“Day of the Doctor” was Doctor Who‘s fifty year anniversary special. There were many specials released in 2013, but only two were actually broadcast on November 23rd: The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot and “The Day of the Doctor”. It is also, of course, the special that was released on the series’ primary medium. I’m ignoring for a moment that “The Name of the Doctor” and “The Time of the Doctor” are considered by showrunner Steven Moffat to be 50th anniversary specials as well, largely because they are vastly inferior to “Day”, but also because they focus much more on the current Doctor and companion than any sort of nostalgia.
How does “The Day of the Doctor” hold up as the spearpoint for hours upon hours of Doctor Who 50th anniversary specials published by the BBC, Audio-Go, Big Finish, and various internet personalities? I’m going to start with the one thing that nobody denies: that “Day” is a great look back at the past nine years (to stretch it to ten, you need to include “Name” in the equation).
The story is really split into three parts. The first fifteen minutes or so are the beginning of the anniversary look-back. From there is forty five minutes dedicated to the actual story. Finally, the last fifteen minutes or so are dedicated to the anniversary look-back with just a hint of climax. Of course, the best place to start looking at the anniversary look-back is…the core part of the story that’s not even trying to be that.
So, what do we get? It might be better to consider the story as starting at about the seven minute mark. This is when John Hurt, the newly introduced incarnation of the Doctor from “The Name” and “The Night” of the Doctor, takes over. This is really his special, which allows everything else to be looked at from the outside. By the fifteen minute mark, he is speaking with The Moment, a piece of Time Lord technology that is trying to get in on the celebration by taking the form of Rose Tyler in her “Bad Wolf” persona in order to inspire the Doctor’s trust. From an outside perspective, this permits the story to use a familiar actress that will draw in the fans and to make excellent use of the visual relationship between Billie and Jenna. Beyond that, this is an entirely new character – one who, despite having being able to write off any sexual tension with the Doctor as being carried over from the template she uses, thankfully manages to keep that out of the character.
From there, we move to the Tenth Doctor’s story, and yes, it features a call-back. Throughout the Tenth and Eleventh Doctor’s runs references have been made to the Doctor’s relationship with Queen Elizabeth the First. This started with a harmless gag in which the Queen – for reasons as yet unknown to the Doctor – declares him to be her mortal enemy in “The Shakespeare Code”. “The End of Time”, “The Beast Below” and “The Wedding of River Song” each made jokes about the Doctor’s relationship with this queen, but few expected that the running gag of over seven years would actually be resolved on-screen. Despite these jokes, little was known about this adventure, which features a call-back to the Fourth Doctor era.
This part of the story is peppered with small call-backs, in essence a “greatest hits” of the Tenth Doctor’s run, minus the companions. He makes several false assumptions (less a trademark of the Tenth Doctor than the comedic situations they result in are), gives a speech reminiscent of “Voyage of the Damned”, and of course, snogs a few women. The Tenth, Eleventh and War Doctors meet up, quipping among one another in a manner reminiscent of “The Three Doctors” after doing what dozens of fans have done and comparing their sonic screwdrivers. The Doctors end up incarcerated and the Eleventh Doctor inscribes the date and time “An Unearthly Child” first aired into stone so that UNIT can activate a call-back to the Tenth Doctor/Torchwood era. As the story progresses, the Doctors escape (in a rather “New Who” fashion, but that’s more a writing staple than an intentional call-back), and find that they are unable to reach the 2013 version of the Tower of London, which is where they need to resolve the plot. From here they travel through the Time War – symbolically, the “wilderness years” between Season 26 in 1989 and Series 1 in 2005, although neither Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, or Richard E. Grant appear to lay claim to this symbolism – in order to return. From there they force a solution by negotiation, using “New Who” reasoning for a Classic Who solution while skipping all of the talking that would have taken up a Classic episode on its own.
Instead, we follow the War Doctor, the real star of this story, back to the wilderness. The Moment gives him a big red button that he must never, ever press (a call-back to “The Christmas Invasion” among other things) in the shape of a rose (a call-back to what she’s wearing), and the other Doctors arrive to provide moral support. Earlier the Moment took her turn to describe the two more recent Doctors (“The One who Regrets, the One who Forgets”), and this time Clara describes them (“The Warrior, the Hero, the Doctor”), and this spurs Eleven to kick off the last fifteen minutes of the special.
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