This story in a nutshell: The Doctor defends the town of Christmas on Trenzalore and finds himself with a complete new set of lives…
• Narration is a double edged sword because whilst it stresses a feeling of importance, it also places the events within the tale in the past and thus we know that everything is going to turn out okay because the story is being told by somebody in the future who has survived. It is a useful device because it is able to get the story where it needs to be quickly (although why we should need to skip to the middle of this tale so suddenly when the conclusion is so drawn out baffles me).
• ‘What’s that?’ ‘Just a bit of a Cyberman.’ Handles is a glorious creation, that seems to be something that we can all agree on. It says something about a character drama that is pushing to be poignant with the death of its main character when the most touching moment comes with the passing of a piece of equipment. There is something wonderfully ghoulish about the Doctor hooking a Cyberman’s head to the TARDIS console and using it as an interface and then carrying it around as an idiosyncratic version of an IPad. There is a person head inside that casing, decapitated and vocal cords being used from beyond the grave. But let’s not think about that too much when Matt Smith manages to have a more convincing an amusing relationship with an inanimate object than his own companion, imbuing characteristics into Handles through his strength of performance. Given the Doctor’s reaction to the device, Handles is informative, sweet, petulant, playful, a proper companion.
• Sheila Reid is always good value (I just saw her in a pantomime at Hastings and she was fantastic) and somehow manages to make an impression as Clara’s dotty grandmother. Let’s hope we see more of her. She’s no Wilf (but then she isn’t being characterised by Davies and played by Cribbins, a truly winning combination) but it’s a step in the right direction as far as Clara is concerned.
• Amy turning up in the TARDIS, as bizarre as it is, is rather a lovely touch. She will always be Smith’s companion in my eyes, not Clara, so it’s quite nice that they get a final goodbye. It doesn’t make any sense but I appreciate the sentiment.
• ‘Do you happen to know how to fly this thing?’ Capaldi’s wide-eyed, manic appearance at the climax is magnificent. He flies across the console room with his arms outstretched, just as Hartnell used to. Don’t balls this one up.
• What is it with Moffat and bringing together all the alien races that the Doctor has ever fought when he feels the need to make the show as epic as possible? I would have thought that rather than joining forces to defeat the Doctor/the Time Lords as they did in The Big Bang and Time of the Doctor, they would have been at each other’s throats. Sometimes less is more. Time of the Doctor didn’t need a menagerie of monsters in order to make it feel big (it never feels big anyway, it is actually one of the more intimate tales and should have stuck to that throughout), one alien race would have sufficed with a single spokesperson who could have been characterised decently and proven to be a worthy foe. Given they are mentioned, I would have gone with the re-designed Tereleptil. Instead it is a bunch of faceless Daleks, Cybermen and Weeping Angels. All of which should be greeted with joy but have been flogged to death in the new series and no matter what tricks you try and play with them (wooden Cybermen – what next, molten lava Daleks?) they still illicit a sigh of despondence. ‘Again?’ I sighed, when I should have been on the edge of my seat. How can introducing an entire army of Daleks and Cybermen in a pre-titles sequence be quite this unimpressive? That takes some doing.
Things we have seen before: an army of the Doctor’s enemies amassing to bring him down, the Doctor opening the door mid-flight and taking a telephone call, orbiting above a planet and opening the doors to have a look (is this the new version of the scanner?), the Angels are back for a quick set piece, the cracks in the fabric of reality return (and isn’t it hilarious that for plot expediency the Doctor stumbles across it in the first dwelling he walks into purely by accident), the obsession with the term ‘Doctor Who?’ (I hope I never hear it again…I honestly don’t give a fuck what his name is), we’re back on Trenzalore again, Clara being sent home by the Doctor plays out in exactly the same way as Rose’s homecoming in The Parting of the Ways except nowhere near as effective…and if that wasn’t bad enough we get to see it played out twice, it turns out the whole story has been a trap sprung by the Daleks. Ooh the Daleks! We haven’t seen them since…the last story, and the Doctor appearing to regenerate and then turning up again with the same face.
• Surely they could have found somewhere else to film than at the same location as the Powell Estate for Clara’s flat? It only invites confusion by mimicking what came before. Who is the woman sitting at the dinner table that is not Clara’s father and grandmother and why doesn’t Moffat do us the courtesy of explaining that?
