written by Steven Moffat | directed by Jamie Payne
Christmas episodes aren't usually the high-points of any Doctor Who series (2012's "The Snowmen" was a rare exception), but that's usually because they're designed to be broader than usual and slightly more accessible to non-fans—because a Christmas Day audience will naturally include lots of people who aren't under the show's spell. In many ways the festive special is the ideal recruitment opportunity. Unfortunately, "The Time of The Doctor" was a festive special only in the sense that writer Steven Moffat named a wintery town 'Christmas' on an alien world (a ridiculous flourish in an hour full of them). This was actually a very narrow-minded seasonal special, preaching to the chorus, so the swansong of the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) probably only pleased the Whovians who re-watch whole box-sets every few months and got a TARDIS tea cosy under their Christmas tree the morning this aired.
Look, I'm a lifelong fan of Doctor Who. I grew up during the '80s (Peter Davison was "my Doctor") and have championed Who throughout much of its comeback, but there are times when it clearly disappears up its own backside and turns into alienating gibberish. Worst, it's the kind of nonsense that feels improvised by a passionate fan and not crafted by a skilled screenwriter. Moffat's a talented man, but sometimes I get the impression the workload is too much so he engages autopilot. "The Time of The Doctor" had some good ideas speckling the crud, and snippets of dialogue to make fans squee (the ones who have a mental list of 'dangling thread' questions), plus some decent visuals and a few good jokes (loved the holographic clothes idea—before it was driven into the ground). However, as a whole, this was a difficult episode to just sit back and enjoy. I never felt in safe hands. It was so repetitive, the middle dragged enormously, and the central idea depended on you caring about a silly town populated by... well, who? There wasn't a satisfying human face under threat here.
Extracted from the messy narrative, this episode's dilemma for The Doctor actually doesn't sound half bad. He discovered that the Time Lords have been the ones asking The Question ("Doctor who?") all along, through the last remaining 'crack in time' from series 5, and so The Doctor decided to enforce a stalemate by refusing to answer the question because it would trigger the return of the Time Lords and the recommencement of the Time War with his amassed enemies all orbiting the beacon-like question (broadcast across all Time and Space—so, um, why has it only been picked up now?). The Doctor opted to spend 300 years living in the town of Christmas on Trenzalore, protecting it from the occasional intruder, growing very old and accepting the fact he has no regenerations left (apparently, the Tenth Doctor regenerated twice—but I don't buy into that logic). It feels like Moffat just wants to do everything in the Whoniverse while he's in charge of the BBC's train set, so giving The Doctor another cycle of regenerations is about the only thing left on his To Do list.
To be quite honest, you don't have to watch this trifling episode. Just watch the final regeneration scene with Matt Smith and Clara (Jenna Coleman), with a surprise cameo by Karen Gillan (which made Clara feel like the poor man's version of Amy she hasn't been allowed to prove she isn't yet). Maybe insert this scene at the end of "The Day of The Doctor" and pretend Eleven died of stress, or something, because it saves a lot of faffing about and tedium. I liked the glimpse of fish fingers and custard on the TARDIS console, Eleven's symbolic dropping of his bow tie, and the unexpected head-snapping transformation into Peter Capaldi was the only delight I had in this episode.
Capaldi's short scene wasn't as exciting as Smith's own, rather strangely. Maybe that's because Smith was an unknown quantity when he took over from Tennant, whereas we already expect Capaldi to be doing a diluted Malcolm Tucker in Space. Strange he was given a quirky joke about not liking the colour of his kidneys, which is something you'd expect Tennant or Smith to say upon their entrances. I thought the idea of Capaldi was to do something different with the character (or something we haven't seen since Colin Baker?), so here's hoping Moffat makes good on the promise of having a self-confessed Whovian in his fifties flying the TARDIS. If nothing else Capaldi's mad-eyed stare has me sold.
I know I haven't touched on much of this episode's actual story, but do you really want me to? It was nonsense. Steven Moffat can sometimes wield nonsense into a spellbinding hour of geeky glee, but sometimes it's just half-baked nonsense pure and simple. Why was The Doctor teleporting onto Dalek ships with a Dalek eye-stalk? Why set-up the search for Gallifrey in "Day of The Doctor", as if it's going to be a driving factor for the next 50 years, only to have it categorically confirmed they're stuck in another universe the very next episode? (I guess The Doctor's search is going to always be fruitless unless he tries to breach dimensions every Wednesday?) Anyone else think the decision to use Matt Smith's real-life baldness (for a role in a Ryan Gosling film) as part of the narrative was a bad decision? Too much oddness for the sake of it. As a character, Clara get progressively worse, as it seems Moffat has decided to just turn her into Rose: she's desperate for The Doctor to play lover-boy at her Christmas family dinner, and it was pretty much confirmed she fancies him, too. At least the latter's been nipped in the bud now mad-eyed Capaldi's in charge.
There was nothing here to touch the brilliance of "The Day of The Doctor" (an episode where Moffat evidently and justifiably got right because it was too important to get wrong), and it's a shame Matt Smith's final hour ended up being faux-Christmassy cods-wallop with a wooden Cyberman. He performed it well, however, and the aged Doctor make-up was good... but while some prefer Smith's regeneration over Tennant's, I disagree. Tennant's felt like a whole era was coming to an end, with the simultaneous loss of showrunner Russell T. Davies and a change in production, whereas Steven Moffat's still going to be writing for Peter Capaldi and Clara's not going anywhere yet.
This was the 800th episode and also marked end of the 50th anniversary year, so let's hope something changes to keep us engaged with the show during the first uninterrupted run of episodes for a few years. I hope that Moffat learns some new tricks and dials things down a touch, as it all gets a bit too frenzied for no good reason. Doctor Who hums with pace, imagination and wit at its absolute best, but sometimes it feels like the undertow of logic, characterisation, and a good solid story get forgotten about.