Sunday, 29 December 2013

His Last Bow-Tie

Doctor Who
The Time Of The Doctor
2013 Christmas Special

Farewell, old friend.  Oh, and Clara.
It's over.  Matt Smith is no longer the Doctor.  And good luck to him: four years is a long time on one show, there are greener pastures out there, and he's a brilliant young actor with lots to do.  But since about 2011 Matt has been the only thing I consistently liked about Doctor Who.  The writing, the direction and the supporting cast all benefit from Matt Smith who has become my favourite Doctor, ever, out of all of them and now he's gone.  It's not a happy occasion.

I'm not sure what would make a "good" finale for Matt, since I don't want him to go.  The Time Of The Doctor feels more like it's saying goodbye to Steven Moffat which it isn't, worse luck throwing in a few of his old monsters, and tying up many of his lingering plot threads.  The Crack, The Silence, Trenzalore, The Oldest Question In The Universe and Who Blew Up The TARDIS are all resolved, or at least name-checked.  If you're the sort of obsessive Doctor Who nerd who's still asking these questions (so me, then), this episode has you in mind.  But I'm not sure that makes it a very good Christmas Special (my family and friends were lost), or a good send-off for Matt.  Frankly, I don't know what I think of it.

The plot's a mess, but I do like bits of it.  Here's the gist, and here be spoilers: the Time Lords sent the Oldest Question ("Doctor who?") through the Crack, to check if it's the Doctor they're talking to, and to see if it's safe to come through from wherever Gallifrey is stuck.  (Why do they need his real name?  Couldn't they just say "Who's there?" and see if the Doctor answers?  Couldn't one Time Lord pop through and check?)  A lot of aliens don't want the Time Lords back, so they've surrounded the source of the transmission, which is Trenzalore.  (We know the Doctor will be buried there.)  The planet is protected by the Papal Mainframe, who want to keep the Doctor from answering the question as it'll cause havoc.  They become The Silence, who are (mostly) a force for good, apart from the bad ones in Series Six who blew up the TARDIS and caused the Cracks.  (D'oh!)

I like that effort has gone into resolving these things, although Christmas seems like a funny time to do so.  It's very telling that this stuff needed resolving in the first place, but there you go.

Onwards: nearing the end of his life, the Doctor devotes his remaining years to guarding Trenzalore, repelling every attempt to, er, destroy the Crack?  Get at the Time Lords?  Kill the village of humans that inexplicably lives on Trenzalore in a town called Christmas?  Kill him?  I've no idea what they're after if they just want the Time Lords to stay gone, why not leave the Papal Mainframe to it? but when the monsters show up, the Doctor sends them packing.  It's easy.  Their aim (particularly the Daleks) is worse than ever.

Hang on, back up: since when is the Doctor nearing the end of his life?  Well, Time Lords get twelve regenerations, and it turns out he's used all of his.  John Hurt's Doctor counts, as does David Tennant's clone/regeneration in 2008, so there we go: Matt is the Thirteenth Doctor, not the Eleventh.  This is more complicated than actually interesting.  (The story of modern Doctor Who.)  The twelve-regenerations rule was the last real danger to the Doctor's existence.  It was probably interesting enough to make a full episode some day, so it seems a shame to tidy it away early, in the middle of everything else, using nothing more than small print and fairy dust.  What a waste.  It's not as if Moffat's thought of a brilliant solution to the problem: Clara just asks the Time Lords nicely to give him some more regenerations.  Is that it?  Couldn't he have done that?  It's a bit obvious, isn't it?  Hands up who already dismissed that sort of thing as being too obvious?  (Again, that's modern Doctor Who.  Surprise!  It's the thing you were expecting!)

Well, you wanted an older Doctor.
Anyway: I like the Doctor's choice to stay and protect the town.  I think it's a Doctorly way to finish his life, even if I don't really get who these people are, I don't really care about them, and I don't know why they're being attacked.  I like Matt Smith very much in these scenes, give or take a bit of dodgy age make-up; he always made the Doctor seem old, but he does a great job of being decrepit on top of all that.  (Mind you, the Doctor once said he regenerated instead of ageing, and Smith's Doctor has aged centuries since 2010 (he reminds us in this episode) but hasn't got visibly older.  Why are we only paying attention to some continuity?)

