In Celebration of Doctor Who

November 27, 2013

As I may have mentioned a time or two recently, the 23rd of November was the 50th anniversary of the British sci-fi show, Doctor Who.  The BBC released a significant number of documentaries, interviews and special episodes to mark the event.  For me, three highlights were An Adventure in Space and Time, The Night of the Doctor minisode and the multi-Doctor Day of the Doctor 50th anniversary episode.

Day of the Doctor written by Stephen Moffat 
Genres: Sci-Fi 
Format: iTunes Season Pass, Blu-Ray DVD 
Starring: Matt SmithDavid TennantJohn Hurt
Length: 75 minutes Buy from Amazon • iTunes 

There are full spoilers below for all three, so please join me after the cut.

An Adventure is Space and Time

An Adventure in Space and Time is a docudrama written by Sherlock writer and self confessed Whovian Mark Gatiss.  It tells the story of the four remarkable people behind the TV series; producer Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine), First Doctor William Hartnell (David Bradley), director Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan) and head of drama Sydney Newman (Brian Cox).  The writing and acting in this is superb and I expect to see David Bradley’s and Mark Gatiss’ names on next year’s Emmy ballot.

The drama starts at the end in 1966 with a devastated William Hartnell sitting alone in his car having just filmed his last scene as the Doctor and trying to come to terms with giving up a role about which he was passionate and which was the role of a lifetime.  Bradley really sells this moment.  Using the TARDIS as a plot device we then flash back to 1963 when Newman appoints Lambert as producer of the new sci-fi show he’s commissioned along with Indian director Hussain.  Hartnell is then brought on board as the Doctor despite being initially uncertain about the part. 

The first part of the show is really about these three outsiders (clearly racism, sexism and typecasting was rampant at the BBC in the sixties) who sense the real potential of the show and overcome many obstacles to get the show created.  We are shown the creation of the show’s icons such as the initial titles and theme music as well as the TARDIS’s trademark “whoosh whoosh” sound and set.  Due to the skill of the writing and acting we can really share in the elation the team felt when Doctor Who became a hit with audiences.  Hartnell in particular is shown to be very appreciative of the audience’s affection, even though he could be a difficult man to work with.  

The second half of the drama really belongs to Bradley as Hartnell.  We see him struggle to understand why his co-creators and co-stars want to move on and do other things – Doctor Who was a launchpad for both Lambert’s and Hussain’s careers.  He has to deal with new producers who don’t appear to be as committed to the show as he is – they don’t care for example that he has to be consistent in his use of the buttons on the TARDIS console – as well as his increasingly frail health.  It becomes clear that he is no longer able to keep up with the demands of the show.  Now, I don’t normally yell out while watching TV, but when Hartnell, after learning of his firing from Who, sobs into his wife’s arms and uses the Tenth Doctor’s final phrase “I don’t want to go,” I admit I lost it somewhat.  For Whovians that phrase has a lot of emotional resonance thanks to David Tennant, and it was played beautifully here by Bradley.

The second emotional whack came for me right at the end.  Hartnell is spending a last few moments on the TARDIS set having just filmed his regeneration scene and looks over to see incumbent Doctor Matt Smith also at the controls.  It’s clear that this is Matt Smith the actor not the Doctor paying tribute to those who have gone before.  The two men, Bradley and Smith, don’t say a word, but their acting skills are shown in that a whole conversation takes place nonetheless.  It’s a mixture of “isn’t this the greatest job in the world?” and mutual respect and gratitude and assurance that Hartnell’s legacy is safe.  It’s made even more poignant in that Smith himself has filmed, or is about to film, his own final scene on the show.

While fans of the show will pick up more references than a casual viewer, this is still a beautifully written and acted drama and well worth seeing.

Mobisode The Night of the Doctor

Normally, Doctor Who mobisodes are little extras that add to the relevant episodes but are rarely game changers in their own right.  That can certainly not be said about The Night of the Doctor.  The game changing starts from the meta reintroduction of Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor, last seen on our screens 17 years ago in the TV movie.  “Not the Doctor you were expecting” indeed!  Although the movie was pretty dreadful, Paul McGann’s performance as the Doctor was very well done and he has continued the Eighth Doctor’s adventures in audiobook format.

