28 November 2013

Beyond History's End | 50th Anniversary Doctor Who Review 11 of 12 | The Day of the Doctor written by Steven Moffat

In 2013, something terrible is awakening in London’s National Gallery; in 1562, a murderous plot is afoot in Elizabethan England; and somewhere in space an ancient battle reaches its devastating conclusion. All of reality is at stake as the Doctor’s own dangerous past comes back to haunt him.

23rd November 2013 is a day that I’m not likely to forget in a long time. After an almost sleepless night set to the soundtrack of a two-year-old coughing so hard that she kept vomiting herself awake, I rose to find that the diverter valve in our gas boiler had gone kaput for the second time in as many years, leaving us without any hot water upstairs. Shortly afterwards, to my horror, I discovered that the upstairs toilet wouldn’t flush in a completely unrelated, but still every bit as maddening, cistern failure. I went on to spend most of the morning building a flat-pack desk for my wife, only to discover, right at the end, that its drawer’s baroque ‘Daisy’ handle was missing, and so then had to spend much of the afternoon stood at the service desk in Dunelm trying my level best not to inflict grievous bodily harm on its staff who wanted me to disassemble and return the entire desk, rather than just exchange its unfinished drawer with that of their display desk’s, as I had reasonably suggested.

As 19:50 neared, and my daughter ran riot upstairs in a unique, but by this point expected, contravention of her bedtime, I gritted my teeth and spat, “No more,” and I would’ve blasted the words into our landing’s wall with a bazooka, had I not had the foresight to realise that replastering would have done for my Sunday as well. But then, in a startling flash of empathy that owes as much to a decade beside a Who fan as it does a career in psychology, my good lady softly ushered me downstairs, taking custody of not just our rampaging toddler, but her cough-emitting baby monitor too, at least for the next seventy-seven minutes. I can’t remember the last time that I felt such a rush of relief - and excitement.

As Doctor Who’s original monochrome titles bled into a redolent shot of a bobby on the beat down Totter’s Lane, I felt something stir inside me. But such exquisite and duly reverent classic series nostalgia was only fleeting, as greyscale soon turned to colour and Nick Hurran’s visceral direction swiftly carried me through a motorbike-shaped Paul McGann movie homage and then into a sequence that exemplified the very best of new Who; a set piece that had me instantly regretting not vying for tickets to see The Day of the Doctor in 3-D at the cinema. But even in 2-D 1080i, the spectacular, consciously cinematic in-vision credits still brought a movie to mind. Compare the dark and brief Eleventh Hour pre-title sequence with The Day of the Doctor’s drawn-out daylight dangling and note the difference. Though still confined to the domestic television screen for most viewers, The Day of the Doctor exuded blockbuster ambition right from its outset.

And from there, the fiftieth anniversary special only got bigger and bolder. Almost every fan watching will have suspected, will have known, that Steven Moffat’s story was set to crack open the final day of the Last Great Time War for all too see, but that foreknowledge couldn’t have possibly prepared them to be thrown straight into the heat of Arcadia as legions of Daleks broke through its sky trenches. Doctor Who fans had clamoured for years to see this, even just to hear it, only to be told by those such as Big Finish’s executive producer, Nicholas Briggs, that it couldn’t be done successfully; you can’t dramatise a time war - it’s too abstract. I’ve always disagreed, albeit with the caveat that we don’t spoil its mythic status with too much revelation, and would still love to see what writers in the Marc Platt or Jonathan Morris mould could do in the farthermost corners of its constantly-shifting canvas. However, Moffat’s conventional military approach neatly circumvented the tricky temporal trappings of the conflict, depicting its decisive battle as a very linear and very physical fight. Indeed, The Day of the Doctor steered well clear of the jaws of the Nightmare Child and dodged the advances of the Could-Have-Been King and his army of Meanwhiles, instead cutting quickly to the heart of what makes this conflict so damned compelling: that terrible choice. That terrible moment.

