Thursday, December 26, 2013
Doctor Who Christmas Special 2013: The Time of the Doctor
Somehow its wonderfully appropriate that Matt Smith's Doctor would die on Christmas. This Doctor has been a figure of fantasy ever since his first incarnation, when he met a young Amy Pond as a magical Raggedy Man, then disappeared for twelve years to become a figure of myth and fairy tale in her life. Now he's playing up a role that he's always wanted: the hero to children, protector of the weak and innocent, fighting the dark creatures from around the universe to save a town that appears to be a Norman Rockwell Christmas painting made real. That now he's sacrificing his own life in a final operatic struggle is only that much more a culmination of his fantasies, its only a tad too perfect. Which to me, a cynical man, would see as an opportunity to really kick the Doctor in the balls by turning the tables on this situation and revealing it all to be a great Dalek trap. But to Stephen Moffat, who has created and worshiped this Doctor for four years now, it was exactly the ending this era in "Doctor Who" needed and deserved.
The plot of "The Time of the Doctor" is a energetic burning away of all the hanging plot threads of the last three seasons of "Doctor Who". There are cracks in the universe yet again, the hanging question of the Doctor's name, the Fields of Trenzalore, the revival of Gallifrey, and the return of the Moffat-era central villains, the Church of the Silence. So its a very stuffed episode with an unwieldy plot so big that it barely fits within the television time slot, relying upon very awkward voice-over narration to fill in the cracks of exposition. Its a story that takes place over three-hundred years, with the Doctor battling an armada of the entire universe. And then to top it off, the Doctor needs to finally die, and Matt Smith has to pass on his torch to the new Doctor, Peter Capaldi. Oh, and the Doctor's companion, Clara Oswald, is cooking a Christmas dinner and while an entire age of galactic warfare goes on in some other time and other place, she's trying to pass off the Doctor as her boyfriend to her Earthly parents. So its an episode with everything: Daleks, Cybermen, a turkey in the oven, Gallifrey in a crack in a wall, and weeping angels in the snow*.
Last month I had to say I was guardedly cynical about the return of Gallifrey to the "Doctor Who" universe. But the very first episode dealing with the return of Gallifrey has done an excellent job keeping the tension high, and not merely retconning the entire Time War out of existence. The universe is aligned against the Time Lords return, terrified to their very core. And here for the first time, the Doctor has to walk an extremely difficult line between saving his people, and the safety of the universe. So while the Eleventh Doctor's tenure is definitively ended forever on the Fields of Trenzalore, just as was prophesied, we see the first step into the new arc, what will be the Twelfth Doctor's battle, to save his home while saving the universe. As "The Time of the Doctor" shows, that's not going to be an easy reconciliation.
Meanwhile, of course, this is still a very much Matt Smith-style episode. He comes to Christmas dinner naked, he apparently has had a long-running relationship with the Space Pope (who is almost entirely the same character as River Song, only with a new actress), and he carries around a Cyberman head, which he calls 'Handles'. Handles, by the way, goes from a weird non-sequitur character to having one of the most touching moments of the episode, which is surprising since he arrived from literally nowhere at the beginning. There's the same manic dance, the incredibly geeky and hilariously failed attempts to be cool, and a fake wig. Its exactly what Moffat and Smith have always made their tenure at "Doctor Who": fun, light, with the emotional resonance coming strong, but never at the expense of a friendly mood. While the Doctor fights a war centuries-long, he still collects children's crayon drawings and has parties to celebrate every victory.
This is by far and above the best Matt Smith work on the entire show, clearly. In case anybody still had any lingering grudges on the eyebrowless man for not being David Tennant, "The Time of the Doctor" is the coda that says clearly and indisputably that Matt Smith is Doctor Who. The saddest part is that we only really see his best work right at the end. The endless playful energy of Doctor Who Mk. XI is finally slowed down and withered by centuries of wacky battle against wooden cybermen and other cosmic horrors, until finally he's an old man, speaking slowly, moving slowly, and finally turning on right angles, rather than his trademark 270 degree spins. Can there be a moment more heartwretching than Matt Smith dropping his bowtie on the floor, finally ready to pass on to his next form? That bowtie wasn't just a quirky fashion choice, it was the character. An insistence on the very epitome of un-coolness - trust me, nothing is lamer than a fucking bowtie - ironically being forced forward as "cool". And we all played along, because Matt Smith was so sincere and so pleased to wear his bowtie (and for a single episode, a fez, but that was going too far), we couldn't resist loving it.
