Warning: contains a plethora of spoilers.
Picture the scene. It’s October 2012. In an old, oak-panelled tavern in the heart of London, two prominent BBC people are having lunch. One is Nicholas Briggs, best known on television as the voice of the Daleks / Cybermen / any other monster that needs doing. To call him the Frank Welker of Doctor Who is overstating the case, because Welker’s got a variety of voices, whereas Briggs only has the one. But Briggs also writes, and right now he’s working on the anniversary special for Big Finish, called ‘The Light At The End‘.
The other chap is Steven Moffat. And today he’s sharing stories with Briggs.
“So how does it end?”
“Well,” says Briggs, “It’s the TARDIS. Basically the Master is about to erase the Doctor from existence completely. But with a bit of – well, you’d call it wibbly-wobbliness, the Sixth Doctor is able to get all ten of his other selves – that’s all eleven – to work in sync to ram the Master’s TARDIS, which saves the day. There’s a bit of technical wizardry involved, but essentially every Doctor turns up at once.”
Moffat looks crestfallen. “You’re kidding.”
“What’s the matter?”
“That’s what I’m planning.”
There’s a brief, considered pause. Glasses clink in another corner of the pub. The barman wipes surfaces and pretends not to eavesdrop.
Then Moffat says “Well, we could do it anyway.”
‘Day of the Doctor’ is a weirdly schizophrenic beast. It’s an episode that’s steeped in nostalgia, whilst simultaneously pretending it’s not. It’s also a game-changer, not in the sense of redefining who the Doctor is, but what he’s done. Just as Davies pulled the rug out from under the collective feet of John Nathan Turner and every one of his predecessors, so Moffat’s done the same with Davies. How? Well, basically he changes the end of the Time War.
There is a thing in fandom where you airbrush bits and pieces from continuity if you don’t like them. So, for example, the Eighth Doctor’s ‘half human’ remark is frequently ignored by many people, who don’t like its implications and therefore attribute it to rule one. Some fans take it further still, and disregard the 1996 film entirely because of what it did to the Master. With ‘The Day of the Doctor’, Moffat’s working with extremes. The Doctor has been a genocidal warmonger since the day Eccleston took the hand of Piper and told her to run. The implication is that the Doctor has done dreadful things, and today they all got undone.
Except they didn’t. Because history probably isn’t changed – it’s just completed, and this was the day we found out. It’s not that Gallifrey was once destroyed and now isn’t; it was never destroyed in the first place. But crucially, come the end of the episode, the Doctor doesn’t know. There is a telling line halfway through when the War Doctor – John Hurt in sparkling, likeable form – talks to Clara. “How many worlds”, he says to her, “has his regret saved?”. And despite the rewriting of history (or, at least, history as we knew it), there’s a bitter irony in Hurt’s realisation that he’s going to forget everything that’s happened, because of contrasting time streams. Tennant’s Doctor, too, is forced to retreat once more into the dark shell he inhabited for much of the latter half of his run. Only Smith’s Doctor is able to escape with his memories seemingly intact, even if he then starts experiencing hallucinations in the middle of the National Gallery, ending the episode convinced he’s seen Tom Baker.
One of the nice things about ‘Day of the Doctor’ is that it doesn’t overstretch itself. Oh, the set pieces are intact, although the episode mirrors The Empire Strikes Back by putting the most impressive stuff in the opening act. Smith dangling from the edge of the TARDIS wasn’t exactly an easy secret to keep, so Moffat places it more or less at the beginning and makes it completely incidental to the plot. Also incidental – but warmly nostalgic – is the fact that Clara is now teaching at Coal Hill School. She’s clearly recovered from her thousand life ordeal, and is happy to pop off in the TARDIS at a moment’s notice.
Unshackled from her previous role as a McGuffin, Clara’s fun to watch, but she has to share the limelight. Jemma Redgrave returns as Kate Stewart, who’s apparently been living with Anne Robinson and raiding her wardrobe. Kate spends a good chunk of the episode arguing with herself from opposites side of a table, before three British character actors stick their hands in the air and all the lights go out. It’s like watching one of Beckett’s television plays.
Less nattily turned out than Redgrave is Billie Piper, who returns as a sentient consciousness that possesses three times as much personality as Rose and at least twice as much charm. If that seems harsh, bear in mind that I still have to undergo local anaesthetic before I can sit through ‘Tooth and Claw’. It’s the first time Piper’s been watchable in Who since 2005, and if she spends most of the episode impersonating Suranne Jones, her scenes are all the better for it. Even the Quantum Leap undertones (an invisible guide that only the War Doctor can see and hear) are somehow unimportant when she’s so downright sparkly, and it’s a telling reminder that our Billie can act when she’s got the right material.
