“The Time of the Doctor” isn’t the action-packed romp that many seemed to expect for Matt Smith’s final outing. Instead, it’s a story revolving around growing up, taking responsibility, and the inevitability of change that unfolds at a rather leisurely pace. Yet somehow the story manages to weave action sequences, comedic scenes, and touching moments together in a way that, while not perfect, was exactly the right kind of send-off for Matt Smith’s eleventh (I’m stubbornly not renumbering him the thirteenth) Doctor.
A mysterious signal that is being broadcast throughout the universe draws the Doctor and his companion Handles, a Cyberman head, to an unknown planet. He joins the many other ships from around the universe that have surrounded the planet, but cannot land because the planet has been shielded by the Church of the Papal Mainframe, who were the first to arrive.
He and Clara (who was having Christmas dinner with her family before joining the Doctor on the TARDIS) are soon welcomed by Tasha Lem, the Mother Superior of the Papal Mainframe who sends them down to the origin of the signal, slipping them past the shields. Once in Christmas, the town from which the signal originates, the Doctor encounters the crack in the universe, last seen in the fifth series.
He soon discovers that the message is from Gallifrey, which he did manage to save in “The Day of the Doctor.” The Time Lords are trying to find a way back into this universe, and the message is asking the first question, “Doctor who?” He also learns that the unknown planet is Trenzalore, the place where the “eleventh will fall.” If he answers the question, they will know that it is really him, and that it is safe for them to come through the crack. The Church does not want this to happen because if the Time Lords return, the Time War will begin anew; the Daleks are already prepared to attack. Tasha Lem dedicates the church to ensuring that the Doctor remains silent so that the peace can be preserved. However, now that the Doctor has decoded the message and everyone knows what it says, he cannot leave the town. If he does, the town will be destroyed to prevent the return of the Time Lords. The eleventh Doctor is finally forced to take the long way and stay put in one place, which he does for hundreds of years, protecting the inhabitants of Christmas from a slew of would be invaders including Weeping Angels, Sontarans, Cybermen, and, of course, Daleks.
One of the hallmarks of the eleventh Doctor has been his impatience and need to keep moving; he doesn’t like to stay in one place too long. Remember his reaction when he had to stay with Amy and Rory for a short time during “The Power of Three?” I also can’t help but think of his shock at Rory being willing to protect the Pandorica with Amy inside for almost 2000 years, when he could just jump ahead and meet the Pandorica at the end of its journey. The eleventh Doctor never wanted to take the long way. After all that time spent on the run, I hoped that the eleventh Doctor’s finale would allow him to finally stop running and take responsibility for something, which is exactly what happened. After the events of “The Day of the Doctor,” the eleventh Doctor no longer needed to escape his past. His burden of guilt was lifted, and he was ready to grow up. It was time for him to stop running and he finally did, staying with the people of Christmas for many hundreds of years.
While I generally remain a fan of Steven Moffat’s writing, I have had one major issue with his tenure as show runner: the inordinate number of loose ends he left at the conclusion of each of his major story arcs. I knew he’d said that he would address those loose ends in this story, but I remained a bit skeptical. However, I have to admit that he did a surprisingly good job tying up most of the loose ends. “The Time of the Doctor” explains the exploding TARDIS, the crack in time, what was in the Doctor’s room in “The God Complex (the crack in the universe), who the Silence are, and why they were trying to kill the Doctor. The idea that the Silence were genetically modified priests actually helps eliminate one of the problems I had with them: they didn’t seem like they were a society like some of the other alien species do. I find that many of Moffat’s creations, while scary, just don’t feel like they are an actual species; they seem more like monsters whose only purpose is to scare people. The idea that the Silence aren’t a natural species helps eliminate this issue for me. The explanations for all of these loose ends made the episode a bit exposition heavy, but overall, I felt that Moffat pulled it off.
