New year, new Doctor. Another Doctor and his era gone “like breath on a mirror.” The Eleventh Doctor’s final episode, “The Time of the Doctor,” was a lot of things. A regeneration story, yes, but more than that: The resolution of Eleven’s life and almost every Steven Moffat plot point to date. With the close of Doctor Who‘s 50th Anniversary year and the establishment that Matt Smith’s Doctor was indeed the thirteenth and final incarnation, this episode also serves as the culmination of the entire long story thus far. All told, that is a lot of weight for one episode of television to carry. The enormity of what this episode seeks (and at times fails) to achieve must underlie any interpretation of it.
Try as it might, not everything here works. For all his considerable genius, a comparison of the Eleventh Doctor’s first and last stories (“The Eleventh Hour” and “The Time of the Doctor”) and even the first and last episodes of a given season ( such as “The Impossible Astronaut” and “The Wedding of River Song”) demonstrates that as a writer Steven Moffat is much better at set-ups than resolutions. To be fair, this is not uncommon in the kind of puzzle-box storytelling which Moffat prefers. The writers of LOST, for example, frequently ran into the same difficulty: The better and more intriguing the mystery, the more difficult it is to pull off a satisfying finish. This is much easier to control within a single episode rather than an entire (and especially multiple) seasons, which is why Steven Moffat’s self-contained episodes written under Russell T. Davies were so excellent and is one of the things which holds Moffat back as a show-runner (contrasted to Davies whose strengths lied in his show-running abilities).
None of this is to say that Moffat is a bad show-runner (nor that Davies is a bad writer for that matter), just that it turns out that nobody is perfect, not even the writer of “Blink.” No era of Doctor Who is without critics: Where once people used to beg for Moffat to replace Davies there now exists a robust “Bring Back Davies” campaign. A lot of this is hyperbole and vitriol: Neither the anti-Moffat nor anti-Davies camps have it right. Personally, I prefer positive criticism to negative, meaning not that I deny faults but that I don’t generally think focusing on them is that interesting. For this reason, let’s get the problems with “The Time of the Doctor” out of the way before we continue on to what works and what the episode actually means.
I’m not actually sure how much there is to say about this episode’s problems other than that it tries to do too much: Trying to explain the nature of the cracks in time, the origins of the Kovarian Chapter and the Silence, the reason behind the TARDIS’ explosion, the issue of the Doctor’s limited regenerations, the nature of “The First Question,” and the first hints of the returning Time Lords. And the episode doesn’t pace itself given all the ground it has to cover: It spends far too much time on a not very funny joke about hologramed clothing but disposes of the revelation of the TARDIS’ explosion with a single line of dialogue. Sections of exposition detailing the Doctor’s three hundred plus years on Trenzalore are deployed via clunky voice over narration when it would have been much more effective to limit the audience’s perspective to Clara’s experience, leaving and returning with her and finding that whole centuries have passed in a matter of minutes. While I love that Moffat is so interested in the effects of time travel, these cavalier jumps in time have been a recurring problem from the bizarre three month gap separating “The Impossible Astronaut” from “Day of the Moon” to the fact that Clara apparently only travels with the Doctor on Wednesdays. In an attempt to be epic, the net result is often to distance the audience from the characters.
There is another issue which is bigger than any individual episode: The readiness with which Moffat rewrites history. He has done this in most of his big episodes (“The Big Bang,” “The Wedding of River Song,” “The Day of the Doctor”) and several of the minor ones in his tenure (“The Girl Who Waited” and “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS”). While I don’t object to any of them individually, the cumulative effect suggests a lack of consequence that, again, makes it difficult to invest emotionally in the story. “The Time of the Doctor” continues this tradition, and even more annoyingly directly contradicts two of Moffat’s most important stories: “The Name of the Doctor” (Clara here basically undermines her own origin as the Impossible Girl) and “The Impossible Astronaut” (in which the Doctor starts to regenerate, suggesting possible future incarnations). In general I’m sympathetic to the view that there is no such thing as canon in Doctor Who, but that does not mean that the audience won’t be bothered if you establish a major story point and undo it a mere two episodes later. I’m willing to use my imagination to make my own internal canon and write off paradoxes as “wibbly wobbly, timey wimey” but I’m ready for a good, old fashioned episode in which time can’t be rewritten. Strangely enough, Moffat used to be the king of such episodes: “The Girl in the Fireplace,” “Blink,” and “Silence in the Library” all explore idea that one cannot change history without dire consequences. River Song herself begs the Doctor not to save her life in the Library lest it undo their entire personal history: “Not those times, not one line, don’t you dare.” In theory I don’t think it’s wrong for the Doctor to occasionally change history (“The Girl Who Waited” and “The Day of the Doctor” in particular were brilliant uses of this device) but when used more than sparingly this tactic can start to seem like a get out of jail free card, and Moffat deserves a better reputation than that.
