Reviewing Doctor Who: 50th Anniversary Special

And so here we are. The 50th Anniversary Special has been televised (gathering an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for the world’s largest ever simulcast of a TV drama, being broadcast in 94 countries simultaneously). It almost managed to melt the internet, thanks to Twitter erupting in a storm of fan commentary. Critical response has been almost universally rhapsodic (apart from the Daily Mail), though not without critique of specific aspects of the show. All in all, whatever you think of the show since its 2005 regeneration, and in particular whatever your views on the current custodian Steven Moffat, the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the worlds longest running science fiction series has been pretty much an unqualified success.

The build-up included a full schedule of TV and radio specials, from interviews and retrospectives through to a one-off TV drama about the programme’s origins, An Adventure in Time and Space, penned by Mark Gatiss. Merchandising and promotion has gone crazy. Some folks may have felt it was just a little bit over the top. But I thought it was all great fun. The most wonderful thing about the celebration has been the enormous respect paid to the show’s history; this isn’t all about the last three Doctors.

Focusing on Doctor Who itself though, I will be exploring the episodes in detail, heedless of spoilers, as I know everyone who cares has seen them. I say “them” because amongst the most crowd-pleasing gifts were the two “minisodes” delivered through BBC iPlayer and YouTube. So, on we go…

The Night of the Doctor

Paul McGann is greatly respected as the Eighth Doctor, even though his tenure was limited to the 1996 TV movie and an extensive run of Big Finish audio plays. Firmly established as canonical from the outset thanks to a dignified regeneration scene for Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy, many were saddened that McGann wasn’t given the same opportunity when the series returned in 2005. Well, Christmas came early in 2013.

Cass, a female starship pilot, is the last crew member aboard a fatally damaged starship mere moments away from crashing. Who should pop in to rescue her but (cue fanboy squealing) the Eighth Doctor himself, portrayed by a very well-preserved Paul McGann. He is a conscientious objector to the ongoing Time War, operating on its fringes but refusing to engage in the fighting.  But when he offers Cass refuge on-board the TARDIS, she immediately realises that he is a Time Lord and angrily refuses his help. Seconds later, the ship crashes and both Cass and the Doctor are killed.

But they haven’t just crashed anywhere, oh no, they are on Karn, home of the Sisterhood: the last, exiled relic of the mystical matriarchal leadership of Gallifreyan civilisation which preceded the ascendancy of the Time Lords (introduced and last seen in the classic 1976 series Brain of Morbius).  The Sisterhood has anticipated the Doctor’s coming and they restore him to temporary life, offering him regeneration in exchange for his commitment to ending the Time War. The Doctor takes some convincing, his pacifism combining with his sarcastic bitterness to mount a powerful objection, but eventually he is persuaded. The Sisterhood claim Time Lord science is “elevated” on Karn, and they are able to offer him a degree of control over his regeneration: he chooses to become a warrior, and we see him become “the War Doctor”, his distorted reflection revealing a young John Hurt.

There is so much to love about this mere 7 minutes of Doctor Who gold: McGann’s elegiac performance, so evocative of what could have been; his haggard, war-ravaged face and costume; the Sisterhood of Karn; the confirmation (hinted at in The Doctor’s Wife) that a Time Lord can change sex when regenerating. We learn that the Time War threatens the entire universe and the Time Lords themselves are indistinguishable from the Daleks in the eyes of those who suffer during the conflict. A simply outstanding lead-in.

The Last Day
Less important but still interesting in its way, The Last Day is filmed from the first-person perspective of a Gallifreyan soldier who has had a camera and recording-device implanted into his head. They are at Arcadia, Gallifrey’s second city and allegedly the safest place on the planet, when a vast army of airborne Daleks breach their vaunted “sky trench” defences and attack. The Fall of Arcadia – previously mentioned by the Tenth Doctor in passing – becomes the pivotal battle of the Time War around which The Day of the Doctor is centred.
The Day of the Doctor

Clara receives a message from the Eleventh Doctor and returns to the TARDIS. But the TARDIS is then unexpectedly airlifted by UNIT helicopter to Trafalgar Square under the command of Kate Lethbridge-Stewart. Preserved instructions from Queen Elizabeth I of England are shown to the Doctor, and he is taken to a secret vault at the National Gallery (that he is entrusted to curate) containing “dangerous” artworks. These include various pieces of Time Lord “dimensionally transcendental” art: moments of time preserved in stasis that take the form of “3-D pictures”, including a painting of the last day of the Time War known as both “No More” or “Gallifrey Falls”. The glass frames of several of these pictures have been broken from within and figures in the paintings have disappeared. It transpires that the shape-shifting Zygons (last seen in 1975’s Terror of the Zygons and, obliquely, in The Power of Three) are invading, having used the Gallifreyan art as a hiding place for centuries (we learn additionally that the Zygon homeworld was destroyed in the Time War). To defeat them, UNIT plan to detonate a nuclear warhead in London, from within their base (the vaults of which contain a number of artefacts and is, incidentally, TARDIS-proof).

