5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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THE DAY OF THE DOCTOR
When we started this website in 2000, Doctor Who was, letís face it, on life support. It had been eleven years since the last episode. The 1996 TV movie had only hammered the nails more firmly into the coffin. Yes, there were books, audios and comics keeping the flame guttering, but it was a gossamer-thin thread to cling to. (Did we set a record for mixed metaphors there?)
The chances of a revival at the time? We fans couldnít help but dream. But given the fact that the BBC had always treated one of its most valuable properties as something unsavoury the Director General had tracked in on the bottom of his shoe, realistically we werenít holding our breath. Oh yeah, and in news that may astonish new fans, we had an uphill task at that time to convince anyone women actually liked Doctor Who. Yes, really.
Would we have guessed then that the 50th anniversary would be a major deal in more than one country, that it would be surrounded with specials and docos and interviews and cinema screenings and a PR full-court press? Would we feck.
But it is, and here we are. And it may again surprise new series fans to learn that despite the specials and docos and interviews and cinema screenings and a PR full-court press, our expectations for the anniversary special were low. Lower than the belly of a crocodile in the Mariana Trench*. Lower than stealing the Cyberman action figure from a tiny child. Basically, rock bottom. Why? Because traditionally, anniversary specials are bloody awful. ( For example, we like to imagine Neil Gaimanís Nightmare In Silver episode is actually named in a back-handed tribute to the ghastly 25th anniversary special Silver Nemesis. Like that.)
*Itís OK, we know there arenít really any crocodiles in the Mariana Trench. Unless theyíre piloting bathyscaphes! That would be nice.
So does Day Of The Doctor live down to the standards set by its, uh, illustrious predecessors? Short answer: itís not bad, actually. Itís got some problems, but itís better than most specials, thatís for sure. And itís got some really, really high points.
To be honest, most of the best bits of the anniversary special arenít in the anniversary special at all. Colour us gobsmacked by the reappearance of the Eighth Doctor in the prequel The Night Of The Doctor, and colour us even more gobsmacked by how absolutely fantastic the Eighth Doctor is in it. Paul McGann is a terrific actor and the car crash of the TV movie wasnít down to him, but even so, here heís a total revelation. Spinoff of Eighth Doctor: The Missing Years? Donít mind if we do.
And the other non-official best bit is the tangentially related special The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, starring some of the classic Doctors and many other interesting people. We donít think weíve said this about any Doctor Who property before, and we donít expect to again, but this is perfect. Per. Fect. We wouldnít change a thing. Not one line! Huge standing ovation for everyone involved, but especially for Peter Davison, who wrote the script, directed, and is generally awesome. In fact, for us this is the real anniversary special.
But thereís an official one weíre meant to be concentrating on, so back to that.
Retconning the disappearance of the Time Lords was always on the cards. Yeah, well, okay. If they must. We canít say weíre sorry that Gallifreyís very probably OK, because weíve always been kinda fond of the Time Lords and their impractical neckwear. However boring they inevitably turn out to be, itís nice to know that while the Doctorís racketing around the universe someoneís keeping the home fires burning back on Gallifrey. However, we do think spending years bending three Doctorsí characters around their troubled past as a genocidal monster, then wiping it all out in one go, is a bit problematic.
We know from Night Of The Doctor that the mysterious John Hurt Doctor has been engineered by the Sisterhood of Karn into a Time War-ready warrior. Really? Weíre going to do that?
The Doctorís decision to off the Daleks and Gallifrey in one shot is a biggie, no doubt about it, but given that the other alternative was all of time burning, itís hard to frown too disapprovingly. Even if the Daleks did turn out to be more resilient than cockroaches and it was actually all for nothing, sacrificing the (relatively) few on behalf of the absolutely everybody else, when the other option was Gallifrey plus absolutely everybody else, is pretty much a no-brainer. Yes, itís bent the Doctor out of shape a bit since. Good, we say. Itís made his character all that much more interesting. So if you ask us, itís just a tiny bit boring snipping all that out and handily blaming it on a War Doctor. Wasnít me, guv! It was that soldier guy over there! So now the Doctor can go back to being a saint/god/good man with a serenely unsullied past. Oh, goody.
