The term “fan service” gets thrown around a lot in discussions of genre television and film. But few fans in the history of fandom have been quite so comprehensively serviced as fans of the BBC science fiction series Doctor Who have been over the past month, leading up to Saturday’s 50th anniversary of the Doctor’s first adventure. (I should know; I’m one of the fans being serviced.) The lead up to this landmark has been laden with such fan-stroking events as a new audio adventure featuring all five surviving pre-reboot Doctors, a new webisode starring the little seen Eighth Doctor Paul McGann (in only his second appearance in the role in front of a camera), a behind-the-scenes story of the 1963 creation of Doctor Who (replete with quite a number of fan-pleasing cameos), and capping off with today’s epic anniversary episode, “The Day of the Doctor.”
But as serviced as we are, us Doctor Who fans are a tumultuous lot, equally prone to euphoria and rage, and ready to celebrate and nitpick at a moment’s notice. So how does a fanbase as enormous and temperamental as Doctor Who’s react to what is easily the most hyped episode in the show’s history, simulcast on television screens and 3D movie theaters in over 70 countries all over the world? (Needless to say, massive SPOILERS follow.)
Euphoria seems to be the most prevalent reaction. Showrunner Steven Moffat, frequently a divisive figure, seems to have won the majority of hearts on this one – if only because of the sheer volume of crowd-pleasing goodies the story served up. If you want the choice vitriol you need to join the storied Doctor Who fansite Gallifrey Base, where responses range from the merely caustic (“Moffat continues to disappoint…. Large chunks of it were pure padding”) to declarations of giving up on the show altogether (“That's me done I think. It was a crock of ****e.”)
“The Day of the Doctor” ends with the Doctor reversing one of the definitive actions of his time-traveling career: his destruction of his home planet of Gallifrey and his own race, the Time Lords, to end their universe-annihilating war against archenemies the Daleks. But you can’t just lob a game-changer like that at us Doctor Who fans without expecting us to immediately start looking for inconsistencies with past episodes. Will Brooker took the continuity concern to its natural conclusion when he tweeted, “Can't wait for Moffat to write Star Wars episode VIII and retcon it so Vader was never Luke's father.”
But the biggest news was the stunning (for those of us not spoiled by the man himself a few days ago) return appearance by beloved Fourth Doctor Tom Baker, which pushed fan service to its natural, er, completion: fangasm. “And Tom Baker's part just completed my entire life.” “HOLY FUCK TOM BAKER FTW!! #DayoftheDoctor #awesomeness #mindblown” “Tom Baker is the only Doctor.” You get the idea. Some fans expressed confusion as to how a greatly aged Fourth Doctor could even be present conversing with Matt Smith’s Eleventh, but most fans waived a hard sci-fi explanation to enjoy a loving moment of tribute. Still, as Jack Hapgood points out on Den of Geek, “Somewhere out there, sitting in their bedroom, there is a person concocting this complicated, water-tight explanation of Tom Baker's presence.”
My take? I think “The Day of the Doctor” is a triumph, displaying the best use of Moffat’s techniques (other fans would call them “tricks”; like I said, contentious) in the service of a substantive inquiry into the nature of the Doctor, and how hard experience can bend a person toward good or evil. It was witty, heartfelt, forward-looking, and crazy-in-love with the universe of Doctor Who. But sure, of course I had some nitpicks. I’m a fan, aren’t I?
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