While I’d like to make a joke about someone cutting onions nearby, I’d be disingenuous. I shall very much miss Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor. He had me at “Can I have an Apple” while hanging from the door of the upended TARDIS in “The Eleventh Hour”, so very long ago. And after the adventure of “The Day of the Doctor”, itself an emotional roller-coaster for this old Whovian, “The Time of the Doctor” is a very different beast indeed.
For me, Matt brought a certain joy to The Doctor, which I had felt was lacking at the end of David Tennant’s reign as the 10th; also the script writing in my opinion got much better. I’m sorry but the specials David Tennant’s Doctor had to suffer through were — with the exception of The Waters of Mars — uniformly rubbish. There were a couple of good ideas in there, but they couldn’t stand up for long.
So, back to Time of The Doctor.
I’ll get this out of the way first-off: “Time of the Doctor” doesn’t answer the question of how the Doctor and Clara escaped his time-stream, what happened to Vastra, Jenny and Strax, nor how River Song managed to still be around in the events of “The Name of the Doctor”, which concluded series 7. Perhaps we shall never know for sure what happened there, but indeed, writer Steven Moffatt isn’t averse to holding answers over for a while, as evidenced by the reveals in this episode.
We open with a mystery planet, transmitting a signal no-one can translate yet which has struck fear into the hearts, or whatever Daleks, Cybermen, Tereliptils, Sontarans and Weeping Angels substitute for our organ. Like in “The Pandorica Opens”, everything that has ever hated The Doctor seems to be orbiting the mystery planet, waiting for someone to make the first move and find out about the signal.
Also trying to work-out what’s going on is the Doctor himself, who, with the aid of a decapitated cyber-head, is investigating the different ships which zoom into orbit unannounced. Matt Smith shows-off his comedic talents with this sequence, with a Whovian equivalent of the Abbott and Costello routine “Who’s on First?” (no pun intended). The cyber-head, which we learn is called “handles”, performs its part.
Enter Clara Oswald, the Doctor’s mystery girl, who needs a hand with the in-laws and a Christmas turkey. In revisiting the mystery planet – in part an attempt to get the turkey to cook and with declarations of annoyance from the Doctor that Clara should learn to do things the proper way, including learning to use iPlayer to watch things on telly – we visit the Papal Mainframe, first mentioned in “A Good Man Goes to War”. Far from a catholic computer system, listing naughty and nice for all eternity, this is a peacemaker, and the reason the planet is still in one piece: they got there first and locked things in a stasis field which can’t be broken.
We’re well into explanatory territory already, and I wonder if this story might feel a little confusing to those joining the show for the first time, or those with less obsession with it than, say, myself. In short: here is an episode high on answers for what has gone before.
The silence is a declaration of intent for the papal mainframe and all who belong in order to prevent the Doctor speaking his name (more on that later); The Silence themselves, creatures who have been genetically created to be forgotten as soon as you turn your back, are confessors, Whovian priests who hear your sins and absolve you of them. The crack in the skin of the universe, first seen on Amelia Pond’s wall in “The Eleventh Hour” and subsequently through series 5, comes as a result of a breakaway cult of the Papal Mainframe, led by Madame Kovarian, leading to series 6.
Basically, “Time of the Doctor” is an episode that deserves a re-watch, together with Matt Smith’s three and a bit series at the helm of the blue box. It really is nice to get these explanations, but on the other hand, you have to be very careful with them because they can de-fang bad-guys. If I were a cynic, I’d say that the Silence, as sci-fi priests, are much, much less frightening as a result of this revelation. This is mitigated, I think, by them joining the Doctor in the final battle against the Daleks; the silhouette of a 900+ year-old time-lord walking along-side enemies of old is quite powerful in its own right.
