Doctor Who – The Time of the Doctor (2013) Christmas Special

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Doctor Who Christmas specials, like many other special Christmas-themed television episodes, are usually fairly “fluffy” and hold little substance in the grand scheme of things. TV execs usually assume that many will only have the TV on in the background if they have it on at all, and anything complex is unwanted. Thankfully this mindset has been fading away recently, leading to some halfway decent Christmas programming.

I grew tired of narrow Christmas themed episodes a few years ago in Doctor Who when The Doctor, The Widow, and The Wardrobe bored me to tears. I will take my hat off to Steven Moffat for blessing us with two consecutive years of solid holiday specials (Last year’s The Snowmen, and now this), thus wiping the blandness of the 2011 special from my mind. What makes The Time of the Doctor so good is that it’s not just a typical “here’s a huge guest star!” affair like previous Holiday episodes, it’s a fairly subdued regeneration episode with only a dash of Christmas theme in place. That isn’t to say it lacks spectacle, but they got most of that out of their systems with The Day of The Doctor.

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The Doctor has found himself amongst thousands of spacecrafts all locked onto a “distress call” of sorts. This “space beacon” is being broadcast across all time and space, and seems to be untranslatable. His curiosity gets the best of him, and he attempts to force his way onto a few of the ships to get some answers as to what the signal is all about. After humorously boarding both a Dalek craft and a Cybership, he ends up picking up Clara and visiting an old friend at “church” to get answers. This church is the Church of the Papal Mainframe, a gigantic space church headed by Mother Superious Tasha Lem, someone The Doctor seems to be fairly intimate with. The church has locked the planet where the signal can be traced from, and horror of all horrors, the planet is coming up as “Gallifrey” on all sensors. The Doctor Volunteers to go to the surface and investigate, not realizing that the longest chapter in his life is about to begin.

Of course, we eventually find out that this mysterious planet is in fact Trenzalore, the place where the Doctor is said to die, and he realizes what has been put in place. Somehow the Time Lords themselves are behind the crack in time we saw back in series 5, and want to use it to escape their existence outside of reality. Apparently The Doctor has to simply utter his name (The distress call was “Doctor Who?!”), and they will be released back into the rest of the universe, but that comes at a price. If they do appear the Daleks will surely re-ignite the “Time War”, and drive all reality into madness. The Church locks down the planet and the siege of all sieges begins, they call themselves “The Silence” and impose a rule that The Doctor can never utter “The oldest question in the universe” or they will blow Trenzalore out of existence. The Doctor stays on Trenzalore in a “Town called Christmas” for over 900 years, that’s right after this episode The Doctor is now over 2000 YEARS OLD!

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This battle between multiple races, The Silence/Church of the Papal Mainframe, and the citizens of Christmas is barely shown on screen, and we only see brief glimpses hundreds of years apart. This almost Tolkien-esque choice of not relying on the actual battles of this war, and simply the fallout of such a conflict is a pretty jarring choice and a brave one by Moffat, as many were probably expecting something more along the lines of “a war to end all wars”. I actually commend Mr. Moffat for this because I tire of the ridiculous season ending spectaculars we used to get in the Davies era. After the Earth got towed around the galaxy by the TARDIS, and there was a giant Cyberman in Victorian England, his M.O. Seemed to be “how am I going to top that this year?” Thankfully, it’s mostly left to our imaginations in this episode.

Steven Moffat has been criticized in the past for leaving large plot holes in episodes and generally not fleshing out all of his ideas. I have been of the opinion that he would eventually conclude all the loose plot threads from the previous episodes involving the “crack in time”, the Silence, the exploding TARDIS etc. I’m under absolutely no impression that he expertly planned out the entire plot, or that he knew when Matt Smith would leave, but I feel that he probably grew tired of fans complaining all the time about things he felt were sufficiently wrapped up, and wanted The Time of the Doctor to be the big red bow atop the gift box that was Matt Smith’s reign as our favorite time hobo. And that’s what we get with this episode, a clean slate going into the eighth season. The baggage of missing regenerations has been cleared up, the regeneration limit has been tackled, holdovers from the Russell T. Davies era have been sorted out, and his own plot holes have been vanquished for the most part.

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Matt Smith does a fine job in this episode, and really conveys the sadness of a man seemingly “trapped” on a planet that needs his help for nearly 1000 years. As one would imagine, he buys into his own mythology, and yet hides himself away in a similar manner to the way we saw him post Amy and Rory departure. His only real companion for a large portion of this time is a re-purposed Cyberman head named “Handles” that harkens back to the days of K-9 and Tom Baker in the TARDIS. Their banter is pretty hilarious, and it really makes me wish that handles would have been around longer. It’s sort of like the Tom Hanks film Castaway and the relationship between Hanks’s character and “Wilson” only “Handles” is somewhat sentient.

