While waiting for the 50th anniversary special of Doctor Who to begin last Saturday, I did not envy Stephen Moffat. He had a near-impossible task to complete. He had to write an episode that would pay tribute to the show’s past without turning into a boring retrospective, lay down the foundations for the next decade or so of Doctor Who, introduce and establish a new, previously-unknown incarnation of the Doctor, re-introduce an old fan-favourite Doctor, continue the storyline of the current Doctor, quickly and efficiently mix all 3 together through some time-travel trickery, show the much-discussed-but-never-seen Time War even though surely no budget in the universe could do it justice, throw in a few surprises and twists and give Clara something to do. In just over 70 minutes. Oh, and, ideally, he should make all this fairly easy to follow for people who’ve never seen the show before – due to all the hype and the promotion the 50th anniversary received, there was bound to be a potentially-huge new audience tuning in.
Amazingly, he seems to have succeeded. 10 million people tuned into the UK broadcast of the special, and a quick surveying of the online reaction reveals near-universal praise for the episode. This is no easy feat – Who fans on the Internet can be notoriously difficult to please, and they’re usually complaining about how the show’s gone downhill since Moffat took over/Tennant left/Eccleston left/it was resurrected in 2005/Tom Baker left (delete as appropriate).
There were nonetheless a few complaints that I noticed, just the usual ‘this is utter nonsense’, ‘this is too complicated, I have no idea what’s happening’, etc. To the latter, I call bullshit. Unless you were staring at your phone for the first 20 minutes, or talking over everything, I fail to see how you could be lost. My mum, who knows the general gist of the show, tuned in to see what all the fuss was about, and even she seemed to get what was going on. The first few minutes can be a little confusing, due to the episode switching between three different storylines with three different Doctors in three different time periods, but a clever bit of visual shorthand – a fez and a time portal – makes it clear where in the episode’s narrative the characters are.
This is the part where I would normally put a brief plot summary, but since Doctor Who‘s plots often involve a big amount of time travel and messing with the past to change the future – in this episode especially – they’re a right pain in the arse to sum up in text, and they end up sounding far more complicated and convoluted than they appear when we’re actually watching the story unfold.
So let’s talk about John Hurt instead. John Hurt’s in this! John Hurt! He’s playing the ‘don’t call me the Doctor’ Doctor, who’s helping the Time Lords fight a seemingly-endless battle against Daleks that somehow gained access to time-travel tech. He steals the most powerful weapon in the universe, The Moment, a weapon that can go through space and time and lay waste to entire civilisations, planning to destroy both Daleks and Time Lords to end the horrible war. The weapon also has a conscience, so it can judge him and punish him for choosing to use it. This conscience takes the form of Billie Piper as super-powerful Bad Wolf Rose*, who urges the not-Doctor to see what his future selves are like, and what effect his use of the weapon would have, before he goes through with his big decision.