Anticipation was high for this week’s Doctor Who Christmas Special on BBC and BBC America, “The Time of the Doctor.” We knew it would be Matt Smith’s last appearance as the Eleventh Doctor. We knew it would be holiday-themed. We knew it would involve Trenzalore and many of the Doctor’s greatest enemies, including The Daleks, The Cyberman, The Angels, and The Silence. But we didn’t know how it would play out, or how The Doctor would die.
Like last year’s Christmas outing, “The Time of the Doctor” is not a fluff, stand-alone installment. Instead, it’s a huge adventure, a culmination of many things. We’d long heard that “silence must fall when the question is asked,” and the unanswered question is “Doctor who?” Now, those things come together, along with a dozen other minor plot threads, all culminating in The Doctor’s last battle.
Last spring’s “The Name of the Doctor” reveals what happens on Trenzalore: The Eleventh Doctor, the thirteenth and final incarnation because of the Tenth’s waste of a life and The War Doctor’s inclusion, will finally die in an epic battle, turning an entire planet into a graveyard. But like the fall anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor,” this history is not set in stone and can be changed. And so it is.
I’m getting a little ahead of myself. At the beginning, The Doctor (Matt Smith) travels to a busy planet that he is told is Gallifrey, though it clearly isn’t. There, all of his enemies have gathered, and the Papal Mainframe, led by old (though never seen before on screen) friend Tasha Lem (a terrific Orla Brady, Fringe, Jo). Gallifrey is present, trying to break through the cracks in space time, but only if The Doctor tells The Time Lords his name, confirming they have reached the proper universe.
This seems like a good thing, but it’s not because the return of The Time Lords to the universe would reignite The Time War, meaning a LOT of death would follow. Tasha wants to prevent this, even if it means killing The Doctor, which makes her a tad bit dangerous. The Doctor realizes the predicament, and decides to stay at the planet, not making a decision about his people or not, while his enemies attack.
I am a little disappointed that the battles on Trenzalore are not bigger. This is a place where many, many people bite the big one in a possible timeline, but it doesn’t seem that way in “The Time of the Doctor.” Much of the church is slaughtered, but we don’t see them so much as we see those who can overcome their Dalek programming. Perhaps all the budget for the special went into effects, rather than in hiring extras, but it still just doesn’t seem like the gargantuan war one would expect.
Other than that, the story is really good. Besides the aforementioned arcs, this episode also reveals how the Daleks come to remember The Doctor again, the origin of The Silence, and the ultimate fate of Handles, the Cyberman head that The Doctor befriends. It does an excellent job tying up all of the continuity bits, really feeling like a satisfying capper on The Eleventh’s run.
Perhaps the main mystery going in is, how will The Doctor regenerate again? He’s out of lives, but a new actor has already been cast, so surely this must play a part. It does, in a huge way, with Gallifrey gifting their savior twelve more regenerations.
One may wonder why Gallifrey would give The Doctor such a present, and knowing that he’s on the other side, why do they not come through? The Doctor has never been loved or admired by his countrymen, who consider him (with reason) a bit of an unhinged outlaw. Yet, he did save the entire race, so maybe there are some who trust him now. Maybe even enough to think The Doctor has a good reason for not bringing them back to the universe.
What I want to see now is a special or episode told entirely from Gallifrey’s point of view. This part of “The Time of the Doctor” doesn’t quite make sense, given what we’ve seen of The Time Lords previously. But it could under the right circumstances. It seems like too many leaps must be made to just take this for granted, so how about a story that fully explains things? Since Steven Moffat is good at tying up loose ends, this might be a possibility.
At the same time as “The Time of the Doctor” is a big tale, it’s also a deeply personal story. We see The Doctor as we’ve never seen him before – settled, and aging. This hour takes place over many hundreds of years, meaning that The Eleventh Doctor is an incarnation that lasts at least a third, maybe more than half, of The Doctor’s total existence thus far. He’s gone from being depressed to happy, serving himself and serving everyone else, and this brings his growth around again.