As the Doctor gets older and older (handled with old age makeup) he becomes more unhinged, lonely, and prepared for death. He begins to embody the “old man”mentality that we’ve always seen him covey, albeit with a young body. I will miss Smith in the role, but feel he is leaving at the correct time. I’d rather wonder what another Smith-helmed season could have brought, instead of hoping he leaves ala David Tennant during his final “season” on long-form specials.

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My only few gripes involve the actual regeneration scene. What I assumed to be the “final moments” of the Matt Smith Doctor involved a release of regeneration energy so massive that he was able to project it towards Dalek ships, destroying the entire fleet. Suddenly, The Doctor was engulfed in a massive explosion that made the one from The End of Time look weak. Had Clara found a comatose Peter Capaldi Doctor laying in rubble, or something similar, it would have been something different. What we actually got was somewhat similar to the last one, almost down to the dialog in play. For some reason, the writers added in a scene where Smith “got younger” before the actual regeneration took place and met a hallucination Amy in the TARDIS. I get the sentimentality involved, and it was awesome to see Karen Gillan, but an episode that prides itself in “fixing confusing plot holes” sure added some baggage in the mix at the end.

I also feel that the script downplayed the regeneration limit more than I figured it would. I definitely didn’t want to see more “I don’t want to go!” Emo Doctor fan-girl bait, but the actual realization that the end was nigh seemed to neither bother Clara or The Doctor very much. Clara did plead with the crack in the wall for Time Lords to help him somehow, someway, which resulted in a new regeneration set being magically granted to The Doctor, but it was like it never crossed her mind that he could have ceased to exist essentially. Thankfully, the new regenerations either re-wrote time or pushed his final resting place from The Name of The Doctor further in the future, and perhaps it will only become an issue in another 50 years!

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I enjoyed The Time of the Doctor quite a bit, especially for it’s refreshing take on the holiday special template. The humor was well-placed like the “nude scenes” and interactions with “Handles”, and the drama was great when it needed to be there. I thought the end was sort of off-kilter, but it didn’t ruin Capaldi’s first scene any more than loud Murray Gold music did (for the record, not much). While I think this special was inferior to 2012’s The Snowmen, it’s still in the upper tier of Christmas specials all around. Here’s to season eight, good Lord it’s going to be yet another LONG wait!

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Check Out These Shiny New “Time of The Doctor” Promo Images

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Doctor Who: The Snowmen (2012)

Watching the yearly Doctor Who Christmas special is fast becoming one of my personal Christmas traditions that I most look forward to. I’ll admit that I wasn’t entirely thrilled by last year’s iteration; it was saccharine sweet and lacked any real drama compared to most episodes of the show. I remarked in my review that “I think they should be less “Christmasy” for the most part from now on. The Christmas gimmicks worked very well at first, but seem too forced now.” Gladly, aside from a snow theme, this episode lacks any sort of “hitting you over the head” Christmas treatment that we’ve had in the past. As the episode opens with a group of people being massacred by an army of sentient snowmen, filled with what appeared to be evil snowflakes, I knew I was in for a real treat.

Right from the moment the opening theme starts, this second half of season 7 is really starting to show that this year is a special anniversary year. Some fans have complained that Steven Moffat didn’t follow through with making this new show (2005-current) like the old one, a claim he made years ago as he was just getting handed the reigns to the Doctor Who show-runner title from Russell T. Davies. Right away we have a new opening sequence with graphics that include swirly space debris and a picture of Matt Smith’s face in stars, a small detail that looks back at the show’s past. I’m not going to lie, my wife and I “Marked out” (to use a pro wrestling term) when we saw this new intro. It wasn’t even an earth shattering change or anything, but it really shows that small things like that can make or break it for some people. New fans won’t even notice the charge, bus us older fans have another little touch there to make us happy.

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The new titles sequence isn’t the only change we had in this episode. We were also graced with a new Tardis interior that was obviously somewhat based on the original one using the basic structure of the one from the last few seasons. Now it’s just far more spacious, has lighting, and gives an entirely new (and yet old) sci-fi feel rather than the played out “organic spaceship” theme that was sort of refreshing in 2005, then used by every other sci-fi show. The Doctor is also sporting a new outfit that somewhat carries over to the next episodes based on the “coming soon” trailer.

