Doctor Who
Credit: Adrian Rogers/BBC Worldwide

The Doctor Who 50th anniversary special was a twirling infinity vortex. It was set in the present and the past and another past and every time at once. There were multiple versions of every character, including Queen Elizabeth I. In the most Moffat-y script Steven Moffat has ever written for Doctor Who, the show took a deep dive into its own history, and it appeared to partially destroy that history, and it also provided a peek at its own far-flung future. At one point, three different time periods attacked one time period by traveling through another time period. And because this is Doctor Who, there were plenty of big red scary monsters.

Day of the Doctor began in three distinct timelines, with three distinct Doctors.

-In the present, Eleventh Doctor (who I’ll henceforth refer to as Matt Smith to make things less dizzy) accepted a call from U.N.I.T. to the National Gallery.

-In the past, the heretofore-unknown War Doctor (John Hurt) made ready his plans to end the Time War by destroying Gallifrey and the Daleks. He stole the ultimate weapon, a force of pure destruction with a conscience. Turns out it was also a genie in a bottle…and that genie took the shape of Rose Tyler in her Bad Wolf phase.

-In another past, the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) romanced Elizabeth I. Actually, guess what: Turns out he married Elizabeth I. I choose to believe that this was the Doctor Who franchise’s puckish attempt to one-up James Bond. “Oh, you got to parachute out of a helicopter during the Olympics with Queen Elizabeth II? Well, we got to marry Elizabeth I. And she killed an alien, too.”

It was a kick to see Tennant return as the Doctor. (“It was the horse! I’m gonna be King!”) Upper-level Who scholars could probably place precisely when in the Tenth Doctor’s timeline this was: Since he was Companion-free, I’m guessing it took place sometime during the run of Specials that closed out Tennant’s tenure.

The Three Doctors joined each other in Elizabeth I’s time, thanks to a rip in the space-time cortex and the frequent reappearance of the Telltale Fez. Their interaction was a feast of meta-jokes: Smith joking with Tennant about his sand shoes, Tennant joking about Smith’s chin, Hurt generally wondering why his future selves talk like children and keeps kissing beautiful young women. “Am I having a midlife crisis?” he pondered.

But there was a deeper, darker edge to their interaction. Trapped together in the Tower of London, the War Doctor asked his future selves about the terrible decision they all had to make. Did they ever count the lives of the children of Gallifrey — the innocents they had to kill to save the universe? Smith claimed he had no idea. Tennant countered: 2.47 billion. Tennant couldn’t believe that Smith — a mere 400 years older — had forgotten. Chastising his future self, Tennant also brought up what turned out to be a quiet thesis for the episode: “For once, I would like to know where I’m going.”

Because even thought this was a zippy, fun, twist-twist-megatwisty TV episode, it was also an opportunity for Doctor Who to become reflective about Doctor Who. Fake-Rose explained to John Hurt that these were the men he was becoming: Tennant, the Man Who Regrets; Smith, the Man Who Forgets.

And although the show was a celebration of the whole 50-year history of the character, it felt like current showrunner Moffat was specifically reflecting on the modern era. The end of the Time War was the offscreen inciting incident for the whole post-reboot Who: It was the Doctor’s version of Uncle Ben’s death, writ cosmic. When we first met the Modern-Day Doctor, he was Christopher Eccleston, haunted and running away from a past he chose to forget. Would the War Doctor have to become that man now? Was there really no other way to end the Time War?

Day of the Doctor thrived on multiplicities, and so the Time War had its own double: The staredown between U.N.I.T. and the invading Zygons. Just to exponentially increase the notion of doubling, the Zygons actually looked exactly like U.N.I.T. (An asthmatic U.N.I.T. officer was named Osgood and wore Tom Baker’s old scarf: A reference on top of a reference, and boy, that scarf still looked cool.) The three Doctors averted nuclear catastrophe by wiping everyone’s memory, so that nobody could remember if they were human or Zygon. It was the veil of ignorance theory, played out with sonic screwdrivers. It was an argument for diplomacy over war, for peace in the face of the unlikeliest of odds. It was also an argument against ending the Time War the way the Doctor would end/had already ended the Time War.

But John Hurt didn’t see it that way. Clara sussed out that he hadn’t done the terrible act yet: “Your eyes. You’re so much younger.” Looking at his future selves, Hurt decided: “All things considered, it’s time I grew up.” Bad Wolf Rose returned him to the Moment. Hurt explained how extraordinary he found his future selves. “Great men are forged in fire. It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame.” It felt a bit like Doctor Who was staging a metaphorical version of it’s own evolution: The moment it “grew up.”

Except that Day of the Doctor decided to tell an even more complicated story. Tennant and Smith appeared in the Moment. (The events were supposed to be timelocked, but of course they weren’t: The phrase “timelocked” is only used on Doctor Who when the lock gets broken.) The two later Doctors wanted to join their past self. “This time, you don’t have to do it alone.” They were joining together, as one. It was a heroic moment, but also a little sad. Was this the destiny of the Doctor: To relive his worst crime over and over, in the same moment?

Clara didn’t think so. She told her Doctor that he had to be different. John Hurt was the Warrior; David Tennant was the Hero. “We’ve got enough warriors. Any old idiot can be a hero.” She told Matt Smith to do what he had always done: “Be a Doctor.”

