In a candid interview for Doctor Who Magazine’s fiftieth anniversary special, Steven Moffat described writing The Day Of The Doctor as “the single most ambitious episode of the show that’s ever been made.” Ambitious not only in the scale, length and dimension of the drama; it is the audacious narrative that carries the greatest burden to deliver. An all bells and whistles tribute to the past for which the storyline plays second fiddle would have been the safer option. A sure-fire ratings winner even for discerning fans it would have been comfort food for a miserable day, an alternative to The Five Doctors. But SM promised viewers a paradigm shift and a change of direction for the show. A storyteller himself, so very different in personality from the showman that was John Nathan-Turner – for Moffat the narrative is primary. Not just the inner story of the episode but the arc and motifs of the entire show lay at the forefront of his thinking. So did The Day Of The Doctor succeed in providing fresh impetus to the show and in setting a new agenda for Moffat and his successors?
A story shrouded in secrecy, one thing that the producer was happy to reveal in advance was that its focus would be uniquely on the Doctor himself. This would be his story. Since the show was resurrected in 2005 the shadow of the time war and the loss of Gallifrey cast heavy over the Doctor’s shoulder and we were left in no doubt that he was ashamed of his role in the demise of his own people. This self loathing was brilliantly conveyed by Christopher Eccleston transforming the Doctor into a tragic hero. David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor was less angry yet just as emotional about the consequences of his actions. As for the eleventh Doctor – it seemed that the intensity of the timelord’s guilt had eased. However, when confronted by the War Doctor in The Name Of The Doctor, the viewer was promised for the anniversary special an explanation and resolution of those dark days in the Doctor’s past.
The excellent Night of the Doctor minisode provided a further clue that the theme of the anniversary special would be the redemption of the Doctor, specifically John Hurt’s incarnation. The youthfulness of Hurt’s face that greeted the sisterhood of Karn makes it clear that by the time he steals The Moment from Gallifrey, the Doctor had already been fighting for years. The War Doctor we meet in the special has become tired of fighting. Becoming a fire-fighter was no different from being a doctor in its lack of a lasting outcome. The Day of the Doctor was to be his final act, a decisive critical blow that would mean the genocide of his own people for the salvation of countless other planets and galaxies. The “Doctor no more” that heralded the War Doctor’s arrival on Karn has been replaced by a “no more” with a great big full stop. Being a warrior was no more successful that being a Doctor.
According to the general the Omega arsenal of forbidden weapons had all been used against the Daleks bar one and it is tempting and horrific to imagine the Hurt Doctor being the one who used them. In the much maligned 1978 story Underworld we learnt that Time Lord science and weaponry had inadvertently caused the destruction of Minyos which led to their policy of non-intervention. Now it is the Time Lords themselves who have reopened the armoury. The War Doctor’s non doctor-like credentials are reinforced on his first appearance in the special. When asking the soldier for his weapon and expertly using it we are a world apart from the Doctor who rarely wields a weapon let alone use one. Etching the words “no more” into the wall is an emotional statement but also the realisation that there are no more weapons to try, the well has run dry and yet the battle continues. The only option left is The Moment, the final solution.
Hurt’s Doctor in the special is far more sympathetic then we were led to believe. There is a gentle authority to his voice and recognition of the evil he is inflicting in the name of peace. Touchingly he cannot bear to trigger The Moment with the TARDIS in close proximity. The personified conscience of the Moment does not need to work too hard given that the Hurt Doctor is already deferential to his past and future incarnations and critical of his own modus operandum, considering himself unworthy of the attribution Doctor. His methods are almost excused by the storyline as the tenth and eleventh doctors agree to operate the Moment with him on the grounds of a lesser of two evils philosophy. Even more ethically challenging for Clara is the War Doctor pointing out to her that the regrets of his future selves have created much good in the universe. The tale is therefore somewhat watered down to one of redemption from past choices as opposed to salvation from himself.
