If you’re one of those fans who worship Doctor Who and its showrunner Steven Moffat and hate hearing a critical word against either, then please look away now or else this might be uncomfortable for the both of us. For while there are undoubtedly some good parts to the 2013 Christmas special – some great parts, in fact, and I promise I will get around to them before the end of this review – I’m afraid that on the whole this is not a positive write-up.
How can that be, you ask, coming hard on the heels of the gushing rave review I handed out to the 50th anniversary special just a month ago? Surely things can’t have gone awry in such a short space of time? But that’s exactly the thing with Moffat’s show: to coin a bad metaphor about boxes of chocolates (and also the Fifth Doctor’s own views on regeneration), ‘you never know what you’re going to get.’ One week it might be a thing of beauty and an unmitigated triumph, the next week it might be a damp squib, and then just occasionally you’ll get an episode which aims high but collapses because of rather than in spite of its ambitions.
This variability wasn’t the case with Moffat’s predecessor Russell T Davies, who for better of for worse imposed a ‘house style’ on the show which meant that week-in and week-out you knew what you were going to get: huge action, vivid characters, big emotion all wrapped up in one frantic sugar rush of an episode. In many ways the manic character of the show under Davies was a close approximation to the fizzing nature of its titular character, so that while each week saw a different story and a new guest cast there was no mistaking the fact that you were still watching the same series. That’s often not been the case with Moffat, and it’s added a thrilling but perhaps also terrifying uncertainty every week as we watch the opening credits roll, unsure of what we’re going to get. Sometimes it’s brilliant, but other times it’s been depressingly far off the mark.
It’s not just the case that Moffat seems to be very hands-off as a script editor, essentially setting assignments to a cadre of talented writers and then leaving them to it (unlike RTD who was an obsessive rewriter of everyone’s work.) Even Moffat’s own stories can be wildly inconsistent: I made no secret of how much I was disappointed in the series 7 mid-season finale “The Angels Take Manhattan” for example, but the very next episode on the list was last year’s Christmas special “The Snowmen” which I’d rate as one of the all-time best stories the show has done in 50 years. In the end, the knowledge of just how good the show can be when it hits its marks only deepens the sense of disappointment when it goes terribly wrong – such as the lumpen 2011 Christmas special “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe.” I’ve come to theorise that Moffat is far better at beginnings than he is at endings: hence Matt Smith’s début in the role “The Eleventh Hour” and Jenna Coleman’s in “The Snowmen” were triumphs, while the exit of Amy and Rory in “The Angels Take Manhattan” had all sorts of problems. And unfortunately this year’s Christmas special had the key task of ending Smith’s tenure in the Tardis and as a result played to Moffat’s apparent weak spots and skewed very much to the latter end of the spectrum.
Part of the reason is that the 60 minutes simply had far too much to do. Not only did it have to sign-out Smith and introduce his successor Peter Capaldi in the closing moments, it also had to be an effective and rousing Christmas Day family entertainment. On top of this, it also had to attend to a raft of dangling plot threads that had been set up over the last four years, which need to be done now before the baton being passed makes it too late to do so. Unfortunately that means an avalanche of series continuity to take care of. I can only theorise that Moffat expected he’d have at least another half-season with Smith to take care of all that unfinished business (he hadn’t been able to get around to it in 2012 because that was dominated by writing out the Ponds; 2013 was the story of ‘the Impossible Girl’ and the build up to the 50th anniversary events) because no one in their right mind would have willingly opted to tackle all these leftovers in the dizzying, bewildering way that Moffat attempted to do so here in “The Time of the Doctor”. On one level I’m sure Moffat is (justifiably) patting himself on the back at the sheer expertise it took to successfully compress all these plot pay-offs into such a small space, but it’s not a satisfying experience for the viewer – even those who still ‘get’ all the back references. Untangling it all is like trying to take in all those terms and conditions captions that infomercials flash up for half a second but which are only legible if you rewind and freeze-frame each of them for a few minutes to read and digest.
This ‘taking care of old business’ is what constitutes the second quarter of the hour-long “The Time of the Doctor”. Before that we’d had an incoherent and fractured first quarter which even I as a long-time Doctor Who fan found myself muttering ‘dreadful’ at and which was difficult to keep up with let alone care about; God only knows what casual family audiences gathered around the box on Christmas Day would have made of it. It was the self-referential tangle I had feared at the end of “The Name of the Doctor” but which appeared to have been averted by the success of “The Day of the Doctor” only to come back and haunt us at Christmas time.
