The show starts with Clara having become an English teacher at the school where original companions Ian and Barbara taught. I don’t really like this for two reasons: One, being a babysitter and having adventures isn’t anything like enough qualification to become a private school teacher (that’s ‘public school teacher’, Brits!), and second, the last episode ended on a cliffhanger which felt like a logical lead-in for a story like this: Clara and the Doctor were trapped in a strange nether-realm where time had no meaning, scattered through the Doctor’s past and future. I’m a bit sour that it hasn’t been resolved, but it’s amazing how actually liking something will make you forgiving of its problems – the episode is obviously supposed to be very non-specific in terms of its position in the series’ timeline. Clara is the companion, but her role could be filled by anyone from Ian and Barbara to Amy…OK, maybe not Dodo or Adric (classic Who humour!) but you know what I mean. Having this lead directly from the last episode would break that, so I understand the artistic thought process behind it.

This was the last shot of the episode – maybe the nether-realm was within walking distance of London?

Less excusable is immediately afterwards, when Clara meets Eleventh Doctor in his Tardis, and the thing flies high above London as the credits roll and the big “Eleven is doing cool stuff, folks!” theme plays, although he’s in fact being grabbed by a helicopter from his alien-fighting pals at UNIT.

[Now, at this point, things start getting a bit non-linear, so I’m fudging the sequence of some events for clarity and ease.]

The Doctor is greeted by the Brigadaughter, head of UNIT and the world’s pre-eminent straight man to the Doctor, as well as my personal favorite recurring character. She explains that the Doctor was title-sequenced here on orders from Queen Elizabeth…the First (see what I mean about being non-linear?). Because the Doctor protected her from an alien attack, he was given various top secret titles, including Occult Art Historian – that’s right, so much weird crap has ended up in Britain after fifty years of adventures, that it needs to be sorted by academic discipline. This is an interesting thought – sure, Occult History and Occult Biology would be pretty obvious, but I want to see what’s in the Occult Economics office, or the Occult Fashion Design warehouse, where they keep Colin Baker’s coat in the hopes that it need never be worn!

Anyway, at the Museum of Extranormal Art, the Doctor finds that several portraits have been turned into landscapes and destroyed, with forensics showing that the paintings were ripped apart from the inside – whatever’s in them has gotten out! The Doctor elaborates that this is Time Lord art – actual chunks of spacetime that’s been compressed and frozen,serving as both cool 3D effects, and perfect prisons until now.

“Remember to drink your Nightmare Fuel before bed, kids!”

Analysis shows that the trapped creatures were shapeshifting aliens and classic series monsters called Zygons – big red blobs who shapeshift, and aren’t very interesting. And this is the strength of the episode – once something uninteresting like this comes up the story almost immediately switches over to something else.

In this case it’s some sort of time vortex, drawn to the Museum because of one of the Time Lord paintings there – a scene of the war-torn planet Gallifrey during the Last Great Time War. Yes, we see it, and yes, it doesn’t even come close to doing justice to the idea of a war fought with time. What we see is quite plainly a war fought with laser guns. There’s probably some justification for it about how it’s nearing the end of the war, and both sides have used up so many temporal resources that they’re now reduced to fighting with conventional space warfare, but it’s still a let-down from hints of the War in previous episodes, like “The Could-Have-Been-King, with his army of Meanwhiles and Never-Weres”.

As we know, the Doctor ended the Last Great Time War, and was racked with guilt for millennia afterward. But before now, we didn’t know what he did before the end. As it turns out, he avoided the war for as long as he could, but finally gave in and became a brutal, destructive soldier, killing Dalek and Time Lord alike if they harmed innocents. He knew going in that he would die fighting, but that the idea of the Doctor had died the moment he decided to become a warrior, and thus renounced his name and struck that incarnation himself from the historical record in shame.

On an unrelated note, I’m not really into his costuming here – I was hoping we could get something more imaginative than “8(th) plus 9(th) divided by 2”.

Now, not being the Doctor, this creates an issue over what to call him. Certainly the most popular name of “The War Doctor” is right out, since he just said he wasn’t the Doctor, so why are you calling him that, you meanie? Ditto stuff like “The Other Doctor”, “Doctor Hurt” and so forth. Titles based on stuff he’s actually called in the episode, like “The Warrior” or “The Renegade” are closer, but they sound like old cop shows, so I’m still loath to use them.

