Tuesday, 31 December 2013

I loved Matt Smith’s first series of Doctor Who, and will stick up for it to this day. Series 5 got the balance of plot arc and character just right, a grand fairytale adventure with surprising twists, an interesting new take on the Doctor, and finely developed relationships at its heart. It was after that when Steven Moffat’s showrunning went awry for me, with series 6 being an utter mess and series 7’s ‘Impossible Girl’ arc simply uninteresting. And now, three and a half years later, we’ve reached the other bookend, the final episode of Doctor Smith, who bowed out in this year’s Christmas special, The Time of the Doctor. This episode aimed to tie up Matt’s era and to see him out with a bang, harking back to all the important memories of the past few years. Did it recapture what I initially loved about this Doctor? Well, yes, but also, largely, no.

After an audacious opening declaring that after a multi-Doctor story we’re having one of Moffat’s multi-monster stories, The Time of the Doctor descended into silly farce for the first fifteen minutes. And not the good kind of silly farce, but a crude and not really very funny attempt at humour in which we’re constantly told that the Doctor is actually naked. We didn’t even get to see any arse.

Nevertheless, the story picked up a bit when the Doctor and Clara finally set foot in the town of Christmas. With costumes reminiscent of 2010’s best Christmas special ever, A Christmas Carol, the setting for the Doctor’s final battle was a brilliant piece of production design, a snow-capped fairytale village encased in near-permanent darkness. A lot of people seem to have taken against the voiceover, but for me it built upon a really nice atmosphere, and the Doctor growing old while defending this town against all his enemies was a neat way to sign off this Doctor’s adventures – there was even a nice throwback to the very beginning in the Doctor befriending young Barnable, who waited for him as did Amelia Pond.

I also did really like the way this adventure brought together plot points from throughout Matt’s era, not only bringing back the crack in time but also explaining “Silence will fall when the question is asked” in a way much more satisfactory than I ever expected Moffat to manage. OK, not everything made sense – brushing over the Silence as a bunch of genetically-engineered confessional priests from the future does beg the question of why a bunch of genetically-engineered confessional priests from the future would have bothered to go back in time and influence human history from the days of the Stone Age – not exactly the most logical plan to kill the Doctor, is it?

But the big problem with The Time of the Doctor is that, while I really like a lot of the ideas in it, it failed to engage me on an emotional level. The scenes that were meant to be sad… weren’t. And those are the scenes that are important in a regeneration episode. Remember Rose distraught at having been sent home because the Doctor didn’t want her to die alongside him? Heartbreaking, wasn’t it? That basically happened again, and this time there wasn’t a wet eye in the house (especially bad considering I’d been softened by Toy Story 3 and a good deal of wine). Remember the Tenth Doctor breaking down in the café with Wilf? And then his final scene, promising the young Rose she’d have a great year? That’s the kind of beautiful writing a regeneration episode deserves, and The Time of the Doctor’s brief attempts at anything similar fell flat. The fact that it’s half as long as the previous regeneration story shouldn’t have been the issue; if Moffat had just taken out some of the unnecessary stuff, like the entirely irrelevant confrontation with the Weeping Angels, who were cheapened in The Angels Take Manhattan and haven’t been scary since, or the unfunny farce at the beginning, then he’d have had room to take his time with the character stuff and maybe make the episode a bit more affecting. But even that might have been a lost cause, for this episode was far too late for me to engage with Clara as a character.

The problem with Clara is that she’s very much the generic companion and there’s no continuous character arc to get behind. The presentation of her family, introduced as she serves them Christmas dinner, seems entirely disconnected to anything that’s been mentioned of them in previous episodes. Her father’s even played by a different actor, and I bet most of the audience didn’t notice, due to the very little shits we’ve been led to give – a vast let down from Russell T Davies’ skill in giving the companion’s families rounded and interesting characters. In their brief appearances here, Moffat tries to emulate what Davies did – “Look, they’re watching Strictly, that means they’re relatable!” – but fails miserably, with these characters both coming from nowhere and going nowhere.

