Doctor Who Review: “The Day of the Doctor” (50th Anniversary Special)

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I will freely admit that after one viewing, I don’t understand exactly what the Doctors did to seal Gallifrey away, nor how exactly they did it, but the sequence is stupendous nevertheless, a momentous step forward in the history of the show that simultaneously pays stirring homage to everything that has come before. It heralds in an exciting new future for the modern series – with Gallifrey now hidden somewhere out in space and time, Capaldi’s incoming Twelfth Doctor has a built-in goal to shoot for – and brings the perfect note of resolution to the longstanding Time War mythology all at once, without ever forgetting to acknowledge the long history of the classic series. As a Doctor Who fan, those last twenty minutes or so had me feeling as satisfied as I could possibly hope. This was not just grand-scale sci-fi, but emotionally resonant storytelling that truly means something to those who have been following the Doctor through his many lives. For the 50th Anniversary, Steven Moffat managed to tell a story that mattered and will continue to matter in Doctor Who narrative history, and he only did right by the legacy of the series in doing so.

I even feel relatively at peace with the introduction of the War Doctor. It drives the continuity side of my brain absolutely bonkers – especially now that the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors have fully accepted him as a part of themselves, do we have to renumber Nine, Ten, Eleven, and Twelve as Ten, Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen? – but I thought this existential idea of a Doctor incarnation failing to live up to his own name was an interesting one when introduced back in “The Name of the Doctor,” and I think it is handled even better here. Could Steven Moffat have let Paul McGann, the ‘forgotten’ Eighth Doctor, fulfill the role John Hurt played here? Absolutely. McGann would have been great, as evidenced by the “Night of the Doctor” short he recently starred in, and the numbering would not have been completely thrown off. But making the War Doctor an entirely new incarnation, foreign to all viewers and intimidating to Ten and Eleven, worked very well in this context.

John Hurt got to build the character from scratch – and did an absolutely tremendous job, it should be said – meaning that there was a real sense of discovery to watching his arc unfold, to seeing his pain, confliction, and inner turmoil manifest itself in this fascinating existential quandary. If Hurt had been cast just to play an ‘evil’ version of the Doctor, I think that’s something I would have personally rejected outright, but this was so much more complex than that, and just as Ten and Eleven come to accept this broken man as themself over the course of the episode, the viewer comes to accept Hurt as a welcome, if continuity-scrambling, addition to the Doctor succession.

It helps, of course, that Moffat is constantly paying tribute to Doctor Who history, even as he works to rewrite elements of it. Opening with the original theme song from, and an outright homage to, “An Unearthly Child,” the very first episode of the series, was a real treat – I love the idea of Clara teaching at Coal Hill school, where the first companions, Ian and Barbara, once taught – but even more than outright references like those, I thought there was a really nice, understated sense of ‘history’ embedded into just about everything the Doctors did and said.

Moffat and company worked very hard here to keep us intensely aware that Matt Smith is playing the same character David Tennant played, and that John Hurt is the same as both of them, and that all three can be traced back further still to each of the Doctors that came before. They may have different faces and personalities, but the Doctor is the Doctor, and so while Eleven may never have physically interacted with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, he can still hold the man’s daughter, Kate, to the same standard his longtime friend inspired, just as he can praise a girl wearing a scarf, the defining visual feature of the Fourth Doctor, the same way he can give kudos to someone wearing a bowtie. I have used the word ‘existential’ a lot in this review, but it is a fitting word to use, because “The Day of the Doctor” was all about analyzing the ways in which this incredible man exists, both within and without himself, and constantly tying Doctor Who history back into the fold only strengthened those themes.

Of course, the best moment of the entire episode, for classic Who fans, was undoubtedly the cameo appearance by Tom Baker, the Fourth and most famous of all Doctors. What a wonderful surprise this moment was, and what a beautiful scene Baker and Smith had to play together. It is ambiguous as to whether this man is actually the Doctor, or just Baker playing a different part altogether (*), but I like to think Smith actually came face-to-face with the longest-running Doctor of them all, in part because Baker’s scene so perfectly tracks with that particularly wise, mysterious incarnation of the character. Either way, the sequence is a beautiful grace-note to the episode, as is the Eleventh Doctor stepping out amongst all his past incarnations, all looking together towards a truly exciting, truly unknowable future.

(*) The argument against Baker’s character being the Doctor would, of course, be his age, but there is plenty of precedence for the Doctor reappearing physically older than we ever saw him before. Patrick Troughton looks much older in “The Two Doctors” than he ever did during his tenure, and Peter Davison’s appearance in “Time Crash,” alongside the Tenth Doctor, is of course a much older version of the Fifth Doctor. Maybe Doctors being displaced from time simply ages some of them up a bit.

If “The Day of the Doctor” is not a perfect Doctor Who episode, it is, I believe, a great one, realized with impeccable style and fueled by a deep, abiding love for the legacy of this incredible series. There is a sense that absolutely everyone involved gave this special their all – Smith and Tennant most of all, perhaps, as their excellent chemistry and interplay can attest to – and I cannot imagine a better way to have observed the 50th Anniversary than with this stirring love-letter of an episode. Doctor Who is far from finished, and we have many more great things to anticipate even in the near future – Matt Smith is about to go out, and as evidenced here, he’s going out on top – but as a celebration of everything Doctor Who has been and everything it has the potential to be, “The Day of the Doctor” was a rousing triumph.