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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!