Doctor Who: The Time Of The Doctor review

Spoilers! Here are our thoughts on Matt Smith's big farewell episode of Doctor Who, The Time Of The Doctor...

This review contains spoilers.

The Time Of The Doctor

You got a big clue as to the ambition of The Time Of The Doctor by the sheer amount it crammed in even before the opening titles had played.

By then, the Doctor had already had a face off with both the Daleks and the Cybermen (separately), had a comedy conversation with Handles the Cyberman head (we liked him), been invited to Christmas dinner as Clara’s pretend-boyfriend, and told us about a strange message that needed working out. It was an exhausting, exciting start for what proved to be a dense Doctor Who Christmas special. And in truth, it had so much to cram into a 60 minute running time that it felt like it never stood a chance in that sense. Another 15 minutes would have helped enormously, just to buy the odd bit of breathing room.

As it stood, The Time Of The Doctor had lots of things in it to like, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that it was some way off the best Doctor Who Christmas special, and some way off the best Matt Smith episode of the show too. That said, there’s an argument that it was the best performance Smith had given in the role, but we’ll come to that in a bit.

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Doctor Who has dealt with regeneration at Christmas before, of course. Arguably the best Yuletide special remains The Christmas Invasion, which gave David Tennant an hour just to introduce us to him as the Tenth Doctor (or, arguably, the tenth and the eleventh). Tennant himself then had a couple of hours over Christmas with The End Of Time two-parter to wrap his adventures up and say a proper goodbye.

It makes it a bit disappointing then that Matt Smith didn’t get a little more, especially when The Time Of The Doctor was trying to fit Christmassy things in as well. Inevitably perhaps, the Christmas element got in the way if anything. Notwithstanding the fact that a large chunk of it took place in a town called Christmas (where Raquel from Only Fools And Horses lives, fact fans), Clara’s festive feast felt fleeting and – in more than one sense – undercooked. There wasn’t space to spend much time in the company of Clara’s family, and it’s hard to see what those segments really added here. As a festive episode, The Time Of The Doctor didn’t really work.

When it got down to other business though, it was more successful. After all, there was the spectre of Gallifrey back on the horizon, as Handles the Cybermen head deciphered the aforementioned message and declared its origin. And as the Doctor and a good selection of monsters sat waiting in their assorted craft above a planet they couldn’t get on to, it was left to Orla Brady’s Blade Runner-inspired Tasha Lem as the Mother Superior of the Papal Mainframe to get the Doctor, and Clara, to the surface of the planet.

The planet, we found out, was Trenzalore. And as it turned out, it was on the surface of Trenzalore, in that town of Christmas, that lots of questions about the Eleventh Doctor’s tenure were answered. In fact, they were answered in abudnance, at speed, and not always with much impact. We know why the TARDIS blew up now for instance, why the Silence first came for the Doctor, and a bit more about River Song.

And then there were the cracks in the wall. These have been explained before, of course, but now there’s an extra ingredient: we’re told that behind them are the Time Lords trying to return to the universe. Furthermore, the question hidden in plain sight is being asked by them: “Doctor Who?” So is it supposed to be that the crack on Amelia Pond’s bedroom wall from The Eleventh Hour was the Time Lords all along? And is it just us that wonders if that’s an explanation that’s been added later, rather than the idea from the start? Mind you, reinvention and revisiting past threads to throw differing lights on them is not uncommon to Doctor Who. Nor is the Time Lord’s inefficient ways of trying to get messages to people. Logic hasn’t always been their strength.

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Anyway, once these assorted explanations were in place, the narrative set up something of a stalemate. There was a slight dose of the Tom Baker story Destiny Of The Daleks to this. That’s the one where two sides find themselves tactically the equivalent of each other, and thus locked into a war neither has a chance of winning. The Time Of The Doctor also centred for a while on a long-running stalemate. However, this had more of a Mexican standoff about it.

After all, the Doctor’s found himself on the planet where we’re told he ultimately dies, albeit now with the Time Lords asking for help. They need him to say his name so they can come through the crack. But if he does that, as Tasha Lem warns, war will follow “and this world will burn” (her line about an “unscheduled faith change” was one of our favourites, incidentally, and we have concluded that Orla Brady is terrific). If he doesn’t ask for their help, he’ll eventually die. If he does, everyone will die. A nice, classic Doctor Who conundrum that.

As such, a lot of time passes. Tons of it. So much time, in fact, that if Matt Smith isn’t the longest-serving Doctor in screen time, in the narrative history of Who he certainly seems to be. This episode saw him waiting for centuries in the town of Christmas, holding an uneasy peace. He protects the place, and the occasional foe who breaks through – a wooden Cyberman being the best one – tends to be defeated, prompting a small party. 

