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Tardis Party/ Half-century heroics: The Day Of The Doctor (Nov 23)/ An Adventure In Space And Time (Nov 21, BBC2) ~ Reviews

December 1, 2013

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(The Day Of The Doctor) Directed by: Nick Hurran; Starring: Matt Smith, David Tennant, John Hurt, Jenna Coleman, Billie Piper, Jemma Redgrave, Joanna Page and Ingrid Oliver; Written by: Steven Moffat; UK; 76 minutes; Colour

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In the highly unlikely event you’re still yet to see this near-unprecedentedly hyped slice of TV, don’t worry your little fez-topped head, for this review is spoiler-free. Pretty much…

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Regular visitors to this nook of the Internet will recall that last year it dedicated a wee, little slice of its time to celebrating the golden anniversary of the cinematic James Bond (not least the release of latest film Skyfall), but how on Gallifrey does that relate to Doctor Who (1963-present)? Well, it seems this blog wasn’t the only entity paying attention to 007 in 2012, for so too was Who showrunner Steven Moffat, because he apparently looked to Skyfall for his show’s own half-century-honouring, big- (and small-screen) special The Day Of The Doctor.

Specifically, Moffat has said what he took from the latest Bond flick was the fact it didn’t just celebrate the Bond films of lore with nods to them throughout, but also fundamentally focused on the character of the protagonist, shook him up and, by the end, took him in an entirely new direction. Indeed, one may say this approach – and its excellent realisation – is why The Day Of The Doctor is such a triumph as a golden anniversary celebration of Who.

Not that it doesn’t have those inevitable nods to the best-loved aspects of the ‘Classic’ series and ‘NuWho’, though. Chief among them, of course, is the fan-gasm-friendly fact it’s a ‘multi-Doctor’ story. Following on the heels of previous anniversary specials The Three Doctors (1973) and The Five Doctors (1983), this effort – shown in cinemas in 3D as well as on goggleboxes in apparently 90-odd different countries – properly gives us two further Docs in addition to soon-to-leave-the-TARDIS Eleventh incarnation Matt Smith, one of which we’ve never met before. And it works bloody well; as well, in fact, as Leonardo da Vinci works at knocking out half-a-dozen Mona Lisas.

So we’re offered here not just the return of David Tennant‘s über-popular Tenth Doctor, but also off the back of directly preceding episode The Name Of The Doctor‘s and ‘minisode’ foretaster The Night Of The Doctor‘s (see video clip below) introduction of a brand new, ‘retconned’ Doc, namely John Hurt’s War Doctor, an episode whose plot revolves around this shadowy character and his decision to end the Time War between his own peeps the Time Lords and those dastardly Daleks. And, lest we forget, that Time War has until now been a(n unseen) narrative addition that’s played a pivotal role in the make-up of the ‘NuWho’ Docs.

Smartly and artfully, though, Moffat’s fine scripting meanders about for much of its running time before it inevitably reaches this defining moment in the Hurt Doc’s incarnation at the story’s climax, taking in a couple of sub-plots that nicely weave Smith and Tennant’s Docs into the mix – the result of which, in true Moffat-style at its best, has the viewer twisting and turning through his familiar wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey storytelling (although, in a slightly more audience-friendly manner than in some of his efforts perhaps; the bends are less hairpin than in, say, 2010’s The Pandorica Opens/ The Big Bang or 2011’s Day Of The Moon).

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Of these two sub-plots, Tennant’s is the simpler and more playful, seeing him defend England’s Queen Elizabeth I (Gavin And Stacey‘s Joanna Page) from beastly Zygons (a top Who monster not seen in 40 years). Smith’s asks the viewer to work harder, his Doc and current companion (Jenna Coleman’s Clara Oswald; growing into a stronger co-star with each episode and here, fittingly, employed as a teacher at Coal Hill School) aiding/ locking horns with the modern-day UNIT – run by The Brig‘s daughter Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) – following an unprecedented action-carrying-on-during-the-opening-titles sequence in which Smith spectacularly hangs off the bottom of the TARDIS as it arrives in Trafalgar Square. Indeed, both sub-plots merge when the Docs discover their foe is mutual and their shared solution is, don’t doubt it, rather marvellously smart.

