Review: The Time of the Doctor

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Coming only a month after the 50th anniversary episode, The Day of the Doctor, the 2013 Christmas special sees the final outing of Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor, as well as arguably the end of what has often been called the ‘modern era’ since the show came back in 2005 and Christopher Ecclestone’s tenure as the Ninth Doctor. Personally I think that’s a simplistic look at it and that you should separate the ‘modern era’ into that time when Russell T. Davies was the showrunner and Steven Moffatt’s current run. Obviously we don’t know whether there will be a marked difference between the way that the stories for the 11th and 12th Doctor are told yet, but I’m quietly hopeful that there will either be a variation, or a new direction is found all together. That’s not that I hated the way things were going, I loved the way that Steven Moffatt handled 11’s stories, but after four years of defending the man against internet bitching I seriously need a vacation.

Moffatt’s way of storytelling, or at least the one that we’re familiar with as the way that he handled 11’s stories, was heavily indebted to children’s storytelling. That’s apparent as soon as the episode begins, via a voice over:

“Once there was a planet like any other and unimportant. This planet sent the universe a message, a bell tolling among the stars, ringing out to all the dark corners of creation. And everybody came to see. Although no one understood the message, everyone who heard it found themselves afraid, except one man: the man who stayed for Christmas.”

It immediately sets the mood and wraps The Doctor in a myth and signifies to the audience that this is how you should be looking at it. Now whether you like this kind of introduction and storytelling is really down to personal taste; some people have said that it’s patronizing, others have said that it’s the best thing ever. I like it. Sure, it’s not ‘Breaking Bad levels of dark’ (an odd statement, I know, considering it’s a show whose main villains are little robot Hitlers and the hero is a genocidal self-described ‘mad man with a box’) but the complexity of the storytelling involved  more than satisfies any need I have to only watch television programmes aimed at adults. Some people wish the show would get darker, others want to see a return to the camp of Davies’ era but personally I’m satisfied to sit back and abide because, at least to me, the tone of the 11th Doctor is one that best represents how he exists as a piece of popular culture. Sure, there is a definite truth to Doctor Who (it’s a TV show), just like in universe there is a definite truth to The Doctor (he is a Time Lord, born on Galifrey to a mother and a father, who travels around in a blue phone box) but the memes and stories and experiences of the show give it an almost mythic, culturally transcendent quality that is arguably worth much more to popular culture than the show itself. And I think Moffatt (and Davies, to a lesser degree) wanted to translate that on screen somehow. For Davies, it was making The Doctor into a Godlike figure, whereas Moffatt’s modus operandi seems to be to adapt the structure and tone of fairy tales. As I mentioned, it’s down to personal interpretation whichever one you like best but personally I’ll always lean towards the show that shows me Rumplestilskin being a villain rather the show that tells me Rumplestilskin is a villain.

But anyway, at the start of his last bow, The Doctor has beamed over to one of the other ships surrounding this mysterious planet wearing the traditional garb of the Numenorean Rangers and brandishing a Dalek’s eye on a stick. If you haven’t seen the episode then you can imagine the commotion that occurs when it turns out that he’s been transported onto a Dalek Warship by his companion, the decapitated remains of a Cyberman. The Doctor manages to get beamed back before this becomes the shortest episode of Doctor Who ever. Angry, he grabs his companion – lovingly named Handles for his… handles  and takes him to another ship. This time it’s a Cybership. There’s gunfire once again and then Clara calls; not only has she burned her family’s Christmas turkey(!) but she’s also invested a boyfriend as an excuse for why she’s away so much, and The Doctor needs to do it. I’m not sure if that’s a comment on how close they are as friends that she’s comfortable with him pretending to be her lover, or if it’s a comment on how small Clara’s ‘normal’ social circle is now that she can make a call and arm-wrestle Ernest Hemingway when she’s bored; it might also have something to do with the fact that it’s far easier to make plans on Christmas with an alien than it is anyone else, but I’ll let you decide.

The Doctor attends Christmas Dinner (naked because he’s going to Church) and then there’s some awkwardness. After that, Clara and the Doctor travel to the planet where the Doctor had previously gotten rough with the Daleks and the Cybermen. Handles the dead Cyberman says that he has finally worked out which planet they’re orbiting: he says Galifrey. If you remember during the 50th anniversary special The Doctor, along with his other selves, made a conscious decision to change the future and try to save Galifrey from destruction. Through technospeak which would make Geordie Laforge blush the Doctors were able to shift Galifrey into another dimension… Unfortunately this also had to happen at the exact same moment it looked like the Daleks had blown the planet up.

Did the plan work?

Did The Doctors destroy Galifrey in a nice way?

