An Opinion Divided: The Time of the Doctor
Guest contributor Christopher Goring gives an alternate view on Smith’s final episode.
The Time of the Doctor was going to be badass. Eleven’s last stand. Matt Smith’s Doctor goes down in a blaze of glory against a carnival of monsters at the place of his death: the dreaded, mystical Trenzalore.
It’s a shame, then, that Moffat opted to go in an entirely direction. The synopsis offered by the BBC’s extensive marketing suggested an action-packed, explosive episode as Eleven fought every monster imaginable. Instead, we got something of a slower episode which still manages to buckle under the weight of the extensive baggage established by Doctor Who‘s long-running plot arc.
As Jenna Coleman’s Clara struggles to prepare for a family Christmas dinner, Matt Smith’s Doctor has been lured to Trenzalore by a cryptic message alongside a menagerie of other creatures. Soon, he is thrust onto the surface of the planet where he discovers that the Cracks in Time from Series 5 have returned. The Time Lords – locked in an alternate universe after the events of The Day of the Doctor - are sending out a truth field in an attempt to force the Doctor to reveal his name. They believe that this will confirm that they have found a safe place to return from exile back into the Universe they left.
However, the Daleks – still embittered after their conflict with the Time Lords during the Time War – will do anything to prevent their rivals from returning. Knowing that the populace of Trenzalore will be massacred the instant that he releases Gallifrey, the Doctor is forced into a stalemate: if he says his name, the Daleks will desolate Trenzalore; if the Daleks desolate Trenzalore, the Doctor will release the Time Lords and the Time War will begin anew.
As the premise suggests, this episode has a lot of ongoing narrative threads to deal with in a short sixty minute period. Aside from establishing all of the pieces in the stalemate, the story has to explain the origins of the Church of the Silence and create a convincing genesis for the Doctor’s regeneration. It’s hardly a surprise that the episode fails to adequately deal with the egregious pressure under which it is placed.
One thing that can be appreciated is the episode’s efficient and effective answers to plot arcs: throughout the episode, we discover that the Church of the Silence wished to prevent the Doctor from revealing his name in order to halt the development of another Time War, that the Kovarian Chapter broke off and that they were the perpetrators of the destruction of the TARDIS in 2010’s The Pandorica Opens/ The Big Bang. It is somewhat disappointing that the answers don’t shift any paradigms or offer any shocking revelations: they are simply the answers that we always expected, belatedly provided in order to ensure the cogency of the narrative arc. Nevertheless, in the context of cogency, Moffat’s reveals are successful, proving once-and-for-all that Eleven’s unrelenting journey towards Trenzalore has been one, cohesive story.
In terms of the wider arc of the show, it is impressive that Moffat has managed to weave the aftermath of The Day of the Doctor into Smith’s final episode. At the time of the 50th Anniversary Special, its story about the survival of Gallifrey had seemed unexpected, given that the story of the Time War had only been mentioned in passing since The End of Time. However, with one masterful strike, Moffat has tied everything that has happened since 2005 into one story, building towards a single, unified climax.
It’s such a shame that the climax is an absolute mess. There are so many great moments in this story, so many segments which – when viewed in isolation – will elicit squeals of excitement. The naked Doctor, Handles the Cyberhead, the Church of the Papal Mainframe, the Confessional Priests, the wooden Cyberman, the clock tower regeneration and that final, heartbreaking scene are all beautiful moments. But, as a whole, the story isn’t satisfying because it’s less of a narrative and more of an assortment of dissonant, unrelated moments, stitched together in a desperate attempt to impress the audience.
Take, for instance, the emergence of the Weeping Angels: that scene is exhilarating and both Smith and Coleman give convincing performances as the quantum-locked abominations close in upon them. It does not, however, have any place in this story. It has no pay-off, no build-up, no purpose in the context of the wider narrative. One would be remiss if they did not ask: why on earth is it here?
This problem occurs so many times within the episode. The Cybermen and the Sontarans feature in the story for no discernible reason, consuming valuable time which could have been dedicated to the Silence or the Daleks who are, y’know, the story’s main villain. The attack upon the Papal Mainframe and Tasha Lem’s (played by Orla Brady) conversion into a Dalek puppet seemed to exist merely to give another opportunity to spout dreary exposition. The Doctor’s baldness and nakedness seemed to have been written in not for thematically significant reasons but for the sake of a few cheap jokes.
The episode would have been massively improved by streamlining. Cut out the superfluous villains, and focus the story on the stalemate between the Doctor and the Daleks with the Silence acting as mediators. Remove the redundant sections of Clara being sent back to Earth and make the story slicker with greater momentum. Only with such alterations could the episode have been impactful as it wished to be.
In spite of its flab and its tendency to complicate relatively simple matters, The Time of the Doctor is redeemed by a triumviate of factors: Matt Smith’s wonderful performance, the development of Clara and its emotionally affecting final ten minutes.
Clara has always been something of a conundrum. As the primary mystery of Series 7B, the writing has deliberately kept us from learning too much about her or her origins. However, with the Impossible Girl story arc concluded by The Name of the Doctor, Moffat has been free to begin expanding upon her disappointingly few traits. Seeing her family offers some insight into the world she inhabits, while her unflinching loyalty reveals her ability to move beyond personal pain. We see that she’s kind, that she’s smart and that – more than anything else – she cares about the Doctor and those around her. Agreed, these are hardly the most complex or interesting of traits, but it is groundwork for further exploration now that Matt Smith’s regeneration is no longer looming upon the horizon.
And Matt Smith was phenomenal. Every moment he was on screen was gold, more so than any of his prior performances as the Doctor. His work transcended the flaws of the material, making the jokes about nudity comical instead of lurid. His childishness at the story’s beginning is wonderfully juxtaposed with his rapturous fury at Handles’ reference to Gallifrey. He shows off his entire, magnificent range, proving that he is capable of being the funniest and scariest of Doctors. Once the story settles into its groove in its second Act, his performance is convincing: he feels wiser, just as powerful as he has always been yet resigned to the inevitability of his own death. Atop the clock tower, as he ruminates upon the sunset and the departure of his dear cybernetic companion, Matt Smith seems aged and weary. This is the end of him, and every facet of his performance assures you of it.
It’s brilliant that the final ten minutes fly in the face of the sense of impending doom and show the Doctor’s joy at getting another chance at life. Despite the prosthetics, Smith’s wild, physically-demanding performance conveys a youthfulness that he has never failed to bestow upon the part. As he swings his arms, gives a joyous speech on how nobody should tell him “the rules” and obliterates the Daleks above him, a sense of hope about the future reaches to the audience; if the Doctor is happy about change, then how can the audience be sad?
And that’s the best trait of the episode’s concluding scene. Despite the Doctor’s insistence that he will not forget “one line of this” and his ruminations on all that he has done in this body, there is a tangible sense of hope. He notes that we are “different people, all throughout” our lives and that “you gotta keep changing”: this regeneration, this renewal is a part of life that happens to everyone. This idea helps the final scene transcend the episode within which it exists, offering a reflection the glorious years of a brilliant Doctor while establishing a future which is not a devoid of virtue. Once the dust has settled on the botched attempts at grandiose, one must hope that The Time of the Doctor‘s astounding final moments will be its true legacy.