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 Name of the Doctor (Review)

Contains spoilers.

Who is Clara?  What will happen at Trenzalore?  Why have the Silence been trying to kill the Doctor?  What is his greatest secret?  Will his name be revealed?  These are just some of the questions which I was hoping the season finale of series 7 would provide answers to.  Now, it’s no secret that series 7 – particularly the latter half – has not been entirely to my taste.  I enjoyed Asylum of the Daleks, The Angels take Manhattan, The Snowmen, The Rings of Akhaten, Hide and The Crimson Horror, but the rest have been quite below par in my view, and the series as a whole has suffered due to experimentation with the structure – every episode being a different ‘blockbuster’ story.  But can The Name of the Doctor, written by Steven Moffat – who I’ve criticised a lot, but can be fantastic on a good day – and directed by Saul Metzstein – who has already proven his ability – bring about a decent end to the series?  Essentially, yes.

Firstly, that opening!  From the line: “what sort of idiot would try to steal a faulty TARDIS?” it became clear that this episode was something different.  Gallifrey!  The classic Doctors!  I keep rewatching it on BBC Iplayer, just to check it actually happened.  They’ve ingeniously taken clips from the classic series, between 1964 and 1987, and slotted them into the episode.  This involved green-screening Clara onto shots which, yes, was a little bit obvious but really, who cares?  We’re seeing the classic Doctors!  And then there’s that conversation between Clara and the First Doctor, who has been colourised from an episode of The Aztecs (1963).  I’ve seen the colourisation criticised by people with a greater technical knowledge than I have but, again, does it matter?  This was an utterly delightful sequence.

The episode builds on this opening and continues to strengthen.  As ever, I enjoyed the Doctor’s ‘gang’ of Madam Vastra, Jenny, Strax and, returning in this episode, River Song.  After getting information from a man due to be executed (which is never properly explained, like a few things in this episode), the team host a ‘conference call’, where each becomes unconscious in their respective time and location and end up in some dreamworld.  The logic is patchy, but it’s a great idea.  And I love that Strax was in Glasgow at the time!   And then it all takes a sinister turn when the Whispermen attack… “I think I’ve been murdered…”  It’s terrifying!  These scenes really work.

It’s when the action moves to Trenzalore that the episode begins to develop a few holes.  I really like the concept of this being the graveyard of some bloody battle, a battle the future Doctor didn’t survive, although I’m reluctant that they’ll just never mention this again.  This is the second time in Moffat’s writing that we’ve seen how the Doctor dies, though he’d probably just get out of it by saying that “Oh, this wasn’t actually the Doctor” (which would ruin the whole purpose of the episode… Again.  Yes, I’m beginning to understand Moffat’s ways).  It’s the villains which prove to be the greatest weakness of the episode.  The Great Intelligence is back, still inhabiting the body of Dr. Simeon from The Snowmen, but I’m at a complete loss over what it actually wants.  What’s its motivation?  We’ve seen it try to destroy human life and gain power twice now, and its third plan is to undo all the good the Doctor has done, for its ‘peace’?  It’s an audacious plan but it’s been done before, and it never ends well for anyone.   And who are the Whispermen?  Really, who are they?  They’ve just been thrown in because the Great Intelligence needs henchmen, but have had absolutely no development.  Wouldn’t it have been better for the Silence to return instead (and thereby tying up a loose end which still has been left ignored since 2010*).

Almost every problem this episode has is a result of having squeezed it into a 45 minute slot.  It is extremely rushed, to the episode’s great detriment.  There’s a scene where Clara suddenly gains memories of the events in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (though not, conveniently, of having read his name in The History of the Time War), and she’s understandably freaking out, and then cut to about 5 seconds later and she and the Doctor are confronting the Great Intelligence.  No movement, no transition.  Oh, and the plot holes.  So many things have been left unresolved: how did the Doctor see River, when she’s a data ghost connected to Clara? (he says some rubbish like “I always see you,” but that’s poetry, not a plot explanation).  And just other petty things, like Dorium’s wording in The Wedding of River Song:

“On the Fields of Trenzalore, at the Fall of the Eleventh, when no living creature can speak falsely or fail to answer, a question will be asked”

‘The Fall of the Eleventh’?  That’s either the death of the Doctor – meaning that his future death must be resolved again and soon – or his literal fall in the TARDIS to the planet which, frankly, is a pathetic explanation for the prophecy.  And the ‘no living creature’ line is completely wrong, as the only person who doesn’t fail to answer is dead.  And who is ‘the woman from the shop’ who gave Clara the Doctor’s number in The Bells of Saint John?  Why was the TARDIS irritable towards Clara in earlier episodes?  I’m not forgetting these things.

