It begins, just as the whole story once did, with a swoosh of saturated camera feedback and a policeman walking past the sign for a scrap merchant yard in Shoreditch. Then we’re in Coal Hill secondary school, where 50 years ago the granddaughter of a Time Lord was a most eccentric pupil.
Clara is a teacher there now, but after getting a message, she rides her motorbike into a police box on a rural road while the Doctor reads a book. Then shuts the doors with a click of her fingers. Suddenly, the TARDIS has been picked up on a giant panto claw, attached to a helicopter. Meanwhile, a scientist in a Fourth Doctor scarf delivers Kate Stewart’s cellphone to her, with a call from the Doctor. He’s hanging out in the TARDIS.
Sorry, that should say he’s hanging out OF the TARDIS, and vaguely miffed that UNIT has half-inched his time machine without so much as checking he’s inside. Kate has a letter from Queen Elizabeth, but not the current one. Elizabeth I, from Tudor times, and wants the Doctor to come and look at a painting. It’s a depiction of the fall of the Gallifreyan city of Arcadia, on the last day of the Time War. Thanks to the wonders of Gallifreyan art, the Doctor is now faced with a 3D rendition of the worst day in his life. Thanks Liz!
Then we’re in the actual picture. Amid explosions and laser battles, the Gallifreyans struggle and fail to fight off the Dalek hordes. There are refugees and innocents to the left and right, and a grizzled old man with a goatee and an infinitely weary voice shoots the words “No More” on a wall. The Daleks recognize him. He’s the Doctor!
And in the war rooms, Gallifreyan generals debate what his graffiti moment could mean, until they’re interrupted by an alert. Someone has pinched a terrible weapon called The Moment, a sentient bomb with a conscience that can eat a galaxy. It’s the bearded Doctor! And he plans to use it to end the conflict, if he can only find a big red button to make it work. This conscience has taken a human form, and looks quite a lot like Rose Tyler. She starts asking sassy questions and generally acting the companion, because The Moment’s interface has read the Doctor’s mind and realizes that is what he needs.
He’s tormented by the events of the Time War, and can’t reconcile the fact that he is about to kill billions of innocent Gallifreyans in order to destroy the Daleks.
So Rose, who is actually Bad Wolf Rose and therefore rather wise, opens some time portals, so that the War Doctor can see what the effects of his decision may turn out to be on his future selves. A whirlpool pops up in the sky, and out falls a fez. Promising!
Back in London, the Doctor opens the letter from Elizabeth, in which she decrees that he be summoned should England face any danger from supernatural forces, and then calls him her husband. Then Kate takes them to see a painting of the Queen and the Tenth Doctor in a ruff. Time for a flashback!
It’s Tudor England, and the Tenth Doctor and Queen Elizabeth are sharing a picnic. Suddenly he proposes marriage, in order to try and catch her out, because she’s a Zygon! He’s got a ding-machine that proves it! Except it’s her horse that’s the Zygon. And she accepted his proposal. Excellent work. Time to run away.
After a shocking confrontation with a rabbit, the Tenth Doctor happens upon Elizabeth. And then Elizabeth arrives. And his ding-machine is on the fritz. And then one of those whirlpool pops up in the sky and another fez falls out. While this is going on, the Eleventh Doctor is down in Elizabeth’s Undergallery, a cellar full of dangerous art, and significant dust. The lady with the Fourth Doctor scarf and inhaler (she’s called Osgood), is dispatched to examine it.
Then there’s this little puzzle:
And with that, the Doctor pops off to see the Doctor. Suddenly in front of Elizabeth the Real and Elizabeth the Zygon we have Doctor the Tenth and Doctor the Eleventh comparing sonics and larking about. The Elizabeths run off, after a lingering kiss (each) with Ten. Eleven lobs his fez back to Clara, but it doesn’t get there, and this is the fez that ends up at the feet of the War Doctor. He pops through the time rift and now we’ve got three Doctors. That’s enough to start a practice.
Suddenly, soldiers arrive and arrest them all (after some top notch bickering, of course), and take them to the Tower of London. This is a perfect time for some straight talking. Or more bickering about the Time War.
