Written by Craig O’Connor
It is Saturday the 28th of December and Peter Capaldi has officially been the Doctor for three whole days. The Doctor cheated death once again and we sat ringside and watched it. It was the moment we were all waiting for: the end of yet another Doctor’s tenure, this time that of Matt Smith, who had played the man from Gallifrey since 2010. In his wake he has left a weeping young lady, Clara (played by the cute-as-a-button Jenna Coleman), a state-of-the-arts TARDIS and a planet-load of Timelords trying to escape from the pocket universe that the Doctor locked them in the previous episode “The Day Of The Doctor.” And how exactly was the most recent passing of this well-beloved character? Read on and see.
“The Time Of The Doctor” finds our double-hearted friend investigating a signal from a planet that has attracted the worst of the worst from the entire universe, from Autons to Zygons (actually, we don’t actually see either of those two creatures, but there are a hell of a lot of baddies hanging around). Luckily for the populace below, the Papal Mainframe (a security church – what will they think of next), has shielded the planet and is inviting the Doctor and his friend Handles (think K-9 redesigned as a disembodied cyberhead) to check the whole thing out while evading the Dalek and Cybermen’s laser blasts. And if that weren’t enough, Clara needs him to pretend to be her boyfriend at Christmas dinner. When the Doctor, Clara and Handles finally make planetfall, they have to dodge tons of old enemies and discover the answers to questions that the Doctor (and the audience) has been asking for quite a few years. Can the Doctor keep the citizens of the town of Christmas safe from hordes of murderous creatures and help Clara cook her Christmas turkey before her family starts to wonder where she’s got to?
Many a time, I have said that if Stephen Moffat, the king of the tangled plot-thread, could somehow manage to tie up all the questions he’s left unanswered for the last three years, that would make him the greatest daredevil since Karl Wallenda. Well, he may not have been able to set even one foot on the late Wallenda’s tightrope, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know when it’s time to finally lay his cards on the table and “The Time Of The Doctor” is that moment. We may never find out why a duckpond in Leadworth without ducks is noteworthy or how the Weeping Angels took up residence in a hotel in the 1930s, but much of the head-scratchers of the last three years were finally addressed, even some that we thought were settled. Remember the cracks in the fabric of the universe that we thought the Doctor had taken care of? They’re far from closed. Remember the Doctor’s last trip to Trenzalore and The Great Intelligence trying to force him to answer the First Question? Yeah, well that wasn’t what the Silence were trying to prevent. And what of the Silence themselves? Where the Hell did they come from? Didn’t it always seem a little strange that the Silence blew up the TARDIS and nearly destroyed the entire universe in a effort to somehow save the universe? Yeah, I thought so too and this episode lays it all out (albeit in fast, hard-to-discern-on-the-first-viewing dialog scenes). It seems that Stephen Moffat was taking a huge gamble with his reputation as a writer: he allowed Whovians to consider him the Master of Plot Holes (a title that he hasn’t completely rid himself of) so that he could play a long game, creating an arc that effectively began the moment the TARDIS crash-landed into little Amelia Pond’s garden shed. According to Tasha Lem (Orla Brady), the Mother Superior of the Papal Mainframe, Madame Kovarian’s gang of Silences (actually Confessional Priests who allow you to forget your sins after confessing them) was a splinter group dedicated to avoiding the breakout of another Time War by killing the only man who could bring the Time Lords back from their pocket universe: The Doctor. Blowing up his TARDIS only compounded the problem, creating the very cracks that allowed the Time Lords to return, and we all know how well their Plan B went: creating a psychopathic assassin only resulted in giving the Doctor a pistol-packing spouse. But all of it comes to a head when the Doctor finds a crack in the universe upon finding himself on the surface of Trenzalore, a crack that leads to the Time Lords he saved in “The Day Of The Doctor.” The Doctor finds himself in a precarious position: he can’t release the Time Lords because their very presence would reignite the Time War and there’s a multitude of Daleks, Cybermen, and every other bad-tempered race just itching to wipe out all the innocent citizens of Christmas to ensure that things remain status quo. What can he possibly do?
Time to tip a hat or two to the Moffat-man because the Doctor, the man for whom the term “Wanderlust” was coined, makes the ultimate sacrifice: he stays put. Of course, this wasn’t his original plan: his ploy to keep Clara out of danger resulted in his TARDIS reappearing in Christmas three hundred years after he sent it off. But rather than bemoan the fact that he is stuck in a rather uninteresting town and caught in a no-win situation when he could be traveling amongst the stars, Moffat’s Doctor embraces his situation and, for once, lives the life that he always claimed he could never have. Interestingly, the episode revisits themes from the last few Amy and Rory episodes: in “A Town Called Mercy,” we saw the Doctor bestowing the honor of perpetual sheriff of Mercy on a gunslinging cyborg (a role which the Doctor now bestows upon himself) and “The Power Of Three” explored how the Doctor reacted to spending time living day to day on Earth while waiting for disaster to strike. But “The Power Of Three” played the concept for laughs and couldn’t effectively convey any sense of real time passing while the Doctor shacked up with Amy and Rory and waited for the black cubes to activate. Here, the script takes the opposite track: the Doctor may be stranded on Trenzalore, but he finds himself needed and beloved; with every child who eventually dies of old age, the Doctor can mark one more life saved in his ledger. On first viewing, one might be tempted to say that the Doctor is wasting his life in Christmas but, seeing him do the Doctor dance and ask for hugs from the town’s children, we realize that he is, in fact, finally devoting his life to humanity in a way that he never did before. Sure, he did the same thing in his third incarnation when the Time Lords exiled him to Earth, but the moment he could work the TARDIS again he took off for “next-stop-everywhere.” Here, the Doctor is given back his TARDIS and is even encouraged to fly away by both Clara and Tasha, and still he stays on as Christmas’s protector. He has chosen something other than the life of a Cosmic Hobo and that’s what makes him a hero.
