Thursday, October 30, 2014

Eleventh Doctor Retrospective

or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bowties

I started watching Doctor Who in April 2011.

Not the Eleventh Doctor, oddly enough. No, I started with An Unearthly Child. I started loving the show somewhere around Edge of Destruction, and it was my favorite show ever after Genesis. It took me a couple of months to work my way through a nice chunk of highlights from the various classic Doctors before turning to the new series in early June. Unlike the Classic series, which I worked through chronologically but not completely (returning over the next several months to fill in the gaps), I went through every episode of New Who in a row.

Which means that by an odd coincidence, I caught up to The Pandorica Opens on June 26th, the same day The Big Bang premiered. So Eleven was the first Doctor I experienced as his stories aired; as long as I've been a Whovian, he's been the Doctor. And he was marvelous. I went through most of why he was wonderful in my Time review, and there's not much left that needs saying. Suffice to say, he not only made the line "Bowties are cool" simultaneously sincere and funny, he made it both iconic and true. (Also Fezzes, except they were always cool. Right?)

As for his three seasons themselves, they were bold, beautiful, and often brilliant. Series5 started by appearing to do the same sort of formula Russell T. Davies' seasons did, then completely outdid the formula by doing it better and twisting it ingeniously. (And it was a pretty good formula to begin with ) It opened with a terrific post-regeneration episode, pulled off some odd experiments like Vincent and the Doctor (doing the fantasy-historical as a sentimental character drama instead of an adventure) and The Lodger (a sit-com with the Doctor as the crazy guest star!), and ended with a season finale that managed to be just about the biggest, craziest story Doctor Who has ever done, and yet climax essentially with the Doctor saying a quiet, tearful goodbye to a sleeping Amelia. After a magnificent Christmas special, Season 6 opened with two stories every bit the equal of The Big Bang (with Curse sandwiched between them). That run of episodes might just be the best run of seven episodes the show has ever done, even with Curse in there.

The quality was a bit more uneven after that, thanks to a decision Steven Moffat made: try to make all the stories single episodes. On the one hand, it made for an intense experiment that yielded some exciting results. On the other hand, it wasn't really until Capaldi's first season that it consistently worked, and too many of the episodes in the second half of Smith's era felt rushed and jammed together. The result was often brilliant but just as often frustrating. And, sadly, it culminated in Time of the Doctor, which gave far too few of its ideas even a moment to breath, leaving it a very mixed bag. (I ended up liking a lot more when I rewatched it for the blog this week than I did last Christmas, but it's still a mess.)

Meanwhile, the three-season arc about the Silence blowing up the TARDIS completely fizzled in Time. There was the core of a good idea for how to wrap it up, but it got buried in the overload. Which is particularly frustrating because that plotline was incredible. Sure, the Doctor's Name arc came off nicely, River Song's arc more or less came together, and the character arcs were terrific, but the big plot? Total belly flop on the home stretch.

And so when I started planning out these last four posts, I thought I would get here and talk about what a waste of a great Doctor the era was - that it wasn't bad, but shot down its promise early and never fully recovered.

But no era is perfect, or could be. And between re-assessing Time and working to rank the episodes, I realized that it was a phenomenal era that just happened to have rough edges, which you'd expect from a work created by humans.

There were a couple of outright duds, although, really, for a 44-episode / 38-story run (plus some fun shorts here and there), it's a pretty low number. And of those, well, The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe doesn't have much to recommend it, but it does close with a lovely scene involving Amy and Rory. My problems with Cold War were in its failure to do anything interesting or innovative with the Ice Warriors, not that it wasn't competent. Certainly no one else seems to be particularly down on it. Victory of the Daleks had Daleks serving tea and inspired a sensational poster.
Actually, I think this was my first piece
of non-DVD Who merchandise.
And anyway, there are just too many good episodes here to dismiss even with the flaws. Any era with episodes as good as The Girl Who Waited, The Power of Three, Hide, The Crimson Horror, Name of the Doctor, and Day of the Doctor should be beloved.

Even most of the more flawed episodes are attempting great things: A Good Man Goes To War swings for the fences with one of the darkest and most adult stories Who has ever told. Let's Kill Hitler and Wedding of River Song went for broke with the character melodrama. The God Complex pushed the characters to their breaking point and showcased some of the wildest camerawork on television. Asylum of the Daleks told a tremendous yarn that actually explored what it would mean to be an insane Dalek.

And the companions were contenders for the best ever.

Amy rocks. Even Davies didn't come up with such an engaging and complex companion with such a compelling character arc. And Karen Gillan's playful yet intense performance breathed even more life into a character who would have stood among the best even with an average performer.

Rory started out looking like Mickey part 2, a blah character who eventually became a pretty cool one. Instead, by his second appearance it was clear that even those apparently blah elements revealed a rich, strong character, who turned out to be a brilliant adventurer despite his reluctance early on; he was flawed and complex, but beneath a quiet, slightly nerdy exterior, he was intelligent, compassionate, a devoted husband, and, when necessary, an unstoppable action hero. And it was cemented by Arthur Darvill's ability to not just switch between all these, but bring them all smoothly out of the same character. The only criticism you can lodge against his character is that there wasn't enough of him; too often, he got shuffled in the background, wasted. But basically every time he got to say or do something, he was great.

