A Novice Guide To The Day of the Doctor

Well, to start with let me apologize for the tardiness (no, I’m not going to make that joke) of the article.  I’d intended this to be about as long as my previous one about the mini-sode, but it just kept going as I wrote.  That combined with more hours at work and being utterly exhausted has caused this to take longer than I would have liked to post.  But, as they say, better late then never.

After much anticipation, speculation, and maybe just a bit of apprehension, the moment so many have been waiting for has finally come and gone: the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special finally aired on November 23rd, and for all intents and purposes I’d have to say that it seems to have been a colossal success.   Any event that can get a 50-year-old science fiction show into the Guinness Book of World Records can be deemed as a success.  But once again, even as I’ve been allowing the excitement of what I’ve seen slowly seep in, I’ve also been finding myself thinking about those of you who may have been confused by some aspects of the episode.  After all, we’re talking about 50 years here people.   That’s a lot of back story and continuity to sort out.  There’s bound to be parts of the show that many found amazing but left others scratching their heads.  This article is dedicated to you.  To those brave souls out there who decided to have their Who education begin with the anniversary special, to those whose knowledge starts with Christopher Eccleston and ends with Matt Smith and to all you brave souls forced to watch by your significant others and have absolutely no idea what the hell is going on, I give you a novice guide to The Day of the Doctor…and to Doctor Who in general.

First, let’s address  a few key factors in terms of the basics of what and who Doctor Who is for those coming in with little to no knowledge of the show:

Who is Doctor Who?

Well, first of all, Doctor Who is only the name of the show, not the character.  The title character has always been referred to as The Doctor.  The only exception to this that I’m aware of were two theatrical films made in 1965 and ’66 to cash in on the show’s popularity.  In both films, the Doctor (played by Hammer Films vet Peter Cushing) is credited and referred to as Dr. Who.  These films exist outside of canon, so as far as the television show is concerned, he is simply The Doctor.  An important thing to keep in mind, especially to understand aspects of the anniversary special, is that his actual name is not The Doctor.  It’s a title or moniker he chose for himself.  The Doctor does have a real name, but as of this point that name has yet to be revealed.

Oooookay…So, who is The Doctor?

The Doctor is a member of an alien race known as the Time Lords from the planet Gallifrey. The Time Lords have mastered the technology to travel anywhere in space and time, but with the self-imposed rule of non-interference.  Growing bored with life on Gallifrey, The Doctor along with his granddaughter Susan, stole a TARDIS from one of the repair bays and left Gallifrey in search of adventure.

Now you’re starting to talk gibberish…what the hell is a TARDIS?

The TARDIS is the Doctor’s ship that allows him to travel through time and space.  The word TARDIS is actually an acronym for Time And Relative Dimension In Space, which is really just a fancy way of saying it’s bigger on the inside then on the outside.

Bigger on the inside?  How’s that possible?

To use the Doctor’s own words, the TARDIS is dimensionally transcendental.  Put in more basic terms, the interior of the Tardis exists in a different dimension then the exterior.  This allows for an infinitely vast spaceship interior to fit snuggly into more compact dimensions of a police box.  Think of it as a cousin to Mary Poppins’ handbag.

Ah, you just reminded me…why is it shaped like a blue police box?

The TARDIS is fitted with a chameleon circuit which allows it to cloak itself in the form of anything on the planet it lands on so that it can blend in to the surroundings.  Unfortunately, the Doctor’s TARDIS was in the repair bay for (amongst other things) a faulty chameleon circuit.  Due to this malfunction, when the TARDIS landed in 1963 Britain, it got stuck in the shape of 1950’s London Police Box.

From what I’ve seen in the special, Matt Smith, David Tennant and John Hurt are all playing The Doctor.  How’s that possible?  They don’t even look-alike!

Which brings us to the topic of regeneration.  Probably the most unique and creative aspect of the show is the concept that Time Lords have the ability to regenerate their physical form when close to death.