You’d be forgiven for thinking I disliked this episode, but it generally works really well – I’m just losing patience with the inconsistencies.  The sequences of the Great Intelligence entering the Doctor’s timeline and Jenny dying, then Strax reverting to Sontaran ‘default’ and getting killed by Vastra, is chilling.  Then Clara entering!  These segments were very well indeed, and there is a proper sense of closure to the series.  Actually, I’m rather impressed at the degree to which Moffat has explained the Clara mystery – I don’t think I have any questions left (I’m slightly grumpy, as Moffat stole an idea I wrote in a fanfiction script three years ago – but that’s neither here nor there).  So does this mean that Clara now knows more about the Doctor than any other companion?  Or, I guess this Clara won’t have the combined knowledge of her other splintered beings through time.   Oh, and I’m glad the significance of the leaf in The Rings of Akhaten finally has an explanation.

The ending works really, really well.  In that cavern where everything around them is the Doctor, they see a silhouette of a figure standing at the edge, who the Doctor warns Clara away from.  This scene is both brilliantly directed and written, and the reveal of John Hurt is skillfully built up to.  It’s disappointing that they ruined it with the irritating, unnecessary and nonsensical caption: “Introducing John Hurt as the Doctor” (the Eleventh Doctor has just explained that he abandoned the title of Doctor), which completely took me out of the action and unforgivably broke the fourth wall.  That’s how desperate the team are to get views for an episode to be broadcast in half a year’s time.  Oh well, most of it worked well.  John Hurt was amazing in the 20 seconds or so of screen time he had, so in that respect I cannot wait for November.

Villains aside, I enjoyed all of the characters in this episode.  Matt Smith gave another fantastic performance as the Doctor.  The scene where he begins to cry upon hearing about Trenzalore shows what a versatile actor he is, as well as his tone of trepidation throughout the rest of the episode.  Jenna-Louise Coleman continues to act Clara well, despite inconsistent writing.  Neve McIntosh, Catrin Stewart and Dan Starkey are again all great as Vastra, Jenny and Strax.  Jenny’s recovery from having her heart stopped is one of the better resurrections Moffat is fond of writing, and it gave them the great exchange: “The heart is a relatively simple thing” – “I have not found it to be so.”  Alex Kingston returns as River Song in what is kind of written as if to be her last appearance, being the only episode featuring her to be set after Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, where her body died and her consciousness living in the Library’s data core.  It’s a fitting tribute to the character, but the door is still open for her to return.  I think Moffat’s treading a little close to the line with their ‘relationship’, having the Doctor kiss River without any pretext though, at the same time, it kind of feels natural if we’re not seeing River again.

Metzstein’s direction is great, again.  The Whispermen do seem fairly scary, and the scenes on Trenzalore are very atmospheric.  There’s not a lot to say other than that – I hope he keeps up the good work!

Overall, I think I’ve been too harsh towards The Name of the Doctor in this review as I really did enjoy watching it.  It must be one of the better episodes in this series.  And I’m now, for the first time, properly excited for the 50th anniversary special – this episode is almost seeming like the tame lead-in, or the prologue.  And, amazingly, Steven Moffat has written himself out of the hole he was in regarding the Doctor’s name.  Despite the title and advertising of the episode, the Doctor’s name was (thankfully) not revealed, yet the finale doesn’t feel cheapened in any way.  Not perfect by any means, but a very sound conclusion to the series.

Final Rating: 8.5/10

*I’ve read fan theories suggesting that the Silence were trying to prevent the Great Intelligence’s plan from been carried out, by killing the only person who knows the Doctor’s name – himself – and therefore prevent him opening the tomb.  However, let’s look at their plan.  First they try to kill him by destroying the TARDIS when he isn’t in it, with the side-effect of blowing up the Universe.  That went well.  Plan B: they steal his companions’ daughter and train her to be an assassin, only to throw her into an astronaut suit underwater with no control over her actions, just because who doesn’t think about underwater astronauts when planning a murder?  Having River inside was needless, and had the side-effect of ending time when she refused to kill him.  That also went well.  It had the second side-effect of allowing River to discover the Doctor’s name [though how did that happen?  It was revealed he didn’t actually tell her that when they got married], which later allowed the Great Intelligence to enter the Doctor’s tomb and wipe out his achievements.  Wait.  If the Doctor must always die at Trenzalore, which presumably is a given considering they’re making plans around it, then won’t killing him elsewhere create a paradox?  Or is that the purpose?  …  Either Moffat intended the Silence to be terrible, terrible planners, or he has no idea where he’s going with any of his plot threads.  I wonder which it is… ?