Sunday, 24 November 2013

Doctor Who Day 2013: The 50th Birthday

And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

The Day of the Doctor

SPOILER WARNING: Do not read this review if you have not watched it yet. Rectify that and then come back.

Until now there has been an unbridged gap between the TV series Doctor Who that ran from 1963 until 1989 (briefly returning in 1993 and 1996) and the TV series called Doctor Who that began in 2005 and is still going. And for as long as that gap remained then claims that the show currently starring Matt Smith is 50 years old were, at best, on shaky foundations.

I don't just mean that when the 'old' series ended the Doctor was played by Paul McGann, but when the 'new' series started the Doctor was Christopher Eccleston. The Doctor being played by a different actor, without us explicitly seeing the changeover (oo-er), is not the problem so much as the Doctor having a different character, without us getting to see and understand why.

We were told why: the Time War. But that character arc was closed off, or so it seemed and so it should have been, in the episode The Parting of the Ways that ended Christopher Eccleston's time as the Doctor. The Doctor was a war survivor plagued by guilt over his actions, who redeemed himself when he could not commit the same actions again.

If the Doctor that followed his regeneration, David Tennant, had been played like the Doctors of old, then the gap would have been closed without us ever needing to see the Time War or the eighth regeneration. But we didn't get that. Tennant's Doctor was the Doctor of "no second chances" (from The Christmas Invasion, his first story) who "needs someone to stop him" (The Runaway Bride), and as for Matt Smith's Doctor...

The Day of the Doctor is about the redemption of the Doctor (again), but it also goes some way towards redeeming the mistakes of Doctor Who. Because although it is going over ground that should not have needed to be gone over again, it does it really well.

Was the Doctor's character fatally undermined by his killing of all the Time Lords in the Time War? Well, we never saw the Time War before, but we were eventually told that all the Time Lords turned into baddys, just as evil as the Daleks. All of the Time Lords? Even the Time Tots?

"Life's like that. Best thing is just to get on with it."

The retconning of the Time War has always been a possibility, perhaps even an inevitability if the series lasted long enough. The trick was to do it well. And The Day of the Doctor did it very well. It bridges the gap, it retcons the Doctor's guilt, it saves Gallifrey, but it doesn't wipe away the Time War or too obviously go against things we know must have happened. Oh, Steven Moffat has been very clever in writing this, the cleverest he has been since Blink, easily, and perhaps just his best script full stop.

Just as when I watched Time and the Rani, I went in expecting to have to be rescued by Scary Cat at any moment. After all, when we left Doctor Who at the end of season 33 we were faced with the prospect of River Sue popping in at any moment. The only past Doctor we knew was coming back for a reunion was David Tennant, for a competition with Matt Smith over which one has the most annoying catchphrases and mannerisms. With Billie Piper due to appear too then all the signs pointed to the return of the insufferable Doctor-Rose boo-hoo partnership that we thought we had (finally) seen the back of.

Three things countered that.

First, River Sue wasn't in it at all!

Second, having John Hurt there as an older Doctor, puncturing the tics and idiotic behaviour of Tennant and Smith whenever possible (calling out the stupidity of wielding the sonic screwdriver like a "water pistol" was my best bit there), and doing it in-character too (the different Doctors don't get on, lol) - fantastic. It made the interplay between Doctors funny and charming when it could have been annoying.

John Hurt owned every scene he was in, as you would expect.
Don't go in there.

And third: Billie Piper was in it, but Rose Tyler wasn't. What a twist! I approve. Purr.

I had a bit of a mew to myself when Queen Elizabeth I appeared, since previous references to her have been little better than bad jokes with no place in Doctor Who, but even this was handled well, making the bad references better retroactively.

I loved the way time was used in the story, from the little moments like the fez appearing out of order to the way the resolution was not the usual deus ex machina of the Doctor Who epic but flowed from plot points established earlier. Every plot strand came together brilliantly. The noms on top of the other noms was when all the Doctors (all the Doctors!) appeared to help. And the scene with Tom Baker at the end. Purr purr, I am a happy cat.

If there was any flaw in this masterpiece, it was that the mixing of comedy with the drama was not perfectly balanced, switching from silly bits to serious bits and back again too quickly, hindering the development of dramatic momentum and tension. Perhaps you don't need so much dramatic tension in a birthday celebration? I don't know, I'm only a cat.
An opinionated cat.
And a handsome cat.
And a big and gay and long cat.
Still, there have been much worse examples of this in Doctor Who, where the 'comedy' has killed the drama or the serious, cry-now moments have killed the comedy so much that they go

On the subject of comedy...

The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot

This was great and so very, very lolsome. Full of silliness and Doctor Who in-jokes and fun, and in its own way as wonderful a birthday celebration as Dave the Doctor. It is hard to choose a best bit, but possibly Steven Moffat's dream sequence with Mathew Waterhouse (Adric) just beats the scene with John Barrowman and his dark secret.

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