As a whole, I’m very “meh” about The Time of the Doctor.
For any medium, final stories are always tricky to pull off. Plot threads and story arcs have to be wrapped up and there’s a certain level of emotion that’s on display, both on-screen and off. While the actor (or showrunner, or producer) may feel that their time in the role is done and they should ease on down the road, there’s a certain level of attachment to the part, especially one as iconic as the Doctor. The same can said for viewers who see the current incarnation of the Doctor as “their Doctor,” especially those for who Matt Smith was their first Doctor or their favorite Doctor, which is a LOT of people. Remember when we all saw that first promotional picture of Matt Smith and thought “Who is Matt Smith?” Then, after the obvious jokes were made, we thought “no, really, who the hell is Matt Smith?” And then we saw him in The Eleventh Hour, and…look, Paul McGann is “my” Doctor thanks to his wide body of audio work for Big Finish, but Matt Smith is my easily my favorite out of the current series…though Eccleston and Tennant aren’t far behind. Wonderful chaps, all of them.
With regards to the final stories of various Doctors, the “best” are usually considered to be the Fifth Doctor’s departure in The Caves of Androzani and Nine’s final bow in The Parting of the Ways. Both regenerations are gift-wrapped with a strong plotline, making the episodes about much more than the Doctor’s upcoming regeneration. As Matt Smith’s swan song, The Time of the Doctor was not a strong episode. Starting off with a coded message that drew nearly every major alien race from across the universe to its planet of origin, it was obvious from the very beginning that scriptwriter Steven Moffat was going for “huge” and “epic,” that this was intended to be the granddaddy episode of them all, a knockdown, drag-out fight with the very fate of no less than the Time Lords themselves at stake. This was an episode that should have been given two hours in order to fully explore a story like this.
But, to paraphrase a forum poster, it felt like we were given the highlights or the Cliff Notes version of a much larger, richer story that played with much higher stakes.
Instead of anything really happening in the 90 minutes we Americans got to see (with some of the worst commercial break timing since the first season on SyFy!), what we saw was a series of vignettes about the Doctor and his defense of the town called Christmas instead of the full story. Moffat skipped over large portions of time (I believe the final number of years the Doctor spent in Christmas was 300), only hitting on points such as the foolishness of the Sontarans and the cleverness of the Cybermen to make a wooden Cyberman to bypass the town’s defenses. The viewers never discovered what the townspeople thought of this man settling down and defending them from the combined might of the known universe. The viewers saw the townspeople either running for their lives or celebrating the Doctor’s victories. No one ever asked why the Doctor was doing this? No one ever asked (or demanded) the Doctor to leave because he was turning their small village into an all-out warzone? Did we even know anything about these townspeople and why we should care about their fate for any reason other than the Doctor cares about that fate?
It felt like SO MUCH story potential was glossed over for the sake of “more guns, more explosions, more epicness, more Cybermen heads on sticks!” It became the BBC equivalent of a Michael Bay movie not called Pain and Gain; put the entire budget on screen and spend pennies for the basic elements of melodrama. We saw snippets of the Cybermen vs. the Silence, we saw a few moments of the Daleks doing what they do best, and it felt like the Weeping Angels were put on screen just so they could have a few moments for the preview trailer. And the whole Church of the Mainframe/Church of the Silence thing, while a seasons-long subplot that got wrapped up, felt like it only existed to introduce yet another “strong female” who lusted for the Doctor; someone who we were told kicked a lot of ass, but still needed the Doctor to save her. The Time of the Doctor either needed more time to tell the complete story or a run through with the editor’s scalpel to tell a tighter and more compact story.
However, where the plot falls flat, this story worked much better as a regeneration episode. Going back to The Caves of Androzani and The Parting of the Ways, both of them saw the regeneration of their Doctors as highlighting their character traits. Caves was a study in just how far the Doctor will go to save a life and Parting showed the Doctor coming to grips with the most fateful decision of his life. Even the mini-episode The Night of the Doctor showed just how burned out and broken down the Eighth Doctor was. The Time of the Doctor was Eleven at the very end of his days; no more regenerations were waiting in the wings. One of the praises for Matt Smith’s Doctor was just how well he portrays an old man in a young man’s body. At times, he was a walking cartoon character with his love of bowties and fezzes. At other times, he was wise and cold. Now, at the very end, he’s willing to stand his ground and put his love of travel and adventure aside to save one small village called Christmas. Putting the weak plot aside, Matt Smith did a wonderful job in this episode. Manic and carefree at the beginning of the episode, to see him realize that the Time Lords could return and just how much war and destruction that would entail and make his decision to stand his ground…when the viewer sees the Doctor OLDER, it’s a major shock. The Doctor never ages, but there he was, with a cane in hand, limping, but still clever and brilliant. Smith just absolutely sells it, all the way to the very end where he’s an extremely old man who’s out of ideas and sits and waits for Death to come take him in the form of the Daleks. His regeneration itself was a bit off-putting at first, but I realized that, like each Doctor, each regeneration is different. You get the subtle change from Three to Four, the hallucinations of Five to Six, the time delay between Seven and Eight, the light show from Nine to Ten and the huge blast of energy from Ten to Eleven. Putting aside the energy blasts that took out the Daleks and the “Gallifrey ex machina” that preceded it, Eleven’s regeneration was subtle and a bit understated. For a Doctor whose current incarnation lived hundreds and hundreds of years, looking all the way back to when he first stuck his head out of his TARDIS and saw Amelia Pond made perfect sense to me. All those years, all those memories, and in the end he wanted to see where it all began one more time…even if Rory should have been there too, damn it. Curse you, Broadway, for robbing us of Arthur Darvill!
