Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor

Hugo Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form nominees

Spoilers for Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor

(I’m using the actor names rather than Doctor numbers because otherwise it all gets terribly confusing.)

I didn’t write about ‘The Day of the Doctor’ when it first aired amid the heady media blitz of Doctor Who‘s 50th annniversary, and have somehow managed to avoid seeing it since. Revisiting it for the first time on the event of its Hugo nomination I did wonder if it would feel like watching a Christmas movie in July.

The answer is that, like the best Christmas movies, ‘The Day of the Doctor’ brings its own festivity. But it does have virtues beyond the merely celebratory. The countless tips of the hat to Who mythology could fill a blog by themselves, but they’re just the window dressing. It doesn’t matter if you understand jokes about the UNIT dating controversy, or the significance of Coal Hill School, or know that “wheezing, groaning” was how the Target novelisations described the Tardis sound. They are not the story. A reasonably attentive viewer (well, one who can cope with the vagaries of time travel and sentient bombs who look like Billie Piper) can understand that a past Doctor made a tragic decision to destroy his own people in order to end a great war, a decision that has haunted him ever since. The episode’s self-referential fireworks are ultimately subservient to the drama.

Much has been said, not least by writer Steven Moffat, about the near-impossible balancing act involved in writing an anniversary story that honours the show’s past and works for a casual audience. Nonetheless I don’t think I’d appreciated previously what a well-drafted piece of TV it is. Like much of the best Doctor Who it straddles dramatic genres, beginning with Matt Smith’s exuberance, flashing back to John Hurt for sombre drama, leaping forward to David Tennant for a bit of farcical comedy, then weaving these threads into one. It continues this balletic whirl for the rest of its length, yet remarkably never loses sight of what story it’s trying to tell.

In many ways that story is not the story of current Doctor Matt Smith but of John Hurt. The narrative spotlight moves back and forth between all the Doctors (with Tennant feeling perhaps the most like a third wheel, just another facet of the ‘modern’ Doctors that Smith already represents) but in many ways it’s Hurt’s character who is the real heart of the story. When we first flashback to Gallifrey we stay with Hurt for a good long while, and it’s his ‘moment’ of decision that is the catalyst for everything that transpires. If this is a Christmas movie then that movie is It’s a Wonderful Life, with the sentient doomsday weapon his friendly angel come to show him the consequences of his existence through visions of possible Doctors yet to come. (“She didn’t just show me any old future, she showed me exactly the future I needed to see.”) It’s only near the end that the modern Doctors truly take over the reins, first deciding to shoulder Hurt’s burden with him, and then joining with him to refuse that burden. Even then, the climax is as much about Hurt’s redemption as his successors’ (“for this moment I am the Doctor again.”)

The redemption of the Doctor is the theme of the episode, prefigured right at the outset by Clara’s Marcus Aurelius quote: “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” Who is the Doctor? What are his principles? It’s not a topic the series normally cares to debate, but here we find the central character laid unusually bare. John Hurt’s Doctor has consciously put aside both the name and principles of the Doctor in order to win the war, “succeeding in doing the wrong [thing]”, and never more so than here, faced with the decision to commit genocide against his own people in order to prevent countless more deaths. It’s only in such a crucible that the Doctor must put his principles into words: “Never cruel or cowardly. Never give up, never give in…” Failing those ideals weighs heavily on Hurt, and his successors have borne the scars of that perceived failure throughout the whole modern era of Doctor Who.

In fact we know from past episodes that the Doctor doesn’t always live up to those ideals. He can be cowardly – perhaps forgiveably. Indeed ‘Parting of the Ways’ shows Eccleston’s Doctor consciously choosing cowardice over violence in what is clearly meant as a reference to the (then unseen) events depicted here. We also know he can on occasion be cruel. We hear it in the punishments he inflicts on ‘The Family of Blood’,we see it when Rory blows up a cyberfleet in ‘A Good Man Goes to War’, in ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ (deliberately allowing Solomon to die) and in the otherwise execrable ‘A Town Called Mercy’ (threatening Jex). This, seemingly, is what happens when the Doctor is pushed too far. It’s why, in ‘A Good Man Goes to War’, River Song cautions him that his name has come to mean “great warrior.” During ‘The Day of the Doctor’ Smith says that the Time War “Turned me into the man I am now. I’m not even sure who that is any more”, something he confesses again at the end. “Have you forgotten?” asks Clara. “Yes. Maybe, yes.” More than an episode about who the Doctor is, it’s an episode about him relearning his identity. Reclaiming it. It retrospectively casts (i.e. retcons) all those dark moments as a good man losing his way, only to find it again here.

