written by Craig O’Connor
Warning: Here there be spoilers.
As I write these words, Doctor Who, the long-running BBC science fiction television series, is fifty years and one day old. The golden anniversary has come and gone and the BBC has celebrated not just with a special episode (which was the least they could do) but also with a TV movie about the origins of the series, oodles of specials featuring talking heads from even the oldest episodes, and even a thirty minute parody film written and directed by Peter Davison and featuring more in-jokes than miles on the TARDIS speedometer. It’ll be a good year for Doctor Who-related retail; the BBC deserves a windfall after all the effort they’ve put into it. So why do I feel a strange sense of dissatisfaction after viewing the fiftieth anniversary episode The Day Of The Doctor? I didn’t feel this way after watching An Adventure In Space And Time (which I wasn’t planning on watching) nor after The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot (which I didn’t even know existed until I turned on my computer last night). Is it simply a case where my expectations, after so much buildup, couldn’t possibly be met?
Before I tuck into this episode, let me tell you of some of the fantasies that I had in the runup to last night. I must stress that I did not actually expect any of these to happen and you will notice that none of these ideas have anything resembling a coherent plot:
- At some point, the Doctor and Clara are captured and taken to the throne-room of their barbarian captors, the queen of whom turns out to be Peri. She is no longer the silly and frightened rabbit of yesteryear (being a barbarian queen will change a girl), no longer wears low-cut tops or heels that make her fall on her face, and she harbors a grudge against the Doctor for abandoning her so long ago. Eventually, the Doctor manages to win back her trust and, when things look hopeless, she sacrifices her life to help save the day and gives Peri the heroic death that Nicola Bryant always wanted for her.
- At one point, when things look bleak, a wall behind the bad guy, who has delayed killing the Doctor so he can gloat, suddenly explodes. After the dust settles, a figure steps through the door and says, “Hello, Professor.” It’s Ace.
- The Doctor and Clara find themselves on a spaceship that has members of the crew in suspended animation. They been asleep for centuries. The Doctor goes exploring as Clara starts to wake the crew up. Suddenly, as she wakes one of them up, the Doctor feels a twinge in his mind: there is a Time Lord in the vicinity. He runs back to the chamber to find that one member of the crew is Susan, his grown granddaughter.
Now, I wasn’t really expecting Peri, Ace or Susan to return to our screens on Saturday night (and the point of Peter Davison’s film would have been ruined if any of them had), but I told you those scenarios to give you an example of the type of things that I was looking for in The Day Of The Doctor, a few ingenious plot twists that managed to shake up a sound story and cement the elements of the past to the current series. And some of that did indeed happen: the past series came forward and latched onto the present series like it never has before. A few questions that have bothered me for years were answered (“How come, in multi-doctor episodes, recent doctors have such a difficult time figuring things out when they should remember the events when they experienced them as earlier doctors?” The answer is that they forget – except for in Time Crash). There were definitely a few plot twists, especially the last one that turned the up-coming series on its quiffed head. And yet, I feel let down, even after watching the episode a second time almost immediately. What bothered me was the same thing that has bothered me time and again for the last three years: the story supporting all these wonderful moments was a letdown.
Time and again, throughout Stephen Moffat’s reign, I’ve found myself marveling at good ideas and heartfelt performances that somehow stand apart from murky stories with frayed plot lines that have no hope of ever being tied up. Stephen Moffat has claimed that many unanswered questions will finally be answered in Matt Smith’s final episode. If he can pull this off, he’ll prove himself the greatest daredevil since Karl Wallenda. As it is, I’m tired of ending an episode of my favorite show with a nagging feeling of confusion in my head. I’m not the dimmest bulb on the Christmas tree; I’ve followed along with the Doctor even when things got really “Timey-Whimey,” so why am I continually left wanting in the story department when the final credits of Doctor Who roll?
