A monumental event in the history of science-fiction is this 50th anniversary episode of the most successful British television series, Doctor Who. Debuting in 1963 starring William Hartnell as the first version of the titular character and later followed by uber-popular Tom Baker in the 1970’s and revamped in the 2000s by most notably, David Tennant in the role, the legacy of this show is undeniable. The BBC made a wonderful publicity campaign for the 50th anniversary by premiering this episode on the theatrical silver screen, including television screens, for a couple days throughout the world.
What makes this episode especially remarkable is that it features not one or two, but three previous actors to have played the doctor as well as a story about an unknown version of the Doctor (played by the unflappable John Hurt) and a slight teasing glimpse into the newest 13th incarnation (called the 12th Doctor) of the character to be played by unstoppable Peter Capaldi. Fans of this series will understand that the various actors who have played this alien time lord are explained through “regenerations” where the Doctor eventually ages or weakens to the point where he must create a new body in order to live. The man that reemerges may remember certain things, but will not be completely the same person who left. This is probably the most beautiful notion of the whole series. Like the believers of reincarnation can explain, one can leave their body and start again in another—and yet they may not be the same person ever again. The story of this epic event spans over several timelines and different locations. The main protagonist is actually not Matt Smith’s Doctor who was the present lead actor when this episode premiered, but rather John Hurt’s “War Doctor” who is the explanation for the series’ 14 year long gap between 1989 and 2003 when the show was technically cancelled. He is the Doctor who “existed” at the time.
The War Doctor has been fighting a war to save his home planet from the Daleks (the show’s most famous and truly most terrifying villains– a collection of formless aliens that survive within robotic shells after their own nuclear holocaust) and the war has continued for an unbelievable amount of years. In all of this, the War Doctor is losing his sense of Earth-like humanity. In order to stop the war, he is willing to kill billions in order to simply to stop the fighting, but is this really the answer? Distracting him from this final solution is Billie Piper’s notorious godlike character appearing to the War Doctor in strange visions near a strange chest that can end everything. Cut back to Earth 2013. Matt Smith’s Doctor begins investigating a three dimensional painting re-accounting the war with the Daleks where no one seems to remember how it was resolved. Smith soon finds himself falling into inexplicable time portals where he runs into the previous Doctor, David Tennant’s incarnation who is investigating a collection of camouflaged/shape-shifting aliens that are planning to invade Earth using paintings to hide themselves within. All of this eventually leads up to the War Doctor and his indecision as to how to stop the impending war. Despite the reincarnation themes of the show, the Doctor still retains a central goodness from all his personas in order to bring harmony back to space and time.
This ‘movie episode’ contains several goodies fans will love including the humorous appearance of a fez, multiple sonic screwdrivers (the Doctor’s Swiss Army knife of sorts) that barely has changed over millennia, characters from the parallel sci-fi espionage series Torchwood, flashbacks to previous Doctors at work in their configurations of the TARDIS (the Doctor’s vehicle that looks like a police telephone box or emergency phone booth as Americans would call it) INCLUDING an appearance from Paul McGann who appeared as the eighth Doctor (who is infamous for appearing only in one ill-fated episode in 1996 in an attempt to bring back the series) regenerating into John Hurt’s War Doctor. But of course, the most beautiful tribute is an appearance by Tom Baker who has never appeared in any Doctor Who episode since leaving the series… till now appearing as a mysterious museum curator. The cinematography and special visual effects have evolved so much since the plunger-held-by-a-puppeteer days of Hartnell’s original first season, but the gleeful original spirit of the show is as strong as ever. Doctor Who is here to stay and he has learned a lot through his many lives and taught many fans his lessons through adventure.