Mon, Dec
30
2013

Big and Little
The Time of the Doctor Reviewed

Mon, Dec 30, 2013

The_Time_of_the_Doctor_promo.jpg

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a fellow fan and friend of mine of whom I have a great amount of respect for her creative abilities. We somehow got to talking about Dcotor Who. While I’d appreciated how well The Day of the Doctor had gone, she had yet to see it, as she was still mad at producer Steven Moffat for The Angels Take Manhattan. I myself liked The Angels Take Manhattan (in spite of its myriad flaws), but I encouraged her to come back to the series. After all, if I had managed to get past The Horns of Nimon, she could get past The Angels Take Manhattan.

Well, while I was talking to this friend, she paid me a decent compliment, saying that she’d watch the show if I was the showrunner. Much as I appreciated the sentiment, thinking about it, I could not help but chuckle over how bad an idea this would be.

Because Steven Moffat has something that I don’t have. It’s more than ideas, and more than creativity. Simply put, Steven Moffat knows how to dance.

That term has been jangling around my head since Star Trek: The Next Generation. I think it was a quote from Maurice Hurley. It was a bit of a ill-advised putdown of his fellow writers, but it was still illuminating. As good as his colleagues were, he was saying, did they know how to dance? And by this he meant writing even when one isn’t feeling creative. Writing to deadline. Not being inspired, but still knowing and delivering a script on time.

I’ve written several novels, but I’ve done so at the pace of about one manuscript a year. Anybody with an ounce of creativity can put out a good book. But to put out thirteen good books, to commission good directors to visualize those books, get someone to write good music to augment those visuals, to get someone to edit the whole thing together, and to deliver on time every time? That is simply a skill set I do not have, and which Moffat does — not only in writing Doctor Who, but in Sherlock and a host of other projects at the same time.

You cannot compare me to Steven Moffat, or to any reasonably successful television writer or producer. Indeed, put like this, it seems silly that I should criticize his work. Though I can sit in my armchair and identify the plot points that fail to pan out, the characterizations that are inconsistent, or the other things that I could fix if I could just reach inside my television set with a magic wand, I don’t have the additional tasks that Moffat or other television producers contended with.

And I said this before. Back when Moffat was pegged as the producer to replace Russell T. Davies, I said: don’t expect thirteen Girl(s) in the Fireplace. Writing one or two episodes in a season is a completely different kettle of fish compared to producing an entire season. By that same measure, it would be telling to see how good a single Russell T. Davies story would be if somebody else had the task of producing it.

Fundamentally, I like Steven Moffat’s work. In many cases, it appeals to me intellectually, but it has also, like Russell T. Davies’ work, appeals to me viscerally. I guess I’m a sucker for a good turn of phrase, the appearance of a deft plotting hand, and some timey-wimey give and take.

Know that this will not stop me from critiquing Moffat’s work. But I remain fundamentally unimpressed by the doomsayers who suggest that the show is on a death spiral, and that “Moffat needs to go NOW!” Because I don’t see the drop in quality. I see a change in style, and I’m still able to enjoy the show as much now as much as I did seven years ago. Part of that may be my own bias. But in the end, whether one likes or dislikes something like a television show comes down a lot to one’s own biases.

So, what did I think of Matt Smith’s finale? Good question… Please note that spoilers follow.


I liked it. Yes, I did. I didn’t, however, love it. And coming off of The Day of the Doctor, that leaves a disconcerting feeling that we didn’t get all that we could have. At the end of the day, Matt Smith was given a good send-off. There were even tears. But the show I’ll be rewatching will still be the anniversary special.

So, the storyteller tells us, there’s this planet. And it’s sending out a creepy signal to all the other places in the universe. And every monster that ever was, Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, Tereleptils, have surrounded this planet with their vast fleets, but everyone is afraid of taking the first step towards burning it.

The Doctor is there as well, madly investigating what the signal is, and why all the other races are so interested in it. I strongly suspect the other races know (or, at least, suspect) more than the Doctor does. He’s clearly been going at this a long time, having acquired a bunch of possessions, including a broken Dalek eyestalk, and the broken head of a Cyberman — the latter of which he has reprogrammed into a data assistant and nicknamed ‘Handles’.

While all this is happening, Clara calls amidst the gunfire, a little desperate. Seems she’s hosting a family Christmas dinner, and she invented an imaginary boyfriend. Could the Doctor please help?

(As an aside: sure you did, Clara. Sure. I know what you were really doing. You know the Doctor so well, you knew he’d fall for the ‘pretend to be my boyfriend’ trick)

So, this is the Doctor’s life, now: dodging bullets fired by vast fleets, and showing up at Clara’s Christmas Dinner stark naked (“he’s Swedish”). It’s big, and it’s small. And that’s the Doctor through and through.

