Friend of the station, author I. A. Watson, shared his essay on “The Name of the Doctor”, “The Night of the Doctor”, “The Day of the Doctor” and “The Five(ish) Doctors Rebooted” with ESO.
It should go without saying, but just in case, there are SPOILERS ahead for “The Name of the Doctor”, “The Night of the Doctor”, “The Day of the Doctor” and “The Five(ish) Doctors Rebooted”. You’ve been warned.
Take it away, I.A. Watson…
I’m one of those hardcore, lifetime, polarised Doctor Who fans. I’m socially, culturally, and aesthetically disposed to like most of what happens in the series – as long as it feels right. After a while, long-term followers of long-running series develop that sense, sometimes to the chagrin of the current creators of those series. So I was ready to like “The Day of the Doctor”, the BBC’s 799th episode of Doctor Who, and to like what they did with it – as long as they did it right.
Let’s start with the pre-game. The Doctor Who production office is one of the most secretive in TV. Spoilers are generally tightly controlled. When BBC America accidentally delivered 200 DVDs with the full ending of “The Name of the Doctor” (the most recent season finale) three days early to 200 American purchasers, the producers politely asked these fans not to reveal anything – and they didn’t! When 7,000 Comicon attendants were asked not to film or spoil a “Day of…” trailer, they didn’t. This is remarkable.
So the BBC had to feed fan speculation and newspaper column-inch-hunger in other ways. It managed it with a series of amazing sideshows. “Name of…” revealed as its shock ending that there had been another incarnation of the lead character (now known to fit between McGann and Eccleston), one who had “foresworn the name of the Doctor” and had been partially excised even from his own later memories. And he was John Hurt.
While that kept fans buzzing there was the “Will the old Doctors appear in the Special?” row. 6th Doctor Colin Baker was especially vocal about being excluded, resorting to his regular newspaper column and other media. 5th Doctor Davison and 7th Doctor McGann likewise made waves. An absurd photo circulated of a placard picket by these three actors outside BBC TV Centre. Some supporters of these older Doctors, perhaps not spotting the joke, really did take up their cause and viciously Twitter about the BBC’s callous disregard of “classic Who” in the 50th anniversary year.
Next came the recovered episodes, um, episode, in which nine long-lost tapes were recovered from Nigeria. These contained the entirety of the now-much-more-highly-regarded Troughton story “The Enemy of the World” and four fifths of one of his most-missed tales, “The Web of Fear”. Sadly, episode 3 of this, debuting Colonel (later Brigadier) Alistair Gordon Lethbridge Stewart, remains absent from the vaults. Massive fan speculation about which stories were found, how, and when they would be released led to another round of Who headlines. Buzz still continues about whether these were the only nine episodes retrieved.
Meanwhile, the BBC parlayed the growing excitement into a worldwide media event, setting up simulcasts to nearly 80 countries, 130 channels, 1400 3D cinema performances across four continents (this was the first TV drama shot in 3D, by the way), and presumably a very nice cash injection to a budget-starved modern British Broadcasting Corporation. And then even that became the story.
Nearer the day, with the BBC alone putting on over 35 Doctor Who-related tie-in programmes new and repeated, from quizzes and documentaries to making-ofs and clip shows, the whole thing became a blitz. When Radio Times, the UK’s oldest, most prestigious, best-selling TV listings magazine devoted an unprecedented 20 pages of coverage this week, showrunner Steven Moffat took the opportunity of a column there to lamblast the BBC’s original decision to cancel the show in 1986. This allowed the “serious” newspapers a chance to dredge up old acrimony and kept the ink running – and got the pitchforks and burning torches back out for then-BBC Controller Michael Grade who at the time had boasted himself “the man who killed off Doctor Who”.
The BBC also paid for extra content. It’s not now uncommon for the Doctor Who office to release little prequel extras as teasers or lead-ins to the actual stories, or for the DVDs to include “minisodes”, three or four minute extra tales. It’s a nice treat for the fans. In the run-up to the 50th, two rather more substantial ones were offered. “The Last Day” touched on the fall of Arcadia, Gallifrey’s second city, to the Daleks at the culmination of the Time War. Interesting but non-essential, and properly categorised by some as being a bit like an intro cut-scene to a video game.
“The Night of the Doctor”, however, was a very different beast, upwards of eight minutes packed with a full episode’s-worth of drama. And the Doctor featured was – Paul McGann! Yes, McGann, the 8th Doctor, who only got to make one Anglo-American TV movie pilot tryout. He’s appeared since in not-quite-official audio dramas and so on, but he’s only ever had one genuine on-the-telly outing as the Doctor – until this! Here he gets the chance the actor deserved to prove the part, and it turns out he’d probably have been pretty damned good at it.
His surprise appearance in this surprise extra shut up a lot of “classic Who” fans who’d been decrying the omission of the older series. More importantly, it contextualised the 8th Doctor in the Time War and showed us why he might become Hurt’s “Doctor no more”. Indeed, at the end of the story he regenerates into a very young John Hurt. This is a prequel in the finest and proper sense of the word, setting up the themes and issues of the main work as a whole. It was also very satisfying for older fans to finally have that big rip in Doctor Who continuity somewhat patches.
