So Doctor Who has been bopping around time, space, and the BBC for 50 years now, and the Beeb put on a very special 50th anniversary episode. My thoughts below. And, to quote a certain archeologist: SPOILERS
Overall this was a fantastic episode.
This was quite clearly cast in the mold of the earlier multi-Doctor episodes, and fit well with them. Indeed, because the mythology of NuWho is so much better fleshed out than the original show — which came pretty close to having negative continuity — this episode is basically the epitome of multi-Doctor episodes. The three are woven together quite well and Steve Moffat does a bang-up job making the three Doctors distinct yet clearly the same.
One of the hallmarks of a multi-Doctor episode (and of anniversary episodes in general) is the choice of special guests, and Moffat chose well here. You couldn’t really have pulled it off without Ten (David Tennant), of course. Tennant steps back into the role with flair and confidence, picking up the mantle as if he’d never let it drop. His soul-searching and regret is written plainly in his face, as the man who did count the dead and hasn’t — and can’t — forget. The chemistry between Ten and Eleven (Matt Smith) is amazing, with Tennant radiating bemusement at what he’ll become (and including just a touch of scorn), and Eleven disowning what he was and what he’d done in a literal previous lifetime. Their mutual discomfort early on rings very true, which is a tough thing for actors to pull off when portraying circumstances no human has ever encountered.
I rather enjoyed the return of Kate Lethbridge-Stewart. I have a soft spot for the old Brigadier but obviously, they can’t be using that character any longer, as the actor playing him has died. Kate is a nice compromise that evokes the spirit of the Brigadier. (I also like the nod to continuity, or rather, discontinuity, when Kate offhandedly calls for files “from the 70s or the 80s, depending on the dating protocol used” (paraphrased).) She doesn’t really contribute a whole lot but there wasn’t much time for anyone but the Doctor (and the Doctor, and the Doctor) anyway.
The monster-of-the-week — the shape-shifting Zygons — left me cold. Yet another enemy from the original run resurrected for this one, they didn’t really contribute much. Basically, they were something to occupy Clara while the Doctor(s) went tripping through the wormhole, or time fissure, or whatever that was. Unlike previous retreads (such as the amazingly impressive Cyberman updates), the makeup seems as cheesy and awkward as it would be in classic Who. I can’t tell if that was on purpose or not. In any event, their portrayal was a bit thin, mostly existing to give the Doctors a real-time analogy to their most terrible decision.
Speaking of Clara Oswald… my reaction to Clara continues to be, Meh. She just isn’t as interesting as Amy and Rory, or Jack Harkness, or even Rose Tyler. She’s just sort of there, the Doctor’s animated deus ex machina. I wish they could have involved any other Companion, though logistically I understand why they couldn’t. And of course it is the essence of Doctor Who that there be a human Companion there, at the crucial moment. It’s long been hypothesized that it is the humans who keep the Doctor sane, or at least, non-psychopathic. Most other Time Lords do seem to be a bit mad and more than a bit bloody. So Clara had to be there, in that someone had to be there; but I can wish it had been someone else.
I also found Queen Elizabeth a bit underwhelming, maybe because I’m not British. Maybe for Brits, it’d be like having Abraham Lincoln running around. In any event, Queen Bess was also mostly a distraction. I do like the idea that she deliberately left the cell door unlocked and then was ticked that the Doctors didn’t even bother to try it, leading to her having to come get them.
On the other hand, I cannot complain about the return of Billie Piper as Rose and “the Moment”. There is a fascination with Rose Tyler that I didn’t get while she was on the show; but the times they’ve brought her back, it’s really clicked. I think it was a nice hint of the timey-wimey nature of The Moment device that it reached into the War Doctor’s future to find a form to communicate with him. The reference to Bad Wolf, and the implication that maybe that event was somehow connected to or even caused by this one, played out quite nicely. I’ve always felt they didn’t do enough with Bad Wolf to truly justify its use as an arc word. They’ve also never really explained the inception of the closed-causality loop, but they exploit that ambiguity well.
Speaking of the timey-wimey ball: How awesome was Eleven’s invocation of it, the War Doctor’s disdain for it, and Ten’s immediate disavowal of it. That was a needed bit of humor and a good nod to the fans.
