“Everyone gets stuck somewhere eventually, Clara. And everything ends.”
And so, Christmas Day 2013 saw the final end for Doctor number Eleven – or is it Twelve, or even Thirteen? That was one of the major questions Steven Moffat’s typically labyrinthine but mostly satisfying story had to address; along with the various unresolved plot threads that seemed to have been left hanging since he began his tenure as showrunner. He also had to retire the now-beloved Eleventh Doctor and introduce a new star .And on top of all that, he had to make it a Christmas episode, traditionally lighter and frothier than most.
RTD tried some of that, with The End of Time – but he hadn’t written himself into a corner with four years’ worth of unresolved mysteries. Given all of that, it’s a minor miracle that The Time of the Doctor managed to tick virtually all the boxes it needed to – and still tell a gripping, emotionally affecting story along the way. It was, nonetheless, very much a Moffat story, so how well it worked for you probably varied according to how well you’ve enjoyed his divisive style.
I’ve had my problems with his preoccupations – convoluted temporal paradoxes, monsters with catchphrases, fantasy females with unfeasibly witty flirtatious dialogue, often told in the style of a children’s fairy tale, etc ,etc. But I enjoyed this episode despite the fact that virtually all of the above were present and correct; it felt like, this time, they were balanced pretty well against the requirements of the episode and didn’t interfere with the story. And after all, if you’ve been railing about Moffat’s predilection for long-term storytelling that leaves so much seemingly unresolved, it would be churlish to object to having all those loose ends finally tied up.
And whatever your feelings on his style, you can’t deny that this story did precisely that. Trenzalore, the Silence, the Crack, the Question, the Papal Mainframe; all of it was covered, even adding some throwbacks to the fate of Gallifrey from The Day of the Doctor a mere month ago. Along the way, we got cameos or full-on antagonist roles for all the Moffat-era established baddies alongside the classics – Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, the Silence, the Weeping Angels (not to mention references to the Terileptils and RTD’s only, rather rubbish, contribution to the monster pantheon, the Slitheen).
With all of that crammed in, this could so easily have been utter fanwank – RTD barely managed to pull it off with just Daleks and Cybermen. But despite their presence, the monsters were almost a sideshow to the main plot, albeit a driving factor. It felt like a proper payoff to everything Moffat had been promising since 2010, though the question remains as to whether all of this was planned or just fell together conveniently at the last minute.
Nevertheless, we now know who blew up the TARDIS (though not how) – it was the Silence, albeit a breakaway faction of them headed by Madame Kovarian. In doing so, to try to prevent the situation happening here, they caused it to happen by creating the cracks in the universe that threatened all of space and time – an ontological paradox not unlike that in Day of the Daleks.
And the Silence themselves, previously established as a religious order rather than a species, were a development of the previously mentioned Papal Mainframe of the Security Church (“protecting you in this world and the next”) as seen in The Time of Angels and A Good Man Goes to War. Those weird ‘Greys’ that you forget the moment you turn away were in fact “confessional priests” (funny how the Doctor now seems to know so much about them).
And the moment when “Mother Superious” Tasha Lem proclaimed an “unscheduled faith change” to become the Order of the Silence (thus preventing the Doctor from answering the Question, and allowing the Time Lords back into the universe) was one of those that made you feel like Moffat really had been planning all of this right from the start. We even saw just what it was that scared the Doctor most when he opened that door in The God Complex – what else but the Crack?
Yet, despite all this near-overloaded continuity, The Time of the Doctor never forgot that it was telling a story, and forming the capstone to the Eleventh Doctor’s era. In keeping with Matt Smith’s always-excellent portrayal, it blended depth, fun and real pathos, and it would be difficult to keep a dry eye by the end of it. This is an improvement over some Moffat finales in the past, where he’s been so concerned with showing us the inner workings of his plot puzzles that he forgot we were supposed to care about the characters that he used as pieces.
I’m still not all that keen on Clara (Moffat fantasy female version 7.9), who feels more like a cypher than a real person. But here at least, she got some depth, albeit only really defined in relation to the Doctor. Following on from Amy and Rory, she’s a new kind of companion – she gets to go home every so often, catching up with the Doctor when it’s convenient for one or both of them. We saw that here, with a slightly comic framing story involving the botched Christmas dinner with her family. It allowed for some interesting juxtapositions in tone, from the broadly comic (using the TARDIS to sort out an undercooked turkey) to the outright tragic (Clara being dumped back home by the TARDIS with the Doctor still on Trenzalore).