Now that I’ve seemingly argued for why all the Moffat-haters have got it right, time to look at where they’re getting it wrong. Steven Moffat has always been an ideas-driven writer, and boy does he have a lot of stunning ideas. It makes a kind of beautiful sense that the Eleventh Doctor (the final incarnation) would start his life by encountering a crack in space/time through which (as we learn in his final adventure) his people are trying to return after he (on the 5oth anniversary of his travelling adventures) saved them. And, in thanks, they become the means of his salvation. What beautiful circularity. This is paradoxical in the best sense. What’s even cooler is that the first appearance of the crack immediately follows the first reappearance of the Time Lords and their first (failed) attempt at a return in the new show: “The End of Time.” I rather doubt Moffat knew this when he created the crack in 2009, but what a beautiful, seamless bit of storytelling logic.
As much as I wish the exposition of this episode had been handled more artfully, I think that the idea of taking the story hundreds of years into the future to find the Doctor dying of old age (“If you want something done right, do it yourself”) is fascinating, helped immensely by Matt Smith’s incredible ability to convincingly portray old age. Having spent his tenure playing an old man trapped in a young man’s body, we now get to see the youthful spirit of the Doctor peering out of an aged and weathered face. The image of the ancient Doctor sitting in a rocking chair carving toys, with the crack in the wall instead of a fireplace, stands among the great iconic images of Doctor Who alongside little Amelia Pond sitting on her suitcase or Rose standing on the beach. As in Narnia, hundreds of years between each of Clara’s visits, and the sudden leaps forward are quite poignant. In a matter of minutes we travel from the energetic and youthful Smith to a Doctor who needs Clara’s help to pull open a Christmas cracker. “Were you always this young?” he asks Clara. “Nah,” she replies, “that was you.” The moment when the Doctor mistakes a young man for his child friend Barnable (no doubt long since gone, given that hundreds of years have passed) evokes the end of Watership Down in which the aged and dying hero Hazel is unable to remember the names of the boisterous young rabbits around him, or whether the adventures they recount “were about himself or about some other […] hero in days gone by.”
In fact, the best moments of the episode are those in which Smith and co-star Jenna Coleman are allowed to put the bluster of the siege of Trenzalore aside and have quiet moments together. Jenna Coleman’s Clara has certainly grown these last few episodes (particular in the Name/Day/Time trilogy) and she has blossomed into a lovely, sensitive companion, interestingly contrary to Moffat’s own assertions that Clara’s defining quality is her aloofness. No matter how different the companions (and they are often quite different from each other), there is one constant: For us to love them, they must love the Doctor. None of this “see you next Wednesday” nonsense. “Give me those big sad eyes,” she tells him with absolute conviction, “and tell me you will never send me away ever again.” She simply must say this for it to mean something when he breaks his promise and does send her away. Luckily she does, and it does.
Aside from the many mysteries which were addressed, most importantly this episode stands as the regeneration of the Eleventh Doctor. Moffat is always great for inserting bits of made up poetry and children’s rhymes, and I absolutely love the “Extract from ‘Thoughts on a Clock’ by Eric Ritchie Jr.” which Clara reads from the cracker: “And now it’s time for one last bow / like all your other selves. / Eleven’s hour is over now / the clock is striking twelve’s.” The face and workings of clocks have always been hugely important in the symbolism of the new Doctor Who from the circular Gallifreyan writing to John Smith’s fob watch. It feels right that Eleven should represent the final phase of life.
Of course, this is not the end of the story. “Everything ends,” the Doctor tells Clara, invoking perhaps the oldest theme in New Who: “Everything has its time and everything dies” the Doctor tells Rose in episode 2. “Except you,” Clara counters, speaking on both a fictional and a meta-fictional level. The Doctor, as we’ve been reminded often, doesn’t die, he changes. Just like his show. Moffat is simply restating in narrative something he’s stated repeatedly in life: That “Doctor Who is the show you can’t kill“:
We could all drop dead tomorrow, all of us who work in Doctor Who, and they’d just carry on making it. It is dependent on no individual. You give it your all for the years that you do it and when you leave it won’t even notice—you’ll be shed like scales!
Or, perhaps more precisely, it doesn’t stay dead. It was in fact killed in 1989 but survived in various spin-off media (novels, audio plays, etc.) until its eventual regeneration in 2005. Whether it was Moffat or not, someday some writer was going to have to account for the infamous 13 regeneration limit established in the 1970’s. Moffat’s solution makes as much sense as any and in fact uses a plot point from the classic show: That the Time Lords can, to some degree, control and bestow regenerations. Given the eucatastrophic salvation of the Time Lords in “The Day of the Doctor,” it once again seems as though Moffat couldn’t have planned it better than to have the Doctor save them just in time for them to save him. Though of course the fact that this was not even part of his motivation just further emphasizes his heroism and how deserving he is of rescue.
