November 24, 2013 Leave a comment
Airlifted by UNIT to the National Gallery in London, the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) and current companion Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) are shown a number of 3D paintings from which various occupants appear to have escaped. These are Zygons, shape-shifting aliens which first arrived on Earth during the Elizabethan age, back when the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) was courting the queen. Both Doctors find themselves working together to stop the invasion, only to be then joined by another, forgotten incarnation. This War Doctor (John Hurt), moments away from destroying Galifrey, the home planet of the Time Lords, is being shown his own future by the weapon he hopes to use on his own people.
It’s a synopsis that could run on for paragraphs, as the story draws on threads that have run throughout the show’s history. Few concessions are made for newcomers, and anyone unfamiliar with the phraseology, or terms like “Time Lord”, “companion” and “Galifrey” are likely to be lost long before the plot even begins. But don’t feel disheartened or left out, for once it does begin the fans are likely to be just as confused as you are.
I know what you’re thinking: The Day Of The Doctor isn’t a movie, why am I reviewing it here? You’d have a point, of course, but Doctor Who‘s 50th anniversary special — an almost feature length outing for the character — was broadcast in cinemas, around the world, and was seen by more people than many movies with a comparable budget. It also starred John Hurt and was screened in 3D. For argument’s sake, let’s just say it qualifies.
The first thing to note is how attractive it all looks. The story starts with Clara Oswald — previously The Impossible Girl — being summoned by the Doctor while at work. She drops everything, jumps on her motorcycle and drives straight into the TARDIS, skidding to a halt in its larger-on-the-inside interior. It’s a small moment, but an effective one, and director Stephen Moffat has many more such moments up his sleeve. The episode also has its share of money shots too, not least the Time War itself, which for the first time in years features Daleks actually worth hiding from.
The Day Of The Doctor is also reasonably well acted, and not just for an episode of Doctor Who. Hurt is a welcome addition to the mythology, and his world-weary stare and suffering self-worth contrast nicely with Matt Smith’s perky enthusiasm. To have three Doctors onscreen at any one time is always a treat, and these scenes enjoy a sense of occasion reminiscent of the first assembly of The Avengers, while Moffat cultivates a nostalgia comparable to last year’s Skyfall. Smith’s Eleventh Doctor has always been one of the better incarnations, and he is on top form here, not just opposite Hurt, but Tennant and Coleman too.
Beyond the surface detail, however, there is little that truly works. Outside of the set-pieces and central foursome the novelty quickly wears off, as audiences are once again left confused by a plot that makes no sense, either on its own or it the wider context of Doctor Who. Arriving at UNIT in London, the Doctor abandons the TARDIS without so much as closing the door. It is the first of many annoyances, in an episode that rarely pauses to consider its own ramifications. Doctors jump through time vortexes, get married and rewrite history with such inconsequence that, despite the money on the screen, it all starts to feel a little cheap.
Just take the villainous Zygons: big, purple, tentacled aliens who can for some reason shapeshift into anything that they wish to. They invade Elizabethan England, copy the queen, hide in special paintings and then wait until present day before attempting to invade the world. So much time and energy is expended setting up the subplot, only for it to be dropped twenty minutes before the end — the world still technically imperiled — so the Doctors can wrap up other threads with similar, half-hearted abandon. By the time it reaches its climactic twist, one that will revise at least eight years of lore, you care about as much as the show-runners seem to.
If this was reviewed as a movie, with its nonsensical plot, silly villains and preposterous twist, The Day Of The Doctor would be pretty hard to defend. As it happens, however, this is Doctor Who, and such things are basically staples of the brand. For fans the 50th anniversary special has just about everything you could possibly want (bar Alex Kingston and the late Elizabeth Sladen); for everyone else it has everything you could ever possibly expect.