The Time of the Doctor

I’m hard-pressed to think of a less distinguished, less inspiring, and just plain less-fun final episode for any of the leads of Doctor Who than “The Time of the Doctor”, this year’s Christmas episode and Matt Smith’s swan song as the eleventh Doctor. While the 1996 TV movie was not great, and I’m no fan of “The Caves of Androzani” (a favorite of many fans for reasons I don’t understand), both of them are better than this mess of a story was.

Spoilers after the cut:

I’ve sometimes observed that as a writer, Steven Moffat’s plots don’t hold up to close scrutiny, but the emotional resonance is true. But from the start of the sixth season, the stories got even more baroque and unbelievable, and they felt emotionally manipulative, if not outright fake, the worst offender being “The Angels Take Manhattan”. “The Day of the Doctor”, happily, was a strong reversal of these fortunes (perhaps the strongest episode of Smith’s tenure), but it didn’t carry over to this episode.

The episode did have a few good points: It finally explained the Silence’s actions and motivations (although it left plenty of huge holes in earlier stories), and it brought the search for Gallifrey quickly into focus (as I wasn’t really looking forward to a protracted search, though unfortunately we may yet get one – if we do, then wake me when it’s over). And the Doctor’s relationship with the Cyberman head, “Handles”, was touching. But it trails off quickly after that.

It’s not really worth exploring the plot in great detail as very little of it holds up, but even in broad strokes it’s a mess. For example: How can the Time Lords on Gallifrey act through the cracks in the universe if they’re frozen in time? If they can open cracks anywhere, why do so on one planet to put the Doctor in this awful situation? How did the Doctor manage to repel alien invasions for centuries? Once the Daleks defeated the Church of the Papal Mainframe, why didn’t they just destroy it and attack en masse rather than setting up a contrived trap? Why, once the Doctor had his TARDIS back, didn’t he – you know – use his ability to time travel to go figure out a solution, rather than hanging around for centuries longer? (He’s a time traveler, can’t he figure it out?) And since when can the Time Lords just zap one of themselves to give him another regeneration? And he can use his regeneration energies as cannons? Yeah, okay.

(Aside: Hadn’t the Daleks forgotten who the Doctor was? Wasn’t that the whole point of “Asylum of the Daleks”?)

If the story was a disaster from a plot standpoint, it was no better from an emotional one. It’s hard to imagine a cheaper effort to tug on the heartstrings than to awkwardly thrust the Doctor into a scenario where he has to fight an unwinnable war for centuries. Here it was just grotesque. It didn’t help that his work to protect the town of Christmas felt almost completely unrewarded because we basically don’t know anything about it, its history, or its people – in short, we don’t get any visceral feeling of what he’s fighting for. Moffat tries to convey a little of this by the Doctor’s relationship with some children in the town, but it’s an abject failure. Plus, dragging children into stories of this sort is the most repugnant sentimentality – it’s why the great SF series such as Babylon 5 and the Battlestar Galactica remake both largely stayed away from using children to provoke an emotional response.

The Doctor’s relationship with Clara, depicted so wonderfully in “Day”, is largely demolished here: She behaves like a child (“oh Doctor, you need to come pretend to be my boyfriend to my family at Christmas dinner”), he lies to her repeatedly and fails to put any trust in the woman who saved his entire timeline – really, he refuses to trust anyone. By the time Clara sees him as an old man, I felt like he had brought it all on himself and only deserved salvation to the extent that the Time Lords were counting on him to bring them back.

(One could argue that this has been a problem throughout Smith’s tenure: His Doctor doesn’t trust people, but he expects other people to trust him. Maybe that’s the real lesson at the end of “The Angels Take Manhattan” – Amy knew she couldn’t trust the Doctor to save Rory, so she had to go to him herself. All this could be interesting if his behavior was due to hubris or a personality disorder stemming from his PTSD from the end of the Time War, but the way it’s been written the guy is just a jerk.)

David Tennant’s Doctor’s lengthy and sentimental farewell to his supporting cast at the end of “The End of Time” at least had the excuse that he was slowly dying from radiation poisoning, but Smith’s Doctor getting suddenly younger here for one last encounter with Clara (and ridiculously, with a vision of Amy) was eye-rollingly artificial. And while Peter Capaldi’s first lines as the Doctor were amusing, I hope we’re not going to be subjected to yet another round of the Doctor not being able to control the TARDIS shortly after his regeneration; give it a rest, guys.

At several points while watching the episode I was sure it was going to go in a different direction, that this couldn’t be all the episode would amount to: That the various alien races weren’t really there, that Trenzalore was really just an elaborate trap for the Doctor that he’d figure out how to get out of, that his lengthy stay was really some sort of simulation in a virtual reality, that the Doctor had some master trick up his sleeve and was playing everyone involved, that the town of Christmas and the whole situation was being engineered by some unknown entity that the Doctor would defeat. Any of these paths would have been greatly preferable to what we actually saw.

The episode is pretty much a disaster from start to finish, and it’s especially jarring since “Day” was such a great episode, and then we get stuck with this, ending Matt Smith’s run on a very low note indeed, and not a promising start for Peter Capaldi, either.

Oh, and I think the whole Christmas episode gimmick has also run its course and should be retired. Honestly “The End of Time” is the only one that was much good, and the holiday atmosphere is just cloying at this point.

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