The actual plot of this episode involves evil snowmen controlled by an old villain that we haven’t really seen since the Patrick Troughton era. “The Great Intelligence” that we see here, played by the voice of Ian McKellen, is sort of a reimagining of the creature of the same name we saw in The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear. In fact, this episode is directly tied to those older episodes with little bits of dialog tossed in as a nod to fans. Ian McKellen does a great job providing a booming evil voice that we would expect from something called “The Great Intelligence”. Richard E. Grant, who played the Doctor in Scream of the Shalka, returns to Doctor Who playing a character named Walter Simeon. Simeon met “The Great Intelligence” as a young boy, and used its power to get back at those that hurt him, and gained power for himself. Little did he know that he was merely a pawn in the grand scheme of things.

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The Doctor has been “laying low” and attempting to place himself into the same sort of self-imposed retirement we saw him in way back when we first met the character with William Hartnell in the role. Luckily he isn’t in total hermit-mode and has been hanging around the “Paternoster Gang” including the sword toting Silurian warrior Lady Vastra, her human wife Jenny, and their butler Strax, a reluctant Sontaran servant. I really love these guys, and am glad that they will be somewhat taking the place of River Song now that the Pond saga has ended. I was really hoping for a non-human companion this year, and although these three aren’t the main ones, I can handle them being there a few times this season. Most of the fun comes from the same sort of humor that used to pop up in Star Trek: the Next Generation with Worf. The fun lies in taking Strax, from the warrior Sontaran race, and placing him in mundane situations that he hates, can’t relate to, or simply doesn’t understand. I love Strax because he does things like suggest maximum force in every situation, like throwing grenades at something or blowing up the moon, when said action is grossly inappropriate.

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Also returning are the very same dark fantasy elements that have been popping up in the entirety of Moffat’s tenure as show-runner. I really liked an instance where Clara found the entrance to the Tardis in a cloud only reachable with an invisible “Stairway to heaven”. Rather than just having the Tardis sitting next to a building or something, the production team went the extra mile to make Clara discovering the Tardis that much more special. This of course reminds me of stuff from Neil Gaiman, fitting that he wrote a script last season, and has one this season as well.

Jenna Louise Coleman returns for a follow up to her previous encounter with the Doctor, this time playing a “new” character named Clara. Once again we can see that Clara is far more intelligent than some previous companions and takes charge in a similar way to Ace way back in the late 1980’s. She gives me hope that the Doctor has met his match in a companion that won’t take guff from him. I like Amy Pond quite a bit, but felt that she sometimes fell in line with the old “companion always getting in trouble” mold, here’s hoping Clara stays strong.

There were a few quibbles to be had with the episode, like the scheme of the Great Intelligence never really being fleshed out fully, and some wonky computer generated effects with the “old Governess” but for the most part I feel that this was a very strong Christmas special, far better than last year’s. I can’t wait for this upcoming season, a new companion, and the return of the Cybermen as written by Neil Gaiman!

 

Reaction: Doctor Who – The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe


Before I get into my review of The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe, I’d like to talk about something that has bothered me for a while. After numerous Christmas Specials from Doctor Who, I think they should be less “Christmasy” for the most part from now on. The Christmas gimmicks worked very well at first, but seem too forced now. I’m not saying that I dislike them at all; it’s just hard to take them as seriously as some of the other episodes. When we’ve seen the likes of evil Santa robots, evil Christmas trees, Christmas star shaped spaceships and a lot more. Where exactly do we go from there?

There are only two Christmas related plots I’d like to see 1) one episode where the travel back to the historical first Christmas (but that would most likely anger many Christians), or 2) Have the Doctor Save some children from Krampus, the evil alternate Saint Nicholas that punishes bad kids. Maybe the Christmas specials should start being just “epic” long form episodes like The End of Time; that was such an episode and we didn’t have to cringe our way through demonic nutcrackers from Pluto or any other contrived plot devices.

As one can tell, The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe is vaguely based on the legendary series of novels by C.S. Lewis: The Chronicles of Narnia, and more specifically The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe, perhaps the most loved volume in the entire series. When I heard that the episode was going to be based on the Narnia mythos, I was worried. I didn’t want to have the Doctor travel to a planet inhabited by talking lions and have to explain that Narnia was real or something. Thankfully there was no such fan-fiction fueled “fanwankery” and what we ended up with was an episode using a plot device from the series: kids that travel to a far off land in a box. This was much more like the previous Christmas special, A Christmas Carol, in that it was similar to the source material, but wasn’t a true remake of it and tried to stand on its own despite the allusions.