Start to finish, it's a beautiful performance from Matt Smith.  Everything that makes him the Eleventh Doctor is here, including a few direct references like spitting out a drink (The Lodger), doing his awful wedding dance (The Big Bang) and interacting strangely with a wall (The Eleventh Hour).  He even chomps a bit of fish custard before he regenerates.  More importantly, he's understated and clever and constantly interesting.  The way he responds to regeneration as something miraculous that will save his life, rather than something horrible that will kill him makes a nice change from how David Tennant exited the show.  Of course, he's sad and reflective given time to think about it, but it's still done differently from last time.

The way regeneration is used in the plot (magic energy that blows up the Daleks) makes little sense and involves Matt Smith shouting, which is probably the only thing his Doctor doesn't do well.  But Matt's final scene is perfect, thank goodness.  He gives a thoughtful speech that bends the fourth wall a little, and yes, I cried.  I've seen it again, and cried again.  It's brilliantly written, brilliantly done, and exhibits all the natty understatement that makes Matt so thrilling to watch.  If there's a downside, it's the cameo from Karen Gillan (who insists on calling him "Raggedy man" one last time) which over-eggs the emotion by some way.  It was more than enough for the Doctor to glimpse little Amelia running around.

Anyway, he regenerates (with a bang, which is different but undeniably a bit disappointing), and we get a neat scene with Peter Capaldi.  Typical new-body-part joke with the TARDIS crashing (seriously, park that thing when you're regenerating), but he makes a good impression.  I was too upset about Matt to really think about it, but I'm sure he'll be great.  It's not his fault they've done the regeneration/"I've got new ___!"/TARDIS crashing routine to death now.

So what else is here?  There's Clara, with her previously unseen family, at Christmas.  (Seriously, who are these guys?  Why have they re-cast her dad?  What was all that trite pretend-you're-my-boyfriend rubbish in aid of?)  She's the same as ever, so enthusiastic, competent, a gaping hole where a personality should be.  She seems desperate to be with the Doctor (who sends her away, just like Christopher Eccleston did with Rose coincidence?), but given that she goes home between episodes anyway, that doesn't ring true.  Matt Smith bounces off her with the usual verve, but it's telling that in his final moments, he's thinking of someone else.  Maybe she'll get on better with Twelve.  (Or is it Fourteen?  Oh, whatever.)

We've also got Tasha Lem, head of the Papal Mainframe, who's written suspiciously like River Song (with references to psychopaths and an unexplained ability to fly the TARDIS).  Given that I'd rather gnaw my arms off than see River again, I'll refrain from complaining about Tasha, who does the heavy-handed flirting thing rather well, I suppose.  (Though really, Steven: are all women psychopaths?)

Isn't he adorable?  And... presumably someone's head?
We've also got lots of monsters, which is good news for younger viewers.  There's Daleks who refuse to shoot straight; Cybermen rendered cute by the Doctor's Cyber-pet, Handles (will they ever catch a break?); Weeping Angels who are interested in Trenzalore for some reason; and those weird Silent things which are apparently not so bad after all.  (Nice try, but I haven't forgotten them zapping a woman to death in The Impossible Astronaut.)  The Daleks are the Big Bad, and they're doing that silly convert-you-into-a-Dalek thing again, except now it's reversible if you concentrate.  (This buggers up the plot of Asylum Of The Daleks, but never mind.)  They've also remembered who the Doctor is, so I guess erasing him from their memory banks went nowhere after all.  Brilliant!

Speaking of ideas that never went anywhere, the Doctor leaves Trenzalore.  Back up: does that mean he isn't buried there?  Didn't he say he can't change that?  What does that mean for his grave (specifically Eleven's) in The Name Of The Doctor, which was what allowed him to meet Clara in the first place?  I guess since he changed his own timeline massively in the previous episode with no apparent repercussions, we're not meant to pay attention to this stuff any more.  Except when we are.

