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After the incredibly high bar set by last month’s Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special, a bit of an emotional and creative let down was to be expected with this Christmas Special. Yes, we all knew it would be the final hurrah for Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor (or, Twelfth. Or Thirteenth, depending on your count.). But I was really hoping for a great send-off, a la David Tennant’s final episode. What we got instead is a patented Steven Moffat mess, albeit with some lovely throwbacks near the end.
Let’s begin with the bad, or at least the disappointing. Now, I’ll openly admit I haven’t been a big fan of the Moffat era of Doctor Who. And this episode more or less contains much of what has driven me a bit mad over the past three years. To me, an episode of Doctor Who should either be an action packed romp (often with a nice piece of emotional heft at the close), or a complex puzzle that the audience and the Doctor work through together. “The Time of the Doctor” tries to shoehorn a little bit of everything into too small of an episode, and ends up giving us a whole lot of nothing in return.
The episode plays fast and loose with time and space, without really delving into a plot. Naturally, the Doctor arrives at Trenzalore, the planet where he is destined to die. However, every enemy he has ever fought has arrived before him, all following a mysterious message from a mysterious location. It would be interesting to spend some time understanding why these various villains are massing around a planet (and spend some time with the Doctor as he vanquishes these foes one last time), but we are only treated to a “bad guys greatest hits” appearance of several villains, before the Doctor manages to escape to the shielded planet (Sidebar: Can we finally say goodbye to the Weeping Angels? I think they’ve hit the point of completely diminished returns now, and aren’t even scary.)
We learn that the message is coming from the crack from early in Eleven’s time (the Silence crack, which allowed sparked the dramatic arc for Eleven’s first season). Only this time, it’s not the Silence trying to break through (although, they do appear, but in a different and less scary form than originally- another instance of a strange rewriting of past Who lore, and a villain that has lost any real impact). It’s the Time Lords, who are now alive (per the 50th Anniversary Special) and trying to get into this dimension. The return of the crack in time is a nice touch, but the reveal that it is the Time Lords attempting to break into this dimension is less so.
When it was revealed in the Anniversary Special that the Time Lords had survived, much speculation began as to when we would finally see them once again. Well, they technically return here and are completely wasted in this episode. Their entire impact is felt solely through dialogue and a hastily created deus ex machina at the episode’s end. Hardly a fitting return.
Further, I find it hard to believe that inviting the Time Lords back into this dimension truly would have begun the Time War once more (yes, there are plenty of Who villains waiting outside the planet, but after most are destroyed, I think the Time Lords could have overtaken the Daleks in the end). Moreover, is it still possible for the Time Lords to travel through the crack now that it has closed again? Or is it closed off forever? Another set of questions left for another day.
But the Doctor must spend the entire episode “protecting” the town of Christmas (naming the town Christmas appears to just be an attempt to link the episode as a Christmas Special, nothing more) from the various invasions of his many villains. So, we spend the entire episode waiting for something to happen. And Eleven grows old. For a Doctor that has spent so much time using his physicality over the course of his time in the Tardis, it’s odd to see him so sedentary in his final adventure. And this is what I think is the biggest misstep in the episode. This Doctor is a man of action (whether it be physical or mental, he always acts). It is disheartening to see him sit and do nothing for nearly an hour. I understand that he reasons his inaction is a form of action, in that it saves the town and prevents the Time Lords from appearing. But it results in a dull and lifeless episode, which is a disservice to the fans and to Smith in his final go as the Doctor.
While I was disappointed with the episode, I did enjoy its final few minutes, which allow us a chance to say a final farewell to Eleven. Having young Amelia run through the Tardis (even if it was a different actress, as the real young Amelia is in her teens now) was lovely. And seeing Karen Gillan as Amy Pond one final time made me smile (even though I was never an Amy fan). Eleven’s final speech was superb as well, as it summed up his time on the show. But, to quote the Christmas cracker: “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.” So long Matt Smith. Welcome Peter Capaldi. Hopefully some wonderful stories lie ahead.
— It was a shame Rory didn’t appear for one last farewell.
— There were some lovely wigs in the episode, as both Smith and Gillan had to shave their heads this summer for film roles.
— I appreciated Moffat actually discussing the topic of how many regenerations remained for the Doctor, as it has been a hot button issue for fans for awhile. I was a bit surprised he counted the partial regeneration of Ten as a full regeneration, but I’m glad we have a definitive number set. Although, considering that the Time Lords’ gifted the Doctor with an unspecified number of additional regenerations (holy deus ex machina, Batman!), who knows how many are actually left (I’m sure Moffat will have an answer for us sometime soon).
— Part of me wonders if aging the Doctor throughout the episode was an attempt to make it a bit less jarring when Peter Capaldi assumed the role at the end of the episode.
— Speaking of the regeneration, that has to be one of the fastest ever for Who, right? Kind of like ripping of a band aid, I guess.
— Finally, I’m a bit sad we didn’t get more of Capaldi’s Doctor in this episode. I’m thankful there wasn’t a new catch phrase thrown at us, but I do find it strangely reassuring that the Tardis is about to crash – yet again.