Doctor Who Christmas special: The Time of the Doctor

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The Eleventh Doctor returns to Trenzalore as foretold to face off against all his deadliest enemies for his final battle in a wintry town called Christmas.

The siege of Trenzalore

Talk very fast, hope something good happens, take the credit.

The Doctor – and his most mortal enemies – find themselves drawn to a mysterious message being broadcast from a small, nondescript town called Christmas on the planet of Trenzalore. Upon realising it is a message from the Time Lords and unable to open the door for his people’s return for fear of leading them into the teeth of a new Time War, the Doctor is forced to defend the town from his enemies for over 300 years, knowing that he is living out his final life for an apparently futile cause.

Or is it?

A beautiful mess

Clara: How can a town be called Christmas?

The Doctor: I don’t know. How can an island be called Easter?

Truth be told, this special was a bit of a mess. Overly ambitious, weighed down by its own continuity and disjointed narratively, this was a tough episode for even dedicated fans to follow, let alone the casual viewer who must have been utterly bemused by what was going on.

You know what? I don’t care. For all its faults (and they are many), as a swansong for Matt Smith, a coming-out party for Jenna Coleman‘s Clara Oswald and a reaffirmation of the Eleventh – or should that be Thirteenth? – Doctor’s era which tied up most of the major loose ends from previous stories, this was a terrific way to go out.

Last week I wrote about whether Matt Smith is the best Doctor ever. I concluded yes, although many people disagreed. For me he’s always carried off that sense of an old man with a young man’s face superbly. Here that is spun around and he convincingly portrays an old man with an old man’s face – kudos to the make-up department – but with the spark of his younger version still recognisable.

A swansong

The idea of a three centuries-older Doctor resonates. Here is a Doctor who has finally stopped running and trying to forget, and who voluntarily stays to defend Christmas for 300 years. Even approaching the end of his natural life, he repels every one of his deadliest foes. The only enemy he has to give best to, the one even he cannot defeat, is time itself.

The episode also gets in its fair share of scares and clever moments. There are the Dalek eye-stalks emerging from Mother Superious Tasha Lem (Orla Brady) and her army’s foreheads, the wooden Cyberman – a gorgeous design – and a Weeping Angel climbing out of the snow to grab at Clara’s ankle. The cavalcade of monsters is impressive but ultimately secondary to the heart of the story, which is all about the Doctor’s final goodbye.

A coming-out party

He shouldn’t die alone. Go to him.

To start with, Clara was solely defined by her role as the ‘impossible girl’. But over the course of The Day of the Doctor and this special she has started to become a more rounded companion. This episode gives her a family of her own, and as in the 50th anniversary special it is her pleas and her fundamental belief in the Doctor which helps save the day, as the Time Lords intervene from their neighbouring universe to issue a new set of regenerations.

Jenna Coleman is given more to play with here than in previous episodes, and puts in some impressive work. From the whimsical – and somewhat annoying – Christmas dinner opening to the best friends’ bickering of her first reunion with the Doctor on Trenzalore to her final, desperate plea to the Time Lords to help change the future, Clara grows as a character from being merely a mysterious Pond-alike to something with a little more substance.

Tying up loose ends

One of the major niggles of the Steven Moffat/Matt Smith era has been the number of complex plot points left unresolved. In this one episode, however, Moffat successfully addresses the Doctor’s regenerations, Trenzalore, who was responsible for the TARDIS blowing up (in The Pandorica Opens) and the origin of the question the Doctor has been running from all his lives: “Doctor who?”

Until the 50th anniversary special, Matt Smith’s Doctor was simply the Eleventh. We already knew (from The Deadly Assassin) that Time Lords are permitted 12 regenerations, i.e. 13 lives. However, as the Doctor explains to Clara, there was also the War Doctor and the regeneration his predecessor used up regenerating into his existing body (The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End), making this his final incarnation. The regeneration energy transmitted by the Time Lords appears to reset the game, with Peter Capaldi now becoming the first of a new set of Doctors – although whether he is a first ‘life’ or a first regeneration is not entirely clear. Either way, Moffat has cleverly worked around the show’s existing rules to ensure the character’s – and therefore the show’s – longevity.

This episode also brings us full circle back to Smith’s first appearance in The Eleventh HourIt was here that we first discovered the cracks in the fabric of space and time, where Prisoner Zero first uttered the words “Silence will fall” and where a young Amy Pond became the first person seen by the Eleventh Doctor. And it is both the younger and adult Amy who say goodbye to her ‘raggedy man’ just before he regenerates. There’s also an echo of that episode’s title in the poem heard towards the end – “Eleven’s hour is over now / The clock is striking Twelve’s” – and the notion that the striking of the twelfth hour brings not only the end of a day but the beginning of a new one, just as the end of the Doctor’s life heralds a new set of beginnings.

We also finally know who was responsible for blowing up the TARDIS back in The Pandaorica Opens. It was Madame Kovarian’s breakaway sect, all part of their plan to ensure the Doctor died before ever reaching Trenzalore.