And River Song. What other TV show would play a 50ish woman as the sexiest, most badass adventurer ever, still give her a staggering emotional depth, and then actually pull that off?

Finally, Clara didn't reach her full potential until Series 8, but all the pieces that make her brilliant were in place from the beginning. She started off seeming like the generic companion, became within the story the ultimate companion, and has by now pretty much lived up to that description.

Honestly, all four of them belong on any list of the 10 best Who companions, and wouldn't look out of place right on top.

We also got a wonderful bunch of supporting characters popping in and out - Vastra, Jenny, and Strax in Victorian England, and Kate Stewart and Osgood in UNIT.

Finally, Moffat delivered everything we could have hoped for: all the horror, the sentiment, the wit, the dramatic complexity, the inventive solutions and the level of thematic depth he showed in his RTD-era episodes. And he's pushed his other writers to keep doing new and different things, and his directors make the show as visually stylish and original as they possibly can. It's sweeping, funny, intelligent, scary, and, above all, fun. Moffat's Doctor Who is a fairy tale of the best sort, and Matt Smith was the perfect center of that universe.

So, yeah. Eleven is cool.


Because who doesn't love an arbitrary list from best to worst? It's tricky putting together this sort of list. I mean, until I actually set it down like this, I probably would have put The Doctor's Wife in the number one slot. I actually chose The Big Bang because when I was feeling nostalgic after rewatching Time, that's the one I wanted to rewatch. But it's just as easy to argue for Doctor's Wife.

And opinions change over time. For example, back when I reviewed them, Rebel Flesh and Night Terrors both got three stars, but my feelings on them have fallen over the years, while The God Complex has risen a bit. I still don't think it quite works, but it's closer than I gave it credit for. And I suspect rewatching A Good Man Goes To War will improve it, since an entire season and a half of "too short" will keep it from getting the brunt of the impact of that flaw.

My final thought, looking at the list, is what an impressive era it is. I think of it as uneven, but about 75% of the episodes were good to great, and about half of the remainder were near-misses. And the stuff at the top of the list? That's some of the best stuff Doctor Who has ever put out, and, in the top three, simply several of the greatest hours of television ever created.

The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang
The Doctor's Wife
The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon
The Day of the Doctor
The Name of the Doctor

The Girl Who Waited
The Eleventh Hour
Asylum of the Daleks
Amy's Choice 

The Wedding of River Song
The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone 
Let's Kill Hitler
A Christmas Carol
The Crimson Horror

The Beast Below
The Angels Take Manhattan
The Power of Three
The Rings of Akhaten
The Time of the Doctor  

Closing Time
The Lodger
Vincent and the Doctor
Vampires of Venice
Nightmare In Silver

The Bells of St. John
A Town Called Mercy
A Good Man Goes To War
The Snowmen
The God Complex

The Rebel Flesh / The Almost People
The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood
Curse of the Black Spot
Night Terrors  
Dinosaurs On a Spaceship

Victory of the Daleks
Cold War
The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Time of the Doctor

The Doctor: "Every life I save is a victory."
Clara: What about your life? After all this time, have you not earned the right to think about that?
Every era of Doctor Who is its own television show. Like the Doctor, it's survived so long because it can die and be reborn anew. And even within an era, it never needs to run out of stories - it has all of time and space. It's an infinity of shows within show. (Bigger on the inside!) 

So, for The Eleventh Doctor's final story, Moffat created an episode that is itself an entire show wrapped inside the show. The Doctor's final adventure is a series of adventures we merely glimpse over several centuries. There are ways in which this is one of the greatest stories Who has ever told, and ways in which it sadly stumbles, but there is so much greatness here.

We should start with how wonderful Matt Smith was. He was an unknown, hired at age 24 to replace David Tennant, the most popular Doctor since Tom Baker. Yet it took him all of a few moments to make the role his.

Right from the beginning, he used the youth to his advantage. The Doctor has always been young and old at the same time; Hartnell had the sense of a kid stuck inside an old body. Smith went the opposite way; on the one hand, he could sustain the bursts of youthful energy for an entire episode if he needed to. But he played the Doctor as an old man, more so than anyone before him. No one since Hartnell had created such a divide in age, and Smith did it even better. He stumbled around like he never correctly grew into his own body. He could make clumsy incompetence charming, without losing his sense of intelligence, exuding the ultimate absent-minded professor. Thanks to both his incredible comedic timing and his dramatic chops, the result was whimsical, funny, and sad, all at once.

Then there were the speeches. The Doctor has always gotten grand speeches, but Smith on the surface seemed least appropriate to them. Yet he knocked them out of the ballpark every time, summoning up a deep wellspring of power when he needed it. 

Oh, and he was brilliant with kids. There's no getting past just how great he was playing off of children, backing down and drawing the very best out of them.