It can be argued in all of this that the Zygon ‘b-plot’ is a bit of fluff by comparison. It’s what draws Tennant’s and Smith’s Doctors together and links their exploits through time, but that’s just plot scaffolding. In any case, it’s really the Moment that brings them together. But what strikes me in revisiting the episode is how neatly the Zygon story contains thematic echoes of the main narrative. The Zygons use paintings as stasis cubes to sleep from the Elizabethan era to our own, and it’s this principle that drives the salvation of Gallifrey, hidden away like a painting, frozen in an instant of time. Kate Lethbridge-Stewart’s Black Archive with its doomsday weapon mirrors the Time Lord undergallery where the Moment is stored. Her decision to use that weapon is a direct parallel with Hurt’s decision to use the Moment, murdering millions to save billions. So much so that when Tennant and Smith argue against it they are clearly driven as much by guilt over the Time War as by morality: “What I did that day was wrong. Just wrong.” “And, because I got it wrong, I’m going to make you get it right.”

It’s a neat piece of writing that reminds me of the Steven Moffat who wrote Sherlock‘s taut ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’. That Steven Moffat has always impressed me a little bit more than the one who writes Doctor Who, where the grand sweep of the season arc sometimes seem to take precedence over pacing and consistency of individual episodes.

To be fair, both Steven Moffats are in evidence here, with plenty of workmanlike plotting bodges — although they’re mainly in the service of delivering jokes and set-pieces rather than shoring up the narrative. It makes no real sense that Clara would ride full tilt into the relatively small console room on a motorbike. It makes no real sense that, on finding the TARDIS, UNIT would airlift it to London. If the Zygons actually shapeshift and don’t just project an illusion, how do they gain enough mass to become a horse? The whole Zygon plan is convoluted (although perhaps no more so than all the other alien plans of the last 50 years.) After all, what makes 21st Century Earth so much more interesting than Elizabethan England? And if the real Kate wants to blow up the Archive, why would two Kates who are unsure if they are real hesitate to continue?

These aren’t the only problems. The Doctors’ solution to the Gallifrey conundrum relies on oodles of typical Doctor Who handwaving (even leaving aside the ‘because we can’ mechanism for hiding Gallifrey and the sudden involvement of every past Doctor, every single Dalek got caught in the crossfire? Every single one?) Queen Elizabeth’s the First’s role is broad enough for a Morecambe and Wise comedy sketch. Tonally the opening with Clara and the Doctor is utterly the wrong side of smug. It mars the nostalgic chills evoked by the original opening credits and the shadow of a policeman. Indeed, Clara remains something of a cipher, an every-companion, rather than a living breathing individual. (Something that only really starts to change in the following episode.) Although perhaps appropriately if she’s standing for every companion of the last 50 years, she’s pivotal to the resolution of the story. She’s the one who realises that Hurt hasn’t destroyed Gallifrey yet. And she’s the one who intervenes when all three Doctors prepare to push the button, reminding the Doctor of who he is.

Ultimately the flaws are not enough to outweigh the episode’s many virtues. It’s one of those occasions when just about everything clicks, from strong supporting roles, many of them female (but none noticeably gay or trans) to action and effects (including some good old-fashioned model work.) The Direction by Nick Hurran seems to rise to the occasion. StyÅ‚istically this is an episode with unusual flair, at times seeming to borrow tricks from Sherlock with extreme close ups, characters stepping in and out of focus, jump cuts, flashbacks, captions integrated into the scene. There are various bits of visually inventive staging, like the Zygon’s advance on Osgood viewed in the mirrored metal of the lift controls. The whole affair has a polish befitting its anniversary status.

I came back to this episode because of its Hugo nomination for the Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form, a nomination that felt inevitable given the huge fanbase of the series and the way that it has dominated the Short Form category in recent years. I can’t say I’m a fan of any one series crowding out other worthy nominees in the way that Doctor Who has done, and I can’t honestly say that all those past episodes deserved their place on the ballot. (‘Planet of the Dead’, anyone?) But what I can say is that ‘The Day of the Doctor’ absolutely does.

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