The episode may have been called “The Time of The Doctor,” but time was up for this current incarnation of The Doctor, Matt Smith. Where as his still beloved predecessor David Tennant seemed to get an entire year in order to let the audience say a proper goodbye, Smith would have to make due with one hour. But as Doctor Who proved again, one hour can be a lifetime, and “The Time of The Doctor” had enough going on for a two-parter, or a double-stuffed 50th anniversary episode. Can we handle two epic Who’s back-to-back? And can Smith’s send-off match Tennant’s teary tour-du-force in “The End of Time?”
The reaction online has been highly mixed, but the two sour notes, I think, come from following-up the near perfect “Day of the Doctor” special and the long memory of Tennant fans who were expecting something a little more sentimental. I don’t think sentimental is a key that Steven Moffat knows how to play in, and the Easter egg laden, 3-D, once-in-a-lifetime epicness of “The Day of The Doctor” was always going to be a hard act to follow. Having said that, it was an imperfect of hour of Who, but it was a fitting end to the Smith era and it gave us just enough to be excited about what’s to come during Peter Capaldi’s upcoming tenure as the Twelfth Doctor.
Considering the weight of expectation, the episode started like any other: another Christmas, another planet, and another adventure. The full force of The Doctor’s enemies are gathering in orbit around an unidentified world, drawn there by a mysterious message that turns out to be from Gallifrey. Yes, I thought it might be a while till we picked up this thread, but why put off today… The return of the crack in the universe heralds the potential return of the Time Lords, as they can push through where the fabric in reality is weakened. They just need a sign from The Doctor, an answer to a question only he can give. Doctor Who?
So what’s the challenge? With The Doctor’s rogues gallery in orbit there’s some concern that the return of Gallifrey will mean the start of Time War 2. So with The Doctor refusing to give up the hope of seeing Gallifrey again, and the bad guys unwilling to allow the possibility, The Doctor initiates a centuries long Mexican stand-off, serving as the village of Christmastown’s protector, and growing old in the process. The Doctor is resigned to accept his fate when he reveals to Clara that his is the last regeneration of The Doctor, he will grow old and die on this planet that was long prophesied to be the place of his death: Trenzalore.
The episodes frantic start gives way to a dark and sullen mid-section as The Doctor comes to terms with his mortality. The man who always runs this time couldn’t, and we see something we rarely see from the Time Lord, contemplation. Usually so busy swinging from one problem to the next, The Doctor’s faced with one big problem that has no big solution, so we see The Doctor quiet, patient, and resolved. And although the old age make-up left a lot to be desired, Smith once again showed his great range playing The Doctor as old and as weary as we’ve ever seen him.
As for Clara, she kept going back and forth to Christmastown like a yo-yo, as The Doctor kept trying to do the ol’ leave-the-companion-in-the-TARDIS-and-let-it-automatically-take-them-home routine. Of course, Clara don’t play that and keeps finding her way back to Trenzalore, and gives aid and comfort to The Doctor as his days countdown. I know many us were irked by the mystery box Clara, but between this and “The Day of The Doctor” I think Clara proves herself one of The Doctor’s most able and confident companions aside from just having a decent repartee with The Doctor. But as much as Clara’s always delightful, this was Smith’s show, and the big question was how this whole 12 regenerations situation was going to resolve itself. What clever trick or loophole would Moffat find to allow Eleven’s hour to give way to Twelve’s?
Well, as with a lot of Moffat’s stories, the answer comes in three words: “deus ex machina.” Clara begged the Time Lords on the other side of the crack to give The Doctor one last chance, and a giant crack opened up in the sky and gave an elderly Doctor enough timey-whimey juice to start regenerating and use the energy as a weapon of mass destruction to wipe out the Dalek fleet. If you think that was all kinds of a cop-out, I don’t blame you. It’s pretty easy to say “The Time Lords gave me mulligan” and just regenerate into the next guy, but I honestly don’t mind that. I’ve never seen the serial in which the idea was first raised that a Time Lord has only 12 regenerations, so I’m not sure how the subject came up, but I’m pretty sure that at the time, the 13th Doctor was never hoped for, let alone contemplated. If “The Time Lords did it,” gets us to the next chapter, I’m okay with that, and think to yourself, is any other explanation going to be satisfactory enough for you? I doubt it.
The climactic showdown in Christmastown brings our hero back to the TARDIS. Clara finds a mess of clothes and we assume that Capaldi is going to pop out in new duds, but nope, it’s Eleven back to his youthful self, a momentary reset before the full-on regeneration. The TARDIS takes off, Eleven and Clara say their goodbyes and The Doctor has a brief vision of Amelia Pond, the first face that saw this face (bringing back Karen Gillan to say, “Goodbye Raggedy Man” was a nice and surprising touch). The Doctor then slowly takes off his bow tie, and pop, it’s time for Twelve!
I know that’s another development people might find irksome, the unceremonious snap of the face from Smith to Capaldi, but truthful, by the time that Tennant had visited everybody and meandered around the TARDIS console the whole thing seemed kind of drawn out for a guy who had changed faces 10 time prior. Alas, I’m probably in the minority on that, and I’m by no means saying that Tennant’s exit wasn’t emotionally effectual on me, but a regeneration isn’t just an end, and it isn’t just a beginning, but it’s a continuation too. Let’s remember too that not all Doctors get such a send off, as I was recently reminded, Seven was shot by a gangbanger for cryin’ out loud!
So how about our new Doctor? Well, he was on screen just long enough to make an impression; his hair is greying, his eyes are wild, he has kidneys, he has a hint of a Scottish accent and he doesn’t know how to fly the TARDIS?!?! Is temporary amnesia part in parcel with the second round of regenerations, or is something else afoot? Otherwise, I guess we’ll have to wait till Fall 2014 to get the full story on this Doctor.
As for highlights from the show, the producers worked in a practical and hilarious nod to Matt Smith’s need to wear a wig for the show, and the Weeping Angels bit was pretty spooky and effective even if like the Daleks and Cybermen they now teeter on the brink of overuse. I would, however, make an exception for more wooden Cybermen. I could watch a whole episode with wooden Cybermen. What about more hardcore nudity on Doctor Who? Two words: yes please. (I know it’s supposed to be a children’s show, but Moffat has now opened the door so…)
On the flipside, I could have down without Christmas being crammed in. I know that it’s a running theme with these specials, but after eight of them now I don’t think its necessary to be reminded of the occasion by having the thing take place in a location literally called Christmastown. Also, the entire episode was dripping with foreshadowing, which is fine except it’s not actual foreshadowing since we knew that a regeneration was coming. “The Parting of the Ways” and “The End of Time” both ended in The Doctor regenerating, but they weren’t about that, they were both big, high-stakes adventures, which is partially why the ending regeneration is so impactful. For long swaths of “The Time of The Doctor” it seemed like we were just waiting for the inevitable rather than engaging in it as a story.
It’s difficult to say if Moffat had been building towards this since penning “The Eleventh Hour,” but he did his best to sell the point in “The Time of The Doctor.” I’m not sure I saw all the connective tissue, and while I appreciate Moffat’s efforts to suggest he’s been building towards this the last four years, but I think “The Time of The Doctor” was much more satisfying as a poetic and allegorical piece than a straight-up finale to the Smith era. It was a fairy tale end for the most fairy tale of Doctors, a gentle reminder of our own mortality and a gentle push to strive for the hero in all of us. It’s never too late. Never give up, and never surrender. And for God’s sake, when pretending to be your friend’s boyfriend at Christmas dinner, remember to extend the holographic field to everyone so that your nudity is less conspicuous.
Goodbye, Raggedy Man.