As much as I was looking forward to Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor being the final incarnation and having to face his own death, I am equally intrigued by his true status as the first in a new cycle of Doctors. I speculated in the previous post that our glimpse of his furious eyebrows might presage a darker, more complex Doctor than might be suggested by his newly reclaimed peace. We’ll get to Capaldi’s actual appearance in a minute, but even the anticipation of his arrival is laced with a kind of dread. “Any moment now, he’s a-coming,” the Doctor murmurs as though careful not to wake a sleeping beast. “Who’s coming?” Clara whispers in fear. When the Doctor gives the expected answer, it is both excited and trepidatious: “The Doctor!”
The fear Smith portrays in the scene also taps into the genuine horror of regeneration. For the Doctor to survive, he must change, and change is always a frightening prospect. Russell T. Davies, in his regeneration scenes, played with the idea of regeneration as a kind of death, and while Moffat doesn’t quite state it in those terms that same sense still underlies the sadness of Smith’s final moments. The Doctor talks of everything he is fading away “like breath on a mirror.” Composer Murray Gold, in a surprising and beautiful choice, encores the lovely track “Four Knocks,” previously only used when the Tenth Doctor made the choice to sacrifice himself for Wilf risking what he feared to be his actual permanent death. He also calls back the Long Song with its lyrics imbued with double meaning for the Doctor (I made connections between the Doctor and the Old God back when “The Rings of Akhaten” first premiered). Like the mythical phoenix, for the Doctor to be reborn he must first die, and this is a type of death (no matter what others may say). In his final moments, just like his predecessor, he thinks of “the first face this face saw” and in particular the innocence which surrounded his travels with Amy: Children’s drawings festoon the walls of the TARDIS while little Amelia runs by in her toggle coat. When she says goodnight, who cannot think of Hamlet’s “sleep of death”?
OK, so the Doctor changes. But what is he changing into? Much has already been made of the fact that after a delayed regeneration, the Eleventh Doctor suddenly sneezes into the Twelfth (and really, what could be a more fitting end for such a quirky incarnation?). The Twelfth Doctor appears, fixing Clara with an intense and frightening gaze. (Jenna Coleman’s deer in headlights look is spot on.) Again, we are reminded of the fact that he is an unknown quantity: The first of a new cycle of Doctors. The Tenth Doctor remarked on his new teeth, the Eleventh on his protruding chin, and the Twelfth remarks on his…kidneys! Specifically, the color. As the Doctor would say, “OK, that is a first.” Also like his two predecessors, he begins his life with a crashing TARDIS, but his reaction doesn’t inspire confidence for poor Clara. “Just one question,” he asks her (ironically echoing and undermining the previous “first question“): “Do you have any idea how to fly this thing?” Despite the Doctor’s assertions that he will “not forget one line” of his long life, we are left with the possibility that the slate has been wiped more cleanly than ever before. We are reminded that the Doctor himself can be as frightening and alien as any of the monsters his companions encounter. The prospect of these new adventures and new discoveries to be made about this age-old character energize the last moments of the episode and propel the story forward into a new series, a new year, and a new era of the show.
A few remaining remarks/lingering questions about “The Time of the Doctor”:
– Lots of random details seem to point towards Tasha Lem being River Song: The kissing and flirting, the Doctor telling her to “fight the psychopath” inside her, her ability to fly the TARDIS, Lem being an anagram for Mel (as in Mels/Melody Pond), the connections with the Silence, etc. Did River’s post-Library consciousness get downloaded into another body, perhaps an android? Is she, like the Doctor, ever-changing and never-dying? There are too many connections for me to believe this is a coincidence, but I wonder whether Moffat will address this or leave it to the imagination…
– The gag with the Doctor’s wig (“the old key in the quiff routine”) was quite funny, especially the bit about his eyebrows being “delicate.”
– Are we to take the wooden cyberman as a direct allusion to the Iliad and the Trojan horse? How about Handles the volleyball— um, I mean cyberman head?
– The TARDIS has always been quite clearly inspired by C. S. Lewis’ Narnian wardrobe but Moffat slipped in another Narnia reference: The Doctor fixes Barnable’s father’s barn and now it too is “bigger on the inside.” In Lewis’ The Last Battle (an appropriate work to be referencing given the circumstances) the heroes escape the Narnian apocalypse via a dimensionally transcendental stable. This is in fact where Doctor Who originally got that iconic line in the first place. Lucy herself makes an explicit connection between this stable and the stable in which Christ (who is “bigger than the whole world”) was born. Considering that this story is set in a town called Christmas…well, draw your own conclusions.
– Since it’s time for new year’s resolutions, why not give my podcast – Kat and Curt’s TV Re-View – a try? We’re up to episode 31 and are currently working our way through Doctor Who series 3 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 2.