The Matt Smith era of DOCTOR WHO came to an explosive end last year with the broadcast of the 2013 Christmas Special “The Time of the Doctor”, which hit our screens a mere month after the preceding feature-length episode, written to cap the show’s 50th Anniversary wingding, was received positively by most fans. The scheduling caused by the anniversary celebrations interrupting Smith’s departure has resulted in the Eleventh Doctor bowing out on an episode that feels somewhat stand-aloneish -- cut adrift from the three prior series that have been the bedrock of Smith’s four year tenure. Being buried in the December backwater that is the Christmas slot means this episode and the Anniversary one both screened far too late to be incorporated into the recent Series 7 box set release, and the former is understandably much too preoccupied with seeing off the current incumbent in proper style (as well as tying up three-and-a-bit series-worth of dangling plot points stretching back as far as Smith’s very first episode) for it to look right being unceremoniously tacked onto the beginning of any future collections, as has been the usual practice with the Christmas Specials up till this point. The next series will see the launch of Peter Capaldi’s reign as the twelfth Doctor, and presumably a whole new emphasis will emerge then that will be quite distinct from that which has thus far distinguished Steven Moffat’s approach to a series he has overseen as show runner since Smith was first announced in the role, back in 2009. So, rather than just the usual vanilla DVD/Blu-ray single episode release designed to tide us over until the same episode crops up again incorporated into a box set collection the following year, “The Time of the Doctor” gets its own bloated 2-disc affair under the pretext of this being considered the concluding segment of a quartet of Eleventh Doctor Christmas Specials, which are now gathered together in one place for the first time with a healthy complement of extras focusing on Smith’s time in the role, to help make the release feel more like a commemorative celebration of his Doctor rather than just the usual bare bones rush release we’d normally expect at this time of year.
Although disc one’s contents -- featuring the 2010 Christmas Special “A Christmas Carol”, 2011’s “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” and 2012’s “The Snowmen” -- will be, strictly speaking, surplus to requirement for most of the show’s fans, who will undoubtedly already own the three episodes in question, their inclusion here does allow this set to act as a fairly comprehensive overview that helps illustrate some of the main themes to have predominated during an era which has come to be defined as much by Steven Moffat’s narrative interest in the tone, structure and the telling of fairy tales, as it has by Smith’s much-praised portrayal of the Doctor. Moffat’s era thus far has been marked by epic story arcs in which the re-writing of time through the re-ordering of memory and consciousness has been made into an abiding concern that has often been configured in ways that have lent the series a mythic children’s fable-like quality, which is nowhere more evident than in the ‘girl who waited’ origin story set in motion for Amy Pond right back at the beginning of Smith’s tenure. This Doctor/companion relationship really was so central to Matt Smith’s version of the Time Lord that it didn’t come as the remotest surprise when the Eleventh Doctor eventually goes out dreaming of his Amelia Pond (‘the first face this face saw’) -- a girl with a name that, indeed, always sounded to him ‘like something out of a fairy tale’.
The simple charms of a tale from a storybook that takes on the mythic resonances of legend has been made central to the manner in which the time travel-centred science fiction concepts that have always underpinned the show, have become imbued with more of an emotional heft these past few years; fairy tale motifs have not only informed the very visual texture and aesthetic of the new series under Moffat’s guidance, but have been co-opted much more frequently in the delivery style of the show’s content, enabling Moffat to overtly tap into the shorthand sense of childhood wonder that’s evoked by the telling of a magical bedtime story. It’s no surprise, then, that Moffat’s Christmas episodes have been saturated in the spirit evoked by some of the finest practitioners of Victorian and Edwardian storytelling, particularly those we traditionally turn to every Christmas. Moffat may also quite pointedly fill these episodes with the paraphernalia of crashing starliners, flying sharks and giant exo-skeletal robotic suits, but such elements feel bombastically tacked on to episodes otherwise still comfortably steeped in their Dickens and C.S. Lewis sources. “A Christmas Carol” mines its inspirational material by not only nicking the very title of the story which largely invented our snowy Christmas card idea of what the season should look like (but rarely does in reality) but also proves in Moffat's reinvention of it that ‘Charlie Boy’ had actually written a science fiction tale par excellence back in 1843 … one that happens to fit right in with the ideas that underpin much of Smith’s era: that the fate of the individual is never pre-ordained, even in a predetermined Universe, no matter what species of brain-twisting paradox this conclusion might result in. “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” meanwhile, shows us that C.S. Lewis, with his wardrobe that leads into another world, actually invented the trans-dimensional concept that still makes the TARDIS such a source of fascination to millions. Here the Doctor is explicitly presented as a fairy tale figure – called The Caretaker – a strange, ageless Peter Pan with a blue box that acts as a gateway into an alien landscape that is as wintry a wonderland as could ever be dreamt up. True, the following year's “The Snowmen” renounced any specific reference to past traditional Christmas classic tales for an episode hinged upon progressing the mystery behind Clara’s backstory, yet that didn’t stop Moffat exploiting its Victorian Christmas time setting to the max, and, once again presenting the Doctor as a storybook figure from a child’s fairy tale – in this instance, as a grieving man who lives alone on top of a cloud in his magic box, until an impossible girl temps him back into the fray.
