It seemed almost inconceivable that "The Day of the Doctor," the long-awaited 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who, could possibly live up to the hype and expectations it had generated: it simply had to do too much. There were too many elements to interweave, too many themes to address, too many audiences and interests to satisfy in order to pay proper homage to the five-decade history of this insane, beloved institution. How could it be anything other than a disappointment?
But "The Day of the Doctor" was not a disappointment: it was a triumph. No, it was not perfect, nor was it—nor could it have been—all things to all people. Wisely, executive producer Steven Moffat didn't even try to tick every box. Instead, he found ways to pay respect to the classic series while doing the most important thing he could do: continuing the story he was telling, enriching the themes he has developed, and helping to ensure that the proud legacy of the series continues healthily into the future. "The Day of the Doctor"—fantastically directed by Who veteran Nick Hurran—is full of fan-service and tributes to both the old and new series, but at its core it is simply the next vital chapter in Doctor Who, one that fulfills what I have called "The Moffat Masterplan" and brings the past, present, and future of this show into glorious agreement.
I'm not going to spend much time recapping the plot, and I'm going to resist the urge to catalog every reference, call-back, and fangasmic moment. They were many, and I loved every one of them, and I could talk about them for days—but, as always, I'd rather talk about what it all means.
"Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one." – Marcus Aurelius
It is highly appropriate—and no accident—that those words of wisdom are the first we hear in "The Day of the Doctor." For that maxim is one of the principles of Marcus Aurelius, from the book we call Mediations, but which the emperor simply titled "To Myself." Aurelius was not—primarily, at least, if at all—writing for a wider audience: he was composing his own self-improvement book, grappling on paper with the larger questions so that he could teach himself to be a better man. What better introduction to an episode in which the Doctor comes together with his own various facets to teach himself important things, and to answer the question, once and for all, of how good a man he is? (At the risk of giving Moffat even more credit for being a clever genius than is already evident, I will merely point out that the Meditations is divided into—you guessed it—12 books, each representing a different period of the emperor's life.)
To the best of my knowledge, the Doctor has not met Marcus Aurelius in his travels—yet—but I think they would find a lot to talk about. "Remember that man lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant," the emperor writes. "All the rest of his life is either past and gone, or not yet revealed." It is as true for a regenerating time traveler as it is for everyone else: whether in the past or in the future, the Doctor is always in the present, and it is the decisions he makes in each fleeting moment that define who he is.
Moment. I use that word deliberately, for it's an important word in this episode, as it's an important word for Marcus Aurelius. ("Objective judgment, now, at this very moment. Unselfish action, now, at this very moment. Willing acceptance, now, at this very moment, of all external events. That's all you need.") "The Moment" is also the name given—originally by Russell T. Davies in "The End of Time"—to the weapon with which the Doctor annihilated two civilizations. Moffat, here, builds on that idea, setting the entire 50th anniversary tale in the Moment of the Moment—the very instant in which The War Doctor (John Hurt) must decide to accept his duty, do the unthinkable, and justify an act of unspeakable evil in the name of the greater good. It is the moment that Moffat has been heading towards his entire run, the very moment that defines the modern series.
For Moffat (as I've argued before) has always been preoccupied with the dichotomies within the modern Doctor: how he can be a healer and a warrior; how he can be both an anonymous trickster and "the most feared being in all the cosmos"; how one moment he can be a Christ-like messiah figure, and the other "a nameless, terrible thing, soaked in the blood of a billion galaxies." It's the oldest question in the universe: who is the Doctor? That question has been at the heart of this era of Doctor Who, and it has been the driving force behind the Moffat Masterplan—to explore these tensions, to resolve some of these questions and inconsistencies, and to deal once and for all with the over-sized and unwieldy cosmic legend the Doctor had become. Throughout his run, Moffat has explored the darker side of the Doctor—and its ramifications for both the universe and his own companions—while taking careful steps to systematically dismantle the Doctor's bloated reputation. The Doctor that Moffat inherited from previous showrunner Russell T. Davies had grown from the unassuming vagabond of the classic series to an all-powerful and universally known messiah/demon—the very word "doctor" had been perverted to mean "great warrior"—but Moffat set out to fix that. By the beginning of Season Seven Moffat had given the Doctor his anonymity back—faking his death, erasing his trail from every database in the universe, and even deleting him from the collective memories of his most hated enemies.
But what always remained was the darkness within the Doctor, the knowledge that he was responsible for terrible acts, and that he carried within him both the guilt over these acts and the capacity to one day repeat them. This, too, was a legacy of the Davies era, and I think it was a brilliant one, ushering the Doctor into the modern age by adding layers of emotional depth and ethical complexity to the character. Since the revival in 2005, the arc of Doctor Who has largely been about the Doctor's recovery from the Time War. Christopher Eccleston was the battle-scarred Ninth Doctor, angry and distant and slow to trust. David Tennant's Tenth Doctor was the "lonely angel," the guilt-wracked last survivor, and sometimes the power-mad "Time Lord Victorious." Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor has, to some extent—as he says in "The Day of the Doctor"—"moved on"; he is gentler and more social than the others, able to forge genuine emotional ties to his friends—but he is also capable of carelessly causing harm to the people he loves, and apt to shock them with sudden ruthlessness.
