Wednesday, 31 January 2018

The Day of the Doctor

Chapter The 76th, the Doctors' biggest birthday bash yet.

At the height of the Time War, three incarnations of the Doctor (current one Matt Smith, previous one David Tennant, and - as per the standard for these kind of shindigs - a Richard Hurndall-type stand-in played by John Hurt) are brought together by The Moment, a super-weapon with a conscience that looks just like that Billie Piper off the telly. They thought they were busy defeating a Zygon invasion plan in two time zones, but that was pretty easy stuff compared to their real mission, which is to ensure Gallifrey is never destroyed, but instead is tucked away in a pocket universe or some such. Pleasingly, there's time along the way to explain lines and in-jokes from previous years, have cameos from all the old Doctors, and have a sneak peek at the guy who hasn't even taken over yet. And it was in 3D, too, which was a bit of a waste of time: the BBC and everyone else pretty much abandoned 3D TV the minute after it was screened, but never mind.

Having enjoyed going to the BFI Southbank to see two Doctor Who animation projects unveiled (The Power of the Daleks in 2016 and Shada in 2017), when this screening of The Day of the Doctor was announced as part of a wider BFI John Hurt season, my fan-friends David, Chris and I got a ticket each (Trevor couldn't make this one, but with luck we'll all be reunited in ten month's time to see whatever Charles Norton's team are working on this year).  As it was not one of the special Doctor Who events per se, a few of the usual treats were not present: there was no quiz, no DVD giveaways, no 'shouting for Dick' (Dick Fiddy was in the audience rather than co-compering with the BFI's Justin Johnson), and - most surprising of all - no Frank Skinner involvement (it was his birthday, so he was understandably elsewhere).

Added to this, it was on a Sunday with no new product to show off; consequently, it was relatively low-key. NFT1 was more full than I expected, though. It's definitely a good one to watch on a big screen, which may have been a draw. No presence from super- or celebrity fans that I noticed, but a few good cosplayers turned up. And Chris did get to briefly introduce David and me to the very talented costume-maker Steve Ricks, who was resplendent in a Season 18 Tom Baker outfit. The BFI bar did us a nice brunch beforehand, but yet again it was too busy in there after the screening to hobnob, so we went a little way along the South Bank and had some cocktails, before getting the train home. A slight hangover ensued on Monday morning, but all in all a great day out again. Thank you BFI.

First-time round:
November 2013 was a rather wonderful time. I spent the week leading up to the Saturday of Day's broadcast in Paris for my day job. It was a warm late Autumn week, I got to travel there and back in style on the Eurostar, business class, the year's Beaujolais Nouveau had just become available, the work was not too taxing, and I had colleagues to go to nice restaurants with in the evening. It was 15 minutes on foot into the office from the hotel, so I walked it every day, feeling very sophisticated, as if I were a native. Lower on the sophistication scale, perhaps, I also had my bumper 50th anniversary edition of Doctor Who Magazine with me, which I would read over my hotel breakfast like a chic Parisian probably wouldn't.

I don't care about seeming sophisticated, though, really; case in point: I had as my laptop bag a rather wonderful faux retro manbag (pictured) that I'd picked up a few years before at the Earl's Court Doctor Who Experience. Coming home, I had just got through passport control at the Gare Du Nord on the evening of Friday 22nd November, with this bag over my shoulder, when I was freaked out by a uniformed local who stopped me, and said: "Your bag...". Oh my gosh! What was wrong with my bag?! I'd packed it myself, there were no sharp objects or liquids of volume greater than 100ml. I wasn't smuggling anything. Nothing to declare. Was I going to be detained and strip searched? "Your bag... is AMAZING!" I had been stopped by a fellow Doctor Who fan, who was admiring this neon logo adorned Tom Baker satchel. He proceeded to jump up and down on the spot with me in excitement at all tomorrow might bring. I love the wonderful unsophisticated French.

The following day, I was back home with plenty of wine and snacks. With my visiting friends Alex and Rachel, who've been mentioned a number of times before on this blog, alongside most of the family (me, the Better Half and the boys who at the time were 7 and 4 - our youngest child, a girl, was only 18 months old, so would have been asleep), I watched live as it was simulcast across the world. The story instantly became everyone's favourite, especially the two boys. Then they went to bed, and the adults would have watched  - no doubt at my insistence and to my shame - the After Party thing on BBC3.

