Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special: Gallifrey Stands

Warning: spoilers galore.

“The last of the Time Lords.” That’s what we’ve always known The Doctor as: a man who was not only the last of his kind, but the cause of his home world’s destruction. It’s something every good Whovian knows: to save the rest of the universe, defeat the Daleks, and end the Time War, The Doctor sacrificed his own planet, Gallifrey.

One of the attributes that has defined the 21st century run of Doctor Who was the survivor’s guilt that permeated The Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Doctors.* For every exuberant “Allon-sy!”, “Fantastic!”, or “Geronimo!” that we saw, there was another moment at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. The Doctor may always have Companions, but he is, in a sense, the loneliest man in the universe. “The Day of the Doctor” took that core characteristic and flipped it on its head.

From a strictly emotional stance, that all sounds like sunshine and roses. Avert the destruction of billions? Absolutely. Where do I sign up? But from a storyteller’s perspective, it’s much less cut-and-dry. “Day” gave The Doctor a chance to change the act that arguably made him the man we’ve all grown to know and love. So much of the good that The Doctor has done has been a direct cause of his guilt for what he did to Gallifrey.

To say the least, it was a risky endeavor by showrunner Steven Moffat.

But, oh, how it paid off in spades. Very few episodes of new Who are wholly perfect, but “Day” came damn close. It’s difficult to think of a recent episode that was so purely moving. It was the perfect mix of action and emotion. Humor and pathos were equally balanced.

And as only befitting for an episode that marks fifty years of Doctor Who, there were enough sly winks and references to generations past to keep even the oldest of fans satisfied. Moffat is a relative newcomer to the Who-verse, and I was worried that too much emphasis would be placed on the newer series. Thankfully, the classic series played just as important of a part. Some of the references were glaring and obvious, like the inclusion of UNIT, the government agency that made its debut during The Second Doctor’s time. Others were more subtle, like one of UNIT’s employees wearing a scarf in the style of Four, or that the Headmaster of the school where Clara teaches was named Coburn, also the surname of the writer who penned the very first Doctor Who serial in 1963.

One of my favorites, though, was the moment when Clara stood in front of a bulletin board that tracked all of The Doctor’s Companions. Clara stopped in front of a picture of Susan (played by Carole Ann Ford). Susan was The First Doctor’s granddaughter and his very first Companion. The symmetry of the first and last Companions being put side-by-side was powerful.

Was “Day” the best Who episode we’ve ever seen? Probably not. There were still some flaws, the largest being the simple fact that there was so much going on. A brief summary of the plot turns convoluted and confusing, even by Doctor Who standards. “The War Doctor steals a weapon of mass destruction from Gallifrey and must decide whether or not to use it.”

Well, that sounds simple enough, until you add in “Two of his future selves confront him. Oh, and that WMD has a conscience, which takes the shape of one of The Doctor’s future Companions/loves. Also, there’s some stuff about aliens being held in stasis in 3D paintings, Queen Elizabeth I makes an appearance, and shape-shifting aliens covered with suckers are making a play for present-day Earth.” Whew.

Between Queen Elizabeth I wooing Ten, the Zygons working to take over present-day Earth, flashbacks to the Time War, and War’s moral struggle regarding Gallifrey’s fate, this episode had everything but the kitchen sink thrown in. The second half of the episode, during which all three Doctors finally concentrated on ending the Time War without sacrificing Gallifrey, felt much more streamlined.

Clara unfortunately still fails to give the audience a sense of who she really is, and so much of this episode basically shoved her to the side. She did get one moment to really shine, though, when she confessed to Eleven that even though she’d known that he’d destroyed his home planet, she’d never pictured him – her Doctor – doing it. Ultimately, it was her tears and shock that forced him into considering alternative options, but the fact that crying was her most valuable contribution to this episode was a little disappointing.


