I apologise for how incredibly late this is (dashing to get it done before tomorrow’s Christmas special!). I’d blame university, essays and so on but it really is, as ever, just due to my poor time management. Working on it…
Anyhow, the landmark 50th anniversary of Doctor Who has come and gone, but did it live up to the intense hype surrounding the event? I have to say that, up until November, I’d been very underwhelmed by efforts to commemorate the anniversary. We had the second half of series 7 – I think* – earlier this year which, if I’m being honest, was not the best run the revived show has had. That ended in May and since then there’s been radio silence of all things Doctor Who, apart from the passing announcement of Peter Capaldi being cast as the Twelfth Doctor. So I was quite eager to see whether these November festivities (yes, it does count as a holiday) would be worth the wait. Because we’ve had such a variety of audio-visual treats over the last month I’ll think I look at them separately before assessing the anniversary as a whole. (Warning: CONTAINS MULTIPLE SPOILERS)
The Night of the Doctor
This ‘minisode’ prequel certainly got the anniversary off to a dramatic start! Who expected Paul McGann to make an appearance? Fans have been clamouring for him to make a reappearance as the Eighth Doctor and, at last, he has returned, and we’ve finally found the answer to his regeneration. This is a short piece, only seven minutes in length, but it covers so much in that time, racing from element to element. It begins on a crashing spaceship where Cass (Emma Campbell-Jones) desperately calls for help. Her computers starts havering about doctors – “Stop talking about Doctors!” she demands. We hear a reply: “I’m a Doctor…” and, in typical Doctor Who fashion, the camera pans round for the big reveal. “But probably not the one you expected,” says Paul McGann, in this instance speaking directly to the audience. This brilliantly plays with the audience’s expectations and establishes so much within merely 25 seconds.
The story then follows a traditional format: the Doctor saves a young woman who wants to see the universe and is evidently perfect companion material. However, yet again, our expectations are subverted and she ends up choosing death over trusting a Time Lord as a result of their role in the horrific Time War. Previously in the series we’ve been introduced to countless species who lost their homes in the Time War, numerous extinctions, and even an episode partially set during it (‘The End of Time Part 2’, 2010), but I think this terror towards the Doctor is the most effectively I’ve seen the scale of suffering during the war expressed in writing. “Who can tell the difference anymore?” she says, comparing Time Lords to Daleks. This is absolutely chilling.
The remainder of the story takes place on Karn (last seen in ‘The Brain of Morbius’, 1976 – a nice throwback for the fans). Somehow, it seems natural that Paul McGann’s regeneration was effectively an act of suicide, which again emphasises the severity of the war. I think that “Physician, heal thyself…” are the greatest final words a Doctor has ever spoken. This is a beautifully written short piece by Steven Moffat, proving once again that he writes best when handling self-contained stories rather than longer arcs.
The only real negatives I have for ‘The Night of the Doctor’ are related to its production. Visually it’s perfect, but the general style of direction is just too restricted by its ‘minisode’ format. This is a story which needs more time to be told; at barely under seven minutes it rushes through at breakneck speed. It’s also choppily edited together with generic soundtrack pieces over the top, at times resembling a fan production (such as the sort of thing I’ve generally produced – ahem – ) than an official work. I’m particularly alluding to the bombastic score playing during the final seconds as John Hurt, the ‘War Doctor’, picks up the ammunition belt. It completely jars with the tone of the scene.
Overall, ‘Night of the Doctor’ succeeds at everything it was intended to do but it can’t avoid coming across as such wasted potential.
The Last Day
This is another short, eerie prequel leading up to ‘The Day of the Doctor’. Shots taken from the perspective of a soldier, resurrected as an android to guard the city of Arcadia (referenced by the Doctor in Doomsday, 2006 – some nice continuity here!), give this a chilling tone, working effectively to bring to life just how hellish the Time War is. Not an awful lot to say about this other than it succeeds tremendously at establishing the events surrounding the Fall of Arcadia. Ending with a Dalek onslaught and the narrator exterminated, this leads directly into ‘The Day of the Doctor’ and promises much to come.
