TV Review: Doctor Who – The Day of the Doctor

Directed by – Nick Hurran
Written by – Steven Moffat
Starring – Matt Smith, David Tennant, John Hurt, Billie Piper, Jenna Coleman, Joanna Page & Jemma Redgrave

Steven Moffat’s work on Doctor Who has always been complex, ambitious and thoroughly entertaining. Since he took over in 2010, the show has become darker, more adult and more science-fiction heavy. The enemies that he has written for the show – such as the Silence, the Angels and the Vashta Nerada – are fantastic because they prey on basic, innate fears, while the direction in which he has taken the Doctor has awarded the show a layer of peril and tension that was always missing from the RTD era. I love the show in all of its forms (yes, even the 80s episodes were decent… well, some of them anyway) but for me Moffat’s era, in combination with Matt Smith’s portrayal of the Doctor, is – despite all of its flaws – absolutely superb.

I guess this, above all else, might be why the show’s much-awaited 50th anniversary left me feeling a tad disappointed. My expectations were admittedly sky-high, so I sort of knew that the episode would never live up to them, but certain parts of The Day of the Doctor felt sluggish, rushed and lazy, which is very unbefitting of Moffat and the show in general. Nevertheless, though the episode was problematic from the offset that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t an ambitious, inventive and fitting celebration of the show’s 50 year history. It offers a lot of great stuff and pays homage to the show’s glorious past without becoming bogged down in nostalgia, while at the same time kicking down the doorway to the next chapter of the Doctor’s life with real gusto and pizazz. The references to stories old and new – to past Doctors, classic adventures and old villains – were great (though I thought the clips of classic Doctors in The Name of the Doctor were better…), while the performances, the visuals and the production values will see all those who claim that the show is cheap or childish permanently silenced. Alas, the episode didn’t work all that well as a piece of storytelling and that is a serious problem.

The Day of the Doctor

The main issues with the episode lie in the plot, the pacing and the general atmosphere of the thing. It strikes me that Moffat was unsure whether to go light or dark and, as such, we end up with a combination of the two that doesn’t work as well as it should. Don’t get me wrong, when the episode is at its darkest it emits a powerful and haunting aura and when it’s at its funniest it is stupendously entertaining, but when it fluctuates between the two it feels stodgy and awkward. This is mostly down to the nature of the plot itself; rather than focussing on one major plot, the episode deviates between a filler-story involving the Zygons and the final moments of the Time War with barely any connection between the two. It was all fun to watch and it was great to see the Zygons back again but I’m not sure this was the episode in which they should have returned.

Here’s the thing; rather than watching one big story it often felt like we were watching two subplots, both of which were vying for but not receiving the attention they deserved. The Time War – which is such a momentous occasion in the Doctor’s life and pretty much defines the whole of NuWho – was given about half of the overall screen time. As a result, it was tough to invest in it as a story. We’ve seen the effect it has on the Doctor throughout the series and we’ve seen him at his absolute lowest as a result of what happened. That’s not what we saw here; what we saw here was a rehash of old ideas that lacked the emotional gut punch that such an event warranted. More time to explore the Time War was needed, especially when the story reached its conclusion. The division of time between the two stories felt unbalanced and, as such, the plot didn’t seem to go anywhere interesting.

However, I still think the episode is damn entertaining. For this we have to thank the effortless camaraderie between the three Doctors, all of whom deliver wonderful performances. The banter between the three of them is a work of genius, especially with Hurt in the role of the grumpy old curmudgeon, and I can safely say I haven’t laughed so much during Doctor Who in years. Even Tennant, whose turn as the Doctor has always left me feeling cold, was on top form. Furthermore, Billie Piper has never been better whilst Jenna Coleman and Jemma Redgrave were great (as always) in their respective roles. I can take or leave Page’s Miranda Richardson-esque portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I but other than that, the cast did a truly superb job. For me though it was John Hurt who stole the show. His Doctor was a total joy to behold and I thought he offered the perfect combination of comedy and drama so it’s a great shame that we’ll probably never see him in the role again!

So, plot issues aside, I thought the episode was pretty good. The themes were very solid and it really worked as a celebration of all the things people love about the show and though some of the cameos and references were shoehorned in, they were still great. The brief inclusion of Capaldi, the gorgeous moment with the “Curator” and the reference to Omega – to name just a few of the episode’s countless references – filled me with joy while the final shot was just magnificent. Although I have problems with the plot the episode was full of charm and warmth, with love, respect and appreciation for the show’s legacy oozing out of each and every scene. Deep down it was all about the Doctor as a man and though it wasn’t a total success the focus on the closure he felt all these centuries after his darkest hour was very fitting indeed.

After a rewatch or two I’m sure I’ll grow to love The Day of the Doctor but, as it stands, I’m a bit ambivalent. It’s fun, charming and brimming with joy but, as a piece of storytelling, it was a bit disappointing. Then again, after just a brief, two-second cameo I can already tell that Capaldi’s portrayal of the Doctor (THOSE EYES!) is going to be fucking amazing so at least that’s something to look forward to…

But anyway, here’s to the next half-century and beyond!

★★★

Review also posted on Letterboxd

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