And so the Doctor stays, grows very old and finds himself dying of old age, like Hartnell and Hurt before him but without the benefit of an upcoming regeneration (and again Moffat gives us a good and plausible reason why the 11th Doctor is living his final life, based on all the show’s history that came before him). This makes him almost saintly in our eyes: he refuses to leave the people of Christmas to be slaughtered even though he has no other life to fall back on and, as much as he loves being the Sheriff of Christmas, there is no denying that the good times will end when his life is finally over (the “death” of Handles, his friend for three hundred years, conveys this). Once Clara visits him his final time, at the “fall of the eleventh” as Dorium correctly predicted in “The Wedding Of River Song,” it is impossible to not feel sympathy for a character who has spent the last of his unusually long life span in a town of near-perpetual darkness simply because he is not just needed but loved. Trenzalore has become a new Earth and it is to the Doctor’s credit that he does not look back at the last few hundred years with bitterness. These are just the right notes to be hitting in what will be Matt Smith’s final episode.
As you can probably tell, what works the best in this episode is the emotional growth that the characters go through, something that has been noticeably lacking in many of the episodes (my disappointment with Amy’s non-existent trauma that she’ll never get to raise her baby will never dissipate). It’s our emotional investment in the characters that allows us to overlook the occasional continuity errors and plotholes. The Mexican Standoff that the Doctor finds himself in is less than watertight (couldn’t he have told the Time Lords to manifest somewhere else?). Moffat still doesn’t have any idea how to handle the backstory of his human characters. (Who the Hell is the middle-aged bitch who is sitting next to Clara’s Dad at Christmas dinner? An auntie? Dad’s new girlfriend? And what is Clara’s Dad’s name in the first place?) The resolution that has him using his newly regained regeneration energy to take down the Dalek ship seems a little too abrupt (other Dalek ships could come and decimate Trenzalore, but apparently the Time Lords have given up their vigil and closed the cracks themselves, leaving the entire siege almost meaningless), and there are at least three instances where the Doctor lies to someone while standing within the Truth Field. But these plot problems (some of which are not really important, I’ll readily admit) are not the reason why we tuned in. We tuned into this hour-long special of Doctor Who to watch the last five minutes.
Clara enters the TARDIS, finds evidence that the Doctor has been there (a bowl of Fishfingers and Custard) and is finally confronted with the man himself, surprisingly not looking a day over 1100. We’ve been given one last look of Matt Smith as we knew him, young and with his silly quiff and daft bowtie, and he speaks about how he will never forget a moment he spent as the eleventh Doctor. He has a vision of Amy, but that is only for fans to gush over; more than anything, we’re identifying with Clara, who once begged the Time Lords to grant him a new regeneration cycle and, now that her wish has been granted, pleads with the Doctor not to change. But like Rose Tyler, Sarah Jane Smith, Peri Brown, and many other companions before her (I could name them all, but your boredom level would reach atrocious levels), Clara has to make the ultimate adjustment. So soon after admiting she quite fancies the Doctor, chin and all, the Doctor regenerates into an older man with bugged eyes, oddly-colored kidneys and a Scottish accent. Naturally, this is the very thing that makes Doctor Who the freshest show on television even at the age of fifty: the casting of Peter Capaldi as the twelfth Doctor will force the show’s writers to confront the dynamic change in the Doctor’s relationship with Clara. Even though Clara (unlike other companions) has been prepared for this eventuality (her role as the Impossible Girl has given her access to all of the Doctor’s previous incarnations), she must now deal with this new Doctor personally, on a day-to-day basis, and I can only guess how their relationship will develop from this point onwards. Maybe Stephen Moffat will implement some of the ideas he originally conceived of when he stated that he was ready to cast an older actor as the Doctor until Matt Smith auditioned for the role. It is too early to say. What it is not too early to says is that Matt Smith’s tenure, as wibbly-wobbly as it often was, came to a stirring end that may not have hit all the logical points but certainly hit every emotional point with a vengeance. Matt Smith was not my favorite Doctor, but “The Time Of The Doctor” was a fitting end to his rollercoaster journey.
P.S. – Extra points for referencing the seal of the Time Lord council that the Doctor stole from the Master during “The Five Doctors”: an event that took place thirty years ago. Well-remembered.