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.
*(‘But Daniel’, I hear you cry, ‘what’s the point of the conscience choosing to look like Rose when the Doctor hasn’t even met her yet? She’s meaningless to Hurt’s Doctor, and she never even talks to Ten, to whom Rose did mean a lot.’ Well that’s a good point, and there’s a very good reason for this, and it is, um, SHHH, just go with it.)
When Hurt meets Ten and Eleven, he’s not too impressed at what he sees, hilariously mocking them for their hyperactive babbling and childlike behaviour. His utter disgust at their use of the phrase ‘timey-wimey’ is superb, as is his automatic assumption that Ten and Eleven are his future companions, because he thinks they couldn’t possibly be him.
Come to think of it, this is the funniest episode of Doctor Who in years. The Doctors spend hours in a cell thinking of a way to use their sonic screwdrivers to open the cell door, only for Clara to come in and reveal that the door wasn’t even locked. Ten gives his big, intimidating I’m-the-Doctor speech to a rabbit. Ten proposes to Queen Elizabeth I as a trick to prove that she’s a Zygon in disguise – but he’s wrong, she’s the real deal, the Zygon was disguised as his horse – so he does marry her, as John Hurt looks on disapprovingly. John Hurt’s Doctor is like an on-screen representation of the old Classic Who fans, confused and concerned with what the show has become. Meanwhile, one new character, a UNIT scientist, seems to be the physical embodiment of every excited, fangirl-y Tumblr post ever written about the show.
It was a really good, fun adventure, except when it was about the end of the Time War, then it was a good serious sci-fi drama, except when it was about the Zygons invading Earth by pretending to be Queen Elizabeth I, then it was a funny mistaken-identity farce, except when it was about the Dalek attack on Gallifrey, then it was a big-budget sci-fi action movie. Doctor Who can change genres at the drop of a hat, and it does it brilliantly.
That’s what makes this show truly unique. This is the only place on television where you’d find a mixture of complex time-travel tales, goofy slapstick comedy, and a climactic scene where the main character – three versions of him, no less – considers the pros and cons of double genocide. In the same episode there can be scenes of the Doctors gurning and bickering and gesturing and running about happily to save the world -wahey!- then a scene where the tone shifts completely to something far more sombre and dark as the Doctor reflects on how many innocent children were on Gallifrey when he destroyed it. And this is discussed in the middle of a completely PG-rated, family-friendly, wacky adventure. There’s really nothing else like Doctor Who.
In the end, with their hands over the trigger, the three Doctors decide not to go through with John Hurt’s plan. As it turns out, ever since the end of the War, the Doctor has been thinking of a possible way he could have done things differently, trying to find a less shameful and horrific way to end the War. After 400 years, he’s finally come up with a way to move Gallifrey out of harm’s way and blow up all the Daleks at the same time. Problem solved, no innocent people die. Hooray! War is over! Peace in our time!
So, really, the Doctor’s been feeling guilty for hundreds of years about something which technically never happened. He never killed the Time Lords or blew up Gallifrey when he ended the Time War. He just moved the planet somewhere else.
But, due to reasons that are extremely vague at best, whenever earlier Doctors meets their future self/selves, they don’t remember it.. So John Hurt doesn’t remember doing most of the events in the episode. The last thing he’d remember is stealing the Moment and planning to destroy Gallifrey and the Daleks, then the next thing he knows, he wakes up the next day as Christopher Eccleston, the Daleks are all destroyed and Gallifrey is gone. He puts two and two together and makes five, thinking that he went through with his plan. Imagine, thinking you’ve killed thousands of men, women and children and destroyed your home planet, and you can’t even remember doing it. That’s one hell of a hangover. No wonder Nine always looked so glum and moody. So, he still feels extremely guilty, and it’s that guilt and shame which makes him try to think of another way he could end the War, thinking for hundreds of years, until he comes up with the solution as Eleven during this multi-Doctor episode, then they use that solution, but John Hurt can’t remember doing it, so he still thinks he blew Gallifrey up, still feels guilty, and so on. It’s a paradox, I…think. I don’t know. It makes a little bit of sense, honest.
Speaking of Eccleston, that’s my one complaint about this episode, but it’s really not the show’s fault, it’s his. He turned down a quick cameo (Hurt regenerates, but it cuts away before we see Nine) in this, the television event of the year, the biggest production BBC Drama has ever done, an historic celebration of the longest-running science-fiction show of all time that’s being screened in televisions and cinemas in ninety countries all over the world at the exact same time (yet, due to time-zone differences, also at completely different times. Hey, actual time-travel!) and what did he do instead? Play a forgettable villain in that Thor film. I don’t understand you, Eccleston. I don’t understand you at all.
But let’s not be too upset – the episode features enough surprise appearances from other Doctors to make up for it. We got an unexpected look at Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor*, as his big, angry eyes filled the screen during the big save-the-day moment. Also, a very-old-looking Tom Baker appeared at the end to offer cryptic advice to Eleven and hint that maybe, just maybe, he’s a future incarnation of the Doctor, further into the future than Twelve, who can change his appearance to revisit a few favourite faces. Or maybe that’s just a throwaway line used to give a reason for including Tom Baker in the anniversary special. Either way, it’s great.
*(I guess the new inclusion of John Hurt’s Doctor messes the numbering up – Nine is now technically the Tenth, Ten is now technically the Eleventh, but for the sake of avoiding confusion, let’s ignore that for now).
All that would have been enough to satisfy any fan, but then the episode ended on a shot of all the Doctors standing together outside the TARDIS! Looking at Gallifrey! Then there were special end credits! Then a trailer for the Christmas special! Then – gasp – a new Sherlock trailer! If you listened closely, you could just about hear Tumblr’s servers exploding.
In summary, it was perfect, all you could possibly hope for from a big anniversary special. Here’s to 50 more years, though after the budget-destroying CGI extravaganza that was the Dalek invasion sequence, I wonder if there’s enough money left to actually make any more. Maybe the Christmas special is just Matt Smith in an empty room with a Silent. Actually, who am I kidding, I’d watch that.
Finally, a quick word on An Adventure in Space and Time, a lovely feature-length docudrama about the struggles of getting Doctor Who on the air and the story of William Hartnell, who was initially reluctant to star in it, but began to fall in love with the role. It’s a great, thoroughly engaging and interesting drama, with a hint of Mad Men (everyone’s smoking and sexist) and plenty of trivia for fans new and old (so that’s how they made the TARDIS noise). David Bradley gives a moving, totally believable performance as Hartnell. Jessica Raine is equally good as Verity Lambert, who is given the difficult task of producing the new educational kids show on BBC1, but is warned by the Head of Drama that there must be absolutely no robots or bug-eyed monsters or any of that nonsense. Which is a bit of a problem when the second serial of the show introduces those infamous bug-eyed robots, the Daleks.