Chances are, if you were on the Internet on Saturday, you saw someone mention what is now officially (according to Guinness World Records) the largest ever television simulcast: the “Doctor Who” 50th anniversary special. We knew “The Day of the Doctor” was going to be a big one, teaming up the two most recent Doctors (Matt Smith’s Eleventh and David Tennant’s Tenth) and a new, never before seen version of the Doctor played by John Hurt.
While it was originally a little fuzzy where Hurt’s Doctor would fit in, a prequel released Nov. 14 showed Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor regenerating into Hurt’s, which means we’ve been numbering all the Doctors wrong ever since. (Although many people have taken to calling Hurt’s Doctor “The War Doctor” to avoid this problem.)
“The Day of the Doctor” picked up not quite where the prequel left off, but with latest companion Clara Oswald and Eleven, building the story the anniversary episode would tell. UNIT fetches Eleven and Clara on orders from Queen Elizabeth I to see a Time Lord painting known as “No More,” or “Gallifrey Falls.” Figures have disappeared from inside some of the other paintings in the gallery, which are later found to be Zygons — shape-shifting aliens described by Ten as “big red rubbery thing(s), covered in suckers.”
In a different part of the timeline, Ten is dealing with his own Zygon problem. In yet another part of the timeline, the War Doctor is about to destroy his home planet, Gallifrey, which is fighting the Time War against the Daleks, using a weapon called the Moment. The Moment is a weapon with a consciousness, though — a consciousness which takes on the form of Rose Tyler to talk to the War Doctor.
It seems all three Doctors collide because they have to, and also because unexplained fissures in time open up that allow them to meet. The Doctors get themselves arrested, and subsequently freed, from an unlocked room when they didn’t think to try the handle and see if the door was locked. They then seal themselves inside “No More” in order to enter UNIT’s base and put a stop to the Zygons.
Interestingly, this is all a fairly straightforward episode of “Doctor Who” to this point. Aside from the fact that there are multiple Doctors involved, the story’s combination of trickery, cleverness and ultimate triumph describes the plot of a great many episodes over the run of the series. Does this hurt “The Day of the Doctor?” I would have to say no. While I was expecting the episode to grip me more than it did, I do appreciate the fact that Steven Moffat didn’t fall into the trap of making this episode too grand and too momentous. It’s a solid episode, aided by fantastic performances from David Tennant, Matt Smith and especially John Hurt.
Hurt’s character arc takes him from a potential villain destined to destroy Gallifrey to a Doctor that is hopeful for Gallifrey’s salvation — all in the span of an hour. In a lesser actor, the transitions would feel stilted and fake. Hurt manages to combine each aspect of the War Doctor into every moment of his performance, which makes the transitions feel seamless. Even when preparing to destroy the planet, he is concerned about how many children’s lives will be lost, and when he learns the planet can be saved, he’s as excited as Ten and Eleven. With only one episode to build his performance, Hurt conveys the fact that the most important part of the Doctor is how much he cares. We no longer see the “evil” Doctor introduced in the end of last season’s finale, “The Name of the Doctor.” We see the Doctor, put in a bad position and pushed to his limits, in the War Doctor.
Where the episode becomes momentous and meaningful is in the last 20 minutes, and if you weren’t wowed by the first hour, or found yourself wishing for more references to the rest of the series, the last 20 minutes is for you. After saving the world from Zygons, the War Doctor returns to his timeline, prepared to end the Time War by destroying the Daleks and all the Time Lords on Gallifrey. Ten and Eleven arrive to help him, but Clara and the Moment convince them there’s another way: They can choose to save Gallifrey. With the help of every Doctor from across history, including Peter Capaldi’s upcoming Twelfth Doctor, the Doctors manage to destroy the Daleks but save Gallifrey by freezing it in a different moment in time.
It’s an uplifting scene, even if the Doctors won’t remember saving the planet and will continue to believe they destroyed it, made all the more uplifting by paying tribute to the whole series. This isn’t just Tennant and Smith bouncing off each other in an admittedly fun way. This is all of the Doctors working together to save Gallifrey, and it works perfectly — until you start thinking about the repercussions, and how this technically cancels out the guilty shadow cast across Nine and Ten’s timelines. But it works in the moment, and what a powerful moment it is.
In an episode already filled with three Doctors, it should have been ridiculous to have a fourth, but “The Day of the Doctor” managed it by bringing back Four, Tom Baker. (Although if they had managed to add Christopher Eccleston’s Nine in as well, I wouldn’t have complained.) But the surprise cameo works on every level.
There is just enough ambiguity in Baker’s scene to make it unclear whether he is actually the Fourth Doctor or not, but it doesn’t ultimately matter who he is. Baker’s character takes the Gallifrey plotline and makes it great with only four words: “Gallifrey Falls No More.” It’s a Moffat conceit to take something so simple that it should have been obvious, and to imbue it with meaning when Eleven realizes Gallifrey stands. It works nicely, combined with Eleven’s complete and utter joy over saving Gallifrey — and most importantly, it gives the series somewhere to go.
After 50 years, “Doctor Who” continues to touch, continues to be relevant and continues to thrive. The genius of the show is its accessibility. Anyone and everyone can watch it, and while people may disagree on who’s the best Doctor or who’s the best companion, ultimately the show stands and falls on the fact that the Doctor’s journey matters. It’s a journey that anyone could make, and now, that journey is leading one place: “Home, the long way ‘round,” as Eleven says.
It’s a journey that I’m certainly willing to take, and even with my wariness and general unease with the last few seasons, I say, “Bring it on.”
For those hoping for even more cameos, check out “The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot,” which is a fantastic half-hour parody focusing on the Doctors left out of the anniversary special (Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy) and their dream of being in it.
Rating: 3.5 stars