Doctor Who – Christmas Special 2013 – Recap: The Man Who Stayed for Christmas
Recap and review of Doctor Who – Christmas Special 2013 – The Time of the Doctor:
Although the renewed Doctor Who has been plenty popular during the respective runs of Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant, the tenure of Matt Smith has ushered the series into an entirely different realm of popularity, not simply because of Smith’s adventurous spirit, but also the emotional heft of the writing underpinning it. “The Time of the Doctor” is an episode that pays homage to not only what Smith has done, but also what showrunner Steven Moffat has accomplished in utilizing his talents so effectively.
When it was first announced that some twentysomething had inherited one of the summit roles for an actor in British television, there was some reticence from the fanbase, if not outright hostility. “Oh great, another wannabe heartthrob Doctor.” Or, “The hell? Isn’t The Doctor supposed to be wise and worldly? How wise could a young guy be?” If Smith didn’t immediately silence critics upon his debut, he at least set minds at ease. And he would only grow more endearing as his run went on, to the point where, for many fans, he’s what they think of when they think of The Doctor – not the brain-crunchingly popular David Tennant, nor even the iconic, legendary Tom Baker. Matt Smith has embodied all of the best qualities of The Doctor: the avuncular warmth and tenderness, the otherworldly personality, the temper, the world-weary wisdom, his wonderfully self-referential sense of humor and accompanying quirkiness, his ingenuity and resolve, his inner-conflict, and his downright goodness. It’s all there, and has been throughout the run, offering one of the most complete portrayals of the character of all the actors who’ve assumed the role.
So it’s a moment of great immensity when the Eleventh Doctor regenerates in “The Time of the Doctor,” as it’s the culmination of all of The Doctor’s experiences in this body, all of the enemies he’s made, and the friends he’s cherished, and the ones he misses. The episode itself is a rocky, tonally uneven affair, but I’m not entirely sure any of that really matters when set against the enormity of Smith’s departure, as his regeneration is a moment of triumph, sadness, and catharsis.
The story centers on all of The Doctor’s (Matt Smith) enemies convening on a planet that is giving off a Gallifreyan reading. After a brief visit with Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) and her family for Christmas dinner (complete with a holographic nudity gag that works far better than I thought it would), The Doctor sets off to investigate along with Clara and Handles, a Cyberman head he’s repurposed into a sort of on-board assistant. The mysterious planet is barred by a force field, but The Doctor is able to get through and investigate the matter thanks to the Papal Mainframe, an orbiting space church led by Mother Superious, Tasha Lem (Orla Brady), a longtime friend of The Doctor’s. The Doctor transports to the planet below, and it’s home to a quaint little town of near-perpetual darkness and snow enveloped by a truth field that prevents lying — naturally, it’s a town called “Christmas”. And it’s in Christmas where all the mysteries surrounding the Eleventh Doctor come to a head, as Christmas just happens to be on a little planet called Trenzalore — the prophesied final resting place of The Doctor.
The Doctor recognizes the significance of the setting, but has no choice but to remain: it turns out the Gallifreyan signal is coming from the crack in the universe that has plagued the Eleventh Doctor since his regeneration — a crack found in one of the buildings in the town of Christmas. Due to the events of “The Day of the Doctor,” Gallifrey is now stuck in a pocket universe, from which the Time Lords are calling out to The Doctor. All The Doctor has to do is say his own name, and the Time Lords will hear the call and know that this universe is safe for habitation. However, this will have the unfortunate side effect of renewing the Time War, as the Time Lords will be in perpetual combat with the litany of enemies intent on keeping them from regaining their place in this universe.
And so the forces unanimously align against The Doctor, with Tasha Lem threatening to burn Christmas to cinders should The Doctor bring the Time Lords back. Echoing his declaration that “Earth is protected” (in his premiere episode, “The Eleventh Hour”), The Doctor places Christmas under his protection. He sends Clara back to Earth in the TARDIS against her will, as a means of keeping her safe — but she simply ends up stuck in a time vortex and brought back. Yet by the time she’s brought back to Christmas, hundreds of years have passed — years in which The Doctor has defended Christmas from enemy incursions (including wooden Cybermen, attempting to bypass the anti-technology field around the planet). He’s also aged…a lot (and has wound up looking a bit like William Hartnell, the very first Doctor).
As The Doctor defends Christmas as its sheriff, he comes to slowly forget having lived any other life but this one…at least until he and Clara are lured into a trap by a Dalek-converted Tasha Lem. And it’s here where the mysteries of the Eleventh Doctor come together: in the intervening centuries, the Papal Mainframe has become the Church of the Silence, an organization dedicated to preventing The Doctor from saying his name and bringing the Time Lords back from the pocket universe. In attempting to accomplish this goal, the Silence have sent agents back in time in an attempt to manipulate events to prevent The Doctor from ever getting to this point.
