At 7.15pm last Saturday, 24th November, my extended family and I entered the foyer of Cinema Nova on Lygon Street, Carlton, where The Day of the Doctor, a movie-length feature produced in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, had been screening at regular intervals all day.
The special had already aired on television, simulcast with the UK premiere, but the fans were still out in force: most of the film sessions had sold-out in advance. Bow ties, fezzes and Converse sneakers proliferated. T-shirts depicting blue boxes and bespectacled men flashed from between tweed lapels. Popcorn lay everywhere, scattered and unswept; a wild-eyed and somewhat incoherent staff member herded us, along with the rest of the gathering hordes, into a waiting area while our cinema was cleaned. The waiting area was relatively small, so the fez-topped crowd spilled into the hallway by the cinema door and down the staircase into the surrounding shopping centre. I feared that the fans in the overflow would secure better seats than us since they were closer to the entrance. Mum asked me how my week was but I couldn’t focus on her face; in my distress, I forgot I had already selected seats online when I booked the tickets.
Eventually we were ushered into the theatre, each clutching a bright yellow plastic pair of 3D glasses. Relief overcame me. A couple of years ago, current Doctor Who producer, writer and showrunner, Steven Moffat briefly mentioned the special episode and instigated what I have referred to previously in KYD as a ‘prolonged, slavering frenzy’ amongst fans and the media, who have since been speculating wildly about the episode’s contents. Finally, I could see which rumours were true.
The film began with a tribute to ‘An Unearthly Child,’ the first ever Doctor Who episode, which aired on 23rd November, 1963. The original theme song and opening sequence were included, as was a shot of the ‘Foreman’s Scrap Merchants’ sign (the first Doctor Who scene was located at the Foreman junkyard). The Doctor’s current companion, Clara, seemed to be teaching at the same school at which the Doctor’s first companions, Ian and Barbara, had taught. It was a lovely way of invoking Doctor Who’s beginnings in a way that honoured old fans without alienating the newbies.
The main plot concerned an event from deep in Doctor’s past: his destruction of his home planet Gallifrey–an action undertaken to prevent the end of the universe. For years, the Doctor has been consumed with self-loathing and regret about this fatal act, but its details have always remained shadowy; Moffat brought it into stark relief and addressed how such a beloved figure could come to commit genocide.
Three iterations of the Doctor featured in this spectacle: Matt Smith (the current Doctor), David Tennant, his predecessor, and John Hurt, the previously unknown ‘War Doctor. The three worked brilliantly on screen together, with many jibes exchanged about chins, bow ties and sandshoes. Hurt at one point accused the older (but younger-looking) Doctors of wielding their sonic screwdrivers like weapons. ‘What are you going to do, assemble a cabinet at them?’
Billie Piper also returned, though not as the real Rose Tyler. Instead, she played the interface of the Doctor’s chosen weapon of mass destruction (which was sentient, so could talk to him). I was pleased that Piper was included effectively without any attempts to re-write the orginal Rose/Doctor storyline.
Despite the flack Moffat has received since he became head writer (many fans have found his episodes too fast-paced and confusing, since he prefers season-long story arcs rather than traditional stand-alone episodes) The Day of the Doctor was almost flawless. A trip to Elizabethan England was integrated seamlessly with the Doctor’s fight against the Zygons: these storylines effectively complicated the larger arc about whether the Doctor would choose to destroy Gallifrey or not. The final battle included footage of all thirteen Doctors (the new Doctor, Peter Capaldi, had a two-second cameo) sending fans into overdrive: we all literally applauded in the cinema.
The only major problem for me was the characterisation of Clara. Moffat has come under particular scrutiny for his depiction of women as riddles, rather than complex people in their own right, and Clara is no exception. The Doctor constantly refers to her as ‘the impossible girl’ and tells her ‘she’s the only mystery worth solving’–she is also strangely infantilised through the child-like musical theme that plays whenever she’s on screen. What’s more, she barely features in the special. Even though plot hinges on her, in the sense it’s Clara who convinces the Doctor not to destroy Gallifrey after all, the show is not hers, but Smith’s, Tennant’s and Hurt’s. Empathy for the male Doctor is what seems to drive audience engagement, and Clara’s presence only becomes relevant when she quietly enters the scene to give the Doctors some sage advice about their own lives. Clara is fun and likeable, and Jenna Coleman is a highly engaging actress, but overall, I can’t seem to care much for Clara, which is disappointing since she is the primary female character in the show at the moment.
For the most part, though, I look forward to viewing The Day of the Doctor many more times in order to decode the subtleties of plot that always attend time-travel narratives; I suspect this story, like all the best Doctor Who tales, is bigger on the inside, and will not diminish with re-watching.
Julia Tulloh is a freelance writer and is currently working on a PhD in American Literature. Her blog is juliatulloh.com.