Equally a letdown was the reveal that Billie Piper wasn’t returning as Rose Tyler after all. Instead, she was simply the form the Gallifreyan WMD’s conscience chose to take. Piper was the “Bad Wolf” version of Rose, with her glowing golden eyes and cryptic intonations. In the end, this did work extremely well, especially since shades of Rose were still there, like in Piper’s coy smiles. From the perspective of a fan who still views Rose and Ten as the perfect pair, though, it was sad to see Piper and Tennant onscreen together without interacting at all.

Without a doubt, one of the best parts of the 50th anniversary special was watching the various incarnations of The Doctor interact with each other. It makes sense that Ten and Eleven would get along swimmingly, but it was the curmudgeonly, gruff War that really rounded out the trio. As hilarious as watching the three of them together (like their reactions to each of their respective TARDIS’ decorating schemes), the real payoff was the fact that War, despite being the oldest and most grizzled, was arguably the most immature and youngest of the three. He hadn’t yet decided to destroy Gallifrey and the rest of his people and at first couldn’t understand why Ten and Eleven regarded him with such dread. That unlikely juxtaposition added a whole new depth to the interplay between the three.

Eventually, our three heroes figured out that the alien technology that the Zygons were using to suspend themselves in centuries-long stasis in paintings (See what I mean about the episode being all over the map?) could also be used to shunt Gallifrey off into a pocket parallel universe, where it would remain frozen until The Doctor could find it.

This was where “The Day of the Doctor” really hit it out of the park. Above all, this episode was a celebration of fifty years of Doctor Who. It was only fitting that all twelve present generations showed up to save Gallifrey. It was obvious that recycled footage was used for the previous generations of The Doctor, but that didn’t cheapen the moment of seeing everyone from William Hartnell to Colin Baker to Paul McGann saving Gallifrey.

To be perfectly frank, this part of the episode caused me to throw up a “touchdown” gesture whilst whooping like a madwoman. That reaction was only strengthened when Peter Capaldi’s eyebrows – AKA The Twelfth Doctor – made a brief cameo experience. Bring on Twelve; this year’s Christmas special can’t come quickly enough.

The episode could’ve ended there, with all thirteen of The Doctors working together to save their home planet, and it would’ve been a roaring success. The plot for the upcoming series has been more or less set: the search for Gallifrey. The Doctor can finally go home.

Moffat and crew had one more trick up their sleeves, though, and it was a doozy. Enter Tom Baker, perhaps better known as The Fourth Doctor. Four is to the classic series as Ten is to new Who. Some fans may argue that other incarnations are better, but for the vast majority, Four and Ten are the gold standards to live up to. Baker returned to play the curator of the National Gallery. Or at least, that was his cover. It was hinted that the curator (or should that be The Curator?) was actually a future incarnation of The Doctor, chosen when he decided to retire and revisit a few of his previous faces, “but just the old favorites.” This little Easter Egg of a moment was the perfect capper for the anniversary episode. Watching Baker step back into the Who-verse was the most moving moment of the entire episode. The happiness shown by the curator to see The Doctor was as much Baker’s as it was his character’s, and it was obvious to the audience. (If the appearance of the twelve Doctors made me break out in excited fangirling, this final moment saw me curled up on my couch and sobbing into a pillow.)

All in all, this episode, despite its minor flaws, was everything that a fan could’ve hoped for in the anniversary special. It looked forward to the future and reflected back upon the past. It brought in old beloved faces and introduced a few new ones at the same time. And above all, it changed Doctor Who for the better: it replaced guilt with hope. Gallifrey still stands, just as Doctor Who does, even after fifty years.

*Note: I know that John Hurt’s generation is now technically The Ninth Doctor, but rather than mess with the titles we’ve used since 2005, I’m going to refer to Hurt’s Doctor as “The War Doctor” and continue referring to the generations of Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, and Matt Smith as Nine, Ten, and Eleven, respectively.


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Author: Alexandra Brueckner View all posts by
Geek extraordinaire, W&J alum, Muser, Whedonite, Whovian, ice cream connoisseur, bibliophile, ink enthusiast, amateur yogini, professional globetrotter. Living in Aomori, Japan. Blogs at and tweets from @halloitsalex.

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