In many ways, "Time of the Doctor" doesn't just conclude the story that's been running since Matt Smith's first episode of Doctor Who — it also sums up Smith's tenure as the ageless Time Lord. The good parts as well as the bad parts. Spoilers ahead...
Yesterday, we talked about how each Doctor's final story illuminates his era. And that's definitely true of "Time of the Doctor," which collects a lot of the tropes of the Smith era into a compact package but also sums up who this Doctor is.
So who is the Eleventh Doctor? He's willing to spend centuries unspooling a mystery. He bonds with little children, but can be kind of a jerk to adults. He's constantly trying to sever his bond with his companion, but can't manage it. He has a thing for sassy older women. He's fatalistic, always marching towards a terrible fate that he thinks can't be avoided. He's kind of obstinately whimsical. He loves to play the part of the strange wizard. He's a tinkerer who loves to make toys. He likes to shout at spaceships. All of these elements are on full display in "Time of the Doctor."
The basic plot of this episode is that the Doctor gets trapped on the planet Trenzalore, where he knows he will die because he's seen his own tomb. He spends hundreds of years stuck in a stalemate, not because he thinks he can change the outcome, but because he wants to save as many innocents as he can along the way. He tells Clara that every innocent he saves is a victory, and thus he tries to prolong the struggle as long as he can so that as many humans as possible can die of old age across the centuries.
His reward for this is that he, in his turn, is allowed to die of old age.
The actual plot of "Time of the Doctor" is pretty simple — the Time Lords are in some other universe (I still think it's Omega's), and they've sent out a message across all of time and space in our universe: "Doctor Who?" They want the Doctor to come and answer the question, so that they'llknow he's alive and it's safe to come out. (They're using the remains of the crack from season five, but it could be any old widget.)
But all of the most important monsters are there, drawn by the Time Lords' message, and they'll do anything to keep the Doctor from speaking his name and bringing the Time Lords back.
Meanwhile, the Doctor's old friend Tasha Lem knows that if the Doctor does speak his name and the Time Lords come back, there will be a whole new Time War. So she turns her church into the Church of the Silence, dedicated to keeping the Doctor from speaking. And one part of that church goes back and causes basically the entire plot of seasons five and six, blowing up the TARDIS and sending River Song to assassinate him and stuff.
Eventually it all turns into a pitched battle that lasts (I guess) 150 years or something, and then the Doctor finally goes to his death without having answered the question — but then Clara tells the Time Lords that they're being idiots, because the Doctor's name is "the Doctor," and he needs their help. And so they give him a new batch of regenerations (turns out he needed a new batch) and he uses his regeneration energy to blow up the Daleks. Then the Time Lords go away.
It's a pretty straightforward tale — but it's also kind of a lot to cover in an hour, and it seemed as though about 10 minutes of the episode's running length were taken up with montages and voiceovers. There is a lot of stuff that's covered in shorthand in this episode, because Steven Moffat wants to wrap up three seasons' worth of stories.
The good parts of this story are the parts where Matt Smith is allowed to show his warmth and twinkly personality — making toys for the children of Trenzalore, parading around naked, forming a sweet and funny bond with a detached Cyber-head called Handles, trying to save Clara from what's coming.
The bad parts... well, if you liked "Name of the Doctor" and "The Angels Take Manhattan," then you'll probably like this too. This is another story where thinking about the plot — or, really, trying to take any of this seriously — is only going to give you a headache.
No, none of this makes any sense.
So, I'm the Time Lords. I'm stuck in another universe. And I have the means to send a message to my universe of origin — so why not just send a message to the Doctor? Or send a message that only the Doctor will understand? Why not just send a message that says, "Hey, it's the Time Lords. Is it safe to come out?"
But fine, the Time Lords like overly complex Rube Goldberg contraptions — that's consistent with their M.O. in previous stories, after all. Why the Truth Field? Are they worried the Doctor is going to lie about his name? If they don't already know the Doctor's name, how is that a form of verification in any case?
(Also, Dorium Maldovar told us that the Doctor would be unable to "speak falsely or refuse to answer" on the Fields of Trenzalore — but apparently, only one of those two things applies. And back in that same story, the Doctor implied he knew a secret that could blow a hole in the universe, that was connected to answering this question. He seriously seemed to consider dying to protect that secret. I guess that secret was the existence of John Hurt's Doctor? Although the Doctor's actions in the Time War were never a secret, just which face he wore at the time.)
But also, if the Time Lords' signal is going throughout all time and space, why hasn't the Doctor heard it until now? Why didn't William Hartnell's Doctor hear it? After all, we saw the Crack in the universe before the TARDIS blew up, both in local time and in the Doctor's timeline.
Anyway, it seems as though the Time Lords shot themselves in the foot by sending a message that the Daleks and Cybermen and Sontarans and Terrileptils could pick up. (Ice Warriors, call your agent.) Again, that's not inconsistent with the way the Time Lords have been portrayed in the past.