• I don’t know if it is the direction or the pacing or the fact that it simply isn’t particularly well written but the juxtaposition between the epic (the Doctor facing an army of Cybermen) and the intimate (Clara wrestling with a turkey for Christmas dinner) has never been so awkwardly handled before. It’s supposed to be a clash but these scenes don’t segue together comfortably when contrasted against one another.
• Do we have to make so many concessions that this story is going out on Christmas Day? In reality The Time of the Doctor doesn’t need any of the festive trimmings that have been added and would probably feel much less frivolous and forced without them. Surely Doctor Who is a big enough institution in the UK these days that it can put out a Christmas special that has absolutely nothing to do with the holiday itself? Besides, it has kind of been flogged to death over the past decade, how many more Christmas themed disasters and planets can we stumble upon? Even in the height of the Williams era we never had anything quite as frivolous the Doctor’s companion using the TARDIS to cook a Christmas turkey. It would have been laughed out of the offices. Uncooked giblets seems to be the only connection between Clara’s family Christmas and the Doctor’s naked trip to the Papal Mainframe.
I wasn’t too impressed by the aesthetic of the Papal Mainframe, as seen from space or on the ground. The show has commanded some impressive visuals in the past couple of seasons (those rubbery Slitheen costumes feel as though they are decades away) and since it appears that the BBC are willing to visualise whatever is locked up in Steven Moffat’s the only thing that can let the show down is his creativity and the designers bringing it all to life, not the money available. What looks like a modern version of Blake’s 7’s Orac descends from the heavens in all it’s cheap and cheerful glory. The sets themselves seemed to have been inspired by Star Trek’s later incarnations; functional, uninspired and pretty dreary on the eye.
• I was looking forward to seeing what Orla Bradley brought to the series after following her career in a number of impressive roles. Unfortunately as soon as she opens her mouth and says ‘hey babes’ all my goodwill vanished. Instead of presenting a strong female image as the head of the church in the future, we instead get another hideous femme fatale in the Moffat mould. A woman whose journey throughout this story jumps from asking for the Doctor’s help, to aiding him, to betraying him to the Silence, to turning out to be a Dalek duplicate, to being able to override that and defeat them…she’s just all over the place. Tasha Lem is another plot device rather than a character, doing whatever is needed by Moffat at any given point, consistency be damned. The only thing that she manages to do consistently is behave as if she wants to rip the Doctor’s shirt off and fuck him over an altar. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Moffat is so horny that he has even brought sex to the church.
• The first appearance of the Silence was a great shock. To be fair, this story could have coped quite happily with just their presence and it would have been a great opportunity to learn more about this chilling new foe. Instead the Silence are retroactively turned into the good guys, with the ones we met during season six proving to be a rebel splinter group working against their wishes. That was also the case with the Ice Warriors when they turned up as the good guys in The Curse of Peladon but there we had four episodes to utilise and explore the idea. In The Time of the Doctor, Moffat retcons his own creations and dismisses the whole of season six’s story arc with a couple of lines. Since this story is so busy cramming in irrelevant things this there is no time to deal with potentially fascinating development of the Silence. Instead we are supposed to just take it on faith (hoho).
• The Weeping Angels attacking from the snow sounds like a great idea on paper. But to quote Holly from Red Dwarf: ‘The trouble with snow, you basic snow colour is white. And the trouble with the Angels, your basic Angel colour is that it’s white. So how are you supposed to tell them apart?’ What should have been the most chilling Christmas moment is barely visible. The editing is too manic too so it is hard to figure out what exactly is going on and where they are attacking from in relation to the Doctor and Clara.
• Right so let me see if I can get this straight. ‘The Kovarian chapter broke away. They travelled back along your timeline and tried to prevent you ever reaching Trenzalore’ ‘So that’s who blew up my TARDIS. I thought I’d left the bath running’ ‘They blew up your time capsule, created the very cracks in the universe through which the Time Lords are now calling’ ‘The Destiny Trap? You can’t change history if you’re part of it’ ‘They engineered a psychopath to kill you?’ ‘Totally married her…’ Moffat has been leading us up the garden path all along, not telling some masterfully plotted story from start to finish but making it all up as he goes along and now at the Smith’s departure finding himself having to tie it all up in a not-so-neat bow so none of the threads spill over into Capaldi’s era (which should be a fresh start). He does this in as messy and as awkward a fashion as possible, by having three characters sit around a table and talk about the past three series of the show and offer up blink and you’ll miss them explanations for everything. You mean he isn’t even going to show us the TARDIS exploding and causing the cracks? We learn who is responsible after they have left the series? And will we never learn whose the voice was in the TARDIS in The Eleventh Hour?
