I watched the first one, so very long ago. In the living room, at my Gran and Grandad’s, at 53 Chappell Road, Droylsden. I was probably the only one watching, absorbed in a black and white television set showing BBC, and thus tuned to Doctor Who because it followed on from Grandstand and, maybe, The Telegoons.
My parents, my grandparents and uncle were talking as our traditional Saturday afternoon wound down towards that soon-to-come moment when Uncle Arthur would run us back to Openshaw. They may have been talking about what had happened the day before, about the assassination of President Kennedy, or they may have been just talking about what families talk about. I was the only one watching: this was a children’s programme, and the only other child present was my sister, then only sixteen months old and not interested in television.
Fifty years later and everybody’s been waiting for months for the Fiftieth Anniversary special. There’s a funny feeling to watching this, knowing that I am now old enough to, officially, remember something for half a century. To be able to draw a parallel between myself then and myself now.
But that’s my problem, not yours (just wait until you reach that point, that’s all I can say).
Apart from an initial flurry of speculation when John Hurt made that astonishing appearance in the last minute of the last series (and nearly everybody was right in guessing that he was the Doctor who had actually ended the Time War, though there were no other plausible moment in the Who mythology where he could, with any satisfaction, have been accommodated) I’ve deliberately avoided anything that would tip any hands as to what would happen in the special. If there were to be any moments of great dramatic revelation, I wanted them to be dramatically revealed at that moment in the story that Stephen Moffat had conceived, and not in any trailer, forum, newspaper or spoiler.
And I managed to get to the start of The Day of the Doctor as free of pre-conceptions as it was possible to be without having hermetically sealed myself away for the last six months and five days. I knew that David Tennant and Billie Piper (groan) were going to be in it, and Christopher Eccleston wasn’t, but I had avoided everything else with determination.
Except for The Night of the Doctor, which was a game-changer in that opening moment when the Doctor you weren’t expecting appeared, and then the bloody door was blown off and if they’d kept that so hidden, anything was possible.
So I got there with no idea what to expect, unlike the millions of others who knew what they wanted to see, so many of whom, in the watching and the immediate aftermath, seem to have not got their Fiftieth Anniversary. I, on the other hand, can say that it satisfied me. It was, of all improbable things from Moffat, low-key, and personal in its heart. And I think that it was all the better for it.
The mandatory nod to the very beginning was dealt with joyfully: the original (and greatest) theme music, Clara a teacher at the school that grand-daughter Susan attended, Ian Chesterton’s name on the Board of Governors. It was the best kind of Easter Egg, placed in plain sight for all to see and recognise, but without the sense of having missed something for those who saw but did not recognise – like all the others I didn’t notice and which didn’t get in the way.
Moffat built his mystery quickly but carefully. A message from Queen Elizabeth: the First. Paintings that contain a frozen moment of time, the answer shown before the question is asked, just as the two sides of the Smith Doctor’s mobile phone call were shown in reverse order. The time fissures that bring together the Smith Doctor and the Tennant Doctor in Elizabethan times, where we can see the typing up of a loose end from Tennant’s era. The convention that whenever two or more Doctor’s meet, they really don’t approve of each other, but still end up working like a dream.
But this Special is about John Hurt, the unknown Doctor, the interloper who’s inserted into the mythology at precisely the moment where all is obscure: the Time War, Russell T Davies’ great sweeping away of a cluttered past, of Time Lords and Daleks, the addition of the dark element that is so bloody, uniformly, boringly mandatory in everything and everyone, without the slightest thought for individuality. The corruption without which any character in television or film becomes, somehow, unreal and unrealistic.
Sorry to all you Davies fans: I wanted to like Doctor Who when it came back but I lasted three episodes of Eccleston before giving up, and I know an awful lot of you regard this story as just a comprehensive shitting on Davies’ Doctor(s), but what Moffat did was brilliant.
