It’s better to fail at doing the right thing than to succeed at doing the wrong thing.
That’s the sentiment The Day of the Doctor seems to arrive at. After 50 years, the anniversary special finds the programme rediscovering The Doctor’s purpose, setting the TARDIS on a new path for the future – and the past.
It’s a relief, to be honest. Steven Moffat’s time as the BBC’s show runner has had mixed results, at best. While Matt Smith’s eccentric, genuinely unpredictable performance has established himself as one of the best Doctors to date, he’s been dealt some of the worst episodes – the first half of Season 6, full of Weeping Angels, River Song and a mysterious baby, saw the series disappear up its own Eye of Harmony.
One thing that has always loomed in the background since Doctor Who was brought back for modern audiences, though, is the Time War. Referred to repeatedly by Christopher Eccleston’s Nine and worn on the sleeve of David Tennant’s Ten, the confrontation between the Daleks and Gallifrey saw The Doctor kill his own people to eradicate Davros’ creation; an act that left him emotionally scarred. The last of the Time Lords.
It’s only fitting, then, that after nodding to the back-story for several seasons, Steven Moffat uses the 50th anniversary to tackle the war on-screen for the first time.
Enter John Hurt, the missing Doctor between Paul McGann’s TV movie Time Lord and Eccleston’s big-eared hero. He was the one to make the ultimate decision – an act performed not in the name of The Doctor. So when John Hurt walks into 2013, several hundred years later, to talk it over with Ten and Eleven, they’re not exactly pleased to see him.
For us, those, it’s a pleasure to see the three actors going at each other. And that’s precisely what marks out The Day of The Doctor as special: it may be a feature length adventure, but it’s not a war film. It’s not full of explosions, guns and CGI battles. It’s a movie about three men chatting. That decision may surprise some, especially after Steven Moffat’s earlier extravaganzas, but this is a restrained special, with enough sense to keep the focus on character.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have fun with character, though. Tennant and Smith clearly love mocking each other, comparing sizes of sonic screwdrivers before out-babbling themselves. John Hurt wastes no time in joining in, dubbing them “Dicky Bow” and “Sandshoes” after mistaking them as companions. “They get younger all the time…” he frowns, disapprovingly. No wonder Jenna Coleman’s wise-cracking sidekick spends most of the 76 minutes grinning.
Meanwhile, in 1863, the Zygons have invaded the planet – just in time to interfere with The Doctor getting married to Queen Elizabeth I (Joanna Page, having a whale of a time). You can guess which Doctor is doing that. Oh yes, David Tennant is on fine romantic form, sending up his heartthrob persona with a swoon-inducing smile. It’s the most relaxed he’s been in those Converse since he first started; an understated comic presence rather than the grandiose, uncontrollable Lord of Time he briefly became. He even undercuts any attempts at serious drama – by saving his darkest threats for a rabbit.
It’s a fitting way to remember him. After carrying around the Time War in the TARDIS for centuries – and turning Ten into a dark demigod – there was really nowhere left for him to go. It’s the right time for The Doctor to move on; a notion that Tennant and Hurt can’t bear, especially when they’re all locked in a prison cell in the Tower of London together. Accompanied by a perfectly cast Billie Piper (not playing whom you might expect), their moral debates are accompanied by a dazzling wit; the kind of emotional-intelligence one-two that defines Britain’s sci-fi hero.
Then, it’s back to dealing with the Zygons, who are using 3D paintings to pause themselves across time – only to break out into the National Gallery years later. Like Cup-a-Soup, reasons Eleven. “What?” exclaims Hurt.
Dopplegangers, black archives and a helicopter ride later and the story is rattling along with a fun string of nods to Doctors gone by – Ingrid Oliver is brilliant as a Tom Baker-scarf wearing scientist, while Jemma Redgrave remains perfect as the daughter of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. In time-honoured tradition, the invasion concludes with a nifty twist that serves as a microcosm of the whole story – a workaround that warps belief with a hefty dose of imagination.
This is the point where many might switch off and declare the whole thing silly – but Moffat’s script is tightly written, using the three Doctors’ paradox to show his character’s journey in seconds. “It’s… timey-wimey,” says Matt Smith at one point. “I don’t know where he gets this stuff from,” whispers Tennant to Hurt, one eyebrow raised.
Timey-wimey, it sure is. Arguably the greatest invention of modern Who, the word sums up the show in four syllables; smart, silly and mostly made-up. But more than that, it’s satisfying – a reminder that The Doctor isn’t the guy who destroys worlds or wipes out races. He’s the guy who runs. The guy who jokes. The guy who thinks up another way. And he’s had a lot of time to think.
Thinking isn’t very exciting to watch, though, so the three-pronged ensemble is a smart way to portray The Doctor coming to terms with what he once did. Time. War. Genocide. The title of the show. All solved in 76 minutes of one man talking to himself. (When he acts upon his final decision, using the full power of his 13 lives, it’s a joy to behold.)
Broadcast simultaneously in a record-breaking number of cinemas around the world in 3D, Doctor Who’s biggest surprise isn’t its cameos or its unexpected ending; it’s the fact that this isn’t really cinematic at all. It’s an epic that thinks small – exactly what classic Doctor Who episodes are good at. Previously, Moffat’s ambition has got away from him. Amid the muddle of Melody and Season 6, he ended up sitting alone, shouting “Doctor Who?” at an empty room. After 50 years of travelling in the TARDIS, The Day of The Doctor feels like the moment when the show finally finds the answer to that question. The result is an entertaining, moving and inspired tribute to the Time Lord’s legacy, and, as Peter Capaldi gets ready to take over, one that sets the TARDIS on a new course for the past – and the future.
It’s better to fail at doing the right thing than to succeed at doing the wrong thing. But the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special does something else: it succeeds at doing exactly the right thing.
The Day of the Doctor is available on BBC iPlayer until 15th January 2018.
Photo: BBC / Adrian Rogers