Matt Smith’s four year tenure as the Eleventh Doctor has come to an end with “The Time of the Doctor.” Not only that, but Steven Moffat has pretty satisfactorily wrapped up the plotlines and answered the major questions set out during that period. I think this year’s Christmas Special was, all in all, quite good. Not nearly as impressive as the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special last month, but that was a hell of an act to follow up.
The Doctor, accompanied by Clara (Jenna Coleman) arrives on the spaceship headquarters of the Church of the Papal Mainframe, one of innumerable craft now orbiting a planet from which a mysterious signal is transmitting. The Doctor and Clara travel down to the planet to investigate it on behalf of the Church. It is a world of almost eternal night with just one small human settlement, a village named Christmas. The Doctor discovers the source of the signal in the basement of a house: a mysterious crack in reality, exactly like the ones that he encountered many years before. Using a scavenged Cyberman head he’s nicknamed “Handles,” the Doctor translates the message: “Doctor Who?” Suddenly the Doctor realizes exactly where he is. The planet is Trenzalore, where he is fated to die.
And here all the answers come out. It transpires that the source of the cracks in time is the Time Lord home world of Gallifrey, which as we saw in “The Day of the Doctor” was saved at the end of the Time War, frozen in a single moment of time and sent off to another reality. The reason why the question is being broadcast is because if the Doctor answers, the Time Lords will know that they have once again located their home dimension and return. The Church of the Papal Mainframe and the various other alien races assembled over Trenzalore desperately want to prevent that. No doubt this is due to the fact that, as seen in “The End of Time,” at the conclusion of the war, faced with defeat at the hands of the Daleks, Rassilon and the High Council of the Time Lords were planning to enact the Final Sanction, wiping out all reality and ascending to a higher plane of existence.
In earlier stories, I’d been really confused about the fact that the religious order known as the Silence had created River Song in order to assassinate the Doctor, but later on she was imprisoned by the Church for apparently succeeding in that task (as we saw in “The Wedding of River Song,” the Doctor faked his death). In “The Time of the Doctor,” it’s revealed that the Silence were a breakaway faction of the Church of the Papal Mainframe. The Silence was so fearful of the Doctor ever going to Trenzalore that they were the ones who blew up his TARDIS in “The Big Bang” in an attempt to kill him. However, not only did that temporarily cause reality to be destroyed, but it also retroactively created the cracks in time in the first place. And by creating River Song, the Silence inadvertently gave him a friend & ally who helped him stay alive through numerous crises. As the Doctor explains, the Silence was caught up in a whopping big predestination paradox, causing the very problems they were attempting to prevent. Yowsa, what a bunch of bunglers!
So now that the Doctor has arrived at Trenzalore, the main chapter of the Church decides that the only way to fix the mess their rogue members created and prevent the Time Lords’ return is to destroy the Christmas settlement and the crack in reality. Allied with the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Sontarans, and numerous other alien powers, the Church launches an all-out offensive. The Doctor decides that it is his responsibility to protect the people of Christmas, and so spends the next several centuries repelling the invading forces. In the process, after all his long wanderings through time & space, the Doctor finally settles down and adopts a new home. We see him growing older and older, eventually becoming an elderly figure.
The Daleks, not unexpectedly, eventually turn on the Church, transforming nearly all the members aboard their ship into brainwashed Dalek / human hybrids like those seen in “Asylum of the Daleks” (as the First Doctor keenly observed in the novelization of “The Daleks’ Master Plan” written by John Peel, “The Daleks don’t take allies – only victims”). The Doctor manages to get through to Tasha Lem (Orla Brady), the Mother Superious of the Church, and she is able to overcome her Dalek conditioning. (Tasha is an interesting, enigmatic character, well played by Bradley, and I would certainly enjoy seeing her return in the future.) This leads to the Doctor fighting side-by-side with the Church and the Silence against the Dalek onslaught.
We also find out that the Doctor really has reached the end of his life; he has used up his allotted twelve regenerations. He may call himself the Eleventh Doctor, but between the existence of the War Doctor, and the Tenth Doctor’s non-regeneration at the beginning of “Journey’s End,” he is actually in his thirteenth and final incarnation. He fully expects to die on Trenzalore, that the planet will be his final resting place, as seen in the future in “The Name of the Doctor.” He is only trying to stay alive to keep the town of Christmas safe for as long as he possibly can, before what he believes to be the inevitable happens. He tells Clara, “Every life that I save is a victory.”
