Monday, November 25, 2013

The Day of the Doctor: A 50th Anniversary Retrospective

This week at Fantasy Matters, we are featuring several reflections on the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who and the associated media frenzy.  We are excited today to bring you a review of the episode by long-time fan Peter McClean.

The 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who had something for everyone harbouring an interest in things Whovian. For old codgers like me, who started watching the first-ever episode at 5:45 pm on Saturday, 23rd November, 1963, it was like being transported back fifty years to that fixed point in time. 

The show was introduced with the original theme music and opening sequence, themselves masterpieces of pioneering technology at the time. The first scene was reminiscent of the opening shots of “An Unearthly Child,” the first ever Doctor Who episode. There was a policeman strolling along a street with the camera panning over a wall and coming to a sign. At first I thought Moffat was going to bring us back to that first story, to the scrapyard where we first caught sight the TARDIS.  My suspicions were not allayed when I saw a school appear because the first episode involved the school the Doctor’s granddaughter (Susan, played by actress Carole Ann Ford) was attending and about how her teachers were suspicious of this “Unearthly Child.”  They visited her home, the scrapyard, only to become the first companions of the Doctor in a series that has lasted fifty years, so far. Little did any of us realise what we were watching on that night half a century ago.

Clara (that impossible girl played by Jenna-Louise Coleman) is shown finishing off a class she has been teaching when a colleague gives a message to her from “her Doctor.” It contains an address and she immediately heads to her motorcycle, dons her helmet, and scoots off to the location identified. 

Surprise! Surprise! There is a police telephone box at the side of the road.

Clara accelerates her bike towards the police box, the doors open, and she rides right in, coming to a skidding stop beside the control console of the TARDIS.  The Doctor (Matt Smith) is sitting reading a manual on Quantum Mechanics.

And thus starts the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who.

That is as far as I go with a blow-by-blow account of “The Day of the Doctor”. Either you have watched it and do not need me to tell you what happens, or you are going to watch it and I would only spoil the episode for you if I were to tell you everything that happens. However, if you have not seen it yet I suggest you go and do so before reading further, as I am likely to let out a few “SPOILERS,” Sweetie.

In this review I am interested in discussing the impact of the episode, how it fits into the fifty year history of the show, what has changed over the fifty years, and what I think people will be inferring from this latest story. My comments will contain elements of nostalgia, some nerdy pedantry, and healthy doses of cynicism, while also being very complimentary to “The Day of the Doctor”.

The compliments
Production qualities were excellent. The early panoramic views of London as the Doctor and Clara were looking out of the TARDIS as it was slung under a helicopter reminded me of scenes from a James Bond movie (don’t ask me which one – the one with the Millennium Dome and the speedboat chase on the Thames. Yes, that one.) It was these views that saved that scene from total silliness.

Speaking of silliness, I have been conscious of it slipping into many elements of the recent Doctor Who series, and especially the Christmas and Easter specials. I have rationalised this on the basis that the writers are attempting to appeal to younger people than I, and not the mature six year olds like I was fifty years ago.  I had feared the fifty-year anniversary episode would be similarly aimed, but it was not. It retained much of the darkness of the traditional Doctor Who stories and was entertaining and mind-bending at the same time.

John Hurt as the Doctor was a master stroke of casting. He is a wonderful actor, one of my favourites, and he played the major role in keeping the episode dark, and in forcing the viewer to look at stark choices. He was playing the hero trapped in a lose-lose situation and who, despite being shown another way, cannot see any other option other than the ultimate act of destruction and despair. I could not help seeing this as a parallel for suicide, but the episode gave a message of hope that no matter how dark the situation there is always another way with a little help from our friends.

Hurt’s character and acting ability added some much needed gravitas to the show and counterbalanced the silliness of Matt Smith’s Doctor and the sentimentality of David Tennant’s Doctor. This counterbalancing is very explicitly addressed when John Hurt’s Doctor asks the  other two Doctors if they always have to speak in such a childish manner.

(By the way, it is going to become very arduous referring to “John Hurt’s Doctor”, “Matt Smith’s Doctor”, and “David Tennant’s Doctor”, but I cannot see a way of avoiding such complexities and cumbersome text while avoiding the potential for misunderstanding and confusion.  I had thought of just using the actor’s names, but then that takes us away from thinking about the Doctor(s) and focuses on the actors. Alternatively I could refer to them as Doctor 10, Doctor 11, and Doctor 12, or even the tenth Doctor, the eleventh Doctor, and the twelfth Doctor. Perhaps I should move away from the big red button.)

Using Rose as the conscience of the most destructive weapon in the universe was an excellent way of bringing Billy Piper back into the story without tearing massive rips in the fabric of space-time. She was an unexpected success when she appeared as the Doctor’s companion in the Christopher Eccelston series and many of us were sorry to see her sucked into a parallel universe at Canary Wharf. (Those financial centres are really dangerous places.)

The concept of a sentient weapon was used in the film Dark Star (1974) in which a smart-bomb, designed for the destruction of planets, becomes self-aware and starts to think philosophically. That is a science fiction classic well worth watching. When it was released it was regarded as a tongue-in-cheek poke at 2001. Sorry for the digression. Well, no, I’m not. Not really.

I give credit to everyone involved in the production of “The Day of the Doctor” for respecting all parts of Doctor Who fandom. This episode could have gone wrong in so many ways. I think they got it right…despite the few things that pedants will feel like a stone in their shoe.

Pedant’s Corner
This is where I gripe about some little inconsistencies that have irked me on occasion. However, do not get me wrong. I will gripe here, but my gripes have not affected my enjoyment of the show.

