Doctor Who: The Day Of The Doctor review

Spoilers! John Hurt, David Tennant, Matt Smith and more, in our thoughts on the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special, The Day Of The Doctor.

This article contains spoilers. Lots of them.

The Day Of The Doctor

The last time a special anniversary episode of Doctor Who was screened on the show’s birthday, we got the Sylvester McCoy-headlined Silver NemesisWith no disrespect to the Seventh Doctor’s battle with the Cyberman – nor to Ace and her catapult – The Day Of The Doctor was in a different class. Back in 1988, the show was struggling, suffering in plain sight despite one or two excellent stories. In 2013, Steven Moffat promised us a story that would change the Doctor forever. And that’s pretty much what we got.

“This Has All The Makings Of Your Lucky Day”

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From the off, it was clear that this had labour of love stamped throughout it, with the old titles (adorable touch) contrasting neatly with the more modern subsequent sight of Matt Smith hanging off a TARDIS – courtesy of the always-welcome UNIT – whilst being flown over London. Then, by the time the new-style end credits and reworked theme tune were over, it turned out we were going to get more Doctors than we were originally promised. It was impossible to feel shortchanged.

For not only did we get the terrific three hander between David Tennant, Matt Smith and John Hurt – we’re going to talk about that shortly – but also two massive surprises. One we actually managed to predict for a change, and one some on the internet elected to spoil in advance (we keep getting told off for moaning about that, but can’t help but feel it’s a shame in this particular instance).

The first one was that brief, fleeting appearance, for all of a second or two, of the Doctor’s 13th incarnation, Peter Capaldi. How was that for a squeal at your telly moment? Our voice found a high-pitched octave we weren’t aware that it had. Not to worry though: it got even higher after that. And you know which moment we mean. Seeing Tom Baker and Matt Smith having a conversation in an episode of Doctor Who in 2013 is comfortably one of the screen highlights of the year. That alone would have been a birthday present and a half for the show. It’s a good job they didn’t throw any more massive surprises in, as our voice would have been at Bee Gees level.

But then these were just a couple of wonderful moments, in an anniversary special that actually managed for to deliver for the most part on the extensive build-up. It felt like a real treat, a gift to Who fandom, but more importantly, a strong episode in its own right.

Right through, there were little touches for those who wanted to look closer. Ian Chesterton as chair of governors at Clara’s school right at the start. The TARDIS at the side of the road. The pinboard in the Black Archive, a room that effectively was a time capsule of Doctordom, with plenty to freeze-frame on a repeat viewing.

“Great Men Are Forged In Fire. It Is The Privilege Of Lesser Men To Light The Flame”

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And yet for such an enjoyable, pacey, funny episode, The Day Of The Doctor started dark. Because here, for the first time, we got taken right to the heart of the Time War, the event that’s sat in the background of Doctor Who since Rose back in 2005.

Director Nick Hurran might find himself offered a sci-fi Hollywood blockbuster or two off the back of it, too. The blend of slow motion, superb effects work, Daleks that looked like they were actually in the mood to do some damage and the gritty tone was excellent. And – extra bonus points – here were special effects-laden action sequences where you could easily make out just what was going on. Shall we lend Michael Bay the DVD, or do you want to?

Furthermore, considering that he was jumping around in time quite a bit, Steven Moffat’s story was always entirely possible to keep on top of, even if there was the odd moment where you were clinging on for dear life.

Some of his work in the past has twisted and double-backed on itself to the point where you need a graph paper, lots of pencils and a stiff gin to decipher the odd moment. Here, the structure of the episode was excellent. Lots happened, but you didn’t keep needing to ask the person sitting next to you what was happening. A good job too if you were one of the thousands sat in a multiplex watching it all unravel.

“Are You Capable Of Speaking Without Flapping Your Hands About?”

Were we to pick an absolute highlight, though – surprise Doctors aside – it’d be in the 1560s when the three Doctors came together, thanks to a time fissure and some fez throwing. The Day Of The Doctor was bristling with wit throughout, but the manner in which John Hurt’s The War Doctor ripped the piss out of Ten and Eleven was relentless and glorious. The dialogue John Hurt got to play with in particular was terrific, as if a concentration of internet comments had been fed through a special machine and spat back out in the Doctor’s voice.

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Here you had a show with such confidence it could poke fun at its own “timey wimey” dialogue, at the decreasing age of the companion characters (“they get younger all the time”), and at the Doctor’s occasional smooches. Heck, it could sneak in a gag about sizes of respective Sonic Screwdrivers and “compensating”. Sci-fi knob gags! What’s not to love? That, and the moment when three versions of one of the cleverest characters in the universe forgot to check that the door that they were trapped behind wasn’t locked (you’ll find a variant of that gag in the script that Steven Moffat co-wrote for Steven Spielberg’s Tintin movie). Just golden.

In the middle of this mixture, though, was really quite a good story too, with some strong ideas. The return of the Zygons – they seem attracted to UNIT – was Doctor Who nerd gold. They’d undergone two notable changes since they terrorised Tom Baker. Firstly, they were a lot less slimy (alien health and safety, presumably), and secondly, you could now hear every line of their dialogue. It can’t just be us who was grateful that Terror Of The Zygons made it to DVD this year, just so we could put the subtitles on and find out exactly what they were banging on about.

