When we started this blog we decided not to write about the stories in order. It has been done before, many times, and we wanted to have something for fans of every era right from the start, so we went for variety instead. You might say we took a VHS release schedule approach, jumping around from one Doctor to another, although we tried to do things a bit better than that. Firstly we aimed for some coherence, with themed weeks or runs of stories, but more importantly we tried to have a mix of quality throughout, and we particularly wanted to end on a high note. So what to hold back to the end, so we could really go out on a high? There was only one candidate for that, and it simply had to be the biggest celebration of Doctor Who there has ever been: the 50th Anniversary Special. At least, it was supposed to be the biggest ever celebration of Doctor Who, but did the episode deliver on that?
Writing an anniversary episode is probably something of a poisoned chalice, the most significant anniversary ever even more so. There isn’t going to be an anniversary that feels like a more important one than this for another 50 years, so you can imagine the weight of expectation that rested on this. It was simply going to be impossible to please everyone. In particular, what a lot of the fans wanted was the same kind of approach as The Five Doctors or (and we have to face facts here) Dimensions in Time, where every living previous Doctor who will agree to appear is displayed on screen like a museum exhibit, along with as many monsters and companions as possible. The harsh reality is that it would almost certainly have been a train wreck approach, and Steven Moffat recognised something very important about the 50th Anniversary special: it was inevitably going to be watched by a lot of people, including a significant number of casual viewers who were tuning in out of curiosity, so it had to sell the show. It was an opportunity, and you just can’t blow that chance on something that is entirely backwards looking. Instead, Moffat went with a blend of nods to the past and setting up the future of the show. He made the episode not just about bringing things back, but instead decided to just make it a really big and significant episode in other ways. Most importantly, he took the Time War plot thread that had haunted the series since 2005, dealt with it in the most epic way possible, and then put it to bed, while looking forward to what was coming next.
The Time War needed fixing of course. It was always a good idea to bring back Doctor Who minus Gallifrey, cutting away swathes of tedious and restrictive backstory and removing everything that could have made Doctor Who seem like the return of some tedious fanboy sci-fi. Doctor Who had to be brought down to Earth to appeal to a new generation. For me there was always a slight mis-step in that process, when Russell T Davies decided not just to write a version of Doctor Who minus Gallifrey, but to also write a version where the Doctor is responsible for the destruction of his own people. Moffat recognised that it just won’t do.
One of the things Moffat has always been completely brilliant at, far more than any other writer who has ever written for the show, is presenting the Doctor with two bad choices, sticking him between a rock and a hard place, and then having him choose a third path. Basically, the Doctor cheats his way out of situations, finding a third way. The idea of the Doctor ever deciding that committing genocide of his own people was the only option, without being brilliant enough to find a third way, always felt awkward, so here Moffat goes back to the Time War and allows the Doctor to find that third path, while maintaining the previous continuity beautifully. Admittedly it’s not perfect. We have to accept every Dalek just happening to be wiped out in their own crossfire when the planet disappears and accept that there are no significant numbers of Daleks anywhere but surrounding Gallifrey. We also have to ignore the “time” aspect of the “Time War”. It would take just one Dalek to survive, go back in time, and prevent what the Doctor does. That’s the horror of the Time War, and one that makes a nonsense of the whole idea of a war waged across time, but all in all everything is wrapped up in as satisfactory a way as it probably could be.
I mentioned that the special looks to the future as well, and for that we have the introduction of Osgood, the reintroduction of the Zygons and their plot thread left hanging, and the Doctor’s new mission statement, heading off on a path that will eventually take him back home again. As for the nods to the past, we get some lovely treats. The opening of the episode is a gorgeous recreation of An Unearthly Child, Clara is now teaching in Coal Hill School (also setting up a future plot thread), Billie Piper is back, but in a different and fascinating role, and we get some clever use of footage from old episodes and a breathtaking CGI dream sequence to find a way to actually get all the previous Doctors (and a future one) into the episode. David Tennant and Matt Smith are a joy to see together, getting the balance just right between teasing each other and recognising their similarities, probably the first time that balance has ever been struck in a multi-Doctor story. And of course John Hurt is as magnificent as we would expect him to be. There is a lovely little reference to all the previous companions, with the Black Archive board. They are all there, even Grace, and some of the photos hint at some fascinating missing stories. It throws up a lot of questions:
- How does UNIT have a photo of Katarina, who survived for 4 episodes and then died, before the Doctor had even met UNIT?
- How are Vicki and Steven pictured with UNIT soldiers?
- How is Victoria pictured with a UNIT soldier?
- How are Sara Kingdom and Mike Yates together in a photo?
- What is Benton doing on Voga with Sarah?
- … and when was Benton in an adventure with Leela?
- What is Grace doing in a photo with a UNIT soldier? Did she change her mind about travelling with the Doctor?
So lots of fun things to speculate about there. We could also speculate about how the Seventh Doctor suddenly changes his appearance while his TARDIS is flying around Gallifrey, going from Classic/Seven to Movie/Seven in the blink of an eye. But there is one person who got everyone talking after the episode went out: the Curator.
