A special episode celebrating the 50th anniversary of the show, it was feature length at an hour and 15 minutes, and was shown in cinemas too. It also was broadcast in 94 countries at the same time, getting into the Guinness book of records for it. So already there were a lot of expectations of it.
In the first quarter of the episode there are three incarnations of the Doctor, in three separate times. Matt Smith’s Doctor in the present day, David Tennant’s Doctor in Elizabethan England, and John Hurt’s Doctor introduced at the end of The Name of The Doctor during the Time War in Gallifrey between the Time Lords and the Daleks.
John Hurt’s Doctor, “The War Doctor” is about to use a weapon which will destroy the Daleks, the Time Lords and their respective home planets as a way of ending the Time War. He believes it has gone on long enough and there is no other way to end it, even if it means destroying his home planet, his race and innocent people. The weapon, known as The Moment, has a consciousness, and, using the form of (from the War Doctor’s point of view) future companion Rose Tyler in her “Bad Wolf” state, tries to persuade him not to.
In the present day, UNIT, headed by Kate Stewart, tries to contact Smith’s Doctor about some 3D Elizabethan paintings which show Gallifrey falling. They were kept in secret for centuries, with a letter sent to the Doctor by Queen Elizabeth I herself. In Elizabethan England, Tennant’s Doctor is romancing her because he believes she is a Zygon, a shapeshifting alien race from the classic series.
These timelines get mixed up when The Moment decides to show the War Doctor what his future holds if he does what he does, and all three incarnations of the Doctor meet. Eventually they are able to use their collective knowledge and experience to work together. The Zygon have had their home planet destroyed, and plan to travel from Elizabethan England to the present day, which has more comfort for them, and take over the Earth there. They end up in a secret UNIT base, where Kate Stewart as a last resort threatens to set off a nuclear warhead which destroy them, and all of London, if it means saving the world. The Doctors, having made a similar decision in the Time War, don’t want this to happen, knowing what an awful decision it is to make and how the guilt eats away at them. As The Moment says, two of the Doctors have become “the man who regrets” (Tennant’s Doctor) and “the man who forgets” (Smith’s Doctor). The conflict is dealt with by erasing memories so that nobody can remember whether they are human or Zygon, so discuss a solution that will benefit both equally.
Having seen all this, the War Doctor still resolves he has to use the weapon despite it being a terrible thing. The two other Doctors come back to support him. Current companion Clara tries to talk them out of it, and asks her Doctor (Matt Smith) to come up with a better solution. He comes up with one, to use all the previous incarnations of the Doctor (and one future one!) to put Gallifrey safe in a parallel pocket universe leaving the Daleks to destroy each other.
The episode featured some nice call-backs for fans of the classic series. It opened with the theme tune and title sequence from the first series in 1963. A scientist named Osgood has a multicoloured scarf which recalls Tom Baker’s Doctor, and Matt Smith’s Doctor compliments her on it. It also saw the return of Kate Stewart, who was popular in her first appearance in The Power of Three in series 7, and of Billie Piper, who played Rose Tyler, the first companion of the revived series. I’m glad that technically the character of Rose Tyler didn’t return though. One reason is I always felt disappointed they didn’t do more about Rose becoming the Bad Wolf, indeed it was forgotten about almost instantly. But another reason is that frankly Rose’s character got worse over time and she became increasingly hard to like. Her first exit in Doomsday was great, but the show seemed unwilling to let her go, and so kept mentioning her in series 3 and bringing her back in series 4, leading to a poor final exit in Journey’s End. But it’s quite a good call back for Billie Piper to appear in the series again.
I really liked the cameo at the end of the longest serving and oldest living actor to play the Doctor, Tom Baker. He played a museum curator who it is implied is the Doctor in the future, possibly in his retirement years and using an “old favourite” face. While I haven’t seen much of the classic series, I did see some repeats of it in the ’90s when I was a kid, so I loved this scene featuring my two favourite incarnations of the Doctor, Tom Baker and Matt Smith.
What I loved most about this episode was the dynamic between the three incarnations of the Doctor. David Tennant gets right back into the role, it is like he has never been away. He and Matt Smith are amazing together, they have a brilliant chemistry. John Hurt as the War Doctor was looking at these future but younger looking versions of himself, at one time saying “Am I having a midlife crisis?”. What it reminded more of though was a grumpy old “father” shaking his head at how his wayward “sons” have turned out. In a way, I guess all three are different generations of a family, even though the one who looked the oldest was technically the youngest, and vice versa.
John Hurt is a great actor, and he showed that here. The War Doctor seems weary and beaten down by what has happened in the Time War and has decided he has to take a terrible course of action for the greater good. He even decides this knowing what he will become. As he says “”Great men are forged in fire, it is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame”. But it’s something that stays with his future incarnations, and they spend a long time regretting it and thinking if there is anything they could possibly have done to avoid it. I found this interesting as most of us will never have to make such a weighty decision, but we will have all made bad decisions and experienced hindsight and think what we could have done differently knowing the full consequences. The Doctor has had 400 years to think about that, and in the end he has a chance to do it differently and find a better solution this time. The end, saving Gallifrey sets up a potential “search for Gallifrey” arc for series 8 too. We also get a glimpse of upcoming Doctor Peter Capaldi, or his eyes anyway.
I liked the ending with all of the incarnations of the Doctor stood together, and visually it looked amazing, the production values were high. One thing I’ve always liked about Doctor Who is how it can shift the mood with great skill. An example is after the War Doctor and The Moment have had a long conversation about the impact of his decision, the Moment opens a time portal to show him his future, and out comes… a fez! It raises a smile and doesn’t take away from what has been said. Few shows are able to do that and make it work.
If I’m going to nitpick, the Elizabethan subplot was a bit tacked on, and I felt that Joanna Page was miscast as Elizabeth I. The Zygon plot is also brushed aside like they wanted to get it out of the way as soon as possible. But as I said, those are nitpicks. This was very, very good, and a fine way to celebrate one of the best TV shows Britain has produced.