An Adventure in Space and Time
To me, An Adventure in Space and Time always was going to be the highlight of the anniversary festivities. I remember watching Coronation Street do a similar origin story very successfully back in 2010, which no doubt must have helped inspire some aspects of this drama while also proving to be a hard act to follow. Though in my opinion not the greatest writer Doctor Who has seen, I was very pleased to have Mark Gatiss writing it, this kind of thing seeming to be his area of expertise. I went into this very excited indeed; and, generally, my expectations were met.
Although the drama’s intention to tell the story of Doctor Who‘s creation, it is at its core a character-driven piece. On one hand we have the story of Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine) trying to break into the television business despite coming against the institutionalised sexism of the BBC, developing alongside the tale of William Hartnell (David Bradley) searching for fulfilment in his acting career. The focus passes from Lambert to Hartnell as the drama proceeds but they’re both told beautifully well. Doctor Who proves to be the salvation for both. In his writing, Gatiss really captures the love and dedication which went into creating the show.
The acting was generally absolutely spot-on. That opening moment when David Bradley walked onto the TARDIS set, amazingly recreated, wearing the First Doctor’s outfit… It was like watching William Hartnell return from the dead, his mannerisms were so perfect. As Hartnell himself, he nailed that fine line between crotchety old man and lovable grandfather – the scenes with his real-life granddaughter and later with the kids in the park, where he completely relished getting into the role, were joyful to watch. Likewise, his forced exit from the show as a result of poor health was heartbreaking. Although I had no pre-conceptions, Brian Cox and Sacha Dhawan also managed to successfully capture how I imagined co-creator Sydney Newman and director Waris Hussein. And although I didn’t notice it at the time, seeing original actors William Russell and Carol Ann Ford in cameo roles was a very nice touch. Although I don’t believe there was a bad actor in the production, two actors whom I felt were miscast were Jamie Glover as William Russell** and Reece Shearesmith as Patrick Troughton. Again, nothing against their acting – it is as superficial as them simply not looking like the people they were recreating.
The direction is definitely another stand-out feature which brought Adventure to life; Terry McDonough really took us back to 1963. It’s such a fantastic period piece. So many shots stick out in my memory as excellent, but I think my favourite has to be the moment when the Daleks were first unveiled. That pan above the wobbly set was such an effective introduction. I also loved seeing how colourful some of the sets were. A couple of colour photos do exist from the 1960s and I’m always astonished by how bright they were. The transitions between recreating moments from the show and moments offstage were absolutely seamless, making the drama seem even more vibrant.
If I have one criticism of the whole production, I feel much of it was rushed. I think this is a flaw in both the writing and the editing, although not one I have a solution for – there is no easy way of representing three years in the course of 90 minutes. Although this sometimes worked to the show’s benefit, such as the repetitive photo-shoots Hartnell had to endure with an increasingly alien cast rushing past, I think the focus did sometimes lapse as a result. Nevertheless, the sheer amount Gatiss managed to cram into the script given such constraints is impressive.
Overall, An Adventure in Time and Space was a very laudable production indeed. I’d even go as far to say that it’s the best anniversary celebration I’ve ever seen, oozing pure love for the show.
The Day of the Doctor
The long-awaited 50th anniversary special of Doctor Who has finally passed. I remember back when I first became a fan of the programme, noting it as being 44 years old (so this must have been 2007, my 12-year-old self at the height of his Doctor Who fandom), and looking ahead to that far-off day when my favourite show would turn 50. How would it be celebrated, I wondered? I’d watched previous anniversaries: The Three Doctors (1973), The Five Doctors (1983) and Dimensions in Time (1993), all of which featured a return of past Doctors. This did appear to be the conventional way of celebrating the show’s anniversary. However, I recall Steven Moffat ruling out a multi-Doctor story so it’s perhaps surprising that’s what we ended up with***. It was quite exciting to see David Tennant announced to return (Billie Piper less so). Then the first trailers erupted across Facebook and Twitter, showing Dalek spacecraft engaged in warfare, a return to the Time War, and answers behind the enigmatic ‘War Doctor’, played by John Hurt and introduced in ‘The Name of the Doctor’ earlier this year. The publicity behind the special certainly made it unmissable viewing.
