The expectations for the 50th anniversary special episode of “Doctor Who” were, of course, outsized. After so many years (and so many doctors), we expected a sense of history, time travel, and, of course, adventure packed into a commercial-free hour and twenty minutes. We needed some details explained (though not everything — “Spoilers!”) and some new mysteries planted for the coming season. We needed a lot — and, for the most part, we got it. While this wasn’t the episode for “Doctor Who” newbies to jump in on, fans of the show were rewarded with allusions to the past — lots of them.
While I’m still trying to absorb all of the story that was jammed into this episode, I have to take a moment now to fully appreciate how much of the show was an homage to the entire run of “Doctor Who.” We had the big, bulbous circles of the original sets (they even showed up as modern art in the gallery), that traveling fez, Jack Harkness’ parting gift, Tom Baker’s scarf on Osgood, “Bad Wolf” references to Rose (who wasn’t really Rose but kinda was), Clara teaching at Coal Hill (Susan Foreman’s former school), a sign bearing the name I.M. Foreman (the Gallifreyan monk, a Third Doctor reference), a cameo from Fourth Doctor Tom Baker (as a curator), even the old-school show intro and so, so much more.
I’m looking forward to watching this episode again from the beginning, as every time I looked down to scrawl a detail I missed something. Steven Moffat gave fans of the show a truly amazing gift by loading the episode full of “remember that?” moments, and that was even before we got to the meat of the matter, a mind-bending, time-jumping extravaganza that had embedded in it a directive from the show’s earliest episodes — real history.
This isn’t a recap, and thank God for that, as it would be a bear to explain how three Doctors come into being in the same place and time. Suffice it to say that we are taken back (and forth) to the moment that has scarred the Doctor more than any other — the moment (and Moment) when he decides to destroy Gallifrey, an act of mercy that still shamed the Doctor to such a degree he divorced himself from his own title — a convenience that explained the presence of John Hurt (as the Warrior, he was the Doctor who would not call himself the Doctor) but also spoke to the character’s suffering. This might be one of the most achingly sad episode of “Doctor Who,” but only because we think that the fixed-points-in-time argument surely applies to the destruction of Gallifrey. Amazingly, Moffat has somehow decided to rewrite history — but in such a way we don’t feel cheated. That, in and of itself, is quite a feat.
As the Warrior wrestles with his conscience (and the Moment’s conscience, which gave Billie Piper a lovely cameo to remind us of Rose and gently move the plot along), it’s ironic to realize that he’s the “young” Doctor who has yet to make a terrible decision — one that lives inside David Tennant (10th Doctor, who regrets) and Matt Smith (11th Doctor, who forgets). John Hurt is brilliantly cast as the Warrior faced with the Time Lord’s bleakest, most horrible moment. But the moment when Smith, Tennant and Hurt face a projection of Gallifrey on the cusp of destruction is remarkably understated and all the more affecting for it.
Of course, we can count on Impossible Girl Clara to save the day. She was born to save the Doctor, after all, even if the Warrior doesn’t quite understand it. But for a while, we have no reason to believe anything could possibly happen other than the awful inevitability of Gallifrey and its billions of innocent children being destroyed.
These moments, as the Doctors come together to hold hands (literally) as they push the button, are agonizing and beautifully executed. If you didn’t at least get choked up, you are stone. That Moffat manages to change this result (and yet not change the Doctors’ understanding of it) is a great reward that alleviates some of the darkness we saw last season but doesn’t rob the show of the more sophisticated throughlines we’ve grown used to seeing. It’s really only when you watch early episodes of the show, specifically Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor, that you remember that the show was once more of a rip-roaring good time, with more of an emphasis on adventure than dire, lasting consequence. Both have their place in “Doctor Who,” but it’s hard not to call recent episodes more resonant.
That old sense of fun was seen here in limited amounts, mainly in Tennant’s dalliance with Elizabeth I and the banter between Smith and Tennant (“Sand shoes!”). It was lightweight fun that felt a little jarring but really, we needed given how heavy the episode ultimately became. And really, who wasn’t happy to see Tennant back in action? When he said he didn’t want to go to Trenzalore, we don’t want him to go, either.
If there’s any grumble, and it’s not much of one, it would have been nice to see more cameos. Granted, some people can’t logically come back (Amy Pond) and other stars might have been booked. But the ones we got worked brilliantly — and the choice use of old footage wasn’t bad.
Some moments in the episode were laugh out loud funny, as when Elizabeth I admitted she knew how to outsmart the Zygons (“Men!”), the Doctors applaud their ingenuity on calculating how to open a door when Clara proves it to be unlocked, and the reference to how Americans can’t be trusted with the ability to warp history (“You’ve seen their movies!”). The episode truly fired on all cylinders, from laughter to tears. Not bad for less than two hours of running time.
Though the time travel scifi logic may take a while to unravel and became pretty head spinning as the show progressed, true fans will probably be watching this episode many, many more times and I’m guessing Moffat has an answer to every question (though admittedly, I suspect at least a few answers stretch credulity, even by scifi standards). After all, there are just too many millions of fans to whom he must answer. I’m pretty sure he, like the Doctors (who will ultimately forget they did it) scored a solid win.
What did you think of the 50th anniversary special?
Also — for those wondering how we got John Hurt into the mix in the first place, watch this short prequel: