The tenth anniversary of Doctor Who didn’t give rise to an “anniversary special” as such; I don’t suppose the concept had taken root properly by then. But The Three Doctors, the story that kicked off the series’ tenth season (actually in 1972!) was to set the precedent that would by and large be adhered to every time a major anniversary would roll around thereafter; ostentatiously assembling all three incarnations of the character to date, the story also set them against a foe from the Doctor’s own planet’s history. Omega, the man responsible for bringing time travel to the Time Lords, had become a fallen angel, a man forgotten by and desperate for revenge against those he thought had wronged him.
Birthdays since then have been a hit and miss affair: 1988 saw the series on its downers, and although the 25th anniversary made much of the “silver” aspect, previous Doctors were hard to come by and the back-references to Gallifrey and the Doctor’s past were confined to the Nemesis statue, the ancient weapon invoked by the Doctor to destroy once and for all his second-greatest enemy (the Daleks had been dispatched in similar fashion a few weeks earlier). The fortieth anniversary was celebrated by Big Finish in the form of the audio drama Zagreus; a number of Doctors were involved, and once again the action involved characters and situations that related back to Time Lord history, but the result was generally thought disappointing. The thirtieth anniversary was soon enough after the series had departed for ex-producer John Nathan-Turner to assemble multiple Doctors and companions to once again face an errant Time Lord on the television, but the story was Dimensions in Time so we shan’t waste any more time thinking about it.
The Five Doctors, then, the twentieth anniversary special – and the only anniversary that had hitherto been celebrated by the appearance of such a special – is The Day of the Doctor’s only true precedent, the only story by which a full comparison can be made, and the only episode which The Day of the Doctor truly has to live up to. Steven Moffat even invoked memories of it when first he began to talk about the writing of his own anniversary episode a year and more ago.
But what we also knew about Steven Moffat going into this, is that he’s a man who likes to use a formula as a tool to do his own thing – and that, like Robert Holmes before him, he’s also a man who’s not averse to rewriting history. So did The Day of the Doctor live up to expectations? Would it press all the right buttons? And what would be its effect on the past and future of Doctor Who?
The good news is that, with a couple of only minor niggles, the Grand Moff Steven has exceeded all expectations. Spectacular (and spectacularly daft!) airborne action sequence aside, The Day of the Doctor is a little slow to get started, given Moffat’s usual pre-titles whirligig foundation-laying, and while that wasn’t a problem (far from it, in fact), it did fly in the face of expectation – and it did also therefore involve a sequence in which you’d leave characters in locations for minutes at a time before you might come back to them and pick up again exactly where you’d left off. There was a danger that a complicated series of temporal events might seem even more complicated and rather needlessly so, because the editing wasn’t tighter and the thrust of the story more urgent; conversely, it is probably the case that the more leisurely pace of Moffat’s introduction to the various elements at play would have enabled a more casual audience to keep up with the chaos more easily, and given the huge and expanded worldwide audience for this story, that was almost certainly a good thing. Okay, so perhaps that minor niggle wasn’t such a niggle after all.
The opening sequences also involved a lovely bit of deceit that foreshadowed an even lovelier deception later on in the story, and both examples saw Moffat playing somewhat against type (or against the received wisdom of his type) in a fashion that may well have deflected the criticisms that people usually lay at his door. In the first instance, the expectation building across this extended opening montage was that once the story proper was underway, each of the two stories being told in “our” Doctor’s future and past would be forgotten, and superseded by another plot entirely. Nothing could have been further from the truth, as both the Zygon and Time War storylines played out across the entire episode to a (more or less) full conclusion. Which brings me to my second minor niggle: that next to the Time War plot thread, the Zygon story seemed just a little too frivolous and lacking in significance. Having said that, the way in which the Zygon story’s resolution foreshadowed the resolution to the Time War plot, was not only joyously played out, but also unexpected and yet entirely logical, and an even better example of Moffat heading his critics off in advance. It’s often said that Moffat’s stories resolve in rather too pat or illogical a fashion (the dreaded term deus ex machina being bandied about on such occasions), and yet in The Day of the Doctor not only did the resolution appear logically and yet entirely unpredictably, the fact that it was so unpredicted misdirected you from realising that he’d borrowed it wholesale from his previous story Blink. Borrowing from himself is something that even an anniversary special can’t stop Moffat from doing, but it’s nice that Mark Gatiss (who furnished Moffat with the resolution to Blink in the first place) gets his own little piece of the anniversary special itself.