Indeed, the fact that it was mainly told from Clara’s perspective (and that of the fairy-tale-like narrator) allowed for a typically Moffat tricksy non-linear narrative. From Clara’s point of view, the entire plot, hundreds of years for the Doctor, took place over the course of one Christmas dinner. And you thought your family Christmas was traumatic!
Yes, it was somewhat contrived that the homespun colony the Doctor was fighting to protect should be called ‘Christmas’ and permanently blanketed in snow like a Dickensian village. And despite the fact that the ‘Truth Field’ generated by the Time Lords made for some funny moments, the villagers’ utter lack of curiosity regarding it pointed up one of the other major flaws – the Doctor may have been determined to protect the inhabitants of Christmas, but no attempt was made to give them any sort of personalities. Indeed, with so much going on, it felt like only Clara’s gran and Tasha Lem were given any sort of characters at all.
Still, it’s hard for anyone’s personality to shine if they’re an ordinary human being stacked against Matt Smith’s Doctor. Well, after all, this was really his show – his swansong. And he played it beautifully, from his glee at being discovered naked in the TARDIS (always a welcome sight) to the sight of him as a frail old man, still hanging on to what remained of that notorious joie de vivre even with his mind failing him.
Considering that he’s (appearance-wise) the youngest incarnation, it’s been interesting that Eleven has, from his own perspective, been the Doctor for such a long time. It’s always hard to pin down his actual age – Troughton claims to be “about 450 years old” in Tomb of the Cybermen, Pertwee claims to have been a scientist for “several thousand years” in The Mind of Evil, Tom Baker notes that he’s 749 in The Brain of Morbius (“soon be middle-aged!”), Sylvester McCoy claimed to be 953 in Time and the Rani, and Smith himself was seen to spend several hundred years gallivanting about between stories in The Impossible Astronaut, finally claiming to be 1200 in The Day of the Doctor.
Here though, he got another 300 years of ageing in one episode, finally actually appearing old in makeup that was far more convincing than that given to David Tennant in Last of the Time Lords. It was heartbreaking to watch, as he became the determined saviour of Christmas simply by dint of never leaving, until the Daleks finally break through and he’s forced to ally with the Silence.
Plainly the war went on a long time – the Doctor was aged when the Daleks finally took control of the Silence leaders, but positively ancient when Clara finally returned to him on his last day. He looked, in fact, rather like a cross between a bespectacled William Hartnell and Santa – entirely fitting given his entrenched pastimes of “fixing toys and fighting monsters”. More than anything else, Matt Smith’s Doctor has been one for the children, and more than capable of acting like a child himself; his friendship with little Barnable being a slightly saccharine but nonetheless affecting element.
Slightly more fun was his friendship with the Cyber-head affectionately known as “Handles”, reminiscent of Tom Hanks’ basketball buddy Wilson in Castaway. When Handles finally ‘died’ of old age it was a desperately sad moment, and also pointed up the irony that this youngest of Doctors seemed destined, ironically, to die of old age, despite all his foes’ best efforts (“if you want something done properly, do it yourself!”).
That passing of time was as heartwrenching for us as it was for Clara – from her perspective, the ep played out virtually in real time, with hundreds of years passing on Trenzalore. The little scene with her and the Doctor surveying the snowy landscape from the tower was moving, as he conveyed why he had to stay even though he could now leave. It also led to the revelation that, in terms of bodies, he was actually the last Doctor; the War Doctor being one incarnation, and Ten’s apparent near-regeneration in The Stolen Earth actually having been real (“I had vanity issues then”).
So in one scene, Moffat raised the stakes even higher. We’d already seen the Doctor’s grave on Trenzalore; now there could be no question that it was indeed, this Doctor. There could be no more.
At least, not without the Time Lords – how convenient that they were trying to break back into our universe. I’ve mentioned before that they offered the Master “a whole new regenerative cycle” in The Five Doctors (also referenced here with the Seal of the High Council, nicked from the Master in the Death Zone). It seems they can still do that, even through a Crack between universes. Clara’s plea to them was another heart-rending moment – “his name is the Doctor. That tells you all you need to know about him. And if you love him – and you should – then help him now.”
