This Saturday, simulcast in dozens of countries, the BBC’s Doctor Who celebrated 50 years with a special, extra-long episode, “The Day of the Doctor” (also screened at movie theaters around North America in 3D Monday night). The 90-minute feature follows three Doctor incarnations, all on their own missions until circumstances find them meeting and teaming up to stop, not just a couple of immediate alien threats in different time periods, but also a pair of tragic genocides that haunt the titular character to this day.
As “The Day of the Doctor” starts, we are introduced (or re-introduced) to the three Doctors. The Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) is fending off the advances of his would-be wife, Queen Elizabeth I (Joanna Page, Gavin & Stacey). The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) is called to London by UNIT to investigate destruction in a secret gallery. And The War Doctor (John Hurt, Merlin, Alien) is facing the moment he will destroy both his greatest enemy, the Daleks, and his own people, the Time Lords, during the war at Gallifrey.
While all of these unfold, it gets a little frustrating. Last spring’s season finale left us waiting for a major event, and instead, we get what appear to be stand-alone tales, especially where the Tenth Doctor is concerned, whose plot seems very fluffy, rather than epic, at the start.
But then it all comes together. The Zygons are attacking Earth in both 1562 and in 2013. They must be stopped. While it would not actually take all three Doctors, plus Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman), the current Doctor’s companion (neither The Tenth nor the War Doctor are traveling with companions at the time of the story), it’s OK that they are pulled together because it provides a nice bit of fun interaction, which then becomes a lot of zany criss-crossing between the eras and locations.
However, The War Doctor brings a much more serious, and at the same time, more personal decision into the mix. Should he massacre two races of people to save the universe? While he wrestles with the decision, he allows himself to be distracted, then seeks counsel from those who live with his choice.
The War Doctor is a new version of the character, only recently introduced, who is quite interesting. In the online prequel to this episode, we see the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) trying to stay out of the war, but realizing he can avoid it no longer. The Doctor is a very peaceful being who only uses violence when necessary and never kills anyone. Though we are told throughout the past eight years that The Doctor did something very, very bad when pushed to the brink, it’s hard to imagine under which circumstances he would do this. “The Day of the Doctor” gives us a small glimpse of what leads up to it, and a longer look at how he wrestles with the decision.
Despite how bad The Doctor feels, haunted by that day, both The Tenth and Eleventh Doctors agree that it was the only choice to make, and are willing to help him make it again, all placing their hands on the button. It’s one thing to have a guy we are just introduced to kill all the innocents; it’s quite another to have two long-running, beloved characters do the same, which lends serious gravity to the situation.
In true Doctor Who fashion, a solution is found, and all thirteen of the Doctors incarnations thus far, including one who will not take over the TARDIS until the Christmas special this year, combine forces and manage to save Gallifrey. This removes one of the worst things The Doctor has ever done, though he still (sort-of) kills all the Daleks, who, to be fair, are evil.
Most of The Doctors are shown through archival footage, well edited into the new film. This sparks musings of what Doctor Who could do in the future, perhaps editing more of the older actors into fresh material as the technology continues to improve, further making it seem like one big adventure of a single character. The Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi), or Thirteenth if we’re counting The War Doctor now, only gets an extreme closeup, providing no clues to what he or his TARDIS will be like when he leads the show next year.
Is it right to reset history in this manner? Presumably, none of The Doctors will remember these events, and so the more recent ones will still have that painful memory that shaped them into something a bit different from the earlier generations. Plus, now we have future story set up for other Doctors to discover: Gallifrey still exists and can be brought back. Gallifrey should be kinder to the outcast this time around, now that The Doctor has saved everyone on the planet.
So, although this takes away something that has made the role very, very interesting, it’s also a bit of a relief that The Doctor doesn’t wipe out his own race. His genius and compassion remain intact, keeping the character very consistent over the past fifty (or twelve hundred, depending on how you count) years already established.
Besides unlocking a major mystery, “The Day of the Doctor” is also notable for bringing back familiar faces in great ways. Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), the daughter of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, is still running the show at UNIT, and gets involved in the case. Honestly, I’d like to see a return to more UNIT stories and an increased presence from Kate, as it really serves to tie the current Doctor Who back to the older run.
The machine that The War Doctor uses appears to him in the form of Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), a former companion of The Ninth and Tenth Doctors. On one hand, it’s sad that she’s only an illusion, with no interaction with The Tenth Doctor. On the other, the character has had a nice send off already, and it would be a shame to force her into the episode if she doesn’t belong. By portraying her in this way, fans get to see her again, but it doesn’t take away from Rose’s own arc.
Queen Elizabeth I’s guest spot, the first for this actress, answers a very slow burn question mentioned a handful of times over several years about her connection to our hero. This is the kind of Easter-egg-resolution that should tickle those who pay close attention to continuity.
Finally, viewers get a glimpse of The Doctor in his retirement. The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker), appropriately aged as the actor playing him is, approaches The Eleventh Doctor in the gallery, revealing he is living peacefully at the end of his life and “revisiting” a few of his favorite faces. This is a brilliant, moving scene, informing on the character, but also providing one of those rare interactions between two incarnations, welcoming back a respected veteran of the part. It’s a real treat that this sequence is included.
In the end, “The Day of the Doctor” provides a satisfying adventure incorporating elements and Doctors both old and new, really delivering something new, exciting, fun, and special to honor five decades on the air. There are enough smile-worthy moments and amusing lines to please just about every fan, and delving into a crucial turning point in The Doctor’s existence, not seen before, gives the installment weight that the Zygon invasion by itself would have lacked.
Doctor Who next airs on Christmas Day, completing The Eleventh Doctor’s tenure.