Tennant’s Doctor doesn’t have to interact with Rose, which makes his presence far more enjoyable. Instead, he’s romancing Joanna Page, playing a Queen Elizabeth who would seem more at home in The History of Tom Jones, one suspects, than at court. There are picnics and countryside frolics, and then the Doctor meets a Zygon horse. And then there’s a fez, thrown repeatedly through a big swirly thing.
The problem with the Zygon story is that it begins as the main storyline but then gets relegated to the sidelines when we realise that this is actually about the Time War, and having nothing to do, Moffat doesn’t know how to resolve things. So he ends with a bunch of characters in a vault brokering a peace deal that we presume was successful, because that’s the last we hear about it. They have a role in the morality play, for certain, and their use of technology is something of a Chekhov’s gun, but overall you get the feeling that Moffat wanted the unavoidably phallic Zygons purely because he wanted the Zygons, and not because he had anything he really wanted to do with them. One of the great, criminally underused monsters of Classic Who is thus relegated to a forgettable storyline that’s been seen by millions of people who probably won’t understand what all the fuss was about.
But if the Zygons are a disappointment, the interplay between the three Doctors makes up for it. Things start badly, with unnecessary gags about sonic screwdriver length (“Compensating for something?” mutters Tennant at seeing his successor’s longer model). But then they’re joined by an earlier incarnation and the story shifts up a gear. The three exploit their strengths to the full, making the most of every environment they occupy and turning in very different, but still very physical performances. As a result their scenes together are easily the best in the story, even if some of the dialogue is obvious and rather poorly performed (when the Tenth Doctor remarks that he doesn’t like the new TARDIS interior, one suspects that the look of indignation from Smith stems from a knowledge that he managed it better in ‘Closing Time’.)
Still, it works. Hurt’s performance helps tremendously. There was a concern that the War Doctor would be a grumpy, battle scarred veteran or a dark and sinister, almost unrecognisable figure. Instead Hurt plays him like a prospective father-in-law on a stag weekend, with a touch of Midsomer Murders. You could almost visualise him poaching rabbits from a nearby forest before seeing something he shouldn’t and winding up face down in a patch of mud, skewered by one of his own bear traps. His story has a beginning, a middle and an end – an end we finally get to see, even if the regeneration borrows directly from the very first, and is cut slightly short.
It is by this point in the story – and the subsequent scene with Baker – that you should have realised Moffat’s not taking himself too seriously. And it’s when he’s doing that that he’s at his best. Hence there is some dreadful but ultimately forgivable shoehorning. Classic lines are dumped in with as much abandon as they were in An Adventure in Time and Space, but here they work precisely because ‘Day of the Doctor’ is ultimately all about demolishing that fourth wall. As a result, the silliness all feels like part of the fun – the sort of sketches you might have at a Christmas party, and this is after all a fifty-year anniversary. I was even able to smile when Tennant discusses Trenzelore with Smith as if it’s a prospective holiday location. “We need a new destination,” he remarks as he enters his TARDIS at the end of the episode. “‘Cause I don’t wanna go”. Whereupon Smith turns to Coleman and quips “He always says that.”
It’s a story with all eleven Doctors, however briefly they may appear (and however unconvincing those cardboard cutouts / wax models they used at the end – I don’t think it was coincidental that the National Gallery is only a couple of miles from Madame Tussauds). We cried for a glimpse of Eccleston, and we got him, and somehow it didn’t matter that it was old footage with dialogue borrowed from ‘The Parting of the Ways’. Even Capaldi put in a brief appearance, albeit in an extreme close-up (the kind that would have made Wayne Campbell proud) in a scene that was most likely borrowed from The Thick of It. And the inevitable arguments that are going to follow about whether Hurt counts as Eight or Nine are entirely missing the point – although if we must, let’s call him 8a and leave it at that.
So, too, must we ignore any sense of significance at Baker’s appearance. The scarf foreshadowed it, for certain, but his cryptic remarks about who he really was can be put down to Moffat having a joke. If the rediscovery of Gallifrey shifts the narrative focus and gives Capaldi something to do for the next couple of years, then so be it – but whatever Moffat’s posturing about “the terrible old man” and “the children he becomes”, you get the feeling that he was looking at ‘The Five Doctors’ – which Gareth describes as “more of a romp” – for inspiration. And for all the lingering over the big red button there was a sense of joy about this episode, both in its unlikely happy ending and in the final shot where the Doctor joins his previous incarnations looking up at the night sky. And what we were left with, when the extended credits had rolled, was a story about the Doctor as he was, and is, and should be, and sort of never won’t be…sort of thing. A story of importance, and one that satisfies on a narrative level, but one that was delivered with a consistent knowing wink to the audience, and a reminder that this is, after all, a television programme, and should be enjoyed as such. From Steven Moffat. Who knew?