So there’s the second little niggle assuaged.
It won’t be until several years have passed, Steven Moffat’s been replaced, and Matt Smith’s just a twinkle in Tom Baker’s eye that we’ll know for sure how successful and how resonant The Day of the Doctor will ultimately be, but insofar as pressing the right anniversary buttons are concerned, Moffat has both ostentatiously and surreptitiously managed to hit just about every one.
Of course, the first thing you want is multiple Doctors, and Moffat delivered that in spades. By the end of the episode we’d seen all thirteen iterations of the Time Lord, and while it would have been impractical both on a production level (they aren’t getting any younger you know) and in terms of simply writing that many characters into the story (even if it had stretched to 90 minutes, there wouldn’t have been room for everybody) to have given fuller roles to all involved, we got to see them, each and every one, and that was the important thing. The closing shot of Matt Smith taking his place in the line-up, as static as a television budget necessitated it being, was enough to bring a tear to even the most jaded eye, and coming so hard upon the nod to the past of Tom Baker’s cameo, the last few minutes of The Day of the Doctor were devastating, beautiful and filled with joy. Exactly what was asked for. Between this and The Name of the Doctor, our anniversary wishes were very well catered to.
But Tom Baker wasn’t the only surprise, nor was he the only past Doctor to find himself more fully involved. One of the biggest surprises smuggled in to the production was our first example (thanks to the vocal talents of John Guilor) of William Hartnell’s first Doctor getting to say the name “Gallifrey” (lovely to see the first Doctor given such import here, as he was in The Name of the Doctor before), and another small but affecting touch was seeing Christopher Eccleston’s incarnation given a brief but significant full-screen shot in among the past Doctor’s “in-vision” cameos. He might have declined an actual appearance in the special, but it was a nice touch to see this most important of the new series Doctors being served so well, with such a subtle but respectful touch. We may conclude that the “cameo” that Eccleston turned down was the scene in which Baker appeared (and what tantalising thoughts Baker’s lines conjured up) rather than the full-blooded part in proceedings that the “War Doctor” played, and so even the ninth Doctor’s refusal to participate ended up being a blessing to the production. Peter Capaldi’s close-up and single line of dialogue might not have given us many clues as to how his interpretation will unfold (we don’t even get to see his outfit), by by God, didn’t it send a shiver down the spine.
As for the two additional Doctors whose involvement was throughout, they were the perfect example of Steven Moffat’s deference and irreverence given voice, and indeed mirrored aspects of one another’s contribution to the story.
David Tennant, as the tenth Doctor, was the more traditionally involved. It wouldn’t have been a worthy successor to The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors if there hadn’t been banter between the incarnations, and Tennant and Smith were perfectly matched in that respect. What was absolutely lovely was seeing Moffat rewriting the dynamic as one that was far less bickersome and much more about the two iterations sharing a common delight in one another’s presence. Had Moffat simply rewritten the Troughton/Pertwee relationship of multi-Doctor stories past, it would have been entirely forgivable, and yet by choosing not to do so, he both gave himself a more difficult task in convincing us of the authenticity of a relationship we thought we knew what to expect from, but also provided us with a new template for how future Doctors’ meetings might progress. It was nothing short of joyful to see the two actors revelling in one another’s company to the degree that they did, and even if Tennant had outstayed his welcome by the end of his original tenure, there was little greater pleasure in The Day of the Doctor than seeing him back, as funny and as committed and as downright Doctorish as he was at his best.
But that wasn’t all, because not only was Steven Moffat rewriting the way we think multi-Doctor stories should be in the relationship between the two most recent incumbents – and stealing and irreverently enlarging upon some of the more minor items of Russell T Davies’ continuity in doing so, such as the tenth Doctor’s wedding to Elizabeth I – but then he shocked us into submission by stealing and irreverently enlarging upon a massive item of Russell T Davies continuity by adding John Hurt – wonderful, wonderful John Hurt – to the mix.
