It has been an exciting and thrilling week for all Who fans everywhere with celebrations for the 50th Anniversary! I have to give full marks to the BBC for doing a grand job with a plethora of special programs marking the event – although I think audiences over the pond maybe glad some of them will not make it onto BBC America.
Take Friday night (22nd). On one side of the coin I watched a documentary, “You, Me and Doctor Who,” which was quite revealing with insights into how the Radiophonic Workshop back in 1963 created the famous Who theme tune using a lamp shade and a broken harp to Colin Baker still moaning how the BBC axed the sixth Doctor. Then half an hour later – the pendulum swings the other way on The Graham Norton Show with David Tennant getting a tattoo from a bloke from Los Angeles who married a Dalek in a civil partnership!
However, let us skip away from the extras and focus on the two crown jewels, “An Adventure in Time and Space” and “Day of the Doctor,” the latter living up to its title by being the first drama simultaneously broadcasted in over 95 countries on six continents and at cinemas in 3D. The big question: Did they live up to expectations? Two words: pretty much.
If you ask me which one I liked most truthfully I’d have to say both, but if I really scrutinized how they tackled the legend and legacy on celebrating such a momentous milestone “Adventure” would win by a bow tie. Mark Gattis’ aimed to write a ninety-minute multi facet biopic – something he had planned for 13 years - as a “love letter” to fans old and new, and he certainly succeeded.
Essentially two dramas in one, the first follows the unfolding steps taken by Sydney Newman (Brian Cox) to create a new series to educate and entertain children about an ageless old man traveling in space and time inside a police box. The second being the background story of veteran actor William Hartnell (superbly played by David Bradley last seen as Solomon in "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship"), who after years of playing type casted military characters in films such as This Sporting Life and Carry on Sergeant yearning to play less aggressive roles – an actor on borrowed time due to failing health.
Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine), the first-ever female Producer, is entrusted by Newman to make “Dr Who” with a limited budget partnered by Director Warris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan). Both find the task fraught with problems from BBC execs determined to kill the project in its birthing cradle to an initially reluctant Hartnell wanting to play the lead role. Hartnell comes around after seeing the scripts to make amends to his granddaughter, Judith. After getting the green light, the pilot airs to low audiences due to JFK’s assassination but Raine shows eloquently how persistent Verity Lambert was by ensuring “An Unearthly Child” gets a repeat – and audiences bloom.
Throughout the story we get brilliant glimpses of several key stories recreated for the drama: from The Daleks, Marco Polo right through to The Tenth Planet complete with first generation Cyberman having a smoke when the cameras are not rolling. Kudos to the modern design team for going full tilt recreating props for the era from the entire first Tardis set to appearances of the old style Daleks – one driven by Gattis as they trundle across London Bridge recreating that famous scene from "The Dalek Invasion of Earth."
However, the lynch pin is undoubtedly Bradley who excels as Bill Hartnell. The final scene with Bradley in the Tardis, having been told that he is to be replaced culminates in a cameo from Matt Smith. I was a bit dubious about this when it became known a few days prior to transmission yet its handled brilliantly with absolutely no dialogue – the expressions of the two actors bridging the gap between the “then” and “now” showing the lasting legacy the show will carve out over the next 5 decades.
“Adventure” is a poignant piece of nostalgia but what about Day of the Doctor. Moffat must have had nightmares in comparison to Gattis because the pressure was severe to say the least. I mean, I would not want to be in his shoes writing the story to celebrate 50 years of Who mythology and pleasing every single fan. Therefore, there was no chance Day being quiet. It began with a bang and boy did it deliver!
Acting as closure for the Time War arc, which began back in 2005, Moffat constructed not one but three interlocking stories. The Warrior (John Hurt) facing the moral dilemma of using the all-powerful Moment (mentioned in "End of Time") - the sentient Gallifreyan doomsday weapon to wipe out the Daleks and the Time Lords. Meanwhile, the 10th Doctor is fighting shape-shifting Zygons and wooing Elizabeth The 1st while his future-self is summoned to The National Gallery by Kate Stewart ("Power of Three") and UNIT to investigate a impossible painting depicting the fall of Arcadia, Gallifrey’s second city.
I typed this part of the review twenty minutes after the story aired – and my brain is still doing somersaults! There were so many great touches here with nods not only to Nu Who’s continuity but also the past. The big action scenes were most definitely on Gallifrey during the Time War. In the past only referred to in dialogue it was thrilling to see how well the production team realized the carnage inflicted by the Daleks – I mean there were Spider Daleks – the first design ever considered by Terry Nation swooping and exterminating anything that moved in sfx that must have looked superb in 3D.
There were of course some great comedy moments to outweigh the actual serious and darkness of the core plot; the Warriors’ dilemma to push that red button; 10th and 11th comparing sonic screwdrivers; Hurt’s Doctor not impressed with the boyish antics of his younger future selves ("am I having a mid-life crisis?") to Tennant thinking a rabbit was a Zygon! Speaking of the Zygons – great to see them back after a long 37-year break. I have to confess I never saw "Terror of the Zygons" when it first aired. I had to see it on You Tube to refresh my memory. Regarded as one of the greatest creations ever done some new viewers many have been a bit confused by their appearance in the story so I would advise you to go and see it online.
However, much of the story was played very seriously with a lot of pent-up emotion. There is the brief conflict as the 10th, superbly played by Tennant who entered the arena as if he had never left asking his present self about his personal future, it was very chilling how Matt replies, “You don’t want to know.” And yet that was the point – both Doctors had been on the run ever since Gallifrey fell, and this story cleverly made sure that they would not only face that darkest moment head on with the one who had broken the promise but also set in motion a new foundation for the next chapter. There will of course be some grumbling from ardent hardcore fans who will now say “well if Gallifrey was saved, how does it affect the events in "End of Time" when the Time Lords were hell bent on wiping everything out?” Four words: time can be rewritten, and yes some may consider this a bit of a cop-out but with the idea that the Doctor’s home planet – saved and hidden in a pocket Universe somewhere out there waiting to be rediscovered - is a great mission for the 12th (or 13th?) Doctor to undertake for Chapter Two. Moffat aimed to set the stage for the next 50 years, and he’s certainly succeeded.
John Hurt played the Warrior or The War Doctor with great gravitas – a broken Doctor – forsaking his past to ensure a terrible victory against the Daleks helped with a very nice performance from Billie Piper as the interface for the Moment (in full Bad Wolf mode) to find repentance with help from his future selves. It always a joy to see several Doctors sharing Tardis space, but let’s face it, who didn’t love the unexpected arrival of The Doctor himself Tom Baker as The Curator – still showing has he still has the knack to play the role that defined not only him but the entire world. But this multi-layer cake had even more yummy goodness to serve with a very brief appearance of Peter Calpaldi and even Chris Eccleston popping in as all Doctors converge on Gallifrey in their armada of Tardi saving the planet they had run away from 50th years ago.
Kudos also to Matt Smith – his penultimate performance – as good as ever supported by Jenna Louise, and yes, I think in part he was upstaged by David Tennant. Even so, it was great to see that the past, too, was duly recognized with a wall of photos showing past companions and the final montage of all the Doctors looking up at Gallifrey was a fitting end to a superb piece of world television and a great end to a remarkable celebration of the longest running sci-fi show ever. Yet even now as the Day of the Doctor becomes legend the final days of the 11th draws near. Silence will finally Fall on Trenzalore this Christmas. Three weeks and counting. I can hardly wait.