Monday, 23 May 2016
Doctor Who: Day of the Doctor - Three Years On
Back in 2013, our review of Day of the Doctor cited one major concern about the anniversary special's future - "It will not age well and as time goes by and the excitement begins to fade, it may well diminish in the eyes of fans." Tempted as it was just to leave that hanging and press on into bigger things, it seemed unfair not to give the episode a second look to see whether this rang true or not. After all, many essential classics of the science fiction genre only became definitive legends thanks to audiences looking back and seeing their greatness at a later date; with The Thing and Blade Runner regarded as the poster children for this issue. So, this is going to be a retrospective. Not so much an outright review as another look at the story and wondering if those same criticisms leveled at it then are true today.
The foremost point brought up against the episode focused upon the zygons, and how superfluous their role seemed to be. Apparently added for little more than fan-service, they seemed superfluous and their own invasion plot was almost tacked on, isolated even within the episode itself. If anything it seemed like an entirely new story had been crammed into the episode at the last minute, purely for a bit extra action and to have a physical threat to the tale. Atop of this however, it forces the War Doctor himself into playing little more than a secondary role throughout the story, isolated or contributing little more than commentary for most of the episode, save for a few key moments. While these problems still ring true, there is another angle seen on repeated viewings which does help to justify it.
When you stop to really look at the War Doctor's role, he plays that of a complete outsider utterly detached from events. He has little history which directly relates to those involved with the conflict, and departs just as soon as he arrives - specifically via time travel. While detached, the few moments he does fully involve himself helps to shift events for the better and prevents the end of the world. You see, the anniversary is effectively a Doctor Who story of a Doctor Who story, allowing the character to reflect upon events before coming to his decision. It's oddly subtle - or at least subtle enough that you don't realise it first time around thanks to the overt nature of the rest of the episode - but it's certainly an avenue which has not been explored in the past.
When the previous Doctors have run into one another, they have all featured as the protagonist in some way, taking the center stage to solve the episode's threat. This would have been difficult to handle thanks to Christopher Eccleston opting not to show up, and as such this different approach allowed Hurt to have far more material to work with. When he judges his future incarnations, there's more meaning to it than in other such specials, as there's more than playful banter at work. As fantastic as the "dandy and a clown" line in The Three Doctors is, most of those moments in that serial stem more from the spectacle of seeing three incarnations conflicting with one another . In the case of Day of the Doctor, we instead have such contrast much more strongly resonating with him for two reasons. The first and most obvious of these is woven into the story itself and the decision the War Doctor needs to make, seeing if his act of genocide is truly worthwhile. The second, however, reflects the shift in culture within the show and the contrasting nature between the classic and new series. Really, just re-read these lines for a second:
"Are you capable of speaking without flapping your hands about?"
"Timey What? Timey Whimey?!"
"Oh, the pointing again! They're screwdrivers! What are you going to do, assemble a cabinet at them?"
They're all statements made by the War Doctor throughout it, and they're honestly the kind of semi-cantankerous criticisms which you'd expect to hear from old fans. If you took someone disconnected from the new series entirely, who perhaps only watched the classic era, these are the sort of comments you might expect to hear. They're ones which are less focused upon the individual character quirks and personalities of the Doctor's current incarnations (well, save possibly for the hand comment) so much as the very style and direction of the show itself. As a result, the show becomes an amusing clash of fan expectations than anything else, channeled through the War Doctor himself. While it doesn't overwhelm the entire story, it's an added element of meta narrative which certainly keeps things interesting, and it allows there to be a few general callbacks without relying completely upon fanservice.
The problem with this approach is that, while it does allow for those fun moments and some surprising intelligence, it means that the story structure is remarkably sloppy as a result. To be blunt, trying to force the zygon plot into the episode as it was extended the narrative further, bloating the story and forced in a number of unnecessary elements. This is largely down to the Tenth Doctor's involvement sadly, specifically his moments with Queen Elizabeth. Much like the War Doctor and Eleventh Doctor, this is supposed to show this incarnation in the middle of his own tale and form a bridge between three separate narratives, intertwining into one another. For once this story actually had the time to pull if off, and it is actually added without it constraining the other two. However, its failings stem from how the story is used within the episode.
While the War and Eleventh Doctor's timelines focus upon some relatively grim theme,s and exist within their own right, the Tenth Doctor's segment is effectively forced to do everything else. You have the introductory moments with them all meeting one another, the establishment of what's going on in the Eleventh Doctor's era, the awkward funny moments involving the Tenth Doctor, and the banter. Lots and lots of banter. Much of the time here basically devolves into the story spinning its wheels for a while until the Doctors can get together and start to figure out what to do. While this does allow for that ever important banter - which is admittedly solid as it ranges from serious criticism to humorous jabs - we see little in the way of real plot progression.
Very little of what's stated here really carries over to the finale involving the zygons or even the overarching plot, and even the period piece elements are wasted here. There was probably some intelligent thought in having a period piece, modern era and future war all in the same episode, but you don't get anything out of it. Even Elizabeth herself contributes little to nothing to the story, and could have been written as any noblewoman. There's simply little staying power here, and it's just fluff more than anything else.
The zygons themselves are also a mixed bag no matter which way you look at it, and further contribute to the clutter. Their most threatening scenes work as isolated moments, either stalking figures or quietly overtaking U.N.I.T. but it fails to truly gel as a cohesive whole. You never get a true impression of the scale of their invasion - and the fact it is spanning so many timelines with the focus placed squarely upon the Doctors - means they don't seem to fully register within the story. This has the unfortunate side effect of making them seem like a tacked on addition and, despite the intelligent episode invasion angle, weakens the story by dividing the plot between these elements.
The actual finale itself is held up more by its outcome than the actual execution of events. While the last events of the Time War does help to offer plenty of eye candy, it undermines so much of what the show established about it. The reason the war itself was never truly shown or brought up was thanks to the unseen horrors the BBC simply didn't have the budget to cover. This was supposed to feature battles so vast that its very shockwaves annihilated entire species, with entire solar systems transformed into gigantic weapons platforms, and countless abominations stalking among the stars. This was supposed to be the era of the Nightmare Child, the Skaro Degradations, the Army of Meanwhiles and Neverweres led by the Could've Been King, and the Horde of Travesties. Instead, what we get is a few daleks on the ground and a lot of ships in orbit, all of which are dealt with in little more than a few scant minutes. On its own its certainly fun, but with over a decade of hype and anticipation behind it? It did leave fans questioning just what was truly so bad about this war.
So, how does Day of the Doctor hold up after all this time? As an episode this definitely works despite its flaws, and even as an event there's enough gravity and spectacle to its story to really make it stand out. The story does know how to best use combination of Doctors on screen at any one time and, despite leaning a little too close to being weapons grade fan-wankery, their banter does hold up. Finally, the conclusion does cement a major game-changer within the series, shifting its direction and pushing it towards a new future. However, as a true anniversary it falls short. There's more focus placed upon the new series than the classic era save for a few minor shout-outs, and even then there's little time really spent truly reflecting upon the actual history of the show. Is it a truly good episode? Indisputably, but it's most certainly not the well deserved monument to a fifty year franchise fans had hoped for. Still, we got to see John Hurt as the Doctor, and that's a reward in of itself.