The Day of the Doctor

The Last Day (prequel): I was so excited to get on to today’s main feature that I forgot to watch the prequel beforehand. I watched it afterwards, so it was naturally a bit of an anti-climax to see the events leading up to the Fall of Arcadia after I’d seen the actual Fall of Arcadia. I’m sure it would have been fine the correct way round.

Quite simply, this is the best episode of Doctor Who of all time. Saturday 23rd November 2013 was the last time our big group of friends all got together to watch a new episode, and will probably remain so now that we’ve all got busy jobs and people have started moving away and getting married and having babies. But what a high to go out on. Everyone came round to mine at around lunchtime, and we watched An Unearthly Child (just the first ep, not the full thing), The Three Doctors, The Five Doctors, Dimensions in Time, Time Crash, The Name of the Doctor and The Night of the Doctor as a warm-up.

None of this information is pertinent, but I mention it because it was a very happy day that will forever be lodged in my memory. It’s what makes Doctor Who so special to me, the way it’s intrinsically linked to certain times and certain people. The Day of the Doctor gets that, and it’s the perfect celebration. You don’t need me to write a review telling you why, and I don’t feel capable of doing so. So let’s see if I can do something different. In no particular order, here are fifty things I love about the fiftieth anniversary special.

  1. The original titles and music
  2. I.M. Foreman
  3. Coal Hill School – and having Clara work there is the first step in her transition from the mystery girl into a real person that we can begin to care about
  4. Riding a motorcycle into the TARDIS
  5. Kate Stewart – this is the first time she gets to take control in the same way that he dad used to, having been a bit of a passenger in her first story
  6. Osgood – she’s mostly just a cute fan representative at this stage, but the moment with the inhaler hints at the depth that’s to come
  7. “Codename: Cromer. 70s or 80s, depending on the dating protocol”
  8. Finally seeing the Time War, and it not disappointing after such a build-up
  9. It’s got Billie Piper in it
  10. It doesn’t have Rose Tyler in it – how wonderful to give Billie the chance to do something different, rather than further chip away at Rose’s resolution
  11. The design of The Moment itself is just gorgeous
  12. The way the three main settings – modern London, the Time War and Elizabethan England – are each given their own establishing scenes, one after another, before the Doctors are united, like a more in-depth and expensive version of The Five Doctors
  13. The trail of fezzes leaping from location to location, tying them all together
  14. It made me like Tennant again, having become a bit sick of him by the time he’d left three years earlier
  15. Specifically, I think it was the bit with the rabbit that did it
  16. A silly gag four years ago implying that Tennant shagged Queen Elizabeth I is now a key element in the fiftieth anniversary episode
  17. The fact that Smith and Tennant are quite matey with each other, which at this stage is a subversion of the norm for a multi-Doctor episode
  18. Conversely, how grumpy the War Doctor gets with how young they are, how they use their screwdrivers, and their silly catchphrases
  19. The War Doctor being so much more than just a substitute for Eccleston – he represents the classic era itself, and how despite the different approaches, it’s clear that the new regime owes it all to the original
  20. Just the fact that John Hurt is a Doctor now. John Hurt!
  21. The way that our introduction to him is so bad-ass – a machine-gunned message of defiance
  22. Smith and Tennant’s delight at both having put their clever specs on
  23. The War Doctor assuming they’re both the companions
  24. Smith calling Tennant “Dick van Dyke”
  25. The realisation of why the stone dust in the statue room was relevant
  26. The Black Archive, with its many pictures of old companions in bizarre combinations
  27. The choice of Zygons as the main baddy in only their second appearance – they must have the best average hit rate for any returning monster ever
  28. The relative restraint in only bringing back them and the Daleks – unlike previous anniversary specials, this story is about the Doctor, not any of his friends or foes
  29. Coming up with a brilliant plan to set the Sonic a 400-year task of disintegrating the cell door, only to discover it wasn’t locked
  30. The code for the vortex manipulator being the time and date An Unearthly Child aired
  31. John Hurt asking if there’ll be a lot of kissing in the future
  32. The multiple TARDIS interiors, and the reference to “the round things”, and of course the inevitable “you’ve redecorated” line
  33. The Space Time Telegraph turning up, of all things
  34. That weird, sinister-sounding phone call the UNIT guy takes towards the start suddenly making sense towards the end
  35. The various instances of people having to figure out which is the real person and which is the duplicate reminding me of Red Dwarf‘s Psirens
  36. The tension of that Kate Stewart vs Kate Stewart scene, and the parallel between her threatening to nuke London and the War Doctor’s dilemma
  37. The fact that it lead directly to The Zygon Invasion/Inversion, which is another of my all-time favourites
  38. “Never cruel or cowardly. Never give up, never give in”
  39. The fact that this episode doesn’t actually change anything about the Time War – this is what always happened, it’s just that the Doctor thought that it happened differently. Moffat-haters still can’t grasp this.
  40. “Calling the War Council of Gallifrey. This is the Doctor.”
  41. “No sir, all thirteen” and Capaldi’s eyebrows – I cannot describe how exciting this was at the time. That screenshot was my Facebook cover photo for years.
  42. “Geronimo!” / “Allons-y!” / “Oh, for God’s sake.”
  43. Hurt’s reaction to his regeneration – we’ve never seen the Doctor *happy* to change before
  44. YOU KNOW I REALLY THINK YOU MIGHT
  45. The whole idea of the Doctor reusing his previous faces – “but just the old favourites, eh?”
  46. Tom Baker appearing in Doctor Who in 2013. I cried then, I cried tonight. A wonderful, wonderful surprise – the greatest the show has ever pulled.
  47. For all its dodgy effects, the shot of the twelve Doctors all together was a beautiful thing to end on
  48. The fact that it’s still very much Matt Smith’s story, as per Pertwee in 1972 and Davison in 1983
  49. The faces in the closing titles, and the return of the middle eight
  50. The fact that it wasn’t just me and my friends gathered together to witness Doctor Who celebrate 50 years with the finest piece of television it’s ever produced, but 12.8 million people watching on BBC One, and millions more watching at cinemas or on TV in 98 countries around the world simultaneously.

