While the year 2013 has ostensibly been one of celebration for Doctor Who, there have been as many disappointments and missed opportunities as successes, the stealth with which two recovered Troughton stories were prepared for DVD release contrasting with the ineptitude of the twelfth Doctor announcement in a game show format days after the press had all but confirmed Peter Capaldi. With executives pulling in different directions and some who wished the show to go away entirely, An Adventure in Space and Timereminded that the launch of Doctor Who was not without bumps in the space time vortex, but neither is global success without problems, the obligation to showcase for a global audience manifesting in increasingly facile storytelling, the most egregious example being the childish embarrassment of The Rings of Akhaten.
With the seventh season split in two, a mere eight episodes were broadcast in this anniversary year, and while not so consciously standalone as the headline baiting “mini-movies” of the first half, most as unsatisfying as the blockbuster movies they emulated, nor have they matched the quality of previous seasons. The usually reliable Mark Gatiss offered a thunderingly bad return for the Ice Warriors in the trite Cold War, though he did redeem himself with The Crimson Horror, though it remains incomprehensible that the tortuous Nightmare in Silver could have been written by Neil Gaiman, who only the previous season had perfectly encapsulated the relationship between the Doctor and the TARDIS in The Doctor‘s Wife.
Supposedly woven through the Doctor’s timeline in his many lives yet never glimpsed before Asylum of the Daleks, the montage showing Clara Oswald composited into archive footage which opened The Name of the Doctor was crudely done and unconvincing. Now able to close the TARDIS doors with a click of her fingers, the old Type 40 travel capsule may have embraced her more enthusiastically than the audience, but the new companion has proved a timid replacement for the feisty Amy Pond, time locked with her husband Rory in mid twentieth century Manhattan, still deeply missed by the Doctor and the audience.
With the demand to broaden appeal, it is indisputable the show has compromised its ideal, and Steven Moffat was the man who inherited the unenviable task of satisfying both a general audience and a vigilant and critical fan base whose demands are legendary, and somehow in The Day of the Doctor he has largely succeeded with what is undoubtedly the best episode of the year, though in a better year that praise might have been more meaningful.
While recent episodes have nodded to the previous five decades with guest appearances of Ice Warriors, Cybermen, the Great Intelligence and the crystals of Metebelis III, the most explicit acknowledgment is here, the brief opening titles in the style of 1963 before dissolving to the Coal Hill Secondary School on Totters Lane, once attended by the Doctor’s Granddaughter Susan Foreman who was taught science by Ian Chesterton, now the Chair of the Governors.
It is here that Clara now teaches, and receiving a communication from the Doctor, she rides out to meet him on her motorbike, the TARDIS doors swinging open to receive her, the 3D production allowing the transition to the control room to be experienced in a way never before achieved.
Any plans the Doctor and Clara may have had are disrupted when the TARDIS is hoisted aloft by a UNIT helicopter and conveyed to London where Kate Stewart requires the Doctor to investigate an incident which has occurred in the secret vault below the National Gallery, where he is shown an impossible painting known as both No More and Gallifrey Falls.
A three dimensional piece representing the destruction of the Gallifreyan city Arcadia on the last day of the Time War, it triggers memories of events the Doctor witnessed firsthand hundreds of years and several regenerations previously on his personal timeline, but which he has longed to forget.
While he had tried to avoid involvement in the Time War, on that day the Doctor had planned to use a forbidden weapon from the Omega Vault to end the war conclusively regardless of the cost, but the weapon had other ideas. With an interface so advanced it attained sentience, the Moment assumes a form that will one day be known to Doctor, his future companion Rose Tyler, though basing itself on the manifestation known as the Bad Wolf.
Back in the present, the Doctor finds his summoning was the result of a meeting with Queen Elizabeth while in his previous incarnation, recalling a picnic with the monarch which was interrupted by the unfortunate discovery that the Earth was under threat from the Zygons, shape shifting aliens whose homeworld was another casualty of the Time War. With the immediate circumstances of each of the three version of the Doctor established, the narrative then sweeps them together.
Unlike the previous anniversary stories featuring multiple Doctors where there was a specific villain revealed through the course of the story, here the enemy may be adequately presented early on but remains underdeveloped. Not seen since Terror of the Zygons, the aliens are relatively unchanged and the method by which they intend to invade is inventive, another example of Moffat’s novel use of time as a storytelling tool, yet their presence is largely to illuminate a story told elsewhere.
Similarly, while it has long been known that Time Lords and the Daleks mutually annihilated each other, the scope of the war as presented is inadequate to the expectation built since the first explicit mention of the destruction of Gallifrey in The End of the World. There is little demonstration of their power and xenophobia, certainly less than in The Stolen Earth and Journey‘s End, nor do they have a mouthpiece such Davros, the Emperor Dalek or even the Cult of Skaro to make them anything other than faceless drones; like the Zygons, they are reduced to a plot device.
