So. It happened. After weeks of tantalising trailers and promotion for the show on practically every BBC programme that’s been on for the past week (including the news and even James Martin’s Saturday Kitchen), the Day of the Doctor took to the airwaves at 7.50pm last night (UK time). This was the special to end all specials; the 50th anniversary celebration that was marked more ubiquitously than the deaths of JFK or Aldous Huxley (events that also happened 50 years’ ago this week). And to top it all, it was fantastic!
Doctor Who has managed to shape-shift in much the same way as the Zygons who were the ‘star’ aliens for this plot. Initially, a cutting edge sci-fi drama that was a testing ground for low-tech special effects and electronic soundtracks, it became a bit naff and nerdy in the late 1970s and 1980s as low budgets and poor plot-lines failed to measure up to the competing sci-fi offerings at the time. The renaissance came with in 2005 with Russell T Davies taking over as Producer and Christopher Ecclestone in the role of the Doctor. This was a new, post-modern Doctor – long on irony and sang-froid, and with a companion (in Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler) who was feisty, sexy and a genuine partner in the ‘saving the universe’ game. The development of Dr Who as a worldwide phenomenon has continued under the stewardship of Stephen Moffat following Davies’ departure in 2010, and the characterisation initially forged by Ecclestone has matured in the hands of first David Tennant and more recently Matt Smith. Tennant and Smith have both brought eccentricity and superb comic timing to the part, that has enabled plot lines which combine genuine drama, pathos and tragedy to be tempered with funny and superbly delivered one-liners
It was the superb interactions between Tennant and Smith, juxtaposed with the careworn, heart on his sleeve agonising of John Hurt (who was simply brilliant), that made The Day of the Doctor so compelling to watch. The plot was impossibly complex, and it will take at least half a dozen viewings to properly figure out what was going on and to appreciate all the references and subtleties of the dialogue (I’ve only managed to watch it twice so far), but actually that doesn’t matter. It was a ripping good yarn
The inclusion of Billie Piper (as the sentient being evolved from the universe’s most deadly weapon) was a master-stroke, fulfilling the role of margin notes – clarifying some of the more Gordian plot twists, and generally sign-posting the audience to the key moments in the narrative. The explanation of the role of Jenna Coleman’s character (Clara) throughout the most recent series was ingenious, and the use of archive material and modern editing techniques to interweave her character into plot lines from throughout the 50 years of the programme was cleverly done without appearing contrived or cliched
There are lots of questions that this 50th anniversary special will have raised in the minds of Dr Who fanatics and those who analyse the plot lines in fine detail. It’s probably true that various ‘red lines’ have been crossed and things previously thought to have been sacrosanct have almost certainly been stamped all over (for example, there has previously been a pretty hard and fast rule against The Doctor meeting and interacting with himself in previous or later lives). However, to dwell on these would be churlish. The reason why Doctor Who has survived for fifty years, and has enjoyed probably its most successful period ever since 2005 (77 million people worldwide tuned in last night), is because it has been prepared to evolve, to move on, to – dare I say it – regenerate itself to meet the needs of new audiences (and the changing tastes of older ones)
When I trailed this review on this blog yesterday, it prompted a couple of responses suggesting that the people commenting found Dr Who boring. I can only assume that these are people who maybe haven’t watched it for a while (or at all?). It is now a superbly made, brilliantly acted, and amazingly well-written drama series. The morality plays of Medieval Europe served a particular purpose in society at that time. “Morality plays typically contained a protagonist who represents either humanity as a whole or a smaller social structure. Supporting characters are personifications of good and evil. This alignment of characters provides the play’s audience with moral guidance. Morality plays are the result of the dominant belief of the time period, that humans had a certain amount of control over their post-death fate while they were on earth.” (King, Pamela M. “Morality Plays”. The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre. Ed. Richard Beadle. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1994. 235). It is not too much of a stretch to say that Dr Who is a morality play for our time – confronting ethical and moral dilemmas and offering guidance on appropriate responses to them
And it’s also great to watch!