Review 2013: The Doctor:
The Time of the Doctor.
TV Happy Boxing Day! Well there we are then, it’s all over for another year and all that's left to pick up the pieces and move on. If NORAD’s tracked Santa across the planet in the lead up to Christmas, Twitter’s been trailing the fan reaction to The Time of Doctor just as successfully as each country received its festive broadcast and its fair to say the reaction has been a bit mixed, and quite often within the same person. I know because that person is me. For a proportion of the story I was somewhat delighted but as the narrative span towards its inevitable conclusion, I began to detect my internal production monologue intoning, its sonorous voice disrupting my enjoyment of what was on screen until by the end, it distracted me to such a degree that as the credits rolled, I sighed and said “Goodbye Matt”, and then “Oh dear.”
My internal production monologue is a bit like the production subtitles on dvds, except instead of Martin Wiggins or someone offering facts about weather conditions on location, scheduling problems and why Pertwee looks a bit peaky in a given scene, it begins to question exactly why the present production team decided to do this or that. Samples from last night’s performance include: “What’s with all the Rose references? That’s the stand in Powell Estate. The severed head of an enemy plugged into the TARDIS as a navigational tool.” “Isn’t using a monologue over this a bit risky? Isn’t that having a distancing effect especially since we don’t recognise the voice?” “Monoid!” “Oh right, so the material in The Ultimate Guide was shot at the same time as this.” “The Rings of Akhaten music now?”
During Matt’s regeneration scene it was pretty much shouting: “Fish fingers and custard. Oh bless. So we’re going to be seeing visions of the Eleventh Doctor’s past. Bet Caitlin Blackwood’s back for it. Oh look there – no hold on that’s not Caitlin. Well obviously, because she’s probably a bit older now, so no that’s not the first face the Doctor saw with that face. But that little actress looks nothing like Caitlin, which is why they keep hiding her face. That’s distracting and even more so since we saw actual Caitlin in the flashback when the crack was revealed. Why didn’t that just use Caitlin? I mean she is a bit older now, but we probably would have accepted it. Was she busy? There could have been a line, something about getting older, “Everything looks older to me now” that sort of thing. Oh Karen’s back. Sob. I miss her…”
Which is pretty much where I was when Matt was giving his final speech, worrying about why Caitlin Blackwood had been replaced, which is probably why I was a little bit under-whelmed (and poor Caitlin's spent most of Boxing Day telling people why it wasn't her on Twitter). But in all honesty I was a little bit under-whelmed by the whole thing but in no way should this be seen a criticism of the writer Steven Moffat particularly, because as had also been pointed out on Twitter there’s been a lot of The Time of the Doctor being used to make pretty personal attacks on a writer who clearly loves Doctor Who to the point of “Monoid!” and that sort of thing and its his love of the show which led him to write The Time of the Doctor in which he decided as he always does to try something to new, to strive to produce the unexpected. Sometimes that leads to Blink. Sometimes that leads to this.
Quite often, too often for my own good, this internal production monologue begins muttering because I know I’m going to write one of these things afterwards, but that also means it’s a decent barometer of just how good a story is because it’s entirely silenced, just as it was during The Day of the Doctor (which I’m still not reviewing) when it only really piped as it tried to understand exactly what all the Gallifrey business was at the end. The inverse reaction to this Christmas episode on Twitter in comparison to the 50th anniversary special not to mention The Night of the Doctor has been the very definition of “how quickly they forget”. Though to be fair, I don’t think any of us would assume that the best regeneration episode of the year wouldn’t be the one for the Eleventh Doctor.
Anyway, after giving twelve or so hours for the rest of my brain think about it, here’s what I think my internal production monologue didn’t quite understand last night. One of the elements of Doctor Who, at least since The Rescue, is that for all the companion’s position as the audience’s point of view character, the Doctor has been the protagonist and that’s been true of nuWho and particularly true of the Smith era, and especially true of this year’s episodes as he went about unravelling the mystery of the impossible girl and The Time of the Doctor is arguably at its best right at the beginning when it’s about Doctor and Wilson, sorry, Handles, investigating the mystery of the planet, what you could call for want of a better description, the more traditional Who elements, the running around and talking quickly in the hopes that something presents itself.
Except, also right from the beginning, right from the moment Tasha Lem’s voiceover begins, we’re distanced from the action, at one remove because everything which we’ve absorbed about the grammar of film and television tells us that we’re watching events in the past tense, which have already happened, which pulls us right out of the now. This isn’t anything new of course, and Doomsday was supposed to tell the story of, as she tells us, when Rose died. Except because it’s Rose, we’re ok with it and accept it as a kind of trailer for future events, the flash page of a comic book adventure. But because this isn’t a voice we recognise and because it’s poetic and full of mythic portent, just like The Hungry Earth before it, we’re put in a frame of mind which says that we’re watching the then rather than the right now.
