(Warning: plot points and twists to be discussed explicitly and in detail)
Timey wimey blimey
You'd think they'd come up with something special for a 50th Anniversary Special, and by George, they do.
Three Doctors--four if you count the Special Guest Appearance towards the end; three actors who used to play the Doctor (yes there's a difference); Star Wars like special effects for the ADHD afflicted demographic; jokes, in-jokes, out-jokes, and enough plot twists and clever bits and roof-raising revelations to redefine the term 'timey-wimey'--not to mention "game changer," "heartstopper," and "highly quotable."
Oh, it's full, very full; not the best writer Steven Moffat's ever done, arguably (that in my book would be the trio of singletons (The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances; The Girl in the Fireplace; Blink) he wrote for the Russell T. Davis era), but perhaps the best he's done recently. If taking a half-year sabbatical is what's needed to raise his game, I recommend he work this way for the rest of his career. I'll sit here and wait, promise.
Basically, it's all about identity, about determining who you are by what you've done. Ever since Davis' reboot in 2005 the Doctor has been pretty much defined by what he did in the Time War (Last of the Time Lords; The Oncoming Storm), our first sight of him is of a lonely, bitter old alien skulking through the department stores of London (Rose). He's quick to lash out; he's only too ready to insult the slow and clumsy human race for being too stupid to properly defend itself; and he's vindictive as hell.
I can point out crucial episodes that chart the development of this character arc, starting with Christopher Eccleston's Ninth Doctor (episodes that are incidentally some of my favorites of the rebooted series): from Dalek, where he confronts another last survivor and--significantly--fails to finish him off, to The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances, where he glares at the Child and the prospect of a particularly grim Armageddon and sends out a desperate prayer (To whom? Who does a Time Lord pray to?): "Give me a day like this! Give me this one."
And when it works his relief is heartbreaking: "Everybody lives, Rose. Just this once: everybody lives!" What a world of guilt and pain suggested in those three words: "Just this once!"--he's like someone who's pushed the nuclear trigger before and again finds himself standing with hand on the button, hoping against hope that this time the circuit has shorted.
Rose (Billie Piper) reminded him of his humanity; later she becomes not just a reminder but a genuine romance (helps that by this time Ninth has morphed into Tenth, the more conventionally handsome David Tennant). Donna (the always wonderful Catherine Tate) won't have any of that; she's insisted on being treated as the Doctor's equal so often that at one point she becomes the Doctor, albeit temporarily (and was extravagantly punished for her presumption). By The End of Time we learn the significance of Gallifrey and the other Time Lords to the Doctor: not friends but deadly foes, a menace so vastly, instantly terrifying that the Tenth, on learning they were about to break into the present universe, picks up a gun to either defend himself or finish them off.
You see the progression: the Ninth seethes with hate and anger; Tenth has managed to bank that anger long enough to respond to human love (Rose) and friendship (Donna)--though he hasn't banked it far enough to leave the gun alone--
Well...the progression isn't all that clear. Perhaps the biggest flaw to The Day of the Doctor (which for all its grand drama, sly charm and exuberant joy is far from perfect) is the lack of a beginning to that progression,of gaunt-cheeked, leather-jacketed, hollow-eyed Ninth.
But that's where the War Doctor comes in. The Ninth's anger is in response to what he's done; the War Doctor's weariness, we see, will be the cause that drives him into doing what he's about to do. In the brief prequel The Night of the Doctor we glimpse the War Doctor as a grim young man; with Day we have the same Doctor years later, and as played by the legendary John Hurt he's exhausted beyond belief--his face betrays a hard struggle where he's not even sure he has the upper hand, and he's had it. He sees no other alternative.
Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor seems blithely free of this angst; maybe a bit of wistfulness here, a lonely look there--and that because Moffat may have wanted to avoid covering the same ground Davis did, wanted to leave his own mark on the material (he goes so far as to do a universe-wide reboot in The Big Bang, clearing house for his (Amy Pond's?) toy collection). The Eleventh is the youngest-looking Doctor the same time he's the oldest, and Smith's achievement is in reminding you of that...here, there, not too often, just enough to sometimes creep you out. He's a thousand-year-old near-immortal willfully acting young, refusing to grow up, possibly due to a repressed trauma, suffering the Time Lord variant of PTSD.