Over the years of the show despite the largely pacifist message and approach of the Doctor there have been numerous occasions where he has acted against his own principles. The most shocking example being the destruction of Skaro by the seventh Doctor (Remembrance of the Daleks). Pertwee and the two Bakers would often show little qualms in being physical (the shooting of an Ogron by in The Day of the Daleks is edited in last years remastered DVD version to overcome the impression that the Doctor killed him unprovoked). Even the Hartnell Doctor in the very first adventure tries to smash in a caveman’s skull. Post War Doctor, mercy is a value that the Doctor sometimes disregards (Human Nature/The Family of Blood). Therefore despite the minisode the contrast between the Hurt Doctor and the others is variegated. The Doctor has always been a flawed hero and will remain so even after the events of this episode. The change that takes place in the Doctor is existential and temporary, limited to the immediate aftermath of the episode. For that one day when they realise they can at least attempt to save Gallifrey, the Doctors feel a fleeting sense of release from their burden of guilt. In the words of the War Doctor, failing whilst trying to do the right thing is better than succeeding doing the wrong thing. If Eccleston had been able to take up the offer of a role, imagine the wonder of seeing his particular Doctor find forgiveness for himself. Whilst it was sad to see Hurt only begin to regenerate into the ninth Doctor, how much more gratifying would it be to have seen him shed that “Lonely god” self portrait.
The resolution to the story is a pragmatic one in keeping with the opening quote from Marcus Aurelius by Clara in the Coal Hill School classroom “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” Throughout the fifty years of the show it has been the Doctor’s intellect that has triumphed over the various evils he has faced and this special episode was no exception or radical departure in that respect. However, it is an intelligence that is active and not theoretical, a slight against academia of the ivory towers philosophical variety. Once again the Doctor’s cleverness finds a way out from what appeared at first to be an unwinnable situation. The complexity of The Moment’s operating mechanism when replaced by a simple red button is just as hard to operate because, conscience pricked, the three Doctors are immobilised.
It was inevitable that The Moment would choose a companion to be the interface. It fittingly selected Rose in her Bad Wolf guise as the embodiment of both the ideal companion and the TARDIS. But were it not for the draw of returning Billie Piper for the anniversary, arguably Steven Moffat might have opted for Idris. Piper’s role was incidental and may have disappointed fans of Rose. Actually as it turns out, Clara, the current companion is more effective than the weapon itself in bringing the Doctor to his senses. It is only when she is with the Doctor’s that The Moment is confident enough to be ready to tempt the Doctor with the red button. That the Doctor requires companions is certainly not new (even the daleks acknowledged this in Asylum of the Daleks) and reflects an increasing focus on the companions’ role as saviour, from Rose as Bad Wolf to Clara as The Impossible Girl. The Moment works through the Rose interface, the tenth and eleventh future doctors and Clara to save Gallifrey from the War Doctor’s devastating actions. But without Rose for Ten and Clara for Eleven the plan would have backfired and the doctors would have fallen together in pressing the button.
The paradigm shift that Moffat hinted at centres around the consequence of the alternative timeline in which “Gallifrey Falls No More” And herein lies a genuine and complete about turn. The special ends with the Doctor admitting that his dream, his reason for living, is to go back home the long way around. No more being a wanderer in the fourth dimension or a man on the run from his people. The Doctor is now seeking to find his way home. The contrast from the past is heightened by a comparison with the ending of the 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors where the fifth Doctor makes a hasty exit from Gallifrey “after all, that’s how it all started”. This radical departure from the original vision of the show and conception of the Doctor’s character is partially retconned to all the previous Doctors as it is revealed that it is not just Matt Smith’s hundreds of years but the combined lifetime of all the doctors that have been working out the calculations to save Gallifrey. They have all forgotten this by the end of the story. But whilst it is only the eleventh and potentially twelve doctors who embark on such a quest, all his predecessors have been working to save his people. This is quite a new idea especially for the characterisation of the first Doctor.
Aside from the major twist of Gallifrey’s salvation and possible return Moffat also uses the uniqueness of the occasion to hint at new understandings of regeneration. Touchingly upon encountering Tom Baker as the Curator, there is a strong hint at the Doctor being able to choose his face from among his personal favourites. Steven Moffat even teases the possibility that a previous face (i.e. Baker’s) could be revisited. The rumour that there will be a plotline to explain Capaldi’s appearance in The Fires of Pompeii may not therefore be off the mark, although this might be the only line that provides a possible explanation. By including the “in your face” image of the twelve (thirteenth?) Doctor we are reminded of what is to come at Christmas.