Because the problem that follows is exactly that mix: the bell tolling for the Universe is another manifestation of the crack in the universe from Season 5. And at the other side of it is Gallifrey — the very Time Lords the Doctor froze out of the universe in order to save them at the end of The Day of the Doctor. Clearly the other races had some idea of this, including the Church of the Perpetual Mainframe, an off-shoot of which brought the Silence back along the Doctor’s timeline to try and prevent this very moment from happening.

The Time Lords on the other end of the crack are asking the question the answer to which brings silence: “Doctor who? Doctor who?” and there’s a truth field set up around the crack to prevent lying. If the Doctor answers, the Time Lords reemerge, and the Time War reopens. The Doctor could fly off with his TARDIS and let the monsters of the universe burn the planet, but there’s a catch: there’s a human settlement over the crack, the village of Christmas (as if the guilt-trip wasn’t substantial enough), and the Doctor cannot allow them to be burnt. Evacuation isn’t an option because, if the people of Christmas is worth more than everyone in the Universe, how much is Clara one and only worth? Of course, he tricks her into the TARDIS and uses it to send her home (a la Parting of the Ways), robbing the village of a potential lifeboat.

Confronted with this impossible situation, the Doctor decides to stay. He will not speak his name, and the crack won’t open, but he will not abandon the people of Christmas. He knows this is his last battle — the prophesied planet of Trenzalore — and his last body (he has run out his regeneration cycle, since Time Lords can only regenerate twelve times). So he’s going to stick it out for the long haul.

See what I mean? Big and little. In Time of the Doctor, Moffat achieves the regeneration story that Russell T. Davies wanted to achieve in The End of Time. I’ve heard rumours that Davies wanted a story about David Tennant’s Doctor sacrificing himself not for the universe, but for a small ship that nobody had heard of, because the Doctor truly does sweat the small stuff, and we are all the better for it. Davies almost achieves this by making the Doctor’s decision to save Wilfred at the end of all that action be the cause of his regeneration, but it is Moffat that has the Doctor turn away from the simplest solution that would have saved the universe (leaving and letting Christmas be burnt) through the realization that the Doctor simply could not abandon the people of Christmas. Because, yes, everybody in the universe is important. Every one.

I think Time of the Doctor is a good story. I also think it has the bones in it to be a great story. If there are flaws, I suspect it’s because Steven Moffat spent so much time checking boxes resolving loose ends and he didn’t have as much time as he needed to truly flesh out the tale.

For instance, I think the biggest failing of this story is the fact that the narrative jumps forward in time are told by voiceover rather than shown. The voiceover is the least interesting choice a director in a visual medium can make when it comes to moving forward the plot. We needed to see more attempts on the town of Christmas in order to get a sense of the passage of time and the Doctor pushing back the attacks. The funny attempts by Strax’s clone group is a good first step, but show us more. Go gradually from serious to increasingly ludicrous — and don’t be afraid to toss in an Acme brand anvil or two — before pulling out the wooden Cyberman, so the audience can lean back a moment before saying, “sure, that’s quite possibly the most ingenious and stupid attempt one could possibly think of.”

And while all of this is happening, show the Daleks biding their time in silence. That builds up their threat, and when they finally unleash their attack, we can see how much of a threat they are.

This is, I think, what Moffat and director Jamie Payne were trying to do, but on screen it comes across as somewhat muddled. You only realize after the fact that the Daleks have been conspicuously absent in the attacks on Christmas, for instance. And the emotional impact of the Doctor staying as the town’s protector is lessened somewhat by this.

This also relates to the personal drama that’s on display here. As Erin noted after watching this episode, Doctor Who is action-adventure, but it is also a drama, and the drama of this story is the Doctor’s decision to allow himself to get stuck in this situation which he knows is going to end in his death. In this story, the Doctor accepts the fact that he’s going to die on Trenzalore — whether it be in battle or of old age (and, surprise surprise, it’s the latter, all the while fixing toys and saving the world). We do get the sense that he gets accidentally stuck in this situation, and esoterically we understand that he can’t run without abandoning the people of Christmas, and Matt Smith’s acting almost pulls this off, but it’s a little starved of time to truly flourish.

Remember how the Doctor reacted to being stuck on Earth for a few months in The Power of Three. Where’s the sense of the Doctor’s sacrifice? Where’s the Doctor saying, “Is this how time always passes? Really slowly and one boring thing after another?” It could lend some weight to the Doctor perking up occasionally, saying, “Oh, goody! Somebody’s attacking! Something for me to do!”

