The Third Conditional in English is the impossible “what if?”. All the other conditional forms deal either with present truths or future ideas, plans and dreams of what may come. They are the ones that are still soft and malleable, ready to change on a dime as the present hurtles into the future. But the Third, it stands alone and stony in the past, a constant reminder of all the stupid decisions you’ve made, every ripple of the butterfly effect shaping the puzzlebox hotch-potch that you are today. The Third is impossible in that, no matter the reason or motivation, you can never change what has gone before; all you can do is dream of what you would have done instead. If + Past Perfect + would have + Past Participle is the very structure of regret.
But base emotions like regret are just for mere humans. Impossible is nothing for a Time Lord. What might he possibly have to regret?
For fifty years now, Doctor Who has been trying to answer that question, often using small sacrifices to measure up against the Greater Good in order to show that regret can figure even when time itself can be traversed. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, The Day Of The Doctor is a story that attempts to delve into the titular character’s greatest secret, a bristling undercurrent of torment hinted across all his iterations. Does it succeed? For the most part, yes. As well as finally confronting the great regret hinted at for so long, The Day Of The Doctor is a gleeful appreciation of the character’s long history. In fact, in wheeling out some very special fan service, it could even have shot itself in the foot with a glimpse into its own wonderfully lunatic past.
The story is simple, even in Who terms; something is wrong in The Tower of London (of course) and The Doctor has been summoned to sort it out. This, as it turns out, is a background mechanism to bring Doctors Matt Smith, David Tennant and new (old) face John Hurt together to beat around the moral ramifications of acting for the Greater Good. At the heart of Doctor Who is his solitude; not just the fact that he is the last remaining Time Lord, but that he was in fact instrumental in bringing that about. What if it could be altered? The flashpoint moment of home planet Gallifrey’s destruction in order to wipe out the invading Dalek army has previously been referred to in Who lore as a fixed point in time, writing magic ensuring that such a central part of the fiction should remain untouched. John Hurt’s War Doctor emerged at the end of the last series as a bastard regeneration, the version of The Doctor that dared to pull the trigger using a stolen super weapon called The Moment. The weapon’s operating system became sentient, we’re told, and it’s this character (which takes on an extremely familiar face) that allows the collected Doctors to finally leap around the forbidden fixed points.
From the outset, it’s clear that this is most definitely for the fans. The original black and white opening credits certainly send tingles of memory down the spine and the references don’t stop until the end. In fact, this would be a terrible place for a new viewer to start as it assumes a large level of prior knowledge, but if you know your Who, it’s something of a tangible pleasure. Even the appearance of a certain scarf will make you a little giddy. The whole production has this feeling of childlike wonder throughout, helped in no small part by a very obvious increase in budget. The sequences featuring the ground destruction during the final days of the Time War is less cheap TV sci-fi and more Terminator 2; gritty and affecting, it’s enough to make you hope for a whole series of battle-worn Gallifreyans desperately fighting against smoke-framed Daleks. The acting and writing is also up to par, with Steven Moffat’s script equaling many of the quality moments from his previous Who episodes Blink and The Empty Child. Smith revels in the awkwardness of his Doctor, Tennent successfully rediscovers his cocky charm, and Hurt shows unexpected sadness coming from a character that could have so easily been all about anger and pain.
However, if there’s a problem with The Day Of The Doctor, it definitely lies within the series’ own legacy. Younger fans might consider Doctor Who to have began with Christopher Eccleston’s reboot, when the character was dragged back from obscurity (and a terrible BBC America TV movie). Older fans, of course, have a very different view of Who. For us – and I’m 36, so this is hardly ancient history – The Doctor was The Crazy Old Man In Space who came up against various rubber monsters in a variety of cardboard sets that were often peeked at behind the fingers of our hands. The openly-teased minuscule budget didn’t matter, though, as it was the conviction of the lead actor that always keep us coming back. These classic Doctors were a very different breed – mysterious, grumpy and sometimes shocking, they were quite unlike any other fictional characters. When the show was rebooted and rebranded in 2005 by Russell T Davies, there was a shift in The Doctor that only became more apparent with each subsequent regeneration. Once old and a little eccentric, he was now younger, more dynamic and personably charming. It was understandable, of course – the old series had been for the old science fiction nerds and their tiny terrified children, the new version needed that mid-to-late teen audience – but there was a feeling that it did lose something in translation.
It’s this missing element that finally returns in The Day Of the Doctor, and its presence is certainly felt. All of the previous Doctors – and one from the future – feature towards the end of the episode, their faces stark reminders of the show it used to be. However, it’s the prelude with Paul McGann and episode appearance by Tom Baker that really shows the balance is slightly off. The former is a tantilising taste of what a McGann series might have been, his gravitas and sneer matching the classic Doctor perfectly. The latter, though, is a revelation, and might actually be one of my favourite screen moments of the year. There’s a very good reason why Tom Baker is still the favourite Doctor of so many; so much pathos, so much craziness barely contained under that mess of hair. The hair may be whiter and shorter now, but his eyes as he explains the finer workings of curation to Matt Smith are the same mixture of rage and love and panic that always ensured you never forgot The Doctor was an alien. He still has so much presence. In bringing Baker out and giving him the legacy spotlight, Moffat only succeeded to drive home how different Doctor Who is now. There’s still bombast and tension and weirdness, but ultimately it feels like a relatively shallow reflection of its former self.
Maybe that will change with Peter Capaldi. His older Doctor is glimpsed for half a second towards the end of the episode, a single solid beam across two crazed eyes. Doctor Who has needed a total refresh for a while now, the last season feeling especially routine and tired, so this could be the moment where Who uses its new Crazy Old Man In Space to recapture that old feeling. Either way, the fan base is growing by the day and that can only be a good thing for such a long-running slice of original television science fiction. The Day Of The Doctor may still be a little thin, but it’s also a tightly-wound and reverent celebration of a man who dares to completely ignore the Third Conditional and invites us all along to share in his heady dreams.