Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Time of the Doctor

The Doctor: "Every life I save is a victory."
Clara: What about your life? After all this time, have you not earned the right to think about that?
Every era of Doctor Who is its own television show. Like the Doctor, it's survived so long because it can die and be reborn anew. And even within an era, it never needs to run out of stories - it has all of time and space. It's an infinity of shows within show. (Bigger on the inside!) 

So, for The Eleventh Doctor's final story, Moffat created an episode that is itself an entire show wrapped inside the show. The Doctor's final adventure is a series of adventures we merely glimpse over several centuries. There are ways in which this is one of the greatest stories Who has ever told, and ways in which it sadly stumbles, but there is so much greatness here.

We should start with how wonderful Matt Smith was. He was an unknown, hired at age 24 to replace David Tennant, the most popular Doctor since Tom Baker. Yet it took him all of a few moments to make the role his.

Right from the beginning, he used the youth to his advantage. The Doctor has always been young and old at the same time; Hartnell had the sense of a kid stuck inside an old body. Smith went the opposite way; on the one hand, he could sustain the bursts of youthful energy for an entire episode if he needed to. But he played the Doctor as an old man, more so than anyone before him. No one since Hartnell had created such a divide in age, and Smith did it even better. He stumbled around like he never correctly grew into his own body. He could make clumsy incompetence charming, without losing his sense of intelligence, exuding the ultimate absent-minded professor. Thanks to both his incredible comedic timing and his dramatic chops, the result was whimsical, funny, and sad, all at once.

Then there were the speeches. The Doctor has always gotten grand speeches, but Smith on the surface seemed least appropriate to them. Yet he knocked them out of the ballpark every time, summoning up a deep wellspring of power when he needed it. 

Oh, and he was brilliant with kids. There's no getting past just how great he was playing off of children, backing down and drawing the very best out of them.

Finally, he had the tremendous fortune of being paired with Steven Moffat, who took full advantage of Smith's genius, giving him not only a full range of emotions, tones, and stories, but a series of character arcs woven throughout. The romantic angle to the Doctor has been played since the mid-90s, but Moffat brought it to the forefront, exploring the idea of this geeky goof really discovering girls for the first time. And Smith's silliness balanced it nicely, keeping the romance and sex from overwhelming the character.

For Smith's Grand Finale, Moffat brings him through a little bit of everything. The Doctor's eccentricities are brought to their limit with a long series of slapstick nudity jokes. He has to play an imaginary boyfriend to one companion, having been introduced as the imaginary friend of another. His romantic side is turned up to the appropriate number, as we see him flirting (remarkably adeptly) with Tasha Lem, and less effectively with Clara, given his more complex relationship with her. The Crack in Time and The Silence both return and are explained. Gallifrey tries to break through into our Universe. The Question, teased for so long and finally answered in Name, becomes the central focus. He gets to teach a bunch of kids that silly dance from The Big Bang while informing them, “Cool is not cool.”

And, of course, because it's Christmas, the Doctor saves Christmas - every single day for hundreds of years on end, giving his last life to a tiny winter town named Christmas.

Finally, Moffat has had the Doctor's death hang over him in some way throughout the era, with an ever-changing approach. In The Big Bang, when he finally realizes he's going to die, he accepts it bitterly. ("I think I'll skip the rest of the rewind. I hate repeats.") Throughout Season Six, he meandered, carefully avoiding facing his death for centuries, and only accepting with his head bowed (until he figured a solution, of course). Even in Name of the Doctor, seeing his grave, the permanent record of his death, was something he avoided until he had to face it. (As Ten said in Day, “We need a new destination, because I don't want to go.”) Always, he ran as long as he could, then found a way to survive and run again.

Here, trapped on Trenzalore, he finally accepts not only his death, but accepts that he has to stop running. This tiny, insignificant town will become his home until the end. Once Tasha tell him she'll burn the planet if he speaks his name to bring the Time Lords through, he responds that the planet is protected. His last great battle is to defend the civilians of Christmas, who will otherwise be the first casualties, caught between a renewed Time War. At first, he half-jokes, it's a lot easier easier because after sending Clara away, he doesn't have a choice.