Also, you have to expect that, after two hundred years with the Doctor as protector and toymaker, Christmas is going to have a ferris wheel. Possibly a roller coaster?

Then there is the fact that the people of Christmas are mostly faceless. Yes, it would be hard to build human characters when you are jumping forward three hundred years at a time, but it could still have helped us really appreciate the sadness and resignation when the Doctor accepts that the Daleks will be his last battle. Remember how the Doctor’s burial site felt in The Name of the Doctor. We almost forget that the Daleks are going to burn the whole planet when the Doctor falls. Let’s see the people of Christmas realizing this. Let’s have some people breaking down, crying, while others saying, “well, we’ve had a good run.” Because the Doctor did give them a good run, and now it’s coming to an end.

Again, I believe this is what Moffat was going for, and he and Matt Smith almost pull it off. Matt Smith is the one doing the heavy lifting, here. Even under all that make-up (which he carries off as well or better than David Tennant when he’s playing an older man), you can see everything in his eyes. I will always remember the look of sheer astonishment and rising joy when the Time Lords appear in the crack of the universe in the sky (a forgivable Deus ex Machina) and give him a new regenerative cycle. Look at him in this scene. He was NOT expecting that. At all. And it is quite possibly the greatest gift he’s ever been given.

That moment is, I think, my favourite, because it’s a gift to fandom, as well. Between this and Tom Baker’s unexpected cameo on Day of the Doctor, we’ve completed Moffat’s agenda of fixing the Doctor as an immortal trickster character of the universe, who will always be making the monsters look over their shoulder, until the end of time.

In terms of dramatic writing, I’m not sure how I feel about that. But as a fan of Doctor Who since 1978, I find this quite satisfying.

Now, can we say that the Time War plot thread is over and dealt with? I hope so. And by and large, I think so. The next quest, I suspect, is for Capaldi’s Doctor to go looking for Gallifrey. And I also get the sense that Moffat is starting to tie up the loose ends of his tenure with a bit of a bow. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if the next season is his last as producer. He’s dropped a few hints to that effect, the biggest of which was likening the situation to Tom Baker’s first year on board the TARDIS, where Pertwee’s production crew did a lot of work setting up, before leaving things for producer Phillip Hinchcliffe to develop. If Moffat is thinking along the same lines, then I can’t help but wonder if he thinks that Capaldi’s first season is his last.

And that works out well, since that gives him roughly the same number of seasons that Russell T. Davies had. It seems like a good time to move on. And if Moffat does, I wish him well, though I won’t cheer to the extent that the haters will likely do. In my opinion, Moffat has achieved most of what he has set out to do. His work has not been perfect by any means, and frustrations abound on some of his developments and some of his stories, but the show, to my mind, remains as healthy as it was when he took it, and his take on the series has interested me and kept me a fan.

It will be a long wait until September when season eight of the revival is set to begin, but I am looking forward to Capaldi and Coulman’s take on the series.


Further Thoughts

  • Some in fandom are hotly debating whether Natasha Lem is a previously unknown future incarnation of River Song (despite the fact that she sacrificed her remaining regenerations to save the Doctor in Let’s Kill Hitler, and got locked in the library computer). My verdict, based on others’ evidence (Lem spelled backwards is Mel. The Doctor notes that he totally married the psychopath the Kovarian chapter built to kill him, and his subsequent statement that Tasha had been “fighting the psychopath all her life”) have me convinced: she’s an older River. How did River escape the Library? Do we really need to solve that mystery? And if the Doctor can be a universal trickster character who can immortally drop in on any situation at any time, why can’t his wife have a similar destiny as well?
  • Can you imagine the conversation between the Mother Superious and the head of the Korvarian chapter after the events of Time of the Doctor come to light? I think it might go something like this:

    SUPERIOUS: “So, you broke away—”
    KOVARIAN: “To go back in time to kill the Doctor and prevent the Time War from reopening? You bet we did!”
    SUPERIOUS: “So you blew up the Doctor’s TARDIS and created the very cracks in the universe that allowed the Time Lords to come back.”
    KOVARIAN: “Er… Okay, yeah, maybe that was a mistake.”
    SUPERIOUS: “Then you engineered a psychopath to kill the Doctor and he ends up marrying her, furthering his destiny.”
    KOVARIAN: “Er… Damn, you’re right. Yeah.”
    SUPERIOUS: “So, how are you feeling now?”
    KOVARIAN: (looking at her knees). “Really, really stupid.”


On This Day

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