“Great men are forged in fire. It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame.”
Should you turn up here as a Doctor Who fan worried about spoilers, I’d advise you to stop right now, thank you very much. Go watch Day of the Doctor before coming back so you can retrospectively criticise me for my criticism (having said this, I have of course made every effort to avoid spoilers). If on the other hand you’re not necessarily a fan but instead have come because this is my blog and you like me, by all means stay. We’re here to see if Day of the Doctor holds any merit outside of its fandom and sentimental place in British culture.
John Hurt stars as a previously unseen and practically unheard of incarnation of the Doctor in this 50th anniversary episode, which looks back at one of the major events in his life not covered thus far in the series but alluded to on numerous occasions since Christopher Eccleston’s tenure in 2005. This is, as many were able to predict beforehand due to those spoiling promotional posters featuring the Daleks, the infamous Time War.
Taking place in the show’s (admittedly loose) continuity between the 1996 television movie and the 2005 BBC modernisation, this feature length special covers the Doctor’s apocalyptic actions on the war’s last day while somehow managing to link its events with a Zygon plot in modern day London – you know, because the writers think us incapable of paying attention unless we’re given something recognisable to associate with.
The latter part of the story is decidedly average; one could question why the Zygon’s bother turning up at all for such an important milestone in the show’s history. This becomes especially true when you realise their side of the tale is never fully resolved and awkwardly feels like it is only there to reinforce a certain in-your-face theme late on. Zygon involvement perhaps would have worked better as a shortened prologue sequence, or a normal TV episode, because it alone would certainly be no reason to make such a fuss about what we have on offer here.
I’m guessing what you came for instead is a big fat dollop of nostalgia and eager expectation of seeing how Hurt’s Doctor works with the incumbent Matt Smith and the returning David Tennant, who confidently steps back into the Doctor’s shoes as if he’s hardly been away more than a week. In these areas, Day of the Doctor definitely delivers.
The episode opens with the original 1963 title sequence and music, which is sure to give those with even the least familiarity to the older series goose bumps as it did with me. This is followed by an opening scene reminiscent of the very first episode, with references to Coal Hill School and the Foreman junkyard. It’s enough to get any respectable Doctor Who fan excited for what lies ahead.
While the ‘War Doctor’ (as Hurt’s version has affectionately been named) appears less dark than initially speculated, his portrayal of the character is no less interesting. On the one side we have the younger Tennant and Smith providing humour and a moderate amount of sex appeal; on the other, Hurt takes us back to the Doctor’s roots as an aging, wise figure, rather offended by what he sees himself becoming in the future. Together they work off each other brilliantly, each personifying the signature traits we’ve come to associate with the Doctor’s eccentric character, creating an addictive on-screen chemistry in the process. Out of the three of them, only Tennant threatens to become mildly irritating towards the end; but I know he is the personal favourite of many so perhaps this is more down to taste than anything else.
Billie Piper also returns in a role I found pleasantly surprising – you soon realise that her involvement is about more than simply fan service for those who loved Rose Tyler (if those people even exist). The same cannot be said for a certain other actor making his return at the end of the episode, which is pure fan service at its finest, if only because the scene makes no other sense in story or continuity terms. Elsewhere we see the welcome addition of clips from the Doctor’s previous incarnations, along with an unexpected brief glimpse of his future.
But again, take away that nostalgia and the appeal of the main stars of the show, and you’re left with a story that would struggle to hold your attention in a regular television episode of the series. For all the negativity I say about the Zygons, though, they are used to show off one or two nice special effects, and give us a couple of almost comedic moments between the stark wartime segments – you can tell I’m really trying, can’t you?
The very premise of the Time War, while providing an exciting setting for some of the action, creates obvious problems – namely that it’s supposed to be ‘time locked’, and we already know how it’s going to turn out. Or at least, we should, but this is Doctor Who; it’s unfortunately no surprise to see events conclude in a way that makes no sense whatsoever in relation to continuity (remember The Angels Take Manhattan?) or the general timeline. Some will argue that it’s a family-oriented show and therefore this kind of thing isn’t such a high priority; I say that’s not really an excuse for what is essentially (whisper it) poor writing.
From a conceptual point of view, we have here an impressive, fitting 50th anniversary. Execution could perhaps have been better, but the episode still achieves what it sets out to, and delivers in the right places. Most fans will love it regardless of its hidden failings. I call these hidden because it seems Doctor Who takes pleasure in repeating them, as if hammy acting performances, gaping plot holes and irritating story resolutions are an intrinsic part of its beloved identity. Day of the Doctor encompasses them all. For the poetry of that alone, it deserves credit.
7 / 10.