Just under a month ago, the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor,” came out. I reviewed it, and in short found it fun with some minor and major flaws that are forgivable for fans of the series, which is an accurate summary of most of the show. Doctor Who is campy and occasionally serious; episodic, occasionally grand-scale; and fascinating, occasionally infuriating. The recent Christmas special, “The Time of the Doctor,” manages to hit all six of those aspects in its hour runtime, resulting in an episode that is par for the course. Still, there are some important moments to note in Matt Smith’s send off, which I will be doing with no particular care for SPOILER WARNINGS, so read at your own risk.
“The Time of the Doctor” (2013)
Plot: A message from an unknown planet emanates throughout the universe, attracting the Doctor (Matt Smith) and classic baddies of all sorts. His pseudo-companion—a detached Cyberman head named Handles, who oddly enough has a more unique characterization than Clara—identifies the message’s origin as the Doctor’s home planet of Gallifrey, which is impossible given that the Doctor locked it away in another universe in “The Day of the Doctor.” The Doctor and Clara go to the planet from which the Gallifrean signal comes, landing in a town called Christmas that has a truth field, meaning no one can lie. That plot device shows up approximately once. Following this discovery, a million things happen over the course of the next forty or so minutes.
Honestly, the rapidity of events caught me off guard. The Christmas specials, I thought, tended to be heartfelt stories with some overarching plot stuff, but a strong focus on a single tale. Instead, Steven Moffat (the show-runner and this episode’s writer) decides to check off every question and mystery leftover from the past three seasons. We learn who the Silence are, their prophecy, what’s up with Trenzalore, etc. All of it is haphazard but gets the job done, and allows Moffat to clean up those big mysteries he can’t seem to get enough of. For people that love that kind of thing, I’m sure they enjoyed the questions being answered.
I’ve personally gotten a bit tired of Moffat’s overly-dense shtick, but there were certainly non-plot heavy moments. The Daleks, Cybermen, and (sigh) Weeping Angels all make appearances. The first two were quick and funny, but the last one recalls one of my biggest complaints with the show: Doctor Who has a terrible tendency to reuse things it does well until they lose all their original power. The Weeping Angels in “Blink” are intriguing, effective, and a little bit creepy. At this point, they’re cheap, uninteresting stock-baddies that only show up to go, “Hey, remember these?!” The use of other creatures is relatively inoffensive, but not all that intriguing.
The only “bad guy” character that they get perfectly is Handles, a Cyberman that is of that race but well-written enough to make us care about him and his relationship to the Doctor. The one-on-ones have a livelihood and sense of fun despite not being part of a larger story-arc. In fact, the best parts of this episode are the smaller moments, the quick character interactions that are part of the story at large but not essential stepping stones of a bigger tale. The beginning, where Clara (Jenna Coleman) needs the Doctor to play boyfriend for a family dinner, is fantastic. The joy and fun that permeate these scenes represent Doctor Who at its most enjoyable. Even the later scenes where the Doctor has been hanging around the town of Christmas for a while are alternately funny and heartwarming, because the focus is in the story taking place immediately rather than plot issues that Moffat realizes he needs to resolve.
I’d be more forgiving of the resolutions if they weren’t so poorly interspersed and cheap. Moffat wants both the fun Doctor Who and his own masturbatory, dense plotting, but can’t go between the two smoothly. The writing jumps all over the place, making only half or so of the episode enjoyable rather than expository. The mysteries and answers—going back to my complaint about the tendency to cheaply bring back old successes—revolve around the laziest call-back to an old plot device I’ve seen in a while: the recurrence of the “cracks” in space and time. Also, the quick-fix to the Doctor being on his last regeneration? Well, they solve it, and they have an explanation and all, but it is so easy. The Doctor has been approaching the end of his life as he knows it, and we get approximately five minutes of the emotional pull here, and then the issue is fixed. Much like the genocide the Doctor commits being bow-tied in “The Day of the Doctor,” so to is the regeneration issue prettied up here.
The episode wasn’t bad by any means, but it was a mix of fun, great, and lazy. That’s a disappointing combination, so as much as I enjoyed watching it—and was able to forgive most of the problems as a casual fan of the show—I can’t help but critique it when attempting to think in any critical capacity. Doctor Who can be so much more, and has been on several occasions. I will watch these middle-of-the-pack episodes and take pleasure in doing so, but I will always hope that the show can hit the highs with consistency. It hasn’t yet, but I’m still going to hope, because that seems to be all a Doctor Who fan can do in the face of an ever-changing show that has the potential of all of time and space.