Aided and abetted by superlative short stories like “Museum Peace” and the eighth Doctor’s increasingly bleak adventures with Big Finish Productions, my mind had often pictured an old and weathered McGann with his hand hovering tentatively above the kill switch, forced to decide between the death of his people and the end of time itself. Though I’m not normally quick to rule things out, Doctor Who Confidential’s day one captioning of Christopher Eccleston’s Time Lord as the ninth Doctor combined with Russell T Davies’ explicit statement that his Doctor was indeed the ninth had me convinced that Eccleston’s apparently preceding incarnation was the one with the blood on his hands. It could still have been Eccleston’s, admittedly, but his antics in Rose were suggestive of a recent regeneration, so to me it never seemed likely. Such officially-sanctioned certainties made Moffat’s move to shoehorn a fourth ninth incarnation (Rowan Atkinson, Richard E Grant, Christopher Eccleston, and now John Hurt, in case you’re wondering) into the mythology all the more alluring; all the more illicit. For me, that seminal, earthshocking scene at the end of Series 7 in which we first heard John Hurt’s gravelly voice offering a justification for his necessary evils ranks amongst the series’ most thrilling, and its gradual payoff through The Night... and Day of the Doctor somehow managed to live up to its incredible promise, if with some unforeseen consequences - or more accurately, erasure thereof. Most people have darker sides to their personalities, and most do things that, with hindsight, seem so far removed from who they are now and what they believe in the present that it feels as if they were done by someone else. How many good men have gone to war? How many have done the unthinkable, have sacrificed their principles, for the sake of a greater good? The beauty of Moffat’s ‘War Doctor’ idea is that Doctor Who could take this abstract conceit and make it solid. The ghost of the Doctor’s past, of his most terrible day, could wear its own face, even take on its own temperament.

And “Granddad” certainly did that.

Hurt’s portrayal was devastatingly serious, particularly when viewed alongside the childlike exuberance of two of his later incarnations, who The Day of the Doctor suggested have been running from the dread conjured by his memory. This was beautifully borne out in the scene in which he asked them, “Do you have to talk like children? What makes you both so ashamed of being a grown-up?”, and the answer was written all over their faces. Throughout the story, Hurt, quite fittingly, showed us a soberer side to the character that we hadn’t seen since at least Jon Perwee’s era, perhaps even William Hartnell’s, but it was still recognisable - he was still the Doctor at heart. The coat that he wore provided a visual link to the man he would become, and his actions provided a more subtle one. Yes, to save the universe he’d wipe out two almighty races, but only because nobody else would do what needed to be done. I don’t think that’s necessarily wrong, nor do I find it “cruel or cowardly” – quite the opposite, in fact. It’s saving the universe, but at a cost, just as he’d done before, and would do again. He even tried to protect his TARDIS’s feelings by materialising miles from the site of his terrible deed and trekking to it through the desert. That’s not the act of cruel or cowardly man, or even the act of a man who’s given up - it’s being the Doctor on a day when it was impossible to be. The Doctor can try to divorce himself from his ‘Warrior’ self, lock his past incarnation away in the recesses of his mind, strip him of his name and lay all the guilt at his door, but when it comes down to it, this ‘War Doctor’ is the Doctor as much as the man in the fez who thinks that bow ties are cool or the “matchstick man” in the pin-striped suit, and The Day of the Doctor was an inspired, and really quite touching, exploration of the notion.

Like just about everyone else in the world, the news of David Tennant and Billie Piper’s return to the series led me to do some very sloppy arithmetic and end up with five. I half-dreaded the return of Rose and her quasi-Doctor lover, but lost just as much sleep pondering on the ramifications of Hurt’s incarnation meeting a Series 2 Rose, or the other two encountering her post-Bad Wolf Bay II. The same must have been true of Mr Moffat, as instead of bringing back the prototypical new companion, he cast her actress as the Moment - a living Time Lord weapon in the style of Nemesis (this is also the silver anniversary of Silver Nemesis, don’t forget) that stands in judgement of those who would deploy it. There may have been nowhere left for Rose Tyler to go, but there was a beautiful symmetry to be found in the very embodiment of the falling Time Lord’s darkest hour wearing the face of the woman whose love would eventually catch him to try and prick at his conscience. The conceit that the Time Lord would have to face his future to see what using the Moment would do to him is almost Dickensian in its brilliance.

