“The Time of the Doctor” is the third in a loose trilogy of Doctor Who episodes focused explicitly on the title character. “The Name of the Doctor” saw the Doctor (Matt Smith) discover how his life was fundamentally entwined with that of his friend Clara (Jenna Coleman), while “The Day of the Doctor” resolved the secrets of the great Time War that was such a huge part of his past. Now, as the franchise completes its 50th year with yet another milestone—“The Time of the Doctor” is the 800th episode—and the era of Smith’s Doctor comes to an end, showrunner Steven Moffat provides a fitting wrap-up for the plot arcs that have stretched over the last four years and a firm foundation for the show’s future. It’s not the stellar piece of work that “The Day of the Doctor” was, but it still delivers quite an emotional punch at the end.
The first half of the episode, however, suffers from a certain staleness, feeling at times like it’s made up simply from reprises of previous Moffat concepts and characters. The opening sequence, with the Doctor investigating a huge gathering of ships from all manner of species surrounding a planet which is broadcasting a message to the entire universe calls to mind both “The Pandorica Opens” and “The Wedding of River Song.” The planet is shielded and protected by the Church of the Papal Mainframe, the far-future organization of militant clerics Moffat has used a number of times since “The Time of Angels.” Its leader, Tasha Lem (Orla Brady), has a relationship with the Doctor that covers very similar territory, albeit a bit more salaciously, to the one he had with River Song. On Tasha’s ship, Clara has an encounter with the strange memory-wiping Silents that were a major part of the 2011 series. When she and the Doctor manage to get down to the planet to investigate the small human settlement from which the signal is emanating, there’s a scene involving the Weeping Angels which is there simply to provide a cameo for the famous monsters.
When it’s not recalling the past, this first part of the episode tends to get bogged down in some rather labored comedy involving the Church requiring all visitors to be naked, thereby requiring the Doctor and Clara to use holographically projected clothing. (I did, however, admire the ingenuity with which Moffat makes use of the fact that, for the first time, the Doctor’s quiff is artificial—Smith having shaved his head earlier this year for his part in Ryan Gosling’s How to Catch a Monster before returning to film his Doctor Who finale.) Eventually, the Doctor discovers that the planet is actually Trenzalore—the place where, as he saw in “The Name of the Doctor,” his life is fated to end. The last piece of the puzzle is the reappearance of the “crack in the universe” which ran throughout the 2010 season, now ingeniously linked with the fate of Gallifrey, as revealed in “The Day of the Doctor.”
This is Doctor Who’s ninth consecutive Christmas special, and finding ways to incorporate festive motifs into the story that haven’t been done before is evidently starting to get a little difficult. For Clara, the entire story takes place in the course of a Christmas dinner with her family; she only gets involved in the story at all because she phones the Doctor to get his help cooking the turkey. And the human town on Trenzalore is named, for no real reason, Christmas, and the snowy environment and pseudo-Victorian production design deliberately echo previous Christmas episodes (in particular, last year’s “The Snowmen”).
Only once the pieces are all in place, around 25 minutes in, does the story start to become compelling. Moffat has carefully created a situation in which the Doctor is out of options. The mysterious signal is from the Time Lords, attempting to re-enter the universe through the weak point represented by the crack. The Doctor can’t answer it and bring back his own people without restarting the Time War, and he can’t leave the town without the massed alien forces above wiping out the planet. He uses the TARDIS to send Clara home, out of danger; she manages to get back to him, but by the time she returns, 300 years have passed. The Doctor is now noticeably older, needing the aid of a walking stick, but still the proud protector of Christmas. The warmth in Clara’s relationship with the Doctor which emerged in the previous episode is just as strong here, and Coleman and Smith are particularly good in the scene where they look out over the town at dawn, and the Doctor finally explains to Clara why he’s reconciled to living out the rest of his existence here (he’s a Time Lord at the end of his time).
When writer Robert Holmes casually dropped into his 1976 story “The Deadly Assassin” the notion that a Time Lord can regenerate no more than 12 times, the Doctor was still only in his fourth body (Tom Baker), and the possibility of the series surviving long enough for the limit to matter was not remotely a consideration. Later writers, particularly in the time of the fifth and sixth Doctors, took the idea and built further stories on it. Doctor Who has never been reluctant to disregard inconvenient parts of its past, but the 12-regeneration limit had established too great a hold in the public consciousness (despite the best attempts by the showrunners of the new series to ignore or downplay it) to be simply swept aside. It had to be addressed, and the revelation this year of John Hurt’s previously unknown “War Doctor,” together with the extra regeneration used up by David Tennant’s Doctor in 2008’s “The Stolen Earth,” provided Moffat with the opportunity to establish that Smith was in fact playing the Doctor’s final incarnation.
All sorts of speculations and suggestions have been made as to how the Doctor might evade the regeneration limit; Moffat goes with the straightforward idea of the Time Lords granting him a whole new regeneration cycle (a capability they were shown to have in 1983’s “The Five Doctors”). In some ways it’s not quite satisfying that the Doctor ends up having to be saved by an outside agency; on the other hand, it’s thematically appropriate that the Doctor, having given everything of himself to protect the town, receives an unlooked-for reward. By this point, the Doctor is an ancient, dying man, and Smith gives a wonderful performance through the old-age makeup, his white hair swept back in a deliberate echo of the original Doctor, William Hartnell. He’s frail and defeated until the Time Lords finally intervene—upon which Smith gets to indulge in one last burst of activity as, with a literal eruption of energy, the Doctor is able to simply wipe away the enemies besieging Trenzalore and cheat his fated death.
It would have been logical, perhaps, for the new Doctor to have emerged at this point. But that would have deprived us of the lovely coda in the TARDIS. It was much better that Smith’s final moments should feature his true face—the face of the man who many worried was far too young to play the Doctor when he was announced back in January 2009, but ended up doing so brilliantly. Smith had an almost impossible job taking over from David Tennant, who’d been an incredibly popular Doctor for four years. No better compliment can be given than to observe that he’s left his successor with exactly the same problem.
The emotional final scene is capped off by a lovely brief appearance from Karen Gillan as Smith’s Doctor imagines his first companion, Amy Pond, returning to bid him goodbye. Then Moffat catches us out with one final surprise: Unlike the protracted fireworks of previous regenerations, the change is over in a flash—in an eye-blink we’re face to face with the fierce stare of Peter Capaldi, leaving us as shocked as Clara is. But as the Doctor says, in almost his final words to Clara, “Times change—and so must I.” The Doctor is dead; long live the Doctor.
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: In 1966, Doctor Who went through its first change of lead actor with William Hartnell’s final story, “The Tenth Planet”—also notable as the story that introduced the Cybermen. Unfortunately, its last episode remains missing from the BBC archives, so the DVD release provides an animated version that’s still quite effective. I’d also strongly recommend Mark Gatiss’s recent docudrama An Adventure in Space and Time, which tells the story of the Hartnell years, with the man himself rendered beautifully by David Bradley. After seeing what happens to Smith’s Doctor in this episode, the final scene is now even more poignant.
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