DOCTOR WHO: “The Day of the Doctor”

The Time War gets a new ending, Ten meets Eleven, and all the dangling threads of the past eight years come together at last in a thrillingly satisfying 50th anniversary special.

They’re you–who you will become. The man who regrets…and the man who forgets.

–Rose

Everybody lives.

Steven Moffat, you clever turnip. You actually did it. Fifty years of built-in expectations, and you pulled it off. The game board has been reset, the future now full of exciting possibilities, with loving service paid to the fans and all that had gone before. Moffat has taken some flack (including from me) for being more about the whiz-bang timey-wimey plots than the actual human emotions involved, but he came through here in a way that brings together the best of his and Russell T. Davies’s eras, paying off storylines set in motion long ago.

Where to start? At the beginning, I suppose. That’s the best place.

The TARDIS gets picked up by U.N.I.T. (with the Doctor dangling from the outside) and brought to their headquarters at the Tower of London. Why? Because Queen Elizabeth I asked him to be summoned if anything were to go amiss with the Gallifreyan paintings now kept by the government in a level-Black facility. The cool thing about Time Lord art — exemplified by the horrorscape known alternately as “No More”/”Gallifrey Falls” — is that it’s in 3-D, holding a moment in history frozen, even the subjects it depicts placed in suspended animation. The bad thing? Zygons, shape-shifting aliens covered in suckers, have literally broken out of the paintings into 21st-century Earth, and wish to take it over.

Right, okay. As someone who wasn’t that thrilled with the most recent season of Who, I didn’t find this as immediately engaging as I might normally have, not least because there are actually two story tracks running simultaneously, competing for attention — the second, and more compelling, being about John Hurt’s “Doctor” (I’m not sure what to call him. 8.5? The “War Doctor?” I’ll just go with John Hurt) absconding with the secret piece of Time Lord tech that will enable him to destroy the Daleks, his own planet, and end the Time War once and for all.

As we know, this is a choice that continues to haunt the Doctor in his later incarnations. Christopher Eccleston’s Nine was filled with rage, particularly when he had to face the Daleks again; David Tennant’s Ten is an open wound, the one who has counted the number of dead Gallifreyan children and let his regret make him unpredictable; Matt Smith’s Eleven simply tries to bury the memory and move on, hoping that if he puts enough distance between himself and Hurt’s generation, it won’t hurt anymore. Hurt is given a chance to see what becomes of his choice himself, when the interface of the destruction device — appearing in the body of Rose, beloved Rose — opens a time vortex that leads him to Ten and Eleven. (The wheres and hows are never that important, and it’ll just hurt your brain. Let’s just go with it.)

Ten–presumably sometime after Season 4’s “Journey’s End”, but who knows — has been romancing Elizabeth I in order to discover that she is actually a Zygon imposter, and the moment Eleven (who jumps into a vortex of his own, back in the Tower of London) appears in front of him has been something longtime fans have been looking forward to for a long, long time. And it doesn’t disappoint. Tennant and Smith have (of COURSE) a natural chemistry, with the former stepping back into his “sand shoes” like not a day has gone by since “The End of Time.” Together, their infectious energy is dazzling, trading barbs and one-liners with quickness and wit. (A “my sonic screwdriver is bigger” moment is particularly funny, if juvenile.)

When John Hurt pops out of the vortex as well, the mood immediately changes, but what Ten and Eleven don’t realize — not until after Clara does, in what is maybe the only thing she has to do this hour — is that Hurt hasn’t pushed that big red button yet. They look at him like he’s a rabid dog, while he in turn, annoyed by the immaturity he sees before him, gives voice to every snarky complaint thrown at the show since the reboot: “Those are screwdrivers! What are you going to do, build a cabinet at them?”; to Eleven: “Is it possible for you to talk without flapping your arms about?” (the response: “Yes……no.”); Hurt’s incredulous face when the phrase “Timey-Wimey” is uttered (and Ten’s straight-faced “I have no idea where he picks that stuff up”). It’s a great deal of fun, and Hurt shows that even with his left-field introduction to the series, he’s still every bit The Doctor.

