In my last post, I mentioned how I have not been impressed with Steven Moffat as a showrunner, and that perhaps his talents are best suited to doing single episodes. I’ll also add that taking direction from someone else and making their work better might also be in his talents, because in this special episode he takes a lot of inconsistencies from RTD’s run as head writer and explains them into one coherent whole (or at least as coherent as a time-travel show is likely to get, no matter who is writing it).

It also sets up a possible new direction for the show, a new goal that in a way is quite reminiscent of the Tom Baker years, which is interesting since there are two very strong Fourth Doctor references in this story. (The second, which everyone who has seen it will know what I mean, had me geeking out so very much.) Now, I say “possible” because I no longer take any promise from Steven Moffat as a promise; rule 1 is “Moffat lies.” However, if it becomes the season-spanning theme it should be, it will take the Doctor back to the core of being the Doctor, which would certainly be nice.

Despite having three Doctors in the story, we only have one companion: Clara. We’ve had a few other Doctor-crossovers, and in half of them we have the companions meeting each other as well as the different incarnations of the Doctor. In this case, we don’t even have the companion meeting the other Doctor(s), not quite, because Clara has technically already “met” them. (In a poorly-written payoff to a lot of setup, but we’ll ignore that for now.) She hasn’t really “met” John Hurt’s Doctor, but because she knows the Doctor so well she’s got a leg up on understanding that particular part of his life.

We also (kind of sort of) have a unique companion, though one played by a familiar face. Billie Piper is back, but she’s not playing the Tenth Doctor’s companion. I won’t say more about her character, but I will say this. Those who know me know I am not a Billie Piper fan. I find her grating on both my eyes and my ears. And yet, for some strange reason, I did not mind her performance here. There were even times that I enjoyed it. (To my friends: no matter how surprised you are for me to say that, trust me, I’m even more surprised.)

John Hurt is interesting. I fully expected to dislike this. After all, I don’t like the idea of a secret incarnation between Eight and Nine, and he’d been set up as almost an evil version of himself. I was actually expecting something more like the Valyard, a supposed future-alternate evil version of the Doctor that appeared briefly in Classic Who. Instead we got . . . something different. A Doctor who, despite the mini-episode where the Eighth Doctor regenerates into the “War Doctor,” genuinely seems like an older Eighth Doctor. And, until I’m forced to admit otherwise, that is exactly how I’m going to think of him (and how I will refer to him for the rest of this review).

His interactions with his later selves are very well-done, too, and reinforce the idea that he actually is the Doctor. I was expecting more conflict. To be fair, so were his later selves. He’s a tired man, he’s an exhausted warrior, but he’s still the Doctor. John Hurt, frankly, did a fantastic job. I genuinely wish I could see more of him in this role.

Of course, as good as John Hurt is as the Doctor, it’s the performances of David Tennant and Matt Smith that steal the show. I know a lot of people were wanting to see the Tenth Doctor again, and he doesn’t disappoint; but he also doesn’t show Matt Smith up either. Instead, the two actors and the two Doctors truly compliment each other. It’s an excellent performance, with callbacks to previous Doctor-crossovers (including a brief but fun moment when David Tennant quotes Patrick Troughton from the very first Doctor-crossover, “The Three Doctors,” followed by Matt Smith commenting on it in a near-perfect payoff).

The plot is actually much more fun than I expected. Unlike every other Doctor-crossover story, the different incarnations of the Doctor visit each others’ time-periods, rather than just popping into the current incarnation’s time. For that matter, both the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors are dealing with the same problem, which is secondary yet not entirely incidental to the overall issue that the Eighth Doctor brings in.

I mentioned that the story deals with some inconsistencies that have sprung up over the course of the post-hiatus show, aka New Who. It was very nice to see that dealt with, much less in a satisfactory way. (Not the best writing; when you use this sort of plot device, it still leaves a bit of an aftertaste. But the overall story was good enough for me to almost entirely ignore it.)

The best part of it was a bit of skilled writing, utilizing setup and payoff in a textbook execution. It’s a moment that sets up the conclusion of the entire story, yet the audience is distracted by a delightful bit of humor that perfectly exemplifies the Doctor himself.

We also get two unrelated (well, unrelated to the previous point, but related to each other) payoffs from a Tenth and an Eleventh Doctor story. I found that fun, and I’m certain the British audience, as well as the non-British Anglophile audience, found it rather hilarious. I know I had some chuckles!

Overall, this episode surpassed my expectations, turned around, blew them up, and then swept the pieces into a neat little pile. I was literally clapping my hands, cheering, and thoroughly enjoying the Moments of Awesome that I’ve been missing from recent Doctor Who storylines. If Moffat uses this as the launching point for the Twelfth Doctor’s era, I’m going to have higher expectations once again.