Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Fifty-Year Itch

Doctor Who
The Day Of The Doctor
Fiftieth Anniversary Special

"...now reset to its factory settings.  Happy anniversary."
Right then.  Fifty years of Doctor Who to celebrate, one episode to do it in.  Go.

Where do you start?  The obvious answer is Lots Of Doctors, because that's how it's always been.  We've had The Three Doctors (Tenth anniversary), The Five Doctors (Twentieth) and Dimensions In Time (Thirtieth, but we ignore that one).  And why not: it's an entirely logical way to step it up, For One Night Only.

The hard part is why they've come back, and what to actually do with them.  The Doctor is regularly painted as the most amazingly brilliant man in the universe, so you'd need an amazingly horrible problem to require more than one of him to fix it.  So far we've had a Time Lord emergency, abduction by megalomaniac, TARDISes colliding, sheer coincidence, and randomly popping up one after another for Children In Need.  (Or whatever Dimensions In Time was actually about.)  But we've also had umpteen finales threatening the universe and time itself and all the bits in-between, and one Doctor has mostly sufficed.  What is there for another one to actually do, besides own a second screwdriver?

The Day Of The Doctor has an elegant solution: just as he's about to end the Time War with an ultimate sacrifice, the Doctor (John Hurt) is offered a glimpse of his future selves, and at the consequences of his actions.  He's with the other Doctors so he can learn from them, not just so they can topple the monster-of-the-week.  It may not be Steven Moffat's first pinch from A Christmas Carol, but it's a neat idea, and it ties up the last eight years of Doctor Who.

Above: the entire 'Classic era' celebration.
If one were to nitpick (perish the thought), it doesn't have much to do with Doctor Who pre-2005 you know, that whole fifty-years bit so I'm not sure how much of an overall celebration it really is, despite having the original titles and various sneaky references.  (Headmaster: I. Chesterton!  UNIT dating!)  More alarmingly, it cuts out all the Doctors before John Hurt, whose Time War Doctor didn't exist a year ago.  This is a bit galling if you're, say, a fan of any of them, especially on the big anniversary.  And quite a lot of us are in that boat.  (Peter Davison's fabulous Five(ish) Doctors Reboot goes some way to filling the void.  Move over, Curse Of Fatal Death: this is the best and most affectionate Who spoof ever.)

So it's not what a lot of people expected, and no, Christopher Eccleston isn't in it either.  (Big surprise.)  I suppose it's no use moaning about what it isn't: we'll just have to examine what it is.  So what about this Time War Doctor?

Well, he's a bit of a masterstroke, allowing us to look at the "new" Doctors from an outsider's perspective.  As a crusty old fan for going-on twenty-one-years, this is absolute manna.  He's the kind of Doctor we're just not allowed any more: older, a bit slower, and not afraid to use long words.  Ever since 2005 the show's been more exclusively youth-orientated, with a lot of baby-talk and sonic-screwdriver-pointing, and it's enormously satisfying to address that.  (Of course it would have been nice to have someone like Sylvester McCoy doing the actual addressing, but since Hurt's embodying classic Doctors in spirit, and since he's John ruddy Hurt, it's not a bad compromise.)  The lack of any preconceptions or past episodes gives Moffat (and Hurt) a blank slate to work with.  He's fascinating to watch.

He's also utterly, spit-your-drink hilarious.  We all knew it'd be fun to put Matt Smith and David Tennant in a room and it is but seeing them chided by a blustery old uncle is pure Doctor Who gold.  I honestly can't pick a favourite put-down.  There's "Do you have to talk like children?", and "What are you going to do, assemble a cabinet at them?", but then there's "Timey what?" and his tone of voice when he hears "Allons-y." I want to hug everything that comes out of his mouth.  It's a shame we can't keep him for every time there's a bad line.

Hurt-Doc catches up on old scripts.
He's up to Rise Of The Cybermen.
As for his eventual decision, and the emotional heart and soul of the episode – er, that's less of a masterstroke.  Blowing up Gallifrey has never sat well with Steven Moffat's "Everybody lives" philosophy, so this isn't a huge surprise, but it's still pretty horrifying: all three Doctors agree that the pros outweigh the cons and prepare to press the button, until Clara talks them out of it using tears, so they tuck Gallifrey away in a pocket dimension allowing the Daleks to blow each other up in the crossfire.  The Time Lords survive, the Daleks die, everybody's happy, although the Doctor forgets (leaving all his subsequent moping in place).  Yeah, there's several quite big problems with this.

1) The Doctor didn't have a choice.  There was no alternative.  That's how Impossible Choices work.  Reminding him how sad it is that people will die isn't actually going to help, seeing as they'll die anyway if he doesn't do it.  And rewriting it so that there was another choice all along reduces the dramatic stakes to zero.

2) Didn't the Doctor also do this to stop his own people from destroying the universe?  Okay, there's a reference to the High Council having "other plans", but that doesn't tally with blowing up all of Gallifrey to stop them, as he directly said he did in The End Of Time.  It's no longer clear why the Doctor needs to blow up Gallifrey in the first place, since the Daleks are now the only problem again, the "impossible" choice has been rewritten so that it's, um, a slightly difficult one?  The ruddy goalposts have moved, again, in order to make things less interesting.