Finally, he had the tremendous fortune of being paired with Steven Moffat, who took full advantage of Smith's genius, giving him not only a full range of emotions, tones, and stories, but a series of character arcs woven throughout. The romantic angle to the Doctor has been played since the mid-90s, but Moffat brought it to the forefront, exploring the idea of this geeky goof really discovering girls for the first time. And Smith's silliness balanced it nicely, keeping the romance and sex from overwhelming the character.

For Smith's Grand Finale, Moffat brings him through a little bit of everything. The Doctor's eccentricities are brought to their limit with a long series of slapstick nudity jokes. He has to play an imaginary boyfriend to one companion, having been introduced as the imaginary friend of another. His romantic side is turned up to the appropriate number, as we see him flirting (remarkably adeptly) with Tasha Lem, and less effectively with Clara, given his more complex relationship with her. The Crack in Time and The Silence both return and are explained. Gallifrey tries to break through into our Universe. The Question, teased for so long and finally answered in Name, becomes the central focus. He gets to teach a bunch of kids that silly dance from The Big Bang while informing them, “Cool is not cool.”

And, of course, because it's Christmas, the Doctor saves Christmas - every single day for hundreds of years on end, giving his last life to a tiny winter town named Christmas.

Finally, Moffat has had the Doctor's death hang over him in some way throughout the era, with an ever-changing approach. In The Big Bang, when he finally realizes he's going to die, he accepts it bitterly. ("I think I'll skip the rest of the rewind. I hate repeats.") Throughout Season Six, he meandered, carefully avoiding facing his death for centuries, and only accepting with his head bowed (until he figured a solution, of course). Even in Name of the Doctor, seeing his grave, the permanent record of his death, was something he avoided until he had to face it. (As Ten said in Day, “We need a new destination, because I don't want to go.”) Always, he ran as long as he could, then found a way to survive and run again.

Here, trapped on Trenzalore, he finally accepts not only his death, but accepts that he has to stop running. This tiny, insignificant town will become his home until the end. Once Tasha tell him she'll burn the planet if he speaks his name to bring the Time Lords through, he responds that the planet is protected. His last great battle is to defend the civilians of Christmas, who will otherwise be the first casualties, caught between a renewed Time War. At first, he half-jokes, it's a lot easier easier because after sending Clara away, he doesn't have a choice.

But even given a perfect escape, he returns, aging to death. And in the end, dying of old age, when he walks up the tower to face the Daleks, he has no plan. For the first time in all his lives, he's made peace and is simply ready to die.

"Everything ends, Clara, and sooner than you think."
As the story of the Doctor's last battle, it's extraordinary – one of the greatest the show has told.

But Moffat also brings in all the flaws of his era in full. It's a rushed, jammed-together series of scenes, some brilliant, others bursting with the promise of brilliance, but not fitting correctly, or coming up for enough breath. There are too many ideas, too much sprawl and sweep to compress.Like the Third Doctor's swan song Planet of the Spiders, it has all the mad genius of the era, but nearly drowns in all the era's flaws, as though it can only purge them by killing them with the Doctor. (although, admittedly, kind of the opposite flaws as Spiders) It's fun to watch, but the story doesn't have time to realize its genius.

And it's not just little things that get trampled underfoot in the mad rush to the finish. Three seasons and five years of plotting are wrapped up in a brief dialogue.

The Silence appear early on, terrifying Clara and telling her to “Confess!” After that, they disappear until the halfway point, when the Doctor briefly explains who they are – genetically engineered professional priests, who handle confession by erasing the memory of the confessors. Tasha briefly explains what happened:

Tasha: The Kovarian Chapter broke away. They traveled back along your timeline and tried to prevent you ever reaching Trenzalore.
Doctor: So that's who blew up my TARDIS. I thought I'd left the bath running.
Tasha: They blew up the time capsule, creating the very cracks in the universe through which the Time Lords are now crawling.
Doctor: The Destiny trap. You can't change history if you're a part of it.
Tasha: They engineered a psychopath to kill you.
Doctor: Totally married her.

And then the Daleks attack, and it's never mentioned again.

As a concept, that's a cool wrap-up to that storyline. But buried in the middle of a conversation and sandwiched between DALEKS! completely flattens the impact. It not only isn't satisfying, it's infuriating. We don't see Madame Kovarian (her story apparently doesn't get an ending in itself). The Silence don't actually do anything. They're just brought up to have all the mysteries from Series 5 and 6 blurted out, and then dropped.

Well, except for a climactic moment where all the species wipe each other out, and the Doctor teams up with them to fight the Daleks... as we learn in a quick sentence bit of narration, and then, again, forget. It's a moment that should be a grand climax, but is so short you could miss it completely if you were distracted for a few seconds. The Silence plot, stretching back to the Doctor's first meeting with Amy in The Eleventh Hour and threaded all the way to here, ends with a whisper not because it has to, but because it barely takes enough breath for even that whisper.