My only problem with the way it was constructed was that it felt like it honestly lacked any real “spirit” from the books it was based on. We had kids traveling to a snowy planet and all, but they weren’t really the main characters. Madge, as played by Claire Skinner, was the main character, her children were simply window dressing in the grand scheme of things. This was a story of a strong woman overcoming adversity in the face of peril to save her kids, not a tale of wonder and adventure in a new world.

I liked The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe, but felt that it played it too “safe” for the most part. It was a fun little romp that makes for a nice palette cleanser after all of the dark stuff that happened in the last few episodes of season 6. With strong performances from Skinner, a funny little cameo from Bill Bailey and a strange alien race to fight, it had all the trappings for what it was made to be: a fun Christmas bit of family viewing. Should I be sad, however, that I would have rather seen something a bit less “by the numbers”, something like the pre-credits sequence with the exploding ship?

Doctor Who: Dimensions in Time – The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Doctor Who charity special, Dimensions in time, is a pretty rough experience.  On one hand, this charity episode was released way back when the show was off of the air, so any sort of new material was welcomed by fans.  The main problem was, that somebody over at BBC decided it would be an amazing idea to have this episode as a crossover with a popular soap opera called The Eastenders.  Confusing casting decisions were combined with a few miss-steps like having all of the remaining Doctors appear in the video despite having only the smallest interest of picking the role up.  This is especially prominent with one Mr. Tom Baker who, despite a good performance aside from the fact he is sitting in front of a green screen talking into a microphone, obviously didn’t want anything to do with the 30th anniversary special.  The other actors all tried very hard to salvage what eventually became of this, but sadly it was a losing battle.

The plot, if one can follow it, revolves around one of the lesser used renegade Time Lords, the Rani, as she tries to destabilize time to kill all versions of the Doctor at once.  The Fourth Doctor appears to be in a broadcasting room of some sorts and relays a desperate message to his other selves:

Mayday, mayday. This is an urgent message for all the Doctors. It’s vitally important that you listen to me for once. Our whole existence is being threatened by a renegade Time Lord known only as the Rani. She hates me. She even hates children. Two of my earlier selves have already been snared in her vicious trap. The grumpy one and the flautist too. She wants to put us out of action. Lock us away in a dreary backwater of London’ East End. Trapped in a time-loop in perpetuity and her evil is all around us. I can hear the heart beat of a killer. She’s out there somewhere. We must be on our guard and we must stop her before she destroys all of our other selves. Oh… [gives a pained look] Good luck, my dears.

I’ve included that up there, because it is literally ALL the story we actually get in this episode, the rest is a mess of random appearances and nonsensical babbling.  This whole thing is moved along by use of the Rani’s gun that can alter time, a convenient way to have multiple Doctors show up.  Sadly the way this occurs is VERY jarring as the Doctor phases between identities, sometimes in mid-sentence, and way too frequently.  While it starts out being the Seventh Doctor and Ace talking, every time we hear a noise and the screen flashes we meet another version of the Doctor, sometimes another companion, or someone randomly from Eastenders.  While one can figure out what is supposed to be going on, the whole production looks as if it cost something like a tenner and maybe a drink at a bar.

There are some good things to be seen from this episode, however, as it marks one of the very last TV appearances by Jon Pertwee before he died only a few years later.  He had stopped doing much acting to my knowledge and was touring around on the science fiction convention circuit and doing small roles in dramas and such.  This episode also sees the only meeting between the Sixth Doctor and longtime companion and all around awesome dude – The Brigadier.

Aside from those good things, I can’t explain enough how bad the episode is.  When I had tried to get hold of all of the Doctor Who stuff I presumed would not be released on DVD like missing episode reconstructions and charity specials, I was happy to find an off-air recording of this.  This happiness was surely dashed once I actually watched the dreary mess.  If anything, this special was not a send off for the beloved show that was believed to be laid to rest forever, but a sad remembrance of the crappy state of the show’s production in the later 1980’s.  Doctor Who was to have its day in the sun once again, and come back stronger than ever…sadly it was not on this day!

Review: Doctor Who – A Christmas Carol

I kind of got sidetracked when I was trying to review the season 5 episodes of Doctor Who last year.  My plan was to get all of them up in a somewhat timely manner and bask in the glory of a job well done.  Sadly, I got busy doing random stuff related to work and other such nonsense that I ended up stopping at episode 4 if I’m not mistaken.  Since I’ve decided to try and blog once a day, I think I will attempt to re-watch all of the episodes and pick up where I left off shortly.  Although it’s slightly out of order, I thought I should start out by taking a look at the newest episode that aired, thankfully while it is fresh in my mind – A Christmas Carol.