Up until this point no one has really known. There have been suggestions, none so subtle as the cameo by Tom “Britain, Britain, Britain” Baker, also known as the Fourth Doctor, who supposedly played a future version of the Doctor, but no one has really known for sure. If this planet is Galifrey, it would be great… except it’s too small. And there’s no technology. And it’s blue. Doc and Clara go down to the planet and discover that whilst it’s not Galifrey, it’s actually Trenzalore, the planet long prophesized to be the Doctor’s final resting place. Not completely unexpected considering he knew that he’d wind up there sooner or later, but thankfully, before he does have to learn to not fear the reaper, the Doctor discovers it does have a way to get to Galifrey. There’s a crack in the universe, just like the cracks in season five that almost destroyed all of time and space, so naturally it would lead back to The Doctor’s home world, because he would never think of actually going into one…

Except he totally did. At the end of season 5, ‘The Big Bang.’ Deleted him from the universe. Okay, yes, this is a plot hole (crack) and a pretty big one but we’ll ignore it for now.

The universe decides to throw The Doctor a bone when it throws up The Papal Mainframe. This is a call back to the earlier Silence arc where it turned out that a religious order, known as The Silence (hence the name) were trying to kill The Doctor. They had gone back in time from during the events of this episode because of the events of this episode, creating a causality loop and generally being the big bad for at least two seasons (more if you count those really annoying half series things as series’ in their own right). Well, it turns out that The Church that you might remember from The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone (where the church’s most badass member, Bishop Octavian – played by Iain Glenn (Jorah Mormont from Game of Thrones) – died) is actually the precursor to the group that we know as The Silence. On top of that, it also turns out that The Silence led by Madame Kovarian are only a splinter group that turned Doctorcidal and that the ‘real’ The Silence are just a new name for an older organization… Yeah.

I have a couple thoughts on this. Firstly, I’m glad that Moffatt has branched out from his usual (and, I’d like to state: all too simple) method of handling religion and present it as some grand unifying thing that’s managed to conquer all others either peacefully or with force, and instead gone for the (more realistic) idea that The Church is only one interpretation of their theology, and that other factions and sects exist and all of them are different. We saw that a little bit in A Good Man Goes To War but it was nice to have that emphasized once again. Secondly, I think this is symptomatic of the larger problems with this episode.

There’s a lot happening in The Time of The Doctor, not only from The Doctor’s point of view (meaning that he’s pretty much just older than Rory now), but from our point of view too. There’s a lot of exposition throughout this episode meaning that a lot of it feels rushed, and a lot of the time it doesn’t have any emotional context to it. Sure, there are some emotional parts – mostly thanks due to Matt Smith’s ability to sell a shopping list as the greatest tragedy to ever happen – and Jenna Coleman’s ability to work off him – but whenever we’re meant to feel awed or dumbstruck by something happening on screen (such as the declaration of The Silence, or the Battle of Trenzalore) it just feels hollow. They’ve told us what happened, and not shown us what happened. There’s been a lot of people saying that the Time of the Doctor should have been a series or half a series long and I think I’m going to agree with that, or at least they should have done it like the classic episodes wherein one story takes up more than one episode. There’s just too much happening here and too much is missed.

Anyway, back to the stuff that we actually do see, which is a shame, because the stuff that we do see, the time on Trenzalore that takes up most of the episode is perhaps some of the best dramatic writing that the show has seen, ever. The Doctor, true to form, defends the planet and becomes a sort of caretaker to it – a hero to adults and a friend to children. I really did enjoy the parts where The Doctor was allowed to geek out as Christmastown’s sheriff – where he builds toys for children and hangs pictures that they’ve drawn of him over all his walls. It’s very touching to be reminded for all the Doctor’s talk of being mighty and terrible and that he’s done X and X, he really is just an old guy who wants to help everyone that he comes across.

The sudden reappearance of The Time Lords in the series as a driving force so soon after The Day of the Doctor might be suspect in some people’s opinions, as well as the fact that they are now seemingly ‘the good guys’ in Moffatt’s regime. Personally, I don’t have a problem with this; having the Doctor’s people as Dalek like as they were implied to be in The End of Time was stupid and impractical in realistic terms, and it makes sense that not everyone in Time Lord Society agrees with their genocidal leaders. I mean, it’s like the War in Iraq; does everyone in the west agree with that? No, of course they don’t. It’s against our, and I imagine the Doctor’s species’ nature to be completely homogenous with our thoughts. Even in North Korea, the closest you will find to Dalek society on Earth, you will be hard pressed to find that every citizen agrees with Kim Jong Un on everything. And plus, it gives an extra layer of interest to any story that you want to tell in the future – one that Davies’ endgame wouldn’t have allowed for. It raises questions in the audience and allows for further stories, for example a civil war on Galifrey between factions loyal to Rassilon and factions loyal to the military – who, in truth, seemed to have their shit together much more than Rassillon and the Weeping Angels did.  Not to mention the fact that it gave this episode a reason to exist – without the Time Lords the Doctor would have probably just evacuated on Trenzalore and that would have been that, if he ever had any reason to be there in the first place.