Critically, the origin of the Time War is not addressed, for although the Time Lords long ago predicted a time when Daleks would “have destroyed all other lifeforms and become the dominant creature in the universe” and took steps to prevent that future, it was actually they, not the Daleks, who took the first action in what would escalate into the Time War, sending an agent to a period before the Daleks evolved on Skaro to “affect their genetic development so that they evolve into less aggressive creatures.” That agent was of course the Doctor himself, and the cost of his failure would ultimately be paid by his whole planet.
It has been suggested that the Doctor mourning specifically the children of Gallifrey is incongruous, that as a regenerative race the Time Lords would have no children, but as established in The Invasion of Time, not every person on Gallifrey is a Time Lord. Not only are there tribes living on the surface beyond the cities, but given the universal devastation of the Time War it is likely that the previously isolationist world would have been obligated to reverse that policy and become a sanctuary for those fleeing the Daleks.
First introduced in the final shot of The Name of the Doctor as the life the current Doctors don’t talk about, John Hurt’s War Doctor is and older and wearier Doctor than modern viewers have become accustomed to, but he surprisingly light of hearts; he has survived the war but he has not yet undertaken the action which wore so heavily on his subsequent incarnations, Ecclestone’s anger, the streak of darkness in Tennant and Smith’s obsessive need to protect children.
Seen to be a much younger man upon regeneration and considering how slowly Time Lords age, the War Doctor has been fighting for a long time. It is sad that this will most likely be the sole appearance of this Doctor, or this era was the most turbulent he has ever faced and there could be no better guide through it than Hurt, and at times it feels almost as though we are being teased about something we will never be given.
With the plot adequately supported by three Doctors and the Bad Wolf and with Jemma Redgrave‘s Kate Stewart given a central role, Clara is almost peripheral, serving in the classic companion role of driving plot exposition, but she is not the only one shortchanged. Much of the narrative is underdeveloped, the action scenes curtailed, the final resolution cursory and unsatisfying, too reminiscent of a “reset button” when Moffat is capable of better.
Too much has already been invested to accept such a facile brushing under the carpet of the whole war, but at only seventy six minutes due to the commercial considerations of overseas broadcasters participating in the global broadcast, this is less than the length of a standard two part adventure, not even matching the eighty three minutes granted to companion piece An Adventure in Space and Time.
Fortunately only devolving into pantomime antics during the brief helicopter scene, it is still undoubtedly the smartest episode of the season and hopefully an indication that the show is back on an upswing with purpose and direction for the coming era, but as a summation and reflection of the entirety of what has preceded it, it remains inadequate.
While it would have been impractical to place all the known Doctors centrally within the narrative and their acknowledgement in the story is welcome, as the original set and costume had been recreated, even a single line from David Bradley’s interpretation of the first Doctor would have had the same impact as the unexpected momentary glimpse of the immediate future, but it would be churlish to deny the almost overwhelming emotion of the final surprise when the Curator of the Undergallery makes his appearance. As much as the sound of the TARDIS brings hope to anyone who hears it, so do certain voices, certain faces bring joy, though just the old favourites.
To be the Doctor is to always have the past with you, stood beside you in every moment, looking over your shoulder, an almost impossible burden and demand. The expectation heaped upon this single moment of television was unlike anything in the history of that medium, and that it fails to be perfect is less important than that it has been able to shrug off that expectation to unite, entertain and move audiences across the world, an achievement best summed up by the Doctor himself: “We failed in doing the right thing rather than succeeding in doing the wrong thing.”
Gallifrey falls no more.
Considering that this is one of the key releases of the year, the special features are underwhelming, with no commentary and only a cursory behind the scenes production documentary, already released online.
Also previously available but more satisfying are the two minisodes which preceded the The Day of the Doctor, The Last Day an interesting but overwrought piece setting the scene for the fall of Arcadia, and The Night of the Doctor, featuring the welcome return of Paul McGann‘s Doctor, even if only for a few brief minutes, a bittersweet glimpse of an era of the show that was not to have been. The US version of the episode trailer and the 50th Anniversary Save the Day trailer are also included.
Structured as an introduction for those who are unfamiliar with the show (can such a thing be possible?), Doctor Who Explained is divided into sections focusing on the Doctors, his companions, the TARDIS and so forth, redeeming itself with the breadth of interviewees, with snippets of all the remaining Doctors and a plethora of companions, though with some curious omissions. Yee Jee Tso and Daphne Ashbrook both represent their single 1986 adventure while Katy Manning‘s three year fixture is overlooked, nor is there any archive interview footage with Hartnell, Troughton or Pertwee, nor the much missed Elisabeth Sladen, though all their characters are specifically addressed.
Better than the name suggests, it falls short of the standard set by Culture Show special Me, You and Doctor Who, the only serious attempt by the BBC to create an overview of the history of the show and its importance in the context of the period in which it was produced, and it is disappointing that it is not included here, though it may be taken as a blessing that also absent is the BBC3 two hour timeslot filler of inane talking heads demonstrating their lack of knowledge or insight, the painfully amateur Doctor Who: The Ultimate Guide.
The Day of the Doctor is now available on Blu-ray including 3D options and DVD