How many TV shows could pull off having their main character be both the protagonist and the villain of the same episode, while being played by three different actors?
Saturday’s 50th Anniversary Special of Doctor Who aims for two lofty goals: to celebrate the show’s history, and to deliver a story with some kind of change and growth for its leads. On the first score, it is, in a word, fantastic. Pretty much the entire thing falls under the category of fan service—David Tennant and Billie Piper are back! We get to see the Last Great Time War! That UNIT scientist is wearing a Fourth Doctor-ish scarf! We find out why Queen Elizabeth I was so mad at the Tennant’s Tenth Doctor at the end of “The Shakespeare Code”! And OMG TOM BAKER!
As for the story, it’s a fun romp that hits some strong emotional notes and does show our hero(es) making some life-altering choices. Previous multi-Doctor stories have been notoriously not very good, even by the production-value standards of their respective eras. “The Day of the Doctor” sailed over that bar with light years to spare. The plot actually gets set in motion by a rather banal scheme by a rather banal, C-list Who monster, the Zygons, who hid themselves in paintings until Earth proved itself worthy of invasion by developing streaming video and the iPhone 5.
But the true bad guy of this story isn’t the Zygons: It’s the long-unmentioned (OK, retconned) version of the Doctor played by John Hurt.
At the 2005 restart of the series, previous showrunner Russell T. Davies wrote out the Doctor’s mostly pompous and boring people, the Time Lords, by having the Doctor destroy both them and their archenemies the Daleks to bring an end to the Last Great Time War. While most people assumed that it was the Eighth Doctor who had fought in the Time War, and then regenerated soon after into the Ninth (c.f., Christopher Eccleston checking himself out in a mirror in his first episode and exclaiming, “Look at the ears!”), current executive producer and head writer Steven Moffat inserted a character of his own invention into that blank space, Hurt’s “War Doctor.” It turns out that Hurt’s guy was the one who used a weapon called The Moment (first referenced in “The End of Time,” the final episode for both Tennant and for Davies as showrunner) to destroy both sides in the Time War.
In addition to throwing his own version of the Doctor into this wartime scenario, Moffat also added an intriguing twist: The Moment is sentient and has a conscience. Reaching into his future memories (it’s a Time Lord invention, pretty easy to accept), The Moment appears in the form of Rose Tyler, companion to both the Ninth and Tenth Doctors.
Even though she isn’t the real Rose, she acts like her, playfully mocking Hurt’s portentous declaration, “No more.” (She always used to take the piss out of Nine and Ten like that.) And in a weird way, Moffat’s choice here—that an entity trying to steer the Doctor towards becoming his best self would show up as Rose—confirms her status as the most important companion he’s ever had.
So, Moment/Rose acts as Ghost of Doctors Yet to Come to Hurt’s very Scrooge-like War Doctor: She creates time tunnels to drop him in to meet not only the Eleventh Doctor, who’s investigating the back end of the Zygon plot in the 21st century, but the Tenth, who’s on the trail of its inception in the 16th.
For lots of fans, it’s Tennant’s presence that makes this special a special. And he has plenty of fun moments in this one, including using an improvised machine that goes “ding” and making the old “Oncoming Storm” speech at a fluffy bunny rabbit. Whether he’s being funny-technobabbly Doctor or Time War-angsty Doctor, he’s a joy to watch.
But ultimately, his role here is the most fan-servicey. We know exactly where he is in his own arc—procrastinating facing his doom between “The Waters of Mars” and “The End of Time”—and we know, as Ood Sigma would put it, how his song ends.
The best part of any multi-Doctor story is always watching the Doctor talk to himself. Two and Three bickered quite amusingly—and believably—in both “The Three Doctors” and “The Five Doctors.” Smith and Tennant go in for a bit of that sort of banter, in a predictably Moffaty assign-a-nickname-based-on-physical-appearance way (“Chinny” just isn’t very funny), and also measure their dicks, er sonic screwdrivers (more Moffatry). But mostly they get along quite well.
In introducing the War Doctor to two of his future selves, Moment/Rose seems to hope that the pair will serve as Manic Pixie Dream Boys to have some kind of salutary effect on the War Doctor. Casting an older actor in the War Doctor role works quite well on a metacommentary level, with Hurt offering deliciously gruff imprecations about his successors’ youthful looks (“Am I having a midlife crisis?”), infantile prattle (“Timey-wimey?!”), snogging (“Is there a lot of this in the future?”), and tendency to wave their sonic screwdrivers around like weapons and/or magic wands (“What are you going to do, assemble a cabinet at them?”)—all of which are complaints that fans of Classic Who have voiced about the revived show over the years.