But even given a perfect escape, he returns, aging to death. And in the end, dying of old age, when he walks up the tower to face the Daleks, he has no plan. For the first time in all his lives, he's made peace and is simply ready to die.

"Everything ends, Clara, and sooner than you think."
As the story of the Doctor's last battle, it's extraordinary – one of the greatest the show has told.

But Moffat also brings in all the flaws of his era in full. It's a rushed, jammed-together series of scenes, some brilliant, others bursting with the promise of brilliance, but not fitting correctly, or coming up for enough breath. There are too many ideas, too much sprawl and sweep to compress.Like the Third Doctor's swan song Planet of the Spiders, it has all the mad genius of the era, but nearly drowns in all the era's flaws, as though it can only purge them by killing them with the Doctor. (although, admittedly, kind of the opposite flaws as Spiders) It's fun to watch, but the story doesn't have time to realize its genius.

And it's not just little things that get trampled underfoot in the mad rush to the finish. Three seasons and five years of plotting are wrapped up in a brief dialogue.

The Silence appear early on, terrifying Clara and telling her to “Confess!” After that, they disappear until the halfway point, when the Doctor briefly explains who they are – genetically engineered professional priests, who handle confession by erasing the memory of the confessors. Tasha briefly explains what happened:

Tasha: The Kovarian Chapter broke away. They traveled back along your timeline and tried to prevent you ever reaching Trenzalore.
Doctor: So that's who blew up my TARDIS. I thought I'd left the bath running.
Tasha: They blew up the time capsule, creating the very cracks in the universe through which the Time Lords are now crawling.
Doctor: The Destiny trap. You can't change history if you're a part of it.
Tasha: They engineered a psychopath to kill you.
Doctor: Totally married her.

And then the Daleks attack, and it's never mentioned again.

As a concept, that's a cool wrap-up to that storyline. But buried in the middle of a conversation and sandwiched between DALEKS! completely flattens the impact. It not only isn't satisfying, it's infuriating. We don't see Madame Kovarian (her story apparently doesn't get an ending in itself). The Silence don't actually do anything. They're just brought up to have all the mysteries from Series 5 and 6 blurted out, and then dropped.

Well, except for a climactic moment where all the species wipe each other out, and the Doctor teams up with them to fight the Daleks... as we learn in a quick sentence bit of narration, and then, again, forget. It's a moment that should be a grand climax, but is so short you could miss it completely if you were distracted for a few seconds. The Silence plot, stretching back to the Doctor's first meeting with Amy in The Eleventh Hour and threaded all the way to here, ends with a whisper not because it has to, but because it barely takes enough breath for even that whisper.

The little things are jammed in, too, though. The Angels show up for a chilling cameo in the snow... and then completely forgotten except for a brief shot in a montage. The Cybermen sneak through Tasha's defenses with a flamethrower-wielding wooden Cyberman. (Awesome.) The Doctor defeats it with absurd comedy logic; it's an amusing Looney Tunes sort of joke, but the Cyberman has no excuse to fall for it (the Doctor's lie was completely impossible given that both A) the flamethrower is built so that it can only shoot one way, and B) it could presumably do a software scan and figure out that the signal didn't work.). And, again, having brought them up just long enough to make them utter rubbish, they're forgotten again.

(Well, except for Handles, the Doctor's Cyber-companion, who's one of the best things about the episode - a charming bit of whimsy whose final scene is the first moment of genuine emotion in the story. Of course, he's also rubbish, but the good kind. Time is the Moffat era's fourth attempt at doing clever cameos with the Cybermen, and like with the first two, it does manage to come up with new and fun things to do with them, while making them seem more incompetent each time out.)

The effect of all this is a greatest hits album that just gives you fifteen-second samples of the hits. I mean, to randomly pick the first song that comes to my head, “Bad to the Bone” has an great intro, but what's the point if you're not going to get to the head nurse speaking up, saying "Leave this one alone", because she could tell right away that I... got sidetracked there. The point is, without the lyrics or anything past the opening bars, you just have a neat riff on Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man", and that's cool and all, but not really satisfying. It teases us with a hint of genius, then yanks it away so it can tease us with another one.