My most obvious complaint is regarding the sonic screwdriver.  This gripe is not specific to “The Day of the Doctor,” and in fact John Hurt’s Doctor (i.e. John Hurt; the Twelfth Doctor; Doctor 12;…) attempts to put the sonic screwdriver in context before he gets involved in one of the convoluted inconsistencies of Doctor Who.

I remember when the sonic screwdriver first appeared. It was Jon Pertwee’s Doctor (i.e. Jon Pertwee; the Third Doctor;…) who first produced it telling his companion that it was something he had just made.  STOP RIGHT THERE.

What about the scene in “The Day of the Doctor” in which John Hurt’s Doctor scans the cell door to start calculations that will take hundreds of years to complete and that David Tennant’s Doctor’s sonic screwdriver is still computing, and which Matt Smith’s sonic screwdriver has completed, because they are all supposed to be the same sonic screwdriver from different times? If Jon Pertwee’s Doctor made the sonic screwdriver, and he is so much older than John Hurt’s Doctor, how did John Hurt’s Doctor have a sonic screwdriver in the first place?  One must remember that since the original Doctor, played by William Hartnell, viewers have seen the regeneration of every Doctor up to Matt Smith.  Hmmmm!

In addition, David Tennant’s Doctor’s sonic screwdriver got fried in an X-ray machine and was thrown away in “Smith and Jones,” the episode that introduced Martha Jones (played by Freema Agyeman).  He made a new one.

I could go into issues such as the sequence of the Doctor’s regenerations, the fact that until there was a reset during a Christmas special to break the limit of there only ever being eleven Doctors, of which the William Hartnell Doctor was the first.  And if John Hurt’s Doctor was older than William Hartnell’s Doctor, which indeed he is supposed to be, then how could Matt Smith, who would in that case be at least the twelfth Doctor, have come into existence before the eleventh Doctor limit was removed (apart from obvious financial reasons for the show itself)?  Any incoherence or inconsistencies in the preceding sentences are only matched by the level of suspension of disbelief any Doctor Who viewer must maintain to enjoy a romping tale. As the old newspaper saying goes, “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

There will be some aspects of “The Day of the Doctor” that will upset people. Why were there three Doctors wielding the power to change history? Was this some oblique reference to the Trinity? I suspect it was more to do with budget and the availability/cost of Christopher Eccleston than a theological statement.  There is also the concept of, “The Power of Three,” something familiar to all good writers and orators. A triumvirate is always more effective than a foursome.

When David Tennant’s Doctor became married to Queen Elizabeth I it struck me that this was a bit incongruous with his supposed marriage to River Song.  Hence, is the Doctor a bigamist?

As I said before, we will not let the facts get in the way of a good story.

The quality of mercy is not strain'd – or is it?
The Human/Zygon  sub-plot is used to show there is a different way. From the potential  war situation and total invasion of Earth the three Doctors, well, at least two of them, persuade the Humans and Zygons to sit down and negotiate peace.

I was convinced this was going to be carried across as the approach to stopping the Time-War: have the Time Lords negotiating peace with the Daleks.  This would have been consistent with the last two Doctors’ message that “no-one dies today,” and the remorse expressed by David Tennant’s Doctor on several occasions about his having been the cause of so much death and destruction, etc…

 I was wrong.

The solution to not wiping out all the Time Lords and all the Daleks was to whisk Gallifrey away and leave the Daleks to destroy one another. 

But where was the mercy for the Daleks?

How has Doctor Who transformed in fifty years?
I have seen many changes in Doctor Who over the years, and the most obvious one is the amount of money invested in the programme. BBC never intended the show to run for more than one series and financed it accordingly.  So what else has changed?

Well, I have mentioned the sonic screwdriver having been introduced as a sonic screwdriver. I must admit to being a bit irritated by the evolution of the humble screwdriver to what today (if that is the right term to use when speaking of a time-travelling artefact) is basically a magic wand.

There is certainly more humour in the recent incarnations of the Doctor. More effort has been put into building characters. This parallels the maturing of science fiction writing as authors have become more skilled in their trade and have moved from merely telling a story based on technology to including the feelings, passions, and relationships of the characters. I think the motivation of making the Doctor more emotional is not just about maturity of writing, but also about increasing the appeal of the show to a wider audience. The earlier Doctors were basically emotional deserts.

The advent of CGI technology has added great potential and imagery to the show; it is however, a slight worry that Doctor Who will be morphed into the kind of Science Fiction/Super Hero film that is more about visual impact than the story it is trying to tell.

It is becoming quite commonplace now for multiple Doctors to meet with one another. That was a total no-no in the earliest Doctors, although “special circumstances” did allow it, such as the 20th Anniversary episode shown in 1983, “The Five Doctors”.

My eldest son calls Doctor Who "FFWF"--Fan Fiction With Funding. To a large extent he is correct as many of the current writers of Doctor Who episodes started writing Doctor Who fan fiction when they were at school. I have seen this as a threat to the quality of the show and consider some episodes to be nothing but school playground games, such as the episode in which the Doctor is to fight the “Silence” and he runs around space-time gathering his “gang” to help him. The fewer stories like that the better.

The future is Gallifrey
Re-boots seem to be the rage these days. Star Trek was rebooted. Batman has changed the history of his origins numerous times. Doctor Who has already made major modifications to its back-story and parameters. How many times have the Daleks been wiped out throughout all time and space only to come back again?

Now Gallifrey has come back. We do not know where or when it is, but the Doctor now has a mission.  ET phone home!

I commend the makers of “The Day of the Doctor” for paying tribute to the legion of their predecessors, in terms of actors, writers, directors, and crews with various allusions, comments, and items on display. This was a fitting episode for the fiftieth anniversary.  I hope someone will be writing a review for the 100th anniversary episode. I doubt it will be me.

By Peter McClean