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

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special: The Day of the Doctor leans towards the lighter side of the Whoniverse.

Doctor Who

Distributor: BBC
Cast: Matt Smith, Jenna Coleman, David Tennant, Billie Piper, John Hurt
Network: BBC
UK Release date: 2013-12-02
US Release date: 2013-12-10

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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