And then afterwards, we all watched Zoe Ball desperately trying to get One Direction’s thoughts on fifty years of Doctor Who, over a satellite connection with a delay of what felt like fifty years itself, while Moffat watched on with his head in his hands. What. A. Night.

In case you hadn’t guessed:

RATING: 10

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The Name of the Doctor

Two prequels to this one: one released before the episode but set after it, and the other released after the episode but set before it. Timey-wimey…

She Said, He Said: We find Clara wandering around on a set filled with old props, pondering the nature of the Doctor and how she has to avoid failing in love with him. We then see that she’s actually talking to a completely inanimate Doctor, and the topic moves on to how she now knows exactly who he is, so I assumed that this was one of her trips through his timeline. But then the second half of the short sees the Doctor in the exact same scenario, recapping the whole Clara arc in front of a stationary version of her, so it’s just a narrative device.

Clarence and the Whispermen: In one of the most disturbing contributions to the Who canon, a condemned man (presumably the eponymous Clarence) is visited in his cell by three scary faceless creatures (presumably the eponymous Whispermen), who force some Gallifreyan co-ordinates into his memory, and as a result he’ll survive the execution but never sleep again. It’s pretty dark, it has to be said.

Blimey, that was a lot of preamble. Here’s a little more. This is one of very few episodes from the Moffat era that I’ve already watched more than once, as it was part of the warm-up on the day of the 50th. After my enthusiasm for the show was at an all-time low throughout most of Series 7, the finale couldn’t have whetted my appetite for the anniversary special more.

I mean, we start on bloody Gallifrey, and we see Hartnell stealing the TARDIS. Holy shit. Then there’s Colin, Tom, Sylv dangling from his umbrella in Iceworld, Pertwee driving Bessie, Troughton running around in a fur coat and Davison trapped in that big net thing from Arc of Infinity… All seven of the classic Doctors, in full physical motion in some form or other, all within the pretitles. I repeat: holy shit. It blew my mind at the time, and that was before I’d seen the entirety of the classic series. There’s even a reference to the Valeyard later on, for fuck’s sake.

This is the anniversary special starting six months early, but the more recent mythology is represented too, with the Paternoster Gang playing a pivotal role in arranging the “conference call”, which entails getting off their tits, to reunite with Clara and introduce her to River Song. Her chronology was quite confusing at first – it wasn’t until much later that we learn that this is post-Silence in the Library for her, and therefore she is in fact dead. I thought I’d missed a story where she and the Doctor had split up or something – I don’t really see why we’re supposed to think they can’t just have another regular adventure with a version of her from some point in her past, which is what this story seemed to imply.

