DOCTOR WHO: The Time of the Doctor / Review

The Time of the Doctor
25 December 2013, 7.30pm

Your stomach's fit to burst and only until you force down yet another luxury chocolate or another branded bit of confectionary from a selection box do you realise that perhaps you've overindulged at Christmas. Yet, you keep going back for more. You pile into turkey, Christmas pudding, mince pies as if you've never seen such a feast before. But you've seen it and eaten it all before. You do it every year.

Sorry, I was digressing. Just thinking about my Christmas dinner again. Oddly enough, the after effects - flatulence and indigestion - did not abate watching The Time of the Doctor. For an end of era story, featuring a regeneration to boot, it felt as if Steven Moffat was devouring a running buffet of the last three seasons under his auspices. Another bowl of fish custard, anyone? One more slice of turkey?
Moffat's trilogy, beginning with The Name of the Doctor, continuing in The Day of the Doctor and concluding here, is firmly centred on the impending change from Matt Smith to Peter Capaldi but it is also an attempt to deal with 'the final problem'. What happens when the Doctor reaches his final incarnation and how does the show get past the 'rule' of thirteen Doctors as set down by Robert Holmes in 1976's The Deadly Assassin? In the anniversary year Moffat is clearly on a mission to deal with this shibboleth and, as is customary, break every rule in the book.
'I can change 12 times. 13 versions of me'
The Time of the Doctor's entire running time therefore reduces down, a bit like a red wine sauce, to one very crucial exchange between Clara and the aged Eleventh Doctor. It's just after half way through the episode when Clara assures the Doctor he can change again. 'No, not for ever. I can change 12 times. 13 versions of me,' explains the Doctor. Clara, as our representative canon keeper, tells him he's number 11. Moffat, having already wedged in John Hurt's Doctor between McGann and Eccleston, triumphantly waggles his finger and reminds us that back in Journey's End: 'Number 10 once regenerated and kept the same face.'

So there you have the problem. Now for the solution. Clearly there are a number of plot points to deal with from The Day of the Doctor regarding the Time Lords. Were they saved in another universe as was postulated? Will the Doctor find them and restore them to our universe? Moffat essentially deals with the regeneration question and the Time Lords rather adeptly but the resolution on its own could never fill an hour's television.

Like many of Moffat's grander episodes, especially his season finales, we get a modicum of plot floating in a sea of random ideas (wooden Cybermen, anyone?), highly crafted and exceptional visuals, and what feels like a race against the running time to answer all of the nagging questions he's littered the series with since 2010.

The episode opens with a typical Moffat trope. The fairy tale introduction of 'once upon a time...' If anything can be said about the Matt Smith era then the use of fairy or folk tale and mythology (not just the classic variety but also the show's own in-built history) is vital to the construction and definition of the Doctor during Moffat's tenure.

Series 5 was wholly focused on the 'crack in the universe' arc and how the restitution of the shattering universe was tied into the maturing of the companion, Amy Pond and the Peter Pan/Wendy relationship between her and the Doctor; Series 6 was busy exploring the origins of River Song and her marriage, the fairy tale mystique of 'the perfect husband', her initial role in the Silence's campaign to destroy the Doctor and his own demystification; Series 7 was focused on the name of the Doctor and the power of the Time Lord's mythology.

All these specific story arcs can very neatly fit into the definition and purpose of folk tale as determined by Vladimir Propp, for example. His examination of the Russian folk tale as a series of functions works very well in context with Doctor Who, outlining the role of the hero and villain and specific motifs. For Moffat, The Time of the Doctor is an opportunity to return to many of his own motifs and replay them to examine the psychology of the Doctor, his relationship with a specific community (Time Lords, the inhabitants of Christmas town and, briefly, Clara's family) and the cosmology of the universe (the religious zeal of his enemies and their desire to wipe him and the Time Lords out, the causation of the crack in the universe, the actual passage of time).

Tasha Lem announces that 'once there was a planet' which sent out a message to the universe. Messages, hidden or in plain sight, are another Moffat trope. They've been in his episodes since Blink's warning behind the wallpaper. Characters are always offering the Doctor a cryptic warning, an interdiction to seek out some useful piece of knowledge, and here it's 'a bell tolling among the stars' returning us to the vexed question of 'Doctor Who?', something which seems to have perplexed Moffat for some time.

The problem is I don't really care about that question. I've never asked the question because I already know the answer, as do many millions of fans I suspect. Moffat is worried we are still asking that question some 50 years after the series started. The 'Doctor Who?' gag worked well in An Unearthly Child but we got the joke long ago and I think you can stop embarrassing yourself Steven.