Part of the problem was that it was stuffed full of all sorts of widely divergent ideas and plots, most of which never developed or contributed to the whole. If the first law of the theatre is that if a character has a gun in the first act then someone must use it in the third, Moffat’s corresponding modus operandi appears to be to introduce an entire armoury of weapons in the first act and then forget all about them before the end of the scene let alone the play. Hence really intriguing ideas that could power entire episodes are thrown in, kicked around for a couple of minutes and then tossed aside. The backwater planet emitting a mysterious indecipherable message; a disembodied compliant Cyberman; a ‘truth field’; clothing via holo-emitters and a whole lot more are toyed with but are ultimately disposable. The episode also brings in yet another hazily-sketched incarnation of the Papal Mainframe, a quasi-religious super-secret order/organisation/society that Moffat has had no inclination to develop beyond a cool-sounding name but which is needed in this case as part of the explanation for the ‘crack in the Universe’, the mysterious ‘Silence Will Fall’ message, the Silents themselves and Madame Kovarian who constituted the plot threads for the first two years of Matt Smith’s incumbency.
Oh, and Clara suddenly gets a Rose Tyler-esque family with which to spend Christmas lunch. Presumably this is to fulfil the ‘Christmas special’ remit of the show and also insert something to flesh out Clara’s character now she’s no longer the ‘Impossible Girl’ walking plot device; but the trouble is that the scenes in question have precisely no festive feel to them and are yet another jerkily inconsistent development to a character that continues to make precisely no coherent sense at all: one week she’s a live-in nanny, next she’s tumbling through the Doctor’s timeline, now she’s a teacher, here’s a family out of the blue. All Clara’s scenes here do is suck out energy and moreover time that could have been better used elsewhere. Jenna Coleman deserves more.
And finally with all this stuff out of the way – and boy, has it been hard work, with a monsters’ rogues gallery of the Doctor’s greatest enemies also needing to be fitted in albeit in a half-hearted ‘cameo appearance’ cavalcade fashion – the story can finally begin, and it boils down to the Doctor being required to sit around on his backside on the planet latterly revealed as Trenzalore for the rest of his life, until he finally dies of boredom after centuries of inactivity. Sorry, of old age. Conveniently this moment finally comes at the very second when all his old enemies finally make planet fall and start to maraud – what are the odds of that, eh?
Yes, that’s right: this episode requires arguably the most hyperactive incarnation of the Doctor we’ve ever seen to basically sit around and do nothing of any note. It’s the most inert he’s ever been. Ostensibly it’s to save the lives of those in a small village (tritely called Christmas) on Trenzalore, but since we get to know precisely none of the inhabitants there as characters (at best, four of them get one-scene walk-on parts) it’s hard to care – especially as the village and its inhabitants don’t seem to change at all despite the passing of so much time with the Doctor in residence. Is he really ‘saving’ them if their society is so static and lifeless that they’re little more than pet goldfish in a tiny glass bowl? It’s hardly a life worth living if after several hundred years they still dress, act and live exactly the same as they did when the Doctor arrived: it appears he’s had a stultifying effect on the place, crushing the life out of it. Any previous Doctor would have railed against such a situation and declared that death in pursuit of freedom and liberty would be better than this unedifying status quo, but not so here. It’s like the Doctor has given up, and that feels like a betrayal – much as his surrender of Amy and Rory without a fight did.
However, some credit at long last where it’s due: Matt Smith’s performance in the latter half of the episode as he ages (albeit at a slow rate for a human) until he’s a withered husk is mesmerising and quite utterly brilliant, some of his best work in the show. Of course we know that our emotions are being carefully directed to the moment of ultimate pathos for when Smith’s version of the character ‘dies’, but it’s no less effective for our awareness of it. The success of this part of the show suggested to me a much better story, one which starts with Clara stumbling across an old, disused Tardis and being taken to Trenzalore to meet the decrepit old Doctor when for her only a day had passed since her last outing with the familiar vibrant younger man. What has happened? Crash to opening credits and then you have the episode structure for the Doctor to reveal to Clara what has transpired, and hopefully a more coherent way to tell not just the tale of the village called Christmas but also how the Doctor unravelled the mysteries of the crack in the universe and the plot of the Silents against him.
The episode does takes care of one bit of important Doctor Who lore: the limit of 12 regenerations per Time Lord. Moffat had already set up John Hurt as an additional incarnation of the Doctor and now establishes David Tennant’s aborted regeneration in “Journey’s End” as another, so that makes Matt Smith not the Eleventh Doctor after all but rather the 13th – and the last of his kind. There had been much speculation about how the show would get around this without compromising four decades of canon, and in the end Moffat can’t bring himself to contravene series lore and therefore effects the only solution the show’s history allows – the Time Lords bestow upon the Doctor a new regeneration cycle just as they had in the past with the Master for services rendered. Presumably this act of largesse is by way of repayment for what the Doctor did saving them in the 50th anniversary special, showing how carefully interconnected and linked all of Moffat’s strands for the series have been over the last few years.
