After a rocky series 6 and 7, Doctor Who’s triumphant 50th anniversary special seemed to presage a return to the heights of Steven Moffat’s first year as showrunner. In retrospect, perhaps there was no way for him to live up to those renewed expectations; the latest Christmas special is by no means the worst of his oeuvre, but unlikely to convince fence-sitters into the pro-Moffat camp. Luckily we’re not here for his sake, but to bid farewell to Matt Smith, alien grandpa in a 31-year-old’s body, and greet our new Scottish overlord Peter Capaldi.
To its credit, The Time of the Doctor gets the most important beat right: the end of the Eleventh Doctor’s last installment is a neat bookend to the beginning of his first, showing how the character has evolved over course of three series. It’s always a risk to say a story could only be told with one Doctor — he is, after all, the same character in all eleven (or rather thirteen) incarnations — but there’s such a beautiful line between the raggedy Doctor who landed in Amelia Pond’s backyard and the careworn Sheriff of Christmas that it’s hard to see this tale transposed to any other part of his timeline. The Doctor the Girl Who Waited waited for learned at last to wait himself, and the first face this face saw was also, in a touching surprise cameo, his last.
But, as ever since becoming showrunner, Steven Moffat can’t confine himself to one or two strong ideas when he could be juggling ten. Or perhaps Matt Smith’s departure took him by surprise, and after a season of letting the Silence plot lie fallow he has only sixty minutes to not so much tie up the loose ends as baste them out of the way of future stories.
The result is a narrative in which it’s wiser not to ask too many questions about the plot –how did the Doctor keep his mouth shut for centuries living on a truth field in which “no living creature…can fail to answer”?– but the characters don’t get enough room to breathe, either. If there’s a single scene that’s emblematic of the problems with this episode, it comes just over halfway through, right after the Doctor’s ally Tasha Lem, a potential River-Song-alike who comes into her own thanks to the charismatic Orla Brady, has bravely held off the Daleks to allow the Doctor and Clara time to escape to the TARDIS. One might expect a moment of mourning, an attempt to take stock; instead there’s a cheery discussion of Christmas turkey.
Though Matt Smith is as magnificent as ever, and indeed better than almost any other episode of his tenure, he spends the bulk of his last story as the Doctor incumbent working against the material, weighed down by overlong nudity gags and old age make-up, with most of his dialogue either banter or exposition. His final speech, at least, is sure to be remembered not just as one of the best of his tenure, but one of the finest in the fifty-year history of the show.
Jenna-Louise Coleman’s Clara fares better overall, perhaps because both character and actress are coming into their own out from the weight of the “Impossible Girl” arc. Moffat has mentioned in interviews that the idea of a companion scattered in time was conceived after Coleman was already cast. Two episodes after its resolution (loosely speaking), it’s increasingly clear it was an ill-chosen digression from a far more interesting companion narrative– that of a teacher and moral arbiter, who makes the universe turn on its axis by stubbornly holding it up to her ideals.
Moffat’s “fairy tale” approach to Doctor Who has been cited so often it’s cliche, but the theme of stories and storytelling as power runs all the way through the new series. Rose makes herself into a fairy tale character and gains its powers; Donna’s great triumph is that her deeds are sung in song, and her tragedy that she no longer knows it. Martha and Amy tell stories that rewrite reality, and Clara– who, we’re shown in The Bells of St. John, grew up on Amelia Williams’ stories– is a follower in that tradition, while being something of a fairy tale character herself. (She’s also linked to a much older companion legacy, running all the way back to Barbara and Ian, the first humans on the TARDIS and Clara’s Coal Hill School predecessors.)
It’s likely the Time Lords gave the Doctor new regenerations out of self-preservation as much as real belief in Clara’s conviction that he deserved it. Even so: that’s two they owe her now.
Despite Clara’s high-concept history, Coleman keeps her grounded in reality with a paradoxically light touch, using small gestures and expressions that set her off well against Smith’s exuberant physicality. The idea that the companion is in love with the Doctor was tired before Donna came on the scene, let alone now, but Clara’s affection comes through in little gestures that ache with emotion, but never tip over into melodrama, making the worn out device seem fresh.
If there’s a bright side to losing the Eleventh Doctor now, it’s that both Coleman and Clara have a chance to get reassessed by fans, as our viewpoint character through which to meet the Twelfth. Or should that be Fourteenth? Either way, our second glimpse of Capaldi is only slightly longer than the first, and considerably shorter than either Tennant or Smith’s introductory monologues. It’s hard to tell where he’ll take the Doctor once the regeneration sickness wears off –other than that he’s keeping his own accent– but it’s sure to make for a wild ride, and a great team TARDIS.
And here’s one reason to take note of what’s coming, even if you wish that Moffat had left before Smith– though Peter Capaldi is best known as an actor, he’s an Academy Award and BAFTA-winning screenwriter and director as well. While the role of the Doctor may be a fan’s dream come true, it’s hard to imagine Capaldi not having ideas of his own and the leverage to put them forward, and as for Moffat, he might finally have the pushback he’s needed since Russell T. Davies left.
Lastly, a few miscellaneous thoughts:
– The preponderance of forcible kisses inflicted both by and on the Doctor since 2010 make it very clear that Moffat desperately wants the Doctor to be more like fellow iconic fictional Brit James Bond. As I watched Tasha Lem chide Eleven for not waiting until she asked to be kissed, played as a joke, it occurred to me that I now trust the current writers of Bond to handle consent better than the current writers of Doctor Who. Quiz: which one is the family show that influences the behavior of millions of children?
– Of the eight Christmas specials since the show relaunched, fully half have been Victoriana nostalgia tours: The Next Doctor and The Snowmen in actual Victorian London, A Christmas Carol and The Time of the Doctor on thinly-veiled pastiche planets. Can we have a moratorium on this setting for the next few years? Or if it must be done, at least make it interesting sci-fi or historical commentary first, retro-nostalgia second.
– Amelia’s last farewell was perfect as it was, and River got a shout-out too (though I would not object if Moffat were banned from using the word “psychopath” ever again). But 27 appearances, and not one mention of Rory? Poor Arthur Darvill.
– It’s hard to predict where the Gallifrey plotline will go next– I was sure it would be dormant for most of a season at least, just as I was sure that Day of the Doctor would explain how Clara and the Doctor got out of his timestream, and look where that got me. But the Doctor’s sunny optimism about the post-War Time Lords is just asking for a rude awakening. For one thing, what’s that Master been up to, eh?
– (That said, if pressed to say which Time Lord-related character I want to see first: Leela, though human, was also last seen on Gallifrey. I’m just saying.)