Pop-Culture Catch-Up: Doctor Who — “The Day of the Doctor” (spoilers!)

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“The Day of the Doctor”
Directed by Nick Hurran
Written by Steven Moffat
Starring Matt Smith, Jenna Coleman
Guest Stars: David Tennant, John Hurt, Billie Piper, Jemma Redgrave, Joanna Page, Colin Baker, and more
Rating: TV-PG

Three Doctors, all alike in dignity. © BBC
Three Doctors, all alike in dignity. © BBC

Like many people, my first Doctor was Christopher Eccleston, aka the Ninth Doctor. His single season in 2005 as the eponymous character of the long-running BBC series Doctor Who introduced me to everything Whovian and I came to have a layperson’s understanding of the show and how it worked. I watched some episodes featuring Tenth Doctor David Tennant, including the special movies, and part of the first season with Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith; however, once I fell behind I lost interest.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first episode’s airing and Doctor Who fans both old and new were a-buzz when news came forward that there would be a special episode celebrating this anniversary. Rumors and speculation flew around the world. Would it reunite several of the previous actors who have played the Doctor in a large over-arching plot as the 20th anniversary special “The Five Doctors” did? How much interaction would the upcoming Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi have in this special? Or would the inclusion of any former Doctors be more poignant and heartfelt as was the meeting between the Tenth Doctor and the Sixth Doctor (Peter Davison) in the Children in Need short “Time Crash”?

Simulcast around the world on November 12, 2013, “The Day of the Doctor” proved to include all of these things—and none of them at the same time.

The Five-Sentence Synopsis

During the height of the war between the Time Lords of Gallifrey and the Dalek race, the Doctor has been forced to make a terrible decision that will destroy the armies of both participants and eradicate the people on the entire planet of Gallifrey from the timestream. However, the sentient weapon known as The Moment refuses to benignly comply and brings him forward in time to meet two of the Doctors he would become as a result of his decision. With his Tenth and Eleventh incarnations, together all three Doctors puzzle out the meaning of their meeting and conclude that while the total destruction of the Daleks was the right decision, the complete annihilation of Gallifrey was not. However, only the Eleventh Doctor will remember this new version of events going forward.

Is that Really My Doctor?

When the first “nuWho” stories were aired, there were some noticeable changes. The Ninth Doctor was described and depicted as “angry,” “edgy,” “stripped down,” and full of “survivor’s guilt” over his participation in ending the off-screen Time War. With very few details forthcoming, fans were wild with speculation about what he did to make him feel so much guilt and anger. When it was revealed that he killed everyone on Gallifrey and all of the Daleks, it was a shock to fans who had grown up with the Doctor. How could someone who had made it a point to save not just humanity but aliens of all races and solar systems time and time again make a decision to kill everyone—even if it was for a greater good?

With this special, writer and executive producer Steven Moffat attempted to answer this question by first re-visiting the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) in the prequel short “The Night of the Doctor” and showcasing his decision to voluntarily die and be reborn as a warrior. (It also officially welcomed the Eighth Doctor’s companions from the Big Finish audio adventures into official canon, pleasing many Whovians.) Introduced as the War Doctor and played brilliantly by John Hurt (Alien, The Elephant Man), between the prequel and “The Day of the Doctor,” this “new” Doctor is a man who watched himself first try everything he could to save people from the war’s effects and then do everything he could to end it—all to no avail. By the time of his opening scenes of “Day” against the backdrop of a war-torn and besieged Gallifrey, this Doctor had seen and done so much that he believed that there were no other options but to end the War by killing everyone.

However, the main premise of “Day” seems to be that even if you are at the end of your rope, there might be a new piece of rope that you can tie to your end. With this new extension, you can move forward into the future. “You would have hope,” the Eleventh Doctor says, pointing straight at the Gallifreyan high command and by extension, the viewers. It hearkens back to even though how the Ninth Doctor had witnessed the death of all of his people, he still cared enough about the world to help it continue running smoothly.

That, if anything, is the true gift that the Eleventh Doctor’s retrospective insight into his actions over 400 years granted to the War Doctor: guidance. By having the Eleventh Doctor first return with the War Doctor to his defining Moment (oh, I see what they did there now) to aid him and then later help persuade his former self that there was still yet another option, Moffat impresses upon his audience the importance of reaching out to others—for they may have a solution to your problem that you never considered.