In the meantime, in the midst of the Time War, the War Doctor watches Arcadia falling to a Dalek invasion, and decides to trigger a weapon of mass destruction called “The Moment”, which is described as a “galaxy eater” and will destroy both Time Lords and Daleks completely. The weapon is sentient and possessed of a conscience; its interface appears in the form of future assistant Rose Tyler in her guise as the Time Vortex-empowered “Bad Wolf”. In a manner not unlike the Ghost of Christmas Present from the Dickens classic, she proceeds to challenge the Doctor’s resolve.

When a fissure in space and time opens at these two points in the timeline, the Eleventh Doctor and the War Doctor are deposited in Elizabethan England, where they meet the Tenth Doctor and a young Elizabeth I (to whom the Tenth Doctor has just proposed, mistakenly believing her to be a disguised Zygon). Captured and locked in the Tower of London (UNIT’s future headquarters), the Eleventh Doctor scratches into a wall the code necessary to activate a vortex manipulator (left to UNIT by Captain Jack Harkness). Found by his allies in the present day, it allows Clara to escape the Zygons by travelling into the past, where she then frees the Doctors.

Knowing they will be unable to use their TARDISes to enter UNIT’s TARDIS-proof base, the Doctors instead use the Zygons’ technology to seal themselves within the painting “Gallifrey Falls”. Emerging through the picture in the present day moments before the nuclear warhead is detonated, the Doctors erase the memories of the humans and Zygons present, causing them to forget which of them is human and which disguised Zygon and forcing them to negotiate a peace settlement.

The War Doctor, believing he now knows the consequences and has decided what is right, returns to his time with the intent of activating the Moment. But the other two Doctors and Clara appear with the intention of detonating the device alongside him so that he doesn’t have to do it alone (Bad Wolf having granted them entry to the time-locked heart of the Time War). However Clara convinces the Eleventh Doctor to “be a Doctor” and change his mind and seek an alternative resolution. Subsequently, with advice from The Moment itself, they summon all of the Doctor’s incarnations (including a previously unseen future incarnation) from throughout time and space: working together, and with the consent of the Time Lord General on Gallifrey, they try to use the Zygons’ technology to freeze Gallifrey in time and seal it away safely in a pocket universe. Though they do not know if they have truly succeeded, Gallifrey does disappear, leaving the vast Dalek fleet to accidentally annihilate itself in the ensuing crossfire. Though I found that particular outcome a little unlikely, it is forgivable, as the most important consequence is removing from the Doctor the burden of a genocide, something which was always so very difficult to reconcile with the character we knew, “War Doctor” or not.

Saying their farewells, and realising that they will not remember what truly happened due to the disruption of the time streams (they will continue to remember Gallifrey as having been destroyed), the Tenth and War Doctors depart in their respective TARDISes. Moments later, the War Doctor begins to regenerate (presumably into Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor). Left behind in the high-security gallery, the Eleventh Doctor meets the mysterious curator of the museum, who appears to be aware that he resembles an older version of the Fourth Doctor (touchingly portrayed by an elderly Tom Baker). The curator tells the Doctor that the painting’s actual name is neither “No More” nor “Gallifrey Falls”, but the singular “Gallifrey Falls No More”. Instantly, the Doctor realises that the plan to save Gallifrey was successful, and that he must now find his home planet and rescue the Time Lords. The episode ends with a nod to the programme’s history when the Doctor describes a dream he’s had—one where the entire range (to date) of the Doctor’s incarnations are seen together and the Doctor determines he will seek out Gallifrey once more.

The most crowd-pleasing elements of the episode are its frequent nods to continuity both Classic and revived (and here I must thank the able editor of Wikipedia’s entry on the episode). The episode opens with the original 1963 title sequence and a brief glimpse of I.M. Foreman’s scrap yard, before we learn that Clara is now a teacher at Coal Hill School, where Ian Chesterton – one of the Doctor’s very first companions and a former science teacher at the school – is now chairman of the Board of Governors (did the Doctor pull a few strings to get her that job? Incidentally, the headmaster is W. Coburn, a reference to Anthony Coburn, who wrote An Unearthly Child). Clara departs to meet the Doctor (on the Eleventh Doctor’s anti-gravity motorcycle from The Bells of Saint John) at 5:16, the time An Unearthly Child originally aired. The code used to activate Captain Jack’s vortex manipulator – 1716231163 – is 5:16 on 23 November 1963, when the show first aired.