It’s nonetheless a heck of a testament to both David Tennant and Matt Smith that when the action cut away from the climax of the Last Great Time War, away from the gravitational Mr Hurt and Piper’s ghost of relative past and future, The Day of the Doctor remained relentlessly engrossing. It would have been joy enough to see good old David Ten-inch (or is that Eleven-inch, now, hmm?) playing his “grunge-phase” Doctor once again, and particularly in a page of history once mentioned but never before explored, as he battled Zygons in Elizabethan England alongside his bride-to-be, Good Queen Bess (played here by Gavin and Stacey’s buoyant girl next door, Joanna Page). Yet when Smith’s Doctor entered the mix, we witnessed something very special indeed. Rather than perpetuate the now-obligatory bickering first, and most memorably, demonstrated by Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee over forty years ago, Moffat presented us with two young-looking Doctors ripping the piss out of each other and indulging in some riotous, laddish banter as Chinny mocked Sandshoes’ wooing of Zygons and they compared sonic screwdrivers suggestively.

The heavily-hyped Zygons were wonderfully recreated too. They’re essentially exactly the same in 2013 as they were in 1975, just more convincingly realised, especially when it comes to the now quite horrific human to Zygon morph and vice-versa. Though their thread of the plot was never going to be more than a thin and fun diversion, I still applaud their inclusion in their special for three very important reasons. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is the curious and popular fact that the Zygons have always been highly-regarded second-tier foes, yet they hadn’t been seen on telly since the days of scarves and jelly babies. Secondly, their first appearance heralded the end of the UNIT era, marking Nicholas Courtney’s final appearance as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, which this special neatly counterpointed with the return of the Brigadier’s daughter and her modern-day UNIT, who themselves were facing a dilemma not dissimilar to that of Hurt’s Doctor. Most serendipitously though, 1975’s Terror of the Zygons established that the Zygon homeworld had been destroyed in some loosely-described disaster, enabling Moffat to weave the first linking timey-wimey thread through his tantalising television tapestry as he tied the titular Time Lord’s ninth life fighting in the Time War to the destruction of a planet in that very war, leading to an invasion of the Earth in the 1970s (or ’80s...) that he’d already foiled five regenerations back. In of itself, that’s a hell of a lovesong to the legacy of the show.

And many of The Day of the Doctor’s finest moments came as the three Doctors conspired to put paid to the Zygon threat, with Hurt’s incarnation’s apparent seniority gradually deferring to Smith’s Doctor’s actual, and most palpable, precedence. I love how the later two Doctors showed their younger, war-addled self exactly how it’s done, leading to his epiphany that the guilt of what he must do is what will drive him to shine brighter, to fight harder, to become the brilliant men that he saw before him effortlessly doing their thing. “Great men are forged in fire,” he declared, in the wizened voice of a dragon. “It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame.”

But, of course, he didn’t light that flame, and as a result my beloved iPhone 4S became the final casualty of the Last Great Time War when its screen found itself being smashed. This wasn’t an act of rage, I should stress - just the cack-handedness that follows utter astonishment.

The rewriting of the last day of the Time War was the Doctor’s greatest ever triumph, and if the millions watching at home and in cinemas in ninety-four countries were anything like me, then they would have shared in that joyous sense of vindication and victory. The trouble is, once the Moment had gone and the moment had passed, we were left with a Doctor that had been changed beyond recognition; effectively snapped back to a much safer, pre-new series state, his once defining dark edges dulled and ultimately overwritten by the greatest cop-out that ever there was; the almost tangible angst of the last seven seasons rendered hollow by Moffat’s waving of a tripartite magic wand.

Ever since The End of the World, the Doctor’s (then only implied) actions had lent him an edge that none of the classic incarnations, not even Sylvester McCoy’s master manipulator, could match, not to mention a depth that could break hearts. Now most of that’s been torn from him in a moment of decisive victory; an ultimate save that only the unprecedented, and really quite overwhelming, presence of all thirteen Doctors (yep, even the one yet to come was thrown straight into the thick of it) could have a shot at making up for. Fair dues, Moffat’s made up for his predecessor’s cruel Christmas 2008 Next Doctor trickery, but in doing so he pulled off a much grander swerve. Gallifrey falls no more, and the Doctors wipe their collective slate clean.