And ultimately the climax of it all comes as Matt Smith gives an amazingly touching farewell speech, somewhat breaking the fourth wall again. David Tennant had to end on "I don't want to go", so much fitting all the drama and inevitable tragedy of his career. Matt Smith seems to be the more mature hero, clearly accepting his demise, and very astutely mentioning that all people change through their lives. All he wants is for everybody to cherish the time they had to watch him, to always remember he was the Doctor. David Tennant burned the Tardis down, Matt Smith simply blinked and became Peter Capaldi. David Tennant died alone, Matt Smith had Clara and the ghost of Amy Pond to welcome him to the afterlife. Don't worry Matt Smith, I might forget about Christopher Eccleston every so often, but I don't think I'll forget you. Even if David Tennant was hotter than you, and I liked the tone of those seasons better, you made for some great television. You made new Doctor Who fans, you pleased old ones, you also pissed off a few people on the Internet I'm sure, but they will never be happy - that's why they're on the Internet in the first place. So farewell, and try not to be too grumpy that your career probably hit its climax in your twenties**.
Now for a few complaints. Once again this episode made a huge issue out of the Doctor's "true" name, just as the Season 7 finale, "The Name of the Doctor" did. With of course, the tease being, we'll finally learn the Doctor's birth name. And again, the show avoids the issue entirely, by making the utterance of the Doctor's name the key that will unleash the hell of the Time War back to our reality. The point the show makes time and time again is that "the Doctor" is the only name the Doctor needs, it perfectly fits exactly who he is, and who he will forever be. Which is fine, but I wasn't really making an issue of not knowing his name. You don't want to tell us, fine, keep it a mystery. But stop teasing us constantly about it.
And really, what's the big deal after all? I know Gandalf's true Maia name, its "Olórin". That doesn't really change much about the character. I know the Master's true name, its "Koschei", nothing's changed there. Kramer's first name is "Cosmo", so what? We aren't in Earthsea, its not like if we know the Doctor's true name that we'll have magical power over him. A name is nothing more than that, its unimportant, its superficial. All that would happen if they revealed that the Doctor's true name was, let's say, "Twaddlefoot", is that hardcore "Doctor Who" fans could call him "Twaddlefoot" in their conversations, just as they currently look hatefully upon anybody who accidentally calls the Doctor, "Doctor Who". Well, what I'm saying is that Doctor Who's name is a pointless mystery, and if you're going to make a big deal about it, then at least give us some closure.
Other assorted issues: the Town of Christmas is never explained, its origins or citizens are completely unknown, I'm not even sure if they're human or simply humanoid aliens. I already touched upon how rushed the episode was, which meant that too much was explained via exposition. Things would have been far more dramatic if Clara returned to Christmas, and what to her seemed like a few seconds, was actually centuries, and the current situation is explained in medius res. And for about the billionth time, the Daleks are poorly used. Stephen Moffat simply cannot write a good Dalek story, it seems, they never become more than bumbling monsters, just huge robots that exist as empty threats that will easily be dispatched as soon as the Doctor needs to look cool. The Cybermen have it worse, being nothing more than lesser Daleks, and now the Weeping Angels are suffering the same fate of being stock useless villains. One more thing, since Clara is so matched merely as a foil to Matt Smith's Doctor, I'm not sure how she's going to handle working with Peter Capaldi, or if she'll work at all next season. I'm worried somewhat.
But that's the future, and I have to say, Peter Capaldi's era seems bright to me. This was an actor who once fought off a group of vampires with a bagpipe set in "The Lair of the White Worm", he's used to this kind of utter insanity. Some newbies might get annoyed that the new Doctor is so old, meaning he might not immediately have his female companions fall in love with him, but I think its an interesting change of pace. Let Season 8 rain down. Let the new era in Doctor Whoness begin.
And Merry Christmas.
* "Weeping angels in the snow" sounds like a song lyric to some extremely nerdy Christmas Carol.
** Christopher Eccleston has managed to do some truly awful jobs playing villains in "G.I. Joe" and "Thor 2". David Tennant seems confined forever to the BBC, getting on spot to branch out in the mediocre remake of "Fright Night". So the future isn't very bright for a Doctor Who Emeritus. Though they still are world famous actors who make far more money than the average office slave, so who can complain?