Fair enough that it's partly understandable in the context of an exploration of the Doctor's mythology but the fact that no one still knows his real name is an itch Moffat obsessively scratches at. The expression of the Doctor's mythology in The Day of the Doctor, where Moffat delivered a satisfying re-statement of the iconic nature of the title hero, is somewhat deflated by returning to the leftover plot elements of The Wedding of River Song and The Name of the Doctor.

There is a feeling of inevitability to The Time of the Doctor. The return to Trenzalore to hear the oldest question in the universe answered is as welcome as the undercooked turkey sitting in the innards of the TARDIS. That the name is a password to facilitate the return of the Time Lords brings it all to the attention of his enemies. Just as in The Big Bang, their ships mass above the Doctor's head. It's a way for Moffat to throw in the monsters and explosions as he tries to bring closure to many of his hanging narratives.

One of the nonsensical moments in the episode is right there in the pre-titles sequence. Why does the Doctor randomly teleport onto a Dalek ship carrying a bit of a Dalek? Why does he rely on Handles to do this for him? Is he unable to identify Dalek ships these days without the aid of a disembodied Cyberman head?

There are sophisticated scanners on the TARDIS which he clearly uses to identify the ships after he's risked life and limb to visit them. Where's the sense in that? The only joy in that scene is to see lots of Daleks ranting at the Doctor. And how many times have we seen that? As if to ram home the point Moffat repeats it again by sending the Doctor and Handles to a ship full of Cybermen. The duplication of a scene within minutes must be a bit of record and it feels distinctly like padding.

It's structurally a very elaborate set up for Handles the Cyberman where the whole business of patching the telephone back to the console is a bit of joke about the role of the companion and their facility to act as the audience's representative, constantly and repetitively asking for the answer to the bleeding obvious.

Paying off later in the episode, it's an uncomplicated relationship and the question of a companion's loyalty, friendship and emotional baggage - the 'feels' as the modern kids are keen to describe them - is thrown into sharp relief by a lump of metal with two jug ears. Remember when Tom Baker thought a talking cabbage would make a good companion...

In stark contrast we get Clara ringing the Doctor up and pleading with him to be her 'boyfriend' because she's having a shit Christmas Day with her relatives and the cooking of a turkey seems to be beyond an intelligent woman who is supposed to be a teacher? Mind you, she was terrible at making souffl├ęs. Ironically, Clara jokes about the turkey being 'dead and decapitated' as usual for Christmas. Is Handles the talking turkey, then? Or is the episode considered ready for stuffing?

We're back again into the 'imaginary friend' trope. The Raggedy Man does seem to attract obsessive types. If it isn't Amelia Pond going doolally after meeting the Doctor as a child then it's Clara demanding his presence at table because she's so insecure she can't be an independent single woman without inventing a boyfriend. She's really rather pathetic begging him on the phone to 'come to Christmas dinner and be my Christmas date'. As a character she's still lacking in consistency.

Clara's family seems to have undergone a change. Her dad seems to have aged terribly since we last saw him (a result of re-casting it seems) in The Rings of Akhaten and he's saddled with a snooty, scornful girlfriend, Linda. When the TARDIS lands at the Powell Estate (yes, your eyes are not deceiving you - it's the same location as used in Rose) you half expect Jackie and Rose to invite the Doctor in.
'dead and decapitated'  
He certainly had a better time of it round theirs in The Christmas Invasion after all and he didn't have to show up stark bollock naked or slap his companion on her arse to get some attention. Just more bewildering attempts at comedy in an attempt to work in another of those ideas - hologram clothes - that have nothing of relevance to the story but Moffat seems to think we'll enjoy. So you go to church wearing hologram clothes and spend the entire episode naked? Really? Because 'we're all naked underneath'? A clumsy old metaphor if ever there was one.

And the really good metaphor is about the turkey. Clara is so inept at cooking and having boyfriends that she has to use the TARDIS to vortex cook the poor dead bird. 'It'll either come up a treat, or possibly lay some eggs,' warns the Doctor. The latter in the case of The Time of the Doctor.

The use of the family really does echo back to the RTD era and the best it can achieve here is with the character of Gran, a lovely little turn by Sheila Reid, who seems to be the only one to emotionally connect with the ridiculous presence of the Doctor and, later, with a depressed Clara who has been returned to Earth by the Doctor to keep her safe. Gran's age and wisdom runs in parallel with the aged Doctor sitting and philosophising in the church on war torn Trenzalore.