It was a moment weighted with meaning. On one hand, it felt like a subtle statement of purpose for the Steven Moffat era. When Russell T. Davies brought back Doctor Who in 2005, the frolicky adventures were always shaded with mournfulness for what the Doctor had lost. It was a sadness that now feels unmistakably like the mid-00s. Maybe Clara was trying to argue for a brighter tomorrow. (The Davies era accumulated history, with the Doctor’s Companions ultimately becoming a kind of spinoff superteam: The Moffat era changes history, or just erases it.) Or maybe the imagery was meant to send us back even further. The Big Red Button, the promise of massive destruction, of too many innocents killed to save many more: It was like a restaging of the dawn of the nuclear era, with Clara begging the Doctor to find some other way besides destruction.

And he did. Or they did. Matt Smith told his fellow Doctors that this time, the Time War could turn out differently: There were three of them. John Hurt smiled for the first time: “She told me exactly the future I needed to see! Bad Wolf Girl, I could kiss you!” David Tennant did a double-take when he heard that. (ASIDE: I imagine some people are disappointed that Rose and Tennant didn’t actually share any dialogue. Personally, I was bit happy to see that they didn’t bring Rose back for yet another happy ending: Her first one was perfect, and her second one was maybe too perfect.)

They concocted a plan. A billion billion Daleks were attacking Gallifrey from all sides. Pooling the power of the TARDISes, they could freeze Gallifrey in a moment in time — and when they removed it, the Daleks would all destroy each other. But it wasn’t just the three Doctors. It was all the Doctors. In what amounts to the most creative clip show ever, every other actor who ever played the Doctor made an appearance via viewscreen/archive footage. Eccleston only appeared in archive footage, so I got that wrong. But Thirteenth Doctor Peter Capaldi appeared, in one stark close-up, eyes looking extremely determined, so I got that right.

Gallifrey disappeared. The Daleks destroyed each other (except for all the Daleks who didn’t, who fell through various time vortexes to torture Doctors Nine through Eleven.) Smith, Tennant, and Hurt came back to the National Gallery. They didn’t know if they had saved Gallifrey; the painting of the Time Lord world still stood there in the Gallery, named either No More or Gallifrey Falls.

Hurt said his farewell, after establishing that he wouldn’t remember any of this. He got into his TARDIS and began to regenerate: Presumably, it wasn’t long before he was fighting the Nestene Consciousness. Tennant got a deeper moment with Smith. Doctor 11 told Doctor 10 their dark future. He saw where they were buried, at Trenzalore. Tennant advised the Doctor that he find a better ending for themselves. Repeating his last words for the first time, Tennant exited: “I don’t want to go.”

Clara gave Smith a moment alone with himself. Literally. Smith mused that he might like to be a curator someday: A curator of this very museum. He could retire! And then he met a man who looked very familiar. “I never forget a face,” said Smith. The man we might as well call The Curator said: “In years to come, you might find yourself revisiting a few. But just the old favorites.” It was, of course, Tom Baker: The Fourth Doctor, the longest-serving actor to incarnate the role and generally considered the most popular of the show’s run.

It was a vision of the Doctor’s future. And it was a rather pleasant idea: That someday, centuries from now or longer, the Doctor will be too old to have adventures, preferring instead to curate his past to guide others’ futures. (If you’re wondering why the Curator doesn’t swing by to help the Doctor whenever he has to save London from space aliens, just repeat to yourself “It’s just a show, I should really just relax.”)

The Curator told the Doctor the real name of the painting: I Am Sherlocked Gallifrey Falls No More. So Gallifrey was out there, somewhere. Tom Baker excused himself, assuring Matt Smith that he did have a lot to do. And in a closing narration, Smith roadmapped a new direction for the show as it enters its second fifty years: “I have a new destination. The same as anyone’s. At last I know where I’m going. Where I’ve always been going. Home: The long way ’round!” Joining all his past selves in a dream, Smith stared up at his home planet. It was out there. Somewhere. Somewhen.

Doctor Who fans will have a lot to chat about between now and the Christmas Special. By radically altering the end of the Time War, Day of the Doctor seemed to affirm that — putting aside all other difference — Moffat is decidedly more optimistic as a Who showrunner than Davies was. There was nothing in the 50th Anniversary Special as bleak as the moment in Journey’s End when Davros, in his apparent death throes, called the Doctor the Destroyer of Worlds; if anything, Day of the Doctor seemed to deny that assertion by erasing that destruction from memory. Likewise, it’s interesting to compare Day of the Doctor to The End of Time, which reopens the door to the Time War just to make the Time War happen all over again.

At the same time, I was very taken by the idea — central to the Doctor Who mythos — that the Doctor needs to be something more than a hero, more than a warrior. Heroes and Warriors tend to be tough in all the worst ways. As written by Moffat, the Doctors — all three of them, all twelve of them, throughout all time — are tough in a different way. They find solutions to impossible problems. They don’t kill.

And now they — he, he, this is all so darned confusing! — he has a new path. Does this mean that the master-plot for Peter Capaldi’s Doctor will involve discovering Gallifrey? Could it be that we’re approaching a moment when Who will be flooded with Time Lords? How many more famous monarchs did the Doctor marry? Fifty years from now, will Matt Smith have a cameo as the Second Curator in the 100th Anniversary Special, working title Doctor of the Day?

Only time will tell. Fortunately, time flies… even if you don’t have a TARDIS.

Episode Recaps

Doctor Who
  • TV Show
  • 12
stream service