What the three end up realizing (apart from that with all of them in the same room, they can have their sonics do calculations that would normally have them waiting hundreds of years), after a great deal of japing and finger-pointing, is that the Fake Elizabeth is actually the Real Elizabeth, and she lets them out of their holding cell to return to our present-day and stop the Zygons from taking over the planet centuries later. (Eleven, to an appalled Hurt upon entering Ten’s TARDIS: “It’s his grunge phase, he’ll grow out of it.”) Meanwhile, the shape-shifters have infiltrated the U.N.I.T. command — which, in fairness, seems to consist of maybe four people, one sporting a very familiar scarf — and are having a showdown with the nuke-threatening humans when the Doctors arrive, screw with everybody’s heads, and force a peaceful negotiation. So ends the B-plot, because we’ve got much bigger fish to fry.

The final 15 minutes or so are wonderfully handled. Still racked with guilt, Ten and Eleven agree to help Hurt push the button, despite the destruction it will cause, because there is (or there was) simply no other choice and he shouldn’t have (or have had) to do it alone. But just when you think Moffat will adhere to any rules in a show with no rules, Eleven — who has had 400 years to think about it, and gets a prod from Clara — gets the idea to simply make Gallifrey disappear into a pocket universe, leading the Daleks to destroy each other in the ensuing cataclysm. Time can be re-written! Everybody lives! “Gallifrey Falls…No More.”

But something that massive would take more that just one Doctor…in fact, it’ll take thirteen.

Yes–thirteen! Peter Capaldi’s eyebrows make a cameo appearance — along with archive footage of the previous eight, but don’t ask me how they knew about this — as one by one TARDISes appear in the sky above Gallifrey, their collective energies sucking it out of certain death and into a safe, time-locked stasis. The specifics of the technobabble (typically silly at best, incomprehensible narrative convenience at worst) aren’t that important, because this time it works so well on an emotional level, and doesn’t feel like a cheat. The Doctor is fully redeemed, even though the crossing of time streams mean that none of the others — save Eleven — will remember what happened once they return. But to the one who knows the truth, Gallifrey is still out there somewhere, and now Eleven’s got a brand-new quest (other than avoiding Trenzalore, which I imagine he will utterly fail to do), put forth by the Tower museum’s eccentric curator (TOM BAKER!!?!): go find it.

(OMG, TOM BAKER!!! But, again, how? Wait, never mind. I don’t care.)

Altogether, it was an incredibly entertaining hour of television, a fitting extra curtain call for David Tennant, and raised the bar for Matt Smith’s final episode that’s just one month away.  Fifty years in, Doctor Who can still surprise and thrill. Here’s to more adventures.

Grade: A-

Extra Thoughts:

  • There were a few issues, but as I’ve already mentioned the biggest for me was the aimlessness of Clara and much of the U.N.I.T. stuff. I get that the focus needed to (rightfully) be on the Doctors, and Clara just had her big moment in “The Name of the Doctor,” but she essentially just runs from room to room until her revealing conversation with Hurt.
  • In the same way, the U.N.I.T. characters were casualties of expediency, never really feeling like filled-in characters (the girl with the Tom Baker scarf got the closest) or even getting full resolution to their story. As such, all of their moments away from the Doctor just felt like filler. Moffat often crams way too much into episodes, and even the outsized 80-minute run time was only just enough here. We even got the smallest royal wedding in history.
  • References abound! The fez (“Can you ever NOT pick up a fez?”), the original credits, the original TARDIS set (Ten: “I love those circles…”), Coal Hill School, and on and on — but of course, nothing compares to how good it was to see Tennant again. It surpassed my wildest expectations, and not giving him the expected moment with Billie Piper’s “Rose” (who was also a delight, don’t get me wrong) was the right call. Would MORE cameos have been too much to ask? Yes? Okay then.
  • So John Hurt has now had as much screen time as Number Eight’s Paul McGann. Is a re-numbering in order, or will that be too confusing? Are we going to call Peter Capaldi Twelve, or Thirteen?
  • Ten: “Trenzalore? We need a new destination…I don’t want to go.” Eleven, to Clara: “He always says that.”

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