This weekend’s anniversary episode of Doctor Who, ‘The Day of the Doctor’, exceeded everyone’s expectations and delivered one of the best episodes of the show in a long while.
The much publicised return of David Tennant’s Doctor was more than satisfying, and reminded many viewers (including myself) just what Matt Smith has been missing from his time as the Doctor – the sense of unbridled joy Tennant brings with him. He’s on top form here, clearly savouring the opportunity to play the Doctor again, and the banter he has with his fellow selves is wonderful. Previous anniversary specials have made the mistake of keeping the various Doctors separate for as long as possible (take 1983’s The Five Doctors for instance), but there’s none of that here. Tennant and Smith barely get a minute to compare screwdrivers before the arrival of John Hurt’s mysterious ‘is he the Doctor or not?’ Doctor.
Hurt is obviously relishing the chance to play one of television’s most beloved characters, and in the time he has onscreen he more than manages to both properly define his character but without leaving us with an annoyed feeling that we could have had so much more. Steven Moffat has done something very clever with this Doctor – he’s given us a completely new, unexpected incarnation, but by containing his lifespan solely to the Time War, there’s no feeling of what could have been – we know he spent his whole life fighting in the War, and that’s enough. Hurt is, it must be said, one of the finest British actors there is, and brings with him a certain gravitas to the show – one which I hope will continue when Peter Capaldi takes over from Matt Smith at Christmas time.
Speaking of Matt Smith, it’s interesting to observe how his performance in this episode is quite different to usual. He’s much more refined and subtle than usual in what he does – there’s very little of the flailing arms and endless sentences we’ve become accustomed to as viewers. His Doctor takes the role of senior Doctor in this episode and it’s a credit to his performance that you unquestionably accept that he is 400 years older than his other selves – this is his finest performance to date, and it just shows how often he has been let down throughout his run by silly scripting.
It was also nice to see Jenna Coleman finally appear properly settled into her role as Clara, and now that we’ve moved on from the whole “impossible girl” nonsense that unnecessarily dominated the previous series, it seems she might go on to be one of the best characters the new series of Who has given us. Coleman is more than competent as an actress; she just needs some good writing to support her, and despite the more backseat role her character took in this episode, this is the character’s strongest appearance to date.
At first glance, some may think that for an episode which celebrates 50 years of a television programme, there is a particular emphasis on the past 8 or so. But this isn’t the case. The script is a rich tapestry of classic series allusions – from the Doctors all uniting to save Gallifrey, to the more subtle references; “head of governors: I Chesterton”, the “you’ve redecorated” line, the photos of all of the companions, and of course Tom Baker’s surprise appearance at the end. It was quite simply a delight to see the oldest living Doctor back on our screens, and for this viewer, it also confirmed what had been thought all along – as wonderful as the classic Doctors are, it would have been a mistake to have them in the special. They’ve simply aged too much. Even Baker isn’t explicitly appearing as the Doctor here, but as the mysterious curator who knows more than a normal man would about the goings on of the Time War.
As a whole, the show manages to pay tribute to the classic series in a way that is pleasing for the fans but doesn’t alienate the more casual viewers. Moffat’s scripting is as wonderful as it gets, and despite some less successful elements (namely Joanna Page’s performance), the episode manages to condense into 75 minutes a celebration of 50 years of the television show we all love so very much. And with the revelation that Gallifrey is still out there somewhere, the show has gained a fresh and new perspective, and one which, in my mind, marks the beginning of a new era for Doctor Who. Here’s to the next 50 years.