Number Six: ‘The Day of the Doctor’ (2013)
I have a problem today.
In the first instance, I don’t know that there’s a lot more I can say about this episode that I didn’t cover in the review I did back in 2013. I wrote reams. I wonder if we might have exhausted the list of available topics. But I can’t leave this blank, so we’ll try. And if we fail, we’ll fail at doing the wrong thing, as opposed to – oh, you can see what I’m doing there.
I once read a musicology volume in which the author decried the concept of summer novelty records, likening them to holiday romances. It was one thing, he surmised, dancing to the strains of ‘Agadoo’ or the bloody Macarena in an open air Spanish nightclub ten yards from the beach, the floor a pulsing melee of sweat and energy and the Margaritas flowing like a river. But when you hear the same record on a wet November afternoon in a nail salon in the middle of Slough, it’s the metaphorical equivalent of seeing that bikini-clad beauty you pulled in the Seychelles slouching round a supermarket in jogging trousers and a filthy t-shirt accompanied by a screaming child. It kind of takes a lot of the romance out of the situation.
There was always a chance that we were too forgiving with this episode. It was the peak of a year of celebration – retrospectives, revisitations and reinvention. Old Doctors were given new contexts, new Doctors reconciled their pasts, and one Doctor we didn’t even know existed appeared from nowhere (or at least one of Steven Moffat’s production meetings). And it didn’t stop with the characters. If ‘The Name of the Doctor’ was a game-changer, the anniversary story consolidated things by taking everything we thought we knew about eight years of history and rewriting the ending. Simultaneously, the Ninth Doctor is off the hook, because he doesn’t remember any of it. The darkness of the Eccleston series is thus intact, but it becomes more about the memory of events, rather than the events themselves. Or, as the War Doctor puts it, “How many worlds has that regret saved?”.
At other times, the rewriting would be annoying. When it happened in ‘The Name of the Doctor’ it was annoying. When it happened in ‘Listen’ it was downright insulting. But somehow, in ‘Day of the Doctor’, it works. Perhaps it’s because the twist, while smacking of the clever-cleverness that is endemic throughout much of Moffat’s revisionism, is one that at least concentrates on the last decade of the show, rather than trying to change everything that happened before. Somehow that’s more agreeable. There are two stories here that are basically about one story, the Zygons’ gambit seemingly incongruous when compared to the War Doctor’s inner struggle, until the nuclear stalemate becomes a metaphor for the Time War, and the alien technology that allows for the Zygon invasion in the first place becomes its unlikely solution.
But it’s not all about structure. There is a whole lot to love in ‘Day of the Doctor’. Production values are slick (the opening sequence has Smith dangling from the edge of the TARDIS as it is airlifted into Central London) but not at the expense of story. Tellingly, Moffat knows when to rein it in, keeping the action primarily Earth-bound – at least for the first hour or so – and only really branching out in the climactic final act. What follows is a consistency and unity that gives the narrative room to breathe without having to over-reach itself in order to cram in another set piece. Crucially, this is a story that doesn’t try to do much – in many ways, dare we say it, a story that actually doesn’t do very much at all. There are plenty of lengthy conversations between the three Doctors, which is precisely the sort of interplay that’s lacking in, say, ‘The Two Doctors’. Supporting characters get breathing space, if not an awful lot of development. It’s not exactly vintage Pertwee, but next to the breakneck pace to which we’ve become accustomed, it’s a refreshing change.
Then there’s Hurt himself, trailblazing across the screen with all the charisma and personality we’d expect from such an established veteran. Hurt’s gone on record as saying he didn’t have a clue what he was actually doing, but somehow that doesn’t matter at all. He conjures a side to the Doctor that is both new and instantly recognisable, the grumpiness of an embittered old soldier fused with the upstanding morality of a righteous man. Somewhere there is a universe full of stories about the War Doctor, except that most of them will be set on Gallifrey, and most of them will be thoroughly miserable. Perhaps you should be careful what you wish for.
Earlier in this piece I mentioned novelty records. You can’t polish a turd, but you can give a mediocre gift some temporary sheen by putting it in a nice box. That was the risk. But I watched ‘Day of the Doctor’ again a while back – free of the trappings of the fifty year celebrations, free of the fanfares and the parties and the general sense of wonder. I watched it when I was feeling particularly jaded, and it’s still good. When the Doctor walks through the TARDIS in slow motion at the end of the story, admitting that yes, of course he dreams, we are tempted to dream with him. The cardboard cutouts are still laughable, but what ‘Day of the Doctor’ achieves in fifty years is a loving testament to an established TV legend, that touches on its roots while avoiding the suffocating fog of unnecessary nostalgia. And it has Tom Baker. Really, what more could you want in seventy-five minutes?
Cameron’s Episode: ‘Army of Ghosts’ / ‘Doomsday‘