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

"The Day of the Doctor" used an insane plot for a simple task: making diehards very, very happy.


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.

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.