The production-design, lighting, effects and direction are spot-on, and the script hit me where it hurt: The Eleventh Doctor wasn’t getting out of this alive. Yet at times, it felt curiously sentimental, with quiet spots which seemed at first incongruous, and on re-watch I think will grow on me. “Time of the Doctor” needed some pauses for breath as this was a densely-packed story and one which is ultimately an end of an era. The Eleventh Doctor isn’t: he is the last incarnation. With David Tennant’s second regeneration, care of his hand in “The Stolen Earth” way back in series 4, and “Old Grumpy”, AKA, The War Doctor (John Hurt) in “The Day of the Doctor”, we have Matt Smith’s Doctor effectively living to death, a particular trick of the Weeping Angels. He has nothing left to say or do but save the town where the signal is coming-from, the apt-named “Christmas”. And the signal itself, is coming from the crack in the skin of the universe, transmitted from the Time Lords themselves, trapped in an alternate universe thanks to the efforts of all the Doctors in “The Day of the Doctor”. And what do they want? To return to this universe. But they want to make sure it’s the right one, so they’re asking a simple question: the Doctor’s name.
Unfortunately, this can’t be answered unless all hell break loose and the planet and a re-emerged Gallifrey be attacked by everything the Doctor has held at bay since his first incarnation. At risk is the entire universe and the beginning of a whole new time war.
“Time of the Doctor” could be accused of many things by those who have axes to grind: stuffed with fan-service, too fast-paced, an unweildy storyline. I’d suggest though that the 8.3 million viewers in the UK alone, might disagree. As would I. It had everything one might want: high drama, comedy, sentiment and regret, shocks aplenty, and answers to questions that needed to be solved. And it saw a way to get around the problem posed back in the 1970’s in the story “The Deadly Assassin”, that of the 12 regeneration limit. I thought it had been solved by River Song giving the Doctor all her regenerations in “Let’s kill Hitler”, but no: the Doctor was against the wall, with no answers for the final Dalek onslaught. Standing alone on a clock-tower on the planet of Trenzalore (the name of the mystery planet), his companion Clara saved him once more with the answer to the question asked for hundreds of years by the war council of Gallifrey through the crack in the wall of the clock tower: Doctor Who?
The answer, I felt, was a little of an anticlimax, a little less than I expected based on David Tennant’s shocked face when River Song first whispered the Doctor’s name way back in series 4’s Moffat penned “Silence in the Library”. But on the other-hand, what else could the Doctor’s name really be: the man who makes people better, the promise mentioned only once in “The Day of the Doctor”: never cruel or cowardly, never retreat, never surrender.
True to his name, and his promise, the Doctor stayed in the town of Christmas to his last days, confronted by a Dalek mother-ship, he was prepared to give his life for people never met before.
I should add at this point that the ageing make-up on Matt Smith was quite something to behold, old-age to extreme old-age. His final moments atop the bell tower as a curmudgeonly old codger seemed a reversal of his incarnation to date. He started as an old man in a young body, and became, thanks to the intervention of the Time lords, a young man in an old body. His expression at being rewarded with a new regeneration cycle was priceless. The Daleks, of course, never stood a chance against this rejuvinated time-lord.
And in the aftermath of destruction, I expected to be greeted by Peter Capaldi as the new Doctor in the TARDIS, but Matt Smith was back, albeit for only a short time. I’d complained bitterly at the seemingly endless farewell tour of David Tennant’s tenth doctor, and my opinion that Matt Smith should have stood-up in the glass coffin instead of Tennant, still stands. So I was in two minds about the last moments of “Time of the Doctor”, however, the Moff, as always, came up with an explanation: the eleventh had momentarily reset back to his younger self, but it would not last. I’m not ashamed to admit that tears were shed during this sequence with the brief return of Amelia, the younger, and Amy Pond the older who gave the eleventh doctor a sad and intimate touch on the cheek, returned by the Doctor, as final farewell to her “raggedy man”.
And with one final shudder off-screen, the new Doctor arrived, with new kidneys and an extremely concerning inability to fly the TARDIS. Clara’s expression of disbelief was mirrored at this end of the screen, together with an internal scream of frustration that I’d have to wait until September 2014 until the return of the last of the time lords.
Here’s a round-up of reviews from across the web (at least the web that I frequent):