Doctor Who may be an international phenomenon, but when it comes to specials, particularly multi-Doctor specials, it doesn’t have the best track record. The Three Doctors (1972-73) , which kicked off the 10th season of the show, is fun, but lacks any significant emotional punch. The Five Doctors (1983), the 20th anniversary special, is a bit of a lark but it not only fails to live up to its title (the Fourth Doctor only barely appears, in one looped clip), it wastes most of its special guest stars. Then there’s The Two Doctors (1985), which doesn’t carry the extra burden of being an anniversary special but still fails to leave much of an impression, despite being an entertaining outing. Throw in the modern series’ spotty history with Christmas and Gap Year specials and current showrunner Steven Moffat’s season seven struggles with pacing, payoffs, and character and “The Day of the Doctor” looked to have a lot riding against it, despite the much-touted return of Tenth Doctor David Tennant and Billie Piper, who played fan-favorite Companion Rose Tyler. Fortunately with “The Day of the Doctor”, all of these fears are proven to be unfounded, as Moffat and director Nick Hurran deliver an exciting, emotional special.
This story manages to not only provide an entertaining one-off adventure, it functions well as a look back at the series while setting up plenty of new developments to come. Each of the numerous characters gets their moment to shine, the complicated clockwork of interconnected plots ticks along nicely, and, unlike some of Moffat’s previous attempts at intricate, rather tangled stories (“The Name of the Doctor”, “Let’s Kill Hitler”), here the ultimate resolution to the central problem is satisfying both intellectually and emotionally. While it could have benefited from a few cuts (Osgood) and some of the character decisions are easily poked apart with a few moments’ thought (why don’t the Zygons just kill Kate, or at least restrain and gag her, during the countdown?), “The Day of the Doctor” exemplifies much of the best of Doctor Who and there’s little more a Whovian can ask of this anniversary special.
It’s remarkable just how much this special gets right. While this decision angered a vocal subset of fans, one of the best moves Moffat makes here is bringing Piper back not as Rose but as the Bad Wolf, and furthermore as a psychic representation of it, rather than the actual embodiment of the Time Vortex. We get to see elements of Rose’s personality in the Moment’s interpretation of her, but we’re not tied to her backstory or timeline. Bad Wolf Girl, as the War Doctor calls her, steers the Doctor in the right direction (as Rose always did), has a sense of humor, a deep empathy, and an understanding of what this decision will do to the Doctor, should he choose incorrectly. Of course Billie Piper is also fantastic in the role, quickly establishing just as strong of a rapport with John Hurt’s War Doctor as she did Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth and Tennant’s Tenth, but more important than any of this is that the presence of the self-aware, hugely powerful Moment gives the three Doctors we follow a legitimate, important reason to be interacting in the first place.
And what interesting, enlightening interactions we’re treated to. Rather than just focusing on whimsy and self-aware and self-deprecating humor, Moffat takes this opportunity to delve deeply into what makes the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors who they are, Ten ever brooding and Eleven constantly distracting himself, unable to sit still, lest his conscience come knocking. There’s a sense that as the Doctor’s gotten further from the Moment, rather than healing he’s become increasingly fractured. The Ninth Doctor of course was rather broken when Rose found him, fresh off his regeneration it now seems, but she was able to help pull him back and each loss the Doctor’s suffered since, through the Tenth and Eleventh Doctor’s tenures, has pushed him further to the edge, towards manic unpredictability and darkness.