When the TARDIS is picked up by UNIT, the UNIT call sign given is ‘Greyhound’, formerly the call sign of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. The UNIT dating controversy, regarding whether the Third Doctor era stories took place in the 1970s or 1980s, is referenced in dialogue by Kate Stewart, when she mentions that events occurred in “the ’70s or ’80s depending on the dating protocol used”. The Brigadier himself is referenced; an image of him is seen alongside images of various companions of the Doctor. Kate’s assistant, Osgood, is presumably related to UNIT technician Osgood from The Dæmons and her scarf is identical to that worn by the Fourth Doctor. Kate Stewart twice mentions her subordinate, Malcolm, presumably the same UNIT scientist named Malcolm played by Lee Evans in Planet of the Dead.

The Tenth Doctor’s era is also heavily referenced, elaborating on his marriage to Queen Elizabeth I originally mentioned in his final story, The End of Time but first alluded to in The Shakespeare Code. The Tenth Doctor’s speech to a rabbit whom he believes to be a Zygon is partially taken from the Christmas special, Voyage of the Damned. The Tenth Doctor mentioned the Fall of Arcadia in Doomsday. After learning of Trenzalore, the Tenth Doctor remarks, “I don’t want to go.”, his incarnation’s final words from The End of Time. The Moment device was originally mentioned in The End of Time, but not explored in depth. Here, it takes the form of Bad Wolf, a seemingly omnipotent being created by Rose Tyler when she absorbed the Time Vortex in the Series 1 finale, The Parting of the Ways.

In trying to compensate for the presence of three Doctors who utilise different console rooms, the Tenth Doctor’s TARDIS console briefly changes to the War Doctor’s console room, seen again later in the episode, which strongly references the white roundel-decorated interiors of the Classic era. Upon seeing the Eleventh Doctor’s console, the Tenth Doctor echoes the Second Doctor when he says: “Oh you’ve redecorated! I don’t like it.”. The line was originally used by the Second Doctor speaking to the Third in The Three Doctors and was later reused by the Fifth and Eleventh Doctors in The Five Doctors and Closing Time.

Overall, the episode is a magical, thrilling, joyous celebration of Doctor Who. Honouring the past while establishing a new path for the future, it strikes a good balance between nostalgia and new vistas. The mix of witty comedy and moving gravitas is near perfect, enabled by Moffat’s superb writing and by the outstanding performances of an ensemble cast. The scenes of warfare on Gallifrey were stunningly realised (and confirmed once and for all that Gallifrey is fully populated by billions of “ordinary” Gallifreyans, and the Time Lords are just the ruling elite). The sight of thirteen TARDISes hurtling to Gallifrey’s rescue (with skilfully edited footage of every single Doctor) was heart-in-mouth material. If I have a criticism it is that the Zygons – welcome though they were – were in fact unnecessary to the plot and felt somewhat underused (though their role in cementing the Doctor’s union with Good Queen Bess is comedy gold). Frankly however they were there for the kids, as the very things about the episode which thrilled me made no impact on the Lad – indeed, my little seven-year-old boy didn’t number this one as amongst the best. It was very talky, to be fair.

Some loose ends and open questions are tied up, not only regarding the Tenth Doctor’s royal wedding (he is a bigamist!) but also firmly establishing that the War Doctor is the true Ninth Doctor, making the Tenth and Eleventh the Eleventh and Twelfth respectively. Unless the Sisterhood of Karn actually provided the Doctor with an extra regeneration (which is not what is implied) then the Doctor’s next regeneration (taking place at Christmas) will be his last. All the more reason for him to find Gallifrey, because we know the Time Lords can award new regeneration cycles and even resurrect dead Time Lords from the Matrix should they choose (as they did for both the Master and Rassilon).

Which raises the question of how the Doctor will both save Gallifrey and counter its threat? Unseen in this episode, elsewhere in the ruined Capitol the desperate and despairing Time Lord High Council, lead by the monomaniacal Rassilon, is wrestling with a bitter and enraged Master over the Ultimate Sanction (The End of Time). Presumably, when Gallifrey is rescued and “unfrozen”,  they will still be locked in hand-to-hand combat, unless the fight was resolved one way or the other just before the Time War was ended by the Doctors.

Now we can all look forward to the 2013 Christmas Special, which we are promised will feature a return to Trenzalore, Cybermen, the Silence, Daleks and Weeping Angels. In August 2013, Moffat stated in an interview that the Christmas episode would tie together the remaining story strands from the Eleventh Doctor era, some of which were introduced as far back as The Eleventh Hour; the episode’s tag line will be “Silence Will Fall”. And we all know we will be saying goodbye to Matt Smith, and hello to Peter Capaldi.

I, for one, can hardly wait.

About Mark Winter

Dark Fantasy novelist (INFERNAL PREY). Blogging on politics and current affairs (GibberLog), science and history (BlatherLog), sci-fi, fantasy & horror (WittlerLog), business, product development & start-ups (MutterLog). View all posts by Mark Winter

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