In the end, there’s only one thing that he’s called in the show, fits the Doctor’s personality, and doesn’t have the Doctor in it – which is the name Eleven calls this regeneration in the next episode. That’s right, this battle-hardened, sorrowful man is ‘Captain Grumpy’.

So, we transition to the moment frozen in time by the painting, where Captain Grumpy has arrived on Gallifrey, and mows down Daleks with military precision. He even stops in the middle to make a little coup de grace with his gun:

This isn’t really cool…

Now, there have been some bad decisions in this episode, but this is the first one that’s really laughable. As a fan of first person shooters, this isn’t cool – this is a waste of perfectly good ammunition, time, and cover. You only see it when people are really clowning around – a display of confidence extending to arrogance that doesn’t fit the dire tone of the scene.

…this isn’t cool at all!
[COURTESY OF HALF-LIFE 2]

If it sounds like I’m down on the episode, the reason I’m pointing out all this bad stuff is that it stands out from the phenomenal rest of the episode. The tense direction in the Museum, the quiet emotion and affection that Matt Smith hides behind his extravagant demeanor, the imaginative effects of the Time Lord paintings, it’s all just top-notch.

To wit, we go to the Gallifrey War Room (different from Rassilon and his pals, who were more concerned with their evil schemes than actually fighting the war), where they’re terrified of the Doctor having come to the fight, because of how gigantic of an unknown quantity he is. He leaves within minutes, though, and the Time Lords stop sweating in their gigantic space-ruffs for a minute before they realize he’s stolen some ancient artifact.

This ancient artifact is “The Moment”, a Time Lord machine forbidden for anyone to use, because of how damaging the telepathic control scheme can be – a weapon of mass destruction that can mess with your mind. I’ll give them tons of credit for offhandedly referring to all this in The End of Time a few years ago – excellent use of one of those crazy parts of the Time War I was talking about.

The Moment transports the Doctor to an endless desert, with a barn in it – because the ‘If there’s a barn, there must be something creepy in it’ is starting to work in reverse now, and so the Moment considers it the best place to debate the future of the universe. The moment takes the form of Rose Tyler too, because she’s creating the time vortex to grab the Doctor’s future self…David Tennant!

That sound you just heard was a hundred thousand fangirl sighs.

In the late 16th century, the Tenth Doctor is busy soaking up the adoration of any girl he meets – in this case, Queen Elizabeth the First. He’s romancing her, but it turns out to be a carefully calculated plan on his part. Remember I said that the Doctor once saved Queen Elizabeth from an alien attack? Well, that’s now, and the alien is the shape-shifting Zygon disguised as the Queen. Before he has the chance to do more than make reference to old Russell T. Davies-era running gags, he finds the time vortex.

Back in the present, Eleven jumps into the time vortex because it gives him an excuse to say “Geronimo”, and meets up with Ten. After some quick banter about appearance and so forth, Captain Grumpy comes through the portal as well, leading to the real attraction of any multi-Doctor story: Bickering comparisons amid dangerous, non-action situations. Moffat can do this stuff in his sleep, and I like it because it shows a level of self-awareness usually absent from his work.

This is the part I’m talking about when I say that people who don’t like the show will enjoy it – Captain Grumpy gets the spotlight here, acting as an avatar for classic series fans’ complaints about the revival show. It doesn’t last long enough to wear out its welcome or stop being funny, so it’s all good.

After this, all three (two and the Captain?) Doctors get captured by the shapeshifter who’s taken over Queen Elizabeth. Eleven antagonizes the goons until he gets all three thrown in the Tower of London – which is, of course, the location of UNIT’s Occult Technology department in the present day.

The main event, ladies and gentlemen! Three doctors enter the squared TARDIS! ONLY TWO LEAVE!