Look at this – I’m nearly nine hundred words in and I haven’t gotten to the story yet; must be the Moffat in me. The Day Of The Doctor has two stories running (well… three actually, but stories one and two are connected). In the present day, the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) are called in by UNIT to investigate paintings that have had their subjects walk out of them. In a related story, the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant), is investigating a possible Zygon invasion in the Elizabethan era. But the grand story involves the War Doctor (John Hurt), grizzled and despondent after years of fighting the Time War, stealing a sentient super-bomb called “The Moment” and taking it to a nice quiet place somewhere where he can blow up Gallifrey and end the Time War once and for all. The Moment’s sentience manifests itself as the Bad Wolf (played by Billie Piper) who wants the Doctor to see what will become of him if he pushes the big, red button. She creates rifts in the fabric of time and pulls in the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors. With three Doctor interacting, they endeavor to solve the immediate problem (the Zygon invasion) while pondering the overall problem (the decision to destroy Gallifrey).
As a logline, this sounds fantastic. Well… nearly. The faux-excitement of bringing back the Zygons is ridiculous; calling the Zygons a “classic Doctor Who monster” is like calling the Time Meddler a classic Doctor Who character (both appeared in only one episode). And the Zygons don’t have any sort of really interesting plan; they simply want to invade – pure and simple. The interesting part of their plan lies in its complication: the Zygons landed on earth during the Elizabethan period and hid away, dormant and patient, in paintings, waiting for an interesting period in history to invade (getting away from the fact that it would’ve been easier to take over the planet during a period of history before mass communication and assault weapons, one wonders why the Zygons waited until 2013 and not the 1970s or 80s; didn’t care for disco or MTV, I imagine.). As far as it goes, the Zygons just aren’t an interesting creature; there’s obviously a reason why The Day Of The Doctor is only their second television appearance since their debut in 1975. True, they can change their shape to perfectly mimic others, and this in itself could’ve been put to interesting use. (Remember the duplicate Doctor in The Bells Of St. John and how the Doctor turned it to his advantage? That’s what I’m talking about.) But as far as the episode goes, the Zygons portion of it hardly strikes terror or suspense on a global scale: there are apparently only a few Zygons loose (some invasion) who manage to duplicate only Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) and her two assistants. They infiltrate the Black Archive in the Tower of London, but don’t get much further than that. Eventually, both the tenth and eleventh Doctors activate UNIT’s memory-wipe function to get both the humans and Zygon duplicates to forget which one is which, thereby (apparently) leveling the playing field for negotiations. This, of course, is a major head-scratcher: if you don’t know what side you’re on, how can you possibly negotiate anything? The two Kates would be better negotiating which one of them gets the bed and which one sleeps on the sofa when they go back their flat. And what exactly are they negotiating, the human race sharing the planet with a few Zygons? Didn’t we see a version of this in Cold Blood when Amy (Karen Gillam) tried and failed to negotiate a settlement with the Silurians? The worst thing is that the script doesn’t try to sell it to the audience: unlike the Silurians, who at least had a legitimate stake in the planet, the Zygons come to invade, cause a bit of trouble, sit down to talk it over, and we never find out what happens next! The Zygon story ends on Kate and Zygon-Kate’s negotiation. The script makes a major mistake in initially engaging the audience with the Zygon story only to reduce its importance to how the War Doctor (John Hurt) uses his experiences to decide to blow up Gallifrey (well, that plan backfired, Ms. Bad-Wolf) and the existence of leftover Zygon technology that gives our Doctors the brilliant idea of how to side-step their destiny.
