This is the one. The biggie, the one they unveiled only a week ago, the resolution of the Time War, two Doctors and a previously unknown version all together. This is also a story that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Which is just as well.
One in six people in the UK saw it, so we’ll assume you’re not one of them. The plot is that the Doctor is summoned to Earth by Kate Stewart because things are going missing from pictures. This turns out to be because they weren’t ordinary pictures anyway but Time Lord art, and meanwhile the Time Lords are at war with the Daleks, or they were until a previously-unknown Doctor played by John Hurt wiped out both races.
This story is about his agonizing over what he’s about to do, aided by the two most recent Doctors. It also involves Zygons (monsters from the 1970s Doctor Who series), Queen Elizabeth the First (who marries the Tennant Doctor) and Piper playing Bad Wolf rather than Rose Tyler.
Confused? You ought to be. This is one of those stories with a short time to fit a lot in, and it resorts to a load of padding. The stuff in Elizabethan England is, let’s be honest, an excuse for some knockabout comedy from Tennant with his ‘machine that goes ding’. The not-quite-the-opening sequence, in which the Tardis is hoisted to London on Kate Stewart’s orders (why? Just PHONE THE BLOODY DOCTOR IF YOU OBVIOUSLY HAVE HIS NUMBER unless of course you’re putting in some snazzy London shots just for the tourists) is just a postcard sequence to sell this abroad. Hurt and Piper spend an awful lot of time in a shed. More seriously, it really helps if you’re already familiar with the idea that there’s a war between Gallifrey and the Daleks – it’s not explained much here. The 1980s series suffered because the producer wasn’t that interested in the casual viewer; you can see the same risk starting to emerge here.
And yet it works. First because of the visuals. The war looks like a war with actual violence. Elizabethan England is sumptuous and space is as spectacular as it ought to be, with squillions of Dalek ships.
More importantly, it’s narratively and psychologically sound. This isn’t just Doctor Who, it’s another (because they’ve done it before) retelling of A Christmas Carol, except the miserable Doctor – Hurt – is shown only his future rather than any alternatives. Casual viewers may be a little confused and even concerned by the Doctor being willing to slaughter his own people but he knows what’s at stake but the diehards have understood this about him for a while. What we may not have twigged, at least not quite in these terms, is that it’s this knowledge that leads him to be quite so juvenile in recent years – he’s in denial about being an adult. The resolution arguably paves the way for his becoming older again.
Of course, he does the right thing when facing the decision once more, this time armed with his previous selves. They’re all included through archive footage and even a quick glance at the next Doctor, Peter Capaldi, in extreme close-up. Performances and one-liners glitter, the story remains spectacular and by the end the Doctor has a new mission – worryingly this again is a mission based on the series’ own mythology. One can only hope casual viewers will keep up. Oh, and if you haven’t heard about the cameo at the end I’m not going to ruin it for you – suffice it to say you’re right, it doesn’t make complete sense, but audiences of a certain age will love it.
There’s a myth that there are loads of anniversary stories like this. In fact, The Three Doctors started broadcasting in 1972, late in year 9, more due to availability of the cast than anything else; there was nothing to mark 15 years, The Five Doctors for the 20th, a crap Cybermen story for the 25th and it was off the air after that with only a Children in Need special for the 30th and an animation to mark the 40th. For the 50th they decided to wrap up some old threads and questions, get rid of the angst over wiping out the Time Lords and start another direction. With all that as its mission this story manages admirably; with a bit less padding it might even have explained it to the casual viewer.
EXTRAS ★★★ TV viewers were treated to an introduction to this story by Tennant and Smith. Cinema viewers had Strax warning them about filming. DVD viewers are offered neither of these. What we get is variable: a so-so mini-episode called The Last Day doesn’t establish much more than “The Daleks get to Gallifrey” which we’d worked out. Doctor Who Explained is yet another documentary about the series since 1963 and even as a diehard fan I’m starting to wonder how many more of those we need. Behind the lens is a good making-of documentary, the TV trailers are present including the 50th anniversary teaser. But ranking higher than any of these is The Night of the Doctor. Just over a week before the transmission of the episiode, the BBC put this mini-episode onto the Web and iPlayer, featuring the surprise reappearance of Paul McGann and his regeneration into the Hurt Doctor. His performance and the one-liners Moffatt gives him, even within a drama that’s only a few minutes long, left me wondering what we’d missed by not having more of this Doctor on screen where he belonged.