In the Tower of London, as Eleven chisels a message into the stone, the Captain finally stops the inter-regeneration sniping to get to the heart of it – that ending the Time War scarred the Doctor, but was better for everyone in the circumstances. Not only did it save the universe at the cost of two ancient races, but the regretful Doctor was driven to save more people, protect more innocents, do more good than he ever did before. I like the subtle meta-narrative of this point, especially since John Hurt is so good at bringing the Captain’s puzzled admiration of Smith and Tennant across so well.

Rose appears to him again, saying this is why he’s been brought here – to see what his future will be like if he uses The Moment. To see what this act will do to him, so he can decide whether or not to use it with complete knowledge of his actions. Before he can decide, though, Ten and Eleven ask him for help coming up with a plan for breaking out of the Tower of London now that they’ve sent the message into the future. The Sonic Screwdriver can’t open the prison door because it’s wooden, and thus way more irregular than metal – it would take centuries to analyze each tiny bit of it to make it move. But there are three Doctors here from three times – the Captain realizes that if he scans it and starts the calculation, then Eleven’s screwdriver will have been running it for centuries and be able to open the door easily.

Back in the present, Clara and the Brigadaughter realize that the monster story is in full swing, with shapeshifting octopi having overrun the entire Occult Humanities department, and so they make a daring escape to Occult Technology. Like I said, it’s sort of obvious what sort of stuff is in there – we see old Cyberman heads, Dalek egg whisks and so on. That’s still a pretty big deal, so it’s kept under supremely tight security – not only is the entire thing warded against any kind of infiltration up to and including TARDISes, but it has a Men in Black neuralizer on the whole thing, so no one outside UNIT knows about it.

They find the Doctor’s message there, all right – the passcode for one of the cheap and nasty one-use time machines they have but don’t know how to use. In a skin-crawling reveal, though, the Brigadaughter shows that she’s a disguised alien who escaped from the painting, and this was all a plan to take over the world with judicious use of time travel. Clara grabs the disposable machine and goes back to the past, where she meets up with the Doctors just as they escape from the cell. They find the Zygons have already put their plans into motion – they want to take over the world because their planet was destroyed by the Time War, and since the top soldier Captain Grumpy had been known to frequent Earth so much, they figured there was something really good there. However, due to time boondoggles, it’s only the sixteenth century, so they need to lay dormant until 2013, when the time will be right.

Also, notice they solve the bad guy’s plan by letting them do exactly what they want?

This is Moffat playing to his strengths once again – the Doctor has always been about surviving because of his cleverness, and all this use of non-linear time for plots and schemes is always a good way to do that. It also makes the writer himself look clever because of all the seemingly-insoluble mystery you can set up beforehand. It’s sort of funny how this isolated episode has more weird time things going on, and almost none of it is done as part of the Time War.

Now, the Doctors have to fight the Zygon messing with time with some messing with some time of their own: They place a call back to the beginning of the episode, to some UNIT goon, or GOONIT. On their orders, he takes that time-travel painting of the Last Great Time War that started this whole met and moves it from Occult Art History to Occult Technology. Since the Captain is in the painting he’s able to travel into it (sort of like the time-travel equivalent of getting a free copy of a book you write), and as the “Cool stuff” theme plays again all three of them burst out of the painting to Occult Technology, where they force the Zygons to postpone their world-takeover attempt and find the real Brigadaughter so they can hash things out.

Things get out of their hands, quickly – the Zygon disguised as the Brigadaughter still want to take over, and the real Brigadaughter is willing to engage the self-destruct on all of Occult Technology to stop them, which would also annihilate London. The Doctors realize that she’s willing to kill many people to save many, many more…get it, folks?

Also, if you need a self-destruct on this place, why is it smack in the middle of one of the worlds’ biggest cities? Why not put it somewhere out in the Moors like on Sherlock?

As the Doctors talk about all the times they’ve thought about what they would do, if they could do it all over again, they eventually come up with a plan – Just stop everyone fighting so the genocide doesn’t need to happen. They activate the Men in Black neuralizer, so everyone forgets what they’re fighting about and will call off the self-destruct. The day is saved, and both Tennant and Smith get to give a speech! Hooray! Yeah, some people call this ending too pat, but it’s not meant to be an ending – just stopping the fighting for a while until a more permanent solution can be devised.

