Revisiting The Day of the Doctor For the First Time

Lately I’ve been playing a bit of catch up with Doctor Who. The last time watched the series was in the middle of season 7, while I was still living in Texas, and still had time to watch the show. But after watching a particularly bad mid-season episode (or maybe it was early in the second half of the season? I seem to remember season 7 being split up into different sections), I gave up. That’s not true. I actually gave up the moment that Rory and Amy were left at a fixed point in time in New York to die for reasons that make no sense beyond the ending of a contract. I let myself watch on from there but with a disappointment that only grew until I stopped watching all together.

At the time the choice made perfect sense. I was like John Hurt deciding to destroy Gallifrey in order to save it. If I didn’t leave Doctor Who at its horrific fixed point in time I would grow to thoroughly hate a program that had brought me so much joy in the past. Joy by way of watching alone, late at night in my Grandfather’s house on channel 13, the local PBS affiliate of central Texas. And joy by way of the people who I’d meet that shared similar stories. Most of the time we disagreed on our favorite Doctors and storylines, but it didn’t matter because we’d found each other. I didn’t want to grow to think I’d wasted my time because of a few rotten episodes.

Time moved on, as it does, and I traveled around a bit, worked a lot, and moved to Los Angeles where I write about television for a living. It’s not as fun as talking/arguing about it with my friends over too many drinks, but I can pay my rent without having to smell like burnt grease and that should stand for something. Doctor Who is now beginning its 9th season, and there’s a Doctor who is new to me, but old hat to the rest of the viewers. I have not kept up.

A few months ago something said to me that I should see what I missed. I needed refreshing so I forced myself to go back and catch up starting at season 6 and I found things that I liked along with the many pieces of shaky exposition and storytelling that were still rotten. Oh well, I pressed on through the River Songs and the dropped storylines (The Silence, anyone?), and once again found myself becoming disgruntled with season 7. But still I pressed on and found myself at the 50th anniversary episode, The Day of the Doctor. There were so many things about this episode to like and dislike, to love, and to hate that it felt like I was having a conversation with friends over too many drinks as I watched the feature length episode play out. The episode’s strengths are, tellingly, the strengths of the series as a whole (not just the rebooted series, but the series dating back to 1963): the chatty, whimsical problem solving of The Doctor. The episode (and the series – I’ll try to stop with the parentheticals) is at its best when the action is allowed to disappear altogether and let whoever is playing The Doctor cut loose and jaunt around with arms flailing. Getting to see Matt Smith, David Tennant, and John Hurt all work their particular Whovian magic was a delight, and it made me miss the show. An extended scene of three men and Billie Piper trying to figure out how to get out of a room made me want to go back and watch the series from the beginning, just to relive those moments.

But as with any episode of Doctor Who there are faults. Steven Moffat’s obsession with making The Doctor into a raging warrior feels incredibly forced. From the moment John Hurt appears on screen, toting a laser cannon and grimacing in the face of battle I was reminded of what made me turn away from the show in the first place. Scenes full of angry men with lasers and guys ringing their hands while wearing robes and saying things like “it’s in the time vault,” and “they’re fighting in the sky trenches” make Doctor Who seem like a pulp novel from the 50s – which isn’t a good thing. Doctor Who has always been a different type of science fiction, its own addition to the genre that prizes a chatterbox man in a funny outfit over explosions and unnecessary descriptors (I doubt Moffat is being paid by the word).

The opening of The Time of the Doctor worried me. I thought the next hour and a half was going to be filled with boring cinematic slow-mo shots, and Highlander-esque flashbacks that attempted myth building on a 50 year old show that just doesn’t require any more myth building. Thankfully, all of that went away (mostly). The episode gave up trying to be cinematic when it brought the Doctors together and stuck them in a room where they proceeded to talk for almost 40 minutes. It was beautiful. The old magic had returned. Even the Zygons, the poorly and perfectly named baddies of the episode were spot on classic who. Gone were the overly nightmarish Angels/Silence/Whisper Men that have almost become de rigueur in the new series, and in their place was a silly looking man in a rubber suit that looked more like a lobster than a shape shifting alien from outer space.

By the time the episode was climaxing, I was so completely won over by the three men talking in a room that I didn’t even care about the elaborate deus ex machina that was happening right before my eyes. I suppose the whole thing had been telegraphed since the beginning of the episode (so technically it’s no longer the much maligned DEM, it’s just foreshadowing), but it was still a bit lazy. Oh well. You’ve got to end the episode somehow. I started out my journey of revisiting Doctor Who with the dread of episodes that I already knew I would rather sleep through (most of season 7, despite Jenna Coleman’s welcomed energy), and now I’ve ended somewhere in the middle; ready to see where a new Doctor takes me, even if I’m one season behind.