Following the cliffhanger ending of the seventh series, Doctor Who had two specials before the next series could begin. The first of these is “The Day of the Doctor”, which is still the biggest thing the show has ever done. This was followed at Christmas by “The Time of the Doctor”, which saw Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor take his final bow.
The first special offers plenty of fan service and an explosive outing for both the Tenth and Eleventh Doctor’s, as they met their previously secret incarnation, played by John Hurt. The second wraps up the lingering plot threads of the Eleventh Doctor’s tenure, and clears the way for Twelve, played by Peter Capaldi.
The Day of the Doctor
“The Day of the Doctor” marks the fiftieth anniversary of the show – a milestone that very few franchises can hope to celebrate. And historically, a ten-year anniversary of the show is celebrated with a multi-Doctor storyline. And back in 2013, there wasn’t anyone that fans wanted to see make a re-appearance more than David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor. As I’ve mentioned in my rewatch reviews on the blog, I am a very big fan of Tennant’s Doctor and seeing him show up in this special back in 2013 was the biggest moment for me as a fan of the show.
But there’s more than just Ten’s appearance. As teased at the end of Series 7, this story deals primarily with the Doctor’s hidden regeneration during the Time War, played by John Hurt. Looking back, it was a fantastic move by the BBC to get someone as big as Hurt, as he adds a real sense of gravitas and star power to the episode. “The Day of the Doctor” was shown in cinemas nationwide, and it does feel like the series’ most impressive episode ever from a technical level, looking more like a movie than an episode of the show. It’s clear that the powers that be threw money at the production, allowing them to make something amazing. I don’t think Doctor Who has ever felt as big and popular as it did back in 2013, and I hope the upcoming 60th anniversary generates similar hype.
Surprisingly, there is a typical Who-plot in this episode, featuring the Zygons. I was hesitant upon the rewatch, as these enemies have always seemed a bit silly. But I forgot how good they were here, with some really fantastic prosthetics and some really cool transformations. And they allow for some fun scenes involving doppelgangers. Though I’m still not crazy about the character of Osgood. She’s fun enough, and Ingrid Oliver is really good, but her gimmick of always using her inhaler is really grating.
The stuff with the Zygons isn’t even the bulk of the episode, however. I’m impressed with how many plates Moffat and Co were able to balance throughout this episode. The bulk of the episode involves the Doctor(s) dealing with the Time War and the destruction of Gallifrey. When the episode begins, the War Doctor is on the cusp of ending the Time War, by killing both the Daleks and the Time Lords. This is something that the Doctor has wrestled with since the return of the show in 2005, and it’s something that has defined each incarnation of the character since then. So you might be a bit wary when the show decides to change this key moment, instead having the Doctor save Gallifrey through some complicated science involving pocket universes. But it’s such a fist-pumping moment that it’s difficult to care too much (and Gallifrey has been destroyed and un-destroyed so much by now that it’s inconsequential).
The episode also sees a brief appearance from the next Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi, as all the Doctor’s incarnations come together to save Gallifrey. And at the end, there’s a lovely scene with Tom Baker, as the Curator, a character that is strongly hinted to be a far-future version of the Doctor. These bits are fan service, but they feel organic and not like the show is pandering. In fact, that’s what makes the episode so great. There are plenty of moments for fans of the show and it acts as a big hurrah for the fiftieth anniversary – but on top of that, it’s an entertaining episode by itself. Overall, it’s an absolute triumph. And it’ll be interesting to see how the sixtieth anniversary matches it.
The Time of the Doctor
Technically a Christmas special, The Time of the Doctor sees Matt Smith bit adieu to the TARDIS. It also wraps up all of the plot threads left dangling from his run on the show, even the ones you thought had been dealt with – including the crack in space and time, the Silence/the Church of the Papal Mainframe, the disappearance of Gallifrey, the Doctor’s name, and his death on Trenzalore. It also addresses the annoying bit of Who lore that says a timelord has a limit to their regenerations. Basically, it attempts to do absolutely everything. Obviously, some things are more successful than others.
Around a planet, somewhere in the far reaches of space, millions of aliens are amassed, waiting to attack. They’ve been led there by a mysterious message coming from a small human settlement on the planet, named Christmas. The only thing holding them back is the Church of the Papal Mainframe, and their leader sends the Doctor and Clara down to the planet to investigate. They discover that the planet is in fact Trenzalore and that the message is coming from a crack under the church. The people on the other side are none other than the surviving Time Lords in their pocket universe, following the events of “The Day of the Doctor”. They want the Doctor to speak his name and free them. Thus, a stalemate emerges. The aliens around the planet can’t attack or the Doctor will release the Time Lords. But the Doctor can’t leave, or the aliens will destroy Trenzalore and Christmas, including all the humans living there.
Now that’s the set up. And it’s a hell of a hook – even if it does take a good while for this information to be conveyed to us. If anything, it feels like Steven Moffat is leaving the show, and he’s using this episode to go out with a bang. I guess in reality he was simply to trying to wipe the slate clean for the Twelfth Doctor. It just means there is a hell of a lot of information and exposition thrown at you in the first twenty minutes, so try and keep up.
From this point on, “The Time of the Doctor” sort of becomes the ultimate Doctor Who episode, as the Doctor defends the settlement for hundreds of years, facing off against some of his most popular villains. It’s difficult to fault, as the Doctor uses clever tricks to defeat the armada a battalion at a time, all the while defending the town and building a reputation as the eccentric man in the church, who fixes toys for children and offers sage words of wisdom. Throughout all of this, because he’s out of regenerations, the Doctor is aging and there’s some pretty great old person make up on show here.
The resolution of the episode is typical Who, with a finale that is better left unscrutinised. Thanks to the help of Clara making a heartfelt plea to the Time Lords, the Doctor is granted a new regeneration cycle and manages to dispatch the last of the ships with his regeneration energy. But the good times don’t last, because the Doctor is in the middle of a regeneration. Before long, he’s going to be a new man. These regeneration scenes are always the best scenes in the show, in terms of acting and music and visuals. Eleven’s turn doesn’t disappoint, as he delivers a wonderful speech to Clara before seeing a vision of Amy, who helps him along his way. This is followed by a disorientating quick cut to the new Doctor, a wild-eyed Peter Capaldi.
Overall, it’s a fantastic ending. It might not be one of the all-time great finales, but it has its share of really enjoyable moments and epic set pieces. On top of that, the regeneration scene is amazing and really fits the tone of the Eleventh Doctor. And the introduction of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor hypes you up for his go as the eponymous Time Lord. I can’t wait.
So that’s Matt Smith’s run at an end. When I began rewatching the show, I considered stopping before reaching his episodes as I wasn’t sure they were nostalgic in the same way Tennant’s era was. I’m so glad I didn’t do that. His run contains some of the best episodes in the show’s revival, and I’m actually starting to reconsider how I’d rank the Doctors. Matt Smith was incredible in the role, delivering a performance that I think might be the very best the show has seen. I will miss him going forward, but I am glad I got the chance to reappraise his tenure on the show. It really is phenomenal.
Next up, Peter Capaldi. Like the previous era, his episodes feel kind of like a blur. I can’t wait to experience them again and see what I missed the first time around. This blog has reviews of all of his episodes, as it was the era where we first began looking at them from the point of view of a reviewer. It’ll be fun to see how my opinions have changed.