Saturday, November 23, 2013
DAMN Good Television -- DOCTOR WHO: "The Day of the Doctor"
"Let me get this straight. A thing that looks like a police box, standing in a junkyard, it can move anywhere in time and space?"
-- Ian Chesterton (William Russell), DOCTOR WHO: "An Unearthly Child"
Exactly fifty years ago today, the world of science fiction was forever changed when a British television series called Doctor Who premiered on November 23, 1963, one day after the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. In the first episode, "An Unearthly Child," two teachers named Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright become concerned about Susan Foreman, a very mysterious student of theirs. Following Susan to her home at 76 Totter's Lane in Shoreditch, London, they discover it's actually a junkyard belonging to someone called "I.M. Foreman." The schoolteachers hear Susan's voice inside, coming from a strange British police box and are confronted by Susan's grandfather, a brusque, suspicious man known only as The Doctor, who tries to dismiss them away. Forcing their way past the old man, Ian and Barbara step through the police box doors, only to find that it's considerably bigger on the inside with a futuristic design and a central hexagonical control console. And from there, the rest is history...or the future, take your pick.
Fifty years later -- or just a couple of minutes, depending on how you travel -- Doctor Who is the world's longest-running science fiction series after 26 seasons from 1963 to 1989, a TV movie in 1996, and then another seven seasons and assorted specials since the show's return in 2005. After eleven Doctors, umpteen companions and a whole lot of running, the series celebrates its fiftieth anniversary with "The Day of the Doctor," a special written by current showrunner Steven Moffat.
Obviously, hardcore Whovians would love to see a sprawling epic, filled with all eleven Doctors and each of their companions squared off against a grand alliance of Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, Omega and any number of Masters. However, the practicality of pulling that off with the first three Doctors sadly no longer with us, the next four considerably older than their respective eras as the Doctor and Christopher Eccleston declining to reprise his role as the Ninth Doctor made that pretty much impossible.
So Moffat decided to introduce a Ninth Doctor replacement in the form of John Hurt, playing a previously unrevealed incarnation known as the War Doctor. In the six-minute prequel "The Night of the Doctor," we learn that Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor regenerates into the War Doctor (with the help of the Sisterhood of Karn) and chooses to become a warrior in order to put an end to the Time War between Gallifrey and the Daleks.
After a lovely nod to the opening of "An Unearthly Child," the very first Doctor Who episode, the special begins Clara teaching at the Coal Hill School, the very same school that the Doctor's granddaughter Susan attended. Old-school monsters the Zygons make their long-awaited return to Doctor Who after 37 years in 1562 Elizabethan England, in connection with a mysterious three-dimensional painting from Gallifrey turning up in London's National Gallery in 2013. The Eleventh Doctor and his companion Clara Oswald are literally brought in by UNIT are the Brigadier's daughter Kate Stewart to investigate, ultimately leading to the Eleventh Doctor joining up with his previous incarnation, played once again by David Tennant. Meanwhile, the War Doctor is confronted by a sentient interface calling itself the Bad Wolf, which has taken on the form of Ninth Doctor companion Rose Tyler just as the War Doctor is about to activate the weapon that will destroy Gallifrey in the process of wiping out the Daleks once and for all. (Yeah, right.)
Moffat can't help but indulge in some fan-pleasing banter between the three Doctors, each of them taking playful jabs at one another's clothes, appearance, etc. while reminding everyone around them that they're the exact same Time Lord. There are sly nods to the past, a repeated line of dialogue here, pictures of former companions there, but nothing intrusive to the actual story. We also get to see the Tenth Doctor's TARDIS interior once again, while the War Doctor's TARDIS features classic roundel wall design that Ten and Eleven can't help but geek out over.
But ultimately, we figure out that "The Day of the Doctor" is actually Moffat's attempt to resolve the rather disturbing issue of The Doctor sacrificing his home planet and his people to end the Time War. The three Doctors realize that even their own timeline can be rewritten, sending them off in their own TARDISes to save the day, but to surprise of Whovians around the world, they're joined by the other Doctors in their TARDISes...even Peter Capaldi's Twelfth Doctor, who hasn't debuted yet! The thirteen Doctors shunt Gallifrey off at the moment of its destruction, preserving the web of time and keeping the Doctor's personal timeline intact. Gallifrey falls...no more.
So where has Gallifrey gone? Well, that's a pretty interesting question, one posed by none other than Tom Baker himself in an absolutely lovely cameo as a future Doctor wearing one of his former faces, now seemingly in retirement as a National Gallery curator. The Eleventh Doctor (or is that Twelfth now?) finds new purpose, to search for Gallifrey wherever it may be, although it seems likely his next incarnation, and perhaps others down the line, will have to do the heavy lifting.
Although a bit shaky at first, "The Day of the Doctor" ends up producing tears of joy for everyone who loves Doctor Who and after all the criticism Steven Moffat gets online, he can feel vindicated that he didn't screw up the most important anniversary story ever. And now we wait for Christmas, the final episode with Matt Smith's Doctor. Silence, please...