As a send-off for Matt Smith, this Christmas special was heartfelt — even beautiful in places. But as an episode of Doctor Who? Yikes.
I’m the Doctor — I’m a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, I stole a time machine and ran away, and I’ve been FLOUTING the principle law of my own people ever since!
–The Doctor, caught in a truth field
Last month’s 50th Anniversary Special “The Day of the Doctor,” as I wrote in my recap, was a surprisingly effective mix of pathos, humor, fan service, and typical Steven Moffat insanity. It thrilled, touched, and completely entertained. It was obvious that, with so much riding on it, Moffat and his team worked extremely hard to satisfy, perhaps harder than they had in a long time.
By contrast, “The Time of the Doctor” is a muddled, barely comprehensible mess.
Before taking over as showrunner, Moffat had penned several of the very best, most popular episodes of the new series. “Blink,” “Silence in the Library,” “The Girl in the Fireplace,” and the two-parter “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances” are all brilliant in their own way. At least two or three show up on every Whovian’s top ten list. But what makes them work so well — aside from their innate cleverness — is how exceedingly simple the concepts are. Moffat has shown a talent for coming up with iconic images and phrases, and playing those notes like motifs in a symphony.
However, once he took the producer torch passed to him from Russell T. Davies, he seemed to throw that all out the window in service of big, epic, sweeping arcs, stretching the internal mythology of the show to the breaking point, and leaving some threads dangling for years. “The Time of the Doctor” attempts to tie off some of those loose ends (many of which were questions I wasn’t even really asking), and in the process throws everything at the wall hoping some of it will stick. Everything.
In a rehash of the the Season 5 finale “The Pandorica Opens,” the Doctor is once again besieged by all his enemies — Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, Weeping Angels, etc — and given an impossible choice. That fateful crack in the Universe, the one the Doctor thought he closed, has been re-opened (or has it always been open? The paradoxes are maddening), and they’ve all been drawn to its source: a small town called Christmas, on a planet called Trenzalore. Where, we know, the Doctor is destined to meet his end.
There’s nothing particularly special about that premise, and more and more weirdness gets tossed up on screen to simply add to the confusion: the Doctor and Clara visit the “Papal Mainframe,” a church/giant computer overseen by a woman named Tasha Lem (whose very flirtatious relationship with the Doctor just makes her seem like a pale reflection of River Song), assisted by The Silence (who are actually priests–who knew?), and they want to help The Doctor until they want to hurt him, until they want to help him again, etc. There’s an awful lot here that probably could have been cut completely. An early running gag about the Doctor appearing to be clothed/unclothed via hologram is silly, but turns out to be one of the more effective attempts at humor.
At any rate, here’s what’s important: behind the crack are the Time Lords, asking the Ultimate Question (“Doctor WHO?”) and all the Doctor has to do is speak his name, and they’ll appear, re-igniting the Time War in the process. But if the Doctor leaves, Tasha Lem will fry the planet, along with all its cheerful (and honest, as a rule) inhabitants. So what does he do? First, send Clara away out of danger, for the umpteenth time. Second, stay and defend both the crack and the town…for 300 years.
Why 300 years? Why such a MASSIVE jump in time? What is accomplished by this, narratively, symbolically? Matt Smith has perfected playing the Doctor as a daffy old man, what with the arm-waving and forgetfulness and deep insecurities. Perhaps Moffat thought the Doctor ought to look as old as he felt. He becomes the essential mayor of this town for centuries, as the humans come and go, but he remains (along with the friend introduced at the top of the hour, a severed Cyberman head he’s named “Handles,” in a touch out of Cast Away.) He’s obviously shown a willingness to sacrifice himself before, but never to this extreme, and certainly not for a planet that’s not Earth. I think what we’re supposed to infer is that the Doctor has simply decided to stop moving. Having arrived at what he believes to be his final destination, he chooses to run out the clock until he can no longer affect the outcome.
