Doctor Who: The Time of the Doctor (Review)

Contains spoilers.

I’m not ready for this.  It does not feel like four years ago that Matt Smith first blazed onto our screens within the fires of David Tennant’s wrecked TARDIS.  It’s gone by so quickly and, now, it’s time to say farewell to Matt Smith also.  ‘The Time of the Doctor’, written, of course, by Steven Moffat, concludes the loose trilogy beginning with ‘The Name of the Doctor’ and ‘The Day of the Doctor‘, featuring the return of the Time Lords and Trenzalore, the Doctor’s final resting place.  This is the first proper regeneration episode Moffat has written, immediately setting itself up to be a different beast to David Tennant’s swansong, The End of Time, an epic battle against the Master and Time Lords.  The episode also promised to tie up most of the loose ends left during the Smith era.  Could any episode live up to these expectations?

On the whole, I think ‘The Time of the Doctor’ did a pretty decent job.  It’s been quite divisive among fans, with only 54.16% of voters on popular fansite Gallifrey Base giving the episode a rating of 8/10 and above (compared to 85.51% for ‘The Day of the Doctor’ and 96% for ‘The Name of the Doctor’).  I can certainly see why – the episode isn’t devoid of failings.  But in spite of this, I think there’s a lot to be valued indeed, and I expect much of this negativity is result of the disproportional pressure this episode had to meet expectations.

The episode began with interchanging scenes between the Doctor’s investigation of this mysterious, guarded planet emitting an untranslatable signal which has gathered every powerful force in the Universe, and Clara’s battles to have a Christmas dinner.  The Doctor’s scenes were very well realised and served to be a good introduction to the episode.  Although I wish there didn’t have to be Christmas references every time (the Doctor must live in fear of Christmas Day considering he always regenerates around that date), the more comical scenes on Earth did turn out better than I expected.  The Eleventh Doctor has been very funny during his time – balancing this brilliantly with the more serious aspects of his character – and it feels suitable that we have this one last laugh with him.

I enjoyed the Papal Mainframe as a presence within the episode.  As ever, Moffat’s jabs at religion amuse me (“We’re having an unscheduled faith change…”) and it’s also through this that we finally get some answers!  The Silence monsters were genetically engineered priests who you forget once you’ve confessed – genius – while we discover the Silence religion was born out of a need to prevent the Doctor ever speaking his name to release the Time Lords (more on that later).  The events of series 5 and 6, chiefly the destruction of the TARDIS and the whole plot involving River and the astronaut suit, are revealed to be the work of the breakaway ‘Kovarian Chapter’ which sought to change the Doctor’s past*.  I appreciate the answers, having long given up hope of having an answer to the TARDIS’ explosion, though it would have been nice if these big running threads had been explore more deeply than within a minute of exposition simply brushing them away.

Essentially, the real crux of this episode revolves around the Doctor’s discovery of a crack inside the town of Christmas on Trenzalore.  Through the crack the message is being emitted, from Gallifrey, on repeat: “Doctor Who?”  Here is the oldest question, hidden in plain sght, within a truth field where no living being can answer false…  If the Doctor lets out the Time Lords by answering his name, the Silence will destroy Trenzalore and the Time War will begin again.  Therefore, the Doctor dedicates his life to protecting the town of Christmas from the multiple invaders from above, including Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, Weeping Angels and more.  I think this aspect of the episode is my favourite thing about this episode.  Becoming the patriarch of a small town, immersing himself in its life and protecting it until he’s old and feeble suits the Eleventh Doctor in a way I can’t imagine any others – would the Tenth Doctor have stuck around so long without getting bored?  I doubt it.  What’s more, the town is beautifully realised.  The character of Barbable achieves so much by so little, as do various other small roles, really making us care for these seemingly insignificant people, involved in this cosmic war by mere misfortune.  I love that there’s only five minutes of sunlight a day, which we see in an incredible shot featuring some of the best lighting I’ve seen – hats off to director Jamie Payne.

After what must be something like 900 years we see the Doctor, old, wizened, but still with a spirit to protect the town.  I have to say, I’m not entirely sure of the logic here.  The Doctor claims that every life he saves is a victory, which I can somewhat understand given that he must feel some guilt over bringing this siege upon the townspeople, but it’s not exactly the best plan given that they’ll be annihilated the moment he dies anyway – it’s just putting off the inevitable.  There’s then a twist thrown in that this is the Doctor’s final incarnation, since the War Doctor counted as one and the Tenth Doctor’s botched regeneration in ‘The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End’ (2008) counted as the other.  This is a good twist and adds extra tension, but it needed to be better planned.  If the Doctor always knew this to be his last regeneration then the regeneration effects during his faked death (‘The Impossible Astronaut’, 2011) were fooling no-one.  It feels cold, too, being jumped on the viewer like this.

