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Doctor Who Recap: All the Doctors

From the very first moments of “The Day of the Doctor,” it was pretty obvious we were in for something special. They dared to go old school, with Hartnell-era style credits, coupled with a classic London bobby walking past a sign pointing toward the Totters Lane junkyard, which was then revealed to be on a wall outside Coal Hill Secondary School – all nods to the very first episode, “An Unearthly Child.” But things got modern quickly, upon discovering that we were not in the past, but the present, and Clara (Jenna Coleman) is now teaching at the school, gracing the very same hallways and classrooms as her predecessors Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright did 50 years ago (there’s actually a shout out to Ian on the Coal Hill sign if you look closely).

What happened to the Doctor and Clara being caught in his timestream at the close of “The Name of the Doctor”? Seems some time has passed, and some escapades have been glossed over. It’s business as usual, and Clara is off on a motorbike (the same one from “The Bells of Saint John,” right?) and into the TARDIS for more adventures. Soon enough she and the Doctor (Matt Smith) are on one, when they realize the TARDIS is caught in the grip of a crane attached to a helicopter, and they’re being dragged to UNIT HQ by Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), which was a far more thrilling sequence than expected. Or are they? Kate’s acting on orders from the Queen – Queen Elizabeth I, that is.

On to the paintings at the National Gallery, which were teased ages ago when Matt Smith uttered that word in an interview while talking about what to expect from the 50th. Like most people here in the States, I viewed the episode in 2-D (though I’ll be seeing the 3-D theatrical version on Monday), and yet that painting, initially entitled “Gallifrey Falls,” still jumped right off the screen. So sayeth the Doctor: “Time Lord art – bigger on the inside; a slice of real time – frozen.” And into the painting we went, and got our first real slice of what the Time War was like. Turns out it’s not much different than most wars – lots of explosions and death and strategizing and plotting and standing up for what’s right. We never really found out before, and we didn’t find out here, exactly what the battles raged over, though I imagine it’s not much more than the Daleks wanting Time Lord tech and secrets, which would be quite helpful in their ongoing plans of universal domination, and certainly the obliteration of the Time Lords couldn’t hurt those plans.

Soon enough we’re introduced to The Moment, apparently a weapon so powerful its operating system became sentient and developed a conscience (you know, the sort of stuff only Doctor Who can get away with). And, it seems, only one man on Gallifrey has the cojones to use it. The first proper introduction to the War Doctor (John Hurt) occurs out in the Gallifreyan wastelands, as he carries the weapon to a tiny dilapidated house to ponder what he must do. And then the interface reaches out to him, in the form of the Bad Wolf Rose Tyler (Billie Piper).

As nice as it might’ve been to recapture some of that Ten/Rose magic, the episode didn’t go there (it couldn’t given the setup) and really, that story was milked about as many ways possible throughout the course of RTD’s tenure as showrunner as could be. So this was a way to bring Billie back, without having to bring Rose back, and it worked rather wonderfully, and allowed for the War Doctor to have his very own invisible companion throughout the proceedings. She also has the bonus ability to open portals that can bring the various Doctors together, which proved quite handy in a multi-Doctor story such as this. (How much of what happened in this story was due solely to her machinations?)

The return of David Tennant’s Doctor is surely the one thing that a majority of fans were looking forward to more than anything else, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone being disappointed by his work here. It’s as if almost no time had passed, and he certainly hasn’t forgotten how that particular swagger that makes his Doctor tick goes. And it’s a bit brill of Moffat to plunder the romantic lothario aspect of Ten, as it’s one of the big things that separates him from Eleven – Ten is genuinely cool, Eleven thinks he’s cool. Under different circumstances, Eleven would be Ten’s wingman for a night out on the town … and I think I just came up with a great piece of fanfic for someone to write.

Smith and Tennant never once missed a single beat, no matter what they were playing, be it comedy, drama, or something in between. We could do an entire recap just talking about their memorable interactions and quoting all their snappy dialogue (this story is in fact crammed with amazing poetry from all its characters), and generally fawning over how great they worked together in this episode. We’re confusing the polarity, indeed. And then John Hurt shows up alongside them, and the entire act becomes positively magical, what with Hurt commenting on his future selves in the sort of way you’d expect an old fogey Doctor to see the modern Doctors. It takes an actor of Hurt’s caliber to hold his own in this unique acting scenario, and never for a moment does it feel as if he’s anything but at home in this world. 

Much of the Queen Elizabeth stuff and the Zygon storyline that dominated about a third of the proceedings did very little for me. And that’s strictly a personal thing, as I lost interest in doppelganger/shape-shifter storylines a long time ago. They’re among my least favorite sci-fi chestnuts, and tedious to follow, especially once the “But which one’s which?” games start up, and this had plenty of that. In no way did it ruin the special or make it lesser, because if you’re going to tell a Zygon story, those sort of antics are bound to happen. There’s still a great deal of affection for the Zygons after all these years, even though they had just one story back in 1975, so while I may not have been bowled over by their return, there were likely plenty of viewers that were. And those who’ve never seen “Terror of the Zygons” (which for many folks is a bona fide classic, and is finally out on DVD as of October) got to experience a new facet of old Who. Having said all of that, the slow invasion of Earth by the Zygons via the Gallifreyan paintings was utterly inspired and strange and whacked.