I will admit, the Doctor's actions in the Time War were such an important part of the modern characterization, it never occurred to me that Moffat would have the gall to actually undo them as well—but that's exactly what he does in "The Day of the Doctor."
"Look at you: stuck between a girl and a box. Story of your life, eh, Doctor?" — Rose Tyler/The Conscience
One of the best ideas to be found in "The Day of the Doctor" is the notion that a weapon could be so powerful that it actually tries to talk you out of using it. (Forget safety locks and complicated launch codes—every weapon should come with the ability to say "Are you sure you want to do this?") Here, the Time Lords describe The Moment as a machine so sophisticated that its operating system achieved sentience and developed a conscience, and that conscience manifests itself to the Doctor in the form of Rose Tyler (Billie Piper).
More cynical fans than I might take issue with the way Rose is shoehorned into this anniversary special, but I think it's structurally clever and thematically perfect. What have the companions of the Doctor been—especially in the modern era—but his conscience? ("Sometimes I think you need someone to stop you," Donna Noble [Catherine Tate] told him, a long time ago.) So the Moment takes the form of the first—and arguably the most important—of those companions: the one who had to bring the Doctor back from both a long television hiatus and from the bitterness and despair of the Time War. Who better to serve as his conscience now? She's doing what she always did, what the Doctor's companions always do, and what Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) also does at the end of the episode: reminding him to always be his best self.
(She's just starting a bit early. And of course, in a bit of classic Moffat wibbly-wobbly, her appearance to prevent his using the weapon would not have been possible if the Doctor had not used the weapon the first time. We don't know how the Conscience manifested itself on the Doctor's first run through these events, but it could not have been as Rose Tyler: it is only the consequences of this act that lead him to meet the right teachers to prevent this act.)
"I don't know who you are, either of you. I haven't got the faintest idea." — The War Doctor
And of course there are no better teachers than our future selves—those who will have to live with the guilt of our actions—and so Rose/The Conscience arranges for the War Doctor (Doctor 8.5? Doctor 9.1?) to encounter the Tenth (David Tennant) and Eleventh (Matt Smith) Doctors. The pleasures of a multi-doctor story, of course, are largely to be found in watching the Doctor interact with his own previous and future incarnations. (There were three such stories in canonical, classic Who: the 10th Anniversary special "The Three Doctors," the 20th Anniversary special "The Five Doctors," and a story called "The Two Doctors" during the 1985 season.) Here, there is delight in just watching Tennant and Smith play off each other, but Moffat is to be given tremendous credit for actually making this fan-servicing collaboration make sense thematically as well as logistically. For the second time—as he did in 2010's "A Christmas Carol"—Moffat takes his lead from Dickens, showing us that one way to change a man is to show him who he will one day become.
"The Day of the Doctor" wisely recognizes that Tennant and Smith's approach to the character has more similarities than differences—the sequence in which they mirror each other's actions is a joy—and John Hurt's War Doctor becomes the voice of the classic series, wondering aloud why the new Doctors act and speak so childishly, why they wield their sonic screwdrivers like weapons—"What are you going to do, assemble a cabinet at them?"—and just how much kissing he can expect. ("Is there a lot of this in the future?")
But this episode also picks its moments to highlight the differences between Ten and Eleven. "The Time War, the last day, the day you killed them all," Eleven says to the War Doctor. "The day we killed them all," Ten corrects him, owning the guilt and responsibility in a way that his successor no longer does. The War Doctor asks if they ever counted the children who died on Gallifrey, and Eleven doesn't see the point. "Two-point-four-seven billion," Ten says, and then expresses horror that Eleven doesn't even remember. "I've moved on," Eleven says. Eleven has had more time to heal, more time to put those events behind him—but what is more terrifying: a future version of yourself crippled by guilt for monstrous crimes, or one who no longer is? (As recently as the previous episode, "The Name of the Doctor," we were reminded that "the Doctor lives his life in darker hues, day upon day"; last season we saw him unnecessarily murder Solomon the Trader in "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship," and—in "Nightmare in Silver"—annihilate millions of Cybermen in a situation that very much parallels the one on Gallifrey.)
"I don't know who you are, either of you," the War Doctor says, for he no longer recognizes himself; ironically, the incarnation of the Doctor who is destined to commit that monstrous act of genocide is the only one who can't really conceive of doing so. It is Clara alone, later in the episode, who recognizes that he is still a more innocent Doctor, because he's the only Doctor in the room who hasn't done it yet. "Your eyes," she says to the grizzled old man. "They're so much younger."
