Doctor Who’s 50th anniversay special was a reboot, a retcon, and an amazing piece of writing
Warning: This post contains massive spoilers for the Doctor Who special “The Day of the Doctor.”
The premise of the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary special was pure gold: What if you could, with all the insight and wisdom gained from years of time and miles of distance, go back in time to comfort yourself during the worst day of your life?
It’s a heavy idea, and this is often a heavy episode of the show that's offset by the fact that Matt Smith and David Tennant had so much obvious fun playing off each other.
John Hurt’s “War Doctor,” introduced in the equally interesting mini-episode that featured a welcome return from Paul McGann, served as the episode's emotional center. He’s been fighting an ugly war, and he knows that he might have to do the unthinkable in order to end it. His introduction into what we thought we knew of the Doctor's timeline is suitably epic, and dense with meaning for fans. Have a look.
This is why fans of Doctor Who are so fanatical: The Day of the Doctor deftly managed the series’ humor and pathos. Yes, the Doctor interrogates a hare. Yes, two Sonic Screwdrivers BOTH reverse the polarity of a time rift, so of course nothing happens. A clever answer to how to handle a calculation that should take centuries was unnecessary because no one checked to see if a door was, indeed, locked. A certain scarf served as fan service but also provided for a character’s clever escape.
This silliness was offset by a scene where the three Doctors discussed counting the children who died on Gallifrey due to the use of the super-weapon. The War Doctor knew it was something he would some day do. Tennant’s Doctor knows the exact number. Smith’s Doctor had forgotten. They all looked at each other with a combination of understand and judgment. That’s what happens when you get to relive the worst decision you’ve ever made from different points in your own timeline. You get to make yourself feel terrible in many, many different ways.
Hell, from the War Doctor’s point of view both of his future selves are simply possibilities. He can decide to go the other way, and they’ll either be erased or completely changed. Everything they have done in their regenerations, everything they are, is due to his decision to push the big red button. What they see as a foregone conclusion is still a question in his mind. He’s a walking, talking reminder of everything they regret. It's no wonder they look upon him with dread.
Throwing these three characters together and seeing what happens is an inspired way to celebrate the Doctor’s 50th anniversary. The rest of the story? Well….
Gallifrey falls no more
The Day of the Doctor was brilliantly written, and it does some incredibly heavy lifting in dealing with Doctor Who canon. The prequel's revelation of Paul McGann’s regeneration into the War Doctor, which adds another regeneration into the official timeline while providing an interesting buffer between McGann’s Doctor and Eccleston’s, is a shocker, and that's just the beginning of how well this episode re-organized the show's scopeand central themes.
It’s interesting to go back to Eccelston’s lone season as the Doctor after watching the mini-episode: His sense of regret, his rage, and the understated feeling of being uncomfortable in his own skin make much more sense. This is the result of the War Doctor, and his decision to destroy both the Daleks and his own people. Remember the power of the scene when they re-introduced the Dalek’s into that first season?
But the Day of the Doctor introduces all sorts of interesting questions. If the War Doctor forgets what took place, does he move on believing that he pushed the button? This is the only way the embedded scene above makes any sense, and I doubt anyone involved with the show would want to invalidate an entire season of history. Both John Hurt and David Tennant's Doctor continue their lives and forget everything that took place. This episode is only “real” to Matt Smith's Doctor.
Of course, we never see the War Doctor actually regenerate into Eccleston so… could there be something else there, some other trick that a writer can slide in to play with our preconceived ideas of what happens in the timeline? There are other loose ends as well: The shushing motion between the two versions of the “sciencey” young woman with the Tom Baker scarf leaves some room for future shenanigans.
The timeline is maintained because both the War Doctor and Tennant forget everything that happened in this adventure; Doctor Who as a series has long had a habit of hand-waving away all the bullshit that takes place when you deal in time travel. This is a show about characters and story, not science. Eccleston still gets to stare down that Dalek with his burning rage, sure that it’s a relic from a war he ended by committing genocide… even though Gallifrey is safe somewhere out there.
And this is what may annoy long-time fans of the show: Everything that happened from Eccleston's season up to this episode… it doesn't really matter. It's based on a false premise now that Gallifrey is “safe.” What's interesting is that Doctor Who might get away with what would pass for a retcon on a lesser show because it was a decision reversed due to literally centuries of personal growth and learning on the part of the main character. The Doctor could never save Gallifrey without destroying it first.
Pretty cool, huh?
Walt Williams wrote the amazing video game Spec Ops: The Line, and during an awards show he once pitched me an amazing idea for a Doctor Who video game… which I then promptly promised never to reveal. He sent over some thoughts about what the special means for the series.
“The Doctor’s darkest moment—ending The Time War—is revealed to be his greatest triumph. For 400 years, The Doctor has lived with an unimaginable amount of guilt and self-loathing. And yet, all this time, Gallifrey has been safely tucked away somewhere, waiting for The Doctor to come find it,” Williams told me. “The revelation brings The Doctor’s story full circle. Instead of running way from home, he’s now running to it. This is a big shift in the character’s motivation. The Doctor has never wanted something so normal and, dare I say it, human.”
He also has a few theories for where things may go from here, including an “ending” to the show:
To me, it feels like [Doctor Who showrunner Steven] Moffat is building towards an end-game with the character. The Season 7 finale was all about one idea: Who you are is less important than how you define yourself. You aren’t born “The Doctor,” you choose to be The Doctor. And now, the 50th anniversary seems to imply that The Doctor might one day choose to retire and become The Curator (I can’t be the only person who noticed the TARDIS circle things on the wall of the National Gallery). But, if this is the case, who is out there protecting the universe?
My money is on Clara. She’s already survived entering The Doctor’s time stream—a great way to explain her gaining the ability to regenerate. The TARDIS responds to her commands. John Hurt’s Doctor expresses a desire to one day grow up to be half the man she is. Even Tennant’s 10th Doctor asks her to keep a tight rein on his future. I know right now it seems crazy, but it’s obvious Moffat has big plans for her.
Might we finally get that female Doctor? Or someone who at least assumes the responsibility? Interesting thoughts.
Also, it's hard to worry about the future when the show did so much for long time fans. There's Tom Baker! We see a hint of the Peter Capaldi during the climactic scene when all those TARDISES (TARDII?) show up. The episode often feels like one long easter egg.
Now the show gets to expand in interesting ways. The Doctor is free of his burden. He no longer has to deal with the guilt of committing genocide, since he “fixed” that aspect of his past. Matt Smith may not know who he is, but he's the apex of the Doctor, the result of everything that has come before.
“We've got enough warriors, any old idiot can be a hero,” Clara tells him. He wins because he's the Doctor, and the Doctor wins. He just needed to be reminded of that fact at the right time.
“Capaldi will be stepping into the TARDIS of a Doctor who’s never been bested. A Doctor with a memory of what can go wrong, but also the memory that given a couple of centuries and a slightly larger than usual effects budget, he can save the world,” game designer Mike Bithell (Thomas Was Alone) wrote in his blog post about the episode. “He is invincible. All that power, and no guilt. The manic energy of Capaldi’s previous performances begin to become understandable casting-wise. This might just be a Doctor that scares us more than the Daleks.”
The mistake has been fixed, and now he's both limitless and targetted. The Doctor has been given the best present anyone can hope for: Purpose. He's going home.