However Moffat does then make the mistake of tampering with the established staging of the regeneration itself: I’m not sure I’m all that wild about a regeneration being used as a superweapon capable of downing a Dalek space cruiser, for example. And then there’s a curious breaking of the dramatic rhythm, the Doctor not changing immediately but instead hanging around to chat for a few minutes – conveniently de-aged so that Smith can deliver his final lines in the role looking like himself without being compromised by having to act through tons of old age prosthetics.
Carping aside, this does result in the best scene of the entire show as the Doctor tries to explain to Clara what regeneration feels like. Russell T Davies did something similar at the end of David Tennant’s era, trying to make regeneration appear less like a ‘there’s a flash of light, then things carry on much as before’ nuisance and imbue it with a real sense of finality and gravitas, something to be avoided and feared even if the Doctor himself knows he will go on in some new form afterwards. Moffat and Smith could hardly meekly reprise that concept and had to come up with an idea of their own, and they do – rather brilliantly. The Doctor compares regeneration to the different stages of life that humans go through as they age, which is something we can all relate to knowing how much we ourselves have changed from child to teenager to adult to parent to middle- and old-aged. Just as the Doctor is no longer Willian Hartnell or Tom Baker, so we ourselves are no longer the people we were when we were 10, or 20, or 30: we remember those times clearly, but at the same time it’s sometimes hard to recognise the person we were as being the same one we are now. It’s a magical and poetical description, delivering the emotional resonance with the viewers that the breathless confusion of the episode had hitherto been conspicuously lacking.
There’s a also a ‘surprise’ coda featuring the brief return of Amy Pond, something that I’m personally in two minds about. While seeing Karen Gillan again was a lovely moment, I couldn’t help but think that having her back and no one else rather devalued the contributions of all the other recurring characters from the last four years – Rory, River, Madame Vastra, Strax and Jenny. Even Clara is diminished by the moment. And while other Doctors have been also signed off by memories of past companions as their end arrived – and famously, Tennant did an entire farewell tour of them all worthy of the extended edition of The Lord of the Rings – here the effect of having just Amy return to the sign-off rather made me think: ‘Is that all? Has the last four years produced so little else of note other than Amy?’
Finally there’s Capaldi. He doesn’t get a big light show to announce his arrival, it’s just BANG – a jump cut and he’s there. The stolen moment with Amy was evidently more important than a new Doctor. In fact the ending shows a curious lack of interest in the new Doctor as a whole, the first lines a rather tired retread of ‘new hair/new teeth/new legs’ from previous handovers although the sudden ‘Just one question: do you know how to fly this thing?’ was a welcome laugh-out-loud innovation. And then it was over, crash to credits and a long wait of nine months before we properly get to see the new guy in action.
So where does that leave us in terms of final thoughts on the Smith era? I’ve always thought Smith was very good – there’s been a couple of wobbles here and there but generally Smith himself has been a rather wonderful star for the show who has been capable of some truly astonishing and mesmerising performances. He’s more than earned his place at the top of the Doctor Who firmament, even if “The Day of the Doctor” only managed to confirm for me that Tennant is still my all-time favourite in the part.
But as impressed as I am by Matt Smith’s performance, I’m glad that the time of the Eleventh is over with. I haven’t been happy with a lot of the series in the last four years for reasons covered at length on this blog and if the end of Smith’s incumbency means that a line can be drawn under the past and a new fresh direction (dare I say reboot?) is to be ushered in with Capaldi then I’m glad the moment is here. Of course, that’s a big ‘if’ and I started this post by saying that Doctor Who under Moffat is like that unpredictable box of chocolates in Forrest Gump, which means that even with Capaldi now installed at the console we still have no idea what the series will look like when it returns next autumn. Will it be back on course, or will it just be making a whole new series of missteps that will leave me fuming at the keyboard again?
Life can be tough as a Doctor Who fan with such uncertainty. But then, the uncertainty has also always been what has made the show truly great and unique over the course of an astonishing 50 years. It goes with the territory, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Name of the Doctor was shown on Christmas Day and repeated on BBC3 at 7pm on Boxing Day. It is currently available on iPlayer. It will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on January 20, 2014 in a boxset also containing the other three Matt Smith Christmas specials.