How does the Doctor not recognise Trenzalore? He was only there a few stories ago, orbiting the exact same region of space!
• Why would the Time War immediately kick start if the Time Lords return? You really have to buy into that premise in order for this story to work (otherwise the Doctor would never need to stay at Christmas for 300 years) but it is based on nothing but supposition. The Daleks, Cybermen and all the others managed to exist in the same universe as the Time Lords for countless millennia before the Time War and surely after all the devastation everybody has learnt their lesson? It would have been such a great joke had the Doctor hung around until his death and after all that time the great races of the universe welcomed the Time Lords back with open arms.
• How the hell did Clara travel through the time vortex clinging to the side of the TARDIS and stay alive? ‘You must have extended the force field!’ Couldn’t she have just walked out the door like everybody else?
• Old person make up is always a potentially thorny issue because the encouragement is there to smother the actor in latex, wrinkled it up a bit and suggest they have advanced in years. Some shows fudge it up completely (The X-Files had an especially hard time getting it right in several episodes). There are two stages to the Doctor’s senility in The Time of the Doctor, one that works very well (the subtle, lined but still recognisably Smith from the middle sections) and one that completely fails to pass muster (the wizened, psychotic looking face that literally looks as if the eleventh Doctor’s face has melted).
• The whole ‘how many regenerations?’ issue is so thorny I am almost too scared to go there. Almost. Davies never stressed at the time that a regeneration had been used up in The Stolen Earth and I thought the inference was that it had been averted or half-spent. The half Doctor that we got was the outcome. Moffat stressing that an entire regeneration was used up does give more gravity to the two part finale that closed season four (but does seem like a bit of a waste). And don’t get me started on the idea of only getting to see John Hurt in The Day of the Doctor. You would think that we would be used to one-shot Doctor’s after the TV Movie but they would insist on hiring the most incredible actors to play the part, making me long for more adventures with them. Neither of these regenerations are particularly satisfactory and then there is the issue of why Moffat insisted that they both count. Is it because he wants to play God with the series mythos and be the one responsible for giving the show an extended life span beyond the 12 transformations? Or because he altruistically wants to kick start a whole new period of the shows life? The latter might be considered if Moffat left at this point. Regardless of the explanation behind the final regeneration or the motivation for giving him a new set of lives…surely in the depths of that twisted mind of his he could have thought up something more imaginative, powerful and dramatic than pixie dust flying out of Amy’s crack and disappearing up the Doctor’s gob? What that hell was that all about? It was literally the TV Movie all over again…only even shitter. I have envisaged many ways that the Doctor might gain a whole new set of lives but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it being a Christmas miracle. Utterly bonkers, and not in a good way. Unfortunately it is a vital event in the show mythos, so we’ll have to refer back to it on occasion. I’ll try not to swear.
• Since the Doctor hasn’t died on the fields of Trenzalore (well technically he has died in the sense that his first life cycle has come to its natural end but he is not dead, per se, and certainly in the respect that his body and TARDIS are left decaying on the planet Trenzalore as depicted in The Name of the Doctor), does that meant that the events of The Name of the Doctor have just been retconned completely? Moffat isn’t just making it all up as he goes along but episodes within arm’s reach of each other are contradicting themselves and not just about any old issue…but the nature of the Doctor’s death! If the Doctor’s TARDIS never made it to Trenzalore in his tomb then his biodata can’t have been there for Clara to jump into and she cannot have saved his life all of those times. Consequently she cannot have been present in Asylum of the Daleks or the Snowmen and he should probably be dead a hundred, thousand times over (The Name of the Doctor did seem to suggest she had put him on the right path time and again). Is anybody script editing this show? As Moffat taking notes as he goes along? Unless of course Moffat is suggesting that the Doctor will come back to Trenzalore again in his 12th regeneration the second time around and make it all possible…but that would be too complicated even for him. The show has gotten so caught up in clever cleverness and extreme arc plots that none of it makes any sense anymore. I’ve tried explaining all this to Simon and his reply was ‘maybe they will explain it all next season’ but my point is they shouldn’t have to. This should make sense as it goes along but the current arc has got itself caught up in a cat’s cradle of illogic, loose ends and retcons. Perhaps the only way to break free is to wave a hand and pretend that none of it ever happened and get back to some simple, decent storytelling.
