I nagged and nagged and nagged to get an invitation to the press screening of this episode – the only way I was going to be able to watch it in time to write the DWM review. I felt fraught. If I didn’t bag this one, I would fail at the very final instalment to cover all of Matt’s tenure for the magazine. Apologies, then, to the various limbs of the BBC I harassed. Got there in the end, though.
And, yes, indulgently, I did put in a little callback to my review of The Eleventh Hour…
From DWM #469.
Once upon a time, a long, long time ago – longer ago even than that – a man in a box fell into a garden and helped a little girl scare away the monsters. But that wasn’t The End. That was how the story began.
A long, long time later – or three years, eight months, and 22 days if you’re measuring it the boring way – the man arrived in a magical town called Christmas. It was here he stayed for the rest of his life, growing very, very old. Older than he’d ever been. That was because he knew, should he ever leave, the monsters would come and everyone would be very sad. But in the end? In the end it was too much for the old man…
So concluded this Doctor’s fairy tale, which bookended his debut, The Eleventh Hour, and neatly and satisfyingly encapsulated all of his adventures in between. The Time of the Doctor displayed a kind of restraint and class that perfectly suited Matt Smith’s own take on the title role. When his predecessor, the one who “regenerated and kept the same face”, quit the show, his finale had seen him take a ponderous and, for this viewer, slightly nauseating final lap of honour to wave at all his old pals. Get on with it! Get on with the regeneration!
This Christmas, however, there was only a discarded bowtie, fish fingers and custard, a glimpse of Amelia and that moving and surprising vision of Amy Pond – this incarnation’s definitive Girl Saturday – as overt tribute to the good times we’d shared. All were touched upon lightly and then, with a flick of his head, he was gone.
In actual fact, this finale was no less laden with sentiment and celebration than those final minutes of The End of Time. However, Steven Moffat’s script agreeably spread most of the beats out across the episode. It was a tale that invoked all the best bits of this Doctor’s reign, from Weeping Angels (buried in the snow; brilliantly elegiac imagery) to the Silence (did you spot them lurking in the frescos in Tasha Lem’s boudoir?) to the Crack in Time (we’ll give it capital letters, it deserves it). Forget the overdue explanation for the TARDIS blowing up, it was the resolution of what the Time Lord saw in Room 11 during The God Complex that thrilled me most.
But, ah, the Crack in Time, which, we now realise, has been the jagged motif running through the whole of Matt Smith’s tenure. As Mr Moffat reveals elsewhere in this month’s DWM, from the very beginning he knew that the first perils inflicted upon his new Doctor would be collateral damage from the final battle. That notion indicates a kind of ‘box set’ thinking, a view of Doctor Who as a cogent, connected and continuing narrative, rather than the discrete series of one-off adventures the show used to bring us back in the day. As such, it adds another layer to this curtain call, a special sense of finality. We really are packing everything up about Matt Smith’s time, and putting it all away forever. Silence has indeed fallen, and so has the Eleventh. We don’t need to worry about this stuff anymore.
Although… who was the woman in the shop who gave Clara the phone number for the TARDIS back in The Bells of St John? Don’t think we’re there yet.
It also taps into the running theme of fate, something many of Moffat’s tent pole stories have addressed. We’ve come to learn, under his aegis, that history can be rewritten. But what of the future? In this adventure, the Doctor talks of “the destiny trap” and that “you can’t change history when you’re part of it.” However, by the end, it does appear he has succeeded in doing just that. True, Trenzalore still ends up a blasted ruin, but by closing off the threat presented by the Time Lords, and then leaving in his blue box, it seems as if he has subverted his own death and stopped the TARDIS from turning into an oversized war memorial.
The panache that’s been employed each time our hero cheats his way out of some kind of seemingly preordained outcome has always offset any sour grapes we might feel about being duped. But maybe, in the final tidying up operation accompanying this incarnation’s exit, we should also now dispense with the tease of ultimately empty prophecies.
One final thought about the Crack in Time, which we last see as a Cheshire Cat smile hanging in the sky, is that it’s been a suitably fantastical hook upon which to hang the last three and a bit years of TV. “I really do think of Doctor Who as a fairy tale.” That’s what Moffat said in 2010, the incoming show-runner briefing the press on his vision for the series. “And I don’t mean like a fairy tale; actually a fairy tale.” The aesthetic inevitably became more diffuse over time. Or perhaps covert, because isn’t the recent notion of the Doctor’s forbidden name really just a rejig of the legend of Rumpelstiltskin? Nonetheless, those more whimsical elements were overtly pushed to the fore in this finale, set in a town that felt like the fanciful twin to Leadworth from way back when, and with much of the Doctor’s story relayed to us in the past tense, either as a fable or through children’s drawings.