“The Time of the Doctor” of course, has many more pressing continuity needs to attend to, but that doesn’t inhibit Moffat from sprinkling Matt Smith’s final adventure with some epic quantities of fairy dust in a story that eventually takes on the guise of a poignant fable that can be taken as the ultimate manifestation so far of the series’ on-going preoccupation with the aesthetics and structure of children’s stories. This is an episode that, fittingly, rounds up the entirety of the Matt Smith era and puts a rather tensely Christmas bow around it and on top of the whole caboodle, in the act of providing us with the explanations for all those riddles and left-over plot points that have been piling up all along the way these last few years like some much drifting snow. Indeed, the whole of the Eleventh Doctor’s lengthy lifetime (which comes to have spanned many more centuries by the end of this one episode) is revealed to have been a self-contained bubble -- or should that be snow globe? -- of paradoxes and attempts to escape a fate already written. This Doctor’s life is one where all the major events that we’ve seen occur along his time-line, from the very first moment he regenerated inside the crashing TARDIS in “The Eleventh Hour” to the breakaway Kovarian Chapter’s various convoluted efforts to do away with him (with an exploding TARDIS or a death sentence carried out at a fixed point in time on the shores of Lake Silencio) can be thought of as having been originally instigated as reactions to what eventually comes to happen across possibly thousands of years in the final act of this epic send-off where the Doctor becomes ‘the man who stayed for Christmas’ … surely the real title of this story, even if Steven Moffat couldn’t resist turning it into the final entry in a grand trilogy of episodes all ending on the phrase ‘of the Doctor’, where the question of the Doctor’s ultimate fate and its relationship to the Silence’ prophecy, and the continuity regarding the Doctor’s involvement in The Time War and the disappearance of Gallifrey, are all tied together by the outcome of one last paradox-laden battle. The long prophesied Siege of Trenzalore materialises at last and becomes a strategic stand-off between an increasingly wizened Doctor-turned-children’s folk hero and his long-standing enemies -- with a militaristic religious/ peace-keeping organisation maintaining an uneasy peace in the middle of it all.
The way in which Moffat weaves elements of fable-like allegory into broad science fiction fantasy in this climactic encounter with the Eleventh Doctor’s destiny, reminds me of the approach taken by Philip Pullman in the author’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy (Pullman’s take on Milton’s blank verse poem “Paradise Lost”); if not in precise content then most definitely in stylistic approach, and in the enduring concern the episode demonstrates with the exploration of how experience motivates the process of storytelling itself to become at one with its own subject matter. This is very much a tale about the forging of personal meaning out of myth. But aside from that, “The Time of the Doctor” feels like it’s been written with the idea that it had to encapsulate the Matt Smith era in totality, providing the actor with material enough to enact all the beats of comedy and drama we’ve all come to associate with the Eleventh Doctor. This leads to there being a somewhat breathless quality to the writing, in what feels like a relentlessly fast-paced story even when it stops for the occasional quiet moment of contemplation. For the truth is that it still seems during these instances like we’re being assailed by issues of continuity or references to past events ... so much so that watching this episode with subtitles is almost mandatory if one is to be sure we doesn’t miss some recondite plot point or other being hurriedly addressed and thus risk not being able to understand what’s going on. Some viewers found this complex and playful approach off-putting and/or messy, especially for an episode that is traditionally conceived of as a stand-alone story intended to be made accessible to viewers who wouldn’t normally be watching at any other time of year. For me, it was an indulgence that, ultimately, works incredibly well, despite a few reservations I have with its evasion of several issues that really needed to be addressed in order to minimise the sense of muddle that now seems to have come about regarding several issues, particularly the status of Clara’s’ Impossible Girl’ backstory.