(Why was Bad to the Bone the song that randomly popped in my head?)

And so much of the emotion and story are left like that. We see things narrated or in montage that would be far more effective if we actually experienced them. (or at least had less generic montages)

There are also moments of incredible sloppiness. Such as the Daleks re-learning about the Doctor by harvesting the info from Tasha. Why bother doing the whole Daleks forgetting the Doctor exists bit back in Asylum in the first place if we're just going to undo it the first chance we get?

The most glaring comes near the end. It's not only established, but absolutely crucial to the plot that the Doctor is in a Truth Field. The specifics are vague enough that the inconsistencies fine (the Doctor and Clara being “furious” and “not even talking to you,” then instantly hugging. I'm not sure how the field reacts to that sort of complex emotional joke).

Toward the end, the Doctor tells one of the Christmasians (?) simply, “I have got a plan.” The Doctor then tells Clara that he lied – they just like it when he says that. And taken on its own, it's a lovely little character moment. But he's standing at the epicenter of the truth field. You could to hand wave it and say the Doctor is so good at lying he beat the field, but if that's the case, he can solve the plot with a single sentence. And if he forgets, Clara is standing right there. Desperately trying to find a solution.

Perhaps the most baffling – if not the most disappointing, since it comes out of nowhere – is the revelation, past the halfway point, that the Doctor is actually out of regenerations. Adding War makes him actually the twelfth incarnation, and Tennant's semi-regeneration in Journey's End is retconned as a full regeneration. (I'm okay with the retcon itself, given that great line: "Number 10 once regenerated and kept the same face. I had vanity issues at the time.")

The problem is, this revelation comes completely out of left field. Pulling it out this late it the game stifles any chance of it having any real meaning or impact. Emotionally, it never sinks in, as though Moffat had the idea for how to solve the 12 regeneration limit, then threw it in on the last day of filming. Why not mention this in Day of the Doctor, and let it hang over this episode? (and the audience for the month in between Day and Time)

And yet, for all that, as it comes into the home stretch, Time of the Doctor (again like Planet of the Spiders) still builds up that grand emotion. Despite all the flaws in episode, the sheer weight of the ideas and story and the sincerity of the performances lift the finale far above what it's actually earned.

When Clara returns to Christmas the second time, she finds the Doctor dying of old age. And (aside from the Doctor's inexplicable lie) it's a lovely scene. Jenna Coleman underplays it beautifully, and Smith charms his way straight through the heavy makeup. And then the Doctor ascends the staircase to face the Daleks one final time (who, amusingly, hesitate to shoot him because they assume it's part of his plan).

So Clara asks the trapped Time Lords to save the Doctor rather than forcing him to save them. 

You've been asking the question, and it's time someone told you, you've been getting it wrong. His name is the Doctor. All the name he need, everything you need to know about him. And if you love him, and you should, help him. Help him.
So the Time Lords close the crack and give the Doctor a new set of regenerations. It's an incredible gesture - the Time Lords have never seemed like the sort to save the Doctor out of love. Rather, they tend to save him because it's useful sometimes to have a renegade working for good. But the Doctor saved them, after all, and spent centuries just outside their view, refusing to bring them into our universe in order to save the people of a tiny backwater town in permanent winter from becoming collateral damage. Perhaps, at last, his own people were moved enough by his actions to save the man who saves.
Daleks: You will die now! The rules of regeneration are known. You have expended all your lives.
Doctor: Sorry, what did you say? Did you mention the rules?

The result of a whole new set of regenerations turns out to be a nuclear regeneration that destroys all the Daleks in a gloriously over-the-top climax. The careful building from the quiet softness of Clara and the Doctor opening the present to Clara's impassioned plea for the Doctor to the unhinged melodrama makes for a sweeping finale.

