As a longtime Whovian, I’ve been pleased to see Doctor Who attaining new heights of popularity as its 50th anniversary approached. BBC America’s Doctor Who Confidential retrospectives, an ever-growing reference library, and plentiful merchandise warm the heart of this fan, who wore oversize coats and long scarves around the television show’s 20th anniversary. I even got my mother to sew question-mark lapel pins.
While I had some reservations about the so-called War Doctor and apparent lack of actors from before the 2005 restart of the long-running British series, it was hard not to get caught up in the fan anticipation. The time-travel franchise is rightly one of the best and longest in speculative fiction.
If you’re reading my blog and know nothing about Doctor Who, I’m afraid that most of this post won’t make much sense. Go watch the show! For those of you who are fellow enthusiasts, here’s my initial review of the episode of Saturday, 23 November 2013, sans “spoilers” (a River Song favorite, found in some of the enclosed links).
Doctor 11 (played by Matt Smith) finds himself interacting with Doctor 10 (David Tennant) and a hitherto unknown past incarnation (John Hurt). The three Time Lords — actually the same person — must deal with nasty Zygon doppelgangers, the last day of the Time War between the besieged Gallifreyans and cybernetic Daleks, and their own guilt. I’ve seen some complaints that the episode was too low-key or “too zany,” but I think it balanced action with puzzle-solving and introspection.
There are “timey wimey” maneuverings, lots of script and visual allusions to past Doctors, and a reminder of the heroic idealism and childlike whimsy that have entranced viewers for decades. At their best, both Star Trek and Doctor Who have these qualities. I was dreading a dour, fatalistic look back, but I found myself looking to the future with renewed optimism.
More than the recursive plot, the success of this crossover storyline is thanks to strong performances by Smith, Tennant, and genre veteran Hurt. They’re ably supported by Jemma Redgrave as the daughter of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, Jenna Louise Coleman as latest companion Clara Oswald, and Billie Piper as Rose Tyler, the first of the modern companions.
There are a few surprise appearances, only adding to speculation for the upcoming Doctor 12, to be played by Peter Capaldi. Doors that were closed have been reopened, but the cast and crew manage not to trample on the legacy of Tom Baker, Paul McGann, and Christopher Eccleston.
The pacing of this anniversary episode starts out slowly, with idyllic vignettes and an apparent mystery. As with many of Doctor Who‘s landmark episodes, it soon accelerates with helicopter rides, chase scenes, and a race to save entire planets.
Ultimately, the producers are right to focus on the Doctor’s conscience and his love of common people with extraordinary potential. References to the fairy-tale infantilism of recent seasons, dueling Doctor egos, unresolved threats, and curating the best of the past to inspire the future all make this episode worth rewatching and discussing among friends.
Story and character are still paramount, but special effects have come a long way in 50 years. I’m sure those who screen the “Day of the Doctor” theatrically in 3-D will have a lot to enjoy. I was thrown for a moment when the episode opened with the 1963 opening titles, after the pregame show had shown bits of the previous Doctors. I was also happy to see the Zygons, who were the first Doctor Who monsters to haunt my youth.
Even the characters noted the aesthetic differences among three TARDIS consoles. The aforementioned helicopter ride across London, visits to hidden vaults in the National Gallery and Tower of London, and glimpses of the Time War make this a true romp across space and time.
I recognized references to Rose’s “Bad Wolf” theme, and subtle differences between Tennant’s tenure and Smith and Coleman’s era. I also have a renewed appreciation for the earlier Doctors (whom recent comic books have also revisited).
While Eccleston’s short run was marked by social commentary and a contemporary feel, this anniversary episode reminded me of “The Five Doctors” and the more mythic feel of some recent runs without feeling so overblown. Let’s hope that the self-aware sci-fi franchise continues to go strong as Capaldi’s time in the TARDIS approaches….
“Day of the Doctor” is a must-see and a gift for any Doctor Who fans, and I’d give it a 9 out of 10, four out of five stars, and an A-. The only way I’d give it a higher review would have been a longer episode with more cameos, but that’s only hardcore fan wishes.