When you stack it up, the plot's largely bollocks, held together with obsessive continuity, bad continuity and tinsel.  Some of it's almost too inconsequential for comment, like the farce about cooking a turkey, needing to be naked (but still wear a clothes hologram) when you visit the Papal Mainframe, and the truth field on Trenzalore.  (What, are the Time Lords worried he'll give a false name?)  It's probably meant to be clever to go from "fluff" to "heartbreaking tragedy" in one episode, but I could do without the fluff altogether, thanks.  Still, I liked the joke about Matt Smith's wig, which is meta but really funny, and the wooden Cyberman was cool.  When all's said and done, I've seen worse Christmas Specials.  But then, I've seen better regeneration stories.

Sigh.  It's a jumble of sweet, well-intentioned rubbish, and it's typically up to Matt Smith to be the best thing in it.  It's a shame we didn't get to see more of him (and we should have: only three series were made in Matt's four years), but I'm grateful to have seen him at all.  We're losing a brilliant talent, a unique take on the Doctor, and something interesting to watch every week.  He's my favourite, and I'll miss him.


  1. Apart from a mutual liking of Matt Smith, I don't agree with anything in this ridiculously out of touch and bizarre critique.

    And neither do it would seem the majority of Doctor Who fans worldwide, and more importantly the general public and Kids to whom the show is geared.

    Steven Moffat's Doctor Who has been an incredible tour de force and a marked upturn in quality from the increasingly lacklustre
    and uneven RTD years.

    The last three loose linked stories alone have been an incredible success both with the viewers and the critics worldwide.

    In an October interview Moffat let slip that he would still be around as showrunner for Series 9, and as that is only a year from the nuwho anniversary the chances are that he will still be around for that.
    As the direction and tone of the show is not likely to change that much until 2016 at the earliest perhaps it's time for you to move on from Doctor Who, and leave it to those millions of us who still love and enjoy the programme?

    Or get ready to be increasingly miserable and frustrated for the foreseeable future.

    1. It's a curious practice, telling someone off for not enjoying something very much. Do you imagine it's my choice? No: like you, I watch something and I like it, or I don't. I get no say in that. I do review it, though, because Doctor Who is important to me and I have this forum to share my thoughts. I don't urge you to agree with it.

      I'll continue to watch it, thank you very much; I see no reason why I should be bullied out of it, just because my review (not wholly negative) failed to deliver enough superlatives for you. Doctor Who's a varied and ever changing programme. I might love the next episode.

      Whether I am "out of touch" with the many people who loved this episode/Steven Moffat's Who in general is beside the point. I don't care that many people disagree; many people always do, if you look around enough on any subject. I'm not the only one: poke your head out of a window once in a while, or even visit Wikipedia, and you'll note other people expressing views - I know! The very idea! - which do not match yours. These are relevant views, just like yours. Welcome, my friend, to other people having opinions.

  2. Love the title. Very smart.

    Doctor Who without Matt Smith... It doesn't seem possible. It's almost like William Hartnell all over again. How can you have Doctor Who without Matt Smith. He *is* the Doctor. I'd say something trite, like Peter Capaldi has some big shoes to fill, but then, people loved Patrick Troughton, so it is possible to move on. (Although with SM remaining at the helm, it's still going to be pretty rubbish - all we can hope in this case is that it still won't be Jekyll-level rubbish.)

    1. I like Peter Capaldi. I can move on. Besides, it'll be good to put Matt's Doctor in perspective. Away from the obvious allure of being the current Doctor, he'll be easier - and fairer - to reappraise.

      The trouble is, the Doctor isn't what I don't like about the show. And he's the only thing that's changing.

      For Series Eight at least, we've still got Steven Moffat, Steven Moffat's mostly mediocre cohorts (probably Gatiss, Chibnall, Cross), Clara (who never felt grounded or real) and the Paternoster Gang (who feel like an endless campaign for their own CBBC series). Moffat has said he's changing the direction (Capaldi's comment re not knowing how to fly the TARDIS?), but something tectonic needs to happen, first and foremost with the writing. None of it matters any more. Ideally, a new showrunner would seem like the way to go. Someone who - on top of everything else - can get the thing made to order. Moffat obviously has trouble handling two shows at once.

      (Still, as my learned colleague above says, lots of people love it as it is, so hush up moaning! That includes you, various other review outlets...)

    2. Yes, apparently one opinion versus an opinion piece holds no weight alone and must be backed up with what everyone else in the world thinks, because they all think the same thing, you see.