As well as Clara, this episode introduced us to Tasha Lem, ‘Mother Superious of the Papal Mainframe’. Though I did appreciate Orla Brady’s Irish accent, that was the extent to which I enjoyed Lem, who seemed familiar in many ways. As well as fitting that overused Moffat trope, an old friend of the Doctor, her dialogue felt like it had been written for River Song – “Flying the TARDIS was always easy. It’s flying the Doctor I never quite mastered” and the Doctor’s line “You’ve been fighting the psychopath inside you all your life.” And yes, of course she tried to seduce the Doctor, later being pounced on by him. Moffat’s repetitive and demeaning treatment of female characters as nothing more than his space-based sex fantasies seems to be getting worse all the time.

At least we had Handles, the Eleventh Doctor’s longest serving companion. OK, I actually think there is a good idea in having the Doctor carry around a Cyber-head as a personal computer – it’s reminiscent of K9, some of their interaction in the opening sequence was quite funny, and at least it stopped him from over-using the sonic screwdriver for once. But, come on, were we really meant to be sad at his death scene? It’s another example of Moffat’s hyper-pacing spoiling the effect – if we’d known Handles for longer, maybe this scene would have had a chance at working.

So what of the Doctor himself, and his regeneration? Playing it loose with the character’s history so that the Eleventh Doctor is actually the Thirteenth Doctor was a bold move by Moffat, and one I have no problem with in theory – the show was always going to make something up to get past the classic bit of continuity that is the regeneration limit, and it might as well do this sooner rather than later to shut up those who keep going on about how Doctor Who is going to end. The problem is introducing the fact that this is the Doctor’s last incarnation and then wrapping it up in one episode is very sudden for such a major event in his life. This finale could have been more effective had the seeds been planted earlier. Why no mention of this when the Doctor was so worried about his death in series 6, or when faced with his own grave in The Name of the Doctor?

That aside, the new set of regenerations meant that Smith’s Doctor got rather spoiled, having not one, but two regeneration scenes: a massive fuck-off Dalek-destroying tornado of a regeneration, followed by a much more personal handover in the TARDIS. This scene had a lot of nice touches – the Doctor’s “I will not forget one line of this” monologue, the bewigged ghost of Amy Pond, the dropping of the bow tie, the song from The Rings of Akhaten (yes, I still like that episode). And yet, despite all of this, I felt, again, significantly less moved than the fan I was three years ago, who loved the Doctor of series 5, would have wanted the fan I am today to be.

And so it is with an episode which nicely ties up the era both visually and narratively but is a significant emotional letdown that we say goodbye to Matt Smith. A very fine actor, and an occasionally brilliant Doctor, who was increasingly dumped with problematic scripts. At least anniversary special The Day of the Doctor didn’t disappoint, and at least we’ll always have such classics as The Eleventh Hour and Vincent and the Doctor to remember Eleven by. Matt, you will always be the Doctor.

And now, so will Peter Capaldi – who failed to make much of an impression in a very short final scene, to be honest. I wanted something a bit more daring than the now-conventional comment about part of his new body and the realisation that the TARDIS is crashing again, albeit less dramatically than last time. I did like his stare, though. I hope he does a lot of that staring.

1 comment:

  1. Peter (not Capaldi)31 December 2013 at 17:54

    Pretty spot on with the review. There was too much going on for one episode.

    It would have been much better if Matt had decided to stay on for one more series. The timing of his decision to quit kinda painted Moffat into a bit of a corner, having to wrap everything up for 11 in one episode.

    Series 8 could have built up most of these plot points, and more. The Christmas episode... could have been just that - a Christmas episode. No major arc building, just a fun adventure. Hell, even keep the whole Oswald Christmas dinner subplot.

    As you say Clara needs more development, but the way she gets on with 11 is one of my favourite things about her. It's a shame that we only got nine episodes of them together - and only two after she'd been through his time-stream. They needed another series together - it would have made the final farewell a lot more heartfelt.

    My only real criticism of TotD on top of what you've said in your review is the lack of new music. Not sure why, but the soundtrack was pretty recycled. While Long Song was a good choice for the final regeneration scene, when you start hearing pieces you know were written for a different episode (or even a different character for that matter), it kinda kills some of the mood.