The new Zygons and their shape shifting capabilities worked in keeping a simmer of uncertainty about who was who. Furthermore, the statues reveal in the secret undergallery was terrific (Ingrid Oliver, replete with long scarf, was great), and the idea of a slow invasion, via Time Lord art, was a suitably intriguing one. There are threads left there that hopefully will be picked up again.

Perhaps the one shame with the Zygons was that their part of the story just fizzled out a little, after a strong build up. It reminded us just a tad of The End Of Time Part II in that sense, where the head to head with The Master was ultimately sorted out reasonably quickly, because there were other, more pressing priorities. Still, that’s a minor criticism in this case, and the fact that there are a few Zygon suits again in the BBC costume cupboard is a very good thing.

“You Were The Doctor On The Day It Was Impossible To Get It Right”

But we inevitably come back to the Time War. Here’s where The Day Of The Doctor was arguably at its most divisive. There’s ingenuity in using the span of 400 years to affect the decision that the Doctor made in ultimately electing not to eradicate his people. Yet as we said before, this has been a major undercurrent for seven series and a few specials now. It’s always been in the background, and it feels like years of darkness was sort-of sorted out in 20 minutes (albeit with no little gravitas).

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That’s a little unfair, though: it was a logical plan underpinning this, and there’s already a clear ramification to it. Likewise, the War Doctor will always be a haunted one, and that was firmly made clear. Russell T Davies was always reluctant to head straight into the middle of the Time War itself, opting to tell the stories around it. Yet now that that proverbial casket is open, it’ll be interesting to see just what happens next. For just one minute though, it looked as if Ten and Eleven were going to be complicit in the mass destruction of the Daleks and the Time Lords. Can you imagine what impact that would have on the show? That Saturday teatime slot might have had to go for a start.

The aversion of the Time War though opens up a different way for the show to go, however, and there’s clearly a lot more story to be told there. It’s perhaps the one area of The Day Of The Doctor that’s going to most keenly debated by fans.

It’d be remiss not to note that as it turned out, it was two companions – of sorts – who were responsible in different ways for the assorted Doctors’ change of heart (and also gave a real purpose to them coming together. Even when 13 TARDISes joined forces at the end, this was no reunion for the sake of it). We suspected from the trailers that Billie Piper might not be playing Rose Tyler in this one, and so it proved. Instead, it was Bad Wolf Billie here – the flash of recognition in the eyes of Tennant’s Doctor was ripe for a bit more exploration, but that was left untouched – and the increasingly vital Clara. How pivotal has she become in the life of the Doctor too? We might not see Billie Piper again in Doctor Who now, but Jenna Coleman is arguably playing one of the most powerful companions the Doctor has every known. Again, there’s plenty there for the future.

“It Was The Horse! I’m Going To Be The King”!

There’s certainly a lot to ponder then, and The Day Of The Doctor is already an episode that’s clearly going to reward multiple viewings. But that’s not just because of the little touches and details laden within it. Primarily, it’s because it’s an strong, ambitious episode of Doctor Who. Moffat when he’s on top form writing Who blends comedy and narrative expertly, and this was one of his better adventures.

The Day Of The Doctor most certainly had an abundance of very, very funny moments in particular. We keep citing the wonderful Coupling when talking about Moffat’s comedy heritage (an exquisite TV comedy, that’s well worth digging out), but be it David Tennant talking to a rabbit, the recurring joke about marrying Queen Elizabeth I, or the simple comparison of TARDISes, we found ourselves guffawing throughout.

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Furthermore, just how great was it to see David Tennant back in Doctor Who? The camaraderie between him, Hurt and Smith made us wish that The Day Of The Doctor had found another ten minutes, just to see the three of them sitting around having a chat. Matt Smith too can expect to be fielding questions as to when we’ll see him returning again, within seconds of handing over the keys to the TARDIS. The show is going to miss him. There’s a generosity to his work, and a terrific chemistry with his co-travellers, that even the great Peter Capaldi will have quite a job to match.

“Is There A Lot Of This In The Future?”

Where does Doctor Who go from here? To Gallifrey by the looks of it, although the tease for the Christmas special suggests a haunting return trip to Trenzalore is the immediate concern of the TARDIS satnav.

In the meantime, we’ve now seen every regeneration to date, courtesy of this, and The Night Of The Doctor prequel earlier in the week. We’ve got Time Lord art to ponder (really good idea that, really well executed). We’ve got a brief look at the future of the Doctor. The Time Lords and Gallifrey are back in play, and you’d imagine will be a sizeable part of Peter Capaldi’s adventures. Plus there are little things: that Black Archive and a TARDIS-proof room? The Omega Arsenal? Might we see those again?

The Day Of The Doctor had a lot of fun with the past, and left quite a lot to explore for the future. And, as always, the show goes on: we’ve got just over a month until Doctor Who delivers yet another massive episode. If it lives up to the quality of this one? We might just be in for another treat, because The Day Of The Doctor really was, even with one or two really minor quibbles, terrific. Really great fun, its own Five Doctors in its own way, and pulsating with comedy, ambition, and top to bottom entertainment. Happy birthday, Doctor…

The Day Of The Doctor is available to pre-order on DVD and Blu-ray from the BBC shop, here. It’ll be worth it for the aforementioned freeze-framing.

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