It was so so awful: the sheer un-rehearsal of it all, and the various segments all competing to be the nadir: favourite companion actors being treated like props to be moved around a set (you could have powered a TV transmitter for a year using Fraser Hines' resentment alone), the sub-TFI Friday bar where schmucks got asked dumb questions, the stupid bit where they tried to find the best companion by getting all the actors who played them to stand up, and asking them questions, which was leading up to a stupid punchline but never really got there as nobody knew any of the answers to the questions, and they all really needed to sit down, particularly Bernard Cribbins, who as wonderful as he is is getting on a bit. Plus, the one good bit: where members of One Direction were regressed away into a squeal of white noise. I have only seen the thing once, more than four years ago, and I was pretty drunk by that point in the evening. For me to still remember it in such detail, it must have been excruciating. Luckily, I knew about the red button premier of Peter Davison's Five-ish Doctors comedy film later, and we finished the evening with that - perfect from start to finish.
If I had world enough and time or could be arsed, I would go back and look through the reviews of every Steven Moffat story I've covered for the blog so far to count up how many I've adored and how many I've slagged off. Despite it possibly feeling like I'm very negative, my gut feel is it would cleave at about 50:50, maybe 60:40, advantage on the love side. But, just because I don't like everything he's ever written for Doctor Who doesn't mean I don't understand he's a truly talented writer, a witty interviewee, and a wonderful ambassador for Doctor Who (which he'll probably be for ever more - it's a show that doesn't tend to leave one behind). All that talent, and any amount of good will, though, might have counted for nothing when it came to his writing a multi-Doctor anniversary show. It has defeated many a talented Doctor Who writer over the years, trying to write a good multi-Doctor anniversary show. That Moffat created something superb, with moral and emotional weight, as well as ticking all the fan service boxes, is testament to him. He's probably written a few stories that are better, but this will be the one that almost certainly proves the most memorable.

The plot has its author's usual level of complication - switching between multiple time zones and subplots, time travel back into earlier scenes, and so on - but uses deft touches to keep it all coherent and easy to follow. The visual spectacle is a triumph of production to get the very last penny of budget exploding onto the screen. Performances are strong across the board, with John Hurt dominating seemingly effortlessly as you would expect. The dynamics of the bickering Doctors is traditional, but none the worse for it, and handled well. And the little continuity tidy-ups are fastidious in their detail. In The Day of the Doctor we find extrapolations of dialogue from Doomsday in 2006: "I was there at the fall of Arcadia; someday I might even come to terms with that," and 2009's The End of Time "He still possesses the Moment, and he'll use it to destroy Daleks and Time Lords alike," and provides the punchline to a running gag - or more likely lots of random gags over the years - about Elizabeth the First that also featured in The End of Time plus The Shakespeare Code and The Beast Below.

Beyond the complications, though, there's real complexity. The Day of the Doctor picks up as its main theme a thread that goes all the way back to Rose and the first new series finale The Parting of the Ways, replaying the no-win scenario where an intervention to save lives costs millions of lives in turn. In short: coward or killer? There is something of a sidestep of the moral quandary ultimately: the Doctor refuses the choice, and is saved at the last minute by thinking of something clever; but that's Doctor Who, and a happy ending was obligatory in an anniversary romp. Anyway, mirroring this in miniature in the Zygon subplot allows for tangled repercussions of these sort of choices to be explored in future less rompy episodes, though I'm dubious as to at what level that sequel and the death of Osgood was all planned up front (as Moffat claimed in the later Q&A).