This concept was first introduced at the conclusion of the 1966 serial The Tenth Planet.  Actor William Hartnell‘s declining health was forcing him to depart from a still popular show and the producers needed to find some way to replace him.  Rather then simply recasting with a similar looking actor and hoping nobody would notice (a full 3 years before the infamous Darrin situation on Bewitched) they would find a solution that ultimately assured the shows continued existence for decades.  The writers introduced the concept that a Time Lord has the ability,  either through technology or biochemistry (it’s never been clearly stated which) to regenerate every cell in their bodies when they are close to death.  The final episode of the Tenth Planet concludes with Hartnell making a comment about his body beginning to “wear a bit thin.”  He slumps to the floor of the TARDIS and a lap dissolve hidden by some bright lights transforms Hartnell into Patrick Troughton, the Second Doctor.

The most important aspect of regeneration is that it is a complete change on all levels.  When the process is over The Doctor can have a totally different appearance, be significantly older or younger, and have a completely new and distinct personality; all while still retaining the same memories and basic characteristics.

It’s a brilliant concept that has allowed the show to continue to this day, keeping it fresh and in its own way making the role “actor proof.”  In a sense, any actor can play the Doctor in any way they want…and they’d all be right.

Okay, so Tennant, Hurt and Smith are all the Doctor…but they’re all together at the same time.  That can’t be possible, can it?

Technically, no.  If one were adhering to the laws of time, the Doctor should never be allowed to cross his own time stream and meet any of his former or future incarnations.  To do so would create the potential for all kinds of cosmic paradoxes.  However, under special circumstances (such as, say, an upcoming anniversary) the Doctors can be pulled from their individual timestreams and placed together to work against a common foe.  This has already occurred several times on television (The Three Doctors, The Five Doctors, The Two Doctors, Time Crash, The Day of the Doctor), audio (The Sirens of Time, The Four Doctors, A Light at the End), and countless times in comics and novels.  In the case of Day of the Doctor we actually get the largest joint-venture of the Doctor shown on-screen when all incarnations (including future 12th Doctor Peter Capaldi) join forces to help save Gallifrey from the Daleks.

I’ve only got into Doctor Who recently during Matt Smith’s run.  The Day of the Doctor is actually the first time I’ve even seen David Tennant.  Can you fill me in on what I’ve missed?

Well, starting from the absolute beginning might take us a while.  However, I can give you a basic rundown of what’s been going on with the show since it’s return in 2005 that might at least make you feel caught up.

With the exception of a few hiccups towards the end of the 80’s, Doctor Who ran consistently on the BBC for over 20 years before finally being cancelled in 1989.  There was a failed attempt to revive the show in 1996 when the BBC, in conjunction with the FOX network in America, produced a TV Movie/Pilot starring Paul McGann as the 8th Doctor.  The movie did well in the BBC but received low ratings in the US and a new series was not pursued.

Finally in 2005, producer Russell T. Davies (Queer As Folk, Bob and Rose) managed to bring Doctor Who back to the airwaves with a new on-going series of adventures.  With sixteen years having passed since the initial cancellation and nine years since the TV Movie, a whole new generation of fans were given their first exposure to our favorite Time Lord via his 9th incarnation as played by Christopher Eccleston.  As had been the case in the classic series, the 9th Doctor was accompanied by a human companion, Rose Tyler, played by former British pop star Billie Piper.

Rather then just picking up where the previous series or the TV Movie had left off, the revival establish that a significant amount of time had passed since we’d last seen the Doctor on-screen.  In the interim, he had (reluctantly) participated in The Time War; an epic battle to the finish between the Time Lords and the Daleks.  Although we were given no glimpses of the war, the implications of it and what the Doctor had to go through would be felt throughout the series.  The most significant aspect was the eventual revelation that it was the Doctor who had ended the Time War by destroying both the Daleks and the Time Lords, destroying his home planet of Gallifrey in the process.   The Doctor was now left to wander the universe with no home to return to; the last of the Time Lords with a really bad case of survivor’s guilt.