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Ever since Doctor Who returned in 2005 the novelty of the Christmas episode has really helped keep the show’s momentum during those cold winters when mid-season replacements and re-runs rule the land.  It all started innocently enough with an episode called the Christmas Invasion, the episode that proved that all Christmas TV episodes are not made of the same cloth.  You see in the U.S. television shows rarely have Christmas “specials” and if they do, they usually exist as a cheesy clip episode hastily thrown together at the last minute.  Shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation have holiday themed episodes sometimes, but they aren’t really “special at all.  This is one reason I like the U.K. way of doing TV despite shorter seasons and shorter runs.  Now we sit five Christmas specials later and bear witness to Matt Smith in his Yuletide zaniness.

The episode opens with a glimpse into the ill fated honeymoon between Rory and Amy, the main companions of the last season of the show.  The Doctor has granted them passage on some sort of luxury cruise liner in space, only to have a huge mishap occur.  It appears that the ship traveled too close to a strange planet with an electromagnetic cloud encircling it.  The ship was drawn off course and towards catastrophe for the 4000 passengers and crew.

The only hope for this doomed ship is the man that controls the swirly vortex of lightning and clouds Kazran Sardick.  Michael Gambon of Harry Potter and Layer Cake fame paints of picture of a sad man with a hardened heart that has given up on humanity.  He could help the 4000 passengers in the ship, but he doesn’t care in the slightest.  In the grand tradition of the classic tale A Christmas Carol, it’s up to the Doctor to help him learn how to live again.  He decides to visit Kazran at an early age and see what caused him to be so morose.

Kazran’s father (also played by Gambon) apparently created a system to keep the planets native fauna at bay as they would snack on unsuspecting citizenry when the planet was first colonized.  This animal life is similar, if not blatantly the same as our marine fishes and sharks.  This planet basically has an atmosphere so thick that these creatures can swim through the thick, foggy air at ease.  As a boy Kazran wanted to study these fish, but was beguiled at beaten by his dad for having such outlandish ideas.  He was to take his father’s place as the planet’s head honcho of loan brokerage upon his father’s death, not meddle in marine biology.

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In these very earliest moments of the episode we definitely see Steven Moffat’s brush strokes as he likes to mess with time travel as much as he can.  The term “wibbly wobbly timey wimey….stuff” comes to mind as the Doctor is shown to be interacting with a young Kazran as the older Kazran watches on in both horror and amusement.  The Doctor soon stumbles upon a girl frozen in a container in a large cryogenic chamber (played by opera superstar Katherine Jenkins) that he had seen earlier on, and decides to let her out to see Christmas.  What ensues is a tale of love and heartache for Kazran and Abigail, and a reminder that The Doctor isn’t always able to make the right decisions or help everyone.  I’ve left the rest of the plot vague to curtail spoilers, and allow for folks that have not seen the episode to enjoy it.

On a storytelling front, the aforementioned “wibbly wobbly timey wimey….stuff” is well done, and firmly places some actual time travel back into a show that ironically hasn’t had much time travel rather than the initial landings since its inception almost fifty years ago.  I know some folks find Moffat’s use of this motif tiring as he has done similar things in not only The Girl in the Fireplace but Blink and season 5’s finale as well.  The plot was easy to understand, not to complex and above all else….fun.  That’s the one thing that I love about Moffat scripts is that not only do they make you think, but a childlike sense of wonder ensues.   Not to bash the previous show runner, but some Russel T.  Davies helmed episodes seemed too brooding and basically “emo” for my liking.  These current ones have a sense of fairytale to them, which is new to the show.

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Visually the episode was usually pretty great looking with the occasional computer generated effect looking less than amazing.  Keep in mind that I watched this on my mother’s standard definition TV on Christmas day, so viewed on my own rig could change my opinion.  On the musical side of things, both Murray Gold and Katherine Jenkins (who sings as one would assume) are on the ball and deliver a great soundtrack, especially for a TV show.  Anything is good with the eleventh Doctor’s theme in tow, one of the best pieces of music in the show since its return.  Really my only complaint about this episode was the fact that it seemed somehow padded a bit despite the large amount of plot going on.  Not that it dragged or anything, but parts of it seemed almost slow.

A Christmas Carol was not my favorite of these yearly Christmas specials (Voyage of the Damned still takes that honor) but it is probably my second favorite.  The great cast including Michael Gambon and Katherine Jenkins is top notch, as it the performances by the regular cast.  Matt Smith is growing to be one of my favorite Doctors ever, and his performance in this episode had to have been his strongest yet.  All in all, great Christmas TV, and I can’t wait for season six.

 

My rating 4.5 out of 5

 

Here is a season six trailer as a bonus!