And for those of you who think that this is going to be a completely negative review, what the episode loses in the Zygon plot, it gains in the Time War plot. The Zygon story is small (even though it takes up most of the episode); the story of the Doctor and his possession of the Moment is epic, simply because the series has been building up to it since the Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) yelled into the vat of goo that was the Nestene conscious “I couldn’t save your planet; I couldn’t save any of them!” in Rose. Whovians have been waiting for a glimpse of what the Doctor did on that last dark day and The Day Of The Doctor finally gives it to them. At this point, I’d like to say a word or two about the War Doctor, as played by veteran actor John Hurt. Hurt’s prowess in front of camera needs no propping up from the likes of me; he is a great a actor and does well with the part. My only problem with this incarnation of the Doctor is that he is designed to exist only for this episode; we are meant to treat him like an actual incarnation of the Doctor, completely on par with Tom Baker and Patrick Troughton, while knowing all along that he was introduced merely to stir things up for the fiftieth anniversary episode and then vanish in a golden glow (hands up, how many were actually surprised when Hurt started regenerating into Eccelston in his final moments). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: Doctor Who (especially since the series returned in 2005) has thrived on twists, turns, surprises and plot reversals. Hurt’s introduction as an incarnation of the Doctor at the end of The Name Of The Doctor was jaw-dropping and yet it is difficult to treat this Doctor as a real, true version of the character that we all know and love. Every actor who plays the Doctor needs a few episodes to lure in his audience: Hurt gets only one. True, McGann (the Eight Doctor) got only one as well, but that wasn’t the plan (and his audio adventures cemented his fan base). Maybe Big Finish will hire Hurt to portray the War Doctor in “Time War Episodes,” but that remains to be seen.
Thankfully, the script treats him like a proper Doctor and, as such, gives him a companion: The Moment Consciousness (Billie Piper). Piper excels playing this new role; completely divorced from the baggage of Rose Tyler, she struts and frets her hour upon stage and adds another dimension to her image. But I’m of two minds: Piper is a challenge to the audience, daring them to accept her in this new role and not giving them any reason not to, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed that Rose doesn’t appear. I imagined that Tennant and Piper would play Rose and the Metacrisis/Human Doctor from the parallel universe and that maybe a tear in the fabric of time would allow us to see how they were getting on. Okay, so that didn’t happen, and at least Piper gave us a new character for us to watch for seventy-five minutes, but the magic of Tennant and Piper, who made Series Two such a smash, isn’t even scratched, let alone mined. Just like Hurt, Piper is good at what she’s given, but the pall of a missed opportunity hangs in the air,
Soon the Zygons are forgotten and we are finally allowed to see what we came to see, the end of the time war. As mentioned before, this section is truly epic and the Doctors’ final plan to save Gallifrey is quite inspired (of course, Davros did store twenty-seven planets in a pocket universe out-of-sync with the rest of time in The Stolen Earth, but let’s not quibble). With the help of all his other incarnations (don’t ask me how; maybe the Moment opened a few more fissures in time), the Doctors manage to save Gallifrey in some little space of time (a “Moment,” if you will) and makes it disappear from the sky. All that’s left is for our time-team to muse about whether they were successful and how Hurt and Tennant’s doctors will lose their memories of the good they did (sentencing them to the pain and misery we’ve been viewing for the last nine years). Then with a gentle nudge from a kindly old man with a rather bold voice (Tom Baker), the eleventh Doctor realizes his new goal; one day he must find Gallifrey again. And as he takes his place amongst his incarnations and they look up at the stars, behind any of which might reside his home planet and all his people, we let the wave of emotions run over us and it helps not to question where the Hell Elizabeth I got the painting of “Gallifrey Falls No More” in the first place or even who may have painted it (if all the timelords except the Doctor either perished or were saved in a moment of time, that means only the Doctor could have painted it). This is one of many other thoughts that we try to push out our heads as the final credits roll: if there were more than three Zygons invading, what happened to the others? If Clara can use the vortex manipulator to get out of the Tower of London, why can’t the Doctors use it to get back in? How is the Black Archive’s memory-wipe device so selective that it can wipe everyone’s memories but Clara and the Doctors (and how was Kate spared a memory wipe on all her previous visits)? Where the Hell did the War Doctor take the Moment, another part of Gallifrey or another planet somewhere close by? Does it matter? I think it does. In the end I can only conclude that such nagging thoughts (and the wet-blanket Zygons) are the reason why it is difficult for me to fully enjoy The Day Of The Doctor: as funny, exciting and (eventually) epic as it is, it is a fortress built on quicksand; it looks impressive, just don’t tread too heavily.