Warning: This review contains spoilers.
Only once have I been to a cinema where the audience applauded at the end of the show. It was for the 3D screening of The Day of the Doctor. Among the audience’s reactions were gasps, when Tom Baker appeared on screen, laughs, when David Tennant talked to a bunny, and pin-drop silence, when the three Doctors saw the children of Gallifrey projected in front of them before pressing “the button”. Never before was the audience appreciation of a Doctor Who episode so good. No, really – according to The Guardian, it received an audience appreciation index higher than any other British TV drama. Not everyone enjoyed it so much, though.
“No hamfisted plot buggery,” one commenter pontificates. “An insult to the original series,” says another. Comments on reviews of such ilk as The Guardian’s or Den of Geek’s attract as much backlash from the fans as the show itself. How dare he say 11 is better than 10! How dare she question Moffat’s paradoxes which mysteriously “resolve themselves”. But on this occasion, there is more here to talk about than the mere audience reaction. No, today, there is The Day of the Doctor.
And today, we were honoured, finally, with an explanation. Right from the get-go in Rose, there are questions to be answered, and, at least to some extent, they have been answered in The Day of the Doctor. The Time War gets some context, John Hurt’s Doctor is explained, and we finally find out what The Doctor really is getting up to in that big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff called The Fall of Arcadia. But, as with every Moffat milestone, there are questions left open. How did Tom Baker return? Will the Timelords make an encore appearance? And what, in the science fiction equivalent of hell, is The Doctor’s name?
More pressing questions struck me about the production, though. How on Earth did they do that effect of Clara biking it into the TARDIS? Where in the universe did they get the audio of Bill Hartnell talking about Gallifrey? And why, oh why, was it simulcast? The enigma of The Day of the Doctor is that there was no big reveal and that there were few spoilers. Steven Moffat was quoted saying “I have lied my arse off for months [about the 50th],” and the BBC allegedly called for the simultaneous world broadcast to avoid spoilers. But for what? A few Zygons and a brief cameo by Tom Baker. From the man who brought us gold such as Blink, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances and The Girl in the Fireplace, we got an episode fairly straightforward but confusing to non-followers of Doctor Who, which echoed the phrase “missed opportunity” with every line.
But what these stories had that The Day of the Doctor lacked is self-containment. The Day of the Doctor will go down in history as a fanfare pride-march of an episode, satisfying its own whims and indeed being a “love letter to the fans,” as Moffat put it. Perhaps, if he had trashed the Zygons, or trashed the Time War, but kept one plot-line and made it self-sufficient and interconnected, it would have been more effective. Perhaps, then, it would deserve its own flavour, its own style, and its own music as with the episodes of Series 7 Part 2.
Speaking of the music, I was half expecting a glorious mash-up of themes from the Series Seven soundtrack, which has by far been the best soundtrack to date. “You’re Fired!”, at least. Then “A Turbulent Flight”, “Up the Shard”, and perhaps even a touch of “Bah Bah Biker”. That would have iced the cake nicely. But there was none of that here. Instead we got the usual horns, strings and piano from Murray Gold, bless him, who always delivers the best, if slightly monotonous, scoring. There is a nice tribute to previous series with the return of the Russell T Davies-era music. I couldn’t help but smile upon the opening titles of Matt Smith hanging from the TARDIS after the Ninth Doctor music played. But the missed opportunity to use some of television’s best musical scoring looms over the episode like a proverbial aging star who’s lost his spark but is drafted in to play an ambiguous incarnation of a famous television hero. Yes, well…
It’s as if John Hurt was brought in to make the episode another The Three Doctors of 1973, which honoured the 10th anniversary of Doctor Who. Despite which, it turned out to be more akin to The Five Doctors, with an inconsistent number of Timelords appearing sporadically and unevenly due to production problems: No McGann, no Eccleston, three actors passed and the other four aging. Many people’s favourite moment in The Day of the Doctor will be Tom Baker’s appearance, but alas, the writing lets this one down. An untidy and nonsensical appearance only made up for by the fact that, well, it’s Tom Baker.
So, what are the best moments? Peter Capaldi’s appearance, of course. The comedy, too, was pleasing to see, especially from such a comedic genius as Steven Moffat (just look to Coupling for examples). Billie Piper’s, David Tennant’s and Matt Smith’s character moments are what made these elements of comedy stand out, Tennant’s and Smith’s “oh, lovely” and Piper’s “hello” smile to Hurt being the stand-out moments. The effects are grand, especially considering each CGI shot had to be completed twice for the 3D format. The funky 3D paintings were fantastic, as were some neat visual effects done outside of a computer: the exploding Dalek, for instance. But even this was overshadowed by the dark set coupled with copious amounts of CGI – good CGI, mind, but still CGI.
Unfortunately, most of the story was set-bound (and not surprisingly, too, given the media buzz), though an acceptable amount was shot outdoors to give the impression of variety. There was the obligatory and much welcomed nod, or should I say nods, to the classic series too. The production team did a wonderful job in reanimating the classic Doctors for the final scene, but they do look a bit wooden. This scene, like the inevitable and predicted cameo of Tom Baker towards the end, seems confusing and unclear, as if it were penned in five minutes before filming. This may well have been the case, given the nature of the scenes. As with the cameo of Matt Smith in An Adventure in Space and Time, Tom Baker, while stealing the show, doesn’t quite fit into the plot. Similarly, the final scene of all Doctors standing arm-to-arm, while adored by fans, is imaginably quite jarring for most viewers, and doesn’t fit into the story very well at all. Nonetheless it’s a pleasure to watch, for the visuals and nostalgia if not anything else.
It’s clear in these scenes that what is and what could have been are two separate worlds. With the reintroduction of Paul McGann in the minisode, The Night of the Doctor, it’s a shame his character wasn’t explored further. And, to be honest, by the end of the episode, I was more pleased to find a half-eaten packet of Iced VoVos in the back of the cupboard. Not because the 50th was bad, but because it could have been more. So, so much more. Perhaps I’m being too harsh. After all, a story featuring thirteen Doctors can’t be all bad. But when I clapped after the 3D viewing of The Day of the Doctor, I couldn’t help but feel a resentment, a disappointment. There is no doubt the Doctor Who team have done a wonderful job. The production values were high, and every component is as good as the next. Unfortunately it is not the sum of its parts.
And it will never be another Three Doctors.
You can watch the first teaser trailer for the 2013 Christmas special here.