Eccleston’s 9th Doctor would grace our screens for only one 13-episode series, culminating in a two-part finale (Bad Wolf/The Parting of Ways) where the Doctor is pitted against a fleet of 200 Dalek battle ships.  At the conclusion of The Parting of Ways, Rose stares into the Heart of the Tardis and absorbs the energy of the Time Vortex, turning her into an entity calling itself “Bad Wolf.”  Infused with the power of the Vortex, Rose/Bad Wolf destroys the entire Dalek fleet.  Unfortunately, the massive amount of power she has absorbed is rapidly killing her frail human form, so the Doctor draws the power into his own body. Being too much even for a Time Lord to process, the power is rapidly killing every cell in his body.  In order to cheat death yet again, the Doctor regenerates into his 10th incarnation, now played by actor David Tennant.

Wait…Rose Tyler…Bad Wolf…Billie Piper.  She was in the special wasn’t she?

She was.  We’ll get there.

Sorry…You were saying about David Tennant?

Tennant’s Doctor was younger and much lighter in nature than his predecessor.  While the 9th Doctor always seemed to carry with him a sense of melancholy and guilt over his actions in the Time War; the 10th Doctor seemed to be trying to put the events behind him and, as best he could, to make amends for past wrongs.   Much like Eccleston’s tendency to use the word “Fantastic” multiple times, the 10th Doctor could often be heard uttering his catchphrase,  “Allons-y” which means ‘Let’s go’ in French.

Tennant’s characterization and his length of time in the role would make him one of the most popular incarnations of the character to date.  Continually playing the role through four full series and 5 specials between 2006 and 2009, for much of the new fan base Tennant would become “their” Doctor.

People keep telling me he was in love with Rose.  Is that true?

Ehh…now we touch on a sore subject for a lot of fans.  The 10th Doctor would continue to travel with Rose until the end of the second series when she is trapped in an alternate dimension.  By the time the season had ended, a strong bond had formed between the two and Rose confesses her love to the Doctor at the end of the season finale Doomsday.  The Doctor, speaking to her across the dimensions via hologram, begins to return the sentiment before the fading power cuts him off.  Although he doesn’t actually say it, the implication that the Doctor had actually been in love with Rose became an issue for a lot of classic Who fans.  The Doctor of the old days had always been typically asexual and shown no interest in the pretty (and sometimes buxom) companions that traveled with him.

Is that at least the last time he fell in love with a companion?

As far as what’s been blatantly stated, yes.  But that hasn’t prevented any of his other female companions to fall in love with him.  In season three the Doctor travels with Martha Jones who also begins to express some attraction and affection for him.  The shadow of Rose Tyler, however, is a tough one to beat and Martha’s love for the Doctor would go unrequited.  In Season Four he would be accompanied by Donna Noble, a somewhat older and significantly more brash companion than what we’d seen on the new series up to that point.  Not only was there no attempted romance between the two, Donna even goes as far as to point out on more than one occasion her lack of desire to have anything more than platonic relationship with the Time Lord.

So, how does it all end for Number Ten?

David Tennant‘s tenure as the Doctor would come to an end with a two-part adventure titled (appropriately) The End of Time.  During the course of the two episodes he not only has to deal with a newly resurrected Master (John Simm) but also a newly freed Rassilon and the other members of the Gallifreyan High Council.  However, his demise wouldn’t come during any major battle with either foe, but in an ultimate moment of self-sacrifice when his body is bombarded with radiation while saving Wilf (Donna’s grandfather) from certain death.  The radiation is taking its toll but doing so slowly, allowing for what is probably the longest lead in to a regeneration in the show’s history.  Taking the little time that he has left, the Doctor travels across time and space to take one last goodbye look at all of his previous companions before finally succumbing to the regeneration.  As the energies begin to pour from his body, a tearful Doctor’s final words are, “I don’t want to go.”

That’s the first Part of our Novice Guide to Doctor Who and The Day of the Doctor

~Col. Graff