Weirdly, then, at the same time there were also glimpses of a more rooted take on Doctor Who than we’ve seen in recent times. Clara’s new home is a tower block which brings to mind the Powell Estate, and the story was peppered with contemporary pop cultural references such as the Strictly Christmas special and that plug for iPlayer. But – just glimpses.
So much about The Time of the Doctor is deftly judged. The throwaway bit of stuff with the Seal of the High Council, nicked from the Master during The Five Doctors, is pleasingly blasé and I very much liked the (non) representation of the Time Lords themselves – they’re much scarier as a legend kept off-stage. A big bad wolf somewhere out there in the dark. But I’ll admit, I was a little uncertain of the shape of the story. Somehow it felt as if it had more breadth than depth, a narrative spilling out along the horizon rather than propelling us over it. I’m not sure this is a criticism per se, more that it didn’t quite conform with my expectations, and I initially found it difficult to understand the territory. Maybe that sounds silly, because Moffat’s most deployed tactic is surprise, a pull-back-and-reveal whence we realise we’ve been looking at something in exactly the wrong way. The pre-titles conform to that. They wilfully baffle, from the mysterious planet beaming out its mysterious message, to the Doctor already armpit deep in some sort of caper involving the Daleks and a friendly Cyberman head. Handles, by the way, must return. Interspersed with this we have Clara’s Christmas dinner crisis and maybe one of the most limp throws ever into the theme tune. Expectations are… are what? There’s no real indication of where this is taking us. But actually, switch off the bit of your brain that’s trying to jump ahead – because you’re only going to end up in all the wrong places – and let this thing go where it goes. Even if the route isn’t always clear, there’s a rare chance to spend some real quality time with the Doctor.
With almost every scene featuring Matt Smith, this last hurrah allows him to give us everything that’s characterised his version of the character. I loved his continuing revulsion to booze, ungallantly spitting out whatever that sophisticated concoction was Tasha Lem offered him. He was also able to assert – as he did back in the beginning – “this planet is protected”. And get in a spot of ill-judged air-kissing, some hopeless flirting (“Hello handsome” to Clara’s gran) and a rather more successful attempt at seduction with the aforementioned Tasha, the most recent pro forma Moffat-curated sexually available alpha female.
In addition, one suspects the writer purposely armed his leading man with new dimensions to explore, as a kind of parting gift. The idea of aging the Doctor, and not through some nefarious jiggery-pokery but just by the passing of time, is bold and exciting. Timescales are vague but there’s every chance this incarnation has lived longer than his previous selves combined. It’s fascinating to see the Time Lord at the other end of his journey, and to realise that when it comes down to it, it’s simply old age, and not the Daleks, that does for him. Here is a Doctor who, contrary to his last regeneration, accepts the dying of the light rather than raging against it. He’s also a man who, despite his vow to “step back into the shadows” in The Wedding of River Song, is living up to the legend once again. He’s grandstanding and louder and prouder than he’s ever been, meaning the smart-arse question of yore, “Why don’t they just shoot him?” gets its answer – because ‘they’ are terrified there’s something more.
More pertinently, the aging gives Smith something different to do. His bandy-legged, E-numbered-up Doctor becomes slower and somehow squatter. Dabbing a walking stick in front of him, the profound transformation in the character’s very physicality is testament to the impressive versatility of this actor; perhaps the most gifted to take on the role since Patrick Troughton. Alas, though, it remains a truism that no prosthetics or CGI yet concocted can convincingly make someone look elderly. It means a lot of Smith’s very finest work is delivered underneath a Davros-like death mask. Thankfully, he has the chops to sell it, but it’s a relief when the Doctor “resets” to form before the final curtain. Don’t know about you, but I slightly disengage whenever our hero is transformed in such a fashion (it’s facile of me, I accept, but it’s the same reason I couldn’t invest in the Tweety Pie Doctor’s fate in Last of the Time Lords – he’s no longer the character I know), but worse still, imagine how aggravating it would be to have to live with a regeneration wherein our Doctor no longer looked like our Doctor at the big to-do. A note of explanation would need to be appended to every future clip-compilation. These things matter.
So in a similarly superficial vein, congratulations also to Smith’s stunt hair, a very fine wig that ensured continuity of coiffure and presented Moffat with the opportunity to write in a very silly and thus very enjoyable gag about where the Time Lord stashes his spare key. To think, if the Third Doctor had got up to such thatch-based nonsense, he could have concealed Bessie in there, such was the beneficence of his season 11 barnet.