Another criticism I have of this part of the episode was the very bizarre structural shape it took.  Most episodes – or narratives in general – have natural rises and falls in the action, generally building up to a climax of sorts.  ‘The Time of the Doctor’ does have a climax of sorts in that scene where the ancient Doctor faces off against the Dalek mothership, which is a genuinely fantastic and thrilling sequence (“EMERGENCY!  EMERGENCY!  THE DOCTOR IS REGENERATING!”), but it’s a short-lived rise in action that’s had very little build-up at all.  I think this is what a lot of people have found issue with – the episode comes across as very disjointed and all over the place.  Because I think Moffat handles the content well within this loose structure it’s not a massive problem for me, but I do acknowledge that the narrative is weakened in this respect.

Then the regeneration.  I never cry at television but, if I did, the tears would certainly have been streaming down here.  “I will not forget one line of this.  Not one day, I swear.  I will always remember when the Doctor was me,” he says in his final words.  What a contrast to the Tenth Doctor’s “I don’t want to go.”  Magnificently written and performed.  Then the bow-tie dropping to the floor – oh, it’s too much!  The appearance of Amy at the end seems to have also galvinised opinion – again I don’t have a great issue with it, since it was handled well and Amy was clearly this Doctor’s closest and longest-known friend.  Additionally, it’s very fitting of Moffat to have the Eleventh Doctor die of old age, given his affinity for ‘timey-wimey’ stories and avoiding violent deaths.  As for the regeneration itself, I did feel it was way too rushed (I like watching one face transform into another), but Peter Capaldi’s entrance was great.  Within about 20 seconds he’s already proved he has what it takes to be the Doctor, staring at Clara through alien-like eyes and darting round the console.  A refreshing divergence from the boundless youthful appearance of Smith’s Doctor, too.  I’m very much looking forward to next year!

For his final appearance Matt Smith gave another typically top-notch performance.  From his comic wackiness with Clara, his grief at Handles the Cyberhead’s death, to his determination in protecting Christmas and his joy at having his life extended at the climax, Smith had us utterly within his control through his enchanting performance.  His will be a tough act to follow – tougher, I would argue, than even David Tennant’s.  Jenna Coleman is also continuing to be very good as Clara.  I felt Clara seemed a bit more like an actual person in this episode, now we’ve seen more of her family and she’s getting more chance to develop chemistry with the Doctor, but she still lacks many defining characteristics besides the ‘feisty’, one-liner ridden dialogue Moffat gives most of his female characters.  Tasha Lem was convincingly portrayed by Orla Brady, giving the character more depth than I’d have expected, though she is also let down for the previous reasons.  Debatably, the star of this episode is Handles, whose death was almost as sad as the Doctor’s.

Overall, I think ‘The Time of the Doctor’ is a very fitting and satisfactory send-off for the Eleventh Doctor.  It isn’t perfect but it’s much better and more coherent than the kind of story we’ve seen recently from Steven Moffat.  I think it’s true that he struggles to reconcile the needs of plot arcs with the needs of individual stories, and I wouldn’t say he achieves this here (it must have been challenging for the casual viewer to follow), but for the Doctor’s regeneration it’s perhaps more forgiveable.  I enjoyed this one a lot.

Final rating: 9/10

*Incidentally, I mused in my review of ‘The Name of the Doctor’ that Steven Moffat either intended the Silence to be the most useless villains ever or he’s making it all up as he goes along.  Turns out it’s still the latter, but he’s used the first as an excuse to cover his tracks – only they’re more useless than I even imagined, having created the very cracks they sought to prevent by blowing up the TARDIS.

 

Doctor Who: The Snowmen Review

Contains Spoilers.

Yesterday was Christmas Day!  Which may have some connotations of presents and trees and turkey, as everyone forgets the original Christian and Druid roots, but for me the most significant connotation in the last couples of years, as I’ve grown increasingly tired of the same routine, is a new episode of my favourite television show.

Generally, Christmas episodes of Doctor Who are never anything special.  They’re usually a bit of fun, a bit silly and aimed to please children.  Which is fine – it fits with the ‘tone’ of Christmas, whatever that is once it’s done with the commercialism conveyer belt – but isn’t a style which particularly appeals to me.  I’ve also become disillusioned with the Steven Moffat, the head writer, who although has written some fantastic episodes in the past (The Empty Child, Silence in the Library and The Pandorica Opens, for example), many have been pretty poor, particularly last year’s Christmas special, The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe.  And then some episodes which are generally good tend to be riddled with plot holes, where he seems to have simply decided he doesn’t want to let logic get in the way of telling a story.  It’s a successful attitude so I can’t criticise it, but once again doesn’t work well for me.

These factors coupled with my recent lack of interest in television and film making resulted in a lack of anticipation for this episode.  Which, in retrospect, was probably for the best.  By no means was The Snowmen a bad episode – in fact I was pleasantly surprised – but nor was it perfect.  The Christmas episode included a variety of presents for viewers: a new companion, a new TARDIS console design, and an updated theme tune and opening credits, all of which proved to work well.

