Writing for a pop culture institution like long-running British sci-fi series "Doctor Who," you're bound to feel a certain degree of pressure. Generations of children (of any age) have grown up on the series, it's now bigger than ever, with a growing audience in the U.S, and capable of making headlines at home and abroad. But to write a special episode to mark the 50th anniversary of the series (making it by far the longest running science fiction show in the world)—one that would be broadcast simultaneously around the globe (including special 3D screenings in movie theaters), one that would satisfy fans both new and old, casual and hardcore, and one that would justify the acres of hype that have led up to the screening last night—requires even more delicacy.
Well, round of applause for Steven Moffat. The writer, also responsible—at least in part—for "Coupling," "Sherlock" and "The Adventures of Tintin," wrote some of the most acclaimed episodes of the series after it was revived in 2005, but after he took over show-running duties in 2009, has faced more criticism: the show was too complicated (sometimes fair), too dark (no more than it ever had been), too uneven (correct, but no more than it ever had been), and too sexist (yes, in places). But with the 50th episode spectacular, "The Day Of The Doctor," he's knocked it out of the park with what might be the best episode of the Moffat regime to date, which served as a very fine reminder of why "Doctor Who" has lasted half a century, and why it's likely to go on until the end of time.
If you were looking for the show to pick up from the baffling, muddy conclusion of the last season, you were only somewhat in luck; the Doctor and Clara's escape from the time-stream, or whatever it was, isn't so much glossed over as ignored completely, with "The Day Of The Doctor" instead picking up an indeterminate amount of time later with a cunning homage to the initial images of the very first episode, "An Unearthly Child," leading into the reintroduction of companion Clara (Jenna Coleman), now working as a teacher (in the same Shoreditch school where the early companions worked).
Clara's summoned by the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith), who in turn has been summoned by UNIT's Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), the daughter of late ally the Brigadier, who has a mystery for him to solve on the orders of Queen Elizabeth (Joanna Page)—the Elizabethan one, rather than the current one. In the secret Under-Gallery of the National Gallery, the figures in a number of Time Lord paintings have disappeared.
Meanwhile, in the past, in the midst of the Time War, the War Doctor (John Hurt) has stolen a Time Lord weapon called The Moment, with the intention of wiping out both his own race and the Daleks, before their battles consume the entire universe—the act that has haunted the Doctor throughout the modern era of the show. But The Moment is a weapon with a conscience, a conscience that takes the form of one-time Doctor companion Rose Tyler (Billie Piper). The conscience sets up passages through time, so the War Doctor can see the men that he'll become after his decision—not just the Eleventh, but also the Tenth (David Tennant), who's off romancing Elizabeth I in an attempt to uncover an impostor from the shapeshifting Zygon race.
If you're not a fan at the very least of the modern era of the show, the last few paragraphs are unlikely to make much sense. Even if you are, it's still head-spinning stuff, in the way that Moffat's marked his run on the show so far. But the balance between confusion and narrative drive is better struck here than it has been for some time on the show: the intricate 'timey-wimey' plotting (to borrow the phrase that Hurt's character amusingly treats with such disdain) is more rigorous and satisfying that it's been a while, with more than one genuinely clever reversal or twist that's a reminder of the writer's finest hours, like "Blink" or "The Girl In The Fireplace."
And while the explanation of how we're getting the crossover is rather less rigorous, there's an immense amount of pleasure to be found in watching the interplay of the Doctors. Tennant and Smith have both given phenomenal performances over the years, redefining the character for generations, and it's a genuine delight to see them play off against each other, making fun of their tics and trademarks while sharing an obvious respect for each other. And though John Hurt is at something of a disadvantage, as a late addition to continuity introduced only in the closing moments of the previous episode, he was always the perfect choice: bringing serious self-loathing gravitas to the darkest incarnation of the character we've ever seen, but being careful not to suppress his wit and his twinkle. Smartly, the show realizes that its strengths come in putting the three of them in the same room at the same time as often as possible. That's not to undervalue the contribution of Coleman's Clara either: more successfully than any companion so far, she captures how important it is to the character to have input from a human, doing so with a warmth and strength that's likely to make her a fan favorite for years to come.
The adventure itself also strikes the right balance for an anniversary celebration between one-off hijinks, fan service in-jokes and a genuinely emotional component—Hurt brings real pain and real catharsis to the ending, matched neatly by his successors. We'd maybe argue that as a choice of villains, the Zygons (seen for the first time in the reboot) weren't the strongest: there's a goofiness to their lobster-like appearance that pales a little in comparison to the greatest villains, and they're not fleshed out particularly well (although the shape-shifting leads to a clever peace negotiation scene where humans and Zygons aren't sure which are which). And the fan service does occasionally risk becoming a bit much—one late cameo makes very little sense in the grand scheme of things—but again, it's forgivable, even necessary, for a commemorative episode like this one.
As the first Who adventure to see the inside of movie theaters—even if only for a limited run—since Peter Cushing's "Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D" in 1966, it also manages to feel genuinely cinematic: director Nick Hurran lends it real scope even on what has to be a semi-limited budget, and the 3D is legitimately impressive. Though the cutting sometimes leans on the choppy side (it feels perhaps like they've had to take some shortcuts to work it into an 80-minute running time), if anything, it gives a taste of how much fun a true "Doctor Who" movie could be.
There are nitpicks, of course. It feels particularly hampered by Christopher Eccleston's reluctance to return, which has to be worked around in an occasionally contrived manner. And every so often—the opening scenes as the Tardis flies over London in particular—it feels like it's going over old ground. But it's also hard to imagine an anniversary episode more satisfying than this one. [A-]