And we’re also shown what was behind the door of room 11 – the room which housed the Doctor’s greatest fear – in The God Complex. It was the crack in the wall. (Although it is a little odd that he addressed it as “Who else?” rather than “What else?”)

Other thoughts

I know the whole pre-credits sequence and the naked Doctor were intended as moments of levity before the impending darkness, but they didn’t half irk me. I did, though, quite like the way the script embraced the fact that Smith had shaved off all his hair for the filming of the movie How to Catch a Monster by working his bald-headedness into the plot, albeit briefly.

Let’s say the science behind transferring regeneration energy across universes through a crack in space and time isn’t an issue. The Doctor using it to take down the Daleks is more than a little deus ex machina though, isn’t it?

I rather liked Handles, the Doctor’s new Cyberman-head-as-man-Friday. But was I the only one thinking of the resemblance to Wilson the volleyball from the Tom Hanks film Cast Away?

Other references

We last saw the Church of the Papal Mainframe in A Good Man Goes to War, when a chapter led by Kovarian and the Silence attempted to prevent the Doctor from ever reaching Trenzalore by using Amy and Rory’s daughter Melody to kill the Doctor. We finally receive an explanation as to what the Silence are too: confessional priests.

The Doctor and Clara have visited his tomb on Trenzalore before, in the season seven finale The Name of the Doctor.

The Doctor tricks Clara to go back to the TARDIS, which then returns her to her own time for her own safety. This is not the first time he has engineered such a ruse. Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor did the same to Rose in The Parting of the Ways.

It’s also not the first time a companion has spooked the TARDIS by clinging to its outside. Captain Jack Harkness did the same in season three’s Utopia. Clara’s actions here may explain why the TARDIS didn’t initially seem to like her in The Rings of Akhaten.

The Doctor also makes reference to having taken the Seal of the High Council from the Master in Gallifrey’s Death Zone. He’s referring to the 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors.

Finally, we get one last outing for the Doctor’s ‘drunk giraffe’ dance, first unveiled at Amy and Rory’s Wedding at the end of The Big Bang.

Overall, the episode’s various flaws prevent me from giving it a higher score. But despite the unevenness, there were more than enough punch-the-air moments to elevate the score for me. I rather suspect a lot of people will have hated it, though. Oh well.

Rating: 8/10

Doctor Who 2013 Christmas special

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Who is Orla Brady?

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6 Comments on Doctor Who Christmas special: The Time of the Doctor

  1. Fully agree, Tim. Lots of nods to the past but it felt strained. Much better on second viewing and a fine send off for the best Doctor to date.

    Btw the reference to The 5 Doctors reminds us that The Time Lords have the ability to offer a whole new regeneration cycle, as that is what the High Council promises The Master.

    • Ah, yes, you’re right about the regeneration offer in The Five Doctors, Mark.

      I think this was a hugely ambitious story, one driven more by the need to tie off loose ends and lead us to regeneration than the actual adventure itself, which was almost incidental. Of course, telling such a complex story to a sleepy and slightly tipsy audience on Christmas Day doesn’t make it any easier!

      Still, overnight ratings made Who the second most watched programme of Christmas Day. By the time time-shifted viewing and iPlayer is taken into account, it may well be top. And still some fans complain that Moffat is killing the show …

  2. Was I watching a different show? I thought it was terrible!! Check out my pasting, over in the usual place!

    • Oh, it was a flawed episode, for sure, but I’m happy to admit I turned a blind eye to those deficiencies to revel in Matt Smith’s performance and the neat little touches – the wooden Cyber and Handles mostly – that made me giggle.

      (As a rule I tend to view Xmas specials a bit differently. They’re different beasts for a different audience, so I tend to be more forgiving and just enjoy the bits I enjoy and gloss over the bad bits – naked Doctor, for one – more than I normally would.)

  3. I didn’t like it at all, either, Gypsy King. Sorry, Tim, I don’t think the story was complex so much as not really there at all. It was more like a tv advent calendar with “treats” for the audience in each scene instead of an actual plot – open a door, there’s the Time crack; next one there’s the Silence; oh-ho there are the Angels; happy Christmas, there’s Amy Pond! etc etc etc… I love Moffat, but this was way short of what he’s capable of.

    • Really, CJ? I thought for the casual viewer (or the one who had had a bit too much Xmas sherry …) it was so full of continuity that it would make no sense to anyone. It barely made sense to me, and I was sober.

      For sure, the central story was simplistic in the extreme and meant as little more than a device to (a) get our by now traditional snow, (b) tie up the loose ends and (c) give Matt Smith centre stage one last time and ensure the Doctor himself became the story. In that respect I enjoyed it, despite its many flaws. Had this been a regular season episode my score would certainly have been lower.

      Still, it’s always funny to watch the online forums go up in a huge puff of disgust and worst episode EVAHness every now and then …

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