But surely the last day of the Time War was the Doctor’s volcano day - if that doesn’t have to stand, then how can viewers be expected to care about anything, as it can just be undone by a future producer who doesn’t feel bound by the laws of time? Why not pop back and save Adric right now? How is this act any different to the borderline-villainous “Time Lord victorious” that The Waters of Mars so vociferously warned against? Whilst I can understand wanting to steer the show away from sinister soubriquets like ‘The Oncoming Storm’ and ‘The Destroyer of Worlds’, both of which emerged from the darkness between series and reeked of fan despair, there must be a way to push on with a nutty, dicky-bow Doctor without ripping the guts out of seven seasons of telly and a character that’s become so much more than he once was.

And burning just as hot is the question of why. Why resurrect Gallifrey for what will be the second time for viewers, and the third time for followers of all Who media? Whilst the scintillating snapshots offered by The End of Time and The Day of the Doctor are more than welcome, if viewers are shown too much of the Time Lords, then not only does this erode the mystery of the Doctor (which we’ve really got to hang on to now that we’ve been robbed of his war guilt), but it risks Gallifrey becoming the high-collared bad joke that it did in the 1980s. The prospect of the Doctor heading home to end his days, even “the long way round,” is not one that sits well with me at all, even if he has to overcome the likes of an omnicidal Rassilon and a deranged, moribund Master first. The best that we can hope for is that Gallifrey’s destroyed yet again after another sensational shitstorm, but by then, will anyone really care? It’d be just another empty Rory Williams half-death for the children of Gallifrey. 

Yet despite the above, despite the mounting mountain of reasons why I should hate this development, for some reason that I can’t fathom yet, I don’t. Perhaps I’m just caught up in the anniversary fervour; perhaps it was executed so very well, so very emotively, that the overriding triumph of the moment quashes even the most sensible and well-reasoned of reservations. I don’t think that I’ve ever felt so conflicted about a Doctor Who story as I do about The Day of the Doctor, and I doubt that I ever will again. If that’s not a testament to a thought-provoking celebratory tale, then I don’t know what is. 

But the retcon wasn’t quite the end; indeed, ’twas a beginning. The Day of the Doctor concluded with a scene so nonsensically reverent that I would have forgiven the series anything. Tom Baker’s cameo as the art gallery’s curator was as beautiful as it was mischievous, radiating through both the dissolved fourth wall and the Time Lord 3-D artwork’s window to Gallifrey (meta-fiction within meta-fiction...), somewhere out there in the show’s future, yet tied to a past impossibly embodied in this eccentric old man. The whole spirit of the special is distilled right there; the collision between past and future, the disambiguation of seemingly separate titles, of seemingly separate men. It’s an all-time high point for Who.

http://www.doctorwhoreviews.co.uk/The%20Day%20of%20the%20Doctor.htm#Continuity-CornerAnd so, though it deliberately confused the polarity of the neutron flow and sold out to the Happy Ending Brigade in a manner that makes the events of Journey’s End seem innocuous in comparison, The Day of the Doctor was without question the Doctors’ finest hour - every single one of the splendid chaps, Hurt’s included - and it was a finest hour felt concurrently around the world, crossing continents and time zones and setting simulcast world records. I’ve written this piece, quite aberrantly, in the past tense because I don’t feel like I’m reviewing a film or an episode that can be revisited with the same effect - I’m recalling a discrete event. For fifty years, the question’s been, “Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated?” The question now is, “Where were you on The Day of the Doctor?” Me, I was on my sofa, torn in half, smashing up an iPhone, completely and utterly rapt.

The Day of the Doctor is available to download in 2-D 1080p HD from iTunes as part of The 50th Anniversary Collection, which you can purchase for £14.99. The series pass includes Doctor Who at the Proms 2010; several otherwise US-exclusive Doctor Who Revisited documentaries; Doctor Who Explained; the Mark Gatiss-penned drama An Adventure in Space and Time; and the recent mini-episodes The Night of the Doctor and The Last Day.

The Blu-ray set includes both 2-D and 3-D editions of the special as well as the short BBC
Behind the Lens documentary; Doctor Who Explained; and the two minisodes, but not the other US documentaries or An Adventure in Space and Time. The cheapest pre-order price for the Blu-ray release is £9.85 from Base.

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