I normally wouldn’t review the 240th episode of a TV show I’ve never watched before, but this is ‘The TV Event of the Year.’ So, for the sake of my credibility as a reviewer of British TV, here’s a review for anyone (anyone?) interested. First impressions:
It’s a pretty silly show, Doctor Who, right? It’s basically children’s TV – in the same way that Harry Potter is children’s literature. The show keeps telling us it’s scary – with ominous music played while the camera zooms in on someone’s face as they don’t describe something ‘horrible’ they witnessed – but it’s all quite tame. There’s lots of sad trombone music as something ‘funny’ happens and a lot of bad jokes. If I was being kind, ‘quirky’ is the dominate adjective I’d use to describe much of show; ‘annoying’ if I was being cruel.
The Day of the Doctor began with the TARDIS being airlifted into the centre of London. ‘Derren Brown’ is the cover story the government will be putting out to explain the event. But wait, that’s a shit cover story that wouldn’t hold up. And why risk exposure in the first place with such a ridiculously ostentatious plan? If this episode is to judge, Doctor Who is full of such ridiculous nonsense and I guess we’re all just supposed to roll with it. Every other quirky joke seems to be the screenwriter winking at the audience as an apology.
Safely out of the airlifted TARDIS, Clara and the Doctor were shown a painting of an ancient battle, and we jumped into the picture and back in time to see John Hurt’s War Doctor faced with a decision to kill six billion people in order to save the universe. Such a decision is utilitarianism – the philosophy of doing what is the greatest good for the greatest number of people – and it is consistently used as the chief bad guy in science fiction. It’s such a good villain because it provokes the audience into siding with someone doing horrendous things. Though I’ve never seen Doctor Who, I did watch the spin-off Torchwood series Children of Earth, which used a very similar premise, and it seems quite derivative for that show’s big brother to nick its denouement, especially in such a prominent episode.
The War Doctor had a superweapon he planned on using to stop the Daleks, and he got chatting to the weapon’s AI, played by Billie Piper, who previously played Rose in the show, although the link between the two went over my head. The AI opened up a time warp, and the War Doctor, joined by Matt Smith’s current Doctor, jumped through to Elizabethan England to meet David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor. Time travel, you see, is confusing.
This bit was clearly for the fans. I know, because the scene was practically screaming ‘This part is for the fans! Aren’t cha just lovin’ it!?!?’ As a non-fan, it was alright, although I bet everyone – the show’s producers in particular – wish it was Christopher Eccleston in the scene rather than John Hurt.
Meanwhile, evil aliens the Zygons appeared back in present day London, having time travelled from the 16th century by storing themselves in paintings – a bit of nonsensical ‘magic’ that is awfully annoying, especially so later in the episode when the technology made a reappearance. One of the Zygons cornered a scientist who was supposed to be a shy, asthmatic nerd who is insecure about her looks, despite the fact that the actress playing the character is very attractive. That is some Hollywood-level casting right there.
Clara got away from the aliens and travelled back to the 16th century were the three doctors had been imprisoned by the Zygons. There was a clever little idea at this point involving the Doctors escaping using the sonic screwdriver, but it was immediately undermined with a stupid joke about the door to the cell being unlocked. Is there a rule that there needs to be a rubbish joke in every scene?
Back in the present day, the government had got back in control of the Zygon situation, by planning on blowing up a room full of superweapons the aliens intended on using – and blowing up all of London with it. Echoes of the War Doctor’s own decision, see? The three doctors showed up, and used the sonic screwdriver to make everyone in the room unaware of whether they are a Zygon or not, in order to stop the bomb from being exploded. I’ve seen a lot of online criticism of the sonic screwdriver being used as a deus ex machina, and that is what happened here. The screwdriver can seemingly do absolutely anything for narrative purposes, except the things it can’t do for narrative purposes.
Not long after, we jumped back in time, with the War Doctor ready to make his decision. Kill six billion people and save the universe, or save the innocents and submit to the Daleks?
Hold on though: what the fuck happened to the Zygons?
Oh well, never mind. Guess it sorted itself out. Back with the Time War, all three doctors were readying themselves to use the superweapon, but decided not to in the end. In general, in science-fiction, the utilitarian option is rejected by the good guys. That’s why Children of Earth was so good: they did something different and actually had the hero do the horrific thing. Not here though, were it turns out the superweapon AI travelled the War Doctor through time in order to show him an alternate solution. Of course, she could have saved everyone the effort by just giving the War Doctor the solution at the start. A better written episode would explain why she didn’t do this. But then, a better written episode wouldn’t devote 56 minutes to an alien attempt to conquer earth and then just completely discard it unresolved.
The new plan involved using the unexplained magic from earlier to disappear the besieged planet into a painting, leaving the Daleks to blow each other up. In a pretty cool scene even for a non-Doctor Who fan, all the Doctors showed up at once. Peter Capaldi – set to play the next doctor – also arrived, although that makes no sense considering he doesn’t exist yet. Did he travel back in time and hide around a corner the whole time, popping his head out for a brief second? This is what happens when the writer puts ‘cool’ moments for the fans above writing a coherent script.
And that was that, bar a brief scene where the Doctors said goodbye to each other, some interesting stuff about the inevitable death of the Doctor, and then an appearance of Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor to send the current Doctor off chasing the fate of the planet he disappeared.
Judging the early reaction online, it seems that a lot of Doctor Who fans are disappointed while plenty of others loved it. A lot of the episode was devoted to a plot that went nowhere, there was no interesting big bad guy to defeat, and the Daleks were barely in it. That said, from my uninformed perspective, it was a pretty enjoyable, nonsensical hour. I didn’t think it was that well written, and I don’t have any compulsion to go and watch all the previous episodes, but I can see why people like the show.
- The production values aren’t great. A bit embarrassing at times to be honest. There was one close-up shot of a desert where the sand didn’t look at all real.
- I’m not a fan of all the slapstick and attempts at humour. The opening of the episode reminded me of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or some other family film.
- ‘But I was just…’ ‘Talking to me – I know, I’m a time traveller. Work it out.’ That was kind of funny though.
- ‘They are who you become… the man who regrets and the man who forgets.’ That’s a pretty good line, the best in the episode.
- The Zygons are ridiculous. They talk like aliens you’d find in a comedy: ‘We were fortunate then – heeeeeeeee – in our choice of our equipment.’