Enough fooling around. And enough for now on Matt Smith’s superlative performance – arrangements have been made for more of my simpering elsewhere (see box). Instead, it’s worth noting another extraordinary turn in this adventure. Jenna Coleman has had a tricky brief as Clara, the impossible girl. Until the end of the last series’, she was never a character we could truly know. But now she’s starting to feel real – with an actual home and hints of an actual family. More than that, she’s called upon to carry the emotional burden of this story. The Doctor being the Doctor, he can never really express the sorrow underpinning his situation. He’s all stoicism and silliness. So it comes to Coleman to do that for him… and for us. She sets the tone perfectly. This isn’t mawkish melodrama (although, in the very best sense it is entirely that), it’s contained and refined, a kind of enclosed grief – the type one expresses while simultaneously trying to be brave for another person’s benefit. The end of a Doctor’s life is so huge for the programme, it doesn’t need more than that. Yes, it’s going to be exciting when Peter Capaldi really gets going, but on the strength of this, I think there’s a lot more to come from Coleman too, and – if their initial encounter is representative of anything – perhaps a Clara who’s more often on the back foot.
Here and now, her relationship with her Doctor reaches a point where it feels satisfactorily played out. Compelled by the truth-field, she blurts out she’s travelling with “a man from space” whom “I really fancy”, and spoken aloud, it seems to neuter that impulse. The fact she finds a route back – twice – when he attempts to return her to safety on Earth (something that echoes Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor putting Rose out of harm’s way in his 2005 swansong, The Parting of the Ways) highlights the depth of their friendship. At the end, it never comes close to feeling like there’s going to be some stumbled confession of love, or even a clunkily conspired snog. After all the flirting and coquettish kisses, it just comes down to the agreeable fact this is the Doctor and his companion, and they genuinely like each other.
So to the regeneration, which is cleverly presaged by Murray Gold’s wonderful electronica score reprising a key theme from the dying moments of The End of Time. Since returning to TV, Doctor Who has played merry hell with what was once a simple roll-back-and-mix. The Doctor must now die on his feet, rooted to the spot in the TARDIS. With maximum foreshadowing and a massive fireworks show. Weirdly, then, although Moffat ups the stakes still further with an 11th hour (forgive me) revelation that the Time Lord has bashed through his entire allocation of lives and “can’t ever do it again”, that extra element of jeopardy never really comes into focus. True, it’s probably the reason this Doctor ends up living out a longer life than all of the others, but there’s never a tangible feeling that this is really it. That’s not to say I have a problem with how the issue is resolved. His fellow Gallifreyans blowing fairy dust at him? It sounds crazy, but the imagery is beautiful and thematically it makes sense. It’s more that this feels like a question that didn’t need to be asked right now, and is then answered with an undramatic alacrity.
When the now familiar Ready Brek corona does arrive, it’s used as something the Doctor can implement to zap Daleks spaceships out of the sky. A big old light show, and then fade to black.
This is a splendid, but worrying tease. For a moment it feels as if we might have missed the switchover, and when Clara ventures into the TARDIS the expectation is the camera is panning up to show us a new man. But, no, thankfully, Doctors aren’t dispatched quite so quickly anymore. There’s still time for a proper goodbye, and Matt’s final speech is beautiful. It’s sad, yes, but it’s more about hope. “We all change, if you think about it,” he says. “We’re all different people all our lives. And that’s okay, that’s good – gotta keep moving. So long as we remember all the people we used to be.” There’s nothing maudlin here, just a gentle but pragmatic weighing up of the obtuse kind of life and death the Doctor experiences. It works as reassurance for Clara but mainly for us at home on Christmas Day (a sarky Linda at the Oswald dinner table: “Oh that’s nice, crying at Christmas”). A regeneration story is one that prompts a myriad of conflicted emotions. In some ways it’s the real meat, as rich as Doctor Who gets. It’s the moment when the doors are flung open and every and any possibility is present. Except one. This Doctor is about to become the old Doctor and – anniversary shindigs aside – we’ll never see him again.
When the change comes, it’s swift and merciless. A flick of Matt Smith’s head, and now it’s Peter Capaldi griping about his kidneys, being the most boggle-eyed Doctor since the last boggle-eyed Doctor, surveying Clara as if he’s come upon some weird new alien species and asking the brilliant question, “Do you happen to know how to fly this thing?” It was strange. I didn’t feel the traditional, vestigial prickle of resistance to the new guy. He’s going to be great.
Maybe, just maybe, even Matt Smith-great. Because Matt’s been the best of all Doctors. “I will always remember when the Doctor was me,” is the last thing he says in the role. We’ll always remember too. Once upon a time there was a man in a box who took us on lots of crazy adventures, from Leadworth to Trenzalore. We saw weird new things together, observed from unexpected new heights. That part of the story is now over, but a new chapter begins.
Many, many more will follow but in no small part thanks to Matt, it’s safe to say that wherever the Doctor’s tale takes us next, there are two words that will never, ever be a part of it…