I’m going to get the negatives out of the way first, partly because it’s neater and partly because, on first viewing, I must confess that I absolutely hated ‘The Day of the Doctor’. Structurally, the episode is divided between two plots. On one hand you have the War Doctor (or alternatively the Ninth Doctor; perhaps even Doctor 8.5) leaving Gallifrey with The Moment, the most destructive weapon in the Universe, and on the verge of using it to wipe out the Time Lords and Daleks when the Moment’s conscience, played by Billie Piper, sends him through time to meet the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors in a bid to alter his resolve. At the same time UNIT summons the Eleventh Doctor to investigate monsters which broke out of a painting, which later turns out to be a Zygon invasion which the Tenth Doctor first investigated upon suspecting Elizabeth I had been impersonated. I can see the reasoning for these dual plot strands, as the Zygon invasion forms the backdrop of the War Doctor’s inner turmoil as he discover’s how his momentous decision will change him in future incarnations, but I’m afraid it fell rather flat on me. This is essentially a story about the Time War and the Doctor’s involvement in ending it. Obviously I’m a critic and probably don’t represent the target audience, but with this expectation in mind I didn’t really want to watch a somewhat silly romp featuring the Tenth Doctor at his most annoying. The tonal clash between these two stories just didn’t work for me. Also, the Zygon story has to have had the least satisfying conclusion I’ve ever come across.
Furthermore, upon first viewing I wasn’t keen on where Moffat took the Time War story. It was absolutely brilliant initially, with those scenes of absolute hell in Arcadia followed by the War Doctor’s retreat on that desert planet being some of the finest the show’s ever produced, but I really think the horrors of that moment were betrayed when the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors joined the War Doctor in pushing the button to end it all. This is what bothers me about Steven Moffat’s writing: although he is sometimes an undeniable genius, when he gets something wrong it not only ruins his own episodes but also destroys your opinion of what’s come before. To me, the destruction of the Time Lords was the absolute peak of the Doctor’s loneliness, despair and desperation. To have company at this most important moment ruined it. Then, there came that decision to trap Gallifrey inside a bubble of time? Forgetting the multiple logical fallacies in this (surely the Daleks didn’t send every single individual Dalek on that one assault upon Gallifrey? Surely they wouldn’t all be killed in the crossfire? And what do you mean, ‘I suppose we’ll never know if it worked?’ If it didn’t work the whole of time would have been ripped apart by Rassilon in ‘The End of Time’ (2009)!), it again destroys most of the drama during the 2005 series focusing around the Ninth Doctor dealing with what he did. The logic of not remembering doesn’t even work – how does the Doctor now have memories of something he didn’t even do? And while we’re on logic, why did the War Doctor randomly regenerate at the end of the episode, other than for convenience of showing how Christopher Eccleston became the Doctor (which is now infinitely duller than we had all imagined – thanks Moffat). I appreciate you couldn’t show anything as dark as this in what is essentially a family show, which is why I think Moffat would have been better to have just left the Time War alone.
My final niggle is with some of the characterisation. Principally, I really don’t like how Clara has suddenly become the doctor’s BFF and now knows everything about him, making all these comments like, “I always know [when you need time alone,” and so on. Logically, again, it makes sense – she probably has the most intimate connection a companion has ever had to him following her entry into his timestream at the end of series 7, but emotionally it falls flat. We have never had chance to watch their relationship develop on screen – she was there as his friend simply by virtue of being ‘the impossible girl’. This is a flaw of the writing, to be clear – Jenna Coleman does a brilliant job with what she’s given. I also think better use could have been made of the Tenth Doctor, who was kind of relegated to the sidelines when alongside Matt Smith and John Hurt.
