Doctor Who's 50th-Anniversary Episode: Delightful, Fan-Servicing Chaos

Among Moffat’s more annoying writerly tics is his love of hanging labels on his characters—The Girl Who This, The Boy Who That. Generally, that’s the worst kind of telling rather than showing. But when Rose dubs the War Doctor’s future selves as “The Man Who Regrets” (Ten) and “The Man Who Forgets” (Eleven), it kind of works—especially if, like me, you see Eleven’s tendency to live in a continual present as having stagnated his character as his tenure has worn on.

And that’s where Ten does have one key thematic note to hit, beyond the fan service: He counted the number of children he killed when he destroyed Gallifrey, and is horrified to learn that Eleven has forgotten that he did so. But then after mostly living in denial of his role in the Time War for a few hundred years, Eleven—with Clara (Jenna Coleman) acting as his conscience, much as Rose has acted as the War Doctor’s—declares, “I’ve changed my mind.”

Eleven’s scheme to hide his home world of Gallifrey rather than destroy it is breathlessly zany, and its frenetic execution crosses the event horizon from fan service into fan wank when all of the Doctor’s incarnations appear in their TARDISes to help with the plan—including a glimpse of Peter Capaldi, the Doctor who will succeed Matt Smith in this year’s Christmas special. This makes absolutely no sense—I guess Moment/Rose is responsible?—but it’s a fun homage to the Classic Doctors.

Speaking of which, the episode treats fans to a coda in which Tom Baker, the actor who played the Fourth Doctor, has a touching little scene with Matt Smith’s Eleventh. That moment signals that Smith and his successor could hold out hope of perhaps actually seeing Gallifrey again. As a torch-passer, this works far better than the Leonard Nimoy-Zachary Quinto scenes in the rebooted Star Trek movies.

Neither Fifth Doctor Peter Davison nor Seventh Doctor Sylvester “Radagast” McCoy make an appearance beyond archival footage, (Eighth Doctor Paul McGann got a cool web mini-episode, and Sixth Doctor Colin Baker did the voice-over for the making-of featurette that followed the special at the in-theater simulcast), but by far the most conspicuous absentee is Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston. The last shot of John Hurt shows him inside his TARDIS, beginning to regenerate … and then we cut away before he becomes Eccleston. A short scene of Nine coming to his senses, scanning for Gallifrey and not finding it, would have been both a colossal gift to fans and made it clear that Nine’s defining characteristics—his Time War PTSD and survivor guilt—had not been wiped away by the events of “The Day of the Doctor.” But we didn’t get that, and I missed Eccleston’s daft old face.

As for the non-Doctor characters in the special, most of them are women, and, perhaps surprisingly given Moffat’s track record on this front, they mostly come off well. Jemma Redgrave returns as Kate Stewart and plays her with poise, grace, and authority. Ingrid Oliver as UNIT scientist Osgood is amiably adorkable as a fan surrogate. Joanna Page as Queen Elizabeth I is suitably… Elizabethan, I guess? And she gets to kill a Zygon with a dagger. Now, Eleven does essentially call Stewart stupid (an unfortunate echo of Ten’s treatment of Harriet Jones, Prime Minister in “The Christmas Invasion”), and Elizabeth’s over-the-top affection for Ten is a bit uncomfortably played for laughs, but in the Moffat Sexist Nonsense Hall of Shame, these count as minor quibbles.

And what about Clara? I’m one of many who’ve been disappointed in the paper-thin pluckiness that has passed for characterization with the Eleventh Doctor’s latest companion. Happily, we get a bit more substance from her in the special. Her quick thinking and common sense in getting the Doctors out of the Tower of London is quite Martha Jones-ish, and her plea with Eleven to not go through with the double genocide directly calls back to Donna Noble getting Ten to save somebody, anybody from doomed Pompeii (as was having all three Doctors put their hands on The Moment’s big red button). We still don’t know much about who Clara actually is, but baby steps are better than no steps at all.

I had the pleasure of watching the 3-D simulcast in a theater crowded with Whovians, and it sounded like everyone liked it at least as much as I did. They doffed their fezzes, waved their scarves, brandished their sonics and celery sticks, wobbled their wibblies and timey’d their wimeys. The Rivers and Roses and Amys and the wee little Elevens, the female Two and the African-American Ten, the Empty Child and Liz 10—all of Who-ville thrummed with excitement before, during, and after the show.

I also confirmed that I’m far from the only one who has a … nuanced view of the current showrunner. The enthusiastic woman to my right was engrossed through the whole thing, whooping at the reappearances of Piper and Tennant, guffawing at the sonic-measuring contest between Ten and Eleven, and hollering at the archival-footage appearances of all 13 Doctors.

And then, when the making-of featurette started and the curly-haired visage of Steven Moffat appeared on screen, she booed.

Doctor Who fandom: It’s complicated.

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Ted B. Kissell is a writer and editor based in Southern California. He is the former editor of OC Weekly and has written for The Los Angeles TimesOutside Traveler, and American Way.

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