After “The Day of the Doctor”, this seems like a specific trajectory (rather than the whims of writers and performers over the past several seasons), the long-term strain of killing 2.47 billion children (and everyone else on Gallifrey), no matter the rationalization, no matter the desperate need for someone to end the Time War. Much of television writing is painting oneself into a corner and figuring out the solution later (for a hugely successful example, watch Breaking Bad). Moffat has sometimes done well with this approach and sometimes fallen completely flat. The fact that he manages to explore these elements of the modern series, adding nuance to our understanding of the characters while maintaining the authenticity and honesty of not just the interactions in “The Day of the Doctor”, but the entire past eight years, in a reveal rather than a retcon, is incredibly impressive. It’s possible the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors rewrote their own history. To this Whovian however, it feels much more like we finally saw what happened in the first place. We find out the War Doctor and the Tenth Doctor won’t remember what happened after they leave- how would they know Gallifrey had been safely cordoned off in its own pocket dimension this whole time?*
*It’s possible the events of The End of Time negate this possibility. It’s been a while, so my memory of it is not fresh. But Gallifrey being Time Locked and wanting to come back seems to fit far better with what we see in “The Day of the Doctor” than the initial explanation of the Doctor having burned everything
Even putting aside Moffat’s clever script, the performances from our central trio are engaging enough to carry the special by themselves. Hurt’s gravitas and stillness immediately counters the bubbling energy of both Tennant and Matt Smith while his physicality and humor capture the lightness of the War Doctor’s younger soul. Tennant slips easily back into his role; he doesn’t feel like he never left- he’s even better. Towards the end of his tenure, the Tenth Doctor (and Tennant’s performance) had become overwrought and even a bit mannered. This isn’t the Tenth Doctor of “The End of Time”. This is the Tenth Doctor fans fell in love with. As for Matt Smith, he continues to shine as the Eleventh Doctor and thankfully, the sexually predatory, leery Doctor that plagued the final run of series seven is nowhere to be seen.
Let us not forget Clara. Jenna Coleman continues to be an adorable, entertaining asset to the series, even if Clara has yet to feel like a particularly developed or distinct character. We may not know yet who she is, but we do know a few things she isn’t, and one of them is. One of things “The Day of the Doctor” gets most right is its use of Clara in the emotional climax, the Moment. Often in Doctor Who specials (and particularly in multi-Doctor stories), the Companions feel rather interchangeable. They’re there to be a Companion, not because they share a particular relationship with the Doctor or the show in general. Here Clara’s role is essential and it’s one only she could fill.
Most of the Doctor’s Companions, particularly in the modern series, wind up becoming soldiers of one sort or the other, or at least more violent people. Rose goes to work for Torchwood, Martha goes to work for Torchwood, Amy kills Madame Kovarian, Rory becomes the Lone/Last Centurian, complete with sword and giant explosions as his calling card, and River’s another beast entirely. Clara is the only one of the Doctor’s recent Companions who could do what she does in this story, make the case, however passively, for the Doctor to not push the button (the case could be made for Donna filling this role, but of course there are other reasons she couldn’t be involved). It has to be her and this specificity is wonderful to see.
There’s plenty more to discuss about “The Day of the Doctor”. There’s the overall very strong direction from Nick Hurran and striking cinematography and visuals. There’s the return of Classic Series baddie the Zygons, with an impressive creature redesign/tweak and solid CG backing them up. There’re the knowing, loving nods to long-term fans, from the opening at the Coal Hill School to the lasting impact of the Brigadier to the shoutout to the UNIT-era dating discrepancies (basically, no one knows for sure if the Third Doctor’s tenure on Earth took place during the ‘70s or ‘80s). There’s the absolutely beautiful return of Tom Baker as the Curator (the Fourth Doctor? A future Doctor? Just some guy? It really doesn’t matter), set to a lovely, simple bit of scoring; the emotional, for this Whovian at least, action climax with all 13 Doctors, upcoming Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi included; and the denouement featuring the 12 we’ve gotten to know. And these are just the tip of the iceberg.
That terribly painful moment aside, “The Day of the Doctor” is a wonderful special. It captures the whimsy and the depth of Doctor Who, its silly fun and its introspection, and it does it with aplomb. No single special, no matter how significant in the show’s history, can fix the numerous problems the show is currently struggling with, but what this does manage to do is give Whovians watching throughout the 94 countries where it was simulcast a reminder of just how great of a show Doctor Who can be and why so many of us fell in love with it in the first place.
What did you think of this story? Did it live up to your expectations? Were you surprised by any of the twists? I like to think that the hut in the desert is on Gallifrey and was Leela’s at one time or another- what was your favorite shoutout, intentional or imagined? Post your thoughts below!