The little things are jammed in, too, though. The Angels show up for a chilling cameo in the snow... and then completely forgotten except for a brief shot in a montage. The Cybermen sneak through Tasha's defenses with a flamethrower-wielding wooden Cyberman. (Awesome.) The Doctor defeats it with absurd comedy logic; it's an amusing Looney Tunes sort of joke, but the Cyberman has no excuse to fall for it (the Doctor's lie was completely impossible given that both A) the flamethrower is built so that it can only shoot one way, and B) it could presumably do a software scan and figure out that the signal didn't work.). And, again, having brought them up just long enough to make them utter rubbish, they're forgotten again.

(Well, except for Handles, the Doctor's Cyber-companion, who's one of the best things about the episode - a charming bit of whimsy whose final scene is the first moment of genuine emotion in the story. Of course, he's also rubbish, but the good kind. Time is the Moffat era's fourth attempt at doing clever cameos with the Cybermen, and like with the first two, it does manage to come up with new and fun things to do with them, while making them seem more incompetent each time out.)

The effect of all this is a greatest hits album that just gives you fifteen-second samples of the hits. I mean, to randomly pick the first song that comes to my head, “Bad to the Bone” has an great intro, but what's the point if you're not going to get to the head nurse speaking up, saying "Leave this one alone", because she could tell right away that I... got sidetracked there. The point is, without the lyrics or anything past the opening bars, you just have a neat riff on Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man", and that's cool and all, but not really satisfying. It teases us with a hint of genius, then yanks it away so it can tease us with another one.

(Why was Bad to the Bone the song that randomly popped in my head?)

And so much of the emotion and story are left like that. We see things narrated or in montage that would be far more effective if we actually experienced them. (or at least had less generic montages)

There are also moments of incredible sloppiness. Such as the Daleks re-learning about the Doctor by harvesting the info from Tasha. Why bother doing the whole Daleks forgetting the Doctor exists bit back in Asylum in the first place if we're just going to undo it the first chance we get?

The most glaring comes near the end. It's not only established, but absolutely crucial to the plot that the Doctor is in a Truth Field. The specifics are vague enough that the inconsistencies fine (the Doctor and Clara being “furious” and “not even talking to you,” then instantly hugging. I'm not sure how the field reacts to that sort of complex emotional joke).

Toward the end, the Doctor tells one of the Christmasians (?) simply, “I have got a plan.” The Doctor then tells Clara that he lied – they just like it when he says that. And taken on its own, it's a lovely little character moment. But he's standing at the epicenter of the truth field. You could to hand wave it and say the Doctor is so good at lying he beat the field, but if that's the case, he can solve the plot with a single sentence. And if he forgets, Clara is standing right there. Desperately trying to find a solution.

Perhaps the most baffling – if not the most disappointing, since it comes out of nowhere – is the revelation, past the halfway point, that the Doctor is actually out of regenerations. Adding War makes him actually the twelfth incarnation, and Tennant's semi-regeneration in Journey's End is retconned as a full regeneration. (I'm okay with the retcon itself, given that great line: "Number 10 once regenerated and kept the same face. I had vanity issues at the time.")

The problem is, this revelation comes completely out of left field. Pulling it out this late it the game stifles any chance of it having any real meaning or impact. Emotionally, it never sinks in, as though Moffat had the idea for how to solve the 12 regeneration limit, then threw it in on the last day of filming. Why not mention this in Day of the Doctor, and let it hang over this episode? (and the audience for the month in between Day and Time)

And yet, for all that, as it comes into the home stretch, Time of the Doctor (again like Planet of the Spiders) still builds up that grand emotion. Despite all the flaws in episode, the sheer weight of the ideas and story and the sincerity of the performances lift the finale far above what it's actually earned.

When Clara returns to Christmas the second time, she finds the Doctor dying of old age. And (aside from the Doctor's inexplicable lie) it's a lovely scene. Jenna Coleman underplays it beautifully, and Smith charms his way straight through the heavy makeup. And then the Doctor ascends the staircase to face the Daleks one final time (who, amusingly, hesitate to shoot him because they assume it's part of his plan).

So Clara asks the trapped Time Lords to save the Doctor rather than forcing him to save them. 

You've been asking the question, and it's time someone told you, you've been getting it wrong. His name is the Doctor. All the name he need, everything you need to know about him. And if you love him, and you should, help him. Help him.
So the Time Lords close the crack and give the Doctor a new set of regenerations. It's an incredible gesture - the Time Lords have never seemed like the sort to save the Doctor out of love. Rather, they tend to save him because it's useful sometimes to have a renegade working for good. But the Doctor saved them, after all, and spent centuries just outside their view, refusing to bring them into our universe in order to save the people of a tiny backwater town in permanent winter from becoming collateral damage. Perhaps, at last, his own people were moved enough by his actions to save the man who saves.
Daleks: You will die now! The rules of regeneration are known. You have expended all your lives.
Doctor: Sorry, what did you say? Did you mention the rules?

The result of a whole new set of regenerations turns out to be a nuclear regeneration that destroys all the Daleks in a gloriously over-the-top climax. The careful building from the quiet softness of Clara and the Doctor opening the present to Clara's impassioned plea for the Doctor to the unhinged melodrama makes for a sweeping finale.