From the explosion of the TARDIS in the Series 5 finale (“The Big Bang”), to the entire upbringing of River Song — trained pretty much from birth to eliminate The Doctor — the Silence has been attempting to keep this whole wearisome business from getting off the ground. But they’ve failed — and continue to fail, as The Doctor inspires Tasha Lem to resist the Dalek that has overtaken her, and this gives them enough time to escape. Ultimately, although The Doctor promises never to send Clara away again, he goes back on his word and leaves her behind on Earth, as Trenzalore is overrun now that the barrier to the planet has been lifted. However, Tasha comes back to Earth and retrieves Clara, revealing that she knows how to fly the TARDIS. “Flying the TARDIS is easy,” Tasha says. “It’s flying the Doctor that’s hard.”
In the time since The Doctor left Clara behind, he’s aged even more considerably, and his resourcefulness and mental acuity have deteriorated as well. He isn’t nearly as resourceful as he’d once been, admitting that he has no plan to stop the invasion of Trenzalore. Clara is brought to The Doctor to ensure he doesn’t die alone, and although she doesn’t want to admit he could really die, The Doctor confirms that between his 11 previous regenerations, in addition to his time as The War Doctor, and the Tenth Doctor’s brief disposal of regenerative energy, he has no more regenerations to use. And so he’s pretty much just waiting for the end, having refused to release the Time Lords. He goes to face the Daleks one last time, to meet his end. But Clara can’t stand to see this, and so she returns to the crack and begs the Time Lords to help him, saying that they don’t need to hear his true name, since “The Doctor” is enough.
And it’s a Christmas miracle, as the Time Lords hear Clara’s plea and grant The Doctor a new set of regenerations. As his regeneration begins, The Doctor uses the regenerative energy to obliterate the Dalek ships, ending the conflict and saving Christmas, if not all of Trenzalore. As Clara searches the rubble for The Doctor, she comes upon The Tardis — where she finds The Doctor has reverted back to his youthful appearance. Apparently, his latest regeneration is taking a while to begin properly, which is convenient enough, since it gives him time to say goodbye. Clara doesn’t want to let him go, but this is far from the sad, lonely departure for David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor. The Eleventh Doctor faces his change with acceptance, acknowledging that all things change, and that nothing remains the same forever. And then come the waterworks, as he begins to hallucinate Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) as a little girl, “the first face this face saw,” and now the last — Amy, in her adult form, walks up to The Doctor and says goodnight to her “Raggedy Man.”
It’s a stunningly simple, beautiful moment, underscored by how promptly it’s ripped away. There is no gradual transition from Matt Smith into Peter Capaldi. In fact, the moment is quick, like ripping off a band-aid. The Doctor snaps his head and suddenly he’s the Twelfth Doctor. And after confusedly marveling at the new set of kidneys he’s gotten, he recognizes that the TARDIS is crashing, in a wonderful throwback to the Eleventh Doctor’s first appearance. However, unlike the Eleventh Doctor, the Twelfth doesn’t meet the moment with an adventurous spirit of gusto: terrified, he asks Clara if she has any idea how to fly this thing. Merry Christmas, indeed.
Although I wasn’t over-the-moon about the episode itself, “The Time of the Doctor” just gets so many of the little details right. The Doctor’s friendship with a young Christmas citizen named Barnable (Jack Hollington) is remarkably touching, particularly once he begins mistaking other young men for Barnable once the Siege of Trenzalore is underway. It’s more than likely that Barnable is dead, and The Doctor, in his old age, has yet to really reconcile with that actuality. But even without extrapolating from certain plotlines, there are just as many moving moments: The Doctor’s bond with Handles (Kayvan Novak) is unexpectedly poignant, and the robot’s death is one of the most surprisingly affecting scenes of the episode, as The Doctor congratulates the Cyberman head on a job well-done, and mourns his missing one last sunrise. But the centerpiece here is the relationship between The Doctor and Clara.
What starts out as a jovial pairing early in the episode grows more poignant as the hour rolls on, as Clara realizes The Doctor might not actually be around forever, and she’s taken him for granted, in some respects. There’s idol worship involved in Clara’s reckoning of The Doctor, but that doesn’t mean she’s not headstrong in her own right. Sure, Clara isn’t really the equal partner Donna Noble was, but she’s more than capable of holding her own against The Doctor, and so their pairing has been a splendid match. But here, we see Clara shrinking a bit when faced with her own fear over possibly losing this man, and we see The Doctor shrink a bit as well when faced with possibly losing his “Impossible Girl” once again. Although they haven’t been companions for all that long, it’s clear just how deeply felt the relationship between The Doctor and Clara turns out to be. Hopefully, it’s a dynamic that carries over into Capaldi’s run, as Smith and Coleman had terrific platonic chemistry.
“The Time of the Doctor” is an episode of devastatingly poignant moments, and one that ties Smith’s entire run together in wholly satisfying fashion. It’s commendable to see Moffat bring Smith full-circle, and the complete narrative of the Eleventh Doctor is one that I think will age better upon repeat viewing, as nearly every question is answered. And it’s a tall order to fulfill that kind of catharsis in just one hour, and although the episode occasionally suffers from an unevenness in tone and pacing, “The Time of the Doctor” is equal parts thrilling and resonant. In short, I couldn’t think of a better way for Doctor Who to bring down the curtains on one era, while ushering in another.
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