On the other hand, weíll give them this: when faced with the choice between saving the many and saving the few, on the occasions when he hasnít offloaded the choice onto somebody else the Doctorís modus operandi has always been to find a way to save the many and the few. And thatís what the Doctors do here, so we canít complain about that. We wish they hadnít done it in the first place, but if theyíre going to, itís good that itís done in a completely Doctorly way. (Although we really, really wish that the solution, removing Gallifrey so the Daleks would all shoot each other, wasnít an exact copy of the solution to the Angels in Blink.)
Of course, none of it makes any actual sense in terms of what weíve been previously told about the fate of the Daleks and Time Lords post-Time War, with the time lock and all. Weíre not even going to try and reconcile this, because we canít. As for the Doctors attempting to so drastically change their own history, wow. Moving on.
So thatís the premise disposed of. What else?
Well, what about the War Doctor himself, for a start? We were expecting to be thoroughly awed by the majesty of it all, because hey, itís John Hurt, but actually the character left us somewhat underwhelmed. This isnít John Hurtís fault even a pixel: his performance is exactly as impressive and nuanced - and funny - as youíd expect. Itís just that we donít know this guy. They tell us heís a Doctor as if thatís enough to make us care, but he has no identity beyond the Big Decision. First we think we know how thatís going to go, which does nothing to keep us on the edge of our seats, then it turns out that thereís another option, but thatís mostly down to the Eleventh Doctor. What, really, is there for him to do here? Gaze at Billie Piper and do some pondering, then do the classic anniversary thing of making acid remarks about his successors. Which is all very nice and works well enough; itís just not as involving as it might be.
And the other plot? With Elizabeth and the Zygons and all? The Zygons are well done as far as it goes, by which we mean theyĎre about as craply rubbery as they were the first time (traditional!). But letís face it, theyíre not all that enthralling. We were more than ready to let Zygons be bygones, especially when the imitation thing isnít exactly a daisy-fresh concept. But they successfully do the job of providing a plot other than wondering whether to press the button, we guess.
As for Elizabeth herself, weíre not even going to go there. They know this plot is stupid and they donít care, so we canít be bothered getting frothed up over it either. The whole thing would have been more forgivable if theyíd cast someone whoíd managed a smidgen more than the zero chemistry achieved with David Tennant. We found it more difficult to believe in her undying passion than in a shape-shifting alien.
As for the rest of it, it falls, startlingly enough, into the good, the bad and the indifferent.
The "warrior" thing. When two subsequent non-War Doctors agree that the War Doctor made the only choice he could, what's the point of all the Karn engineering? And while we're in the general area, if the Eleventh Doctor's been pondering an alternative for the last four hundred years, why does it take a crying Clara and an extra-crispy teddy bear to remind him to take his hand off the button?
The Time War. Thatís the Time War? Some people in funny hats running back and forth and a few flames? How very dull. Wouldnít you expect it to be a little bit timey? Maybe even wimey? They could at least have been lobbing sundials at each other. When we pictured this terrible conflict, raging across all of space and time, we can tell you definitively that a boring old bog-standard battle was not our vision.
The Doctorís endless regret. Right, so he thinks it was a bad idea and he made a mistake. But what does he imagine would have been his alternative? Nobody likes doing bad things for good reasons, but unless thereís a good thing for a good reason on offer, youíre pretty much stuck with it.
The sonic screwdriver, then the sonic screwriver. Why let all the air out of taking hundreds of years for the sonic screwdriver to figure something out by using it twice? We think this is meant to be some sort of Chekhovian gun on the wall thing, but it plays like meaningless repetition.
The resolution to the Zygon plot. See? All we had to do is make a nice civilised treaty all along! Evil monsters bent on taking over the Earth are bound to stick to that even once they remember theyíre evil!
The dear little children and the burning teddy bear. Yes, weíd kinda twigged that killing billions of people is a big deal. Do we really need that hammered home?