Which is followed, naturally, by a quiet scene in the TARDIS. Clara sees first his old clothes lying around, then a bowl of fish fingers and custard, and then the Doctor again. Smith is back to his youthful self for a moment, the new regeneration cycle taking a moment to set in. Here, he gets another speech, which feels a bit forced and overkill, though I like the Aztecs-like line, "I will not forget one moment of this. Not one day." And then he imagines Amy saying farewell. All this is nice but didn't really move me, either watching it the first time last year or rewatching it now.

But Smith casually taking off the bowtie? Punch right to the solar plexus.

Moffat puts in a lot of reversals of our expectations for a regeneration scene, but this is the one that really sticks. Rather than the next Doctor gradually stripping away the last of their predecessor's identity, Eleven quietly gives it up. He's just a story, now, after all. "I will always remember when the Doctor was me."

And so will I.

Even if I didn't love every moment, I loved Eleven, loved Smith, loved his companions, loved his era. I know because right after rewatching this, I held off writing the review so I could rewatch The Big Bang, and it was every bit as magnificent as it ever was. And it's not alone; The Eleventh Hour, Amy's Choice, A Christmas Carol, The Impossible Astronaut, The Doctor's Wife, The Girl Who Waited, Hide, The Crimson Horror, Name of the Doctor, Day of the Doctor, and others, all absolutely marvelous. And so is Time. Perhaps it does resurrect every flaw of the era to purge it with Eleven's death. But it also resurrects all the charm, and humor, and whimsy, and, in its finest moments, its heart.


* * *


  • "Stay calm. Just one question. Do you happen to know how to fly this thing?" Capaldi's first appearance is fun, though there was a small and incredibly immature part of me disappointed in the lack of four-letter words beginning with "f" and "c".
  • "The trouble with Daleks is they say so long to say anything. Probably die of boredom before they shoot me."
  • So, Tasha Lem. I'm really not quite sure what to think of her. The Mother Superieress of the Church of the Papal Mainframe, she picks up a thread from A Time of Angels, where the Church "moved on" and had professional soldiers. Moffat expands vastly on this here, creating a church that expends its armies in defense of peace. Also, it requires you to be naked in church and combines an alter with a bed; between that and Orla Brady's vicious and flirtatious performance, it implies pretty strongly what Steven Moffat thinks church should be like. She also gets lots of good lines, turns out to be too stubborn for even a Dalek to take over her completely, and is implied to be a dominatrix.

    Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the character immensely, but I'm not sure quite what Moffat's saying here, nor do I quite feel I have a grasp on who she is. She's somehow just a tad too strange, too extreme. Sort of like all the craziest parts of River, Amy, and Clara thrown together, plus a dash of religion, and shaken vigorously.

    Whatever that was all about, it was worth it for this one line: "The church of the mainframe apologizes for your death. The appropriate afterlives have been informed."
  •  Again, I'll talk about Clara in Deep Breath, but I did want to reference my favorite line of hers here:
    Linda: How's the turkey?
    Clara: Fine, fine. Well, dead and decapitated, but that's Christmas when you're a turkey.
  • UPDATE 12/23/2014: This Tumblr conversation makes a compelling rebuttal to the general line of thought in this review. Thematically, this episode is about the importance of the little moments and battles in life; the epic elements are no more important. I don't think it pulls it off - in fact, I think the four knocks scene in The End of Time gets the same point across more directly and movingly - but it's a good argument, and worth reading.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Day of the Doctor

 "Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one." 
-- Clara Oswald, quoting Marcus Aurelius.
(or, we might one day learn, Marcus Aurelius quoting Clara Oswald)

Name of the Doctor finally, after 50 years, established the Doctor's name - which is the one he chose all along, of course. Partly for his ego, to carry the weight of grand intelligence and studies. But he quickly became the man who saves, who heals, and who brings fear to the monsters. So how could that man make himself a warrior, live through centuries of killing and fighting, and end it by committing an act of double genocide? And how can he reconcile that with his name?

For three lifetimes and seven seasons, he really hasn't. And, we learn, during the war, he refused to even take the name Doctor. After 400 years, it haunts him. He tells himself he had to do it, to save the universe from being torn apart across every moment of time. And he did. He tells himself the Time Lords were as corrupt and as capable of destruction as the Daleks. And they were. Nor has the Doctor been against killing or violence, particularly when the Daleks were involved; after all, he destroyed Skaro itself. Yet that final decision is one a man like him - truly, a good man - could never fully live with. And in some way, the Time War has always hung over him throughout the revival.

From this, for the Golden Anniversary, Stephen Moffat makes the final definitive statement on the Time War. It's a great moral question: kill millions to save billions, or billions to save trillions or more. But given even the slightest hint of a chance, the Doctor's answer is to save them both. Which of course is his answer. It was always his answer, in every incarnation.

Moffat's stories, for all their tear-jerking and deep-rooted terror, are fundamentally optimistic. (Just as RTD's, for all their joy, were fundamentally cynical) So it's no surprise his answer to the war is different than RTD's in The End of Time. And thankfully, Moffat is perhaps the greatest writer ever to work on Doctor Who, and he brings the full force of his talent and skill to a story that could never be anything less than one of the grand epics of Who.