The Hurt Doctor who was introduced in such dark circumstances, the version that could not justify himself with the Name, the Warrior conceived to make War, the man who chose, with deliberation and knowledge, to commit double-genocide, turned out to be a Doctor – a real Doctor. On the day his decision had to be made, on the day when he would activate the Moment – the alien weapon which would do this – the machine’s conscience intervened.
To have her played by Billie Piper, not Rose nor the Bad Wolf, but a simulacrum, a deliberate pre-echo, was a moment of inspiration. I hated Rose, and I loathe Billie Piper, but here she was brilliant, incarnating her role with thought, compassion and gentleness.
If he were to do this, the Hurt Doctor’s punishment is to live. But first, he must see how he will live. So he too is introduced to the Smith and Tennant Doctors, via the Time Fissure, and he is neither raging warrior, destiny-laden nor dark, but a Doctor who can snap and snipe at his successors as much as they do at each other, with the same irreverent humour that has always come with the turf of Doctor Who, and who makes himself real in his successors eyes in a way that they, culpable but removed and wishing to distance themselves, had not before been able to do.
So much so that when the Moment comes, they are prepared to accept, and share the responsibility that they have, in their different ways, sought to avoid. So much done, yet the inevitability of things prevails. Time is Time.
Yet this is to reckon without the Impossible Girl, Clara who has occupied the Doctor’s life, all of it, and who still has the belief in this unusual being to ask if there is not another way?
I’ve screamed at Moffat’s misogyny in the past – it very nearly fucked all over The Naming of the Doctor – but he can here be absolved of much, by putting the resistance to inevitability into the hands of Jenna Coleman and Billie Piper.
And there is another way. A way that preserves the unity of time, the sanctity of these years of New Who, of the Doctors who lived with themselves as ultimate villains. It comes from the Smith Doctor because he’s the current incarnation, but also because he’s the one who’s lived longest and had the most time to think. And through him, Gallifrey is saved, in secret, by removing the planet into a frozen moment of time.
Into a painting.
And in that glorious ending, all the Doctors – ALL of them, each in their TARDISs – come together to have the home they fled at a time that is so long ago that it might as well no longer exist: and because we are so close to another regeneration, there are not just Twelve, there are Thirteen, for a second of time in which we glimpse the Capaldi Doctor’s face.
And it is all reset, and the Hurt Doctor is redeemed, and regenerates into Christopher Eccleston (whose refusal to take part robs us of a moment that should have happened, the preservation of the final unity, his face in the wardrobe of his predecessor, the full regeneration). But there is one final moment for those of us who go back to marvel at.
New Who has often been accused of rejecting Old Who. That can’t be said any longer: this Special alone has built the bridge between the two eras: the unexpected, unimagined Doctor has cemented Old Who in the shape of McGann to New Who in the shape of Eccleston. It has opened a very great door, whilst accelerating the series towards confrontation with a chance bit of lore that seemed meaningless and fay when spoken casually in the past: twelve regenerations, and twelve only: Thirteen Doctors.
And Capaldi makes Thirteen.
But in its final moments, as Smith muses on retiring, and becoming a curator, he is approached by the curator, of this museum of the strange on that silly little planet that the Doctor, in all his faces, has visited so often. The curator is an old man: he is Tom Baker, the oldest survivor of the Thirteen faces. And in his guidance as to what to understand from the painting Gallifrey Falls No More, he is the promise to all of us that Capaldi cannot be the end, that one day the Doctor will retire, and will regenerate into an old, familiar, beloved face and form.
I’m grateful to Moffat for meeting the expectations I never had, for eschewing empty bombast and pomposity, and making this story about redemption, acceptance and the removal of an inhumane burden. As far as I’m concerned, fifty years has been worth it, and in a subtle fashion, the ground has been relaid for fifty more. To those of you who hated this, or were bored with it, or confused, or sneered, or thought that it was conceived in hatred to shit all over Russell T Davies, I’m sorry that you can’t take joy from this.
I, at least, am content.