It’s at this point that Osgood discovers that the dust is actual fragments of the statues that used to be in the Undergallery, statues that were thought to be under wraps, and have now been replaced by.. OH NO IT’S THE ZYGONS! Osgood is confronted by herself in Zygon form, and knocks her over. Then there’s a chase on.
Clara and Kate are going to the Black Archive, with its collection of appalling technology and super high security that involves wiping the memories of everyone that goes in. This detail will be important later, so if you can’t remember it, write it down.
Kate’s got Captain Jack’s vortex manipulator! But she doesn’t have the code to make it work. Only the Doctor knows it, and he’s busy in Elizabethan England, scraping the number on the wall of the Tower of London, which is, coincidentally, where Kate’s office is. You’d think she’d have seen it. Only it’s not Kate! It’s a ZYGON! They’re going to kill Clara!
Luckily the number has just been texted to Kate’s phone, so Clara pops the vortex manipulator on and pops off to see the Doctors, who have just discovered how clever they are. Enter Liz the Zygon, ready to commence Evil Villain Monologuing. It seems the Zygons arrived in Elizabethan times, and then hid as figures in the Gallifreyan art, ready to pounce in what we would think of as the modern era. Oh and it’s not Liz the Zygon, it’s the real thing, and she has killed her doppelgänger, which means it’s a perfect time for that wedding.
I mean it’s clearly not a perfect time for a wedding, but that is what happens next. Then there are three Doctors in a TARDIS and some fun and games with decor and Ten says “Oh you’ve redecorated, I don’t like it” just like Two used to do. They set off for the Black Archive, where Osgood has pulled Kate out from a light covering of dead squid, and she meets her Zygon counterpart. It turns out there’s a nuclear warhead under the Archive and she’ll set it off before she lets the Zygons invade. So there.
The Doctors do not approve, but as the Archive is TARDIS-proof, they have to devise other means of getting inside, involving a smuggled painting and the Zygon technology that puts people into art. And out of the Gallifreyan painting they jump, with a knackered Dalek in tow. They trigger the memory-wiping security devices (remember the memory-wiping security devices?), and insist that Zygons and humans negotiate a truce, despite having no idea if they are really Zygons or humans or not. This is how they avoid doing to the Earth what the War Doctor is about to do to Gallifrey.
Which is where we are now. There’s a big red button, and Bad Wolf Rose is inviting the War Doctor to make up his mind when suddenly the air is filled with a familiar wheeze. It’s the TARDIS! And the TARDIS! Ten and Eleven have come to help, and if that means all three of them pressing the button, so be it. However it is up to Clara to remind the Doctor that his job is to deliver impossible success against certain failure, otherwise he is not the Doctor.
And then, an idea. The first time the events of the Time War played out, there was only one Doctor. Now, thanks to Bad Wolf Rose and her matchmaking, there are three. Together (and with a little help from their friends, THE OTHER DOCTORS OMG!) they resolve to freeze Gallifrey in an instant of time, so that no one need die, and the Daleks can just blow each other to hell.
And that is what they do. Suddenly there are twelve (NO, THIRTEEN! OMG! OMG!) Doctors in orbit around Gallifrey, and then there is no Gallifrey any more. And no Daleks either.
The curious side-effect is that the War Doctor and the Tenth Doctors won’t remember that they saved Gallifrey. All of that pain will still be there, and as he leaves, the War Doctor starts to regenerate into the Ninth, and that whole story begins again. Then Ten leaves, leaving Eleven alone with the painting, wondering if his plan worked.
And then a curious thing happens. A man appears, looking and sounding for all the world like an aged version of the Fourth Doctor. He’s called the Curator, and it is he that reveals the true title of the painting: “Gallifrey Falls No More,” and it becomes clear that the Doctor has a job to do. Never mind biffing around space and time looking for adventure, now it’s time to find his way back home.
Best of ‘Doctor Who’ 50th Anniversary Poll: Why The Show Endures
WATCH: New ‘Doctor Who’ Mini-Episode ‘The Last Day’
Steven Moffat Talks ‘Doctor Who’ 50th, Eccleston’s Absence
‘Doctor Who’ Personality Quiz: Which Doctor Are You?