On the surface, of course, he does what you'd hope he would do: a multi-Doctor story. Which is what Who did for its 10th and 20th anniversaries, respectively. (and also the 30th, but we don't talk about that one) There's an inherent madness to the concept of a multi-Doctor story to begin with, made madder by the casual way it's done. It's a big deal, even in-Universe, but the actual insanity of the concept is brushed off with a few jokes before getting on with the fun stuff.

After a zippy introduction with the Eleventh Doctor and Clara being taken in by UNIT for an investigation, we're given a glimpse of a three-dimensional painting, a moment of time locked away in a frame (and a gorgeous visual effect), of Gallifrey's last day. After which, finally, after teasing us in both Name and Night of the Doctor, we meet The War Doctor on the day Gallifrey falls.

John Hurt's War Doctor gets a hell of an entrance, too -- first, just his shadow lit on a wall by one of the fires of war. His gravelly voice commanding, "Soldier, I'm going to need your gun." Even as the War Doctor, he uses a gun not to kill directly, instead, blasting "NO MORE" in a stone wall. A dying Dalek cries: "What are these words? Explain... Explain!" Then, as a squadron of Daleks close in, the TARDIS flies in and destroys them. And we still haven't even seen his face. Mad Max didn't get such a knockout of an entrance.
(On the other hand, the last day of the Time War is really disappointingly generic. This is the war between the Lord of Time and the Daleks, the war that would have torn the universe itself asunder. Journey's End had the Doctor refer to Davros' ship flying into the jaws of The Nightmare Child at the Gates of Elysium. Day of the Doctor has a big laser fight with some explosions. 

I mean, it's cool, and I realize it would have been hard to live up to that buildup, but they could have at least tried to make it look like something other than a Star Wars knockoff. The Dalek Choir from Journey's End plays on the soundtrack, and while it's always fun to hear, again, it feels more like a general sci-fi war anthem when something stranger seems needed.

Though, admittedly, it's a very slick, shiny, expensive Star Wars knockoff. As pure action film making, it's thrilling stuff, and looks like it came from a massively-budgeted Hollywood film. And not one of those modern CGI fests that are all starting to look like the same weightless cartoons; it's proper Hollywood spectacle, like Return of the Jedi or Independence Day. In particular, Mike Tucker's model work is absolutely sensational. I suppose there is something of an in-Universe explanation in that the Time Lords are losing and have already used most of their big guns. And "The Sky Trenches are holding" is at least in the realm of Time War-ish- my word, is this parenthetical still going?)

Hurt is fantastic, as you'd expect, and Moffat gives him plenty to work with. Even in a single episode featuring two other Doctors, War is a fully developed take with his own sense of humor, his own quirks, and his own character arc. Hurt plays it all to the hilt in a quietly commanding way, wisely underplaying to David Tennant's delightful melodramatic showboating and Matt Smith's frantic silliness.

The Doctor steals the Moment -- the Galaxy Eater, a weapon so powerful it developed a consciousness -- and finally, we get something Time War worthy. (Unsurprisingly, the fanciful name was RTD's, but the execution is all Moffat) The Time Lords never used it because "How do you use a weapon of ultimate mass destruction when it can stand in judgement of you?" The Doctor brings the Moment to an abandoned farm on a secluded planet (which we learn more about in Listen). 

(It's here that we finally see a good shot of the War Doctor's face when he walks into focus. This seems like the time to bring up Nick Hurran's direction, which is at its best. His visuals are a dazzling yet story-driven as ever, the actors are fully-emotional, and even his usual flaw, the awkward staging, is done so confidently it feels more like a charming directorial quirk than, you know, awkward staging.)

Unsurprisingly, the fanciful name of The Moment was RTD's, but the execution is pure Moffat. It appears to him as Rose. It's a brilliant use of Billie Piper, giving the feeling of seeing Rose again while giving Piper something much weirder and more fun to do. (I especially love her mockery of his "No more!")
"Don't sit on that! It's not a chair, it's a weapon of ultimate destruction!"
"Why can't it be both?"
Of course, she sees right through him and has plenty of fun ("If I ever develop an ego, you've got the job."). But she's also deadly serious about, well, how deadly she is.
"There will be consequences for this."
"I have no desire to survive this."
"Then that's your punishment. If you do this, if you kill them all, then that's the consequence. You live."

So she opens a portal to the Doctor's future. And, naturally, a fez falls through. (The Moment: "Okay, I wasn't expecting that.")

So, having established this epic backdrop, Moffat draws us back into the other story, an engagingly silly multi-Doctor story with War, Ten, and Eleven together in a comic-horror plot involving UNIT and Zygons. Here, he can essentially deliver what we expect in a big celebratory anniversary while quietly layering the larger themes. 

First of all, it's just wonderful seeing David Tennant back in the role, and he and Moffat both clearly relish every moment of it.
"What's that?"
"It's a machine that goes 'ding.'"
Although the highlight is his big speech to the rabbit.