It's only until we've got the boyfriend meeting the family at Christmas and turkey out of the way that we finally get back to the rudiments of the plot and the elements left unresolved from the last three seasons.

Of course nothing is straight-forward in Moffat's world. At first we're told that the planet around which the Doctor's enemies mass and from the where the message originates is Gallifrey but as the Doctor points out to the talking cabbage... sorry Handles... he knows Gallifrey when he sees it and that isn't it. Which is handy when the Papal Mainframe pops up and the Mother Superious, Tasha Lem, invites them to her security church. A step up, but not much, from a security kitchen then. A religious order that controls the universe and is 'keeping you safe in this world and the next' could do with a security chapel and a security choir stall. 

And it's here that we get to the more interesting aspects of a flabby story. Beyond the smoke and mirrors of daft ideas, one of the central themes here is about religions and factions seeking control over a war. Moffat places this in contrast to the awkward family Christmas, the ritual we are left with at this time of year where people who don't really like each other force themselves to glut in celebration of a Christian calendar's appropriation of the pagan winter solstice.

He reflects on the season's Christian themes of rebirth and the Doctor's regeneration and the idea that Christmas town, an idealised snow covered place of contentment where innocent inhabitants can only be truthful, is some sort of symbol for the West Bank and Bethlehem's position in the Palestinian and Israeli battle for control of the region.

The Daleks, the Cybermen, the Silence and the Weeping Angels provide a visual analogy to the town's long history of being caught in decades of political, social and religious conflicts and the Doctor's slow path defence of Christmas town is a reminder of the tense sieges and the armed stand offs in Bethlehem. The security church maintains a truce over the planet and, acting as a peace keeping force, allows the Doctor down as some sort of special envoy. As the Doctor so eloquently sums up the plot 15 minutes in, 'sweet little town covered in snow, half the universe in terror', just as certain angels interrupt the proceedings.

We're back again to the idea of the the religious order setting out to destroy the Doctor as seen in A Good Man Goes To War. And then we have the femme fatale figure of Tasha Lem. A sultry figure before whom you must appear naked and who is just as fixated on the Doctor's history as River Song. Moffat's idea of strong women is, as always, questionable. He likes them powerful ('boss of the psycho space nuns') and - yes, for the final time - feisty but very needy. We've been here and done this many times before with River, with Irene Adler and other 'mother' figures. This time there's no mucking about and the shenanigans between the Doctor and 'Tash', frothing and flirting over a bed that looks like an altar, is all heavy handed and adolescent in its conflation of repression, sex and religion.

Still, let's give Moffat his due. He actually confesses rather smugly he's not very good at writing female characters by cracking a few jokes about it. Under the influence of the planet's truth field, even Clara confesses she's 'a bubbly personality masking bossy control freak' and, let's give a round of applause to the trope of all tropes, that she ran off with an alien because she fancied him. Oh, Lord.

Oh, and the idea that the Doctor can hide a TARDIS key in his wig is just more sleight of hand to get the TARDIS down to Christmas town and a bit of silliness, elbowing the audience in the ribs and saying, 'we know you know Matt had his hair cut for a film and we've had to give him a wig.' Oh, my sides.

Fortunately, now properly clothed and having landed on the planet, the Doctor and Clara can get back to the story and start dealing with all sorts of continuity references. The biggest is of course the crack in the wall the Doctor discovers in the church. Not only was the crack a major story arc in Series 5 but it was also the thing the Doctor most feared when he popped into room 11 of the hotel in The God Complex. Some quick flashbacks remind those of us who may have forgotten.

It's taken 20 minutes of frankly a lot of arsing about to actually get to the point where the Doctor realises that Handles has decoded a message from Gallifrey as it tries to re-enter our universe through the weakest point of the crack in reality. Cue frantic exchange of dialogue and the real consequence of the truth field designated by the Time Lords as a sort of galactic lie detector.

And yet another sleight of hand. The Doctor suddenly produces the seal of the High Council, which presumably has been gathering dust in his pocket since The Five Doctors in 1983, to decode the Time Lord's message. We could have avoided 20 minutes of arsing about if he'd just bothered to heed Handles telling him the message was from Gallifrey and fumbled in his pocket there and then. Handles, the bodiless prophet, decodes the message and reminds us of the other bodiless seer of Maldovar and Dorium's conversation with the Doctor in The Wedding of River Song.

