Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor



So, let's talk about the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary special, shall we?

I might not be the best person to talk about this episode. I wasn't counting down to the special, didn't watch it live, and almost didn't watch it at all. My near burning hatred for Steven Moffat battled my desire to see David Tennant playing the Doctor again, and although David Tennant ultimately won, it was a close thing. I can no longer really count myself as presenting a "fan's perspective," even though I was one for years post-2005.

That said, my reaction to the episode swung about pretty wildly. Some stuff, I loved. Some stuff was a little irritating but par for the course these days. And some stuff was beyond infuriating.

The Good

This was a really funny episode! Seeing David Tennant and Matt Smith interact was a gift, and although it would have been better if John Hurt's role had been played by an existing Doctor, he was great in the role as well, especially in his eye-rolling reactions to his more childish future selves. There were some great moments and one-liners - "we're confusing the polarity!", "basically you're just a rabbit" - and simply seeing David Tennant in his suit and his old TARDIS layout and the eyes of Peter Capaldi made it exciting and worth the time spent watching. The interactions between major characters were spot on, and these more light-hearted, non-plot elements did make it seem like a Doctor Who celebration.

Unfortunately, the plot itself didn't do the same thing.

The Bad

Far from celebrating Doctor Who's story over fifty years, the special both handwaved over the show's history and showed a lack of basic understanding of good narrative structure. The episode is ostensibly about the Doctor deciding whether or not to destroy Gallifrey. The destruction of Gallifrey was one of the main elements of the Doctor's character for five years, as both the main focus of the 9th Doctor's arc, and a major point in the 10th Doctor's "turning dark" story, his connection to the Master, and his ultimate decision that the Time Lords are incredibly dangerous and that the universe is probably better off without them. By freezing Gallifrey in a pocket in time, but making the Doctor forget what he's done, the show destroys the emotional resonance of that entire plotline, as the viewer knows that none of it is real, and any conclusion that he did the right thing is utterly hollow, since he didn't do it. It takes a morally complex side to the Doctor and simplifies it to Moffat's basic formula of "everybody lives, with no consequences whatsoever!"

Yet even this decision wasn't the major plotline of the episode. John Hurt's Doctor wanted to see future incarnations of himself to help with the decision, but a lot of the episode was about an unrelated Zygon plot which never felt like a real threat and was pretty much abandoned halfway through. How did things end up with that storyline? We don't know, because it never really mattered. It attempted to mirror the Doctor's decision in the Time War, but without development, it just fell flat.

And then we come to Rose. Or Billie Piper, I should say, as Rose wasn't in the episode. I admit, I was a Rose fan, and so the idea of a Doctor and Rose and Doctor and Clara adventure was really exciting to me. I pictured the special as a multi-generational End of Time (which, with multiple companions, including one from the old series, and a classic threat, felt more like a suitable anniversary celebration to me). When I realized that Billie Piper was playing a device that simply took a form familiar to the Doctor, I was really disappointed. But even that potential wasn't used fully. The device's conscience took a form that was significant to the Doctor, but the only Doctor who saw her had no idea who she was. There was no emotional resonance there, because she didn't matter to him in the slightest. She could have been anyone. Apart from one throwaway line about Bad Wolf Girl that was forgotten in a second, the other Doctors had no idea that she was even present. She couldn't act as a very good conscience, because she was meaningless to the only person she interacted with. So much potential lost.

The Ugly

Then there's the most unnecessary, and most infuriating, part of the special. Queen Elizabeth I. Yes, there was a throwaway moment in S3 where Elizabeth called the Doctor her sworn enemy. Yes, it had the potential for an interesting story. But I suppose the reality of Elizabeth Tudor didn't fit into Moffat's preferred narrative for faux-strong, Doctor-reliant female characters, and so a fascinating and powerful female historical figure was reduced to... a one-off love interest? A joke?

The episode revelled in making its Elizabeth the anti-Elizabeth Tudor. As David Tennant's Doctor explicitly points out, Elizabeth I would not act even vaguely like that. She would not accept a marriage proposal from a random person, when her ability to prevaricate on the issue and use her lack of a marriage as a political tool was one of her most famous traits. Yet, of course, the Doctor is stunned to discover that this actually is Elizabeth, and that she is acting that way. The joke is clearly in reversing expectations and making Elizabeth the opposite of what history would make us expect -- a bit of a swooning romantic, in love with the Doctor, and desperate to marry him, even against his will. And sometimes, subverting expectations can be a good thing, for narrative freshness and for comedic effect. But doing it to one of the few female historical figures known for being independent badasses, and doing it to turn her into just another "swoon over the Doctor" one-off female character, is frankly insulting. "I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but at the time, so did the Zygon," she quips, and this misappropriation of her most famous speech pretty much sums it up. It's her weakness, not her strength, that Moffat finds notable and amusing, and it's that that will define her character, even in moments when she's ostensibly presented as badass and strong.

It was both unnecessary and maddening in a celebration of 50 years of Doctor Who, and especially in one that apparently didn't have time to include other old companions or Doctors, even as bit parts (Tom Baker, of course, excluded). But I guess it is an accurate representation of what Doctor Who has become under Moffat. Doctor hero worship, disappointing female characters, and dramatic moments at the expense of any narrative or emotional continuity whatsoever.

The 50th anniversary celebrations (I really recommend The Five(ish) Doctors for a fun and very meta half an hour) reminded me that I did once love Doctor Who, and that hopefully I will again one day... but not as things currently stand. If only Steven Moffat decided that the 50th anniversary was the perfect point to leave the show, it would really be a celebration.