The favourite theory seems to be the one that was Moffat’s intention: the Curator is a future incarnation of the Doctor, going through a cycle of “revisiting” old faces. I believe he mentioned something in an interview about the Doctor wearing a different face each day. But he deliberately left it open to our interpretation, and here are my nine eggs’ worth, because I find the popular theory messy and rather silly.
Regeneration involves the creation of a new face, a new body, to some extent a new version. That simply has to be a creative process, and we could look at that in terms of art. Virtually all art worth looking at is based on something. It doesn’t just come out of somebody’s head, unless we’re talking about the kind of stuff that comes out of an empty head and appeals to people with empty heads like a blank canvas or random smears of paint. Great art is observational. It might be observational in a twisted way, but it reflects a truth. So when a Time Lord regenerates and gets a new face, where does that face come from? What true image inspires the artist? The biggest clue comes from The War Games, in which the Time Lords have some kind of a catalogue of faces to choose from. So the process becomes pretty clear. Romana’s regeneration backs this up: she cycles through faces until she picks one she’s happy with, and where does that face come from? From her memory of course. She chooses Princess Astra. This has since become explicit, with the Capaldi era addressing, albeit briefly, his resemblance to Caecilius and why the Doctor chose that face. Why Five chose Maxil for his next face is a mystery though!
So let’s extend that to the other Doctors. Where did their faces come from? It is a fair assumption that each incarnation of the Doctor sees a face that sticks in his mind, perhaps because a person makes a strong impression on him, or maybe it really is generally just a random face plucked out of his memory. Perhaps One saw a news report about Salamander when he was on Earth in an unseen adventure, for example. So my immediate thought about the Curator was that he is simply an inspirational human being, whom the Doctor first met some time prior to Planet of the Spiders, and his face stuck in the mind, just like Caecilius. So that comment about revisiting old faces I took to be an indication of future adventures where the Doctor would find some of the people who had inspired his previous appearances and go on some kind of a significant journey of discovery as a result. What a way that would have been to include some of the previous Doctor actors! Sadly it was not to be. Maybe one day.
There are always possibilities. Always new places to go, and old favourites to revisit.
Thanks for reading. RP
The view from across the pond:
What’s the mad fool talking about now?
In November of 2013, my former colleague had to deal with a madman. That would be me; I was hyper. The kid in me was bursting through and couldn’t wait for the 23rd. Doctor Who captured my imagination when I was young and that excitement never left me. I hope it never does. 2013 would be special too. See, I wasn’t alive to see the original episode when it aired and I was only 1 by the time of the 10 year anniversary. By the 20th, I was still new enough to Who that I didn’t know about regeneration and here in the States, I didn’t have access to the newest episodes anyway. By the 30th anniversary, now very familiar with the series, I also knew it was canceled so that was that and by the 40th, there was no hope it would ever be back. Or so we thought. So by the 50th, my personal timeline with Doctor Who had reached a point where I’d seen every episode, knew all about the show and was about to be able to celebrate an anniversary on the same day as everyone else. Suffice to say, I had just cause to be excited! It was sure to be a big day!
The day I did it. The day he killed them all. The last day of the Time War.
Most of us have heard the phrase “my Doctor”. It represents the Doctor that brought us into the series. David Tennant uses that line on Peter Davison in Time Crash but it’s a thing fans say to represent the Doctor that first captured their imagination with the series. I started with Tom Baker; my Doctor. Until I saw Davison. Then he became my Doctor… and this went on with every new Doctor I saw. On Novermber 23rd of 2013, however, we would celebrate all of them. It would be the day we would celebrate everyone’s Doctor. And maybe even one more!
I’ve had many faces, many lives. I don’t admit to all of them. There’s one life I’ve tried very hard to forget.
And it turns out, my excitement was not unprecedented. November 23rd gave us the largest global broadcast ever! Simultaneously transmitted (simulcast) all over the world, this episode would air in 94 countries. It would be broadcast in 1500 theaters worldwide. It pulled in 16 million viewers (including iPlayer). It was filmed in 3D and unlike most movies which use 3D for the occasional effect, this was actually a part of the story. And it has since been voted the number 1 favorite episode by Doctor Who fans. So while I was perhaps over-excited, and bubbly, and giddy, and counting down for the date during the week leading up to it, it was warranted. Because November 23rd was going to celebrate… The Day of the Doctor.
There is simply so much that can be said about this story that I will never be able to do it justice. It starts with the original opening from 1963 in marvelous black and white before gently shifting to color. From the outset, we were given the clear reminder of where the show started. Then, writer Steven Moffat begins building around the legend.
Great men are forged in fire. It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame.
We know the Doctor. We’ve seen the regenerations from Hartnell to McGann. But we never saw the regeneration from McGann to Eccleston because it never happened. Just before this special, we saw what really happened in a special called The Night of the Doctor. It would appear there was a Doctor we never got to know. But that would change over the next stunning 75 minutes. John Hurt was an amazing actor; in fact he was made Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2004. We’ve seen him in so many movies, it’s impossible to count. And yet, for many of us, he will always be The Doctor. His “No More” will define him as much as it will make a catchphrase for fans for years to come. And that says nothing of “Gallifrey Stands”! He adds humor to the interactions between the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors and a sense of gravity for the act he is about to commit. “Lesser” perhaps, but only in number of episodes! He truly was the Doctor for one marvelous episode.
