THE ONE WHERE Three Doctors (Grandad, Sandshoes and Chinny) gather to foil a Zygon plot, but soon find themselves reliving their very worst moment – the last day of the Time War.
VERDICT Paying homage to the past, setting up the future and pleasing millions of fans worldwide, all in just 75 minutes? That’s a big ask. The remarkable thing about “The Day Of The Doctor” is that it pulls off all of those things, while also packing serious emotional clout.
There’s been some canny planning around this anniversary. An Adventure In Space And Time, with its cameo from William Russell and loving attention to detail, was designed to capture the nostalgists’ hearts. Night Of The Doctor was an added treat, bridging the gap between the old and the new. But the main event had to be squarely focused on the modern run and its two most popular leads.
But first, John Hurt! The War Doctor was hyped as a darker, more dangerous incarnation than we’re used to, but that never quite plays out on screen. He’s a Doctor who has lost his hope, but is still at hearts the same man. That’s a bit of a shame – it would have been nice to see him kicking some Dalek arse, or at least giving them some withering put downs – but at the same time Hurt is never less than magnetic – a surrogate Hartnell armed with all of the best lines. His skewering of the increasingly tedious “timey-wimey” catchphrase is a wonderful moment, and a lovely reminder of how eager this show is to take the piss out of itself.
Tennant’s return is unsurprising. Of course he was coming back! And he picks up the character almost exactly where he left it – albeit with his romantic swagger dialled up a notch to contrast with Smith’s nervous energy. They make for a very charming pairing – competitive, but friendly. It’s Smith who gets the bulk of the dramatic beats, however, and he more than holds his own against two (or is it three…) other Doctors. Throughout a turbulent couple of years for the show, he’s never been anything less than compelling and this may be his best performance yet. Watch his bitter anger in the dungeon scene, or his quiet melancholy when he muses on retirement, and you’re looking at one of the finest leads this show has ever had.
The story itself is surprisingly simple. Much has been said about the differences between Russell T. Davies’ populist approach compared to Moffat’s more fan-attuned sensibility. And yes, this is another story with a non-linear narrative and a big old wodge of Who mythology at its heart. But here Moffat pulls a blinder, deftly explaining his temporal shenanigans with help from that bloody fez and keeping it coherent. Well played, sir.
Some will question the undoing of the destruction of Gallifrey. It’s true that wiping out the Time Lords was a necessary step in 2005 and it gave the show an edge, ditched some of the old baggage and added a layer of moral complexity to the Doctor. But, like Superman, the Doctor always finds a way. And, after three regenerations and 400 years, he finally did. Neatly the solution changes events without undoing any of Russell T Davies’ hard work. Your DVD sets are intact.
Is it perfect? Of course not. When is Doctor Who ever that simple? The Zygon plot stops the minute it loses its usefulness as a metaphor for the Doctor’s moral dilemma. You could argue that bringing Billie Piper back not to play Rose, but The Moment, is needlessly obscure (though you could counter that by pointing out it adds more ambiguity to the Bad Wolf meme). The Time War looks very much like a normal sci-fi war. And on a mundane level, some of the effects work isn’t quite up to snuff. But these feel like churlish niggles. This is a show stuffed with surprises. The Doctors gathering in the battle for Gallifrey is a moment to savour, and the glimpse of Peter Capaldi utterly electric – good grief, that man’s got a stare on him.
And then there’s Tom. Dear Tom, being himself and the Doctor or possibly someone else entirely (we will never know for sure, hoorah!). A perfect moment linking the past and the present of this wonderful show and, in its own eccentric way, hinting at its future. Happy 50th, Doctor.
“Please stop going on about the show going downhill since you left.”
CONTINUITY The episode is a feast of references for fans to pick up on. Did you spot Kate Stewart referring to “what happened with the Sycorax”? Or the nods towards Lee Evans’s UNIT scientist Malcolm (from “The Planet Of The Dead”)? Or that Ian Chesterton is now the governor of Coal Hill School? Or the direct reference to “The Three Doctors”? Or the UNIT dating gag? Or the photograph of Kamelion? And on and on…
BEST LINE The War Doctor: “They’re screwdrivers! What are you going to do, assemble a cabinet at them?”