Ever since his first appearance in the episode “Eleventh Hour” (2010) Matt Smith has been popular with fans and so it was inevitably a melancholy moment when the 11th (or is it the 13th?) Doctor finally regenerated and passed the torch to Peter Capaldi. An episode, however, needs more than just an emotional moment to succeed. Certainly the Christmas special “The Time of the Doctor” was jam-packed with tons of stuff, but did it have enough good moments to make it a deserving departure for Smith and a worthy ending to the show’ s 50th year? Well, yes and no.
Smith’s era has also been the era of Executive Producer/Head Writer Steven Moffat, who began as show-runner in season five’s “Eleventh Hour”, when Smith took over the role of the Doctor. Moffat’s three-year tenure as the master of all things Doctor Who has been notable for the complex mythology and long story arcs that have become standard to the show. “The Time of the Doctor” was also meant to tie up several old plots introduced by Moffat in recent years. He does manage to touch upon some of his earlier plotlines (The cracks in time/exploding TARDIS, and the Silence) and wraps them together in a very compact ball, along with the Gallifrey storyline from the 50th anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor”. The final result seems a bit muddled. We apparently are meant to believe that Moffat had this whole three-years worth of stories plotted out from day one, with this particular conclusion in mind, but that’s frankly hard to buy. It seems more likely that Moffat has cherry-picked aspects of his earlier stories that could conceivably fit into this tale, just to give a more epic scope to the special which ends the 50th year.
SPOILERS: The plot involves a distress call from the Time Lords who were stranded in an alternate universe in “the Day of the Doctor”. The call is coming through a crack in the universe, located on the Planet Trenzilor (the planet where the Doctor’s tomb will one day be placed) and dozens of evil alien races are orbiting the planet to ensure that the Time Lords do not return. The Doctor arrives and is told by the Pope of the universe that he mustn’t free his people or a new Time War will break out. However, the Doctor can’t abandon the people of the plant—who live in a town called Christmas—to the mercy of the numerous aliens; so he remains there for centuries, fighting an extended defensive war against all his old enemies. He ages during this time and ultimately regenerates.
Like much of Moffat’s work, there is an excess of material in “The Time of the Doctor”, and some of it is good but as the old saying goes, too much of anything is harmful. This episode serves too many purposes—It is a Christmas special, Matt Smith’s finale, the introduction of Capadli, the close of the 50th year and the ending to the trilogy of “Name/Day/Time of the Doctor”. It also picks up the thread of the Time Lords subplot introduced in “Day of the Doctor”. The story gives us a plethora of famous Whovian villains, such as the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Sontarans, the Weeping Angels and the Silence. “The Time of the Doctor” additionally tries to give us enough action, humor and emotional moments to satisfy everyone. There’s even a cameo by a former companion. Even at 90 minutes, there is just too much in here for it all to be done well.
Having so many baddies in one episode does not increase the tension of that episode. All it does is to make the villains seem weaker. They are all dismissed and defeated too easily. The whole concept of a wooden Cyberman is more interesting than logical and it ultimately doesn’t pay off in any big way. The biggest twist is the Doctor’s sudden alliance with his enemies The Silence. If there hadn’t been so much other material stuffed into this episode, we could have seen an interesting dynamic between the two old foes. Sadly, the Doctor barely acknowledges them, nor do we see them engage in battle against the other aliens. (How cool would it have been to see the Silence fighting it out with a Weeping Angel or a Dalek?)
Moffat likes to take the character out of his comfort zone and force him into awkward situations. This episode had several examples of this. For instance; One recurring motif of the Moffat era is having the normally nomadic Doctor stuck in one place for extended periods of time (The Doctor languished in depression, hiding out in Victorian England for an extended period in last year’s X-Mas special “The Snowmen”; He lived bored on Earth for a year in “the Power of Three”; he moved into an apartment in “the Lodger”) and this episode took that to extreme proportions, having the Doctor living in a town called Christmas for hundreds of years. (The actual amount of time he was there was unspecified, but it was over 300 years.) Another thing that recent years of Doctor Who have repeatedly touched upon is the Doctor’s solitary nature, so having him live as part of a community for centuries is another way of taking him out of his usual comfort zone. (Christmas dinner with his companion’s family is a similar example, although it’s been done before with Rose and Amy.)
Several nudist jokes are added in, most likely because the things that used to be added in to anger older Whovians have become a normal part of the show (Such as the kissing Doctor) so Moffat added in something else to get purist of classic Who complaining on the internet. Speaking of the Doctor’s inevitable kiss-the-girl scene, it is predictably thrown in, although it’s no longer daring and now seems to be included in an obligatory manner, like Stan Lee cameos in Marvel films—completely unnecessary but always there regardless.
The biggest disappointment is the way that the Doctor’s regeneration is handled. We’re reminded here that Doctor 11 is actually Doctor 13 (counting John Hurt’s War Doctor from Day of the Doctor” and Tennant’s ignored no-change regeneration in “The Stolen Earth”/”Journey’s End”) and so our hero finds himself out of regenerations as he ages hundreds of years. Surrounded by enemies, old and weak, it seems that time is up for the Doctor. However, he is saved by the miracle of plot convenience!
His companion Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman) speaks to the cracks in time and says “If you love him, you’ll save him.” This causes the trapped Time Lords to send some sort of regenerative wisps of glowing smoke for the Doctor to inhale, and—Ta Da—a whole new regeneration cycle! To make things even more convenient, the Doctor can now use his regeneration energy like Iron Man’s repulser-rays, destroying the Daleks and their ships with energy blasts. Ummm, ok!
The quick, offhand way that the matter of the Doctor’s regeneration was handled was far too anticlimactic. The Doctor’s realization and acceptance of his imminent death was handled well but his gaining of a new set of regenerations should have been a major part of the story, not just one of those quick, last-minute fixes that are so infuriating in Doctor Who. We do get our second look at new Doctor Peter Capaldi (the first was a quick cameo in “the Day of the Doctor”) and his “Do you happen to have any idea how to fly this thing?” line brings the proceedings to a humorous but still suspenseful close. I expect good things from Capaldi next year.
On the whole, “The Time of the Doctor” was a victim of the excesses of Steven Moffat, who did a much better job on the 50th anniversary special than he did on this one. There were some nice moments, such as ‘Handles’ the sidekick (who was a homage to both Wilson from Castaway and 790 from Lexx). Coleman keeps growing better and better into her role as Clara. Matt Smith had a tour-de-force performance, portraying the Doctor’s aging throughout the centuries. His last line “I’ll never forget when I was the Doctor” was far better than Tennant’s “I don’t want to go!” To sum up, the “Time of the Doctor” was OK but considering how important this episode was for many reasons, it should have been so much better.