It was massively reminiscent of another speech given by a companion on the Doctor’s apparent death in affectionate comedy parody The Curse of Fatal Death – written, funnily enough, by one Steven Moffat. Still, if he’s going to recycle his own work, it fitted perfectly well here. Yes, the sudden appearance of the Crack in the sky, giving the Doctor energy to regenerate so pyrotechnically it destroyed all the attacking Daleks, was completely, utterly deus ex machina. But it’s hard to object to that when Russell T Davies used to end almost every one of his series that way.
The regeneration didn’t happen immediately, though thankfully the Doctor didn’t spend the next 20 minutes visiting everyone he’d ever met like David Tennant did. Instead, we got a beautiful farewell scene from Matt Smith, saying goodbye to Clara and to the viewers, with a cameo appearance from just one old friend – Amy Pond, “the first face this face saw”. It was such a lovely moment, it was hard to object to the fact that Karen Gillan was very obviously wearing a wig – both she and Matt Smith having shaved their heads recently for other work. Matt, at least, got the fact worked into the script!
And the Doctor’s final farewell speech was hugely moving, and plainly came from the actor’s heart – in fact, I wondered if he’d had anything to do with the writing of it:
“We all change. If you think about it, we are all different people, all through our lives, and that’s ok, that’s good, you’ve gotta keep moving – so long as you remember all the people that you used to be. I will not forget one line of this. Not one day. I swear. I will always remember when the Doctor was me.”
After all the sturm und drang, I thought it was a clever touch that the new Doctor just popped into being in the space of a jump cut. Well, after all, there’s never been a regeneration like this one, why shouldn’t it be different? You get a bit tired of all the orangey-shooty-outy-energy stuff, and if it keeps getting bigger very time he risks destroying a planet the next time!
I’m expecting great things of Capaldi, but actually we got very little hint of what the new Doctor was like here – he actually got less establishing screen time than Matt Smith did in The End of Time. There was the now-standard “new body part” gag (he doesn’t like the colour of his new kidneys) and yet again, the TARDIS is crashing – another excuse to remodel the console room, perhaps, though it’s becoming a little tired that every regeneration causes the ship to career out of control. I’d have liked to have seen a bit more from the new guy; he got so few lines I still can’t figure out if he’s going to play it with his Scottish accent or not!
Even if you’re not a Moffat fan, this was a pretty good episode, and a good swansong to a Doctor who’s been, if anything, more universally liked than the stories he’s been in. It wasn’t perfect – if you actually think about it, the temporal paradox of changing the future would also change his past. There could be no grave on Trenzalore for him to visit with Clara earlier, meaning Clara would have no reason to jump the Doctor’s time stream, meaning he would never have met alternative versions of her, meaning he’d never have been intrigued enough to seek her out and probably wouldn’t have met her. In fact, by changing the future we already knew about, this would logically cancel out a great deal of the events of the last four years. Best not to think about that, eh – that’s the trouble with trying to write a multi-year story arc involving multiple time paradoxes that cancel each other out.
I suspect Moffat-haters will find that hard to forgive, though nitpicking is part of the joy of being a Doctor Who fan. For me though, it was a minor glitch and a necessary bit of dramatic licence to drive forward the plot of an otherwise exciting and moving episode. Since Moffat’s staying on as showrunner though, he may want to use the appearance of a new Doctor as an opportunity to move away from such a convoluted style of storytelling before he really trips himself up and tells us exactly when the UNIT stories were set and why.
So, farewell, Eleventh Doctor. The youngest actor in the part took the character into new and unexpected places, mixing the joie de vivre of a child with the dramatic heft of a truly alien figure, often (comically) unable to grasp human mores and emotions. In that, he was able to easily win over so many who swore they could never get used to the departure of David Tennant – just as Troughton managed to win over those so used to William Hartnell. Let’s hope Peter Capaldi can do every bit as well – though I don’t doubt him for a moment. For now, though – goodbye fez, goodbye bowtie, goodbye floppy hair, flappy hands, chin and tweed. I’ll always remember when the Doctor was you, too.
“And now it’s time for one last bow,
Like all your other selves.
Eleven’s hour is over now,
The clock is striking twelve’s.”