(The other flaw of the story, unfortunately, shows up here - Johanna Page's performance as Elizabeth I is completely, painfully wrong. Page plays her as a broad, shrill comedy character, which actually tramples the humor and the characterization. Queenie from Blackadder was a more dignified take on the character. Though I do kinda like Moffat's explanation of the joke from the Tennant era of Liz hating him. She's also a relatively minor character, so it's not a major problem.)

Jemma Redgrave's Kate Stewart from The Power of Three returns, though she's far better fleshed out here. She's introduced with a delightful note of whimsy - "The ravens are looking sluggish. Tell them we'll need new batteries." But she's also given a darker side, as we learn that she runs The Black Archive, a location that's TARDIS-proof, and where the guards' memories are wiped every day. (I love how the horror of this is just casually swept under the rug.) And, ultimately, she's willing to make the same sort of violent, ultimate war-like decision her father would have made - and that the Doctor did make.
Zygon Kate: We only have to agree to live.
Kate: Sadly, we can only agree to die.
Her relationship with the Doctor has a little more of the sort of tension it should have, while being distinct from his tension with The Brigadier. I love the Doctors' angry look when Clara mentions The Black Archive. (Clara: So, you've heard of that, then?)

Redgrave also gets to do some straight-out villainy, transforming into a Zygon. It's a fantastic make-up effect anyway, but Redgrave really sells it, especially with her off-handed delivery of the line, "They've probably just finished disposing of the humans a little early."

Speaking of which, the Zygons are back, and relegated entirely to the B-plot. They're a really cool-looking monster who aren't actually that interesting and really have no A plot to be told.

Even better than a rubbish old favorite returning is a new, totally not-rubbish, instant-favorite in Ingrid Oliver's Osgood, Kate Stewart's assistant. She's too good. A total Doctor fangirl, who not only wears a Scarf of Many Colors, but pretty much prays to the Doctor when she's in trouble. She's just about the nerdiest nerd ever, with both brainy specs and asthma. But Moffat isn't making fun of her in the slightest. (Teasing a little at times, maybe.) Being a Doctor fangirl has also made her extremely clever (deducing that the Zygons are pretending to be the statues), resourceful (escaping a Zygon by tripping it with her foot - and getting a great one-liner in the process!), and heroic (saving Kate from the Zygon's traps, marching into the Black Archive at her side). She's the perfect final touch - not just a representation of a Whovian in-Universe, but a Whovian who lives up to the Doctor.

"Hey, you! Are you sciencey?"

But, of course, the real fun of a multi-Doctor story is getting all three of them together in the same place, and with Moffat in charge, it's absolutely awesome. They mock each other, argue, and occasionally even accomplish things working together, with all the wit you'd hope for. (I especially like War's comments on the way they hold their sonics like guns. "They're screwdrivers! What are you going to do, assemble a cabinet at them?")

They also each get nice takes on the Doctor's general anti-authoritarianism. Eleven gets the banter with Clara about whether or not he has a job with UNIT (Clara knows he doesn't, because she gets him). Ten is far more horrified of the idea that he might be King of England than of the monster that just revealed itself. And War just generally exudes antipathy toward any authority he runs into.

It would pretty much be satisfying to just have them hang around for 75 minutes, but Moffat also uses their time in the prison cell to dig in and tear open the flaws of all three Doctors. Most compellingly, he contrasts how Ten and Eleven deal with their continued angst in the war. Ten keeps it forever at the forefront of his mind, his wounds forever unhealed. Eleven simply forgets as much as he can, which itself will never fully heal the wounds. (As they say, a doctor is his own worst physician.)

War: I don't know who you are. Either of you. I haven't got the faintest idea.
The Moment: They're you. They're what you become if you destroy Gallifrey. The Man Who Regrets, and The Man Who Forgets.
It's a brief but intensely dramatic sequence, that segues nicely into the Doctors solving the locked door by figuring out that since their Sonics are all fundamentally the same Sonic (the same software just upgraded into different cases), the War Doctor can start it on calculating the atomic structure of the door . Then, a few hundred years later, Eleven's has finished the calculations... which turns out to be a hilarious shaggy-dog joke when Clara barges in, revealing that the door was unlocked the whole time.

Which brings them back around to the Zygons, who traveled through time by hiding themselves in the 3D paintings that were frozen moments in time (bigger on the inside...), and they use the same trick, blasting through the painting of Gallifrey's fall into the Black Archive just in time. (along with a Dalek they just blew up)
War: Hello.
Ten: I'm the Doctor. 
Eleven: Sorry about the Dalek. 
Clara: Also the showing off.

Kate has turned into an opaque reflection of the Doctor, chosing to kill millions in order to save billions. Ten tells her it's a decision she will never live with, while Eleven winces painfully. The Doctor, naturally, forces them to make peace (the most perfect treaty ever, because he's the Doctor). The War Doctor, impressed, decides that the angst and suffering will be worthwhile to become a man (or men) who saves so many so effortlessly.  As he says, "Great men are forged in fire. It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame."

But Ten and Eleven (urged on by Clara, the Doctor's conscience as the Companion should be) show up to stand with him. As Eleven explains, "You were the Doctor on the day it wasn't possible to get it right." 

