Fifty years ago Doctor Who graced our television screens. Far from Matt Smith’s rapid-fire, magpie-like Eleventh Doctor (technically twelfth), the first episode featured William Hartnell as a stern, protective old man. His companion was not an attractive action girl, such as the likes of Karen Gillian’s Amy Pond or Jenna Louise Coleman’s Clara Oswald but instead he was paired with a young girl, teaching her about the mysteries of the universe. The focus of the show was education, not action, as Carole Ann Ford’s Susan Foreman, the Doctor’s so called granddaughter, battled wits with her teachers. Science fiction, outside of the use of time travel, wasn’t a main draw of the programme. And unlike modern forty-five minute episodes (although last night’s episode ran for seventy-six), that episode only lasted for twenty-five.
Despite how the show has change since its conception it continues to be widely popular. There have been ups and downs but outside of soaps it is one of the most recognisably British television programmes in the world. It only makes sense that for something like the fiftieth anniversary Steven Moffat and his team of writers would go all out to create something that would adequately represent and celebrate the many years of enjoyment this show has given to viewers. Including a special preview with a cameo from the Eighth Doctor, Paul McGann.
The prelude itself informs us of where John Hurt’s ‘War Doctor’ slots in the sequence of regenerations but it isn’t absolutely necessary to watch it to understand what was going on in last night’s episode The Day of the Doctor. The short minisode, entitled The Night of the Doctor (shouldn’t night come after, not before? Maybe it should have been called “morning of the doctor”, but I digress) was simply a fun little addition for the fans. And it is a cool little video so check it out if you get the opportunity. Personally, I wouldn’t have minded if the Eighth Doctor was the regeneration he wanted to forget because Paul McGann is a very good actor. If Doctor Who doesn’t impress, check him out in Luther for more evidence.
And they certainly pulled out all the gambits they had for the celebration, even if not all of them were quite as effective as intended. Not only was the show screened in tens of cinemas across the UK and streamed live to over ninety countries but the entire episode, from the way the titles scrolled across the screen to the upmarket CGI, seemed more like a Hollywood film than a British television show. Clearly, BBC gave the Doctor Who a higher budget for this production and it didn’t all go to Hurt’s pocket.
Aesthetics are all very well and good but when it comes down to it, what really matters is the story and character. Despite being away for so long, Tennant hasn’t missed a beat as the Doctor and it was wonderful to see him back. Miscalculating but ultimately brilliant, the tenth Doctor was often the one who came closest to being the man of war again, being saved more than once by a companion when he was about to wipe out an entire species. One only has to view the episode The Family of Blood to see how terrifying Tennant’s Doctor could be.
Smith’s Doctor has never sank to those depths and, as the episode notes, has never quite despaired at his own darkness quite like Tennant did. Tennant travelled with companions because they seemed to complete him; they made him a better person. Smith’s Doctor is more detached, noting less the effect of the companion on him but more concerned about his corruption of their personality. And yet together they work marvellously. It’s like a buddy cop drama if both the cops were geeks and were trying to outdo each other in the nerdiest possible way. And it is adorable.
Hurt’s Doctor feels more like Carl Fredricksen from Disney/Pixar’s UP. He spends most of the episode telling off the younger looking older Doctors but ultimately comes to appreciate their ingenuity and hopefulness. He doesn’t end up appearing to be that much more of a warrior than a Doctor though, which may be the point but it rather undermines the build up. The episode itself seems determined to make us understand how terrible his actions were, as if asking how many children were killed in the destruction of Arcadia somehow makes the war more horrifying and real. The War Doctor is conflicted about the entire matter, even though killing the few to save the many is a choice that many war commanders would make. Perhaps not easily, but they would make it.
Of course, this is television. Whereas in real life, one such call may have to be made and lived with, in science fiction such a matter can be rewritten. Hurt’s Doctor steals a device to destroy Gallifrey with but the system has its own consciousness. Appearing as Billie Piper’s Bad Wolf incarnation of Rose Tyler, she attempts to convince the Doctor that there is an alternative solution, and sends him back to see Smith and Tennant’s incarnations. Why she felt he needed to meet with two Doctors rather than one isn’t really explained nor does the episode delve into the paradox that is rewriting this portion of the time stream. Doctor Who often never explains the contradiction it makes instead passing it off as time travel mumbo jumbo, but this one has pretty major ramifications.
Even if, for instance, the event itself is still time locked, having appeared to the war room and explained the plan to the Time Lords, why would Rassilon attempt to escape the lock by planting a drumbeat in the Master’s head? The Time Lords of Gallifrey even seem to support the action as thirteen TARDIS’ descend upon the planet. Which leads to the question of how the pre-Hurt Doctors managed to find out and join the cause? The episode was fun and for the most part enjoyable but it seems like Moffat and his crew cut a few corners in the ending all for the sake of rewriting the Doctor’s past mistakes. Instead what begins as an impressive episode ultimately lacks the punch it needed.