Which leads me to another general complaint that many people have about Moffat’s writing: how he writes his female characters. I’m not going to weigh in too much about my feelings on that topic here (that will eventually be a post of its own), but this story did emphasize one of the criticisms I have of Moffat’s women. I don’t understand why just about every female character ends up with a similar personality and has to have a flirty relationship with the Doctor. This definitely applies to the character of Tasha Lem. Overall, I enjoyed her character, and would consider her an asset to the story, but why did her and the Doctor’s first meeting have to be filled with flirtation and the discussion had to take place over an altar that looks like a bed? All of Moffat’s women are clever, but they speak in the same flirty way which makes them almost indistinguishable from each other. This leads to people thinking that Tasha is somehow a version of River Song. Yes, that is an actual theory that I’ve heard/seen discussed, largely because Tasha banters with the Doctor in much the same way as River.
The another weak point of the story were the scenes with Clara’s family. It felt as if they were there to shoehorn Christmas into the Christmas special. They’ve never been shown before, and I didn’t feel like we were given much of a chance to know anything about them. I’m not even sure exactly who the one woman was! There was that nice moment between Clara and her gran, but overall, it felt as if the time with them was taking us away from the main story.
The one other criticism I have of this story has to do with Matt Smith’s performance. I loved most of it, but there was one area in which I thought he fell a bit short. I just didn’t find him convincing as an old man. He is great at showing the age of the Doctor as a weight that he carries, and I have always said that Matt Smith’s Doctor always seemed the oldest to me. However, he was not the best at physically conveying his Doctor as an old man. He was about as convincing to me as Joseph Cotton is in Citizen Kane. He feels like a younger man pretending to be old.
With all these criticisms, you might think that I didn’t care for the episode, but it worked for me despite the flaws. First, I loved that Steven Moffat peppered the entire episode with references to the past. There were so many references to previous new Who episodes that I won’t even begin to list them here. What I enjoyed even more were spotting the references to classic Who, of which there were quite a few. There was the seal from “The Five Doctors,” the mention of Terileptils, first seen in the “The Visitation,” the Monoid puppet, the nose tap like the fourth Doctor, and the “reversing the polarity” reference. The references even occurred in the Doctor’s appearance. The old Doctor’s hairstyle and walking stick reminded me of the first Doctor. He even dons a black cloak/cape with a purple lining in an early scene, reminiscent of John Pertwee’s attire. I thought there might be a reference or two to the second Doctor, since he was clearly the biggest influence on Matt Smith’s Doctor, but I didn’t catch any.
Finally, what really made the episode for me was the regeneration scene. As I stated earlier, I felt that it was time for the eleventh Doctor to stop running and grow up a bit, and he did. This time, unlike in season six, he did not run away from his death (which we now know he thought would be his actual death, not just another regeneration), but faced it with dignity. Unlike the tenth Doctor (who I thought got too whiny and felt too sorry for himself), the eleventh Doctor accepted that he would eventually die, but tried to make the most of his death. After the Time Lords send him the new cycle of regenerations, he becomes gleeful and completely accepts the fact that he is going to regenerate. He doesn’t worry about it being too painful and mope about how his current persona will die.
His regeneration scene is a great one. I thought his final moments, in which he talked about the inevitability of change and the importance of remembering, were quite touching. It was also incredibly appropriate that after taking about how we all are different people, he sees the two versions of Amy Pond that he knew. Certainly the young Amelia and the grown up Amy Pond prove his point that everybody is different people at different points in their lives. And I have to admit that I did get a bit teary eyed when Amy said goodnight to her “Raggedy Man.” How appropriate that the first face that this Doctor saw would come back to him at the end.
Then, in a perfect gesture, the iconic bow tie drops to the floor as the twelfth Doctor appears. There’s not much to say about Peter Capaldi’s Doctor at the moment, except that I’m really looking forward to seeing what he does in the upcoming season.
“The Time of the Doctor” is a fitting farewell to Matt Smith’s Doctor. It’s also an appropriate farewell for the fiftieth anniversary year. In the eleventh Doctor’s final monologue, he is essentially discussing what lies at the heart of the show. Doctor Who is a show about change. To love the show, you have to accept change. No matter how popular or beloved a Doctor is, he will, eventually, be gone. However, Matt Smith will always be the Doctor, just as William Hartnell and all who came between will always be the Doctor as well. Just because a new person has taken on the role, it does not diminish the time of the others in the role. They are all a part of the show now, even as it continues to evolve and move forward. Everything and everyone changes; life keeps moving forward, but the important thing is to remember what came before. If that’s not the perfect sentiment for a show celebrating its fiftieth year, than I don’t know what is.