Clara: We've got enough warriors. Any old idiot can be a hero.
11: Then what do I do?
Clara: What you've always done. Be a Doctor.

And then, again pushed by Clara, they refuse to push the button, and Eleven explains that he's been thinking about this for four hundred years, and with all three of them together, they can figure it out. Well, more than all three of them. All twelve of them. Or, rather, thirteen. (Was that moment chilling or what?) 

And now the final parallels with the Zygon plot become clear. The Moment, by being the companionless War Doctor's conscience, paralleled the companion, perfectly embodied by Clara. (and managed to give us a taste of Rose Tyler, the companion who gave the Doctor much of the healing he did get after the war) The Painting, a frozen moment in time (which, after all, is what a picture is to begin with), is what the Doctor makes Gallifrey. The Sonic was made a clever reflection of the Doctor ("Same software, different face."); but, even more ingeniously, that shaggy-dog joke about the sonic's calculations was the set-up for the finale -- the calculations could be begun with the First Doctor.
Time Lord: Why would you do that?
11: Because the alternative is burning.
10: And I've seen that.
11: And I never want to see that again.
Time Lord: ... we'd have nothing!
11: You would have hope.

That's Moffat's greatest trick here: using a small comedy to make a staggering epic greater, and the epic elements to give the humor more tension and punch. It's a magnificent trick he seems to pull off effortlessly. He built to a climax of thirteen Doctors saving Gallifrey from the Daleks and the Universe from Gallifrey, and earned it with a bunch of jokes about screwdrivers.

And he does it without erasing all the compelling drama the last seven seasons have pulled out of the Time War, which was a powerful idea to begin with. Since the War and Tenth Doctors forget about it, their successors' character arcs still stand. And War gets a moving final moment, getting to feel as though after centuries of warfare, he is truly the Doctor again.

And then Moffat can't resist and throws in The Curator, who pours his heart and soul into his brief moments. His broad delivery of "Gallifrey Falls No More" is both rousing and deeply moving, the final catharsis of a fantastic story.

(On a smaller note, I love the way Nick Hurran goes to handheld when you hear the voice, before we actually see him, adding that great little bit of extra tension. The cameo literally shakes the world.)

(I also love how the scene uses music from The Big Bang and Wedding of River song.) 

(And I especially love gratuitous parentheticals.)

These anniversary stories reflect a lot about what the creators think the show is. The Three Doctors is a non-stop array of mad ideas and whimsical humor building to a conclusion that's simultaneously epic and a few old Brits standing around in a room theatrically drama-ing at each other. (which sounds like a pretty accurate description of the show to me) Conversely, The Five Doctors is a slick (by low-budget early 80s TV standards) series of set pieces and pointless continuity references strung together efficiently. It's a very watchable take on everything that goes wrong with the show in the 80s. And it would have been easy for Day of the Doctor to fall in the same trap.

But Moffat is too good for that. He brings the full force of his wit to the dialogue, loading it with not only the expected banter between Doctors, but with rich, multi-layered meanings. The story is perfectly paced and structured to give both the sweeping A-plot about the Time War, and the small, comic-horror Zygon B-plot all the time they need without slowing down. It aims long and scores a bulls-eye.

It's more worth comparing to The Three Doctors, then. Every place that one succeeded - imagination, concepts, humor, and cast chemistry - this one excels further. And naturally, with the advances in technology and vastly larger budget, it exceeds it technically. But it's in the story where Day proves truly masterful; The Three Doctors is content to be a wild ride of ideas and jokes, its story and themes amounting to little more than a bigger threat than usual. (probably) "Merely grand entertainment" is a silly flaw to accuse something of, and I'm certainly not doing that. But when a work like Day of the Doctor manages to be just as grandly entertaining and deliver a powerful, meaningful drama, too, it simply shows how great Day is in comparison.


* * * *


  • Clara is introduced having graduated from nanny to a teacher (at Coal Hill School!). It's a great character moment without having to be announced as one in any way; she's truly dedicated to children. And then rides her bike right into the TARDIS. She doesn't get a lot to do in the story, which naturally is about other things, but the little she gets is fantastic, and builds on what's already been established about her. I complained throughout series 7 about her being underdeveloped, but I think the problems were elsewhere, because everything wonderful and vivid about her was there in series 8.
    Put another way, how did it take Deep Breath to realize that Clara is AWESOME!

  • I love the War Doctor's TARDIS - a nice melding of Classic and New styles of the TARDIS.
    11: Hey, look, the round things!
    10: I love the round things.
    11: What are the round things?
    10: No idea.
  • The Zygons lost their home in the first days of the Time War... which makes Terror of the Zygons a minor side part of the Time War, right?
  • I actually first saw this projected at the Austin Comic-Con last year, which was a phenomenally cool way to see it. I mean, I missed some of the jokes because the audience was laughing too hard and the previous jokes, but the experience of seeing a great movie with an enthusiastic audience is always a wonderful experience. They really went wild for Tennant's final line, but I think I was the only one who laughed out loud at Kate's line about the dates on UNIT files: "The 70s or 80s depending on the dating protocol used."