But before we can get to there we still have to deal with the vast numbers of enemies over the skies of Trenzalore. The Doctor sends Clara back to Earth only for her to figure out a way of returning to Trenzalore. She sees the Doctor and what he’s become and tries to get him to leave. Naturally he refuses. After a meeting with the (recently) Dalek’d Tasha Lem, the Doctor sends Clara back to Earth ala The Parting of the Ways. The Silence become good guys and actively fight with the Doctor for hundreds of years (albeit although they fail to evacuate civilians so I’m not sure how good they can be described as); the war wages on Trenzalore for nearly a thousand years until the planet is left in desolate ruins, with only the bell tower that the Doctor was using as a home left whole. The Doctor sends Clara back to Earth… Again, and Tasha Lem comes to collect her. The Doctor is near death, and Tasha doesn’t think that he should die alone. When we see the Doctor he’s aged rapidly and is suffering with senility because this is it. No more regenerations, no more time. I think it’s important to talk about the Doctor’s lifespan so we’ll concentrate on that for a moment.

In the fifty years since Doctor Who was first broadcast we’ve seen a number of actors play the role; from the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ Matt Smith, to the cheekily Morpheus like Toby Jones, to the quite frankly nightmare inducing Joanne Lumley. What we haven’t seen – even when the late and great William Hartnell’s First Doctor died of old age – was the Doctor as a weakling. Even when the Doctor was physically incapable of dealing with a threat (which often happens when your enemies have guns) he was always capable of outthinking them, or having someone with him who could physically deal with them. Near the conclusion of The Time of the Doctor, we have none of that: no plan, no army of allies, no River Song or anything. This is it, it’s time to die. I think this is important when considering the maturity (or at least what I class as maturity) of the writing, or at least the characters and how that relates to their guilt over the destruction of Galifrey. When David Tennant’s Doctor was faced with death he did everything possible to avoid it, going on what he called a three year ‘farewell tour’ before returning to the Oodsphere to face Russell T Davis’ judgement, and when he did finally meet his maker did a complete song and a dance about it – the infamous ‘I could do so much more!’ stick – before finally coming to accept it. In my view, and you’re free to disagree with me, this was a selfish action. To Doctor Decem, at the end of his life, seeing the universe and protecting the innocent was just something that he did for fun, and not some higher calling. To the Eleventh Doctor, at the end of his life, seeing the universe and protecting the innocent is just something that has to do it. It’s a duty – one that he can’t ignore or run away from just because he doesn’t want to do it. Now, I’m not saying that Doctor Decem was in any way a coward or inherently selfish, after all he did give up his life to save Wilfred Mott eventually, but what I would like to suggest that the Doctor’s time on Trenzalore has changed him for the better. This is no longer the man who runs away from a world as soon as he’s solved a problem, but rather the man who actively tries to nurture the best parts of the place that he has decided to help. It’s like he’s expanded his companion shtick to include the entire universe.

The Doctor makes his way to his maker whilst Clara, clearly unsure of what to do and emotional, makes one last plea to the Time Lords behind the crack and… It succeeds. Didn’t see that coming. The Doctor gets a new set of regenerations, blows up the Daleks and after saying goodbye to a hallucination of Amelia Pond changes into Malcolm Tucker (sans swearing). And so, the final episode of the year that marked the fiftieth anniversary of the show ended the exact same way that the show started: a grey haired man full of life who doesn’t know how to pilot the Tardis and a young woman with ties to Coal Hill School travelling with him through time and space.

In conclusion although this is some of the strongest dramatic writing that the show has seen in a while it’s inconsistently paced and there are a lot of plot holes. The enemies – and there are many – aren’t given a lot of spotlight and as a result The Time of the Doctor seems very Dalek centric – a complaint that has been levelled against the show multiple times in the past and one that I think is a very real and valid complaint. The real star of this show is Matt Smith who dominates pretty much every scene that he’s in but you really can’t count out Jenna Coleman to provide a good counter balance to his zaniness. Tasha Lem seems like a cut and paste job of River Song which is kind of annoying (especially when having her actually be River Song would have given the writers so many more possibilities) but other than that there’s not much to complain about. If anything this episode feels like a lost opportunity; there’s a lot here, but there’s so much more that should be here too. Much like the quote at the beginning of the review, this just isn’t how it should be. But, despite this, I do have to recommend The Time of the Doctor, not only as a farewell to Matt Smith, but as an introduction to Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor.

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