The episode really begins kicking into something extra special around the one hour mark, when the three Doctors gather around the big red button, in a show of solidarity. Intensely moving this scene was, and I found myself unexpectedly tearing up over this scenario. It just felt wrong, as if this isn’t what the Doctors should be doing, and they knew it too … which is why it didn’t happen, and an alternate plan that the Doctor had been pondering for 400 years was put into action (with no small amount of credit due to Clara and Faux Rose, who are both as much heroes of the piece as the Doctors).

And you surely know what happened next – ALL of the Doctors (including a fist pumping flash of future Doctor Peter Capaldi) bring their TARDISes to Gallifrey to move it out of harm’s way and into its own bubble of time and pocket universe, while the Daleks essentially destroy each other. It’s a thrilling sequence, and one that everyone wanted from this anniversary story, and as well done as could be, marrying new footage with classic (with, I think, some newly recorded bits of audio from some of the old Doctors) into one swirling heroic scenario.

The first thing I saw when clicking on Facebook after the episode ended were some friends debating how these events affect the numbering of the Doctors, and the gut reaction is that it most certainly does. But that isn’t quite what happened. When Hurt and Tennant return to their timelines, they forget everything that happened in the adventure, and the new status of Gallifrey. To them (and to the rest of the universe), the timeline remains exactly as it was prior to this story. The War Doctor still pressed the button, and Ten still carries the guilt, and, no doubt, Nine is still out there somewhere, moody and depressed as all hell. Events have to stay as they were, even if it’s only by perception, otherwise it lays waste to the entirety of the new series so far. Only Eleven going forward knows the truth, and it remains to be seen how this issue will be handled from here on out. Unless something new is revealed in the Christmas special next month (such as the idea that Tennant’s half a regeneration from “Journey’s End” counts as an actual regeneration, which Moffat’s been mumbling about lately – which would make Smith #13), then it does seem that Capaldi is the thirteenth incarnation, even if not by name. I am certainly more than open to hearing other theories on this, as I could very well be more wrong than Wrongly McWrong of Wrongville, Texas.

One thing I am not wrong about, though, is how magical it was to see Tom Baker show up as the Curator of the museum at the close (despite the fact that the man himself ruined it last week!). Was this some alternate, splinter version of the Fourth Doctor, or just a strange old man who knew more than he should? I would like to believe that this was indeed the Fourth Doctor, because that’s precisely the sort of magic that an anniversary special like this deserves (which isn’t to imply it was short on magic prior to that scene), and the roundels on the wall of the gallery weren’t put there by mistake.

But the search for Gallifrey is an exciting development, as it gives the series a mission, which it hasn’t had in a long, long time (has it ever had a goal that felt this important?). These developments also redefine our central character, and will presumably give him a different sense of self. No longer the destroyer, the Doctor is now the savior, and an immense weight has been lifted. There aren’t many shows that can spin the action so effectively after seven seasons, or 33 seasons, or 50 years, but then there has never been another series anything like Doctor Who. Cheers to the next 50.

Odds and Ends

  • Not sure if it was necessary to see Hurt regenerate, and it sort of felt like the completist in Moffat at work there. He’s been on a roll with this sort of thing lately. The ears line was quite amusing, and I’m sure every single person watching thought just maybe Chris Eccleston showed up after all to shoot a cameo (which might’ve actually justified the scene), but alas …
  • The rejiggered and expanded UNIT is another huge step in the right direction. Frankly, the new series has never quite gotten UNIT right, but it seems to finally be on the right path, and if Jemma Redgrave is around for even half as long as Nick Courtney was, she’ll still be a major component of the show.
  • All the Gallifrey stuff mesmerized, though I was really hoping to get some Timothy Dalton as Rassilon action, but the High Council were only mentioned, and the high ranking Gallifreyans we saw were in the military.
  • The lineup of all the Doctors and the end credits sequence were both awesome.
  • The quick tease of the Christmas special indicates that we’re going back to Trenzalore. Perhaps we’ll find out then how the Doctor and Clara escaped from his timestream at the close of “The Name of the Doctor.”
  • If you’ve not yet seen it, you simply must check out Peter Davison’s 30-minute short film, “The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot,” which premiered yesterday after the “The Day of the Doctor.” It’s hysterical, and the perfect come down/addendum to the anniversary special. You’ll be gobsmacked by the cameos in this thing.
  • If you still haven’t had your fill of Who, check out this three-hour college radio special, put together by my dear friend Michael Thomas, dedicated to showcasing much of the music from the show’s 50 years. The link should be active for about a week.