The Eleventh Doctor must have companions. He lies to Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) and sends her away multiple times, but he has Handles and the people of the planet to ground him. He is someone who can get into his own head too much, but with much here to care about and protect, he resists that urge. He can be dark and deadly, but on Trenzalore, he only kills when necessary. And he has always been the old man in the young body. Now we see what he looks like at the end of his natural life.
Somehow, all of this is communicated without needing to lay it out explicitly. The Doctor’s emotional journey shines through in fits and starts, but there’s enough to allow the viewer to connect the dots. The writing is so sharp, we even care about Handles, a bodiless head that should be thought of as a machine or monster. All of this is done effortlessly, proving Moffat’s talent to anyone who still doubted him.
Equally skilled is Smith. He gets to run the gamut of emotion and experience in his final installment. He plays old and young, he plays brave and desperate, he plays friend and betrayer, he plays hero and the man who has given up. This is a tour de force performance, the kind that makes a career. To get this kind of material for his last hour, and to execute it so well, is incredible.
The regeneration feels different. This can be chalked up to the fact that The Doctor is receiving a whole new set of regenerations, rather than just making one change. In the past, The Doctor hasn’t used regenerative energy as a weapon, and his face changes in one moment, with the viewer witnessing the morph. It’s kind of neat that they do it different this time.
The very end of “The Time of the Doctor” is the perfect tie back to the beginning of The Eleventh’s story. He gets to return to his young form and eat fish sticks and custard. Then, he hallucinates Amy Pond (Karen Gillian), the companion he most closely connected with. Even though Amy spent a scant few years with this Doctor, who ended up living centuries, she is the first and (practically) last face he sees. She occupies a very special place in his heart, and her cameo seems very appropriate. All while giving The Eleventh a meta send-off sure to resonate for both the character and the actor.
I do wish a few more familiar faces were present, too, but in the end, this is about The Doctor, not about anyone else. As with other incarnations of The Doctor, individuals have frequently come and gone from his life. Others were not necessary, and so not included.
Tasha Lem is a fascinating addition. She’s clearly very powerful and very long-lived. She has the strength to resist her own death after the Daleks kill her and take over her body. She does the right thing for the greater good, even if it hurts someone she loves. And she’s perfectly cast. I definitely want to see more of her again, whether she’s part-Dalek or not. Much, much more.
Clara is the official companion in “The Time of the Doctor,” and though her tenure with The Doctor has been short so far, she steps up here. I haven’t really connected with her yet, but in this special, she’s bold and selfless, coming back to The Doctor repeatedly, even when he doesn’t deserve her forgiveness. She understands something important is happening with him, and is there for him when he needs her. Her actions deserve respect.
I do wonder if next fall’s season will resume on the same day, with Clara trying to explain The Doctor’s new appearance (Peter Capaldi, The Thick Of It) to her family, who just keep trying to have a nice Christmas dinner. That could be interesting! Though it’s doubtful this will happen.
The only thing that left me feeling dissatisfied was the fact that The Doctor’s name still has not been revealed. There has been so much build up, fans want resolution. If not handled perfectly, it could very well ruin the series, though, and perhaps that’s why the show shies away from it now. The fanfare around the word is so great that it seems unfair not to let The Doctor speak it. Will Moffat redeem himself for this next year?
And did we really need the village that The Doctor settles down in to be named Christmas, with a holiday theme? Just because this episode aired on December 25th, doesn’t mean that the connection to the date needs to be so blatant. On the other hand, it’s just the sort of weird place The Doctor would fall in love with, so this is a minor gripe, not a major one.
Throughout the war and the drama and all of the heavy stuff that makes up “The Time of the Doctor,” humor still shines through. Comedy is a vital element in Doctor Who, and it is present this week as much as in practically any other. From a drawn out nudity premise, to The Twelfth Doctor’s comments about the color of his kidneys, there are enough one-liners to make any viewer smile. This is appreciated in such an emotionally-draining special.
At the close, one is left with a supreme satisfaction. “The Time of the Doctor” gives us an emotionally fulfilling ending in a heck of a package. Until next time…