The sudden, instant regeneration was in character as well. Eleven’s done everything, he has no regrets, no worries, why put on a show? One second, Matt Smith. The next second, Peter Capaldi. And the TARDIS is crashing. Again. This seems to happen more times than Peter Davison was captured and tortured…
So where does that leave Jenna Coleman? In the end, I’m not a big fan of Clara, but it’s not the fault of the actress. Looking back, other companions have always had something else about them other than the Doctor. Nyssa had the destruction of her home world, Tegan wanted to just get to Heathrow, Ace had her role as the Doctor’s “apprentice,” and Rose/Donna/Martha had their families. Clara has the Doctor and nothing else. Sure, we see the children she’s in charge of, and we see her family at Christmas, but they’re simply plot devices to drive the Doctor’s story forward. Clara has no character arc outside of “fix the damage to the timeline the Great Intelligence caused,” and that was wrapped up a few months ago. Now, she’s nothing more than a prop for the plot. I hate writing that, because Coleman was great. Even though the see’s the Young, Middle-Aged, and Old Doctor in the time it takes to have a Christmas dinner, the viewer knows how distressed Clara is. The Doctor is in trouble, but he keeps sending her away. The first time, she sees the Time Vortex (maybe) and the second time, he flat out keeps the truth from her. For as much as I give Moffat grief for how Clara has been portrayed, the scenes between her and Eleven in Christmas are fantastic. I really hope Coleman gets a chance to shine with Capaldi, I really do. Say it with me…”no bad Doctors or companions, only bad writers.”
While I found this episode disappointing overall, the upside is that I’ve managed to put my finger on my main problem with Steven Moffat as showrunner. I’m not saying Moffat is the worst showrunner in Who, not at all, much the same way that, while I dislike some of the things he did, Russell T Davies isn’t the worst showrunner either. Davies put the Doctor on a huge pedestal from the very beginning, making him THE person responsible for the destruction of Gallifrey and the Time Lords. He was epic, he was larger than life, his deeds were legendary, his path littered with destruction, “Doctor” and “Warrior” synonyms in some languages. He was the Doctor who did things – he stop the evolution of the Daleks, he broke the gridlock, he The only people who ever called him out on anything were Donna Noble and Lindsay Duncan from The Waters of Mars. It took Lindsay’s suicide to pull the Tenth Doctor back from the threat of godhood and started him down the path to The End of Time. But even though the Doctor, under Davies, was this mythical, almost Jesus-like figure, Davies did everything he could to keep him grounded. It wasn’t just Rose Tyler, it was Jackie, Pete, and Mickey Smith. And Jack Harkness. And Sarah Jane Smith. And Wilfred Mott. His “soldiers,” as Davros (rightfully?) called them. For Davies’ flaws as a showrunner, he surrounded the Doctor with people who not only respected him and believed in him, but were willing to work alongside of him to make sure the right thing was done. For lack of a better phrase, Davies showed his work.
Moffat, on the other hand, is VERY “show, don’t tell.” First, the Ponds were having marital problems and Amy became a fashion model for a brief period of time, all in the course of one episode that also focused on Clara, the Soufflé Girl. The presence of the Daleks was almost a mere afterthought. Out of nowhere, the Ponds have an amazing best friend who turns out, within 20 minutes, to actually be River Song. The Doctor gathers allies we’ve never seen before to attack Demon’s Run. When you add to it all the time jumps between episodes and seasons during Moffat’s run on the show, and really, all of Eleven’s run feels like a “Greatest Hits” compilation. Every other Doctor’s run, even the audios of the “classic” Doctors, felt like one adventure took place soon after another, and any mentions of previous, unseen, off-screen adventures were off-hand comments, or played for laughs/drama like in Boom Town. Moffat wants to just jump to the next part in the bigger story, and who has times for the smaller, quieter, boring parts? Again, you could get something like The Power of Three where it’s played for laughs and then drama, but that’s just one episode. Moffat likes to hit the viewer over the head with “hey, we skipped the boring parts, so whatever you’re seeing on screen right now, THIS is important.” It’s very jarring and leaves the viewer wondering if they’ve missed something. It’s not a surprise to me that two of my favorite episode of Moffat’s time are episodes that do a great job of “tell, don’t show” – The Girl Who Waited and The God Complex…
Anyway, way too many words, so allow me to sum up. The Time of the Doctor was a poor farewell for Matt Smith based on the story alone. But Smith’s regeneration was fantastic, and based on that, I bid Smith a melancholy farewell, and thank him for the good times he’s given us over the past few years.
Now, one question. Do you know how to fly this thing?