Meanwhile, the Captain goes off to talk to Rose Tyler, deciding that what he’s seen  – what the future will end up becoming if he kills everyone – means there’s no way he can’t do it. He goes back to the trippy barn, only to find the other Ten and Eleven following him, willing to help him out so that he doesn’t have to do it alone – or rather, that he does, but now he’s accepted his past after centuries of in-story time and 8 transformative years of real time.

But after all that, Clara still starts crying as they’re about to activate the big space nuke – she can’t bear to see the great and good Matt Smith commit a horrible act, and she starts crying because of it. She gives a tearful speech to the assembled Doctors, about how this is the worst possible situation to be in, but they have to work to save people like they always have. And this is the reason I love the episode – because of that long view, very timeless feel of the story, all of Moffat’s usual dialogue annoyances are either toned down to a minimum or completely absent. Clara is somber, emotional, affecting – and at no point does it all collapse into annoying snark or flirting.

Eleven says that after centuries of having to think of a plan, he’s been able to come up with a good one: Use the combined forces of 3 Doctors to actually use some of the tactical capabilities of time travel in this time war. About time!

dr_who_the_end_of_time_I_351

…yeah, sorry about that. Anyway, they all get into their TARDISes and fly to Gallifrey, as the Moment counsels the Captain on what to do. (Captain Grumpy’s TARDIS is seen here, by the way, and looks really good) He says it’s the same idea as the wooden door from before: He’s been the Doctor for ages now, and he’s always been the same person, with the same blue box and the same code of ethics. So he decides to screw history, and save Gallifrey by getting every single one of his various regenerations to show up (only as stock footage back in the Gallifrey War Room, but hey) and combine the might of all their TARDIS’ capabilities to compress Gallifrey into some random pocket dimension, frozen in time, where the Time Lords do no harm and where no harm can come to them. Meanwhile, the Daleks fighting the Time Lords will blow each other up and allow quite a few to escape for appearances in the past 8 years of the show.

This isn’t just a plan that references an old Doctor Who story, it’s an old Doctor Who story that was never really an old Doctor Who story. “Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen”, a script by early 80’s showrunner Douglas Adams, was never put into production, meaning he was free to adapt it into the third installment of one of my favorite sci-fi epics of all time: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

That’s right, dorks: The planet Krikkit was punished for waging war on the galaxy with the exact same merciful stasis that the Doctors give to Gallifrey. You don’t even need to know this to enjoy the episode immensely, but for me it only made me happier – forget that Peter Capaldi cameo, this was the real fun extra.

Surprisingly few illustrations of LTUAE out there…

Everything fades to white, and we cut back to the three Doctors saying their goodbyes to each other back in Occult Art History. Ten and Captain Grumpy leave (the latter immediately regenerating, because the weight of war has finally lifted from his shoulders), after Eleven explains that neither of them will remember this, so that he’ll think he actually did kill everyone with the Moment. People have gotten angry over retconning this huge part of his character as just him forgetting, but I disagree. Eleven very pointedly said that this isn’t a time loop where the time travel causes itself – this is changing history, no ifs, ands or buts. And I’m fine with using it like this – if you can’t use it in your damn 50th anniversary, when can you?

Eleven sits alone, considering the painting of the Last Great Time War that started this whole mess – since it’s a time war, how was it possible for someone to take out a moment of it like that? The answer is shown to him as an elderly Tom Baker, in a very fairy-tale exchange that very obviously will never be explained. And once again I’m completely okay with it – again, it holds up the tone beautifully, and that tone is perfectly appropriate for such an adventurous, marvelous…fantastic show.

“Day of the Doctor” has some problems, but most of them are excusable because of how great all the important parts are: the plotting tight, the dialogue punchy and never too humorous, the drama striking, the acting subtle, the pace quick. I just loved it, and it reminded me why, even after all I’ve hated about Doctor Who over the last year and a half, it’s the same show I love.

TWO THUMBS UP: The climactic fifteen minutes or so

THUMBS UP: John Hurt, the minimal use of Clara and maximum use of the Brigadaughter

THUMBS DOWN: The lack of any fun opening music

TWO THUMBS DOWN: The more laughable stuff – flying in the TARDIS, “No more” grafitti

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