The reason he’s waiting, though, is he’s going to die. He’s resigned to it, and after everything, he’s set to die of old age (a lovely irony, given the cavalcade of monsters in orbit desperate to kill him). And we’re back to Time Lord regeneration counts here. As it turned out, Tennant’s first aborted regeneration at the start of Journey’s End counted, so Smith’s Doctor brings the Time Lord up to the twelve regeneration limit. Don’t worry though: it turns out that a request from Clara and a special effect later, and a full regeneration cycle puts off the whole question again for another few decades.

It was always going to be so when facing the long-standing question of regeneration limits. Precedent for more regenerations being granted had been established before, and Steven Moffat led just about enough crumbs to the key moment to deal with the issue, without dwelling too much on it. Job done, whether you like the way it was done or not.

If you’re thinking that all of this was a lot to take in in a one hour Christmas special, we’re with you there. If last month’s wonderful The Day Of The Doctor was a broad, welcoming church for Doctor Who, that’s seen lots more new people becoming interested in the show, The Time Of The Doctor required at the least a good grade GCSE in modern Who to get the most out of. Some will, of course, have kept on top of it, but we’d imagine that The Time Of The Doctor left more than a few behind. Especially given that Christmas episodes tend to be amongst the most accessible, that was something of a surprise.

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Perhaps a bigger problem was that the middle of the episode felt a little flat though. Matt Smith found himself naked and bald (the latter courtesy of his turn in Ryan Gosling’s upcoming film, How To Catch A Monster) for parts of this episode, but for longer periods, he was under ageing make-up (when he got really aged, that was a lovely touch of Hartnell about his look). And as the Doctor aged, surrounded by drawings of some of his past adventures, the sparks went out a little. He was waiting for the end, time was passing, and things felt like they were repeating themselves just a little. The Time Of The Doctor was an instalment with an exciting start and a memorable ending. The middle section, whilst not without merit (the production design, once again, was strong), proved to be far less interesting in truth.

But if the episode itself had problems, there were two performances throughout that both soared. For Jenna Coleman’s work as Clara shouldn’t be understated here. Where the character goes moving forward will be fascinating to see. After all, the key mystery of Clara has been solved. Yet what we have instead is a companion of real strength, intelligence and determination, one willing to seize the initiative. Coleman’s proving herself to be a massive asset to Doctor Who, and the relationship between her and Capaldi’s Doctor promises a lot.

And then there’s Matt Smith. An awful lot was asked of him in The Time Of The Doctor, and an awful lot was given. Smith’s always been a gifted comedy actor, but he’s also added requisite weight as and when needed. He was simply wonderful here, arguably his best turn as the Doctor. Sombre and dark, yet funny and accessible, we’d wager hard cash that it’s not the last time we see him on screen in the TARDIS, but this was still a clear farewell. And how sad was it to see him go.

Interestingly, whereas Russell T Davies wringed everything he could out of the farewell to David Tennant in The End Of Time, Steven Moffat went a little the other way with Matt Smith. In fact, we didn’t even get the now-traditional one-face-changing-into-another prolonged moment of transformation. It was hardly blink and he’s gone, but it was an efficient passing over of the TARDIS key rather than a spectacular one. Some may prefer that of course, and there was no shortage of sadness as Smith built up to his goodbye. It just felt a little bit like he walked out of the door and didn’t turn around for one last wave. That said, the Amy Pond “raggedly man” goodbye was a lovely touch, and a real surprise.

Doctor Who goes on, of course, and this time in the guise of Peter Capaldi. We saw nothing in the few seconds we got of him here to dampen our enthusiasm for his casting. He’s not disguising his Scottish accent much, we learned that much. He has kidneys too, we learned that. Oh, and he can’t fly the TARDIS. That should be fun. It’s a shame we’ve got another eight or nine months to wait until we see more of him, but the thought of getting a full, uninterrupted series run with Capaldi’s Doctor is a very, very welcome one.

The Time Of The Doctor, then, brought the curtain down on what has to be classed as a successful 50th anniversary year for Doctor Who, that’s had its bumps, but also given us some absolute treats. The Time Of The Doctor in itself is unlikely to go down as one of the Who highlights of 2013 in truth. We quite enjoyed it, but it still felt underwhelming. Still, Smith’s performance as the Doctor is undoubtedly one of the year’s highlights, and it’s very clear that the show is going to miss him a lot. What’s also clear is that there are further exciting times ahead.

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One last thought to consider, too: the Doctor didn’t die at Trenzalore here. So: is it still where he dies, ultimately? Or has The Name Of The Doctor been rendered a little moot? Even in the midst of questions been answered, there are still threads for future Who. And that’s just how it should be.

A decent, bumpy Christmas special then, with some strong moments, not least the departing Matt Smith. But it’s over to you now Mr Capaldi. It’d be fair to say that we’ve very much on your side…

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