On Saturday, “Doctor Who” celebrated its 50th anniversary with the global simulcast of “The Day of the Doctor.” Liane Bonin Starr already reviewed it for us over the weekend, and I have a few thoughts of my own coming up just as soon as I can just walk past a fez…
Though Steven Moffat has written most of my favorite modern “Doctor Who” episodes, I’ve grown weary of some of his favorite themes and narrative tricks the longer his showrunning tenure has gone on. I was really underwhelmed by the most recent episode, “The Name of the Doctor,” which was too busy creating and solving puzzles for most of the emotional moments to land, and since I assumed “Day of the Doctor” would be a sequel to that, explaining how the Doctor saves Clara after she saves him, my anticipation wasn’t incredibly high, even with the return of David Tennant and Billie Piper.
Instead, Moffat either decided to scrap the Clara cliffhanger or will deal with it later (Christmas episode?), and let the anniversary special focus on the single most important event of the modern era, albeit one that took place right before it began: the Doctor killing all the Time Lords and Daleks to end the Time War.
When Russell Davies introduced that idea in his first season, he both simplified the series’ mythology for newcomers and gave the Ninth Doctor(*) a clear emotional core: he cares about Earth, and his human companions, more than ever because they’re all he really has left in the universe. But Davies couldn’t resist bringing the Daleks back, first a few, then pretty much all of them, until it was clear the Doctor had murdered every member of his own race for nothing. And though Moffat hasn’t touched on this part of the story all that much, it still rang false for me – and I say that as someone who, again, watched virtually none of the original series, and therefore has no attachment to Gallifrey. It seemed like something that someone with the power of the Doctor – especially the current Doctor, who’s been pretty free and easy with the idea of rewriting history – ought to look into, and it made a perfect subject, from an emotional and historical perspective, for the 50th anniversary show.
(*) Among the many shames of Christopher Eccleston leaving the series unhappily is that Nine couldn’t be part of this episode. Because he came right after John Hurt’s War Doctor – and click here for Moffat’s explanation of why Hurt doesn’t alter the numbering of the Doctors, as well as the web short “The Night of the Doctor” – the genocide was fresher, and more painful, for him than for Ten or Eleven. He was defined by guilt far more than Ten, and he would have made a stronger emotional contrast with Eleven, even as the episode had a lot of fun with the ways Ten and Eleven are similar.
Recent Moffat episodes have been fairly dark, but this was for the most part a light affair, not only with the pairing of the immature, gangly Ten and Eleven, but with the disapproval and dismay the War Doctor had for them. The solution for how to resolve the self-destruct scenario was smart, and while Moffat essentially recycled the climax of “Blink” with the way the Doctors got the Daleks to destroy each other, the emotions of the moment – with archival footage of all the previous Doctors, plus the briefest glimpse of Peter Capaldi as the incoming Twelfth Doctor – were so strong that the repetition didn’t matter. (The problem with a lot of recent Moffat is the way it’s valued the cleverness over the heart; something like his script for “The Doctor Dances” is perfect because it features both in spades.)
Liane ran down a lot of the Easter eggs peppered throughout the special for longtime fans like herself, and I have to say that even as a newbie, seeing an older Tom Baker pop up for a few moments – with the explanation that, in his later years, the Doctor will attempt retirement by trying on some familiar faces – gave me goosebumps. In all, the special was that rare thing that caretakers of long-running properties so often talk about but are rarely able to pull off: an adventure with plenty to offer for fans old and new.
What did everybody else think? A lot of my recent reviews have been peppered with comments from people just as dissatisfied by recent Moffat as I’ve been; did the anniversary special work as well for you as it did for me?