Mark Gatiss’ remarkable drama based on the real-life origins of how the programme came to be made, An Adventure in Space and Time, allowed that lifelong fan to recreate some amazing early moments of the show, including a beautiful replica of the original and best TARDIS interior. The film, a moving, powerful piece of awards-bait, was show on Thursday in the UK, two days prior to the anniversary.
The real purpose of the Davison protests became apparent when The Five(ish) Doctors Rebooted was finally revealed. This 30-odd minute comedy covers the supposed real-life attempts of Davison, Baker 2, and McCoy to get into the 50th anniversary episode. It features cameos from a vast number of past and present Doctor Who alumni, wanders to Australia for a bit with Peter Jackson and Gandalf, reveals John Barrowman’s “awful secret”, and includes so much fun, good humour, and in-jokes that it almost deserves its own review. Track it down if you haven’t seen it – it’ll make you smile.
And all of this, plus the live three-day convention, the televised pre and afterparties, the Buckingham Palace reception for the Doctor Who team, a House of Commons motion celebrating the series longevity, was just to get viewers sat down to watch the actual episode. Well played, BBC. Really, it’s hard to think of a better lead-in. Except that by now, expectations were absurdly high…
“The Night of the Doctor” had to do a lot of things. It had to meet expectations of the general public and of the most fanatic fans of both old and new series. It had to tell an actual story, to be more than a big pantomime jamboree. It had to recapture the glory-days of returning 10th Doctor David Tennant and his most popular companion Rose Tyler (Billie Piper). It had to find something to make it worthwhile for John Hurt to turn up. It had to serve the current, 11th Doctor Matt Smith and his companion Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman). It had to include something old, but preferably also something new. And it had 1 hour 15 minutes and a BBC budget to do it with.
The story opened cleverly, with the original 1963 black and white credits and haunting first version of that Ron Grainer theme tune, segueing to colour with a beat policeman patrollng the same route that was our first visual on 23rd November 1963 – same street, past the sign for 76 Totters Yard where the TARDIS was hidden in that first episode, past Coal Hill School where the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan was “An Unearthly Child” – except now the school sign tells us the Chair of Governors is former teacher and first companion Mr I. Chesterton. And Clara’s working there.
Enough nostalgia. Enter the themes: “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one,” Clara quotes Marcus Aurelius to her class. This is going to be a story about what good men do, and what they have to do in impossible situations, and what that does to them. It’s about Hurt’s interim not-Doctor, who had to choose to end the universe-shattering conflict between Daleks and Time Lords by destroying them both, about 10th Doctor Tennant living with that regret, and about 11th Doctor Smith’s attempts to forget and escape the memory of what he did. That moment, when Gallifrey had to be utterly destroyed to save everything else, was the Day of the Doctor, and no other but he could have made the choice.
Then, because this is a fun show, we get the action. Motor-cycling into the TARDIS (not for the first time). Horse-riding out of the TARDIS. TARDIS on a big helicopter above Trafalgar Square. Real-life shooting at the Tower of London. A spooky mystery of portraits escaped from their pictures, leaving shattered glass and dust. A message for the Doctor in 2013 from Queen Elizabeth I – who calls him “dearest husband”. And so on. This is all heady stuff, and it doesn’t rely on nostalgia and backstory. The old only adds an extra flavour to the new, and that’s how this show should be.
Clever to introduce the three principal Doctors separately. Smith starts out with UNIT and a plot that might have made a perfectly effective regular episode. Tennant, slotting in timewise in the very last days of his time as the Doctor, when he was running alone and trying to cheat his end, gets another of his not-properly-romances with the aforementioned, and possibly mis-named Virgin Queen, and her shapeshifting Zygon duplicate. Hurt’s Doctor steals the last and nastiest of all Time Lord last-resort weapons, the galaxy-smashing Moment, to end the Time War by ending all its protagonists.
In a move that heartened me immensely, Moffat ignored all the Tennant/Rose shippers who wanted more gooey stuff and used Piper as “the Moment’s conscience”, the sentient weapon’s own voice, drawn to that shape from the Doctor’s memories of “the Bad Wolf”. This gave Piper a better and different part to play, riffing her former role while pushing the plot along nicely, allowing three Doctors to break the non-interaction laws of time, and bringing the main substance of the story front and centre. Piper impressed me here more than she has since her early work on the series. The Bad Wolf suits her.
Multi-Doctor stories are often judged on their inter-Doctor interactions. Nobody can complain that this tale didn’t allow for that, with quips, insults, correlations and differences coming thick and fast. Hurt mistaking his two future selves for companions – “they’re always getting younger” – and Smith and Tennant’s screwdriver gags got to me. Beyond that, though, was another tier of introspection, self-doubt, and pain that we don’t often see the character express. “This is what I’m like when I’m alone with myself”. Those big questions, those doubts and hurts and darknesses inside the Doctor, help to give the character and the series weight. They were well-served here; the opportunity was not missed.
