Doctor Who – 50th Anniversary Special

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“The Day of the Doctor”

You’re going to have to forgive me if my thoughts are a bit scattered.  Today I’m a 13 year-old boy again, staying up late on Sunday night to watch my favorite show on WTTW Channel 11 in Chicago.

Note: this post contains innumerable spoilers for “The Day of the Doctor”.  Stop here if you haven’t seen it.

With “The Day of the Doctor”, Steven Moffat officially joins the exclusive ranks of magnificent bastards in my eyes.  I’ve had my issues here and there with his work over the last couple of years, but when the chips were down he delivered big-time.  The entire week of festivities has struck just the right tone of respect for the past and fun, and the main event was everything I hoped it would be and more – a glorious celebration of history, a spectacular study of The Doctor as a man, and arguably the best reset-button in modern sci-fi history.

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In truth, I think only someone who cut their teeth on the original series can truly appreciate just how successful this special episode was.  I know Doctor Who has a pretty small following among the readers of this website, but you have to understand – it was really the first thing I was a hard-core geek for. I love Doctor Who on the chromosomal level, and it’s been a very long time since it’s done anything to make me giddy with glee the way “DotD” has done.  “The Night of the Doctor” was a great appetizer, giving Paul McGann a much-deserved second bite of the apple and setting up this story.  “An Adventure in Space and Time” was a moving tribute to the people who first brought the series to the screen 50 years ago.  And now we have what will arguably go down as one of the best stand-alone episodes in that history, and certainly as the best of all the multi-Doctor specials.

It’s hard to overstate just how big the challenge for Moffat was here.  In addition to being the main event for the almost unheard of in television 50th Anniversary, “Day of the Doctor” had to find a way to meaningfully and plausibly bring together multiple Doctors when several of the actors playing the role have passed away and several others have aged decades (never easy to explain in these things), and to please both grouchy fans of the pre-reboot show (like me) and the fans of the new one who put the money in the bank and keep the show alive.  And oh, by the way, tell a compelling and interesting story.  Yeah, good luck with that, Grand Moff.

Magnificent bastard pulled it off.

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My little scratch pad usually holds anywhere from a couple of words to a line-and-a-half of notes about any show I’m going to write about, and I’ve got about half a page of scribbles on “DotD” – there’s just no point in trying to summarize the episode because I can’t do it with any impartiality.  So I’ll just talk about some of what I especially loved:

  • The original credits from 1963.
  • Anything and everything David Tennant.  He’s one of the best of the best – a great Doctor in every way.  And technically, the King of England.  I love his quips, his lip-pursing, his sand shoes.
  • The chemistry between Tennant and Smith – “The man who regrets and the man who forgets”.  Moffat told us they hit it off like beans and rice, but what else was he going to say?  Thankfully it was all true.
  • John Hurt.  He was perfectly cast as “The War Doctor”, the one his successors tried so hard to forget.  Fittingly he played the character very much out of a Shakespearean tragedy – a good man willing to do something terrible so that the ones that followed wouldn’t have to.
  • “Great men are forged in fire.  It’s the privilege of lesser man to light the flame.”  Oh, but you’re not a lesser man, Doctor – you’re a man fully worthy of that name.
  • Hurt’s Doctor taunting his younger selves – especially Smith.  Such a great nod to the grumbling among fans (not me, of course – other fans) that the character was getting too young.  Most hilariously: Hurt mistaking them (though I suspect tongue firmly in-cheek) for companions – “They’re getting younger all the time.”
  • “I don’t know where he picks this stuff up, honestly.”
  • Clara (far better in this episode than she’s ever been) teaching at Coal Hill School, with Ian Chesterton as the Headmaster.  And the TARDIS by the side of the road.
  • “Nice scarf.”
  • “What’re you going to do, assemble a cabinet at them?”
  • “Should we ask for a better quality of door so we can escape?”
  • “The circles – I love the circles!”
  • “It’s his grunge phase.  He grows out of it.”
  • “Why is there never a big red button?”
  • “No Sir – all thirteen.”
  • Tom Baker’s voice and Peter Capaldi’s eyes.

Speaking of Tom Baker, there’s that final scene.  No, I can’t explain why he showed up looking like the 79 year-old he is – but I don’t really care, it was Tom Baker.  Baker is my Doctor you see – everyone who’s a true fan of the show has a Doctor who belongs to them, the one who played the role when they discovered Doctor Who.  And Baker (I very much like the other, underrated Baker as well) has remained my favorite (you can choose your own in the sidebar poll) for all these years.  And that scene with Smith was spine-tingling, especially with T.B. pulling all his classic gestures with that voice that still makes the walls shake with sheer gravitas and intellect – “Who…Nose.”

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If that was the scene that most thrilled my inner 13 year-old, what most touched my grown-up heart was the scene when Ten  Eleven and Eleven Twelve showed up to join Nine in pushing that big red button.  More so than the act itself, it was the fact that they were acknowledging the burden that the “Warrior Doctor” had carried for all his successors – how unfair they’d been to him in allowing him to become their Dorian Gray, the receptacle of all they hate about themselves, to the point where he refuses to even take the name “Doctor”.  Even if (they thought) they had no alternative to the terrible wrong they were about to commit, they could at least right the wrong of forcing Nine to bear that burden alone.  It was a beautiful, terrible moment – one of the most poignant and authentic for the character in all the decades we’ve been following him.