After the breakneck pre-credits salvo of escapades featuring a blundering Doctor (who seems quite at home in a cape twirlingly Harry Potterish persona here) and his new K-9 surrogate sidekick, the adapted Cyberhead he calls ‘Handles’ (“affirmative”), managing between them to ensure that the Time Lord gets shot at by both the Daleks and the Cybermen while in the middle of being commandeered over the telephone into attending Clara Oswald’s (Louise Coleman) family Christmas lunch as her pretend boyfriend, we’re presented with some fascinating, though perhaps slightly clunky world building ideas based around a satirical conflation of the aims of bureaucratic secular peace-keeping institutions such as the UN, and the ritual and organisational structures of religions, which results in the Doctor and Clara paying a visit to the whacky-sounding Church of the Papal Mainframe: a ‘security church’ (there surly should have been a security kitchen in the back, where disputes are decided by a bake-off with some Monoids) that looks like a huge floating cuboid platform in space, where the teleport docks are like curtained confessional booths, the alters look like beds (or the beds look like alters!), and the confessor priests turn out to be The Silence. The once-upon-a-time storybook flavour of the episode is established by a voice-over from the church’s MotherSuperious, Tasha Lem (Orla Brady) -- another feisty, flirty, slightly dangerous female friend from the Doctor’s past (it’s established she was associated with one of his past incarnations so as to avoid any suggestion that the Doctor has been two-timing River Song) who also narrates from the future, tacitly making it clear that the story we are about to see unfold has become a legendary fable for many people, specifically for the people of Trenzalore.
But this idea of myth in the making is deliberately offset by some playfully crude humour based around the Papal Mainframe’s requirement that all visitors should attend in the nude, and a joke about the Doctor’s wig that relies on the viewer’s knowledge that Matt Smith had recently had his head shaved for a film role; also his and Jenna Coleman’s rapid-fire repartee in a domestic scenario is as spiky as ever in scenes involving the Doctor helping Clara to cook her Christmas turkey inside the TARDIS and in his turning up to meet her family at the festive table whilst forgetting that he’s still naked, wearing holographic clothes that only the two of them can see. Daleks, Cybermen, Weeping Angels buried in snow and the reappearance of one of the cracks in time caused by the exploding TARDIS in series 5 add to the sense that this episode is compendium of best moments, conceived specifically in order to allow Matt Smith to shine at his very brightest. Moffat’s near monomania with having the show’s title being repeated as a question – ‘Doctor who?’ – turns out, not to anyone’s great surprise, to be the question hidden in plain sight that will be asked when ‘Silence will Fall’ , the message being beamed through a structural weakness in the fabric of the universe left over from the Doctor’s attempt to reboot it and heal the cracks with the Pandorica Device at the end of series 5. The Time War threatens to start up all over again when the Doctor and his enemies simultaneously discover that the Time Lords are broadcasting the question through this vestigial crack in time, knowing that if it is ever answered correctly by their renegade cousin they will have found their way back to their own universe at last, after being banished to a pocket universe in “The Day of the Doctor”.
The Eleventh Doctor’s story now becomes a touching, poetic bittersweet paean to emotional maturation and the process of physical ageing, and the commitments and responsibilities that come with them, as well as the need and necessity for such radical life changes. We’re used to versions of this story playing out periodically throughout the show’s history, but they’re all usually premised on the fact that the Doctor has the power to regenerate and renew himself, pitched as the cumulative expression of his having to face up to the fact that his current personality will have to completely change. Here, though, we have a Doctor reacting to the belief that he is facing his very last incarnation, and that the ancient TARDIS mausoleum (already seen amongst the graves of those others destined to fall in the coming battle he will wage to protect the planet from the alliance of his enemies who are all out to stop him from ever allowing Gallifrey’s return) means he is destined to die on the fields of Trenzalore, and that this is an outcome that cannot be evaded. We see a whole new chapter unfold for a Doctor whose personality throughout the last four years has been marked by the boundlessness of his mercurial energy and his total restlessness. This Doctor is the latest version of a being who has been defined during all his incarnations over the last fifty years of the show as someone with a peripatetic compulsion never to settle in one place, but who is now devoting himself to a task that requires him to sacrifice the remainder of his final life to be lived out over centuries, possibly thousands of years, in one small snowy village called Christmas (which, naturally, looks just like a quaint Christmas card vista), where he will endeavour to protect its residents and his own people from attack whilst becoming, in his late-middle age, a sort of friendly, trusted Santa Clause-like hero figures for both the village adults and its children. Here, then, a person who has always been defined by a lifestyle based on ranging freely across entire universes (except when forcibly exiled to earth by his own people for a few years) now becomes so used to this new settled way of life that, as Tasha Lem narrates during one of several montages to illustrate this period of middle-age with some of the events which help to create the new legend, he almost forgets having lived any other, and now happily accepts his new role as a sort of in situ town sheriff cum slightly mad toy-maker and mender (and teacher of ‘the Drunken Giraffe’). This is a completely self-contained mythological world, a rustic snow-bound idyll with the Doctor acting as the mediator between its people and the equivalent of a protector God which -- in this instance -- is actually the psycho space nun (Clara’s words) Tasha Lem: the Doctor’s former girlfriend, now a representative of the Order of the Silence -- who occasionally becomes a big face, peering down from the sky to invite the Doctor up to parley over pink marshmallows.
