‘Doctor Who’ 50th: Wibbly-Wobbly, Feelsy-Weelsy

I am writing this post from beyond the grave, because Doctor Who‘s 50th anniversary special killed me dead.

Yeah, I’ll admit it: I was pessimistic during the build-up to this most auspicious occasion. I grumbled for months about the trailer for “The Day of the Doctor” being released late (still grumbling in fact), and despite the staggering celebration line-up announced in October, I felt the classic Doctors were being quietly nudged aside. I quelled my fangirl jitters on the grounds that the special just wouldn’t live up to my expectations.

I’m so happy to have been proven wrong.

“The Day of the Doctor” is one humdinger of an adventure, equal parts playful historical jaunt, sobering backstory, and squee-worthy fanservice. On the outside, it resembles any other madcap episode — the Doctor (Matt Smith) and companion Clara (Jenna Coleman) are enlisted to stop Earth from falling into the slimy, suction-y hands of the Zygons, a villainous race making its first appearance since the classic series. But weaved throughout that predictable A-plot is easily the darkest B-plot the show has tackled since its return: the Doctor’s involvement in the Time War, where he was forced to wipe out his home planet of Gallifrey to end the violence. Loaded with snappy dialogue and peppered with more than a few surprises for the devoted Whovian, this was an anniversary to end all anniversaries.

Thanks to a mercurial sense of continuity and the fluidity of time-travel in the show’s mythology, concrete answers are hard to come by on Doctor Who, but “The Day of the Doctor” managed to reveal a few long-debated answers. The Doctor’s history with Queen Elizabeth I, which began as a running gag spanning the length of new Who, was woven into a story that jumped from 16th-century England to the present day to the final days of the oft-mentioned Time War. This is where the War Doctor, played beautifully by John Hurt, is weighing his choice to annihilate both the Time Lords and the Daleks. And where the Eleventh Doctor has Clara as his conscience, the War Doctor has the Moment, a sentient device that will allow him to bring peace to the universe through destruction. The Moment’s interface takes the form of companion Rose Tyler, seen here in her ultra-powerful Bad Wolf persona, and helps the War Doctor work through his impending doom by uniting him with the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors, each one cleverly pulled from their respective timelines. Once they’re thrown together, all hell breaks loose.

Storylines aside, the 50th anniversary celebration blew me away by including four past Doctors and a future one. It was common knowledge that Tenth Doctor David Tennant would be making his return, and John Hurt was also being credited in the role since the end of Series 7. But then, a few days before the special aired globally, a minisode starring Eighth Doctor Paul McGann was released, detailing Eight’s regeneration into Hurt’s War Doctor. Eight was only ever afforded a single TV movie and a handful of audio dramas as his tenure in Who canon, so this was a bombshell dropped on the fans. Then, in the climactic scene when all the Doctors join forces to save Gallifrey (with the help of some vague archival footage), we glimpse some intimidating eyebrows belonging to Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi in his first (albeit brief) on-screen appearance. As if that weren’t enough, the BBC’s shocking finisher move was a scene between the Eleventh Doctor and the Fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker. Baker is widely regarded to be the most popular classic Doctor –perhaps the most popular Doctor period — and the canonical conversation between Four and Eleven certainly tugged at my heartstrings. Pandering to fans has never been so tear-inducing.

The episode was not flawless, of course. Despite his many strengths as a writer, showrunner Steven Moffat falls short when it comes to tying his stories in a neat little bow at the end. “The Day of the Doctor” demonstrated his tendency to leave gaping plotholes (let’s face it, the Zygon plot had a sloppy ending) as well as his occasional one-sided female characters (Queen Elizabeth’s lovesickness was a bit overdone). He did manage a lot of continuity from previous years, albeit in small ways, but the majority of fan dissatisfaction stems from the Doctor’s brazen decision to alter his own past. I completely understand the frustration: the new series has been carried on the single, unarguable fact that the Doctor killed his own people and cannot change that by meddling with his own timeline. Saying now that Gallifrey did not burn but was actually saved in a “pocket universe” somewhat devalues seven series of character development, not to mention puts Nine and Ten through hell since they will not remember their actions.

But I disagree for the simple reason that the Doctor can finally be happy again. He had a opportunity people in real life are rarely given, an opportunity to fix a terrible mistake, and he seized it. It’s a lesson to viewers that second chances on that scale don’t exist, that our decisions stay with us forever and shape our personalities. The Doctor will finally stop treating himself like a murderer and be able to truly focus his attentions where help is needed. In a way, this may steer the show back to its core philosophy and that’s, as Nine would say, fantastic.

So what’s next for Doctor Who? The upcoming Christmas special, “The Time of the Doctor,” will see Matt Smith regenerate into Peter Capaldi. Viewers will return to Trenzalore, the Doctor’s burial site, and presumably find Eleven searching for the pocket universe in which his beloved Gallifrey now resides. With the Time Lords back in play, the potential for Series 8 is immense. Plus, an intriguing rumor suggests that the Doctor’s twelve-regeneration limit will finally be addressed after months of Moffat imploring fans to “count the regenerations.” (Hey . . . didn’t Ten technically regenerate at the beginning of “Journey’s End”?)

“The Day of the Doctor” did what any great anniversary special should do: pay tribute to the past while looking to the future.

Happy Birthday, Doctor.

Posted on November 26, 2013, in BBC, BBC America, British Television, Classic Television, Science Fiction and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: