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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Who hooley: holy cow!

So did the Doctor Who fiftieth anniversary special live up to the hype?

It’s nearly not a fair question because nothing was ever going to live up to all that hype and anticipation and everybody’s personal wishes of what they wanted to see. In the end, it was a great evening’s entertainment, but it would have nearly been easier to enjoy without all the hype beforehand. But that was never going to happen. There are too many die-hard and casual fans. Many have been invested since the show rebooted eight and a half years ago, which is a pretty long time compared to most other TV shows. Never mind the multitudes who have been invested in fifty years’ worth of shows, whether they have actually been watching for fifty years or simply caught up after the fact.

At the end of the day, it had all of the trappings we want and expect from an event like this, and it is surely destined to be fondly remembered as one of everyone’s favorite installments. But I suspect that most will wish, as I do, that they could have squeezed in a few more surprises. But that’s really just pure greed.

And that makes this a good point to emphasize that there will be spoilers discussed from this point on, so proceed or withdraw accordingly.

The highlight, of course, was seeing the return of David Tennant’s tenth (or is it now eleventh?) Doctor and watching him interact with Matt Smith’s version. But I was struck by how many characters were not brought back. During the years of Russell T. Davies’s stewardship, we got spoiled by series-end finales that seemingly brought back everyone we had ever met since the reboot—even from the spinoffs and—in the case of the late, lamented Elisabeth Sladen—from older series. That has not been Stephen Moffat’s style. And, in a way, he’s right. It cheapens thing a bit when companions who have supposedly been exiled irrevocably turn up for a guest shot. So no Amy and Rory nor any companions from the Tennant/Eccleston years—except for Billie Piper, who wasn’t even playing her customary role as the original 21st century Doctor Who companion Rose Tyler but rather a doomsday machine’s interface.

You have to respect Moffat’s integrity for not compromising previous storylines for the sake of a few sentimental guest spots. Yes, it would have been fun to see some of the older actors from Doctor Who’s past—or even their relatives, in the case of those who have departed—but it would have taken us out of the story, so Moffat was probably right. But I was still surprised to not see Timothy Dalton reprise his Time Lord boss role from the final David Tennant specials. And I don’t see why Paul McGann could not have been used instead of bringing in John Hurt. And I say that as someone who loves John Hurt and was thrilled to see him at the end of the previous Doctor Who episode. On the other hand, my kid thought Hurt was great and was a good stand-in for the older Doctors of the earlier years, presenting a contrast with the newer, younger versions.

Happily, the special was full of the familiar Moffat touches, notably one he shares with Davies, i.e. the penchant for developing previous references that seemed throw-away or jokey at the time. In this case, it is the reference Tennant made in 2009 in “The End of Time” about having married the first Queen Elizabeth. But one key plot point here, involving that same two-parter, confused us. The climax to “The Day of the Doctor” comes when the Doctor(s) find a way to change their own history and freeze his home planet Gallifrey in time rather than commit genocide. But wasn’t it established that the Time Lords were frozen in time back in “The End of Time”? It’s so hard to keep track. Also, I was hoping we would again see the mysterious Time Lady played by Claire Bloom back in 2009. (Word was that she was the Doctor’s mother.) Furthermore, there was no reference whatsoever, as far as I could tell anyway, to the Doctor’s sinister incarnation known as Valeyard. Presumably, Hurt was not he.

Anniversary specials have always been typified by bringing the Doctor’s various incarnations together, and this one was no exception. In a climactic moment all of the Doctors and their TARDISes come together to change history. We get glimpses of all of them through the use of brief archival footage—a trick that has been employed quite frequently in recent years. But a surprise thrill was provided by the inclusion of Peter Capaldi, Matt Smith’s announced successor.

The other pleasing surprise was Tom Baker’s appearance at the end as The Curator. Is he significant? Will we see him again? In any event, it would have been more of a surprise if Baker hadn’t broken his embargo and spilled the beans that he would in the show beforehand. I know, I surf the web at my own risk.

Even more surprising and pleasing was Baker’s appearance in one of the “extras.” A short film by fifth Doctor Peter Davison called The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot pretty scratched all the itches left over from the main event. It was broadcast as a “red button” digital special by BBC but appears to be out there on the internet as well. It mainly concerns the supposed efforts of Davison, Colin Baker (No. 6) and Sylvester McCoy (No. 7) to sneak into “The Day of the Doctor.” This has all the cameos and surprise appearances and in-jokes I ever wanted. And the best one involves Tom Baker, who is included in exactly the same way he was included in the original “The Five Doctors” in 1983.

The rest of my needs were satisfied by the extra called “The Night of the Doctor.” In that one we did get to see Paul McGann’s eighth Doctor again, and we got closure as we saw him regenerate into John Hurt. Obsessive/compulsive Doctor Who fans (which may be all of them/us) have always been bothered by the fact that the one regeneration we never saw was the one that would have transitioned from McGann’s Doctor to Christopher Eccleston’s. Now we know that we were missing two regenerations, and we have seen them both. At the end of “The Day of the Doctor” we get to see Hurt regenerate into a barely perceptible Eccleston—if he was there at all and it wasn’t a fudge for legal reasons.

No one expected Eccleston to appear for real. After all, he’s too busy with more important roles, like playing dark elves in movies like Thor: The Dark World.

So I’ve sung my praises for the golden anniversary productions and registered my quibbles—even though I feel a bit small for quibbling at all. When we get this much magic, we should just be grateful. I’m already envious of my daughter. When she is 63, she will get to watch the 100th anniversary special.

-S.L., 26 November 2013

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