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Sunday, 1 December 2013

On-Screen Advent Adventure: Day One

Welcome to On-Screen's festive Advent Calendar for 2013, this year known as our Advent Adventure! Every day in the build-up to Christmas, we'll be bringing you major new reviews, previews and features, starting with a long awaited verdict on a long awaited television special...

For this seasoned fan of Doctor Who, what summarised the dramatic power of the programme's glorious 50th Anniversary Special was not the instantly satisfying and ever-strengthening chemistry of its three core Doctors, nor its dazzling cameos from Tom Baker and Peter Capaldi, nor even its superbly nostalgic final shot of the twelve actors who have carried the science-fiction drama's torch for half a century. It was in fact the opening titles, salvaged and minutely modified from their original 1963-1966 guise.

Once our resident executive producer and narrative helm for the night, Steven Moffat, displayed with no shortage of confidence the original Doctor Who title sequence so as to open his celebratory yet simultaneously revelatory adventure, fans could rest assured that service would be paid to them where due and then some. Sure enough, seventy-six minutes later, Coal Hill School, Zygons, a multicoloured scarf-donning UNIT scientist, the Time War, the Black Archive's plethora of sepia photographs and a time travelling fez had proved just the tip of an iceberg-turned-birthday cake, showcasing the rich depth of Who's grand accumulated mythology.

Equally, however, as the production team had maintained throughout their marketing campaign, The Day of the Doctor was in no sense restrained by the mythology which it strove to uphold and broaden in its rightly semi-isolated storyline. Moffat's election in particular to ultimately alter the pre-established events of the Time War, namely the notably uncharacteristic decision from the Doctor to commit a double dose of genocide, was an inspired move to say the least, his plot exposition explanation for Hurt's and Tennant's Doctors' inability to recall the episode's events effortlessly solving the potential tonal canonicity mishaps that could have become an issue on the forums later. Contrary to prior criticisms of plot holes plaguing his past season arcs, the series' incumbent head writer displayed a bold intent to leave no loose end untied come Day's credits, an incredibly satisfying approach which has paid off to a spectacular extent.

From the moment that John Hurt stepped onto the screen in The Name of the Doctor, the sheer awe and dramatic gravitas inspired by his mere presence in the Doctor's timestream was evident enough from the phenomenal resulting Twitter reaction. It's safe to say that Hurt doesn't sacrifice any of this presence in the name of his co-stars half a year later, his 'War Doctor' being represented as a chilling echo of his former and latter selves, while still reflecting the ceaseless fight to "find another way" (see Warriors of the Deep for a glimpse of just why!) that the Time Lord has waged against the odds throughout all his travels. Tennant hasn't changed or devolved his performance since The End of Time either, and even if Moffat has overemphasised the romantic and heroic traits of the character's tenth incarnation somewhat, the Broadchurch and Hamlet star takes his material and runs with it, carrying all of the bombastic passion that he exhibited in his own run.

With less than a month to go until his departure from the series, though, it's Matt Smith who seizes the opportunity to become the man of the hour with both hands (and hearts, incidentally). His Doctor holds the capacity to appear refreshingly youthful and eternally wizened thanks to Smith's exuberant performance, the interplay between Matt and Tom Baker alone exemplifying the former's masterful duality with truly moving results. Day may mark the eve of the fall of the Eleventh, but Smith's incarnation will doubtless be treasured long after his regeneration in The Time of the Doctor in twenty-four days' time. A lesser actress than Jenna Coleman might have crumbled under the pressure of working with such esteemed cohorts, and although Coleman's performance as Clara isn't the episode's highlight, this reviewer can't deny that having her on board is a pleasure nevertheless, especially due to the potential displayed in Clara's moving beyond her tedious Impossible Girl arc from Series Seven.

Forty years on from Lennie Mayne's work on The Three Doctors and Peter Moffat's taking the helm for The Five Doctors, that director Nick Hurran has been afforded a substantial television budget for his visual reproduction of Moffat's anniversary tale is abundantly clear. This reviewer witnessed Day in his local Picturehouse cinema, and suffice to say that the layered vistas of Gallifrey, the National Gallery's multi-dimensional paintings and the Doctor's flight above London were thrilling to behold on the big screen. Even reduced to the size of a BBC iPlayer window or a standard-definition television screen, however, Hurran's work is utterly breathtaking, to the extent that even the constrained, interior sequences shot in dungeons and abandoned desert shacks boast superior levels of eye candy-appeal to the majority of 2013's televisual offerings. The Girl Who Waited, The God Complex, Asylum of the Daleks and The Angels Take Manhattan were each visual treats, yet Day is the undisputed peak of Hurran's Who work to date.

The defining accolade of The Day of the Doctor to this reviewer is that to name each of the aspects which contribute to its glorious success would take twelve lifetimes at the very least. Even so, what can be expressed so as to describe the quality of this landmark programme should serve as a fitting introduction, repeat viewings of the episode itself offering the true means by which to discover its inert, eternal beauty. Day isn't completely bereft of narrative shortcomings- the Zygons could easily have been replaced with a more effective antagonist (if the piece even warranted such a construct), and Moffat needn't have devoted as much time to their metamorphosis deception sub plot- yet which great drama is? Doctor Who has matched and surpassed the near-boundless expectations of its viewership, but rarely has it done so to such exhilarating lengths as Steven Moffat has with The Day of the Doctor. An accomplished victory tour it may be, but Day is moreso a daring and captivating mission statement of the vast potential which the Doctor's travels still hold to astonish half a century on from their commencement.

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