I could not be more pleased with Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary episode. It may not have been perfect, but it certainly was one of the most entertaining episodes of Doctor Who that we’ve seen in a very, very long time.
The Day of the Doctor centers on the events of the final day of the Time War between the Daleks and the Time Lords. The War Doctor prepares to totally destroy the planet Gallifrey to save the universe from further collateral damage, though he hesitates. His weapon of choice has a sentient interface. The Interface introduces him to two future incarnations of himself, numbers Ten and Eleven. The Tenth Doctor is in the middle of a romantic picnic with Queen Elizabeth I, while the Eleventh Doctor and his companion, Clara, are working with U.N.I.T. to deal with strange paintings and a Zygon invasion. The three Doctors work together to stop humans and Zygons from destroying each other, and in the process discover a way to defeat the Daleks while still saving Gallifrey.
The funniest moments of the episode are when the three Doctors are in the room together, whether it’s the War Doctor chastising his younger-looking future incarnations or Ten and Eleven working in near total sync with each other. The dynamic was quite similar to the original “Three Doctors” episode from Classic Who. We have the return of U.N.I.T. and Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, the daughter of the legendary Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. Kate’s assistant Osgood is likely the daughter of U.N.I.T. technical officer Sgt. Tom Osgood, who served under the Brigadier. Osgood wears the Fourth Doctor’s scarf in the episode, which seems like a nice homage to the (arguably) most famous and beloved Doctor of Classic Who, if not the entire run of the show.
The Zygons were updated quite well with decent costumes and makeup, and their plotline didn’t seem like an afterthought. The episode is clearly focused on how to get the War Doctor to end the Time War, but the Zygon plot is the catalyst for finding the answer. In the Zygon plot, Kate must decide whether or not to detonate a nuclear warhead in London in order to save the world. It’s a clear parallel to the Doctor’s impossible choice to destroy his home in order to save the universe. This time, however, Ten and Eleven have had hundreds of years to think and rethink their (his?) decision to destroy his own race, and have come to the conclusion that it was a terrible mistake. By activating the memory vents in the wall, the Doctors force all the humans and Zygons in the room to (temporarily?) forget whether or not they’re human or Zygon, forcing the representatives of the two races to hammer out a treaty. In true Doctor Who form, killing innocents is not the answer—genius creative thinking is.
We see genius creative thinking at work again while the three are trapped in Elizabeth I’s Tower of London. Eleven, Ten, and the War Doctor work together to finally figure out a way to make their sonic screwdrivers “do wood.” Something about wood being “too primitive” for sonic technology, subatomic frequencies, and hundreds of years of calculations. The War Doctor starts the calculations, and Eleven discovers he has them finished. Although it turns out the door was unlocked the whole time, the Doctors later use this same idea to save Gallifrey. Enlisting the help all of the previous incarnations (including a glimpse of the next Doctor, Peter Capaldi), they use the combined power of all of their TARDISes to encase Gallifrey in a time-lock in a “pocket universe,” forcing the surrounding Daleks to fire upon each other instead of the planet. To the rest of the universe, it still looks like the Daleks and Time Lords destroyed each other, but the citizens of Gallifrey are safe.
In the final moments of the episode, when Eleven muses about taking a curator job once he “retires,” we’re treated to… Tom Baker himself as the Curator! His return as some future incarnation of the Doctor completely steals the show. So many fans were distraught over impression that no actors from Classic Who would be involved in the anniversary special. While it would have been great to include all the previous Doctors who are still alive, out of all of them, Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor was the best choice.
While the Doctors are the stars of the show, Doctor Who wouldn’t be the same without a companion or two. For much of the episode, Clara doesn’t serve too much of a purpose; this is clearly about the Doctor and his various incarnations. We begin the anniversary special with the first Doctor’s title sequence and music, the camera panning down a street, where we see some familiar shots from the very first episode. We then meet Clara, who has landed a job as a history teacher (another great nod to the first companions). She quotes Marcus Aurelius, “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one,” like an invocation at the start of Greek epic poetry. She does have a few moments where gets to do something: both with Captain Jack’s old vortex manipulator and investigating the “Black Archive” with Kate Lethbridge-Stewart. As per usual, we’re handed a throwaway line about how Clara’s got top-level security clearance from “last time” she was here… even though we’ve never seen it. Maybe someday we’ll actually get to see Clara doing things instead of being told about them.
But Clara’s most important moment comes when her tearful plea inspires the Doctor to save Gallifrey from total annihilation. She personifies the companion’s archetype in its purest form—a human urging the alien Doctor to do what is good, not just what seems apparent. Much like a Greek Muse, she inspires the Doctor to creatively find a way to save the day. So does this count as character development? Not really. But the effect still works brilliantly in service to the plot.
Clara isn’t the only archetypal character in this episode. A great weapon hidden in Gallifrey’s Omega Arsenal is a sentient galaxy eater, with a conscience. A weapon that judges you for using it? Fascinating. The War Doctor steals it, treks out to a shack in the middle of a desert, and tries to figure out how to turn it on. Suddenly its interface appears… in the form of Billie Piper, as the Bad Wolf version of Rose. Not the real Bad Wolf, but the weapon’s interface. With the Bad Wolf’s ability to see all of time and space and to create and destroy, it’s a great narrative choice (though I have to wonder if Elisabeth Sladen would have been given the role if she hadn’t passed away in 2011). The Interface shows the War Doctor the consequences of his decision to destroy Gallifrey by opening a couple of wormholes, bringing him together with Ten and Eleven. While Clara is this story’s “muse,” the Interface serves as the mentor, in the style of the typical “Hero’s Journey.” The Interface’s personality is less Rose and more “Standard Moffat Female Character” with a saucy sense of humor. She’s two degrees removed from the much-beloved companion, but seeing Billie on screen at all is a gift for her fans.
Elizabeth I also suffers from typical “Standard Moffat Female Character” syndrome. It’s been hinted in other episodes that the Doctor was a lover of Elizabeth I, and in this episode we see them get married. Her plot line was the weakest of the episode. Sometimes she’s a Zygon, sometimes she isn’t, and the only purpose she seems to serve is to given Ten something to do before he plays host to his other two incarnations. Ten proposes to her and she happily accepts, but then Ten announces that the real Elizabeth would never have agreed to share her throne with anyone and would, in fact, be more concerned with planning her wars than romance. Elizabeth dismisses him, and it turns out their horse was actually the Zygon. Elizabeth goes on to save them from the Zygon’s lair by pretending to be their leader in human disguise. But this act of ingenuity is overshadowed by her romantic infatuation with Ten. It’s unfortunate that one of the great independent women of history is so strongly presented as one of the many women in love with the Doctor. Maybe the extended clips that didn’t make it into the original simulcast of the episode will help balance her out.
All in all, The Day of the Doctor was one of the most satisfying episodes of Doctor Who in a long time. It delivered on nearly all fronts. I’m not entirely sure how Gallifrey’s new status as existing in a time-locked pocket universe is going to fit with what we know from other episodes, like Ten’s defeat of the Master in “End of Time.” We may have to accept a certain amount of retconning. But I will give Moffat credit for not completely annihilating the previous New Who timeline, by forcing the previous Doctors to forget their involvement with the salvation of Gallifrey. I sincerely thought he would, once I saw where the story was going. So where do we go from here? It looks like the Doctor’s next big goal is to bring back Gallifrey. I suspect there might be more Time Lords in our future—that should be enough to keep the show busy for the next fifty years.