The plaudits for this remarkable episode of Doctor Who suggest it will potentially be able to knock the likes of Genesis of the Daleks, City of Death and The Caves of Androzani off the perch of the all time favourite episode. Does it deserve such an accolade? As a piece of event television, simulcast in over 75 countries and for the first (and perhaps only) time broadcast in 3D and in cinemas across the UK of course it will go down as the greatest. But compared to the scale of say The Parting of the Ways or Journeys End it is not that much of a step up. The variation of spider daleks and the city of Acadia aside, we are still in TV budget territory and large chunks of the story were three way character driven scenes, not overly effects driven. This is to be celebrated as the feared triumph of form over content did not therefore materialise. Steven Moffat’s strength remains his ability to tell a fantastic story, full of clever and unexpected twists (the zygon horse, the Capaldi and Tom Baker appearances, the doctors almost working together to set off The Moment).
It deserves to be highly rated for the way in which a number of loose ends hanging over from the Russell T Davies era were tied up so simply. It gives hope that the complexities and lingering questions around the eleventh Doctor’s era will be resolved at Christmas.
In terms of the performances, the idea of Tennant and Smith being like Troughton and Pertwee in The Three Doctors was of course mistaken. The latter worked far better as a double act on account of the differences between their characters. The Hartnell “dandy and a clown” line is a world apart from Smith’s “sandshoes and granddad line” and Tennant’s “the chin”. This time around the tenth and eleventh Doctors are similar enough for Hurt to ridicule them as child like and for them to share similar the “timey wimey” turn of phrase. It is ironic that upon hearing about the inevitability of Trenzalore the tenth Doctor’s final words mirrored those of The End of Time Part 2 – “I don’t want to go”. The tenth Doctor is very much hanging on in the body of the eleventh.
John Hurt and the brief Tom Baker cameo were the stand out acts. Hurt’s Doctor ridicules the tendencies of the new series that Moffat himself appears to have tired of, such as the hilarious juxtaposition of Tennant’s “alonsy” with Smith’s “Geronimo” and Hurt’s dead pan curse. His speech to “time lords of Gallifrey and Daleks of Skaro” is a contender alongside Hartnell’s farewell to Susan, Tom Baker Ark In Space speech, McCoys Survival speech, Tennant’s “I’m a timelord” and Smith’s pandorica speech for the greatest soliloquy of the show. Hurt is given the best lines of the trinity of Doctors including the beautiful scene with Clara when he agrees that the wheezing groaning sound offers hope.
Of all the elements in the special it is the use of the Zygons that is the least convincing. At some points the Hinchcliff horror era clashes with the Slitheen like humour of recent years. The truly gruesome transformation of Kate Stewart into a Zygon seems quite disconnected from the humour of the Zygon cloning her assistant whilst bemoaning the imperfections. It is as if the show is now open to go in one of two directions, towards a more adult, Battlestar Galactica like approach (imagine a Cylon moaning about the imperfections of his copy) or a CBeebies Wizards vs Aliens approach. Which turn it takes is perhaps hinted at by the casting of Peter Capaldi.
Steven Moffat has succeeded in setting up the possibility of a new raison d’etre for the Doctor’s travels. The search for home. Whether that will signal a chance in his relationship to the earth and to human companions remains to be seen but I for one hope to see a more alien like Doctor. The opportunity for a paradigm shift has been introduced but it is too early to say whether this will make any substantial difference to the show.
To be fair there is still celebration that JNT would have been proud of in this deeply serious story and references that will delight long term fans such as the in universe explanation of the UNIT dating conundrum, the reference to the black archives and Lethbridge Stewart’s codename file “Cromer”, the use of stock phrases “reverse the polarity” and “you’ve redecorated” and of course the beautiful opening with the policeman walking past the Totters Lane sign. Perhaps the most exciting of all was the brief appearance of the roundels. Like the inability to check the obvious (the unlocked door) the doctors (including Hurt) all share in common their love and ignorance of this classic “desktop” feature.
In the end, Gallifrey or no Gallifrey, as Clara rightly observes, the Doctor will go on doing what he has always done, being a Doctor. Standing true to his vow to be “never cruel or cowardly” to “never give up, never give in”. Thanks to the brilliant creativity of Steven Moffat and the remarkable legacy of this fifty year old show we can be sure of many more adventures to come. Instead of reaching for the inhaler because of the wheezing brought on by an asthmatic or panic attack, whenever there is danger listen out for that mechanical wheezing, groaning sound (lovely nod to Terrance Dicks). For the Doctor is coming. Let us join in the cry: “the doctor will save me, the doctor will save me”