It’s clear that this Doctor has been through a lot since we saw him joyously dancing at his well fitting shoes.  The mobisode is set during the Time War and young pilot Cass’s rejection of his help saying that the Time Lords are no better than the Daleks is clearly the final straw.  He takes advantage of the assisted regeneration offered by the Sisterhood of Karn to regenerate into John Hurt’s War Doctor, an incarnation that might be able to do what he could not do – end the Time War.  The final words of the mobisode “no more” are an arc phrase for the 50th anniversary episode.

The other notable thing about the mobisode is that, through the mention of the Eighth Doctor’s audiobook companions, that series of his adventures can now be considered canon.  I certainly intend to check them out.  I really want to know how the Doctor of the movie became the tired, struggling man we see in the mobisode.

The Day of the Doctor

Well, the predictions I made turned out to be wrong.  While I liked what I predicted, what Moffat came up with was probably more appropriate for a 50th anniversary celebration.  Moffat indicated he’d set out to create an episode that would both celebrate what has gone before on Doctor Who and set things up for the next 50 years.  All in all I think he succeeded in that.

The Day of the Doctor is a far more hopeful episode than you might have expected given its preoccupation with the Time War and the defining moment of the new era Doctors – the moment he destroys his own people and the Daleks to end the Time War.  This hope starts when at the Doctor’s moment of deepest despair as he is unpacking the Moment he will use to end the war, some tiny shoots of green are seen in the dusty, desiccated floor of the hut.  This hope is continued right to the end when the Curator hints to the Eleventh Doctor that he may yet live beyond Trenzalore.

Watching this on the TV at first (I later joined some Whovians at the cinema to watch it in 3D) my impression was that this episode was very much a collection of visual set pieces for the large cinema screen and scenes to appeal to long term fans.  We have the beautiful Gallifreyan 3D artwork, Dalek fleet attacking Gallifrey, the scene with the Curator, Peter Capaldi’s eyes and of course the final sequence where Matt Smith takes his place in the lineup of all the Doctors.  (That is now my desktop wallpaper as it happens).  Buzzfeed has compiled a list of the best fan shoutouts in The Day of the Doctor.  

Often series of Doctor Who have “arc” words or phrases that loosely connect the episodes, being mentioned once or twice in each.  For the 50th celebrations that phrase is “no more.”  It is said in the minisode when the Hurt Doctor rejects the name of Doctor saying “Doctor no more.” That is then played out when Clara reminds Eleven that to get through this awful moment he must be a Doctor again.  No more is also what Hurt writes on the wall to give notice to Time Lords and Daleks alike that he is no longer prepared to stand by and watch them destroy the universe.  Finally it is (one of) the names given to the significant piece of art in the episode.

The acting was excellent from all concerned.  Hurt worked especially well with the two younger Doctors, and the episode really picked up once they were all together.  The supporting cast – Clara, Osgood, Kate all did great work.  

With regard to setting up things for the next 50 years, Moffat did that quite well with the setting up of the search for Gallifrey and the possibility of life after Trenzalore.  I look forward to seeing where the Twelfth Doctor takes that.  It will be interesting to see the Doctor freed from the guilt of the Time War which has been a dominant theme of the rebooted series.  Of course Moffat covered himself that the War Doctor (and by extension the Ninth Doctor) and the Tenth Doctor would not remember the events of The Day of the Doctor, so their characterisations remain unchanged.  What I’m not clear about, and if anyone can clarify for me I’d be very grateful, is whether the Doctor is on his final regeneration, leading him to believe that this is his last body.  That could allow Smith to pack a powerful emotional punch for his farewell at Christmas.  

Having said that, there were several things I really didn’t enjoy about the show.  The whole Zygon/Queen Elizabeth plotline felt a real drag for me.  Although I see why it was necessary to introduce the idea of starting of calculations earlier and also the secret of Gallifreyan art, I found it pointless and a waste of time.  I felt this whole plotline really dragged down the episode. 

The good aspects of the show – the acting, the shoutouts to classic Who, the setup for the Capaldi Doctor – all negated the negatives aspects and made a very enjoyable show.

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