“And now it’s time for one last bow, like all your other selves. Eleven’s hour is over now, the clock is striking Twelve’s.”
Christmas day TV viewing is a slightly different experience in the UK. It is a far more celebrated and organized programming event. Sure, stations will reach into their archives and pull out old favorites for repeats, but they will also bring back long cancelled shows for one-off specials. They will also give current popular shows a spotlight, longer time slot and bigger budgets to turn in something special and usually festively themed for the occasion. These Christmas episodes often have varying degrees of success, sometimes playing to the mindset of the nation, fueled by many hours of food and alcohol indulgence, they are usually a little more sentimental and over the top to fit in with the occasion. Such is the case with Doctor Who, often the centerpiece of the BBC’s Christmas day lineup. This year’s Christmas special, The Time of the Doctor was to serve as the Eleventh Doctor’s swansong, bidding farewell to Matt Smith and to serve as an introduction to Twelve, with a ‘fuckity-hi‘ from the new actor to take on the role, Peter Capaldi (The Thick of It, In the Loop).
A mysterious message is sent out through all time and space drawing species from across the Universe including Cybermen, the Silence, Daleks, Sontaran, Weeping Angels as well as the Doctor himself. On arrival he finds the planet sealed off by the Church of the Papal Mainframe, by order of Mother Superious Tasha Lem, an old friend of the Doctor. With tenuous peace amongst the gathered species, he and Clara are allowed access to the planet where the Doctor finds the small town of Christmas. There, a crack in the Universe, a nod to seasons past, is found to be a source of the message which is translated from Gallifreyan as “Doctor Who?” The Doctor interprets it as the Time Lords calling to him from the pocket universe in which Gallifrey was trapped (The Day of the Doctor) looking for escape. If the Doctor answers the question and speaks his real name, the Time Lords will emerge. The gathered aliens above the planet, now revealed to be ‘Trenzalore’, known to be the final resting place of the Doctor, will not allow their return which may bring resumption of the Time War. The Doctor tricks Clara into returning home and safety and thus begins the siege of Trenzalore where the Doctor spends 300 years protecting the crack and the towns inhabitants, repelling the various efforts to invade by his various enemies. Out of regenerations, the Doctor lives his final life, protecting his people and friends, until Clara returns to him and looks to help him change his future and avoid his end.
Stephen Moffat (who took over as showrunner to coincide with the debut of Matt Smith as the Doctor) has introduced a more magical and fairytale like quality to the show. His tenure has also introduced more complex plot strands and unanswered questions. At times this has been wondrous and emotionally moving, at others frustrating. This episode exemplifies the two extremes of which he is capable. The synopsis above shows how complex this episode is, trying to deal with so many open threads and give a fitting send off to Smith as well as lever in many quirky unnecessary additions. Plot strands involving a disembodied Cyberman head (Wilson 2?) or an underdone turkey detracting from a main tale that really needed more time to be fleshed out and deliver in a less clunky manner. Sure they provide a more lighthearted whimsical balance to a more serious story but Smith is so good at providing that in his delivery and actions it was not needed. The pacing was too disjointed to really make the episode a truly memorable one. Coming so soon after the similarly weighty, complex and pivotal 50th Anniversary episode Day of the Doctor, it compares poorly.
While criticisms can be made, The Time of the Doctor is at times fantastic. The scope and ambition is immense; it’s admirable Moffat strived to end the Smith era with some closure. The effects belie the budget Who is actually afforded, the stakes seemed suitably real and most importantly the show reflected the portrayal of the Eleventh Doctor himself, a quirky, whimsical, at times brooding and always emotional character. It really is a greatest hits episode, with a plethora of nods to characters and stories past, from ‘the crack in the wall’ to finding out how ‘The Silence’ came to be. And at Christmas time, the smattering of festive nods is always welcome. As often is the case, it is the performance of the main cast that elevates the episode.
Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) is finally solidifying into a more empathetic character after her rushed introduction in the ‘Impossible Girl arc’. She provides a great foil to Smith and the character of the Doctor introducing the human elements often needed to ground his alien tendencies. Her ‘abandonment’ feels real and hurtful as does her desire to get back to stand by the side of the Doctor. But really, this is Matt Smith’s swansong and a fitting one at that. He draws from the full range of his repertoire to give a memorable farewell. While Ten departed due to the character becoming arrogant and not wanting to change, Eleven in many ways embraces it. His time in the role is probably the longest spanning in his own history, this episode cramming in a further 300+ years alone. He is a Time Lord who has stood and defeated countless enemies, saved countless lives and finally becomes undone by old age. He delivers a eulogy, one of pride at his time and contribution before his regeneration is complete. A final helping of fish fingers and custard, a touching hallucinatory visit from Amy Pond, the girl burnt onto his heart, and finally the removal of the bow tie…it hitting the floor with an emotional thud. Doctor Who has that richness and history, even when it falters with some clumsy storytelling it has those aspects to draw on which never fail to break viewers’ hearts. People have spent over four years with Smith, some have grown up with him, it is a sad farewell but as always, regeneration brings a freshness to the show that balances the sadness with hope and excitement.
Smith has always been a quirkier and more alien Doctor than David Tennant, the most enduringly popular iteration of the Doctor in this modern series. But anyone familiar with Doctors past will recognize many qualities that came before ‘nu-who’, notably from Two (Patrick Troughton) and Four (Tom Baker) in Smith’s portrayal. Together with Moffat they have continued to build on the success from Russel T Davis’ time and pushed Doctor Who to a level of recognition and fandom not seen before. The 50th anniversary event being an amazing example of the show’s reach and impact. Smith bore the torch with distinction and his contribution and time in the role have been outstanding. Capaldi’s brief introduction here is hard to draw concrete conclusions from but he looks to be a great shakeup for the role and is a fine actor so it is not unreasonable to expect a great new era in his time as Twelve.
Looking at The Time of the Doctor, its easy to sit back and let a festive, visually stunning and emotional tale unwind before you. It’s funny, ambitious and touching all in equal measure. A more critical eye can point to numerous issues with pacing and clunky plot lines being tied up. This is an issue that has been caused by setting up so many things within Smith’s tenure there really is no cohesive way to resolve them in one single episode. While flawed it does bring the Smith era to a beautiful and touching end. Less melancholic than the departure of Tennant, Eleven (and Smith) departs, proud of his time, as well he should be. A tear shed and the arrival of a manic and confused Capaldi brings the 800th episode of Doctor Who to an end. The regeneration cycle and excitement for the show and one of TV’s most brilliant, captivating and charismatic characters begins anew.