Such things are purposeful creative decisions, and Moffat perhaps had in mind to give his story some weight. But given that this is a regeneration story it already has weight because regeneration stories always do. But then Moffat adds an extra level of distancing by telling the story from Clara’s point of view, by making her the protagonist rather than the Doctor. Structurally the piece is quite similar to The Parting of the Ways, with Clara worried about a Doctor who’s deposited her back on Earth for safety while he fights his battles in the future. Except in that episode, the cross cutting between the two still kept the Doctor to the fore including the heart stopping moment when it because apparent that he’s lied to Rose about being able to save day when he really can’t, a beat which is also repeated here.
Except, crucially, when we do see the Doctor on Trenzalore, he still doesn’t have narrative agency because Tasha Lem’s describing events and everything happens in montage and we’re still seeing the then rather than the now and as he gets older, the aging, and the reaction to the aging slowly shifts to Clara to the point that when the Doctor finally goes from being big space Gandalf, to old, basement Bilbo Baggins, it’s revealed to us through Clara’s eyes. Perhaps Moffat has in mind to create a bookend to An Unearthly Child, to have a frail old Doctor being discovered through the companion’s point of view with the companion as properly the protagonist again after all these years, but as an audience we’re left trying to fill in the blanks of the Doctor’s new past when we should be paying attention to be present.
But, I suspect, our subliminal dissatisfaction runs even deeper than that. When Clara visits in the Doctor’s middle age, information that the Time Lord has already discovered, like who the Silents and Silence are, why his TARDIS exploded, essentially all of the mysteries of the past three years are simply described to him, her and us anticlimactically across a table, which is, quite frankly, in terms of narrative closure, awful. Moffat forgets at this crucial moment that as an audience, however corny it might be, we need the catharsis of the watching the Doctor’s reaction to these revelations however much they might feel like old news to the writer, who’s more interested in dropping in the shocks and surprises of the Dalek trap and giving the Doctor another opportunity to kiss one of his friends and it’s that dissatisfaction which is what I think killed the episode stone dead last night.
There is also the Lost syndrome, of having built a set of mysteries which couldn’t really satisfactorily be paid off and perhaps Moffat realised this and decided it was best to give them simple answers then move on. It’s a choice, I suppose. As is often the case in this era, I’ll be interested to see how this effects the rewatching of previous stories when these were just massive questions. Lost is pretty much unwatchable now for just this reason but I don’t think The Big Bang will be simply because there’s too much other fun stuff happening as well. Same with The God Complex, though I think I much preferred not knowing what was in the Doctor’s room rather now knowing that it’s one of the “cracks”. One of the best things about The End of Time is that we still don’t know who Claire Bloom was playing. Random mysteries are great.
Such a shame. Some of this is outside the writer’s control because of the absence of Amy Pond. Structurally, since this is the final degree of a three year arc which began in The Eleventh Hour, it should be Amy Pond and to some extent Rory who are here at this final end and the Clara material is Moffat dealing with similar issues that J Michael Straczynski had when cast members, notably Michael O'Hare and Claudia Christian upped and left Babylon 5, in having to transfer their participation in the storyline to another character. If Karen could somehow have been engaged to be in the episode for longer it might have worked, there’s then the problem of giving Clara something relevant to do that’s also fresh and new and mores to the point not unfair to Jenna Coleman.
Some would see it as a benefit, having this character who doesn’t understand the action that went before able to ask the relevant questions for all the people who apparently only watch the show on Christmas Day, which at this point doesn’t seem like nearly enough to warrant it that much. Plus I’ve heard reports of people having to spend the whole thing explaining it to their relatives anyway despite Clara’s narrative intervention. It's just that when she sees the fish custard it means nothing to her and although Jenna does her best with it, she’s unable to give quite the look of recognition it requires, because she's not Karen Gillan playing Amy Pond.
There were other niggles. Linked into the distancing effect is wondering about the extent to which Christmas is a real town. It’s clearly not supposed to be a magical, unchanging place like the Planet Albert in the Eighth Doctor novel Grimm Reality. The population has generations, aging around the Doctor. But it doesn’t develop, the Doctor’s benevolence and the threat of invasion apparently keeping it in cultural and socio-economic stasis but also oddly thriving because there are still people walking around at the end despite successive invasions. Though to be fair said invasions weren’t as spectacular as they might be, the dramatic dictators “idea” and “budget” forever staging coups against one another, though the wooden Cyberman is a brilliant idea. More of that please.
Anyway with all that in mind, it was a pretty dark comedown after an otherwise very good Christmas Day. Then I woke up this morning (dur-dur-dur-dur-dum) and watched it again first thing on the iPlayer and like the second spoonful of Alpen blueberry flavoured porridge in a pot which I had for breakfast (just add water), it was much more enjoyable second time around, now that I knew what to expect, all of its virtues in crystal clear HD with its crunch bits of dried apple (or as is the case with the iPlayer the annoying logo in the corner of something which was obviously recorded while it went out rather than uploaded directly from the broadcast master and for the life of me I don’t know why some programmes are off-air and some others aren’t) (perhaps it’s the powdered milk).
