Three Doctors, One Special, and a Big (Blue) Box of Surprises!

[23 January 2014]

By Evan Sawdey

PopMatters Interviews Editor

There’s a scene in Russell T. Davies’ TV show Queer as Folk wherein lead character Vince Tyler (Craig Kelly) asks the guy he’s been dating if he can name the actors who played The Doctor in order, and when he fails to do so, Vince breaks up with him, as he feels there should be some greater emotional simpatico with his boyfriend that includes shared interests.

Moreover, that show was made back in 1999, several years before Doctor Who would be ushered back to the public consciousness by none other than, of course, Russel T. Davies.

Although he had hinted at his love of all things Who in his previous works, Davies’ fandom is actually typical of how most people view the world’s longest-running sci-fi TV show: with absolute obsession and devotion. There are those who grew up on it ever since it’s premiere all the way back in 1963, and there are those young folk who only caught it after Davies’ very, very modern revival, which features countless references to the past, and—especially with Steven Moffat’s scripts—makes bold new stances towards it’s ongoing future.

Thus, The Day of the Doctor was in many ways something that has been anticipated for years. Kids hooked on the new show wound up digging into the past, and while some old fans scoffed at the liberties the new series took (the 10th Doctor in Converse?!), families the world over began enjoying it together just like families had decades before, discovering the warm-hearted adventures of a time-traveling alien who prefers brains over brawn any day of the the week, month, or millennium.

With Moffat at the helm, having now become showrunner after a run of impressive standalone scripts, he had the gargantuan task of crafting a special that would satisfy every quadrant of Whovian you could possibly imagine. Given how popular some of the big multi-Doctor special episodes were (1972’s The Three Doctors, 1983’s massive The Five Doctors, etc.) coupled with the teaming of extremely popular Doctor’s #10 & #11 (David Tennant and Matt Smith, respectively), Moffat seemed to come across a sure-fire recipe for success.

Simulcast in movie theaters the world over (in gimmicky 3D, no less), The Day of the Doctor is more of a love letter to the show than it is a full-blown epic saga. It tackles a convention that’s only been directed to since Davies’ revival of the show: the Time War, an all-out epic battle between noted nemesis the Daleks that left the Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston, not seen here) an orphan, the very last of his Time Lord race. It was always alluded to, and served as a nice way to differentiate everything pre- and post-Paul McGann (more on him later), but here becomes the central focal point of the episode, as the Eleventh Doctor is picked up by tactical force U.N.I.T. to investigate a very strange occurrence involving a 3D painting and the unique proclivities of one of England’s most famous queens.

While the current companion, Clara (Jenna Coleman), is pretty faceless and useless in the course of this episode (for more issues with her, see the latter half of Series Seven), they bring back Tennant & Eccleston’s longtime companion Billie Piper not as her iconic character rose Rose, but instead as the sexy, sentient interface to a very destructive device being used to potentially end the Time War, although at a great cost of life.

In truth, despite the story pertaining to much of the Doctor’s personal past, it never feels overarchingly epic in scope; it’s just a very good story that manages to bring back a true Who classic from back in the day: the shape-shifting Zygons (and, of course, some Daleks, ‘cos what’s an episode of Doctor Who without them?).

Yet the much-awaited pairing of Smith and Tennant does not disappoint: they’re at times angry with each other, totally in sync, complimentary, humorous, and basically run through the entire range of activities one would expect from the match-up of two of the quirkiest actors this side of the Troughton/Tom Baker threhshold to take on the role. Moffat gets to do some timeline callbacks within the episode (one of his all-time favorite tricks), run through a good amount of witty dialogue, provide a lot of insider references to Who tropes both old (the opening shot, reflecting the 1963 pilot episode “An Unearthly Child”) and new (the beloved phrase “timey-wimey”). John Hurt gets to play the much-hinted-at “War Doctor”, an iteration of the Doctor who did some terrible things, and who has a bit of a hard time realizing that Smith & Tennant are, in fact, his future, well after he’s committed an atrocious act.

While everything ties up nicely and the episode certainly leans towards the lighter side of the Whoniverse (those looking for the scares of “Blink” or “Midnight” or the depth of “The Girl Who Waited” or “The Family of Blood” know that the 50th Anniversary is a celebration, first and foremost, meant to be enjoyed by adult and child alike), some well-placed surprise cameos (and an adrenaline-pumping glimpse and 12th Doctor Peter Capaldi) make for an enjoyable go-round in the TARDIS.

The special features are rather brief but extremely effective. There are two mini-episodes, the best of which is the pure piece of fan-candy that is “The Night of the Doctor”, which features a who-would’ve-guessed appearance by Paul McGann as the 8th Doctor, who famously had one on-screen role in the ill-fated American TV movie and then never was heard much from again (assuming you don’t count his numerous appearances in Who audio dramas or the elaborately creative comics they crafted for the Doctor Who magazine). In the above Queer As Folk clip, they dismiss Paul McGann because he “doesn’t count,” but here, he is lively and inhabits the role quite well.

The behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of the episode is typically self-serving if not a bit fun (narrated by 6th Doctor Colin Baker, naturally), and the nearly hour-long feature about the entire history of Who is a great introduction for neophytes and a fun flashback for experienced Gallifrey inhabitants.

All in all, The Day of the Doctor is fleeting fun, a worthy torch-wielder for multi-Doctor specials of old, and a nice reminder of not only where the show is going, but just how much it means to fans stretching across several (re)generations.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/178473-doctor-who-50th-anniversary-special-the-day-of-the-doctor/