It was remarkable. Is that enough?
No, seriously, it was really very good. I love Doctor Who, so I’m obviously going to be a little bit biased. Generally when I try to read any critical thought about Who on the internet, there seems to be that base low-pitched whine of entitled fans, so widespread and enthusiastic praise appears rare. I know this is an echo chamber and not the real world. However, I’m going to plant my flag right now in the “look, it’s a children’s programme, it just happens to be the best children’s programme ever made, and even if it wasn’t, why would that make it any less of a work of art, oh by the way, Star Wars is a children’s film and The Hobbit is a children’s book and they’re both great, shut up” camp. I love the timey-wimey stuff, I love the optimism, I love the inherent silliness and camp. I love Batman ‘66. And I love The Day of the Doctor.
Generally, large-scale Doctor Who specials since the 2005 reboot have tended towards hand-wavey or vague resolutions of cataclysmic problems (think Last of the Time Lords or to a lesser extent The Big Bang). Day had none of that. It was a largely self-contained story, with a relatively linear plot, despite the time-jumping narrative. Sure, it required you to understand that people (and, indeed, planets) could be kept in suspended animation inside a 3D painting, but apart from that, it was straightforward.
It was a brilliant and beautiful meditation on who the Doctor is. What does it take to be the Doctor? It showed him in all his guises (literally, as it turned out). He was the giddy man-child, the playful jester, the dark, brooding destroyed of worlds; a hero, a warrior, and a doctor. It all made sense, and it was a joy to behold.
The plot was intriguing and exciting. The over-arching narrative - dealing with the Doctor’s regrets over sacrificing Gallifrey to prevent the end of the universe - tied in prettily to the sub-plot of the Zygons trying to take over Earth. Nothing was accidental: plot-centric sci-fi doodahs such as stasis-paintings and mind-wiping devices were casually explained beforehand. The Moment, a sentient WMD with a conscience, was a masterstroke in science-fantasy storytelling, and its use of Rose Tyler as an avatar tied it succinctly into current Who lore.
But the best thing was John Hurt.
Really, having the central protagonist for a 50th anniversary special be a version of the Doctor that didn’t exist until a few months ago is a ballsy move, but one that played off perfectly. We got to see the current, popular incarnations (Tennant and Smith) through Hurt’s older, jaded eyes; his pithy criticisms reflected that base undercurrent of fanboy jeering that the show’s had to endure since its reboot (“with your sandshoes and dicky bow”). Hurt’s War Doctor punctured the criticism, turning it on its head, revealing the current Doctor’s youthfulness and silliness to be a subconscious rejection of the crimes committed by their older-looking predecessor. But he wasn’t just a brooder, wasn’t just a grim warrior; Hurt’s performance, one of the best ever seen in Who (and surely a candidate come next awards season) captured perfectly all the nuance of fifty years’ worth of stories. He was playful, and joyous, and optimistic, and compassionate; therefore, his decision to do the unthinkable was crushing, destroying. He was funny, he was tragic. He was magnificent.
And so it was Hurt who elevated a very good, entertaining adventure into something more; something more meaningful, more profound, but also more satisfying as an anniversary episode. The creation of this lost, secret Ninth Doctor was inspired, and the casting of an actor of Hurt’s calibre was simply genius. This has been the best event since the Who reboot, and one of my favourite ever episodes, and I’ve not even mentioned the hilariously-played double-act between Smith and Tennant, or the amazing effects, or the bit with Peter Capaldi.
Thoughts on The Day of the Doctor? Yeah, I liked it. More please.