If Moffat still doesn’t quite seem to know how to deal with the post-arc Clara, he is at least going about the business of giving her such things as a family that doesn’t just exist in flashback and isn't about her being a nanny and there’s some interesting business here, as we’re introduced to another couple of generations of the Oswald family, and her relationship with her grandmother is especially fractious, since she seems to some extent have decided to fill in the gap left by her mother, offering boyfriend suggestions and the like. This could just be local colour though. Unlike Davies, Moffat isn’t much in the business of building up the parts of his companion’s family and it’s unlikely that we’ll see Capaldi’s Doctor’s contrasting approaches to domesticity as we saw in The Christmas Invasion.
Moffat and the design team also had in mind to show the contrast between a twenty-first century Christmas and the version that appears in the Bruegel paintings which sometimes appear on the classier cards blu-tacked to bookshelves and fireplaces of the modern household, Clara’s family meal in bright, albeit grey snowless daylight, the Doctor’s final years played out against endless, frosted darkness. Perhaps it should have swapped titles with The Night of the Doctor. There’s also something quite melancholy about how in The Christmas Invasion, dinner around the table is all celebration and giggles, whereas here its arguments and tears, the former full of life, this a synthetic experience, an almost ritualistic experience for all concerned. The reality is probably somewhere in between I fear.
Jenna's performance is remarkable too given the material. She's funny, smart and clockwork in her timing and able to somehow play the emotional rollercoaster of watching her friend grow old and die and subtly changing her chemistry with him over the course of a Christmas meal. It’s also important in the rush to dismiss how her scenes played out not to ignore just how fabulous Orla Brady is as Tasha Lem, even if like Clara her character’s relationship with the Doctor mainly makes her seem like she was created to deal with the absence of another character, in this case River Song. She’s not, having River in that position would have been weird, but she’s written as much the same character, especially in relation to how she amorously reactions to the Doctor, simultaneously wanting to love him and destroy him.
But of course this is Matthew’s final adventure and as has been so often the case in the darkest corners of the past few years he elevated the material and was, well, he was, doing his best with the only vaguely amusing nudity stuff, clearly loving the wig stuff (wasn’t the final scene with Karen essentially about two people acting with semi-bald heads?) before really storming through to the dismount and the metafictional loss of his bow tie. As even David Tennant’s admitted, Smith has been the show’s biggest asset over the past few years, perhaps even the reason it broke North America and like Tennant, you almost wish that they could simply continue making adventures for him even after he’s regenerated. There’s always just been something about his face, even when obscured by latex, in which you just know he’s the Doctor and it’ll all be fine.
As regeneration scene go this is a bit of a mix of the old and new. Like The Tenth Planet his regeneration comes about because his body is dying of old age, but it is also because of a selfless sacrifice, albeit one drawn out across centuries, defending Christmas even when he could simply jump into his TARDIS and go. Like the Fourth and Fifth Doctors, he is visited by echoes of his past, Amy the new Adric, I suppose. Like the Eighth Doctor it’s a regeneration which brings him into some new physical territory in this case a whole new regenerative cycle and like Ninth, his companion looked on dumbstruck, and like Tenth, like Captain Jack, she is entirely appreciative of the change that is to come. Like some of those, but unlike Tenth the second time around, he is absolutely content with finally going.
His final speech is sheer poetry, good enough to put in an upmarket Christmas cracker. Here it is in full. “It’s started. I can’t stop it now, this is just the reset. A whole new regeneration cycle. Taking a bit longer. Just breaking it in. It all just disappears doesn’t it, everything you are gone in a moment like breath on a mirror? Any moment now, he’s a comin’ … The Doctor …. And I always will be. But times change and so must I. Amelia! The first face this face saw. We all change when you think about it. We are all different people all through our lives and that’s ok, you gotta keep moving so long as you remember all the people that you used to be. I will not forget one line of this. Not one day. I swear. I will always remember when the Doctor was me.” Then his actual final line. “Hey.” Sob again.
Just as Twitter’s tracked the global viewing audience, it’s also been tracking people who’ve watched it again and like me, seen its virtues the second time around, how like so much of the Doctor Who we’ve disliked the first time around, we’ve watched again and loved. Like I always say, Who is still amazing even when it’s rubbish, and much of The Time of the Doctor is amazing. Of the future? We’ve barely begun with Capaldi but already I’m detecting a bit of Tom about him, especially in that shot when the TARDIS spins out of control and his hand seems to grasp towards us rather like this publicity shot from City of Death. He’s keeping his accent which is all to the good too. Doctor Who’s moving on, it’s regenerating and I for one can’t wait, whoever’s in charge, both on and off screen. Good night, raggedy man.
Updated 01/01/14! I've since written almost as much again about the regeneration and the mechanics thereof. Which you can read here.