Clara. She has to be in it because sheís the current companion, but she doesnít add much. Except to save the day again by telling the Doctor what to do, because thatís all sheís for. Ugh.
Using the original titles and opening. The theme has been reworked many times, but the original hasnít dated at all and is still the most arresting ever to be heard on TV. In our unbiased opinion.
The comedy. Thereís some wonderful stuff in here: ďThat is proper skinny!...Itís like a special effect!Ē ďWeíre confusing the polarity!Ē ďTheyíre screwdrivers! What are you going to do, assemble a cabinet at them?Ē. A fantastic marriage of great writing and great performances.
Kate Stewart. We love this character and Jemma Redgraveís portrayal of her, and we loved the photo of her Dad.
All the references. Sometimes (always) too much backhistory in a special can just be irritating, but these were handled beautifully. Weíre not going to list them, because if you didnít get them they probably wonít mean anything to you anyway, but we had a rockiní good time.
Billie Piper as Bad Wolf Girl. If you have to have a lot of angsting, this is a clever way to make sure itís not all in a vacuum, and Billie Piper does a good job with it.
David Tennant. We feel mean even saying so, but we hesitated over whether to put him here or in the indifferent category. Then we decided that was completely unfair. He was a very competent Doctor in his time and is equally competent here, hitting all the right notes, being funny as hell, and working perfectly with Matt Smith. Itís just that for us, when we see him next to Matt it underlines that oh-so-special and rare otherworldly quality which Mattís Doctor has in buckets and that Tennantís Doctor, despite being so good in so many ways, is missing.
And speaking of Matt, he is, of course, always and forevermore in the good category. Watching him here stabbed us to the heart: he is so exceptional and we loved every nanosecond of his performance, but weíre also about to lose him. We are so not ready.
And the bestest thing of all? The utter, astonishing, marvellous surprise of seeing the only two Doctors with that above-mentioned rare, unearthly quality together on the same screen. No lie, when we heard that voice ringing out across the gallery, every single one of us burst into tears. In fact, we had to rewind to even understand what the hell was going on, because we were just gazing and sobbing and gulping and sniffing and laughing the entire way through the Fourth Doctor/Eleventh Doctor scene. It made no sense that it was possible, but we didnít care at all. At all. Our two favourite Doctors, one reappearing on screen after a gap of thirty years: we canít imagine in our wildest dreams a better anniversary present than that. Some people wonder, when we clearly donít like everything about the show, why we call ourselves Doctor Who fans at all. When a fifty-year-old TV programme can make us sob and cheer and dance around the room just to see a couple of actors on screen? Yeah, thatís it right there.
Itís got its problems. But it could have been so very, very much worse. Weíll take it.
MORAL: It ainít what you Who, itís the way that you Who it. And thatís what gets results.
HE ALWAYS DID LIKE TELLING PEOPLE WHAT TO DO
We know we said we werenít going to mention the references, but we canít stop ourselves from pointing out that one of the governors of the school is Ian Chesterton.
OFF WITH THEIR HEADS
Getting to film around the Tower is fantastic by itself, but ďThe ravens are looking a bit sluggish. Tell Malcolm we need new batteriesĒ catapults it into a another stratosphere altogether.
AND WE THOUGHT THE CONGESTION CHARGE WAS BAD
It can hardly be the first time the TARDIS has been spotted in the UK: whatís UNIT doing half-inching it anyway? Still, it looks pretty.
WHEELS WITHIN WHEELS
Thereís some lovely attention to detail here. We particularly like the Time Lordsí whizzy conference table and the steampunk weapon.
If youíre in any doubt about Matt being completely amazing, have a squizz at the little sequence in which he spots the fez, grabs it and puts it on. Enchanting.
So if the Zygons imitate people while keeping the original tied up in a pile of knitting, how come we can see both the human and the Zygon Elizabeth?
ďAt a software level, theyíre all the same device!Ē Come again?
ďIf I grow to be half the man that you are, Clara Oswald, I shall be happy indeed.Ē Do we need to comment further on this? Yeah, no.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
The Eyes Of Peter Capaldi? Pretty groovy.