It’s an episode that manages to combine tension and pace, constantly developing and progressing, while still unmistakably all being preamble for a handful of big revelations. It’s arguably better the second (or third) time around, when you know where it’s heading and can just enjoy the ride. And when you don’t mistakenly think that one of the big revelations is that the Doctor’s real name is “Please”, given that that’s what he says immediately before the door to his tomb opens.

Unsurprisingly, Richard E Grant is brilliant, far surpassing both Dr Simeon and the version of The Great Intelligence from The Snowmen now that they’re one and the same. As alluded to earlier, the Whispermen were fantastically creepy, to the extent that the idea could have been used for something more substantial than some one-off henchmen. I can’t decide whether TGI sacrificing his very existence in order to ruin the Doctor’s life is deliciously evil and deranged, or simply a bit of an overreaction to being defeated by him like four times.

Of course, as soon as he dived into the Doctor’s time-corpse, and we saw him in all the scenarios we saw Clara in earlier, it was obvious where she was going to end up. While I didn’t quite buy the soufflĂ© metaphor, it was a very satisfying answer to the mystery, as it means that “our” Clara – the one we’ve been following since The Bells of Saint John – is the original Clara. She chooses to become the impossible girl in order to save the Doctor, and that’s something that goes a long way to turning her from a slightly distant enigma to a relatable protagonist.

There are obviously a few logical niggles (it’s perhaps best not to contemplate how the fact she knew about Asylum of the Daleks and The Snowmen makes this a bit of a predestination paradox), but they’re easy to ignore in the face of such a satisfying and resonant emotional conclusion. The same goes for the Doctor and River – much like with the Paternoster lot’s conference call, the only rational explanation for the Doctor being able to interact with her ghost is that it’s all slightly magic, but who cares the scene between them is so good?

And then finally there’s the biggest reveal of them all – one that we never knew was coming, but that managed to trump the one we’d been waiting all series for. It’s still as spine-tingling and glorious as ever. I remember being utterly blown away by the idea that there could be an extra incarnation of the Doctor, outside of the conventional numerical system, but I bought into it straight away. Without actually spelling out what terrible thing this version did to deserve being disowned, you know exactly what it is, and it’s the perfect teaser for the 50th. Now that we know just how brilliant John Hurt’s Doctor is, it’s even better.

RATING: 9

HALF-SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 6.38

SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 6.46

  • Seasons/Series watched: 33 of 36
  • Stories watched: 239 of 275
  • Individual episodes watched: 798 of 839

Oh crikey, that’s a really bad average score, the second worst of all time behind Colin’s season of 45-minute snoozefests. There are a handful of good episodes, but a disproportionate amount of stinkers, and this finale is the only truly great episode to compensate. Throughout the modern era, each Doctor’s third series has been his worst – although it’s definitely not Matt Smith’s fault, as almost all of the problems have been with the arcs and the companions.

The night is always darkest before the dawn. With The Name of the Doctor, my least favourite portion of the revived series is already over – it’s the first huge step forward towards a new golden age. The very next episode is the dazzling centrepiece, but I’ve got a few minor diversions to get through first, to further build the anticipation for the big anniversary party…

Scream of the Shalka

Another phase of the project is complete, with the last of the assorted attempts to keep the flame going before the glorious return. This is probably the most viable of the various propositions, though I do wish all these reboots didn’t feel the need to be so dark and gritty. As I’ll soon rediscover, RTD knew that Who needs the levity to outweigh the serious stuff at times. And the theme tune doesn’t need to be so self-consciously trendy – it was a neat little sequence visually, ruined by high-pitched sirens being pasted over the top.

The animation in general was above and beyond all of the previous attempts, by some distance. It was still noticeably limited in terms of the number of renditions of each character available, but the design is imbued with that unmistakable Cosgrave Hall style that holds so many nostalgic connotations. And having everyone fully articulated, with their mouths moving in time with their voices, also helped.

It’s only a shame that The Doctor looked so moody all the time, as Richard E Grant gives an enjoyable and likeable performance. He’s suitably Doctorish in his eccentricities and flights of fancy, and of course he’s got such a great voice. Alison too is fun to spend time with, but perhaps a little too aloof to fulfill the audience identification role – it’s good that she’s cool under pressure, but some kind of emotion would be nice somewhere along the line.