When Doctor Who returned after its enforced 16-year BBC holiday it was retooled. The Time War was the pretext for some compelling storytelling, let out bit-by-bit over many episodes. Congratulations though to Moffat for knowing when to let a good thing go. This is the episode where the series emerges again from that overwhelming backstory. Because this Day of the Doctor, instead of killing everybody, the Doctors take advantage of the fact there’s three not one of them to do something different.
Clara has to stand in here for every one of the many companions who have served to ground and humanise the Doctor through his travels. Many of those faces are represented on the UNIT pictureboard in the background of the Tower of London’s Black Archive scenes, including a splendid shot of the Brigadier himself to underpin his daughter’s speech about him (The Cromer Incident, by the way, was “The Three Doctors”, and the chronology comment was an in-joke about perennial UNIT story dating continuity problems). It was good to see the companion’s role recognised in this storyline, though. Clara reminded her Doctor what he is. Then he made his decision accordingly. Minor incident, plot-turning moment, fundamental part of the series’ DNA.
And so to the Doctors deciding to do what they do best – interfere, break rules, save children, blow up lots of Daleks, and generally save the day in the most geeky, awesome, ridiculous, brilliant way possible. The Time War’s ending gets rewritten, Gallifrey gets hidden away in stasis, not destroyed (although Hurt, Eccleston, Tennant, and Smith up to this point in his timeline won’t know that), and the Doctor isn’t a genocidal mass murderer of all Gallifrey including it’s 2.4 billion infants.
How to do that? It involves twelve incarnations in twelve TARDISes from twelve timelines – and then in a jaw-dropping two-second scene, a future thirteenth Doctor’s fierce Capaldi eyebrows – collaborating together thanks to clever video work and editing and a bit of new additional dialogue from surviving hands. In the end, of the living actors, only Eccleston declined to join the party. It’s the indulgent moment that fans had perhaps thought they wanted – and it turns out they did because it was earned by good solid storytelling to get it there.
Helpful after all that excitement to have a bit of down-time at story’s end. Doctor Who did its current slightly-irritating thing of not even bothering to give us a follow-up on some action points – we never learn how the human/Zygon negotiations arranged by the Doctors ends up, just as we don’t know how #11 and Clara escaped from the Doctor’s own timeline at the end of “Name of the Doctor”. What we got instead, though, was pretty special.
First we had the three Doctors reviewing what they may have accomplished. Hurt reflects that he has been able to become the Doctor once more, even though he won’t remember it once the crossover’s done. He’s accepted back into the fold by his successors. This will do amazingly bad things to people’s numbered DVD collections. “The Complete Tenth Doctor” etc. may now need to be reissued renamed. His last scene, in his own beautifully-properly-roundelled TARDIS, shows him beginning to regenerate into Eccleston (but, as previously noted, Eccleston wasn’t there to film the rest of it – shame). This now means we have a record of every regeneration scene, which is the sort of thing fans like to know.
Then we had the Smith/Tennant parting. Here was a chance for Smith to share a temporary burden with Tennant, setting up some of the doom-laden 800th episode to follow, Smith’s departure as he returns to the place of the Doctor’s death at Trenzalore, on screen 25th December 2013. It was a scene that could only have been played like that by those two actors, with their places in the series and their personal abilities.
And then, the masterstroke: an extended appearance by 4th Doctor Tom Baker, maybe as the Doctor, maybe as the curator of the Under Gallery holding the British empire’s “forbidden” pictures, maybe as the past or the future. “Who knows?” he told Smith wisely, radiating Doctorliness concentrated by thirty-odd years of fanboy affection for this most iconic of incarnations. And he sets the Doctor on a new journey now: to find Gallifrey again.
Turns out Tom Baker can still be utterly mesmerisingly watchable. Is anyone surprised?
Then to the final CGI-dream scene of Smith and all his predecessors looking out to Gallifrey, a screensaver shot that brought the whole event to an emotionally satisfying close. And some credits with excellent graphic images of each Doctor in turn, over a great remix of the theme tune from Murray Gold, whose music throughout had pushed the thing along excellently.
Perfect? Never. Not possible. Another hour, another ten hours, wouldn’t have been enough to meet all fan expectations. Most criticism I’ve seen of the episode has been around what or who wasn’t included. And yes, some of the cast had to struggle with limited parts in a story with so many heavyweight main players. Those who don’t care for the series generally, or the series as it is now, probably won’t care for this much more.
But excellent? Soul-satisfyingly fulfilling for an old fan of an ever-young series? Highly rewatchable, highly-discussable, new-chapter setting up what’s to come next stuff? Well written, well acted, well directed and filmed and lit and special effected and scored and all the rest? Hard to argue otherwise. I can cite dozens, hundreds of multi-million dollar SF blockbusters that should be watching and taking notes. Worth the build-up, the anticipation, the hoping, the fears? Yes, it ticked all the boxes.
Better, it ticked the boxes after showing the calculations, after doing the work to get there, after taking the proper road.
“Waste no more time arguing what a good episode should be. Be one.”
November 24th, 2013
Learn more about author I. A. Watson here.