3) Considering Doctors #10 and #11 know the Daleks will survive, probably because of that daft "crossfire" plan, why not detonate The Moment anyway with Gallifrey gone?

4) Actually, since the Daleks survived, what's the fecking point in any of it?  Wasn't their survival one of the main reasons he's regretted it ever since?

The upside is that it didn't go where The Name Of The Doctor was hinting.  Hurt isn't there to deflect genocide onto a comfortable "doesn't count" incarnation.  Doctors #10 and #11 own up to the deed, and gradually remind Hurt that he is the same man after all.  But none of that counts for very much if they're just going to wipe away all that nasty drama and leave behind inconsequential fairy-dust.  Everything that's happened since 2005 still stands, because amnesia, but now all that PTSD (including Christopher Eccleston's entire character arc) is meaningless.  It might be "big" to rewrite this stuff, but it's not really worth it.  Everybody lives, and absolutely none of it matters.  Aptly enough, someone should have considered the consequences.

Okay, enough about what doesn't work.  It's the anniversary special, so what's special about it?  Well, there's Zygons.  Are you happy now, surprisingly-vocal-Zygon-fans?  The manky shapeshifters look and sound great, their plan holds just enough water (although where did they get Time Lord art from in the first place, and why are they so obsessed with non-organic technology all of a sudden?), and they're just inconsequential-yet-scary enough to keep things interesting until the real plot explodes.  (Typical Moffat, this is in the last reel.)

Then there's Kate Stewart, acting-replacement-for-the-Brigadier, who continues to be a wonderful addition to the Whoniverse.  It doesn't make much sense that UNIT would grab the TARDIS and not know the Doctor was in it (particularly as a motorbike disappeared inside moments before, so clearly someone's home), and it makes no sense at all that these consummate professionals wouldn't look for intruders under some suspicious sheets, but whatever: I like her, and her assistant with asthma.  I'll trade the Paternoster Gang for them now, thanks.

Two eyes.  One shot.  Hundreds of Facebook cover photos.
There's all the juicy Time War footage, which okay, still doesn't visualize all the weirdness we've heard so much about it's not so much "moments on fire" as "Daleks shooting things" – but it looks great.  And the big finale, putting all questions of what it means to one side, is lovely, with all thirteen (!) Doctors dropping by at once, including Peter Capaldi (!).  We even see the gang together, avec body doubles and dry ice, in a cute final shot.

Then there's the thing that made headlines in the first place: David Tennant is back!  Here characterized as a dashing ladies' man who's noticeably short on Time Lord eccentricity (and usefulness), but then that's exactly how I've always seen him, so I loved it.  He gets some hilarious interplay with Elizabeth I, some delightful moments with Matt Smith, and best of all, the burden of Doctorliness doesn't have to rest on his shoulders any more, which is good as I always found him lacking there.  To quote Clara, he's a hero, and "any old idiot" can be one of those.  (It's just a shame about the "I don't want to go" joke, which is in pretty poor taste.)

There's not much good stuff to say about Clara, whose continued anonymity means she's randomly a schoolteacher now.  She's cute, she's clever, she has virtually no distinguishing features, so all those moments where the other Doctors marvel at her Clara-ness seem rather unearned.  But on the plus side (and who saw this coming?), Billie Piper's in this, and she's great.  No longer playing Doctor Who's reigning spoilt brat, Piper excels as the conscience of the ultimate weapon.  Distinctly human yet radiating alien intelligence, it's enough to make you wish they'd given Rose's character a few tweaks before letting it out of the workshop.  Come back, Billie, all is forgiven!

Best fanfic ever!
Lastly, not leastly, there are the Easter Eggs.  John Hurt regenerates, or begins to, enabling Youtubers to make that all-the-Doctors compilation at long last.  So there you go.  (He regenerates for literally no reason, but he adds "I suppose it makes sense", so I guess that's all my questions answered!)  And, oh right, Tom Baker is in it after all.  Surprise!  Whether this is jumping the shark or paying homage to someone who's lived the part for forty years, it's still completely mesmerising to watch, not to mention having him interact with my other favourite.  Every mannerism is absolute magic, as it always was with Baker, and it's absolutely worth the weirdness just to have him back for this one scene.  Never mind all that Gallifrey Falls No More guff the scene's actually about I haven't been this emotional about Doctor Who since, well, last week.

Which brings us to Matt Smith, who's as good as ever, which is to say he's quite a bit better than the material.  His Doctor has been a bit stuck on wibbly-wobbly for a while now, but Smith still manages a few genuinely thespian moments, and he's never less than captivating.  With so little time to reflect, I just wish we got more episodes out of him.

And that's it.  There's a lot to like: it's often funny and sometimes dazzling, and hey, it's the first episode of Doctor Who I've actually wanted to watch again in years.  Is it a good celebration?  Yes and no: it's actually better than most multi-Doctor extravaganzas, which tend to be aimless pat-on-the-back-fests, but the point it tries to make is still rather misguided.  It takes pains to set up a future for the Doctor which, I can't help but suspect, seems more exciting on paper than it will be in practice.  But, we'll see.  Fifty years on, we're lucky to have a future to contemplate.  It makes sense to celebrate that, if ultimately little else.

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