Moffat had said before the special aired, with regards to questions about the legitimacy of Hurt’s incarnation as well as queries about how many Doctors there had actually been, that we should all look to our DVD collections for evidence. What he didn’t mention was that we were looking for something that wasn’t there, rather than something that was. And what wasn’t there, was a Doctor for the years between McGann’s sole outing in the part, and the introduction of Eccleston nearly a decade later – nor indeed any evidence of the one regenerating into the other. The Night of the Doctor, that astonishing and surprising and touching seven minutes of red button anniversary gift that preceded The Day of the Doctor, enlightened us as to Hurt’s legitimacy (and the shade of Eccleston that Hurt appears to be regenerating into at the story’s conclusion wraps that particular anniversary gift into a gilt-edged bow as well), and the “War Doctor” persona that McGann’s successor adopts takes The Day of the Doctor into a wholly unexpected and unprecedented territory. The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors might each have meddled a little with Time Lord mythology, but The Day of the Doctor takes Gallifreyan legend by the scruff of its neck and shakes it for all its worth.
The Time War, that unanticipated, unexplained and untouchable event that forms the back-story to Russell T Davies’ five years of Doctor Who, isn’t just given a face – a visual embodiment – but it is also given a new solution too. Steven Moffat has not only dared to assault the unassailable, but he has based perhaps the most important and what will surely be the most scrutinised story in Doctor Who’s fifty years on something we were never supposed to see. Davies will be cackling with righteous amusement somewhere in Manchester right now; at least I hope so. Because not only has Moffat rewritten the unwritable, he has managed to do it with due deference to his predecessor’s past; all of Davies’ Doctors still stand, thanks to a quirk of anniversary multi-Doctor protocol, and both Eccleston and Tennant – and not to mention the majority of Smith’s – tenures will never be aware that history has been reworked to the extent it has. The Day of the Doctor is probably the bravest script Moffat has ever delivered, and rightly so, and it delivers the results he wants it to with confidence. Here is a writer who might not always live up to the expectations we had of him, and yet who surpasses them when it really matters. The perfect writer for the job of overseeing the fiftieth birthday of our favourite show.
Moreover, Steven Moffat has also lived up to his promise to provide us with an episode that looks to the future as well as the past, for although he hasn’t gone as far as to restore Gallifrey to the Doctor Who universe, he has moved it one step away from the irrevocable time lock in which it was incarcerated; the real beauty of where The Day of the Doctor has left Doctor Who isn’t in that we will now follow the exploits of our hero as he searches for home, but that we’ll now be following the exploits of a hero who isn’t in grief for one. The “Time War guilt” that has plagued the last three incarnations has become an optimism, a certainty that home is out there somewhere tied to an uncertainty about how and where, that should leave the series in an excellent place to begin again with Peter Capaldi’s interpretation. The journey has truly begun again in a subtle but constructive way. Marry this with the idea that Capaldi’s thirteenth Doctor will almost certainly be suffering from a “last life crisis”, and you have all the makings of a thoroughly fascinating few years. Could we possibly have asked for anything more from The Day of the Doctor?
And I haven’t even mentioned the fan service paid in the opening shot, or the beautiful, charming Jenna Coleman, or even the brilliant Billie Piper; so good to see Moffat working Piper into the story, even if it’s only as a projected version of the Bad Wolf Rose Tyler, rather than an impossible-to-explain appearance from the actual Rose, which might well have served to imbalance credibility. Piper was so instrumental in ensuring the success of Doctor Who’s 2005 regeneration, her role in this story is so fundamental and yet so unconventional it’s highly appropriate. As for Smith, Tennant and Hurt, they’re as sublime as we knew they would be. ‘Nuff said.
Is The Day of the Doctor the perfect story for the series’ fiftieth anniversary? Only time will tell. But it exceeded my expectations in ways as unpredictable and delightful as only Steven Moffat can provide, and even the 3D elements weren’t as distracting as they might have been, for what the episode’s long and much dissected two-dimensional afterlife will be. I can only predict that The Day of the Doctor will come to be seen as one of Doctor Who’s most glorious adventures. It is the anniversary present we all needed. And if it wasn’t the one we wanted, we even had the entirely sublime The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot to make up for it.
And we still have Matt Smith’s final story, and the resolution to four years of unparalleled interwoven storytelling, to come. Roll on Christmas.