“The Time of the Doctor”
It’s not every year that the regeneration episode of a popular Doctor – and one who’s used up all his regenerations at that – would take a back seat to anything in the Doctor Who world. But so it is with “Time of the Doctor”, which feels like the dessert, with the 50th Anniversary week leading up to the epic “Day of the Doctor” special being the main course.
“Time” feels like a bit of a second fiddle story-wise, too. DotD was a classic Who episode that proved Stephen Moffat could deliver the goods at the most important moment in the show’s long history, the culmination of a glorious week of programming that exceeded the expectations any Whovian could have had for it. TotD is merely good – very good, in fact, just not the transcendent game-changer “Day” was.
There’s a lot of responsibility riding on this story’s shoulders, that’s for sure. In addition to ushering Matt Smith into the pages of history, it’s the 800th episode of the series (just think on that, and be astonished), and it finally forces Moffat to confront the issue that’s been hanging over the series since the reboot in 2005 – the end of The Doctor’s regeneration cycle. Moffat boldly accelerated the timeline by robbing himself of the two regenerations it seemed he had to play with, effectively making Smith Thirteen instead of Eleven, and he certainly delivered a legitimate solution that does exist in Doctor Who canon – though it’ll be entirely up to you whether it was good enough or not.
I won’t get into too many details of the story – it’s late and I’m still exhausted and backlogged from my trip to Nagano – and I think the larger question of Smith’s tenure as The Doctor and the prospects for the man who’ll replace him are more important. It’s fair to say that the second half of the episode is better than the first, and that it was obvious Moffat is having to stretch pretty hard to qualify for the “Christmas episode” designation. We got a town that was called Christmas for no reason, a Christmas turkey that took 300 years to roast, a poem in a cracker (in the British sense, not the American crispy kind) and that’s about it for yuletide connections. Not that it matters much to me.
There were certainly some fine moments in the episode – the David Bowie reference “it gets me to the Church on time”, The Doctor’s hiding a TARDIS key in a wig (clever use of Smith having shaved his head for a film role), a Trojan Cyberman. I also liked the addition of “Handles” (Kayvan Novak), a decapitated Cyberman head that keeps The Doctor company for three centuries like a faithful (and long-lived) hound.
Most of the good stuff here, though, comes from Smith himself. I like his performance generally, but I rank him as a bit of a mixed bag and a middling Doctor. He overcame the biggest obstacle – his youth – quite quickly with his “old soul” quality, but I never thought he could make the transition from comedy to drama with the best of the Doctors (like his predecessor David Tennant and Tom Baker, for example). But he really made me feel like I’m going to miss him with his performance here – he’s terrific playing The Doctor as he slowly turns into an old man, sacrificing his freedom and his remaining time in order to protect the planer of Trenzalore (yes, that Trenzalore) the only way he can – with his presence. The Time Lords are on the other side of a crack in the universe (yes, that crack in the universe), waiting for him to say his name and signal that it’s safe for them to return from the sanctuary he and his other selves gave them in “Day of the Doctor”. And waiting for them are the armies of every species in the universe that wants to destroy them all over again – especially the Daleks.
I like the notion of The Doctor simply growing old and dying – we’ve never seen that before – and Smith carries it off beautifully. This story brings home as well as any just what a heroic and noble soul he is – the reason so many on-screen and in the real world have come to love this character so much. So when the Time Lords – at Clara’s behest – grant him a new regeneration cycle (yes, it’s canon – see “The Five Doctors”), it doesn’t feel like a Deux ex Machina but a richly-earned reward. Who deserves it (sorry) if not The Doctor? I also like the fact that Moffat gave Smith a chance to say goodbye with the youthful face he brought to the role – it was a bit of a cheat, but it seems only right. And that he got to say goodbye to the wonderful Amy Pond, the first face he ever saw and – let’s be honest – the companion this Doctor truly loved best.
“Times change, and so must I.” With those words, Smith’s Doctor lets go – in a regeneration unlike any other, in a split-second (is that significant?). We don’t get to see much of Peter Capaldi and won’t, sadly, for eight months. But what we see is enough to whet the appetite for what could just be one of the great casting decisions in Who history. Capaldi looks the part (yes, I’m happy to see an older Doctor but it’s more than that) and he has a sizzling screen presence that commands your attention immediately. His final line – delivered with his Scottish brogue at least partly intact: “Do you by any chance know how to fly this thing?”
Goodbye Matt, and thanks for a very solid three-year run – you grew on me. I look forward to the Capaldi era because he seems so perfect for the role that it’s almost impossible to think he won’t be great. We’ll see what happens with Clara – I haven’t been a huge fan but she grew on me as well, and the Anniversary and Christmas specials displayed her best chemistry with Smith by far. This story also featured the revelation (thanks to the Time Lords truth field) that Clara “fancies” him – which could make things rather awkward with the much older Capaldi now in charge. Generally speaking (there are exceptions, like Tom Baker and Sarah Jane Smith), it works out for the best when new Doctors get new companions – that chemistry needs to start from scratch, and I rather expect we’ll see Capaldi paired up with a new partner before the end his first “season” (actually the equivalent of a split-cour). Given what Moffat has shown us over the last month, I have a good deal of confidence that he can shepherd Doctor Who successfully into this next of its many, many new eras.