On November 24 2013, the world’s longest running sci-fi series celebrated its 50th anniversary with an explosive episode. Shot in 3D, the action packed adventure reveals that the Doctor has a dangerous past. And he’s coming back!
At the very news of this Anniversary special, I deliberately put myself in a vortex-bubble away from all spoilers. Nonetheless a few facts squeaked through: that two of the Doctors would unite (not surprising considering they’ve done similar things with almost every anniversary), that they would be joined by a never-before-seen incarnation of the Doctor (what?) and that old enemies would resurface (of course).
Anniversary specials for Doctor Who can be tricky. On one hand, the producers want to please the fans but also keep it within the realm of accessibility for mainstream audiences – without alienating them with in-jokes, obscure references and syrupy nostalgia. There has been some success in previous commemorative episodes, but most have drawn criticisms for those aforementioned reasons.
What materialized onscreen was something that both met and exceeded my expectations in a weird ‘timey-wimey’ fashion.
Matt Smith continues his popular Doctor concisely, without stretching his character much further, although this is not a criticism – development I expect to continue in the new (and final for Smith) series eight.
And David Tennant’s welcome return brought a cheer, as the beloved previous Doctor number ten, putting on a more subdued and grounded performance than usual. What shines the most from both Smith and Tennant, are their interactions with each other – with such a dynamic fun playfulness, they banter and berate each other from one end of the film to the other, never letting up. As two of the youngest generations of the Doctor, it’s easy to see why they’ve been the most popular – especially with the ladies in the crowd. When did Doctor Who get sex appeal?!
Jenna Coleman makes a pleasant, but mandatory appearance as Matt Smith’s travelling companion, Clara. Whilst not as influential on events as previously seen – she remains the Doctor’s moral compass and a reminder of his compassion for life. Sadly the focus of these stories will always be the title character, with most of the support cast taking a backseat.
The ‘Rose’ amongst thorns, aka Billy Piper makes an interesting return but not as we’ve come to know her. No longer the simple but spunky girl from the block, she blends her character with that of an artificial intelligence from an ancient weapon system designed by the Time Lords – which is both subtle and well acted. I couldn’t help but admire how far she had come from warbling pop chav, to the accomplished actress I saw before me. The thorn that stuck in my side however, was the fact that she simply disappears in the final act without any satisfying explanation.
Finally, the real star is John Hurt. Filling me with a sense of dread at first sight, he turned any preconceptions about his character on its head. Hurt brought initially such a morally weighed down and spiritually crushed performance to the screen, that I genuinely thought for a moment that age had finally taken its toll on the veteran thespian. Subtler and gentler, he almost winks at us from the screen and we see from the twinkle in his eye – he’s just as veracious and energetic as his younger co-stars, whom he threatens to steal every scene from.
All other supporting performers play their parts well, but really their characters are pushed into the background as the story races through 70 minutes of non-stop action and fast paced dialogue. Nothing changes for the Daleks and they remain as menacing and two-dimensional for the brief moments they’re onscreen. Another old enemy, the Zygons appear, with updated make-up and morphing effects, but they too are just as flat – shouting empty threats and simply being steamrolled into submission by a rapid-fire sub-plot that feels over a little too soon.
The main story however is fresh and original, that occasionally threatens to fall into absurd silliness at any given moment. There are the usual TARDIS-load of fan references and puns, but pulls back just at the brink of toppling into self-indulgence. Lovingly written by the series producer Steven Moffat; the story cracks along, pausing only to throw weight on the dramatic moments. But with any time, space and dimension-hopping story, it could get a bit confusing for the casual watcher. Due to the short run-time, sub-plots are tied up so quick as to almost be brutal and minor characters are brushed aside or hastily tucked away -all to make way for the Doctors to shout at each other and be awfully clever. Moffat has managed the difficult task of keeping almost everyone happy, by covering everything you would expect in such a feature, with some compromises that might have some old fans pondering why.
Nick Hurran’s excellent direction (he’s no stranger to Doctor Who), attempts to cover in a coherent fashion, a story that arcs and jumps about in a non-linear fashion across different time streams and planets, with a flair for the artistic. Clever angles, unusual close ups and great cinematography make this quite pleasant to behold, but still has that TV-made feel. The effects were nicely done in most places; with a few let-downs here and there. This high definition outing did not look entirely out of place on the big screen. Unfortunately I cannot comment on the 3D as it doesn’t work with my eyesight, but my entourage advised that they were disappointed, finding it sadly lacking. Could be the seats we had, so I invite your comments below if you had a different or better experience.
As for its content for family audiences; at PG it had a couple of scary moments which had me almost regretting bringing my hardened 6 year old, but they were few and far between. Doctor Who has the popular tag of being a ‘kids show’, but if you or your child have never seen it – then I suggest some discretion: with a darker tone than the original series run and some elements causing distress amongst the younger members of the audience.
If you’ve never seen Doctor Who, can you go and watch this? Possibly, but then you’d probably walk away with far more questions than answers. If you want to ‘catch up’ then I recommend jumping on at the 2005 reboot and going from there. Seven seasons might sound like a lot, but they’re quite short in length and it’s possible to chew through them in a couple of weeks. If you end up wanting more, then there are 26 more other seasons to choose from!
The Day of the Doctor is a limited run, but its popularity has smashed records worldwide for largest simultaneous release and a re-screening theatrically could be possible in the near future. ABC TV and iView are continuing to encore the program, as well as DVD/Blu-Ray release scheduled in Australia by the 4th of December.
If you’re curious about the show’s inception and creation: there is also an interesting, if gushingly embellished biopic on ABC iView called Adventures in Space and Time, written by long-time fan and accomplished screen-writer Mark Gatiss.
If something like this comes along once every 50 years, then why not get on board, or at the very least check out what all the fuss is about. As a theatrical release, it’s not perfect: it’s confusing, tacky and silly in places. Even a little rushed. But that’s exactly the charm of Doctor Who! The fun romp in a blue box continues slickly, with darkly serious moments balanced cleverly with humor and wonderful performances all round.
Here’s to another 50 years, Doc.