The Time Lords were willing to turn themselves into conceptual beings in order to escape the Time War. They were willing to go to extreme lengths. If you can take out an entire Dalek army when you reach your final regeneration and are given a whole new life cycle…then why didn’t they do that during the Time War? Force regenerate soldiers to their last lives, dose them up with pixie dust and let them shoot great beams of regeneration energy at the Dalek fleet. Oh yeah…because the idea is bloody ridiculous! Anyone who was hiding under their pillow when the Doctor turned into Dobby the Elf and then later Jesus and came floating down from on high…well chances are they were just as mortified by this latest development. Moffat has finally gone insane. Someone call a taxi.
• The Daleks have just become a lazy staple bad guy for the Doctor to rail against. Remember that individual Dalek in series one with oodles of personality and potential. Now they are just a ship in the sky screaming ‘Argh! The Doctor is regenerating!’ Nothing substantial at all, just stock bogeymen because the story thinks it needs them in order to have the Doctor defeat somebody at the climax. They should have stuck with the idea of him growing old and dying, alone in a room, unloved. It would have been far more poignant than this flashy, clever clever, overblown nonsense.
The Shallow Bit: When the Doctor starts hinting not-so-vaguely that he and Tasha Lem have a sexual past and they start purring at each other in her bedroom I genuinely wanted the Doctor to head off and have a wank so he could dispense with all the softcore foreplay and get on with the story. Is that what we’ve come to? Where I am requesting that the Doctor go off and masturbate in the corner?
Result: Given the lukewarm reception The Time of the Doctor received (some loved it, others hated it with a passion and it’s been a while since a single story was this hotly debated over its merits and flaws), it might have been wiser to have had Matt Smith regenerate during The Day of the Doctor which saw his Doctor triumph against impossible odds and allow Peter Capaldi a chance to settle in before his full season next year. It sure worked with David Tennant. The Time of the Doctor is essentially a box ticking exercise, tying up all the dangling threads that have been left unexplained throughout the Smith era but instead of structuring the story around that goal Moffat wastes an incredible amount of time on irrelevant kink and silliness, overdone mawkishness and Terrance Dicks’ style capitalisation of his own ideas. So when it comes to explaining away the arcs of season five and six it isn’t a fantastic climactic flourish full of surprises but a series of explanations handled quickly through dull exposition. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth because it makes Smith’s first two seasons feel as if they were immaterial, leading nowhere particularly special. And because there are so many rushed explanations along the way (about the cracks, Gallifrey, the Silence) it is completely inaccessible to the casual Christmas audience it is trying to appeal to. To a casual viewer, this is a confusing mess of information. It’s the TV Movie all over again. And if I see a Dalek saucer hanging in the sky again in the next five seasons, it will be too soon. I don’t want to get involved with the ‘Moffat should leave’ campaign but I do think this would have been the perfect stepping off point (albeit a disappointing one) because he has essentially attempted to wrap up his era whilst leaving a few tasty morsels hanging (the hunt for Gallifrey) and it is clear from the style, tone and content of this episode that he doesn’t have a great deal more to offer because we have seen all of this before. Done much better. I didn’t feel as if I was being led through a story but hanging onto the coattails of plot threads that were whipping in a maelstrom of illogic. The regeneration itself is both overblown (destroying an entire Dalek army – really? – he’ll have to get a proper super hero costume soon) and rushed (Capaldi is just sort of sneezed into existence) and the way the Doctor is handed a whole new spread of lives is so rancidly twee and throwaway that I almost wish he had died for good. At least the events of The Name of the Doctor would make sense that way. The good that I took away from The Time of the Doctor was Jenna Colman’s increased confidence as Clara, the scant appearances of her delightful grandmother, the occasional moment of original music (only occasional mind, most of it, like the plot, was recycled) which was excellent and Handles who should be fixed up and made a staple of the show next series (and proves that the showrunner can still hit the bullseye). It feels like Moffat gave everything he had to the much-hyped, much-publicised 50th anniversary special and The Time of the Doctor is what he cobbled together afterwards, exhausted and desperate to start anew with Capaldi. This splurge of exposition, poetry, frivolity and tiredness is the result: 4/10