Tom Baker's walk-on at the end helps keep up the surprise factor, just when we thought it was all over; it makes sense too - just about - within the rules that the episode has set up. The only possible explanation of who Tom Baker's playing is a future incarnation of the Doctor re-wearing a favoured old face (which might go some way to explaining how the Gallifreyan paintings get to Elizabethan England too); if this is so, then it's been set up that, as the younger of the two, Matt Smith's Doctor can't properly retain the memories of their conversation. This would explain why in the next story he still thinks he's going to die at Trenzalore despite this strong evidence that he'll carry on. It would also explain why he doesn't do much following this to seek out Gallifrey, as he only remembers a last ditch gambit to save it, not the fairly resounding clue he was given that it did in fact survive. Obviously, he gets positive proof in one story's time anyway, and still doesn't do much to actively seek it out. But Moffat explained all that at the Q&A: the Doctor really hates the place.
My main quibble would be that David Tennant is not very well served during proceedings. Fans of his, like me, would probably be happy enough just to see him back in the suit again; but, it might have been nice for a bit more heroism and less out and out comedy. Also, Moffat has the Tenth do the same "I'm grandstanding with a big speech oops I've got the wrong end of the stick" gag three times over (once with the horse, once with the rabbit, once with the real Liz) to increasingly diminishing returns. Joanna Page is badly miscast as Elizabeth too, which further weakens this section. More minor quibbles: bad inhaler usage, which always ticks me off as an asthmatic myself, and finally: why would Coal Hill School have gone to the trouble of moving its location a few streets along, particularly if it meant that it was now right next to a junk yard? If the idea is it's always been there, then none of the first ever episode of Doctor Who makes any sense whatsoever - can I give you a lift home, Susan, in my car, to next door? No, I like walking 100 yards in the dark, it's mysterious. I'm sure nobody wants that: after all, that's where it all started.

They've both got a horse in them, and both show a city on fire (London in The Visitation, Arcadia in The Day of the Doctor). Both touch upon alien artifacts left on Earth in history being unearthed in the present day.

Deeper Thoughts:
Secrets from the Black Archive: panel with Steven Moffat and Marcus Wilson, Sunday 28th January 2018. It was nice to see Marcus Wilson interviewed again, he seems like a nice fellow, but the event was bound to be all about the Moff. Given that this is possibly his first public appearance since he officially stepped down from the showrunner role at Christmas, most of the interest (and all the audience questions) were for him. The most obvious thing, and for obvious reasons, is how relaxed he seemed. It's a very big weight that's been lifted, even though he hasn't left the world of Who behind quite yet. One of the first things mentioned was that he is working on a novelisation of The Day of the Doctor. I thought this was a gag at first, but it's true: Moffat is one of four writers producing Target-style novelisations for key post-2005 stories.

The rest of the panel discussion and subsequent audience Q&A garnered little that was new, but did offer up a few nuggets of interest. The idea of the War Doctor was born out of terror, when Christopher Eccleston declined to be involved. It was felt Eccleston was a good gruff Northern contrast to the other two "pretty-boys", in a way that Paul McGann, say, who was arguably the first modern dashing hero type Doctor, would not have been. The other obvious choice, but seemingly impossible at the time, was to get the first ever Doctor back. Without that option, the only choice was to find a missing wilderness years Doctor, someone famous enough during that period to conceivably have been offered the role. They only had John Hurt in mind, and if he'd turned it down "a glove puppet would have played it".

If Tom hadn't cameoed, the Moment would have come in at the end to talk to Matt. There was only ever going to be a subset of Doctors fully involved (as some just don't answer their phone anymore) which lead to Peter Davison's fan film being given a proper budget, as a good way to represent everyone. Moffat believes he achieved everything he wanted during his time as showrunner; if he had any regret it was only not using the Autons more, and not bringing back the Garm! He never planned a scene during Capaldi's era of his Doctor's POV of his eyebrows cameo - it's not a story. Moffat did not enjoy the After Party either; after the broadcast, he was, to quote him exactly: "So clenched, I could have snapped a proctologist off at the knuckle" All he wanted was a drink but instead he had to talk via video link to half a boy band of whom he'd never heard. He had nothing to do with Jodie Whittaker's casting, that was rightly all Chris Chibnall, but from what he's seen she is really funny, which he believes is essential. And finally, he sums up Doctor Who thus: "It's not about restraint, it's 'In Your Face' entertainment...we're not at home to Mr. Subtlety."

In Summary:
Call Lou Reed: this is as near as possible to a perfect 'Day'. (Geddit?! Also, please don't be surprised if you don't get an answer from Lou Reed.)

No comments:

Post a Comment