50th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Day of the Doctor”

Doctor “I could retire and be the curator of this place.”
Curator “You know, I really think you might.”
Doctor “I never forget a face.”
Curator “I know you don’t. And in years to come you might find yourself…revisiting a few. But just the old favourites, eh?”


Whenever I watch Doctor Who, it has almost entirely been from the sofa of whichever house I happened to be living in at the time, although I do have memories of my childhood viewing technique of lying down on the floor, elbows under my head, with chin perched on my hands. Most of the time, viewing was a solitary experience. My parents, to this day, don’t really get it, and my brother was never a fan. I married in 2002 (during the wilderness years), over a year before the show’s triumphant return was even announced and nearly three years before “Rose” was broadcast. My wife had no idea what she was getting into, but she has enough taste in good television to sit and enjoy the new show with me. Having said that, I’m still not sure I could convince her to sit down and watch “Image of the Fendahl” or “The Romans” or somesuch. Given all this, it was beyond my comprehension to think that I would be watching the 50th anniversary special by leaving the “Official 50th Celebration” at the Excel with a bunch of other fans, many of whom were in Doctor Who costume, getting a cable car across the River Thames to the O2 arena, where we would watch the episode with 775 other fans on a screen 22-metres wide in glorious 3D. Not only that, there were more than 1,500 cinemas worldwide showing the same thing at the same time as it was simulcast in 94 countries and dubbed or subtitled into 15 other languages, watched by nigh-on 13 million people in the UK and who knows how many elsewhere. Not bad for kid’s show. But what to make of it all? The brief was not exactly a simple one: write an episode of the greatest television show that the world has ever seen that celebrates its dazzling, fifty-year heritage; that impresses dedicated fans of all ages as the centrepiece of the anniversary celebrations; that appeals to a large slice of an audience who have a take it or leave attitude to the show (the fools!); and paves the way to securing another half-century of Whovian goodness. It would not have been many people’s first response to this challenge, which had indeed been laid at the feet of Steven Moffat, to say, “Right. Let’s bring back the Zygons”.

While viewers on the telly got to see Matt Smith saying that “The moment has arrived” while interrupting a yet another BBC ident, at the cinema, well the one I went to at any rate, we got to see an amusing Ron Burgandy scene where the eponymous news presenter reported on Peter Capaldi’s casting as the Doctor with a play on the Abbott & Costello sketch, “Who’s on first”. This was followed by a brilliant little scene of Commander Strax telling us about cinema etiquette and the pleasure of eat popcorn. Finally, there was a genuinely sweet and funny dialogue between Matt and David talking about the 3D effects (“Only three dimensions?! That’s rubbish!”). Hopefully, these features will make it onto some DVD/Blu-ray extras at some point. So, that was all before the titles rolled, at which point we were treated to the original theme music, a snippet of the original title sequence remastered into the third dimension and a Police Constable walking by I.M. Foreman’s scrap-yard and past Coal Hill School. So far, so beautiful. The pedant in me might feel compelled to point out that the distance between the scrapyard and the school was somewhat less than we saw in “An Unearthly Child” fifty years before, but that would be disingenuous (and can be easily explained by supposing that the school simply changed location). Nice to see a certain I. Chesterton was the headmaster too.

Working at the school, we find Clara teaching a class, clearly having moved on professionally since we last met when she worked as a nanny to Angie and Artie. She is soon on her bike though, figuratively and literally, as a message from the Doctor entices her away to more adventures. While this sequence gave an early opportunity for the 3D to shine: the entrance of the bike hurtling in to the TARDIS being a fine example, it did once again amplify this weird new feature of Doctor Who, for the companion not to be a permanent resident on board the time machine. Inside the spaceship was glorious in 3D too, with the space around the console and the shot with the camera pointing downwards meaning that the set had never looked better, or more spacious. This was followed by more unnecessary, but still quite engaging, special effects shots as the UNIT helicopter hoiked the TARDIS away for a flight over London to Trafalgar Square for a meeting with Lethbridge-Stewart.