It’s bold, certainly, and more than a bit polarizing. And confusing — in the Season 6 premiere “The Impossible Astronaut,” the Doctor claims to have spent 200-odd years wandering aimlessly in the aftermath of “The Big Bang.” But he looks exactly the same. On Trenzalore, he turns into the old man in the Six Flags commercials. Why? Was he lying before? Is it simply that flying in the TARDIS keeps him looking young? And again–was this really necessary?
Whatever the trickery in the storytelling, Matt Smith takes what’s on the page and bites into it with relish. He’s always been the coolest of the uncool, and plays it that way whether he’s 1000 or 1200 or 1500 (if he really is 1500, he’s spent about a third of life as the Eleventh Doctor — a third! and a quarter of his life just on Trenzalore! I really don’t get it!) He’s ready to see things through to the end, offering himself up to the Daleks in a final bout of petulant heroism, explaining that he’s all out of regenerations and he pretty much no longer gives a crap. But it’s Clara who initiates the breaking of the rules: appealing to the Time Lords behind the crack, she asks them to help the Doctor “if you love him,”(?) and — lo and behold — they do.
This is remarkable for three reasons. First, obviously, and expectedly, we now know how Moffat is choosing to write around that part of the canon first introduced in the Tom Baker years: the Doctor will regenerate forever, or as long as the series lasts. Second — and this is valuable — the Time Lords have finally done the right thing, and show themselves to perhaps be a people worth saving. For seven seasons we’ve heard about the beauty of Gallifrey, but the Time Lords themselves have shown to be bitter, selfish, or incompetent creatures — until now. So that’s excellent, assuming that the primary arc of the Twelfth Doctor will be to find his home planet. And three, Clara continues to be the most indispensable companion, perhaps ever. She is now also the first in the new series to witness the Doctor’s regeneration firsthand, and I look forward to seeing her play off the much older Peter Capaldi next year.
Whether the solution works logically or not (it doesn’t, not really — still reeks of convenience and Time Lord ex machina), Eleven is ready to rock again, and shoots his regenerative energy out like a cannon, destroying the Dalek fleet(…?). There’s dancing, and laughing, and much arm-waving, but Smith is flawless, and has been flawless. It’s the ultimate performance from Number Eleven, on every level. Trenzalore saved, the crack closed, and time re-written (again!), he returns to the TARDIS where he regains his “young” face and has a final goodbye with Clara. These final ten minutes, fortunately, are the most effective of the episode: he sees young Amelia and then Amy Pond (“Goodbye, Raggedy Man,” croons Karen Gillan in a wig), drops his bowtie dramatically to the floor, and gives a lovely — if a bit boilerplate — speech:
“I will not forget one line of this. Not one day. I swear. I will always remember when the Doctor was me.”
And then, with a bang and a flash, Eleven is Twelve. Peter Capaldi makes his 30 seconds count, complaining about his kidneys (“I don’t like the color!”), and realizing he has no idea how to fly the TARDIS. So contrary to Eleven’s promise, he doesn’t seem to remember much of anything.
It’s an awful lot to squeeze into an hour, and while it sure could have used the extra time afforded the anniversary special, what it could have used more was simplicity of concept and execution. David Tennant’s swan song was highly charged and emotional, leisurely building to that regeneration with an extended coda where Ten revists all of his old friends. It was also the final episode for Russell T. Davies who, unlike Moffat, always prized his storytelling’s effect on the heart over the head. But Eleven’s exit mistakenly tries to manufacture tension where there simply isn’t any — we all know it’s not the end of the show, so can we get past the hand-wringing, please — and pad the time with baffling distractions and astounding leaps of logic before offering a too-easy way out. Thanks to Smith’s full commitment, it only barely works.
But now Smith is gone, and Capaldi’s crazy eyebrows are here, and I’m hoping against hope that the next season taps the brakes, becomes more self-contained, and goes back to being a show I can love unabashedly, without qualifications. But I can’t count on it, as long as Moffat’s at the helm. This was not an episode for the casual television viewers, which wouldn’t necessarily be an issue except that those are coming with greater and greater frequency. That’s not a good plan for the long-term viability of the show, but hey — it’s lasted this long, right? Right?