One of the criticisms levelled at this episode is concerned with the distancing effect created by its frequent employment of montage combined with voiceover narration in order to encapsulate the passing of many hundreds of years in which events occur we don’t otherwise see except in brief summery composed of fleeting vignettes. This is a technique Steven Moffat has used before to illustrate the passage of swathes of time in the Eleventh Doctor’s life … at the beginning of series 6 for instance, where the Doctor spends several hundred years having various adventures on his own before he finally comes back to visit Amy and Rory. This is something which has always annoyed me before, even though it’s undoubtedly the fanboy in Moffat making sure there are plenty of gaps into which any future novels and audio plays written about the Eleventh Doctor’s non-TV adventures can be slotted. Here, though, for me, the method worked really well, particularly in conjunction with Tasha Lem’s voiceover: we really get a sense of how this ageing process and the sacramental rootedness of the change in the Doctor’s lifestyle which accompanies it, is related to the evolution of the fairy tale thematic which has marked the Eleventh Doctor’s entire run; but more importantly, we’re catching these glimpses of it and experiencing the phenomenon in a similar piecemeal way to Clara, for whom this whole mythical fable, created over the course of many hundreds of years, appears to occur during the same amount of time it takes for her Christmas turkey to cook under the TARDIS console while her family wait around the dinner table for Christmas lunch. This is in some ways an important preparation of the ground for the moment at which the nature of Clara’s relationship with the Doctor inevitably alters, as it will after his next regeneration. She interrupts her Christmas family get-together to make several trips to see the mad-youthful-looking-but-ancient space alien she once knew when they first arrived on Trenzalore, each time encountering a Doctor who has aged considerably, until the man she once ran away to outer space with because she fancied him has become an old, crooked pensioner in wire-framed spectacles, carving wooden toys in his rocking chair. The counterpoint with Clara’s grandmother (“Benidorm’s” Sheila Reid) remembering, as an instance of frozen time, the moment she fell in love with her now-deceased husband is particularly poignant, although, from the dying Doctor’s perspective, it is Clara’s youthfulness which appears never to have changed throughout his life.
The Eleventh Doctor’s ageing, and the way in which the characteristics we all know him by are adapted to completely different circumstances as he grows older, is also a particularly apposite theme given the context of the episode that immediately preceded it, in which a great deal of humour was premised on John Hurt’s War Doctor being horrified by the immaturity of his successors, who, it seemed to him, had developed kidult personalities, partially, it was then suggested, as a way of coping with what they believed to have been their predecessor’s actions during the Time War. There, it had been established that part of the Eleventh Doctor’s coping mechanism involved him simply forgetting the detail of the horrors his former self was supposedly responsible for, and yet here he is on Trenzalore, now living out a span of time that is possibly longer than the rest of all his lifetimes put together, in service to the very people for whom he has been a renegade for most of his existence. Their thanks to him, prompted by Clara’s emotional intervention, is to furnish the Doctor with a whole new regeneration cycle, sprinkling regenerative fairy dust through the crack in time they appear to be able to control at will, in an act that at first seems rather arbitrarily given in response to a simple -- though heartfelt -- speech by Clara … until one considers that this moment of recognition of the Doctor’s long service of care in devoting his life to protecting Gallifrey, could only come about if that sacrifice had been willingly made, and the Doctor had really been prepared to spend his entire remaining lifetime stuck in one small backwater village on an anonymous planet of otherwise little consequence.