John Hurt, as the War Doctor, was truly impressive. His bedraggled manner and slightly-distant focus evoked PTSD; his eyes were those of a man who’s seen too much he can never un-see. The first we see of him, with a brutal economy of movement, he demonstrates why the Daleks fear the Doctor — and why they justifiably feared the War Doctor the most. When he activates the Moment, he seems genuinely befuddled, as if he were just catching up to his own plan. (It’s also a dark but welcome bit of humor as he demands a big red button; you can hear echoes of the Doctors we know.) His visceral disappointment with his successor regenerations is palpable. He is clearly asking himself, “Is it worth it, to regenerate into these dandies?”
But it is Matt Smith who steals the show. Much like Tennant had his year of specials, Smith knows that his time in the role is coming to an end. Tennant’s Doctor has always been a bit haunted, but Smith’s has been lighter. We see in this episode that this is a facade, that he carries the guilt of his actions with him. More than any other Doctor, Eleven has been less wandering the Universe and more running through it: Running away from the First Question; running towards… who knows what? At the end, we finally get a glimpse, just as the character does: Running toward home, towards second chances, toward redemption. It takes a lot to layer a comic character with tragic depths, and Smith does it masterfully. It hasn’t always been explicit, that Eleven has been submerging his guilt and anxiety; but Smith makes it feel as if this has been a constant theme, even when it hasn’t.
An easily overlooked additional star of this episode is Murray Gold — the composer. He’s done wonderful things with the various themes. Both Ten and Eleven have distinctive leitmotifs that capture the distinct characters. A lot of the music here has been recycled, but in a noble way: Themes are lifted out of their specific episodes and recast into grand and universal strains. As always, Gold’s score undergirds and grounds the action without getting in its way. It really is the key to Doctor Who‘s transcendence of its original, campy roots.
I had expected more to be made of the “different face, same software” line. Its (non-use) in breaking the wooden door certainly set up the multi-century calculations to move Gallifrey, but the analogies to the Doctor himself seem obvious. I expected a call-back to this line to move the War Doctor toward acceptance of his younger (or is that older?), less-serious selves.
This of course brings us to the rescue of Gallifrey. I’ll admit to being of two minds on this one. While watching, I was very dissatisfied. It seems like a cheap way out and a debasement of the character development that the Doctor has undergone in NuWho. I thought the brilliance of Russell T. Davies lay in giving the Doctor his own Kobayashi Maru moment: The one time he can’t fix things, the one time he fails utterly, the one moment against which he’d spend the rest of his lives reacting. Removing that — allowing him to thwart fate (again!) — just seems small somehow. We’ll leave aside that, once again, Eleven has “won” by tricking history. It’s apparent that Steve Moffat has a very finite bag of tricks for season finales and such. As much as I’ve loved the character of Eleven, Moffat is clearly a lesser writer than Davies, at least for the sweeping tragic stuff.
On reflection, my take has softened a little. A key aspect of the Doctor is that he simply does not give up, and the destruction of Gallifrey was surrender writ large. Another key part is that he pays attention to the “little people” caught in the gears of history. For him, it’s not about giant empires and epic clashes. It’s about the family trapped at Pompeii; it’s about a wracked mad painter; it’s about the girl who waited. It’s about people. When the War Doctor conceived of his plan to end the Time War, it was a Big Gesture. Running about with Ten and Eleven reminded him that there were children and ordinary people involved here, too, not just generals and monsters. So I’m beginning to think that this last, epic trick works in the canon of the show.
I will admit that Arcadia on Gallifrey looked disappointingly normal. From what we’ve heard at the Shadow Proclamation and elsewhere, the end of the Time War was an era of eldritch horror, full of unimaginable and almost unspeakable terrors –“the Skaro Degradations, the Horde of Travesties, the Nightmare Child, the Could-have-been King with his army of Meanwhiles and Never-weres” — but all we see is a standard-issue city of crystal spires and togas. Heck, not even the togas. I was hoping for more. (One suspects that the normalcy is the point: The Time Lord President and his council have gone all Lovecraftian-mad, but the mass of people on Gallifrey remain just people. That‘s what breaks the symmetry between the Time Lords and the Daleks, and allows the Doctor to rescue the former while causing the latter to destroy themselves.)
All in all, it was an excellent outing. Next up: The Fall of the Eleventh.