Smith, as he has been throughout his four-year tenure, is outstanding here, by turns wise and knowingly wistful in the face of his earlier versions and eccentrically youthful (in very timey-wimey contrast to, again, his earlier versions). If anything, Tennant seems to tone down the energy and ebullience of his incarnation on this occasion, yet the humility, vulnerability and even regret of his version (his was always the most ‘human’ of all the Docs) is there with bells on. There’s also arguably an in-joke at his expense, given his snogging – and more – of Good Queen Bess (his was always the most ‘ladies’ man’ of all the Docs). However, as any multi-Doctor story worth its salt should, the The Day Of The Doctor really catches fire in the character and dramatic stakes when all three Docs share the screen.

Their, as mentioned, crossover into The War Doctor’s time-stream (in the depths of the Time War, but antithetically caged inside an idyllic, rickety old barn, sun streaming in through its slats) is powerful and satisfying stuff, indeed – as always, like Doctor Who at its best, it gives British TV drama a very good name. Plus, it almost goes without saying that Hurt is outstanding. Simply, seemingly effortlessly outstanding. Moreover, the much heralded return to Who of Billie Piper as Tennant-era companion Rose Tyler turns out not to be what you might expect, but actually – given how well she plays it – something much better than it may have been. Rest assured, her inclusion here is far from stunt-casting.

And as for that reappearance of yet another Doctor of old come the end? Well, technically (as Moffat has smugly boasted since broadcast) all the Docs appear in this episode, including even the next one, but there’s undoubtedly a very special cameo to savour. Admittedly, it does lift one out of the drama a little (it’s as broad a nudge and a wink to fans as they come in this story, certainly more so than any other on offer), but if any ‘Whovian’ struggles to savour it then surely they should hand in their replica sonic screwdriver.

All told then, The Day Of The Doctor delivers just what it should – and very much more. A fitting 50th-anniversary special that lovingly gives us a trio of Time Lords; a fascinating, finely CGI-ed glimpse of the hell that’s the heart of the Time War; the return of a fine monster and a fine companion; delightful asides to advanced Who fans (Tenth Doc: ‘Oh, you’ve redecorated… I don’t like it’) and more than one emotional wallop amidst the celebration. Plus, the end coda that, yes, does send the Doc off in an entirely new direction brings a heartwarming glow that should last until the (promised) heartbreak of Smith’s departure in Christmas’s The Time Of The Doctor when Peter Capaldi takes over the controls of the time console. In a nutshell, this special is the televisual equivalent of being offered a jellybaby by Tom Baker‘s Fourth Doctor – do take it; it’s sweet but heady, frothy but filling and boasts an irresistible aftertaste.

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(An Adventure In Space And Time) Directed by: Terry McDonough; Starring: David Bradley, Jessica Raine, Brian Cox, Sacha Dhawan and Lesley Manville; Written by: Mark Gatiss; UK, 83 minutes, Colour/ Black-and-white

Always destined to be a starter to the Beeb’s golden anniversary Who celebrations that would culminate in the sumptuous prime-time Saturday night dinner that is The Day Of The Doctor, Mark Gatiss’ trip back through the time-tunnel to look behind the scenes at how it all began in An Adventure In Space And Time has turned out to be a delightful, delicious offering itself.

Telling the tale of the power-games, head-knocking and elbow-twisting that went into creating and then realising Doctor Who, this drama isn’t a truth-all exposé, though. Fittingly (if unsurprisingly given its writer’s a huge Who fan and ‘NuWho’ insider-and-a-half), it’s a love-letter to the show, conjuring up an atmosphere of on-set wonder and awe (not least in its halcyon-like lighting and filming of the eerily but brilliantly spot-on original TARDIS set), instead of a bird’s-eye view of backstage tantrums and smoke-filled office arguments.

No doubt the latter played an important – and necessary – role in the genesis of Who, but Adventure is not the drama in which you’ll find them. No, here you’ll discover a triumph-against-the-odds story that then slips into a tale of a tragic fall. Collaborative effort, magic, nostalgia and melancholia are the order of the day here – and rightly so; after all, this ain’t All The President’s Men (1975), it’s Bill and Verity’s excellent adventure.

