WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW.
Fifty years. Half a century. In dog years, Doctor Who‘s been around for half as long as the current incarnation.
Scratch that calculation; my math’s no good. Nor for that matter, is Steven Moffat particularly good with physics. But humdrum matters such as logic and physics have no place here, not when the long-awaited November 23rd screen embraces the absurd and celebrates the sheer imaginative scale of life with such utter delight.
The plot is basic: in it, Doctors Ten and Eleven (along with a plethora of others) team up to take on shape-shifting classic baddies, the Zygons. As both a gentler welcome and a love letter to it’s longevity, the episode opens with a throwback to the 1963 opening sequence and blooms into the gentle kind of soundtrack one might find on a country drama to accompany Clara’s biking off to meet the Doctor once more. As could be predicted, the reunion doesn’t last long; the TARDIS in it’s entirety is airlifted to the National Gallery on the summons of Queen Elizabeth I to protect a collection of alien artefacts. As it transpires, said baddies (tentacled, impressively unattractive things) have been hiding out in 3D art until the right moment to strike arose.
From here, Moffat splits off spectacularly from the anticipated globe-wide, sonic-screwdriver’ing chase to pursue not one rescue story, but instead follows three different stories that further flesh out the tenuous balances the Doctor traces between the man who rescues, and the man who requires rescuing. Curiously enough, the key character to tap into these depths is as much outsider as the audience is, though it’s John Hurt’s War Doctor who much of the choices and questions revolve around. Fresh from the events of the Time War, though still due to commit his genocidal act that’s the genesis for a (sadly missing) Ninth Doctor’s rage and horror and all the following regret, Hurt’s dragged into a joined timestream with the pair.
With a more impressive budget the hour-long running time’s punctuated by the marks of a feature; blooming soundtrack, luxuriant visuals and beautiful, shifting kinetic shots to mark the Doctor’s mindset. This is the first time we’re placed so squarely within the Doctor’s headspace and the distortions, changing angles and enormous volume of shots — the details he takes in — that accompany his perception upon life are at points a detriment to the narrative. The same energy can be seen in the camera’s giddy intoxication with swooping into frames and the rapid transition from 3D artwork, to realtime action which reintroduces perennial favourite, David Tennant. For all of the anniversary episode’s conceits and certainty, Tennant and Smith are electric together and very, very funny; they riff off one another in what appears to be a battle to see who can speak the fastest and delight at self-knowing winks at the character makeup of each other.
Where Ten is roguish and charming, Eleven’s still packed full of his trademark whimsy. To Hurt, both are utter strangers. The trio shift through different states as they grow to know and delight in one another’s company. Pronouns too are used with deliberate effect and in a multitude of ways; Hurt acknowledges his separation from these new two men, whereas Ten and Eleven both lobby implications at one another. By contrast, he’s a gentler, more reserved face to the Doctor, and far more painful to watch for the world-weary innocence he exudes: he shoulders the greatest burden the newer two have long since tried to jettison or have come to wear like a badge of authority. The three of them share a thrilling, impossible chemistry and it’s undeniably a utter delight to see the Doctor’s world collide, although reconciling the clash of the timelines is better left to physicists.
Reconciling the Doctor’s multiple identities, in comparison, is a thing far simpler, and far weightier.
“Do you have to talk like children? What is it that makes you so ashamed of being a grown-up?” Hurt asks Ten and Eleven at a point, when the three of them are incarcerated in the Tower of London. The truth is far more simple than that; it’d be easier not to be an adult. Adulthood, with all it’s connotations of responsibility and the need to properly take on board one’s life so far is akin to penance for the Doctor; not only has he wreaked havoc on Gallifrey, but as demonstrated by the Ponds bitter end, he’s prone to spread chaos wherever he goes. Plain and simple. For the Doctor, it’d be far more easier to babble at the wonder and simple beauties in life which he can seek out, a trait that’s been especially played by Matt Smith’s Doctor as a thin veil to cloak his rage. But there’s the crux of the matter: they’re “the man who forgets,” as Billie Piper’s Moment says of Eleven and his penchant to move along best he can, and of Ten, “the man who regrets.”
For all our issues with Moffat, Piper’s appearance as a post apocalyptically-dressed, sentient weapon is the greatest. As the first companion, Rose Tyler’s of emotional significance to long-time fans, although there’s no trace of the shopgirl here. Piper’s given new offbeats depths to play with and a certain quirky, humorous. air as befits a sentient weapon. Like the Name of the Doctor kept the essence of it’s power elusive, so too is the power of the Moment kept to it’s basest description — a moment, one moment, in time and space with the power to eradicate entire worlds. It’s not it’s power that matters here, but the philosophy behind the Moment and the significance of utilising it that’s most potent, as seen. While the lack of recognisable personality here, and closure for either Ten or Eleven (who shows precious little reaction to the mention of her existence), Rose’s appearance should be seen as a portent of doom for what the Doctor might face and is forced to face in the recollection of her existence: regret. In other words, she’s emblematic of the tragedy the Doctor leaves behind him. But while she’s still the Doctor’s ghost and a weak copy of her, with many of the puppet strings around her plot-device status feeling rather flimsy.
Clara, by contrast as a companion, has felt in her tenure as a companion more like mystery-slash-plot-device wrapped up in the form of a perky brunette. She’s wisely sidelined for much of the episode, though her crucial moment borders both the unbelievable and believable. Clara, you see, is finally laid bare aside from her quirks and her cheek and is found to be at her core, bursting with the raw humanity and empathy Eleven would find it easier to forget. Perhaps this is the primary, and the only point of the companions: put aside the big spinning police box and the Doctor could any day exist as a man with a god complex and a thin conscience. The travellers he takes with him operate as the voice of the people he visits and the people he’s left behind. Clara is no different. Her voicing her distress with the choice he hopes to make isn’t due to her being the most significant companion by any means: it’s required. Any other companion would be unfit.
In comparison to his predecessor (Russel T Davies), Moffat’s more prone to play around with the with the (admittedly) malleable rules of the Doctor Who universe. Whether or not the gamble of dredging Gallifrey up from the past is another matter: there’s veritable meat on these long-dead city bones, and themes that Moffat’s only glided over in his brief (and unabashedly popcorn-y) recreation of the Time War.
But for what it’s worth, regardless of Moffat’s past sin or preference for furious, overarching life or death plots, this particular showrunner shows he could just have the balls — and as evidenced by this anniversary, enough grasp of the heart of the show — to pull off Gallifrey’s return. Where it leaves the Doctor, however, is questionable; didn’t time go entirely wibbly-wobbly when an event as large as this occurred? Eleven too, who’s visibly shouldered so much of the hope and penance in this episode, may not have ever raged as bitterly or as hard as Eccleston’s Nine did, but with his actions jettisoned in favour of believing he has rescued Gallifrey, much of the pity Doctor inspires shrivels in comparison to the awe he ought to inspire. And with this formative decision rewritten, the Doctor’s capability to contextualise tragedy and his decisions within those moments feels flimsy he’s made the call to commit a vile act once, yes, but so long as a trigger can be flipped and time rewritten — well, what war, what loss can’t be stopped?
While the ending comes too soon and with particularly muddy closure, Doctor Who’s 50th is an anniversary episode at it’s finest. Packed full of references for Doctor Who fans, it it delights in diving in and out of triumphant moments and poignant , emotional beats, it returns to the silly, sly, human stuff in a subtle reminder that this world can be glorious, too.