For all the delightful pre-amble, it wasn’t until the unveiling of ‘No More’ / ‘Gallifrey Falls’ at the National Gallery that business started to pick up. We were promised paintings, and that’s exactly what we got: wonderful Time Lord art. And it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider just how awesome the painting actually was. It needed to be obviously 3D for both people watching in either 3D or 2D, which is quite a task but one in which they succeeded. From here on in there were some lovely touches and delicate nods to the past, but not one second of screen time was wasted. Having watched it half a dozen times now (I know, don’t mock!) it is amazingly true that almost every line of dialogue actually progresses the plot or the characterisations: there is no fat at all on show. The unveiling of the that painting allowed director, Nick Hurran, to seamlessly flash back in to the Time War and the Fall of Arcadia, and most importantly of all to meet up with the War Doctor himself, John Hurt. While later, the reveal of a much more arcane painting of Queen Elizabeth I and David Tennant’s Doctor allowed us to flash back to 1562 and find out what the Tenth Doctor was up to. Thus the pieces of the puzzle were all falling in to place.

First off we see the War Doctor aged and battered by the Time War since the start of his incarnation at the end of the special episode “Night of the Doctor”, some nine or ten days before airing. Clearly out of ideas for any way to resolve the conflict other than by stealing from the Omega Arsenal. As he blasts a message of “No more” to anyone, Dalek or Time Lord, who cares to read it, we see him reluctantly, painfully and with the heaviest of hearts trudging to a shack in the middle of some dessert, ready to take the ultimate sanction. Meanwhile on Gallifrey we find Time Lord High Command. It was a lovely touch to see the same actor from “The End of Time” come in saying that the High Council were pursuing their own plan, suggesting that the events of David Tennant’s last episode were being played out next door while all this was unravelling and we also discover that this was when the Time Lords realised what the Doctor’s plan was going to be by stealing “The Moment” or the “Galaxy Eater” as it was also unnecessarily known. Although who knew how significant the fact was that “The Moment” was a weapon so complex that the operating system had became sentient? And what a form it took. Billie Piper’s return as Bad Wolf (as opposed, strictly speaking, to Rose Tyler) was nicely done. As Steven Moffat later said, Billie was a crucial part in the revival of Doctor Who, so it was only right that she be bought back, but Rose’s story (a.k.a. Russell T Davies’ story) had been told, so The Interface’s story was designed not to conflict with that. The chemistry between Hurt and Piper was also lovely to behold. Her gently mocking “No more. Nooo Moooorrre. NoMoreNoMoreNoMore”  and “The interface is hot”, “Well I do my best” exchange were perfectly timed, while the stating that the Doctor would live as a punishment was filled with the grief that underlines Eccleston’s series. So, as the Bad Wolf / Interface opened up the time fissures, the plot then opened up the opportunity for some multi-Doctor anniversary fun.

Back at the National Gallery, we find the Eleventh Doctor (or is Matt Smith the Twelfth Doctor now?), along with Clara, Kate, Osgood and McGilliop (yes, I had to look up his name on Wikipedia) who were puzzling over the 3D paintings, wondering where the figures from the landscape paintings had disappeared to, and pondering the nature of the rock dust that littered the floor of the “Under Gallery”. I love the idea that there is an under gallery beneath the National Gallery where all the world’s dangerous art is hidden away from public eyes, in the same way that there is an “Under Henge” beneath Stonehenge. Of course we also get the message within the letter from Elizabeth I to the Doctor  that: “I have appointed you as curator of the Under Gallery”, a fact that would have a wonderful pay-off at the end of the episode. Matt Smith shone bright throughout these sequences as an actor completely at one with his character. Look as he enters the gallery while explaining to Clara about the fact that he has a job working for UNIT (irrespective of the established fact that he had stopped working for them long before) and later tries to prove his having-a-job credentials with his exchange with Osgood: “You look sciencey” etc. followed by a subtle wink of reassurance. Much of the immediate commentary that I saw in the aftermath of the episode was about how John Hurt could act anyone off the stage, but I think that credit has to go to Matt Smith for his work here. However, once Clara has berated the Doctor with her “Someday, you could just walk past a fez”comment, then the time fissure is opened up by The Moment and the cue is there for this Doctor to depart the scene.