As for the other companion, it’s a very bold choice. It confused the fuck out of me for a while. There’s a character in the TARDIS that looks and sounds like him, but you actually see the name in the credits for Episode 2 before he’s explicitly identified on screen. This would never have happened in Neil Tonay’s day. So naturally I assumed he was working with the Shalka and trying to steal the TARDIS, but then it was revealed that he was the companion, and then it was revealed that he’s a bloody robot.

It’s completely crazy, but I really liked the resultant dynamic – he’s essentially a TARDIS-bound K-9, but with the appearance and personality of The Doctor’s worst enemy rather than his best friend. I enjoyed the hints at the backstory that led them to this point, with the mysterious events that presumably involved the death of a companion. Two things: firstly, I hope it wasn’t supposed to be Ace; secondly, he didn’t give this much of a shit when it was Adric.

All of this stuff was clearly intended to be explored in a future series, but while the general set-up is promising, this plot failed to convince me that it would have been worth it. It’s linked to how dark and gritty it all is – that sort of thing bores me. It did all ramp up in an enjoyable way when the actual apocalypse started happening, but then it all fizzled out again and everything turned out to be fine. The same thing happened when The Doctor faced certain death by black hole, then spent ages floating through space before making a magic door – it makes the jeopardy feel like a cheap trick.

It was obviously for the best that this project was so utterly flattened by RTD’s big gay juggernaut, but as footnotes in history go, it’s a pretty interesting one. Plus, there’s an extra level of amusement now too, when you consider that this story features The Great Intelligence, Liz 10, an actual Master and a tiny cameo from the Tenth Doctor.

RATING: 6

Ahhhhh. I was quite looking forward to exploring the wilderness years, but after having a lovely time exploring some of the madness that happened in front of actual cameras, all of these web animations have been a bit of a slog. They’ve been dragging on since before Christmas, and it’s felt like even longer. But now I’ve got a feeling that reminds me of when I’d get through a batch of telesnap recons – eager and excited to watch the proper stuff, even though this time, it’s stuff that I know extremely well.

So then, let’s see what happens to this blog as we enter Phase Three…

The Curse of Fatal Death

Ah, do you remember when Comic Relief used to be good? This is one of the all time great skits, and it actually stands up pretty well as an installment of Doctor Who. All the storytelling staples from your average classic story are there, but condensed into 20 minutes and played for laughs. I’ve always felt that the format lends itself well to a comedic approach even within the series itself, and it’s something that Moffat hasn’t been afraid to do following this dry run.

The key thing is that it doesn’t take the piss out of the series. There are a few in-jokes, such as The Master’s hyperbole and the great “I’ll explain later” running gag, but it’s mostly just clever, interesting concepts mined for comedy instead of drama. The Doctor and The Master travelling further and further back in time to outdo each other is something I could see the current series doing with a straight face, and is The Master crawling through sewers for hundreds of years really so different to Heaven Sent?

Rowan Atkinson actually makes a really good Doctor, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. He gives it maximum smoothness, with a constantly arched eyebrow, and I wouldn’t have objected to him being the new Doctor for real, even so soon after McGann’s one night wonder. I can totally buy him as the latest incarnation of the same old character, but that’s not quite the case with Jonathan Pryce’s Master – he’s good, but he’s a bit more of a generic supervillain.

Then of course the main set piece is the cycle through all the other new Doctors, and yep, I totally want all of them to do it for real too. I’m going to see Richard E. Grant’s second crack of the whip soon, but I can’t get over how brilliant Jim Broadbent would have been at the job. Joanna Lumley is of course superb, and the concept of Time Lords changing gender has evidently stayed in Moffat’s mind. I like to think The Doctor and The Master walking off arm in arm was a precursor to Missy.

Overall, the biggest plus point was that you could feel the love and affection for the series throughout, right down to the choice of music cues for the regenerations. This was made explicit when The Doctor was seemingly dying for real, and Julia Sawalha became Steven Moffat’s mouthpiece as he composed a love letter to the show, perfectly nailing all that it stands for and just how important it is to those who care. Who’d have thought that a decade or so later he’d be given the opportunity to show us how good the show can be, rather than just tell us.

RATING: 9