It must have been a thrilling moment when Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat realised that the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who would fall on a Saturday. A propitious opportunity to celebrate the programme where it belongs: on a Saturday night, in the heart of family television. Their second thought must have been, but how the hell do you write a 50th anniversary special? It has to do so much: it has to celebrate its past, but still stand alone as a satisfying story; it has to pay tribute to previous doctors, but not take the shine off the current incumbent; it needs to be bigger and more epic than ever before, but since the 2005 reboot, Doctor Who has become at times preposterously epic and getting any grander would be, to put it mildly, a risk. In 1972 and 1983, there were shows that celebrated the past: The Three Doctors united Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee to fight Omega; the The Five Doctors brought Troughton, Pertwee, and Davison together with Richard Hurndall standing in for the now-deceased Hartnell and a few stray video clips of Baker to fight, um, The Master, Cybermen, Daleks, Yeti, a balletic silver robot, and President Borusa.
The Five Doctors showed exactly what the problems with these celebrations can be. In the desire to reflect the whole history of the programme, the story ends up being a jigsaw of Doctors, former companions (the Brigadier, Sarah-Jane Smith, Susan, Jamie, Zoe, Liz, Mike Yates...), and arcane bits of Time Lord history. The story, such as it is, is squeezed. Indeed, the story - in which various doctors and companions are plucked from their time streams to do battle in a 'Death Zone' - is as close to just saying 'we're just going to put these actors in a room and let them do what they want' as makes no odds. The story was entirely backward looking.
By comparison, this year's The Day of the Doctor is a triumph. It's a decent story, with only three Doctors (one of whom is basically new, but more of that later), two villains from the past (Daleks and Zygons), a little bit of Timelord history being rewritten, and a lovely lovely lovely cameo for Tom Baker, who turns up at the end, barking mad as ever, stealing the scene from Matt Smith. There are some rather good Moffatisms (aliens hiding in paintings, some paradoxes with time, and some pretty brilliant jokes) but he's also channelled some Russell T Daviesisms too (the Tardis landing in Trafalgar Square with the Doctor hanging off the edge, the sneaky appearance of Peter Capaldi, the saving of Gallifrey). Matt Smith and David Tennant play off each other very well and John Hurt is a magnificent Doctor, with all three bitchily scoring points off each other (Matt Smith's Doctor calling David Tennant's Doctor 'Dick Van Dyke" being a particular joy).
What struck me watching it, though, is that the story was pretty well hamstrung by the refusal of Chris Ecclestone to take part. It seems kind of obvious that the story was originally conceived with Ecclestone playing the John Hurt role. Think about it: Ecclestone's Doctor was the one haunted by the Time War and his part in it. The story is therefore just about Ecclestone meeting his two successors who collectively rewrite history to save Gallifrey and absolve the Doctor himself from his moral responsibility for the destruction not just of the Daleks but of his own people too. In a sense, it's the conclusion of a story arc set in motion eight years ago. But Christopher Ecclestone refused to take part which spoiled the plans. Instead, Moffat is forced to create an extra doctor, the so-called War Doctor, who did all the things that plainly we have hitherto been assuming Ecclestone's Doctor did. John Hurt, despite being a very different actor, has the same dour demeanour, the same contempt for the childishness of his successors, that would certainly have been Ecclestone's attitude in the story.
John Hurt is a bonus, of course. Certainly the most astonishing actor to play the role, he brought a level of gravitas to the story that even the deeply serious Ecclestone wouldn't have managed. But it's at a bit of a cost. Basically, it's rather messy: Steven Moffat has been rather scornful of the fans worried about whether this means all subsequent doctors are shunted up, Ecclestone moving from tenth to eleventh, Tennant from eleventh to twelfth, and so on, but he's wrong. Either John Hurt was the tenth doctor or he wasn't. There is a bit of internal Doctor Who mythology that says the Doctor can only have thirteen incarnations; now, this will be easy to revise (and, in fact, in The Five Doctors it seemed this could be extended by the Time Lords, if they wished), but it hasn't been revised yet, so Peter Capaldi, being the 13th Doctor (including Hurt) should be the last. Moffat's scorn for this as some kind of nerdish fanboy consideration is mistaken; it's about the internal consistency of the fictional world,l the pleasures of the show's mythology, and the nature of the viewer's engagement with different levels of narrative. In some ways, Moffat's disdain for the niceties of his decision remind me of the increasing tendency of his stories to be tied up by high-concept low-coherence technobabble rather than serious narrative resolution. This decision, I think, was forced on him by Ecclestone's intransigence, but it doesn't do to fudge it and then mock people for pointing out the fudge.
That said, it's a pretty good story. The Zygons are a bit superfluous and their story sort of evaporates, but there was so much rip-roaring narrative glee and the performances of all the principals were so good that it would be hard to hold the Doctor-chronology against Steven Moffat. He managed to square a circle and provide the programme with a wonderful celebration of its first fifty years.