On Friday, we passed the fifty years since the deaths of two of the great names of early British fantasists; and then a day later, Britain’s greatest television fantasy reached its fiftieth birthday, and threw itself quite the party.
I’d been somewhat worried about the fiftieth-anniversary special. Despite my best efforts, I’d been unable to avoid spoilers about all the elements from the last fifty years of Who history that it would be giving screentime to: Daleks and Zygons and Cybermen (about which … um … ?) and David Tennant and Billie Piper. Combined with the cliffhanger that had ended “The Name of the Doctor”, with the Smith Doctor and Clara trapped in the deepest depths of a vaguely defined “Doctor’s Timestream” in which all his memories and past adventures could haunt them, that had got me really worried that the special would take place in some sort of fantasy dreamland in which gratuitous continuity references could be hurled at us for eighty minutes as placeholders for an actual story or dramatic tension, a la “The Five Doctors”.
But I will happily admit I felt a lot better after seeing “The Night of the Doctor“. That reassured me that the special was going to approach things in what I think is exactly the right way: more self-indulgent than we’d expect of a typical Doctor Who story, to be sure, and with some continuity elements that were going to be baffling to audience members who didn’t understand their history, but with the needs of the story still supreme and with every allusion and reference and onscreen recurrence having an actual, legitimate justification for appearing.
As a piece of nostalgia and as a celebration of Doctor Who, I think “The Day of the Doctor” does its job wonderfully well. By its end I was grinning with happiness. It was full of love for the programme it was honouring, it was funny, it was dramatic. It gave us a climax that I think we all have known was inevitable, in one form or another, for many years, and because of the occasion it was able to give us that climax in a way that made it as special a moment for us as it was for the Doctor.
(And I will freely admit that I spent much of the episode thinking, “See? This is exactly what I was talking about!”)
Billie Piper was excellent. I loved the banter between the three Doctors, which I honestly felt was written better than in any of the previous multi-Doctor stories, and I particularly liked the Smith Doctor’s habit of commenting on allusions to Who history: “Nice scarf!”; “You never do”; “He always says that.” And was that final cameo by Tom Baker widely known about? Because I certainly managed to stay unspoilt for it, about which I’m very glad; that wonderful little surprise at the end really made my day.
As a work of storytelling, an episode of Doctor Who and a contribution to Who continuity, “Day” is a lot more mixed, I think. Of course we all knew from the moment the Moment (hehe) chose to present herself as Rose Tyler that the episode would end with the Hurt Doctor having his memory wiped of events. But I think that by using that memory loss to allow him never to have destroyed Gallifrey, never to have pushed that big red button, Steven Moffat struck a real blow at the character of the Doctor as it’s been constructed over the last eight years.
The Doctor pushed that button. The Doctor murdered every Time Lord and every Gallifreyan. Throughout the RTD and Moffat production eras–particularly the RTD era–that has been who he is. It’s not just a matter of him thinking he once did it, it’s a matter of him being someone who did do it–a matter of him having been the Doctor, as the Smith Doctor so wonderfully puts it, on the day it was impossible to get it right. There are so many times over the course of New Who when the Doctor opts to once again push that button or this time not to push it, and the dramatic impact of those moments is very much informed by our knowledge, as the viewer, that he is a man who has pushed that button before, knowing that there would be no escape, and who could choose to push it again in the same circumstances: when he refuses to unleash the delta wave in “The Parting of the Ways”, when he drops the impossible planet into the black hole in “The Satan Pit”, when he shows Miss Hartigan what she has become in “The Next Doctor”, when he flirts with megalomania in “The Waters of Mars”, when he sacrifices himself to seal the cracks in the universe in “The Big Bang”.
All those moments now have been altered. The Doctor no longer is someone who definitely can get it wrong, because he no longer is someone who definitely did get it wrong when it mattered most and there was no right way to get it. He is a less fallible and therefore less compelling character.
I don’t object to Gallifrey coming back; indeed, I welcome it, as long as it’s handled right–and the writers of the programme for the past eight years have consistently shown me that they can indeed handle potentially tricky continuity morasses like this. But I object to the Hurt Doctor never having had to press that red button, and I object to him coming out of the situation knowing that he found a way to avoid pressing it, even if that knowledge did then get locked up in his head for four hundred years.
But for me the important thing about “The Day of the Doctor” is how wonderful it was to be a Doctor Who fan yesterday, and how much the episode helped that wonder along. When we reached the fortieth anniversary ten years ago, the idea of having anything like this for the fiftieth would have been laughable. But we’ve had a fiftieth-anniversary special that now holds the Guinness record for largest international transmission in history; we’ve had a TV movie about the programme’s genesis; and we’ve had days of national and international celebration. “The Day of the Doctor” was certainly a worthy entry in all that, and rewatching it in the years ahead is something I will always do with joy.
To conclude, I’ve got a list here of all the little shout-outs to previous Who, both classic and new, that I’ve noticed, omitting obvious plot-integral things Captain Jack’s vortex manipulator or the appearance of all thirteen Doctors in the climactic sequence. This is from two viewings, during neither of which did I take notes, so I welcome any other additions people have:
–The opening shot, the policeman’s silhouette on the I.M. Foreman’s Scrapyard gate, is a recreation of the original shot from the programme’s first episode, “An Unearthly Child”.
–Clara is teaching at Coal Hill school, where Ian and Barbara are teaching and Susan is a pupil in “An Unearthly Child” and which the Daleks invade in “Remembrance of the Daleks”.
–We see a portion of the Tennant Doctor’s (or as I like to call him, D-Ten) encounters with Queen Elizabeth I, alluded to in “The Shakespeare Code”.
–River Song’s high heels are held by the Black Archive.
–The Tennant Doctor’s line, “You’ve redecorated! I don’t like it,” a quotation of the Troughton Doctor from “The Three Doctors” and “The Five Doctors”.
–The Brigadier’s old file on the events of “The Three Doctors” being named Cromer. Nicholas Courtney was very pleased with his ad-lib about Cromer in that story, and I think giving the file that name was lovely.
–The refusal, as in “The Sontaran Stratagem”, to pin down whether the UNIT stories took place in the 70s or 80s.
–The Tennant Doctor’s last words being, “I don’t want to go.”
–Osgood wears a Tom Baker scarf.
–I did rather wonder if the Smith Doctor’s monologue at the end was meant to allude to the McCoy Doctor’s closing monologue in “Survival”.
–I really loved that the Brigadier got explicitly namechecked and his photograph on the companions’ bulletin board got a lingering closeup. Nicholas Courtney is, I think, the most loyal servant Doctor Who has ever had, and to acknowledge his passing in “The Wedding of River Song” and then to pay tribute to him again on this day of days have both been perfect moments.
–On the subject of that bulletin board, I also really liked that we saw the different faces of UNIT over the decades pictured alongside the companions they were apparently checking on: Captain Yates and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and Brigadier Bambera and Captain Magambo and Kate Lethbridge-Stewart. Nicely done.