Reviewing Doctor Who: 2013 Christmas Special

“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—one that must never be answered. And Silence must fall when the question is asked.”

The Time of the Doctor

A vast intergalactic armada composed of fleets from a dozen of the universe’s most lethal martial species – including Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans and Slitheen –  has assembled in orbit around an unremarkable backwater planet sparsely populated by human colonists. They have arrived in response to a broadcast emanating from somewhere on the planet,  a signal reverberating across space and time, a message that no-one can translate but which strikes fear into the hearts of all who hear it. The first to arrive is the fleet of the Church of the Papal Mainframe, headed by Mother Superious Tasha Lem who, we learn, is an old (though previously unmet) confidante of the Doctor. The Church is keeping the peace by shielding the world behind a tachyon barrier while the Doctor carries out his own investigations with the aid of the severed head of a Cyberman he picked up at Dorium Moldovar’s market, in effect a talking database he fondly calls “Handles”.

Clara is struggling to prepare Christmas dinner in her flat for her dad, stepmother and grandmother, an awkward occasion from which she is rescued when the Doctor whisks her off in the TARDIS to join him in meeting Tasha Lem, who agrees to grant them access to the mysterious shielded planet. After evading a group of Weeping Angels which are also trying to gain access, the Doctor and Clara find themselves in a small farming village named Christmas, wreathed in picturesque snow and preserving a curiously Victorian mode of culture and architecture. The Doctor traces the ominous signal to the clock tower in the town centre, where he finds a crack in time just like the ones we had believed to have been sealed by the Doctor’s “reboot” of the universe in Series 5. Analysing and translating the signal with the help of Handles, the truth is revealed: the message is from the Time Lords on Gallifrey, preserved in a parallel universe on the other side of the crack by the Doctor’s actions in The Day of the Doctor. The message itself is that oldest of questions: “Doctor who?” The Doctor immediately realises that it is a message for him, for the correct answer whispered back through the crack would let the Time Lords know it was safe for them to return to their own universe. But Tasha Lem reveals that she is committed to preventing their return at any cost, for the massed enemies of the Time Lords would unleash their full might and reignite the Time War. Now the true nature of the peril is revealed as Tasha Lem tells the Doctor the name of the planet he is on: Trenzalore.

Confirming that he has consumed all of his regenerations (“Captain Grumpy”, or the War Doctor, having been introduced to the canon, and the 10th having regenerated in Journey’s End without changing his appearance), the Doctor resigns himself to his eventual death defending Trenzalore and the the settlement of Christmas from the armies above. Twice he tricks Clara into returning to the TARDIS, which he remotely directs to return her home on each occasion, but each time she manages to find her way back to him. But the Doctor,  leading the armies of the Church of the Papal Mainframe, has been defending Christmas for centuries in the mean time – the first time Clara is reunited with him, 300 years have passed and he is greying and battle-scarred; the second time, the Doctor is an ancient man, withered and mildly senile (making it impossible to judge how old the Doctor now is, but he could be around 2,000!). By then, only the Daleks remain to fight the Doctor and the armies of the Church, but they have the upper hand and all seems lost. As a mammoth Dalek command ship hovers above and the Doctor prepars to die, Clara whispers a plea for help into the crack in time – which suddenly snaps shut.

Seconds later, a huge fissure in space-time gapes open in the sky and streams of familiar golden energy pour forth and enter the Doctor’s body. The Time Lords have come to the Doctor’s rescue and granted him a whole new cycle of regenerations. But that isn’t all they’ve given him: the Doctor’s body begins to blaze with vast quantities of excess energy which he unleashes with devastating effect from the top of the clock tower, obliterating the Dalek invasion force in an instant.

Later, as the Church forces and the populace of Christmas begin to clear up the wreckage, Clara finds her way into the TARDIS where she finds the Doctor, restored to youth as his body “resets” and prepares to regenerate. There isn’t a dry eye in the house as Matt Smith bids farewell and touchingly hallucinates “the first face this body saw” (a fleeting but lovely cameo by Karen Gillan) before abruptly transforming into the gaunt, beaky frame of Peter Capaldi.

Whovian fanboys will find much to satisfy them in this episode, as Moffat has made a concerted effort to tie up the unresolved plot strands that his ambitious multi-season story arcs left dangling over the last three years. The Silence, those memorably frightening aliens introduced in Series 6, are the “confessional priests” of the Church of the Papal Mainframe, genetically engineered so that the confessor forgets whatever they’ve told them. The military clerics who have been popping up since Series 5 are part of the very same Church. Madame Kovarian and her “followers” represent a schismatic sect, a chapter which broke away from the mother Church to take direct action against the Doctor so he would not answer the question on Trenzalore and reignite the Time War. However by sabotaging the TARDIS and causing it to explode, the Kovarian Chapter ended up creating a paradox and becoming responsible for the very cracks in time that would allow the Time Lords access. In an “unscheduled faith change”, the Church rededicates itself and becomes “The Church of the Silence”. We learn what conflict was destined to claim the Doctor’s life on Trenzalore. And of course the challenge of enabling the Doctor to continue without breaking the “12 regenerations” rule was dealt with satisfactorily.