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As for the ending itself, it certainly open ups a world of possibilities for Doctor Who – with Matt Smith’s Twelve, as he says, “going home”.  What we know of course is that he’s going home to die, but he doesn’t know that yet (spoilers).  The idea of the Time Lords and Gallifrey being destroyed never sat well with me, to be honest, so in a sense this feels like Moffat at last righting one of the wrongs of the reboot.  And given that Peter Capaldi is in fact now officially going to be the Thirteenth Doctor, it opens up possibilities for explaining how his life might continue beyond that regeneration.

I don’t know how much longer Moffat plans to stay in the role of show-runner – historical precedent suggests it might not be all that much longer – but the 50th Anniversary itself, leading up to “Day of the Doctor”, cements his legacy as a successful caretaker of the legacy.  I always felt that Moffat understood the character and the mythology in a way his predecessor Russell Davies never did, but there were moments over the last four years that I felt lost that sense of identity.  More so than with anything else he’s done – along with his singular contribution purely as a writer, the Weeping Angels – Day of the Doctor reflects just how deeply Moffat really does understand both character and show.  For as long as he decides to stay on-board, it seems that the series is in safe hands.

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9 comments

  1. D

    Was dragged along to see it at a 3D cinema showing today. Haven't been an active follower of Doctor Who since the end of Tennant episodes, but I felt this was an absolutely fantastic return to form, not just in writing but in the spirit of the series itself. Might have to watch on now, especially due to Capaldi.

    Did you ever see In the Thick of It? Capaldi is a marvelous actor.

  2. Of course, but I've been a fan of his since "Local Hero" – he is a terrific actor and he can do a lot more than swear on camera (brilliantly).

    I really do feel that an appreciation of the pre-reboot DW is if not a prerequisite, certainly a major leg-up in appreciating this episode on all the levels in which it succeeded. 50th anniversaries for TV drama simply don't happen – there's not much to base yourself on if you're tasked with doing one. I think it's truly amazing that Moffat did it this well.

  3. G

    I liked it as well. Was very well done. I thought the DOTD would pick up where the end of season 7 left off and end with the regeneration of Smith into Cappaldi. Obviously thats not going to happen now until the next season finally airs.

    My first Doctor was also Tom Baker followed by Peter Davidson and then Colin Baker. Years alter I went back and saw many of the earlier and later Doctors adventures (thank you Netflix).

    One thing you might want to look for is The Five(ish) Doctors. Its a 30 min. video on BBC America with the other Doctors that did not appear in DOTD trying their best to be included. Very funny stuff and a nice companion piece to DOTD.

  4. Yeah, Davison did a great job there. Hilarious stuff.

  5. T

    That was just…brilliant. *Loud Applause…A slow growing roar of the crowd chanting…moffat…Moffat…MOffat…MOFfat…MOFFat…MOFFAt….MOFFAT…MOFFATT*

    That was truly a magnificent piece of television history that I am glad that I was able to be a part of. I have only watched since the reboot but man all the call outs to the older doctors had me giddy inside, especially Tom Baker and the Peter Capaldi's reference. Goosebumps all over.

    What I thought was the best part is who this episode is going to fundamentally alter the rest of Matt Smith's tenure. For 3 seasons all we have gotten is a man who is deeply troubled by his past, forever running from his inner darkness on whatever ridiculous whim is allowed. To the point of putting the ones he loves in mortal danger just to get away from the darkness.

    But now we have a Matt Smith doctor who has the one thing he has been lacking all along. Hope. There is now a light in his world. A light that is something to run towards after all of the running away. Although he doesn't know that he is running toward his death, he will get to die knowing that he was not the genocidal maniac that murdered his entire species. He gets to move on knowing that his people are alive and that he wrestled with his own inner darkness and won to save them.

  6. H

    I thought it was a very good show, and John Hurt was terrific.

    Personally, my favorite Doctor is Peter Davison (even saddled with the absolute worst companions, Adric and then Turlough).

  7. G

    Davidson was my favorite as well. Hated Adric, Turlough, and to a lesser extent Teegan (always whining). Nyssa was good tho and Peri was very easy on the eyes.

  8. No second "D", Davison – he's sensitive!

    Davison is an amazingly nice man and a very good actor (loved him in "All Creatures") but I find his Doctor middling because was a bit too nice and a bit too human for me. Somewhat of a predictor of the post-reboot era, I always thought.

  9. A

    Nothing short of brilliant from the Grand Moff… The possibilities. Oh God.

    I've started watching Doctor Who since the reboot. Eccleston being my first Doctor, while there are some lacklustre episodes, a lot are strong and memorable ones since then.
    That teaser from Capaldi… I was pumping fists with tears in my eyes on that powerful scene. The new series will be much anticipated. I for one am even more stoked for Twelve (Thirteen).

    Gallifrey and Tranzalore, the mystery remains.

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