If there is one obvious weakness to “The Time of the Doctor,” it is that the Doctor’s centuries-long stay on Trenzalore requires Clara to bounce back and forth between there and Earth. Otherwise she would have grown old & died long before the end of the episode. So first the Doctor tricks her into going back to Earth, but by leaping onto the vanishing TARDIS she is returned to Trenzalore three hundred years later. Then the Doctor pulls the same trick a second time, but on this occasion she is brought back a few centuries later by Tasha, who does not want the Doctor to die alone. Clara, with all this coming and going (to quote a line from “The Claws of Axos”) comes across like “a galactic yo-yo.”
Nevertheless, Clara is vital to the final outcome. Just as she was the one who encouraged the Doctor to find a non-destructive resolution to the Time War, so too does she appeal to the Time Lords’ better nature here, speaking to them through the crack in time, asking them to help him because of all the good he has done. In response, the crack vanishes from the house and reappears in the sky just long enough to send out the energy needed to grant the Doctor a brand new cycle of regenerations. The Doctor focuses this energy and uses it to obliterate the Daleks, and then returns to the TARDIS, waiting for the change to complete.
Yeah, perhaps it is a bit sappy, Clara’s appeal for the Time Lords’ sympathy. But is has been shown over and over that one of the things that makes the Doctor a better person, that helps to prevent him from becoming some kind of lonely, angry god, is humanity. So it makes sense that where the Doctor failed in his efforts to convince his own people to be a better species, it is a decent, kind human such as Clara who succeeds in guiding them towards the correct decision.
Clara is, I think, one of those characters who, if not played by the right actress, might come across as unbearably witty and sweet and clever. Indeed, that was my first impression of her a year ago. Fortunately Coleman quickly slipped into the role, making her an appealing, likable, fun character. She certainly does good work in this episode.
I really appreciated that the Eleventh Doctor accepted his impending regeneration much better than his previous incarnation. The Tenth Doctor’s final words were “I don’t want to go,” which I never liked. In contrast, we have a lovely final scene for the Eleventh Doctor written by Moffat that Smith plays extremely well. The Eleventh Doctor, while he is sad that he will soon be a very different person, acknowledges:
“We all change. When you think about it, we are all different people, all through our lives. And that’s ok, that’s good, you gotta keep moving. So long as you remember all the people that you used to be. I will not forget one line of this. Not one day, I swear. I will always remember when the Doctor was me.”
And then… exit Matt Smith, enter Peter Capaldi! The Twelfth Doctor is, of course, quite confused and, after complaining that he doesn’t like the color of his new kidneys, looks at Clara and asks “One question: do you happen to know how to fly this thing?” My girlfriend laughed, declaring that was a very Doctor-ish question.
So, yes, the pacing of “The Time of the Doctor” was rather uneven, what with the episode taking place over a period of several hundred years. In spots it did feel drawn out. And, as I said, the whole back and forth between Earth and Trenzalore with Clara might have been handled in a somewhat smoother manner.
Also, the ending was perhaps something of a deus ex machina, with the Doctor receiving twelve new regenerations and conveniently using the energy from the process to wipe out the Daleks. However, it has been stated more than once in the past that the Time Lords have the ability to artificially create a new regeneration cycle. They dangled that promise in front of the Master in “The Five Doctors,” and subsequently did exactly that when they resurrected him to fight in the Time War. And the victory over the Daleks seen here did seem more believable & natural than the one back in “The Parting of Ways,” with Rose using the heart of the TARDIS to destroy them.
(Truthfully, though, if you look at the history of Doctor Who, going all the way back to the 1960s, in many of their appearances the Daleks have been written as invincible enemies right up until the final episode of each story, at which point some convenient plot device is used to defeat them.)
Anyway, while not a perfect episode, “The Time of the Doctor” was nevertheless a solid, enjoyable farewell for Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor. And it left me anticipating Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor. I’m looking forward to seeing how he plays the role, and how the Doctor’s relationship with Clara will evolve.