With these thoughts running through my head I was almost despairing at the 50th anniversary. But then I watched it again and did manage to pick up on some more positives. As I mentioned, the sequences involving the Time War in the first half are beautifully written and stunningly directed. I think the assault of Arcadia is the best battle to have ever been visualised in Doctor Who, even if it was disappointingly conventional considering the grisly imagery we’ve been previously given about the Time War. Likewise, the sequence where the War Doctor retreats to the desert planet is fantastically written (“Time Lords of Gallifrey, Daleks of Skaro… I serve notice on you all. Too long have I stayed my hand; no more, no more. Today you leave me no choice: today, this war will end. No more. No more…” Ooh, the shivers) and the cinematography is incredible. I have few criticisms of Nick Hurran’s direction, who is establishing himself as one of Doctor Who’s very best. Likewise, the ending scene where Tom Baker returns is well written, acted and directed by all. This is perhaps one scene I can forgive for not totally making sense – it’s Tom Baker after all!
With the aforementioned characters notwithstanding, I think this episode also proved to be generally pretty strong on characterisation. Particularly John Hurt who, despite my objections towards the impact it would have upon the canon, I want to have entire seasons of acting as the Doctor. He played the role brilliantly, bringing an older and hardened portrayal to the character that is still essentially Doctorish at heart(s), and his exchanges with Matt Smith and David Tennant were a joy to watch. Easily the best thing in the episode. And although I wasn’t keen on her role in the story, Kate Stewart was played well by Jemma Redgrave, establishing a likeable recurring character. It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of the character of Rose, which is why I was so annoyed to have Billie Piper returning, but it must be stressed this isn’t due to her acting ability. With Piper playing the Moment’s Conscience, merely in the form of Rose, I don’t have any criticisms at all of her role in the episode. The Zygons I wasn’t keen on at all – the cynic in me would say they were there solely to make the merchandise officials happy – while the character of Elizabeth I was superfluous at best and irritating at worst (that said, I enjoyed the conclusion to this running gag of the Doctor’s relationship to the Queen, but it really didn’t warrant this much screen time).
Over all, I have very mixed feelings towards this episode. I certainly wouldn’t say it was a failure – it succeeds wholeheartedly at providing a spectacular anniversary special which celebrates the past while also looking to the future – but it definitely was brought down by quite a few failings. But, because it’s Christmas tomorrow, I think I’ll be generous. I can’t help but like the episode now I’ve rewatched it several times, despite the furious complaints of my science-fiction mired brain.
Final rating: 7/10
The Five Doctors(ish) Reboot
Anyone that knows me could testify that comedies are my least favourite genre of television – I tend to find them so boring. So it’s perhaps a surprise that this low-budget comedy production, sneaked into the anniversary celebrations under everyone’s noses, would prove to be my favourite offering of the entire month. There’s little I want to say about it other than you should watch it right now. Even if you’ve seen it before, go find it right now and watch it again!
Essentially, it makes light of the fact that Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy weren’t asked to be a part of ‘Day of the Doctor’. It features their attempts to get involved and, when Steven Moffat refuses them (in some absolutely hilarious scenes), they try to sneak onto the set. Oh, the entire thing is brilliant beyond description. So many people have made cameos in it – I lost count of the amount of times I wanted to shout in joy, “How did they get hold of that person?!” The amount of cameos goes to show just how much love there is for this TV show. It’s brilliant in that is doesn’t take itself at all seriously – whether by portraying Colin Baker as an egomaniac that subjects his family to regular viewings of his 1980s episodes, or showing Steven Moffat to be a heartless monster who plays with action figures all day long, I think this is one of the most hilariously self-aware things I’ve ever watched.
Just, go watch it now – you should have stopped reading after the first paragraph.
Final rating: 10/10
Overall, Doctor Who fans have been truly treated by the sheer amount of content we’ve had to feast on during the anniversary celebrations. Sure, not all of it was brilliant, but I think this is definitely without doubt the best overall anniversary the show has ever had. Compare it to the droughts experienced in 1993 and 2003 and the show seems to be very strong indeed. I look forward to 2023, 2024 and so on, and perhaps even the 100th anniversary in 2063 if I’m still alive! (I’d only be 68 – it’s possible!). Here’s to many more years of this utterly fantastic program.
*Took me a moment to remember when it actually aired – that’s how little an impression it made on me.
**It must have been surreal for Russell to see someone on set playing himself!
***Less so when you remember Rule 1: The Moff lies!