There remain some unanswered questions and some resolutions that don’t quite ring true however:

  • Have the Time Lords now actually returned or are they still biding their time on the other side of the cracks? We never actually saw one after all.
  • Is Rassilon still in charge on Gallifrey? Is he still locked in combat with the Master or have they killed each other? What about Rassilon’s numerous cowed followers amongst the Time Lords (who in The End of Time seemed to represent the overwhelming majority of the Time Lords themselves)? In this episode and in The Day of the Doctor, Moffat seems to have forgotten that in The End of Time the Tenth Doctor was prepared to sacrifice everything to prevent the Time Lords from escaping the Time Lock. Now he is convinced they will come in peace and is desperate to restore them.  Maybe Rassilon and his followers were deposed before the Time War ended and the Doctor is somehow aware of this. Maybe, maybe, maybe… there are all kinds of possible answers but we don’t have a clue. Something for the future then?
  • If the Time Lords were able to supercharge one man with enough energy to annihilate an entire Dalek invasion force single handed, how is it that our favourite homicidal pepper pots ever came close to defeating all of them in the Time War?
  • How did the Silence actually blow up the TARDIS anyway?
  • If the Daleks are now fully aware of the Doctor again, having “harvested the information from the cadaver of Tasha Lem”, what was the point of Clara/Oswin erasing their collective memory of him in The Asylum of the Daleks? Just to provide the Doctor with an escape route? A recent, dramatic plot twist that promised to create a new dynamic between the Doctor and his deadliest enemies seems to have been discarded at the last minute simply because it was inconvenient.

These are relatively minor geek niggles. I’ve been irritated by Moffat’s dangling plot threads for long enough; I should have more patience and faith that he will eventually deal with them. But the problems with The Time of the Doctor are bigger than that. This episode has been foreshadowed for so long, as was David Tennant’s regeneration story, that  Steven Moffat has a great deal to do to avoid anti-climax. This being the 50th Anniversary year, many will be experiencing a degree of Doctor Who overload as well. The show has climbed to such great heights in British popular culture in recent years that each episode feels like an “event” – they have even been screened at the British Film Institute with an all-star celebrity guest list. In truth, this episode is the third part of a trilogy begun with The Name of the Doctor and followed by The Day of the Doctor, but its monumental task is not only to provide a fitting exit for Matt Smith but also to conclude all of the plot elements introduced but unresolved over the course of his and Steven Moffat’s tenure. Though it breaks my heart to say it, in many respects The Time of the Doctor is an over-ambitious failure.

The pacing of the episode is, to be blunt, a complete mess. Centuries of conflict between the Doctor and his enemies are dealt with impressionistically with a few explosions, lots of dark lighting and some turgidly pompous voice-overs from Tasha Lem.  All of those unresolved plot threads are tied up in a few throw-away lines of dialogue. Of late the show has become very talky, and this episode is the worst of them in that sense. Expanding it over 90 minutes or a two-parter would have helped to deal with these problems.

That isn’t all though, as Moffat and the director seem intent on leaching away the drama by multiple means. Clara is sent back to her flat not once but twice, robbing the event of any real dramatic impact. Poor Jenna Coleman is given nothing much to do other than be someone for the Doctor to explain things to. Oh, and do that thing which seems now to be her raison d’etre: urging, if not begging, various Time Lords to save the day without actually providing any useful input into how they might do so. She has become by far the most passive of the Doctor’s recent companions, which is inconsistent with her actions in The Name of the Doctor. Having sacrificed herself to save the Doctor across time and space, she is forgotten, relegated to wallflower status, when the Doctor hallucinates Amy as he prepares to complete his regeneration. Even her poor family gets pretty short shrift. The companions’ extended families have contributed a great deal to Doctor Who since the show was revived, adding comedy, pathos, drama and great acting along the way. Clara’s have been poorly sketched here: Dad is wet, step-mum is horrible, only granny shows potential. Moffat already introduced the children Angie and Artie in Nightmare in Silver, but then robbed Clara of her nannying job so they’re out of the picture. It’s like he doesn’t know what to do with Clara’s personal life – or indeed with her.

And don’t get me started on the bad guys. The Daleks were the antagonists in the Last Great Time War; there was no reason, none at all, to reintroduce the Pandorica Alliance. Lots of bad guys get name checked, some Weeping Angels have a go, some Sontarans provide comic relief (which seems to be their sole purpose these days – I mean, we all love Commander Strax, but the whole species seems to have become a standing joke) and we get to see a wooden Cyberman (WTF? That idea doesn’t work on any level). The only effect this has is to strip them all – and most especially the Daleks themselves – of any real identity, sense of menace or impact. We didn’t need the kitchen sink, Steven; we just needed the Daleks at their most evil destructive worst.

What of the climax itself? Actually I didn’t mind the device used to save the day, as the destructive potential of regeneration energy has been touched on more than once in the revived series, though this takes the biscuit. But having presumably expended every last erg of excess energy, when he actually regenerates it is a bit of a damp squib to be frank, taking place in a flash and almost off camera. Maybe Moffat had spent all of his sparkly lights budget, but it wasn’t a fitting exit for Matt.

What was good about The Time of the Doctor? The episode was at its best – unfortunately – during movements of humour, with Smith’s fine comic talents and Moffat’s knack for a joke shining through. It is Smith who makes the absolute best of some disappointing material, turning in one of his most brilliant performances to wring every ounce from his final turn in the role he made his own. Just as well too, because he had precious little help. Our glimpse of Capaldi, for what it is worth, shows promise, but he is a such a great choice for the role that I would have been surprised if he’d fluffed his first few seconds in the TARDIS.

Moffat has done some great work on this show, but he won’t be on the scene forever. Quite possibly his successor will not have his taste for overly-convoluted, over-extended story arcs with excessive dialogue. My plea to him would be to use Series 8 to reset the stage, tie up every dangling strand (and I mean every last one) and leave the decks clean for a fresh start in Series 9.

About Mark Winter

Dark Fantasy novelist (INFERNAL PREY). Blogging on politics and current affairs (GibberLog), science and history (BlatherLog), sci-fi, fantasy & horror (WittlerLog), business, product development & start-ups (MutterLog). View all posts by Mark Winter

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