He informed him of his impending death on Trenzalore and about 'The First Question, the oldest question in the Universe, that must never be answered, hidden in plain sight.' Time's up and the First Question needs to be answered truthfully but to do so would bring the Time Lords back to face the mass of enemies in orbit above the planet. The Time War would recommence. In order to prevent that the Doctor is forced to remain as a guardian over the planet, growing old and infirm as he protects the inhabitants of Christmas town against the various attacks from above.
'Raggedy man... Goodnight.' 
Silence falls because the Doctor must not speak his name. Trenzalore will burn if he does. In essesnce this again reaches back into fairy and folk tales and the power of names and naming. There are of course the well known magic words, the saying of something will make it happen, such as shazam or abracadabra. The Doctor's name is a word of power, a symbol of the uncanny in Moffat's world driven by the hidden and the unknowable.

The unnamed Time Lord God must remain abstract. If he is revealed as a sham, like the Wizard of Oz, then he is simply an ordinary man sitting in the middle of all the episode's pyrotechnics. The truth field ensures that those guessing the name of the Doctor will never acquire power over him. The Doctor should be an unknowable power, personified as 'Doctor Who?' Like Rumplestiltskin, if the Doctor is named his power is taken away from him.

The episode once again turns to Tasha Lem's voice over narrative and a montage of scenes to depict the consequences of the Doctor's attempts to protect the town and the Time Lords. The distancing effect of these voice over narratives, particularly when they are performed by a character we do not yet know, is something fellow reviewer Stuart Ian Burns astutely focuses on in his review here. This montage comes complete with comedy invisible Sontarans and children's games (another Moffat trope) with wooden Cybermen  equipped with flame throwers. How wooden Cybermen would actually work is debatable but they underline a fairy tale approach to the final, stronger half of the episode.

Here we learn that it was the Kovarian chapter of the Papal Mainframe who blew up the TARDIS and sent River Song to assassinate him and these revelations thus tidy up, without much fanfare considering their importance, the threads of continuity that have been hanging around since 2010. But that's by the by. The last 25 minutes are dominated by Matt Smith and his quietly powerful performance as an aged Doctor, a wizened sheriff facing off the terrors invading the town. As many have pointed out, the youngest actor to get the role is transformed into a little old man just as he relinquishes it to the oldest actor chosen as his replacement.

He's at the height of his powers and rescues an episode that doesn't quite find its feet until he comes hobbling out of the church and tricks a Cyberman into blowing itself up. There are lots of tiny little echoes - the Monoids in the puppet show, a mention of arm wrestling a Draconian, the drunk giraffe, the children drawing countless pictures of their hero - which reinforce the notion of the Doctor as a myth, a legend, a powerful story of 'the man who stayed for Christmas' and gave his life to keep Christmas safe in all meanings of the word. Well, we'd all wait for him, guarding his TARDIS.

And of course the name of the Doctor is hidden in plain sight. Clara, having returned from the safety of Earth after the Doctor packed her off in the TARDIS (just like he did with Rose in The Parting of the Ways), reminds the Time Lords that his name has always been 'The Doctor' when the Daleks take over the Papal Mainframe and invade the planet. Sadly, we say goodbye to Handles, a companion who stuck with the Doctor for 300 years, who never once had to dress up as a policewoman or cook a turkey but who could remember to remind the Doctor to patch the telephone into the console. Faithful unto death. 

Moffat even makes sure that the Daleks know who the Doctor is (their knowledge of him was wiped from their databanks by Clara in Asylum of the Daleks) after they harvest Tasha Lem's body and he falls into their trap aboard the Papal Mainframe. Sadly, we're back into 'Doctor insults a woman for being weak but really gets her angry' territory so he can snog her and she can destroy his enemies. The strong woman who really desires to be bowled over by a wiser father figure motif is crude at best and it's a trope that Moffat tiresomely drags out again and again. In this universe, it's either get 'feisty' women hot under the collar or ask them to undertake some self sacrifice to prove themselves.

In the end, the regeneration is a curious beast. A little whisper of golden magic dust from the crack in the wall and the Doctor gets a new life cycle (something we knew the Time Lords could grant anyway so no surprises there) and yet he proceeds to blow everything to smithereens once he's got that power.