Jenna-Louise Coleman as Clara Oswald technically already made her first appearance in Asylum of the Daleks, and while impressing with her acting skills did not seem as developed a character as would be hoped.  My overall impression of Clara was of yet another one-liner sprouting, overconfident character who wouldn’t be out of place in a sitcom; the kind of character Moffat frequently writes.  Her appearance in The Snowmen has somewhat softened that opinion, though not entirely.  She’s likeable, certainly, from both the writing and acting, and perfect companion material.  It’s refreshing to see a companion who isn’t from contemporary Earth – twice, as the case may be.  It looks like the Clara we’ll end up with will inevitably be from 21st century London, but the mystery adds a layer of intrigue nonetheless.

And what a mystery it is!  I’m afraid I don’t have confidence that Moffat will absolutely resolve it – River Song’s resolution was badly handled, and I still haven’t forgiven him for abandoning the ‘who blew up the TARDIS?’ storyline – but I’m excited to see where it’ll go.  Coleman is a welcome addition to the cast!

Acting was fantastic all round.  Dan Starkey, Catrin Stewart and Neve McIntosh were great as Commander Strax, Jenny and Madame Vastra, respectively.  Despite the fact they’re so obviously out of place in so many ways, the team fits in well with the Victorian setting and are all likeable, bringing something unique to the episode.  Strax is hilarious as the show’s first ‘good’ Sontaran, suggesting grenades as the solution to every problem, although I wasn’t satisfied by the explanation of how he survived the events of A Good Man Goes To War: “He died helping a friend of mine, then another friend brought him back to life.”  …If you say so, Doctor.  Vastra has an interesting relationship with the Doctor, reprising an almost mentor-like role.  Jenny, as a human, is unfortunately sidelined by her odder friends, but provides a necessary antithesis to the team.

Richard E. Grant was excellent as the main villain Dr Simeon, and Ian McKellan was of course a perfectly threatening voice for the Great Intelligence (who I only twigged towards the end would go on to orchestrate the events of The Web of Fear in 1967.  If only that episode still existed…).  The idea of snowmen had never inspired much confidence within me, and indeed were underused and flimsily explained.  What was their main point?  One moment they’re fearsome killers, the next they reflect thoughts; they lacked focus and explanation.  In fact, I never really understood their plan, which proved to be a major detractor of the episode.  To inhabit the world with living ice people, having scanned the previous governess?  Okay… To colonise, to conquer, to exploit?  It’s never said.  Likewise, the resolution is equally shabby.  I vaguely understood the concept of the snow mirroring the family’s tears, but didn’t quite get howThe Snowmen did truly become scary, however, as the Great Intelligence possessed Simeon.  His face gradually frosting over was truly terrifying.

And finally, as ever, Matt Smith’s acting stole the show.  His ‘shouty-wouty’ overly enthusiastic side is starting to grate ever so slightly in the same way that David Tennant’s did, but Smith is so versatile and the character given such well thought out dialogue that it’s not a massive problem for me.  The Doctor’s isolation is an interesting concept, expanding on the Tenth Doctor’s decision to travel alone during the 2009 specials, though this is the first time he ever properly withdraws from his world-saving antics.  I find it difficult to believe that the Doctor would ever truly stand back and let the Earth perish however, which is perhaps why he slips back so easily.  Smith and Coleman, seen acting together for the first time, work well together.  My only criticism – and it’s unfortunately quite a large one – is the rushed way the Doctor gave Clara a TARDIS key.  Generally this is a significant moment of acceptance, the moment a character truly becomes a companion.  The Doctor hardly knows Clara; his explanation is: “I never know why, I only know who…” which makes no sense whatsoever.  It’s as if Moffat wanted her to have the key, for whatever reason, so shoehorned the moment in.  It felt wrong and premature.  I’ll happily take this back if it turns out there’s a hidden reason for doing so – the Doctor at this point had made the connection between Clara and ‘Soufflé Girl’ – but if this is a future plot point, it should clearly be so, rather than appearing as an irregularity.

The direction by Saul Metzstein matched that of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and A Town Called Mercy earlier this year.  It was atmospheric and chilling (no pun intended).  The shot following Clara in through the TARDIS doors, the interior expanding around her, was a particular standout.  To my untrained eye, Doctor Who feels the most ‘expensive’ and ‘filmic’ I’ve ever seen it.  The direction adds credence to Moffat’s ambition to have a shortened feature film every week.  The new TARDIS is a nice design, though isn’t something I paid a lot of attention to.  It feels much more alien now and less homely, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing considering the premise of the show is exploring worlds outside the TARDIS.  That said, I’ve always enjoyed scenes within the TARDIS during classic episodes, particularly during the 1960s, so I feel some regret that we’re unlikely to see more of these.  Both the opening titles and the updated music were improvements; the titles were a bit busy and, so I’m told, fairly amateur-looking, but give the episode a bombastic opening, and I appreciate having the episode open through the TARDIS doors.  The music sees a return to the original Delia Derbyshire and Ron Grainer, but still with elements of the version introduced in 2010, which suits the show better, in my opinion.

In conclusion, The Snowmen was a surprisingly good Christmas special for Doctor Who.  There were inconsistencies in plot and character, but nothing large enough to ruin the episode.

Final Score: 8/10