Towards the climax of the episode the three Doctors have learned only to accept their responsibility, joining together at the Moment of the Moment to commit the crime as one. But Rose and Clara—the first and latest companions of the modern era—are not willing to accept it. Rose has given them—through the adventure with the Zygons—both a practical solution to their dilemma and a reminder to always look for a peaceful outcome. And it is Clara—the current companion/conscience—who reminds her Time Lord who he really is; it is she who answers the oldest question in the universe, the question that titles the show, and the question Moffat has grappled with since he took over: who is this man, really? What does his name really mean? "We have enough warriors, and any old fool can be a hero," she says. "Be a doctor."
"Never cruel or cowardly. Never give up, never give in." – The Doctor
In other words, waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be: be one. The past is gone, and the future is not yet written: all that is ever needed is the conscience of the moment, the willingness—as the War Doctor says—to have "failed doing the right thing, as opposed to succeeding in doing the wrong." And it is the Eleventh Doctor, our Doctor, the one who has learned the most, who sees the way to do this: after all, he's been doing it all his life.
He does it by calling on all his selves, on the long, glorious history of this show, which has always been dedicated to—in the words of Craig Ferguson—"the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism." Russell T. Davies was not wrong to complicate the character of the Doctor by shouldering him with the guilt of annihilating his own people in the Time War—but neither is Steven Moffat wrong to undo that terrible act now, for it is wrong for the show, and wrong for the Doctor. What was the promise he made when he chose his name? Clara asks the Doctors. "Never cruel or cowardly," they reply. "Never give up, never give in." ("Never value anything as profitable to thyself which shall compel thee to break thy promise, to lose thy self-respect, to hate any man," Marcus Aurelius wrote. Yes, I think he and the Doctor will like each other, if they ever meet.) All twelve Doctors—no, sorry, all thirteen Doctors—come together to keep their promise, restoring Doctor Who once again to a show about the triumph of intellect and romance.
That's the show Doctor Who always was, and that's the show it once again has become. We are assured of that as all the Doctors and TARDISes from fifty years of stories come together to save the Doctor's people after all, succeeding in undoing the one moment in his life when he gave up and surrendered to brute force and cynicism. We are assured of that as the oldest living Doctor, Tom Baker, stops by to close the circle, confirming to us that it was always the same man, the same story, the same Doctor Who. And we are assured of it in the final shots, as all the Doctors stand together, and the Eleventh Doctor's voice-over reminds us that, sometimes, the longest way round is the shortest way home.
It's been a long way round indeed, a fifty-year journey that feels like it's just getting started, and a nearly four-year journey under the Moffat Masterplan to get us back home to where we all began: the Doctor is once more neither a warrior nor a famous hero, but just a nameless cosmic vagabond wandering the universe in his blue box. (Starting next year, he will even once again be played by a 55-year old man, as he was way back in the beginning.) Somewhere out there is his home planet, Gallifrey, and his people, the Time Lords: somewhere out there, perhaps, are Romana and Leela, Rassilon and Omega, the Master and the Valeyard and the Rani. Somewhere, out there, are old friends to revisit, and an infinite number of new stories to tell. As it always was, it's a show about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism, and—so long as we are never cruel, never cowardly, and never give up—anything is possible.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- I'm on record as saying that Matt Smith has become my Doctor, but damn, it was good to see David Tennant put on his trainers and brainy specs again.
- Moffat is gifted at cramming way more into an episode than it seems can possibly work, but there is often just one or two elements too many: here, for me, it was the entire Queen Elizabeth sub-plot that seemed superfluous and unnecessary.
- Can I recognize that this story worked brilliantly—and that John Hurt was predictably awesome as the War Doctor—and still spare a moment of regret for Christopher Eccleston's continued refusal to return to this show? The entire concept of the War Doctor works very well in the context of the story Moffat is telling and the themes he is exploring, but it still feels like a clever workaround to deal with the fact that the Ninth Doctor is forever unavailable: this story would have had a bit more resonance if we could have seen Eccleston, Tennant, and Smith together representing the evolution of what the Time War really did to the Doctor.
- Or could the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) have done it? I am glad that McGann's gentle Doctor did not have to become the blood-soaked monster—and my favorite seven minutes of this story were actually the perfect mini-sode prequel in which he appears—but it's hard not to wish for more of the Eighth Doctor on our screens.
- Did anyone really believe that no classic Doctors would appear in this? (I know they did believe it—because they never stopped shouting about it on Twitter—but I don't understand it.) For my money, Tom Baker's appearance was the perfect homage to the old series, neither too little nor too much.
- And besides—Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy also managed to sneak in, as documented in Davison's absolutely brilliant film, "The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot." (Trailer below: the full half-hour film is available online many places, like here.)
- While saying that he wanted the 50th special to be "a celebration of the mythology and legend of the Doctor and all that entailed," Moffat has also said that "this should be the first step on the next journey, guaranteeing the 100th anniversary." I couldn't agree more, and in both regards, I think he knocked it out of the park. Here's to the next 50 years, which begins this Christmas as we say goodbye to Matt Smith and officially welcome the Twelfth (or is it Thirteenth?) Doctor, Peter Capaldi. (We don't have a title for the Christmas episode yet, but "Silent Night" sounds like a good guess to me.) See you then.