There are a lot of contradictions in this. Generative power becomes destructive, the life affirming Doctor who fretted over the inhabitants of Christmas town lays waste to all and sundry. Peace on Earth and goodwill to all men... eh? I'm not entirely sure a regenerating Time Lord going off like a nuclear bomb is quite what Christmas town or we deserved. The image is all the more startling linked as it is to a Doctor who has spent the last 50 minutes protecting a planet from a war specifically in his name.

The intimate scenes between Clara and the ancient Doctor are to be cherished amongst the exhausted remains of the Matt Smith era, in the detritus of a particularly gaudy, cheap Christmas cracker. They are sensitively played and beautifully sum up the departure of the Eleventh Doctor.

'Eleven's hour is over now. the clock is striking twelve's' reads Clara from said cracker and change is upon us. But not before Clara has some stern words for Time Lords and reaffirms what we've all known for so long: 'It's time someone told you you've been getting it wrong. His name. His name is the Doctor. All the name he needs. Everything you need to know about him.'

'Like breath on a mirror' the Eleventh disappears from view, ruminating about how we all change through out our lives and remembering both the little Amelia that first saw him and the adult Amy that she became. 'Raggedy man... Goodnight.' It's a sweet conclusion to the reign of the Eleventh Doctor and one of the few powerfully emotional scenes in a terribly mechanical and functional affair. It's a gorgeous bauble to look at but it lacks the epic power and emotional force of nostalgia in The Day of the Doctor.

And that's that. Well, apart from Peter Capaldi grumbling about his kidneys and crashing the TARDIS. I'm not so worried about Capaldi learning 'how to fly this thing'. He'll be fine. I'm more concerned that Moffat, based on this scattershot, rambling, indulgent effort, renews his own driving licence in 2014.

5 Responses to “DOCTOR WHO: The Time of the Doctor / Review”
  1. Anonymous says:

    11's arcs were refreshing but frustrating, i mean 'silence will fall' was uttered back when Matt Smith hadn't even been onscreen for a bloody hour. By artificially stretching that out over 3 series (because it clearly has been, silence will fall was a reference to the end of the universe, it was clearly never meant to go beyond series 5) it's just made Matt's era feel weird and small.

    I loved Matt in the role, but I think he might be leaving a bit too soon to truly make a mark. I maintain that three-and-a-bit series is nowhere near enough time for an actor to establish himself in the role of the doctor & get some proper character development.

    Which might explain why Matt's era has felt sort of abruptly 'cut off'. You got the feeling that the 'fall of the eleventh', was supposed to be the big thing of series 8, but Matt chose to do a Tennant, forcing Moffat to close of 11's threads sooner than he would've liked & in just one episode. Might explain why this felt a bit... loaded.

  2. Unknown says:

    Excellent and clear review. Have you been reading my mind? I sometimes wonder if Mr Moffat puts in the tedious sexist slop just to annoy a segment of fandom? Between the tiresome Hey let's get nude scene, through to the innuendo strewn scenes with River Lem via the arse slap, I might be strong enough to halt the inasion of planet whatsit but deep down I am just a woman with Desires! And the shrewish step mother, we've been here so mnay times in Moffat's world that it must be something he puts in for his own amusement. Oh and suddenly the confident companion who has saved every doctor, jumped to her possible death in the time stream and doesn't need to travel withthe doctor as she has a life and career is so befuddled that - shock - she has an imaginery boyfriend. Totes lolz.

    I remain positive that Mr Moffat has now got all of that garbage out of his system and that with River now gone and the awkwardness of Capaldi leering at Clara's derierre unlikely, he will move on to writing female characters who have character.

    With so much time to have spent on planning the next series I am also cautiously confident that we are now entering a great new era of Who. Production whispers are very exciting and I am hearing great things about the show having a fresh and bold new direction.

    Thanks for the reviews during the year and Happy 2014.

  3. Ed says:

    A brilliant review, as always. You truly know how to interpret every nuance of the storytelling in an intelligent and fair way. I couldn't have agreed more with your assessments, both in the past and for The Time of the Doctor. Well done and keep up the great work! I appreciate reading your reviews for much of what you post and have chosen to purchase many a DVD on your recommendation.

  4. An excellent review. I was kinder to it than you, but some horrors (such as the unwanted snog-assault) I'd just blanked out.

  5. Ghostof82 says:

    Thought it was a terrible episode. I'm bored of all the CGI and explosions, its ruining WHO. Has it gone too mainstream, become too successful and lost its core identity? And squeezing what would have been 4-part serials into 50-minute episodes is killing any character moments and mystery/mood. Races by too quickly now, and this Xmas show was a blur rushing past. Hated it.

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