Of course, if it had been any good the drastic reduction in the number of episodes wouldn’t have mattered. But whilst it would be unfair to call it a terrible run, and there was only one episode in the Rings of Padding Out The Short Running Time With Endless Singing and Flashbacks to Things That Happened 30 Seconds Ago that I thought was really piss poor, equally there tended to be an distinctly average feeling about the whole thing.
Things began to change when the Official 50th Anniversary trailer came out, after initially being a little cold towards it for skipping over the 80’s Doctor’s as quickly as it could, it actually grew on me and now puts a big silly stupid grin on my face every time I watch it.
However, the big sea change came with the release of The Night of the Doctor mini-sode. It went far beyond just bringing Paul McGann back for a bit of fanwank and actually managed to tell a good story that let the 8th Doctor show off as much of his personality as he could in such a short run time and gave him a surprisingly moving send off. In 6 minutes the Moff did more than he had managed with 45 at any point in the previous year. If he could carry that over into the special, this might not be so bad after all. The BBC finally kicking up into gear in the couple of weeks before the Big Day (the peak of which was the historically variable but still deeply moving Hartnell biopic) helped create the buzz and sense of excitement that had been missing for most of the year to date as well.
So come the 23rd, I’m sitting in a cinema in Birmingham with a couple of hundred mad fans and one slightly puzzled friend I’ve roped into coming along with me. You should all feel sorry for this gallant fellow as there can’t be anything more scary than being in a room with so many people laughing slightly too hard at every single joke, in some cases things that don’t even appear to be jokes (“What does “I don’t want to go” mean to get a cheer?”).
Rather nicely, we got the “Turn of your mobiles” message delivered by the true star of the last season, Strax the Sontaran, a one joke character who has managed to make that joke funny every time. Then there was an introduction by the two Doctors telling everyone to put on their 3D glasses and to watch out for Zygons in the cinema (and also, as the Tenth Doctor warned us, for Matt Smith’s chin shooting out the screen at us).
After the rather lovely use of (most of) the original opening credits things initially looked quite worrying as the in-jokery started off in a slightly forced manner. Look! A policeman walking past Totter’s lane! Coal Hill School! With the two places right next to each other in a way that would have pretty much made An Unearthly Child impossible!
The fact Clara was now a teacher showed up the continuing problem with her lack of character, she’s completely changed profession and seemingly given up on her travelling plans but it doesn’t stand out as strange because she’s been so badly written over the last year. Jenna Coleman is lovely and has done the best she can with the character, but it’s probably for the best she was basically just along for the ride her, her main contribution being to open a door.
What’s actually impressive about the Zygon plot is, even though it’s not what anyone would have tuned in for, it’s still a proper well thought out scheme that gets a decent pay off with the Doctors actually getting everyone involved to sit down and talk in order to sort out peace. The fact it also fills out a very minor recurring gag (which, as it was only mentioned twice barely even qualifies as recurring) from the Tennant years about the 10th Doctor having gotten up to something with Elisabeth 1st in a way that actually works is pretty impressive as well.
But, let’s face it; the main draw was John Hurt as the mysterious new Doctor. I was fairly cynical about this to start with as we’ve been promised Game Changers before that turned out to be nothing of the sort (we didn’t learn the Doctor’s name, he didn’t die on the beach, she wasn’t actually his daughter and so on), but fantastically this is played completely fairly. It’s not a trick, or an alternate Universe and this new Doctor isn’t wiped out by the end of the story. He is legitimately the 9th Doctor and the numbering of those who came after has to be shoved forward one (well, at least in fiction, I don’t think people are going to stop calling Matt Smith the 11th Doctor any time soon). It’s a brilliant way of taking advantage of that gap in the on-screen regenerations and lets one of Britain’s greatest actors play the best role on television for an afternoon.
And Hurt is brilliant, and he has to be as he’s creating his character from the ground up and has to show his Doctor doing everything the Doctor has to be whilst at the same time conveying the sense of loss and the weight of the Universe on his shoulders as he prepares to push the button and end the Time War. Plus at the same time he has to be a meta representation of the difference between old and new series Doctors, providing commentary on how his two successors are so different from what he’d expect. He juggles all these different facets perfectly, and by the end you’re left in no doubt he’s a Real Doctor and want to see more of those adventures he had in the time it took him to age and grow that beard.
But that leads us to a fairly noticeable hole: The absence of Christopher Eccleston. Bad Wolf Rose promises to show the War Doctor the man he’ll become, but then proceeds to do no such thing skipping over that incarnation for no readily apparent reason. It’s a shame he refused even the most token of cameos as, even though he’ll never top my personal list of favourite Doctors, he was still the most important casting in the role since Troughton and the success of the new series owes a lot to how well his performance went down with the general public.
With competition like that, it would have been easy for Smith to get lost, and he’s arguably the weaker of the three actors (which isn’t a slight when you’re talking about John Hurt and David Tennant), however, he holds his own and gives a thoughtful, sad performance that, like Peter Davison in The Five Doctors, handles the serious side of things whilst all the other Doctors are getting to show off extremely well. Thankfully there’s no equivalent of his truly bizarre acting choices when being taken over by the Cybermen back in Nightmare in Silver (“Hey, you know what’s the best way of representing the dehumanising effect of having your mind invaded by cold logical beings? Acting like the super camp love child of John Barrowman and Wee Jimmy Krankie”).