Where he ends up, of course, is back with Tennant’s Doctor during his liaison with the Virgin Queen. I wonder whether anyone could’ve imagined, way back during the final moments of “The Shakespeare Code” or the first scenes of “The End of Time, Part One” when the tenth Doctors relationship with this particular monarch is mentioned, that anyone would go back and fill in the gaps to make the relationship such an integral part of the fiftieth anniversary tale. If the earlier, extensive scene that introduced us to John Hurt’s Doctor was necessary for us to establish this new Doctor as a definitive part of the fifty year history, then the scene with Tennant and Jo Page served to remind us just how much fun the Tenth Doctor can be. As soon as pulls from his pocket the machine that goes ‘ding’, we know we are on safe ground, and the fact that the Zygon turned out to be the horse rather than the queen, was a clever misdirection. There was a moment here when the direction was a bit of a let-down: how did the Zygon not see the Doctor and Elizabeth I run into the ruin? You could almost see the Zygon in the background watching them before he runs off in another direction. However, niggles aside Jo Page plays her dual role very well, before the three Doctors are united for a mini adventure.

There are some great light and dark moments throughout the scenes with Hurt, Tennant and Smith, such as in the prison cell within the Tower of London. The accusations about failing to count the number of children who died on Gallifrey blended seamlessly with digs about sand-shoes and chins and the like. Also, the way the Interface subtly nudged Hurt’s Doctor into working out that all three sonic screwdrivers could be used to solve the problem was a lovely moment that, again, set up the method at the end when all thirteen Doctors had to do something similar with the calculations needed to freeze the planet. See, nothing is wasted. Undermining the situation by having Clara just open the door and walk in to the cell, was played out like the punchline to a great joke. From there the Doctors had to get to the Black Archive and Moffat couldn’t resist a little wibbly wobbly moment as he phoned the UNIT scientist in the gallery and instructed him to move the painting to the Archive so it was already there when they needed it. In the Black Archive, where a solitary cyber head sat in a cabinet just like one had done way back in “Dalek” episode of 2005, the Zygon trouble was fairly quickly resolved by prompting the humans and aliens in to a negotiation, which effectively cleared all the extraneous characters out of the way to allow some of the all-time classic Doctor Who scenes to be played unencumbered by any other plot threads.

John Hurt’s Doctor tells the Moment that he ready to go back to the end of the Time War, presumably somewhat reassured that his survival would lead to some good being done, as evidenced by Ten and Eleven’s resolution of the Zygon situation. Going back to the shed alone he intended to finish the job, explaining that great men are forged in fire and that it is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame. However, on Clara’s off-screen advice the other two follow the War Doctor back to the shed, so that he doesn’t have to do it all alone. Back in “The Name of the Doctor”, the Doctor explained to Clara that being the Doctor is a promise that he makes rather than simply a name, and here we find out what that promise is, rather like his own sort of Hypocratic oath: “Never cruel or cowardly. Never give up. Never give in”. It is then that all the pieces fall so perfectly in to place. The plan to freeze Gallifrey in a moment of time like the paintings and the calculations required to do this as per the sonic screwdriver trick from earlier, could not collectively have readied me for the arrival of all THIRTEEN Doctors in their TARDISes but it was perfectly delivered, most especially of course with Peter Capaldi’s eyes. Back in the Under Gallery, there is just time for a cup of tea before John Hurt’s Doctor has to depart in more ways than one, as he gets into his TARDIS and dematerialises his regeneration into Christopher Eccleston began (although I would have like to have seen a few more seconds and some more clarity in Eccleston’s features before the cutaway). At the Celebration Event the day after the original broadcast, Steven Moffat was very assertive that, in his mind, Ecclestone went direct from here into his adventure with “Rose”; tying together the comment here “I hope the ears are a bit less conspicuous this time” directly with Eccleston’s “Oh, look at the ears” in the Tyler’s flat.

Then it’s Tennant’s turn to leave: his discussion with Smith about what is to happen at Trenzalore being quite telling: “Nothing we can do about it” says Matt, “Never say ‘nothing'”, Tennant replies as if he knows that Trenzalore could never be the end. His delightful “I don’t want to go!” being repeated was the perfect sign-off. That left the now-Twelfth Doctor stood in the Under Gallery with that painting one more time. As I sat there in the cinema and Clara uttered the words that there was an old guy looking for him, my heart skipped a beat. Tom Baker’s appearance was so incredibly perfect for the Fiftieth Anniversary that there are almost no words to describe it. That little exchange of dialogue was not just two minutes celebrating Doctor Who’s legacy, it was one of the great moments of popular culture, and that final wide-angle shot of the twelve Doctors was simply the ideal way to conclude the first fifty years. This is as close to perfect as television gets, and to play it out on such a scale, and to have it be such a success, means that I have never been more proud to call myself a fan.


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