Monday, November 25, 2013

The Day of the Doctor (2013) directed by Nick Hurran

Watching Doctor Who in a cinema is blasphemy.  Television in the cinema rarely works well; especially not special effects driven science fiction.  What looks great from the corner of your living room can look very cheap and nasty splashed over a 30 foot wide screen.  But blasphemy though it may be, at least it being on in the cinema gives me the excuse to write about Doctor Who, one of the only good things about an increasingly tired medium.

One of the major reasons the show is so suited to television is that the basic premise is television.  Doctor Who is about a man with a magic box who takes normal people to strange places.  The TARDIS, therefore, is a symbolic television: a real-life box that's bigger on the inside than on the outside.  Much like a television it transports ust to a new exotic world each week, exposing us to new ideas, expanding our horizons.  Doctor Who is the ultimate evangelist for the transformational power of television, its position that time/space channel hopping makes you a more rounded person.

At the centre of all this a mercurial character that might have stepped off the pages of a H.G. Wells novel.  Given his shared DNA with Wells, it's appropriate that The Doctor comes wrapped in the trappings of the most recent British fairy kingdom; Victoriana.  On paper he's an ideal of British imperialism; the compassionate, educated white man dropping out of the sky to fix the problems of the natives.  Thankfully in practice the Doctor works as more of a collective dream of Britishness; respected but not feared; kind but powerful, funny, whimsical; stylishly retro, sometimes foolish but still respected.  In many respects he's the natural creation of a sixties Britain still coming to terms with its diminished place in postwar geopolitics: a man able to retreat into history yet also equipped with the knowhow to deal with very British worries: fascism (Daleks), communists (Cybermen), immigration (Silurians) etc. 

His closest modern cultural analogue is James Bond. Both share immortality, but where the Doctor is an example of what, deep down we think we might be, Bond is a brutally misogynistic wank fantasy. The crucial difference is that Bond is designed as an export - his films dispatched to cinemas around the world to demonstrate Britain's cultural virility. On the other hand the Doctor is historically a domestic phenomenon; a way for Britain to explore its own history, culture and psychology with a steaming mug of tea on cold Saturday nights.

So, to The Day of the Doctor, the centrepiece of the BBC's bombastic 50th Anniversary bonanza.  Traditionally, the programme concerns the transformative properties of the Doctor as he acts as a catalyst for change wherever he is this week.  With a 50 year history and future stretching off into infinity it's difficult to actually develop him as a character, and so he usually functions best within a narrative as the static point which other characters bounce off.  Not here: the Doctor himself is the subject of the story - the point of the episode to examine just what the weight of 50 years of story does to a character.

The story presents us with the ultimate moral conundrum.  To stop a war that threatens to destroy the universe the Doctor must decide to kill billions of children.  The tragic twist is that he's already made the decision and carried out the deed.  In Doctor Who chronology the character did this just before the 2005 revival and each Doctor since has been haunted by this psychological trauma.  This is a trait that's been pretty extensively mined for dramatic potential; the paradox of a doctor killing his patient.

As is traditional for Doctor Who anniversaries this is a multi-Doctor show - David Tennant and Matt Smith's Doctors bickering with each other and finding things in common.  Thrown into the mix is John Hurt's 'War Doctor', a hitherto unknown regeneration that pressed the button, wiping a planet of innocents off the map.  After all three are together the plot then becomes a series of 'Labours of Hercules' that in turn demonstrate the essential qualities and flaws of the character.

The first is when all three are trapped within a cell in Tower of London.  They want to disintegrate the door, but calculating how to so will take hundreds of years. Using some charming Bill and Ted logic they figure out a genius solution; but just as they're congratulating themselves on their cleverness, the door swings open - it was never locked in the first place.  The second is done to resolve the small matter of an Zygon invasion of Earth, which, hilariously and appropriately is relegated to the B-plot.  When faced with two sides heading towards mutual destruction for the sake of an ambiguous greater good, the Doctor tears down the distinctions between the two sides, forcing them to consider the consequences of what they're about to do. All this adds up to the moment where all three Doctors are stood in front of a big red genocide button.  It's to the show's dramatic credit the audience assumes that it's going to be pushed; that the 50th anniversary is going to climax with the Doctor killing 2.47 billion children.  

In retrospect of course he finds a way out of it, being put in an impossible trap and getting out of it by the skin of his teeth is kind of what he does.  It's how the Doctor saves the day that's interesting - the material he constructs his solution from is nothing less than the history (and a smidge of the future) of Doctor Who as a TV show.  Almost uniquely in television (and in most forms of media) this is a 50 year unbroken narrative - in a metafictional twist, Doctor Who is saved by Doctor Who.  What's also implied (and in any other situation this would seem a mite pompous) that both textually and extratextually the show's outlook, imagination and humanity saves children's lives.

All this would almost be sappy if it wasn't done with such sharp writing, humour and intelligence.  By the time Tom Baker shows up the episode has done more than enough to justify a bit of self-indulgence.  Baker plays both himself and the Doctor (a neat mirror of the way the final scene of An Adventure in Space and Time has Matt Smith doing the same thing).  It's notable that we leave these characters within the National Gallery, a science fiction TV programme weaving itself into the tapestry of hundreds of years of British culture - with 'a' Doctor as Curator.  In this epilogue the character becomes a way for us to know ourselves, a lodestone as primed with cultural importance to Britain as Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes or King Arthur.

It's a hell of a final bow at the end of a great special - Tom Baker informing us that actors, writers, directors and show runners will come and go, but there will always be a Doctor.

And quite right too.

Tags: , , , , , ,

0 Responses to “The Day of the Doctor (2013) directed by Nick Hurran”

Post a Comment

© All articles copyright LONDON CITY NIGHTS.
Designed by SpicyTricks, modified by LondonCityNights