Which is followed, naturally, by a quiet scene in the TARDIS. Clara sees first his old clothes lying around, then a bowl of fish fingers and custard, and then the Doctor again. Smith is back to his youthful self for a moment, the new regeneration cycle taking a moment to set in. Here, he gets another speech, which feels a bit forced and overkill, though I like the Aztecs-like line, "I will not forget one moment of this. Not one day." And then he imagines Amy saying farewell. All this is nice but didn't really move me, either watching it the first time last year or rewatching it now.

But Smith casually taking off the bowtie? Punch right to the solar plexus.

Moffat puts in a lot of reversals of our expectations for a regeneration scene, but this is the one that really sticks. Rather than the next Doctor gradually stripping away the last of their predecessor's identity, Eleven quietly gives it up. He's just a story, now, after all. "I will always remember when the Doctor was me."

And so will I.

Even if I didn't love every moment, I loved Eleven, loved Smith, loved his companions, loved his era. I know because right after rewatching this, I held off writing the review so I could rewatch The Big Bang, and it was every bit as magnificent as it ever was. And it's not alone; The Eleventh Hour, Amy's Choice, A Christmas Carol, The Impossible Astronaut, The Doctor's Wife, The Girl Who Waited, Hide, The Crimson Horror, Name of the Doctor, Day of the Doctor, and others, all absolutely marvelous. And so is Time. Perhaps it does resurrect every flaw of the era to purge it with Eleven's death. But it also resurrects all the charm, and humor, and whimsy, and, in its finest moments, its heart.


* * *


  • "Stay calm. Just one question. Do you happen to know how to fly this thing?" Capaldi's first appearance is fun, though there was a small and incredibly immature part of me disappointed in the lack of four-letter words beginning with "f" and "c".
  • "The trouble with Daleks is they say so long to say anything. Probably die of boredom before they shoot me."
  • So, Tasha Lem. I'm really not quite sure what to think of her. The Mother Superieress of the Church of the Papal Mainframe, she picks up a thread from A Time of Angels, where the Church "moved on" and had professional soldiers. Moffat expands vastly on this here, creating a church that expends its armies in defense of peace. Also, it requires you to be naked in church and combines an alter with a bed; between that and Orla Brady's vicious and flirtatious performance, it implies pretty strongly what Steven Moffat thinks church should be like. She also gets lots of good lines, turns out to be too stubborn for even a Dalek to take over her completely, and is implied to be a dominatrix.

    Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the character immensely, but I'm not sure quite what Moffat's saying here, nor do I quite feel I have a grasp on who she is. She's somehow just a tad too strange, too extreme. Sort of like all the craziest parts of River, Amy, and Clara thrown together, plus a dash of religion, and shaken vigorously.

    Whatever that was all about, it was worth it for this one line: "The church of the mainframe apologizes for your death. The appropriate afterlives have been informed."
  •  Again, I'll talk about Clara in Deep Breath, but I did want to reference my favorite line of hers here:
    Linda: How's the turkey?
    Clara: Fine, fine. Well, dead and decapitated, but that's Christmas when you're a turkey.
  • UPDATE 12/23/2014: This Tumblr conversation makes a compelling rebuttal to the general line of thought in this review. Thematically, this episode is about the importance of the little moments and battles in life; the epic elements are no more important. I don't think it pulls it off - in fact, I think the four knocks scene in The End of Time gets the same point across more directly and movingly - but it's a good argument, and worth reading.


  1. Here's another plot hole that killed the story for me. One of the reasons why the Doctor says he can't leave Trenzalore is because he won't leave the people of Christmas to their deaths. But, um, he keeps bragging about his bigger-on-the-inside time machine. Why the hell doesn't he shuttle them all inside the TARDIS and take them someplace safe so he can work out on the problem on Trenzalore alone, instead of letting them risk their lives for hundreds of years by living in a battle zone?

    1. To be fair, "put everyone on the TARDIS and run away" would also solve about 90% of all Doctor Who plots.

      It's entirely possible they simply didn't want to leave. People living in a war zone very often stay regardless; that's where their entire lives are, and they're not going to just pack up and leave the second a few soldiers march in. Even without the TARDIS, they surely could have moved to a less hostile area of the planet if they wanted to, but if they don't want to be kicked out of their homes, the Doctor can't exactly force them out.