Last Saturday was a seminal event, one that 15 years ago wouldn’t have seemed possible. But thanks to the revival of Doctor Who and a worldwide surge in popularity, fans were finally treated to a celebration of its 50th anniversary: a 75-minute special known as The Day of the Doctor.
The story is centered around the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) and his companion Clara (Jenna Louise Coleman) as they’re brought into UNIT to account for a mysterious work of art that depicts a scene from the Time War. This “painting” forms an unexpected connection between the Doctor and two of his past regenerations: the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) who was caught in the middle of a Zygon plot in Elizabethan England, and the recently revealed War Doctor (John Hurt), who fought in the Time War and used a superweapon called “The Moment” to wipe out both Daleks and Time Lords. As the Zygon plot unfolds, all three Doctors are brought together to confront not only this nefarious scheme, but also the scars and regret they’d built up over wiping out their own civilization as the War Doctor.
With the exception of a TV short done for charity called “Time Crash,” this is the first serious attempt to bring three different Doctors together in the revived series. It’s delightful to see Matt Smith trading barbs with David Tennant; the two are practically competing for who can give the most high-energy, fast-witted performance whenever they’re onscreen. And while John Hurt’s Doctor is short-lived, he does balance out his future selves with a surprising charm and gentle grace that we haven’t seen since the end of the original series.
Fans were excited over the return of David Tennant, but many were just as eager when they heard Billie Piper would be returning to play the long-adored companion Rose Tyler. And in a way, she does return to play Rose—just not in the way anyone expected. In a similar way, Jenna-Louise Coleman is the most prominent Companion in this episode, but her role is very small compared to the three gentlemen playing the Doctor. It was also nice to see the return of Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), the Brigadier’s daughter, as the head of UNIT and I hope we’ll continue to see more of her and UNIT after this Christmas.
As far as the plot goes, the storyline about the Zygons is relevant for about a third of the episode. While the shapeshifting aliens are used effectively for horror and suspense, they’re not really the main threat. The real danger is the War Doctor and how Ten and Eleven feel about him and what they did as him. The heart of this story is the promise behind the name and title “The Doctor,” and how to atone for the horrors of using the Moment. I will say that the last 15 minutes took me completely by surprise, but it was a nice one and made good use of Steven Moffat’s penchant for stories about rewriting Time without breaking history apart.
I imagine that some fans were upset that Billie Piper didn’t make a better return as Rose, though I think her performance is effective when it needs to be. I also can see how they might have used Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor in place of John Hurt’s character, but I like how Hurt handled the role and wish that he (along with Paul McGann) would get some more adventures onscreen. And on that note, if you haven’t seen the mini-episode “The Night of the Doctor,” then you’re doing yourself a disservice.
On the whole, I really enjoyed this anniversary special. Besides the great acting by Tennant, Smith, and Hurt, it finally shows us the Time War in all its horrific glory and gives us a cavalcade of references, homages, and throwbacks to the original series—including a heartwarming cameo by Tom Baker himself and a very short glimpse of the Doctor that Peter Capaldi will soon be playing. It stands up as a love letter to Doctor Who fans everywhere and a brilliant sendoff for Matt Smith as he prepares to step down from this iconic role.
The Day of the Doctor is available through BBC One and BBC America.
Bibliography: “The Day of the Doctor.” Doctor Who. Written by Steven Moffat. Directed by Nick Hurran. Produced by Steven Moffat, Faith Penhale, and Marcus Wilson. Perf. Matt Smith, David Tennant, John Hurt, Jenna Louise Coleman, Billie Piper, Jemma Redgrave. BBC TV. Original broadcast date: November 23, 2013.