Indeed, if there is such a thing as a narrative curve-ball in Adventure then it’s the fact that very first Who producer Verity Lambert is its protagonist not just as much as, but arguably more so than very first Doc thesp William Hartnell. For it makes clear right from the off that, given the job – in something of a groundbreaking move as a young woman working in TV – by eccentric BBC Drama boss Sydney Newman (a nicely charismatic Brian Cox), Lambert was thrown in at the deep end. Green yet full of confidence, nay, even arrogance, she was tasked with putting together a Saturday early-evening kids’ show with alternating space and historical plots in order to maintain the Beebs’ audience between Grandstand (1958-2007) and Juke Box Jury (1959-67). Mission impossible? Given a lack of support from practically everyone around her (owing both to male prejudice and the general dismissal of a children’s fantasy show, as well as Newman’s insistence he couldn’t hold his protegé’s hand through it), Lambert’s fate was inexplicably linked with Doctor Who‘s; it would either sink or swim – and so would she.

Jessica Raine (the lovely lead of that other modern BBC drama jewel Call The Midwife and co-star in this year’s ‘NuWhoer’ Hide) is perfect casting as Lambert. Less delicate certainly than in her Sunday-night-friendly Midwife persona (or actually likewise in Hide), her Lambert is full of smarts, spunk and ambition; an evenly spoken proto-feminist only too willing to take on the BBC old guard by making her ‘silly little sci-fi show’ a success and carving out a career just as big as Newman’s. She finds an ally in the shape of the nearly equally as inexperienced director of Who‘s first serial Warris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan) and, before combining to unwittingly cock up the original recording of An Unearthly Child‘s (1963) first episode, they pull together to cast its main actor, one William Hartnell.

If Raine’s Lambert has the most screen-time, then no question David Bradley’s Hartnell is Adventure‘s heartbeat. Written and played as an ageing, irascible seen-it-all of stage and small-screen (who dreams of quality work over ‘variety’), Hartnell is hardly painted as a saint by Gatiss’s script and Bradley’s performance; his sharpness, vanity and temperamental ‘luvvie’-esque nature on-set aren’t glossed over. Yet, he’s most definitely presented as a human being. He has less likable qualities for sure, but realistically they’re not overstated, while his delight in finally becoming a household name and a hero for kids the nation over (something Tom Baker and Jon Pertwee clearly also loved) is given space to shine – in particular, in a wonderful park scene where he, in front of his wife (Lesley Manville), leads a class of schoolchildren in an impromptu game of ‘Hunt then hide from the Dalek’.

Where Gatiss, director Terry McDonough and Bradley really earn their corn, though, is in presenting his slide into ill health (arteriosclerosis), which caused him to forget lines and lose his way mid-scene. Adventure makes it particularly difficult not to feel for a seasoned actor denying and finally facing the fact he has to walk away from the role that’s made him in the show he owns (especially after Lambert has left for the sake of her career, breaking up early Who‘s tight, highly successful clubby team, for whom at first it may have felt like it’d go on forever). Adding to the tragedy is the irony that it was the show’s exhausting schedule that no doubt brought on and exacerbated its star’s illness.

Hartnell must move on from the show that’s moving on around him them – nobody but him seems to know how to switch on the TARDIS’s moving console; how will they cope? But cope they will and this, therefore, isn’t the end but a rebirth; this show that’s far exceeded anyone’s expectations will go on and on… and on and on because the adoration of its audience demands it (an unexpected if arty, but moving cameo from someone very familiar makes the point beautifully). But it is the end for Hartnell, of course. He must leave the stage for another, younger, healthier actor to take his place (Patrick Troughton). Nothing lasts forever on the show that may last forever. Sad as that is, An Adventure In Space And Time ultimately then is a story of regeneration and continuation. Put simply, it’s the story of Doctor Who.

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The Day Of The Doctor will be available to buy on DVD in Australia from December 4 and in North America from December 10 and, along with An Adventure In Space And Time, in the UK and Northern Ireland from tomorrow

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