Doctor Who: 50th Anniversary Rewrites the Show's Future Forever
It's likely that nothing could totally live up to the expectations of the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, and "The Name of the Doctor" in no way made everyone happy. What made it brilliant though is not what it showed, but what it promised us.
Initially, I came away from "The Day of the Doctor" focused very much on its flaws, and those flaws are legion. Are myriad at least. John Hurt turns in a fantastic performance as The War Doctor, the incarnation of the Time Lord who disavowed the name Doctor and went off to fight the last great Time War. He offers a brilliantly unique new form, being both grizzled battle veteran but also oddly cheerful and hopeful in a way that hasn't honestly been seen since Tom Baker held the part. I didn't expect to really like his Doctor as a character, but by the end I found myself hoping for more.
The problem lies in the fact that his entire existence feels forced and awkward. In every moment that The War Doctor has, you can literally feel the Eccleston-shaped hole in the story. The scars of the war that were left on The Doctor was so much a part of his portrayal, and as great as Hurt truly is in every second of the part there is a nagging feeling of him as a stand-in that no one will acknowledge.
Billie Piper is in a similar situation. She appears not as Rose Tyler, but as the embodiment of a galaxy-killing weapon's conscience that takes on the form of "Bad Wolf" Rose to reason and judge the actions of Hurt. Piper and Hurt arguably turn in the best acting in the entire special, with Piper especially stretching herself in ways that were never possible as Rose.
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But again, the question is why? Why is she here except as a promise to remember how the reboot all started without that crucial missing piece? Neither she nor Hurt are wasted, far from it. They are mesmerizing at every turn, but those turns lead only to circles.
That's the hardest part of watching "The Day of the Doctor" sometimes. Where Moffat tries to cater to the past he largely ends up failing. Tennant in particular seemed to be phoning it in, the Zygons and everything involving Queen Elizabeth I felt meandering and a bit silly, and the triumphant return of all 13 Doctors to save Gallifrey leaves you steaming with a host of paradoxes that are waved away with only truly weak excuses.
If it sounds like I didn't like "The Day of the Doctor" it's because I didn't... at first. It was definitely the best multi-Doctor anniversary special, but that is generally a very low bar to clear.
You have to rewatch the episode at least once, and I mean that sincerely. There are simply too many questions being answered and asked on the first go round. There's too much to take in. That's maybe sort of the problem with 50 years of Doctor Who... there are so many rules.
I think Moffat is looking to break those rules now, and I think that's exactly what needs to happen. Weak writing and fuzzy linearity aside, one thing has dominated the show since its reboot in 2005. The Doctor is the last of the Time Lords, the murderer of his own kind, and the haunted survivor of a conflict that no one else could possibly understand. It's that lonely take on the character more than anything else that has united Eccleston, Tennant, and Smith as Doctors, and like any aspect of the Doctor that simply cannot be allowed to stand unchanging lest another 50 years be impossible.
Hurt's Doctor, the brief appearance by Peter Capaldi as the next, the revelation that Gallifrey stands, an appearance by a new/old Doctor from the past or future, and the hope for a forgiven Doctor threaten to utterly change the paradigm exactly when it is most needed.
"How many lives have been saved through regret?" is the most important line said in "Day of the Doctor" and I can't remember which one said it. It doesn't matter, because all the Doctors need to ask themselves that question. Incarnations from across the long life of the Time Lord don't just come to save Gallifrey, they come to save themselves from themselves.
The episode ends on a note more hopeful than any I can recall since Nine exclaimed, "Just this once, everyone lives" so many years ago. It ends on the Doctor's dream of home, and all his past lives stand with him looking at the Gallifrey he will search for now.
The thief, the trickster, the hero, the wizard, the kind-hearted wanderer, the madman, the imp, the romantic, the penitent, the soldier, the oncoming storm, and the imaginary friend... so many faces and just one name. Doctor. It was good to look back, as cracked as that particular mirror was in the end, but "The Day of the Doctor" did exactly what Steven Moffat said it would do.
It gave us more to look forward to. We needed that more than any piece of the past.
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