I’m looking for the Doctor…
Well, you’ve certainly come to the right place!
Bringing back David Tennant was a stroke of genius. Tennant is considered Tom Baker’s rival in popularity. Rightfully so. He played the part from 2006-2010 and, to paraphrase what he tells Mickey, he did it brilliantly. Playing him against Matt Smith was a guarantee of fun. While both represent youth (and skinniness), they are both very different in their approach. In some ways, Smith appears younger (because physically he is) and yet there are moments when he comes across as far older than his two predecessors. The banter that started with Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton is turned up to 11 (pun intended); it is stronger, sillier, and in general, so much more exciting. This is Doctor Who for the modern era with a fond memory of where it came from. It shows in every scene.
The Doctor has allies. Clara is there by Smith’s side, but we are also reunited with Kate Lethbridge-Stewart. Jemma Redgrave plays the Brigadier’s daughter and she does the character proud. Her command of UNIT and her respect for the Doctor both shine through. She’s a great character and I hope we see more of her. But it’s Ingrid Oliver’s Osgood that steals the show. She’s studied the Doctor. As an employee of UNIT, she has access to all the files on Earth’s alien ally and she’s made it a point to get to know him. She is as excited to meet him as much as we fans are! In that way, she represents us and she’s a far cry from Whizz Kid in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. Like the love letter that was Time Crash, her portrayal of a fan is a love letter to all the fans; those both behind the camera and in front of the television sets.
The interface is hot!
Well, I do my best!
Having Billie Piper back, even if she’s not quite Rose Tyler, was another great move. She’s a fan favorite and being the companion that helped to bring the series back in 2005, it was important to have her in it. Her “it’s only a wolf” is clever and fans understand even before she confirms it; this is the Bad Wolf. Moffat amazes us with the way he constructed the story and brought everything together.
One of them is a Zygon.
Ug! I’m not judging you…
After 38 years and only one story to their credit, the Zygons have returned. And they are better than ever. If ever there were a race that looked truly alien, it’s them. The conflict around identity that develops is the classic sort of mind game we love in Doctor Who. A fitting tribute. I could have done without the drool though! But their transformations are far better than they were in the 70’s…
Time Lords of Gallifrey, Daleks of Skaro, I serve notice on you all.
Zygons aren’t even the only enemy present. You can’t celebrate Doctor Who without the Daleks. They were largely responsible for the destruction of Gallifrey and we’re about to see when that all happened. Since the 2005 reboot, the Doctor explained that he was the reason Gallifrey and the Daleks had been wiped out. But this is The Day of the Doctor and we would understand why very soon: it would be the day the Doctor saved Gallifrey.
Calling the War council of Gallifrey; this is the Doctor.
Hearing Hartnell’s voice was amazing, even if it was a voice actor. In that moment, we start to see and hear from all of the Doctors. The tribute was completed in that instant, but Moffat was going to give us another sign off to make us weep. But in this moment, the music hits a crescendo and the excitement peaks. The TARDIS flies around the Doctor’s home planet. The Daleks begin to panic. This is the moment we’ve been waiting for…
All twelve of them.
No, sir! All thirteen!
In an amazing move, before the 12th Doctor was even on our screens, his powerful eyes make an appearance as he flies his TARDIS into Gallifrey’s orbit to help hs former selves capture it in a stasis cube and save it from destruction. The 50th anniversary hits a high note like no other. Celebrating all that made Doctor Who magnificent: it’s about hope and courage and wonder. It has great music and great acting. It’s fun. It’s exciting. And in this very instant, all of that is palpable!
I’d be the Great Curator. I could retire and do that. I could retire and be the curator of this place.
You know I really think you might!
To wrap up a great story, you need a strong ending. When that voice was heard, I had chills. I still get them every single time I see that scene. I knew that voice immediately; no delay to think about it. In that instant, I remembered: yeah, Tom is my Doctor. This was the man who brought me into the show. This was the character that young me wanted to be. This was my immortal Doctor. Tom’s return to the role to celebrate 50 years was enough to make classic fans jump for joy.
I have a new destination. My journey is the same as yours, the same as anyones. It’s taken me so many years, so many lifetimes, but at last I know where I’m going. Where I’ve always been going. Home, the long way round.
Today, we come to the end of the blog having written about every televised story to date. We’re not closing up shop though. We’ll be talking about Jodie’s time once that begins. For now, we celebrate the Doctor in all his forms up until now. That final image closes out our episodic review for now. The day the Doctor saved his people was a triumphant success.
You know the sound the Tardis makes? That wheezing, groaning. That sound brings hope wherever it goes.
I still say, it’s the most hopeful show on television! The Doctor and the TARDIS… forever. Now let’s just hope they can pull off something equally amazing for the 100th anniversary! ML