Surely just about everyone who wanted to see the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who has done so by now, but just in case you haven’t, I’ve put a cut link below. Without spoiling anything, this is a fun time full of callbacks to previous eras in the show, from cameos via recut footage to images, to casual remarks.
If you’ve never seen the classic-era aliens called Zygons before, and you think they’re a tad on the dippy side, you’re not alone. Even this show’s script makes fun of them just on how they look, including the word “rubbery,” so feel free to roll your eyes at them and concentrate on the other aspects of the story. I know I did, though that could be due to flashbacks from their previous invasion attempt which involved a hand-puppet that was supposed to be the Loch Ness Monster. Onward…
When the three principal Doctors come together for the first time, we get a line from John “The War Doctor” Hurt: “Why are you pointing your screwdrivers like that? They’re scientific instruments, not water pistols!” Finally someone calls the Doctor, or perhaps, the writers, on using the Sonic Screwdriver as a pointy-wointy-solution-through-confusion device. However, three of them are used in concert later on to propel a Dalek through a time-painting’s event horizon, so I guess old habits die hard. Hurt’s Doctor gets to play the role that Q often did on Star Trek: The Next Generation, poking fun and lampshading the foibles of the main characters that we’re familiar with. He disdains the use of the phrase “timey-wimey” and asks Smith’s Doctor if it’s possible for him to talk without waving his hands about, among other things.
The main thrust of this episode is the oft-referenced Time War between the Time Lords and the Daleks. Up until now, we’ve been told that the Doctor played a key role in that war, destroying both Gallifrey and the Daleks in the process. It turns out it came down to the use of a Omega-category weapon known as “The Moment.” It’s a time-based macguffin of ultimate destruction, but it has a sentient operating system that morally judges the person who wants to use it. In this case, the OS takes the form of Rose Tyler, the 2005 Doctor’s first companion. She also allows the many paradoxes and violations of (semi-)established canon (like how many times the Doctor can visit a given part of the past, cross his timeline, alter fixed points in history, etc.), which is necessary for the story to proceed.
Meanwhile, the Zygons are invading Earth, slowly. They’re using Gallifreyan art to do so, where points in time are portrayed as 3D oil paintings. The Zygons came to Earth in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, encoded themselves into these time-paintings, then waited until our present day to emerge and invade. The paintings are suspicious, of course, so they’re kept in UNIT’s “Undergallery,” a place established by Queen Elizabeth to store art “too dangerous for public consumption.” I assume this is meant in the same way that the SCP Foundation stores some items classified as “cognitohazards.”
The impending Zygon invasion involves them taking hold of UNIT’s own stash of forbidden and dangerous artifacts/weapons, which will make their takeover unstoppable. This gives us a kind of parallel setup where the daughter of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart is in charge of UNIT and has ordered the London UNIT base to self-destruct via a nuclear bomb so as to thwart the Zygons’ plans. If that sounds similar to the Doctor’s dilemma regarding Gallifrey, you’ve correctly spotted the anvil in this story.
To make a long story short, this results in the Doctor(s) eventually deciding to not use their doomsday weapon to stop the time war, but instead to put Gallifrey in a kind of pocket dimension using thirteen TARDISes (piloted by every other Doctor, including the next one), resulting in the Daleks planetary bombardment turning into a kind of circular firing squad. The Daleks are blown up as usual, and the three Doctors say their farewells, and we get a tribute to the Doctor’s legacy as well as potential groundwork being laid for where the show will go next: To Gallifrey. Maybe. All in all, it’s a rollicking good time full of loads of in-jokes, quotable moments, and dramatic beats that should leave most fans satisfied and ready for the saga to continue.
That said, I found the ending coda a bit confusing. It’s dramatically satisfying, of course, but it’s at the expense of continuity, which is usually the case anyway. They’ve changed their own timeline, so as they leave the Black Gallery, the Doctor(s) will forget that this whole thing ever happened. Basically, as I understand it, Doctors Eccleston, Tennant and Smith don’t exactly exist anymore, at least, not as we saw them… I think. Because the timeline has altered dramatically. Gallifrey may have not been destroyed by the Doctor, but it existed/exists in another dimension now. Which means… does the Lord President as played by Timothy Dalton not exist? Did he never actually “happen?” Eccleston’s Doctor is notably absent, even in what “Bad Wolf” Rose tells Doctor John Hurt about the effect his decision regarding the Time War will have on his future selves:
This also doesn’t address the thirteen-life limit that the show set on Time Lords so long ago. All thirteen incarnations make an appearance to shunt Gallifrey into whatever universe or macguffin-hole it now exists in, so either only thirteen Doctors were needed to pull it off or we have yet to see how the Doctor gets more lives. Some say River Song gave him more regenerations when she used hers up to save him previously, and others point to the Doctor saying he drank from the Fountain of Youth or somesuch event. We all know he’s going to regenerate forever (as far as TV defines “forever”), the question just remains as to how he’s going to do it. If Steven Moffat has any say in it, I’m sure it’ll involve a detail from a previous episode more than 40 years ago along with ignoring or overruling lore set down in previous shows.
Then there’s who the curator of the Undergallery actually is, and someone still needs to work out where the Valeyard figures into all of this.