The moment at which the Eleventh Doctor, thanks to the connivance of the Time Lords, ‘changes his future’ and regenerates a fourteenth time, is the ultimate manifestation of a running theme throughout the Matt Smith era in which the strict rules of time can somehow be out-manoeuvred through the application of quick thinking, inventiveness and madcap ingenuity; and the paradoxes that really should result are somehow always evaded and undercut too, as though the mercurial unpredictability of the soul or human will or consciousness, or whatever you want to call it, allows enough wriggle room for us to slip free of the bounds of determinism if we struggle with them hard enough. Such ideas are always necessarily loosely defined since they are, of course, completely incoherent. The repeated emphasis in this episode on stressing how the Doctor’s latest regeneration involves him fundamentally ‘changing his future’ and escaping the fate assigned to him in the season 7 finale “The Name of the Doctor” where he encounters his own grave on the future Trenzalore, not only leaves four years’ worth of storylines which are entirely premised on the future coming back to attack the Eleventh Doctor now looking (to say the least) somewhat up in the air, but completely undoes the whole ‘Impossible Girl’ Clara storyline for that season, which depended on Clara entering the Doctor’s timeline inside the TARDIS-shaped mausoleum … a grave that should now not exist according to this story, since the Doctor doesn’t die after all!
There is one way out of this dilemma of course: we can imagine that the Doctor still dies on Trenzalore eventually, or that his body ends up there inside the dying TARDIS at some later date in an even more far off future, unconnected with the events surrounding the Siege of Trenzalore; but if that’s the case then why make such explicit emphasis on the repetition of the phrase ‘change the future’? Anyway, if the latter explanation (which is the only one that seems to make sense) is true, then why does the interior of the dead TARDIS we see in “The Name of the Doctor” still look the same as the current TARDIS interior, and how come Clara didn’t encounter the twelve incarnations of the Doctor from his second regeneration cycle when she subsequently jumped into his time stream? As much as I enjoyed this episode and wasn’t bothered by many of the elements of it which seemed to annoy quite a few fans, I am left with the feeling that there is a deep sense in which a story that was meant to wrap up all the loose threads of the Matt Smith era has, in fact, turned his entire run into a completely unfathomable paradox instead, which, it seems, we’re expected simply to ignore with a shrug, and no doubt put down to Time Lord influence and crack in time-related jiggery-pokery. Consequently, despite this being what I still see as a poignant, exciting, imaginative piece of writing from the Moff, there’s still something unsatisfactory about an episode that spends so much of its time paying lip service to wrapping up continuity beats, but from which one still comes away feeling more confused than they did before. This almost feels like a churlish nit-picking complaint given Matt Smith’s spellbinding performance throughout, particularly in his final farewell speech … and then there’s the briefly glimpsed new Doctor – who gives us that intense stare seen for a split second in “The Day of the Doctor” yet again, before complaining about his new kidneys and forgetting how to fly the TARDIS. This is as epic and emotional in broad scope as one would have expected, but there are too many unanswered questions and niggles remaining for it to feel one hundred per cent satisfying.
Available as a 2-disc DVD, Blu-ray and digital download from iTunes “The Time of the Doctor” and its three Christmas Special companions from the Matt Smith era also features a 12 minute behind the scenes featurette that includes footage from Matt Smith’s last day on set and poignant interviews with the actor and his co-star Jenna Coleman. Meanwhile, “Tales from the TARDIS” is a BBC America produced 42 minute documentary looking back over the entire 50 years of DOCTOR WHO, which included interviews with all surviving Doctors as well as many of the companions from the classic and post-2005 series. Finally, “Farewell to Matt Smith” is another BBC America tribute documentary, also running at 42 minutes and narrated by Alex Kingston. It includes interviews with every significant cast member to have taken part in the last four years of Smith’s tenure, with contributions from producers, crew and fellow actors, and including clips from interviews given by Smith himself during his time on the show. This is a really lovely documentation of the actor’s development in a role he made his own from the off, and covers the events surrounding his original casting as well as his experience of settling into the part and being introduced to the world of fandom through Comic-Con and other similar events, as the series developed more of a worldwide fan base. In the process, Smith became one of the most popular and beloved actors ever to have taken on the mantle of the Doctor, and this documentary is enjoyable tribute to the fun and energy he brought to his characterisation.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!