Friday, 6 December 2013

The Birthday of the Doctor

It's weird, but my relationship with Steven Moffat's run on Doctor Who seems to be closely mirroring my real-life relationship. There was the initial giddy joy, where everything was exciting and new; there was the part where we grew closer, but things got tangled up and complicated; then there was the rocky part where we didn't see much of each other, and when we did we just got into fights. In both cases we were on the verge of violently splitting up - and yet, in both cases, we rekindled our passion in the flickering darkness of a cinema.

Too much information? Maybe. Worth it? Definitely.

So, after a dragged-out two-year series that I borderline loathed, Doctor Who has won me back with its excellent 50th Anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor. It probably helped that my birthday is only two days after the good Doctor's, and that, as a special birthday surprise, I got to see it in 3D on a cinema screen - we even had a Doctor Who cake!
Since I wrote three massive posts about why the last series sucked, I think it's only fair I write one about why the special didn't.

The 3D is actually a good place to start because, knowing they were going to film this in 3D, they seem to have written the plot and shot the episode specifically around that feature. This ends up being both a blessing and a curse.
It's a blessing because they created those cool 3D Timelord paintings to justify using the format and, as well as being a clever and interesting device and just plain looking really cool, travelling through them allowed for some crazy stuff with the camera. The whole thing was shot more cinematically than usual and looked great, but those painting sequences really stood out.
Unfortunately, while the story-centric painting stuff used deep and immersive 3D, the episode sometimes fell into using gimmicky comin'-atcha 3D as well. The many quick shots of Zygons lurching at the screen, and closeups of shattering glass, got annoying very quickly, and the intro of the TARDIS randomly swinging over London was just gratuitous. They actually seem to do that in every other Doctor Who special, for some reason, but this time felt rushed and cluttered and it was obviously only there to flaunt the 3D.

There were other problems too - this episode is far from perfect - but most of them are incredibly minor. The biggest problem for me, though, was that utterly baffling scene with Tom Baker.
Everyone else seems to have loved this (and I swear I saw an article somewhere calling this the "best handled cameo ever") - to which I can only say, what cameo were you watching? It begins really strong, staying gently ambiguous while informing the plot... but then it just turns into nonsense, making it far too overt who Baker is while also somehow making it more confusing and then they congratulate each other about it and then it tries to be sad and weighty even though he's delivering happy news and it makes no sense! There was a way to make Baker's cameo work, but this definitely wasn't it.

Conversely, a problem that a lot of other people had - that we never get to see the outcome of the Zygon situation - I had the opposite reaction to. I loved how open-ended that was, letting us know that they definitely worked something out, but not telling us what. I can see how it seems a little incomplete, but any more time with them would have spoiled that clever, and surprisingly deep, bit with the inhaler.

And that deep, clever writing is the hallmark of this episode. The script is sharp, with the characters bouncing off each other brilliantly, and the story is a strong one. But what really set The Day of the Doctor apart is this one line:

"What is it that makes you so ashamed of being a grownup?"

That single sentence from John Hurt, and the look that the other two then give him, completely floored me. It instantly changes so much, adding new context to everything we've seen since the 2005 relaunch and giving meaning to things that were never intended to matter.
The Doctor is a thousand-year-old man in a body that keeps getting younger and younger, acting sillier and sillier. Until now that was just a matter of casting and writing, but now it's a plot-point. Not just a throwaway plot-point to explain something, either, but a meaningful decade-long arc that ends with this special, allowing the Doctor to move on and explaining why his next incarnation is the much older Peter Capaldi. It's fantastically clever and, more importantly, the pain in Tennant and Smith's silent reaction gives it great emotional power, too.

That whole dungeon scene, with Matt Smith's perfect delivery of the word "spoilers", was better written and better acted than the whole of the last two years put together. From that moment on I was back in love with Doctor Who.

The special as a whole actually works the same way, reframing things we thought we knew or just accepted as read. Until now we thought Gallifrey was destroyed but, without actually changing anything that happened, The Day of the Doctor gives new meaning to everything we've ever seen. We can go back and watch the Eccleston series again and, although nothing has changed, it all means something different. Again, where the Time War was previously just an event that happened, there's now an arc, with the Doctor coming to terms with what he's done and eventually owning it and facing it. Twice.

Of course, while this episode heavily influences the whole of the timeline, it's heavily influenced by the timeline in turn. It does what all anniversary episodes should: referencing and commenting on the past, while remaining a self-contained story.
Beyond using an obscure legacy monster, and returning to UNIT, the War Doctor's exasperation at his successors (and, later, Tennant's "I don't want to go") felt like a critique of the show itself, and the changes it's undergone in fifty years. It celebrates but also criticises, and then it goes one further. Where all programmes can reference the past, Doctor Who can actually visit it, filling in gaps and following up eight-years of loose ends. The Time War is the obvious one, but Captain Jack's transporter and the Doctor's marriage to Elizabeth are just as vital and just as welcome. Even the ending's cruel Eccleston cocktease, infuriating though it was, works perfectly in this respect. It's pulling the whole timeline together, giving things new meaning and purpose.

The ultimate example of this is obviously that massive, crowd-pleasing finale - a half-century of television brought together all at once - and it might be the cleverest part of a very clever episode.
It's not that it's particularly ingenious as an idea, but the way it's built up so subtly, without us even noticing, is astounding. Moments we think are throwaway gags or just neat ideas - like the four-hundred-year sonic-screwdriver calculation, or the 3D pictures which could so easily have only been a gimmick - unexpectedly come back in that huge, monumental payoff. Bringing in all thirteen Doctors at the last minute could have felt eye-rollingly silly, but because it's set up earlier, using nothing more than a door and a screwdriver, it becomes an overwhelmingly powerful moment and, in our cinema at least, it made the crowd explode.

This special is full of the stuff Moffat does so well, and it's the same stuff that was missing all series. Wibbly-wobbly stories across multiple timelines that weave tightly together in surprising ways. Like the series it seems to be a jumble of disconnected ideas - Zygons, paintings, queens, sentient superweapons, complex maths and more - but, unlike the floundering series, it all turns out to be important and relevant, and it all slots together to form something great.
It's so cleverly done, in fact, that it's basically showing off. I think the Doctor would approve.

Going forward, the biggest takeaway from The Day of the Doctor is that it gives Who a specific purpose. Over the last two years we've seen what happens when Moffat's Doctor is left drifting aimlessly, and it wasn't pretty. With its clear new goal of finding Gallifrey, the show has found a strong foundation of story to build upon. That, as this episode once again proved, is when Moffat excels as a showrunner, and that fills me with hope.
The other major issue this series was, of course, Clara. She isn't actually in The Day of the Doctor a great deal, but already we're seeing her vague character become a little more settled and defined. She's a teacher now, which is nice, but much nicer is that she seems to be developing actual traits; she's pragmatic and sensible and, while she may well have been those things before, they never really stood out against whatever other random traits she had this week.
She's not there yet, but Clara is beginning to look like a character. If Series 8 can continue to sketch out her edges, and if it ties that process to a more focused story, then maybe our relationship can blossom again. In fact, if it continues to follow real life, I may very well end up proposing.

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