The Doctor says the Time Lords will "come in peace" if they come out of the other universe — but aren't these the Time Lords who were just in a terrible war? With the Daleks, who are surrounding the planet?
But moving on — the standoff in this episode isn't really that much of a standoff. There are only about 20 or 30 people living on Trenzalore, by the look of things — why doesn't the Doctor bundle them all into the TARDIS at the first sign that things might go bonkers? Why doesn't Tasha Lem whisk them all away, for that matter? It's not like anyone can hurt the Time Lords. Even if they blow up the planet, that crack will probably still just hang there in space, right?
Meanwhile, if everyone's goal is to stop the Doctor from speaking his name, you'd think just taking out the planet's atmosphere would do the trick. Or hitting him with a gas that causes laryngitis. Or, I don't know, generating a compulsive lying field to counteract the truth field. Or why doesn't the Doctor just promise not to speak his name ever, and everybody can accept his word since he's in a truth field?
There's also the fact that a pitched battle between every nasty race in the universe goes on in a village the size of Leadworth, and apparently lasts long enough for the Doctor to go bald, but the village is still standing at the end of it.
Oh, and since the Doctor doesn't actually die on Trenzalore, does this now mean the events of "Name of the Doctor" didn't happen? And therefore Clara was never a Victorian barmaid? Or a space flight attendant crashed on the Dalek asylum planet?
Okay, moving on.
What was the Matt Smith era about?
One reason why "Time of the Doctor" has to carry so much water is because we never quite got any closure on the TARDIS blowing up and the lake-astronaut thing — we got some plot closure, but not so much of a sense of "What was that all about?"
So what was it all about?
To a large extent, it was about the Doctor as a story — the persistence of the Doctor's myth, even after he tries to disappear and remedy the fact that he "got too big." The Doctor escapes from being erased by the Crack in season five, because he tells Amy a story about the madman and his blue box, and embraces the idea that "we're all stories in the end." In season six, he's trapped by his own legend, and the fact that people believe in his mystique to an unhealthy degree — and everybody knows about his fore-ordained death before he does.
And then, in this recent batch of stories, the Doctor has been trying to disappear from history, but the stories keep coming back around to his legend. And the recent "Of the Doctor" trilogy has been about getting to the heart of the Doctor's legend — in "Name of the Doctor," the Great Intelligence's obsession with the Doctor leads us to discover a hidden incarnation. In "Day of the Doctor," meeting that incarnation saves the Time Lords from destruction in the Time War. And in this story, the Time Lords turn around and broadcast the Doctor's biggest question to the universe, as a means of getting his help — and wind up saving him, instead.
So all of this four-year story has been about undoing the Time War's legacy and bringing back the Time Lords. But it's also been about notion that the Doctor's power comes from the fact that people remember him, and that "The Doctor" is all you need to know about him (as Clara tells the Time Lords.) In this way, the Doctor is the opposite of the Silence, the Weeping Angels and other monsters who gain power from not being seen or remembered.
In any case, the point of this whole story, since "The Eleventh Hour," has been to maneuver the Doctor into undoing his biggest crime, and remove a stain from his shining armor.
My Christmas Wish
And finally, my Christmas wish is for fans to stop arguing about Russell T. Davies vs. Moffat — as if those were two opposite or radically divergent versions of Doctor Who. Just today on Twitter, I saw people arguing the merits of these two, from long-entrenched positions.
Watching "Time of the Doctor," it was clearer to me than ever that Moffat's Who is RTD's Who. They share, by and large, the same strengths and weaknesses. They're the same animal, with slightly different stripes. Slightly.
Moffat picked up the ball from RTD and carried in the same direction RTD had already been carrying it. Yes, Moffat loves his time-bendy mysteries more than RTD did, but RTD gave us plenty of those with "Bad Wolf" and the Harold Saxon storyline. Both showrunners love romance tinged with innuendo, the Doctor as tragic figure, and a certain kind of epic-story formula.
Much of "Time of the Doctor" felt as though it could have been Davies' handiwork, from the Doctor sending Clara home, to Clara talking about fancying the Doctor, to Clara's confession that she loves the Doctor. Clara's bitchy aunt (stepmom?) was pure RTD, as was the slightly miraculous ending. And all of the weepy moments were straight out of RTD's playbook as well, down to the Amy Pond cameo in the final moments.
And really, if you look back at Moffat's tenure as showrunner, he's been building very much on the foundation that Davies laid down. Yes, he retconned the Time War's ending — which Davies probably would have done, too, if he'd stayed on much longer. But the biggest surprise about Moffat's era is how much it feels like a continuation of Davies' era, rather than something radically different. Doctor Who has never had two guiding hands whose approaches were as similar as Moffat and Davies.
Oh, and one last thought — Capaldi is, not surprisingly, fantastic in his first moments. And I have high hopes. The two best Moffat scripts since he took over as showrunner have both been about angry old men — "A Christmas Carol" and "Day of the Doctor" — so here's hoping he brings some of that energy to the Twelfth Doctor.