There’s a moment, about halfway through the episode, where the Doctor observes something about a seemingly dead soldier. We don’t immediately see what, but it’s clear that it surprises the Doctor, and we watch him draw a conclusion and take on a new course of action. It’s an extremely small thing. But it’s tight, logical storytelling. And it’s followed up immediately by having the laser beams failing to affect the taxicab—a moment that’s subtly foregrounded specifically to get the audience to go “ooh, that looks a bit cheap actually” in amidst a scene that’s otherwise showing off that Disney+ money—become an actual plot point, a modern day “the man in a rubber suit is secretly a man in a rubber suit.” All of this in service of keeping the audience engaged and thinking through the premise as the episode navigates its showpiece reveal. It’s good, sharp writing, textbook both in its mastery of the basics and in how good an example it makes of what competence looks like.
Let’s leave it at that and move on to actually discussing the first new episode of Doctor Who in, what, six years?
It is, obviously, backward looking. I mean, of course it is. It’s the 60th Anniversary Special. It was going to be backward looking even before you factor in the return of Davies and company. This isn’t a criticism, and if you think it is then you need to unplug your brain from the hot takes competition that is Doctor Who discourse on social media—a phrase that’s frankly as dated as “DoctorDonna”—and remember how utterly ephemeral this two week bubble of neo-Tennant is and how very different a place Doctor Who fandom is going to be in just a month. The job description here is “remind people what they loved”—reawakening the pleasures of 2008. That’s clear from the direct-to-camera intro that all the advance reviews weirdly fixated on as if it’s particularly innovative. (It is, but the clever thing is juxtaposing those 4K shots of Tennant standing over a lushly colored space background and, subsequently, Donna on a laptop in a kitchen with the 480p flashback clips, subtly announcing progress even as they stoke up the fires of nostalgia.) The episode starts with thirty seconds of Rachel Talalay delightedly twirling the camera around David Tennant and then running him smack into a physical comedy bit with Catherine Tate. The hits keep coming: Rose, what x3, Donna missing a crashing spaceship, “your great great granddad,” and then cap it all off with a joke about David Tennant being old. (Added comedy—he was already thirty-five in 2006 when he first took the job.) If you had any love for the era in question—and the record plainly shows that I do—then you’re back in the saddle and loving it before he’s even gotten in the taxicab.
From here Davies plays it two ways at once. On the one hand he’s in deeply familiar territory on multiple levels. It’s not even that Davies does these giant comedy-action curtain raisers better than anyone.…