Which brings us neatly to the portrayal of the Time War. Whilst it’s perhaps a shame it’s just done as a conventional shooting war rather than some of the more interesting ideas suggested in The End of Time (but then, I think the only way you could do the notion of a history ripping conflict justice would be to resurrect Phillip K. Dick and get him to do it as a novel), it’s still an extremely well done conventional shooting war that looks considerably more expensive than it likely cost. It was nice to see the Chancellery Guard again as well, and I absolutely loved the cheerful hand wave of how this ties into Tennant’s final story, basically boiling down to “That Tim Dalton’s a loon, let’s just ignore him”.
The fact the story, perhaps surprisingly for the first time in the new series, stared unflinchingly into the full consequences of what the Doctor did when he ended the Time War (it was far more than killing the mad Time Lords and the bastard Daleks, it was wiping out those who were unfortunate enough just to be born Gallifreyan including 2 billion children) was surprisingly brave for a jolly romp special as well.
Indeed, when all three Doctors come together to press the button once again, the episode had genuinely tricked me into thinking that was how it was going to end even though logically that would have been a bit of a bleak way to end it, and indeed would have contradicted the thematic ideas behind how the Zygon plot was resolved.
The solution, perfectly set up by what seemed to be a throwaway gag with the three sonic screwdrivers earlier in the episode, of giving the First Doctor the task of starting to work out the calculations that would take centuries to work out that would just let them make Gallifrey vanish and then all the Doctors they could grab turning up on the day to create the effect, was lovely and I must admit to having welled up a bit when we got “New” William Hartnell dialogue as he announced himself to the Time Lords. The only real shame of the scene is the Doctors who are still alive and willing weren’t asked to provide new lines for their cameos, if you know the sources those bits of dialogue are a bit distracting (and yes, Capaldi’s cameo was nice. Though you have to wonder why the Time Lords- from a point when there were only 9 Doctors- are fine with the idea of 12 turning up but have their minds blown when a 13th arrives).
What’s also nice is that the Doctor’s solution for the Daleks is the same as that he used in Blink; remove the thing in the middle so the monsters destroy themselves. That’s an example of Moffat recycling in a sensible way and shows how the Doctor is putting his extra 400 years of knowledge and experience to good use.
Before I get onto the real surprise scene, a few thoughts on other bits. I loved the random photos of companions in UNIT headquarters (someone, somewhere, is writing the story where Kamelion does something so interesting that UNIT take a picture of him), and the geeky female scientist saving herself from the Zygons and then keeping quiet when he works out the Doctor’s trick that’s making the peace talks possible was very sweet and shows how a fanboy/girl substitute can be done much better than it was with Lee Evans in Planet of the Dead.
Also, Nick Briggs, who we all know does a good Dalek, excelled at unleashing his inner Broton with the Zygon voices. As with the Ice Warriors earlier this year the production team seem to have learnt from their Sillurian mistake and realised if you’re going to bring back a classic monster it’s best not too muck about with it too much.
In terms of small niggles, UNIT were pretty much treated as just a British thing rather than an international force, something seems to have gotten a little lost there with the name change. Also, they repeat the error of many a Star Trek episode where vital computer orders can be given with just a voiceprint rather than needing any sort of security code; despite the amount of shape shifters UNIT know are out there.
You may have noticed I haven’t really mentioned Billie Piper, and that’s because there’s not a huge amount to say. Her performance is fine (and thankfully she seems to have gotten used to her new teeth since The Stolen Earth), and the idea of this Ultimate Weapon taking the form of someone the Doctor will know in order to test his resolve is a decent one. But equally, it’s a part that could have been played by any returning character with barely any difference to the plot. And reminding us of the whole Bad Wolf/scattered through all of time and space thing so soon after it was shamelessly redone with Clara (albeit on a larger scale) was perhaps a mistake.
One of the things Moffat mentioned in the interview he did to promote The Night of the Doctor was his fanboyish desire to “Tick off” all the regenerations, so it wasn’t surprising that our last sight of Hurt was him beginning to turn into Eccles. Though as we never see the change in full I’m sure there’s room for more mysterious unknown Doctors in there if anyone wants to create them in future.
Personally though, rather than him just being old I’d have made the change the result of his deal with The Moment, she told him if he destroys Gallifrey he will live to deal with the consequences (and interestingly Tennant and Smith seem to assume he had more of a life beyond the end of the Time War as they think he comes from after it), as he now doesn’t press the button the price is the end of that incarnation instead. Still, the crack about wanting better ears made me smile.
Now in theory, having a frail seeming Tom Baker wheeled out to set up the “Go find Gallifrey” story-arc should have made for uncomfortable viewing, but it was pure magic, even at 80 and walking with a stick there’s still an energy behind his eyes that makes it impossible for anything Tom Baker says or does to be anything less than magnetic. The seemingly genuine way he starts to well up (and watch Matt Smith at that point, he’s pretty much stopped acting as well and is just revelling in the moment), is genuinely beautifully affecting television.
Arguably after that having another bit with all 12 Doctors was over egging it, but despite the Photoshop nature of that last group shot it just about managed to stay on the right side of cheese.
I don’t know at what point last year Stephen Moffat got replaced by a Zygon, but it was nice to see the real deal, the one who winds Hugos and wrote the best episodes of RTD’s time as show runner, return for this special. I’ve not even mentioned how smart the writing is in changing the history of the Time War (or at least revealing what Really Happened if you want to go with the interpretation nothing has actually changed and it was just the Doctor’s memory that was wrong all along) whilst still allowing the last 8 years to happen in pretty much the same way. Generally, my niggles with it are only small ones and we been given a smart, funny, silly and thoughtful anniversary story.
So pretty much perfect Doctor Who then.