Now that the 23rd of November is past, it's time for a spoilery recapitulation of my impressions of all the specials. I want to look at not only The Day of the Doctor itself, but also its two short prequels (I hate that word), An Adventure in Time and Space, the Big Finish audio play The Light at the End and the (kind of) spoof The 5(ish) Doctors Reunion. That is a lot to look at (and to write about) so I'll take two posts at least to go through everything.
In this post, I'd like to tackle The Day of the Doctor and the two prequels first. That way, if you don't want to read about all the other stuff, you can just ignore the other entries.
Spoilers beyond this point.
I am not going to talk about the thirty-second promotions for the Anniversary celebrations, most of who features Strax, because I did not see them all and those I saw were inconsequential and, frankly, unnecessary.
Those of you who follow me on Twitter remember that The Night of the Doctor left me in quite a state. I was reduced to onomatopoeias for a couple of hours. I do believe I watched it about ten times on that day. First of all, McGann. McGann! Bringing back the 8th Doctor during the heart of the Time War, in the last moments before he chooses to get involved in the conflict, was brilliant of Moffat. Naming all his Big Finish companions, therefore making them canon, was nothing short of wonderful. In many ways, it was all fan service, but what appreciated fan service. It was making McGann a proper Doctor finally, not just the unfortunate victim of the godawful Fox tv movie that so many of us are trying to remember differently than the swill that it was. On top of that, The Night of the Doctor is very well constructed. For a film coming just short of seven minutes, it packs a punch. It brings together Classic Who and Nu Who beautifully, linking The Brain of Morbius, a couple of Big Finish adventures and the Time War right quick. Having Eight come back to Karn (I don't remember the title of the Big Finish where Eight was there), choose to become something else than the Doctor, allows the story to flow, ties up loose ends and introduces the War Doctor. This way, even if Eccleston is not there to be the 9th Doctor, we get a satisfactory explanation of his transition from Eight. Plus, McGann!
The Last Day, in opposition, is much less grandiose and less important for the Doctor himself, though it is very important for the Time Lords. In those short four-some minutes, we see the horrific lengths to which the Time Lords went to fight the Daleks, as well as their sheer arrogance, their sense of superiority. We see the first minutes of the Fall of Arcadia, Gallifrey's second city. This introduces the sets for the planet that well be seen in The Day of the Doctor, as well as important details about this day necessary to understanding a key element of the special.
And what a special! Let's be frank, most Doctor Who Christmas specials and all of the anniversary specials so far have been at best meh (A Christmas Carol, the Three Doctors) or at worst horrifically bad (the 25th anniversary special crossover with Eastenders). Among the specials, I only have love the The Next Doctor, which I find simple but totally delightful (the Red Nose Day's Doctor parody with Rowan Atkinson The Curse of the Final Death was funny, but does it count as a special?). I don't know that I love The Day of the Doctor, but I was bowled over by it. As I have read a lot online: "So many feels!"
The story is again one mostly based on time travel as a story vector rather than a conceit, which is typical of Moffat's doctor. It plays with what time travel does to time in order to drive the story and without time travel, much would simply not be resolved. The Three Doctors present at the heart of the narrative, the War Doctor (an extraordinary John Hurt -- is he ever bad?), Ten and Eleven, find solutions to the issues at hand because they have time-based technologies. The Moment, the weapon used by the Doctor to burn Gallifrey and the Daleks is too a time-based technology, so advanced, it's developed a conscience, which takes the form of the Bad Wolf, i.e. Rose Tyler. Still a little bit of fan service there, but clever enough not to be tacky. it is clear from the script and dialogues that the War Doctor was supposed to be Nine and that Eccleston's refusal to participate (his rightful choice) forced Moffat to work even more on the script to make everything work. How do you have thirteen doctors and yet sill have Matt Smith's Doctor be Eleven and Capaldi's still Twelve? It's a little stretch of logic, but he makes it work. The War Doctor is still Eight, but not quite, and becomes Nine at the very end of the special.
Most importantly, how do you reconcile the fact that the Doctor burned Gallifrey to end the war, that he was irreparably hurt by his actions, but that the planet and the war were time locked in The End of Time and accessible enough to emerge in Earth's sky? If the Time Lords has been destroyed, how could they have been there to haunt the Master for so long and emerge from the broken time lock? And how come Nine, no matter how hurt, does not chose to die, but rather live with the pain of having destroyed his people.
Because he did not destroy them. He time locked them and does not remember that what he did. So their reappearance in The End of Time, however illogical, makes sense to him, because he believes this illogical reality. That is a smart way to reconcile everything, even this blatant paradox in the canon.
Another quite interesting thing about the special is how it treats the three Doctors present in most of the story. The War Doctor is war scarred, but not yet plagued by the actions he thinks he will have to take. Ten is still dealing with the pain, defined by his regret of both the Time War and of having left Donna behind. On the other hand, Eleven is four hundred years older, he admits he readily, and has managed to move on, mostly by forgetting, but still. It makes their interaction even more poignant than the three actors already make it by their on-screen chemistry.
There are lots of fine touches, some fan service, sprinkled in there as well. That all thirteen doctors (One to Twelve, plus the War Doctor) come to Gallifrey to time-lock it is a nice touch; we see them all, though from stock film, except for Capaldi's eyes. That a mysterious British Museum custodian, who may or may not be Four, appears at the end would be unbelievably tacky were it not for the fact that Tom Baker chews the screen like there is no tomorrow. Anyone else would not have been able to carry this otherwise ridiculous scene.
Everything else is fine and cute. Opening the special with the original opening credits was brilliant. I still don't like Clara, but that she's become a teacher in the school built beside the junk yard from The Unearthly Child was great. Plus, she saves the day, which is what companions do and should continue to do. The B plot with the Zygons is fine, though we never do find out how they negotiate a final peace in the end. It's all clever but not profound. This allows the War Doctor's A plot to carry relatively without distraction.
See Part Two, An Adventure in Time and Space.
See Part Three, The 5(ish) Doctors Reboot and The Light at the End.