An episode made to commemorate a series reaching its golden anniversary could be forgiven for merely being an excuse for a party, a nostalgic stroll through the high points of the previous 50 years. In Doctor Who's last big anniversary celebration back in 1983, "The Five Doctors," so many elements and characters from the past were thrown in that the result was more of a parade than a story. With "The Day of the Doctor," showrunner Steven Moffat successfully pulls off something far more ambitious: an episode that provides plenty of celebratory spectacle, but also advances the continuing story of the Doctor into new areas.
Doctor Who's rich history is certainly not neglected here: There are innumerable touches that pay homage to the past, right from the top of the episode. Instead of the standard titles, there's an abbreviated version of the original Doctor Who opening, leading into a sequence of the Doctor's (Matt Smith) companion, Clara (Jenna Coleman), working at Coal Hill School in London—the location where the whole story began half a century ago. Only after Clara and the Doctor are literally picked up and deposited into the story by helicopter in a spectacular stunt sequence do the actual credits appear.
Having been brought to London's National Gallery by UNIT (the military organization dealing with alien threats to Earth that the Doctor has frequently worked with), they find themselves facing an impossible painting, which is apparently titled either No More or Gallifrey Falls. Not only is it somehow showing a three-dimensional image of the Doctor's home planet, which the Doctor explains away as an example of Time Lord art ("bigger on the inside—a slice of real time, frozen"), but it's holding in stasis a particular moment of tremendous significance to the Doctor. It portrays the last day of the Time War, when the Doctor made his fateful decision to end the war by destroying both sides—wiping out both the Daleks and his own people, the Time Lords.
In reality, of course, the decision to make the Doctor the last of the Time Lords was actually taken by writer Russell T Davies when Doctor Who was revived for the 21st century. For over eight years, being the lone survivor of a cataclysmic war has driven the development of the Doctor, culminating in the reveal earlier this year of a previously unknown incarnation of the character—the one who actually fought in the Time War, and whose action to end it resulted in him being hidden away, denied the right to be known as the Doctor. This story brings a resolution to this long-running character arc, as the David Tennant and Matt Smith Doctors finally face up to their past (regrettably, Christopher Eccleston was not able to return), and as a consequence gain the precious chance to revisit it.
The scenes depicting the actual war are—unavoidably, perhaps—the least effective part of the episode. A universe-spanning conflict is essentially unfilmable, and the shots of a few people scurrying around debris-filled streets, with a handful of Daleks pushing their way through the rubble, or scenes of some worried Time Lords standing around a table, can't help but seem perfunctory and lack impact. Even the CGI images of the Dalek battle fleet surrounding Gallifrey, firing a massive rain of energy bolts, don't convey the scale of such an apocalypse. The real story of the war is told through the reactions of the three Doctors.
It was a wonderful coup for the series to be able to cast John Hurt in the role of the "War Doctor"—as he needs to be referred to, to avoid having to renumber the others. The episode doesn't show him actually fighting; the most violent thing we see him do is take a blaster rifle from a soldier and use it to carve the words "NO MORE" into a wall. It's the air of exhaustion in Hurt's eyes and voice that creates such a strong impression of a Doctor who has seen and done terrible things, reached the end of his tether, and can see no remaining course of action but to use the sentient super-weapon known as "the Moment" (itself a reference back to the final episode of David Tennant's Doctor, "The End of Time").
There's no particular reason why the Moment communicates through an interface that looks like Billie Piper, but it provides a clever way for the image—albeit not the character—of Rose Tyler, so integral to the first years of the revived series, to return in this celebratory episode. The Moment is willing to allow itself to be used to end the Time War, but its price is that the Doctor must live on, contrary to his own wishes. Acting as the War Doctor's conscience and guide (seen and heard by no one else), it arranges for him to visit his own future selves. The interaction between Hurt, Tennant, and Smith is often laugh-out-loud funny, but the frivolity gives way to seriousness as the other two eventually realize that it was a mistake to deny the War Doctor his title, and all three actors convey the effectively significance of the moment as the episode climaxes with them preparing to use the weapon together.
With such a strong central spine, the surrounding plot fizzes along with all of Moffat's usual inventiveness, keeping up a constant stream of twists and reversals. Tennant slips seamlessly back into the role of the Tenth Doctor in his amorous adventures with Queen Elizabeth I (Joanna Page, whose performance seems to owe as much to the Blackadder version of the character as to actual history). The "monster" element that has always been so much a part of Doctor Who is provided by the shape-stealing Zygons, one of the most memorable creature designs of the classic series (despite appearing in just one story in 1975). Indeed, the episode spends more time than one might expect on the Zygon plot against Earth, which has nothing directly to do with the Time War or the Doctor's externalized introspection. Cleverly, though, Moffat sets up a parallel between the two plots as the Doctors find a way to defuse the seemingly insoluble conflict between humans and Zygons.
In the end, the Doctors' experiences allow them to figure out a way to end the Time War without destroying everything. Gallifrey is suddenly snatched away, frozen in a pocket universe, leaving the surrounding Daleks to destroy each other. In another clever parallel, the comic sequence earlier with the Doctors' sonic screwdrivers—where Hurt starts off a process that will take centuries to complete, whereupon Smith casually looks at the result on his own screwdriver—prefigures the climax, where we find out that the Doctor has been working on the calculations that will save Gallifrey throughout his whole life. The show's entire history is brought to bear on the moment, including all the Doctors—even a quick flash of the Doctor-in-waiting, Peter Capaldi, due to take over the role at Christmas.
Finally, with his predecessors back in their proper places and times, the Doctor is left to contemplate the painting that started it all, and the episode presents the most marvelous of its gifts to longtime fans, with a cameo from Tom Baker as the curator of the gallery. The erstwhile fourth Doctor may be a little older (okay, a lot older), but the magnificent screen presence is still there as he reveals the painting's true title—Gallifrey Falls No More—in that resonant voice. The delight of the moment is only increased by the teasing hints that maybe he really is the Doctor after all—but as he says, perhaps it doesn't matter either way.
What matters is what the Doctor chooses to do next. This episode, which so beautifully utilized the show's past, ends by firmly looking to the future. The Doctor, knowing now that he succeeded in saving Gallifrey, is on a quest to find it again. It remains to be seen just how committed he will be to that quest; it's conveniently free of urgency, so future production teams will be able to focus on it or not, as they choose. Whatever happens, the great adventure in space and time, 50 years old and still going strong, is guaranteed to continue.
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: Back in 1973, Doctor Who celebrated its 10th year with "The Three Doctors," a story whose stars—William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, and Jon Pertwee—are all no longer with us. The interaction between Smith, Tennant, and Hurt in "The Day of the Doctor" was very reminiscent of what happened when the original three Doctors got together, all those years ago.
Steven Cooper is a software developer and longtime Doctor Who fan, living in Melbourne, Australia.