And it becomes explicit here in The Day of the Doctor. I love it all--the War Doctor jousting with The Moment, in the guise of Bad Wolf (Billie Piper, in a welcome guest role); Tenth riding a white horse with Elizabeth I (Joanna Page) for passenger, then upbraiding a massive--possibly alien--rabbit; Eleventh tossing his fez like a Frisbee into time fissures. But perhaps the heart of the seventy-six minute long drama (was it only an hour and a quarter? Could've sworn it was twice as epic) is that scene in Elizabeth's prison, where the War Doctor in an It's a Wonderful Life moment learns all about the man he will soon become. "I regret" says one; "I forget" says the other. Moffat lays it all out on the table for us--and him--to examine, and you can't help but sympathize with Hurt's falling expression as he listens. It's the Doctor's--this Doctor, anyway, as conceived by Russell Davis and extended and elaborated on by Steven Moffat--touchpoint with us humans, this feeling of shame: of deep remorse at having done unforgivable wrong.
And he comes to terms with it, or rather the impossibility of it (that classic moral dilemma--would you kill a few to save the many?--multiplied by billions), and so do his two other incarnations. So all three hands on the Big Red Button (as The Moment puts it he's "always wanted one") supporting the War Doctor's wiping two sentient races and their children off the face of the planet (well, Gallifreyan children--but don't Daleks have kids? Imagine two-foot-high pepper pots scooting around waving their tiny suckers and yelling "EXASPERATE! EXASPERATE!"). Not with hate, or anger, just resignation: the Kobayashi Maru scenario. Only--
Only (as Davis has established with the first episode of the reboot (Rose)) the companion must have her say, and Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman, who has been relegated to the background up to this point) says "I just never picture you doing it."
I've heard accusations that the episode is basically a science-fiction dramedy where a conscience-stricken bomb saves the day (Dr. Strangelove anyone? Dark Star?), and I'd to a large part agree--though is this really a bad thing?--only for me The Moment was mostly facilitating the Doctor's decision-making process. Yes she's biased (what bombshell isn't?) but she mostly nudges here, there; she sits back and watches as the Doctor shrugs off her suggestions: it's a hard decision but it must be taken. But Clara has chimed in ("never picture you") and now chimes again, with the perhaps most important bit of impetus: the name of the Doctor, she reminds him, is a promise after all. Not a big speech just a sad reminder, and I love it that Moffat leaves it at that--a reminder. Sometimes the softest words sink the deepest.
Seems to me we can sum up the two writers who have headed this Whovian resurrection to date: Russell is an idealist with strong political and social opinions, and a darkly pessimistic view (Gallifreyans are essentially evil); Moffat is a witty sophisticate who can on occasion turn melancholy, on occasion turn macabre, but whose worldview is essentially sunnier (Gallifreyans--their children, anyway--are still worth saving). Call this the struggle between dark and sunny and call the Gallifreyans us, then call that the Doctor Who reboot in a nutshell. Which is the truer, more profound sensibility? I wouldn't know, and frankly don't care: what matters is the trip. In any case the solution's been looking at them in the face all this time, screwdrivers and Time Lord art and all (Moffat may be an optimist, but he knows to prepare his solutions with some kind of care), not to mention input from all thirteen Doctors and their respective TARDISes.
Love the clash of acting styles: Smith bouncing off the walls, Tennant romancing the ladies, Hurt sitting in one corner tossing sidelong glances here, there, quietly pocketing every scene he's in and walking away. There's "being drowned out by the louder performer" and then there's "louder performer undermined and outclassed by sublime scene-stealer." It's hugely funny (and a little sad) how the oldest actor playing the youngest Doctor easily outmatches the two younger-older incarnations--so funny, in fact, it Hurts.
On the look: I don't usually find much to praise in TV directors, but Nick Hurran makes the most of the situation by arranging two sometimes all three Doctors in near-symmetrical arrangements, milking endless variations from the gag which (for me anyway) never gets tired (see topmost pic, and those directly above...and note who tends to be favored most). Yes, we have Star Wars-style effects, but that's the least of the pleasures of this Who--is the least of the pleasures in this whole reboot; sometimes all you need for quality entertainment are three shameless hams (of varying degrees of cunning and experience) jockeying for exposure before a TV camera.
Overall, a lovely time was had, a worthy half-century anniversary, and--oh yes--a brief cameo by an actor who believe it or not makes an even more indelible impression than Hurt: bent and old and still electric, still funny, still not-a-little scary, he comes to give the Doctor (give himself?) assurances, portents, a whole new direction to careen into. What next for the Doctor? Who knows?
And in that last question we find the width, breadth, depth and duration of the show's timeless (timey-wimey?) appeal.
11.28.13 (re-edited 12.1.13)