Doctor Who complete reviews: The Time of The Doctor
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Matt Smith leaves on a personal high note, but that doesn't extend to the episode itself...
Sometimes, some of us Doctor Who aficionados are an ungrateful bunch. After spending more than a decade in the wilderness, the programme was brought back into the fold and welcomed with open arms and critical acclaim. And yet, from time to time, us fans just can't resist the odd grumble when things don't quite go our way. Me myself, I'm guilty as charged – if the era of Russell T Davies was, by and large, very much to my liking (albeit with one or two scowls), the last couple of years haven't thrilled me so much. A good chunk of my last few reviews, in particular, have read like the frenzied burblings of Victor Meldrew.
Which kind of makes me feel a bit sad. I tuned into the behind-the-scenes documentary of the last story, The Time Of The Doctor, and evidently, everyone was giving it 110% to make Matt Smith go out with a bang. The main man himself looked genuinely distressed at times as he contemplated a life without bow ties and fish fingers and custard. You'd have to have a heart of granite not to be moved by his last choked up farewell message of thanks to the fans.
Which makes it a shame that despite all that hard work, The Time Of The Doctor isn't the final triumphant bow that Smith deserved. I would have loved to have praised Smith's swansong to the hilt, but it's with regret that I can't. Put bluntly, it's five minutes of sheer brilliance surrounded by 55 minutes of dull, rambling gibberish.
A lot is asked of The Time Of The Doctor. Not only does it have to wrap up the outstanding mysteries of the past three years, it also has to tell a story. While the episode generally accomplishes the first mission, it does so at the cost of the second aim. On paper, The Time Of The Doctor promises a lot, with a menagerie of returning monsters, cool battles and explosions and a game-changing conclusion. On screen, it fails to live up to that promise – since, yet again, there's very little in the way of actual drama. The pace of the story is also wildly askew in this one – the episode jumps about all over the place like a malfunctioning DVD. It's as if someone had spilt mulled wine onto the broadcast copy disc.
The story – such as it is – revolves around The Doctor facing his own mortality while helping the good people of Trenzalore. There's no escaping destiny in Doctor Who, and the threat of Trenzalore has been brewing for quite some time now. It's easy to understand why many would assume that the Eleventh (or whatever number he is this week) Doctor will somehow come to grief on a gloomy, barren wasteland of a planet. That's a typically grim backdrop that Doctor Who used to produce so well. In fact, the Eleventh Doctor spends his final years on what seems to be the set of Cliff Richard's Mistletoe And Wine video. No wonder he'd made such a fuss over Trenzalore – he's probably worried that he'll meet the ageing crooner, who will then somehow force him into a duet while swaying his arms to and fro to the dirge like a drunken ape.
In typical let-down fashion, the planet's populated by a gaggle of stock clichés who are, naturally, all instantly forgettable. They look like the standard Christmassy people you'd find on many a festive card or a tin of biscuits. They include the by-now token kid, who again, looks like he's escaped from the set of The Children Of Green Knowe – and also, the obligatory guest star of the week. This time around, it's Tessa Peake-Jones, better known as Raquel from Only Fools And Horses and the stern head honcho at Holby City (that seat's currently occupied by a woman who sounds uncannily like Kenneth Williams). The problem is, Tessa gets maybe about three or four lines to say, and that's it. Same goes for popular actress Sheila Reid, a familiar face better known to millions as Madge from Benidorm and to Doctor Who fans as Etta from Vengeance On Varos. The difference in characterisation is miles apart – while Etta felt like a real person with depth and background, Clara's gran gets a typically mawkish speech and that's about it. Not that Reid doesn't play Clara's gran well – she does. It just feels like a waste of great acting talent if they only get a part with as many lines as a riddle found in a Christmas cracker.
"There's still a heck of a lot that doesn't make sense in The Time Of The Doctor. While Moffat answers plenty of questions, he's opening fresh cans of worms in other places"
This is one of the many problems with the era as a whole, which baffles me. Great actors and actresses are brought into a universally revered show and are then, more often than not, reduced to background scenery. It's not as if Moffat can't write good characterisation. Dr Constantine got little screen time, but there was enough back story and motivation to make him memorable enough. Then there's Nancy. Sally Sparrow. Billy Shipton. Strackman Lux. Miss Evangelista... During the Davies years, Moffat came up with some great characters, and yet in his own era, it's difficult to find similar examples who have stood the test of time. The characters who are more vocal tend to be along the lines of River Song. She was mercifully absent for this story, but then along comes Tasha Lem, who's basically River by any other name. Let's see – she's an old acquaintance of The Doctor. She flirts with The Doctor. She's also captured the same line of weary smugness – her opening bid is “Hey, babes”. Just imagine Alex Kingston overdubbing Orla Brady's dialogue, and imagine that Tasha Lem walks around with a Sideshow Bob wig, and it's very much a case of potayto potahhto.
Still, what's decent characterisation when there are too many questions to be answered? What's the deal with the Crack? What's the deal with Silence Will Fall? Who made the TARDIS explode? Fair play to Moffat, he does manage to answer these and tie up all the loose ends. But then, if I wanted answers to questions, I would have watched University Challenge (the old editions with Bamber Gascoigne, not Paxo). A key problem with The Time Of The Doctor is that it demands that you be a Doctor Who expert who's been avidly paying attention for the last three years. Clever plotting is no crime, but it's a case of “Know your audience”. The last thing that full-up, boozed-out viewers will want to think about on Christmas Day is “Why did the Church Of The Papal Mainframe engineer a psychopath to kill The Doctor?” It's a difficult balance – all good Doctor Who needs the right amount of intelligent discourse and crowd-pleasing elements. This time around, it's too inaccessible for the casual viewer to latch on to. I can't help feeling that this is the sort of episode that's solely designed for consumption on the Planet Of The Sheldon Coopers, whose inhabitants can debate and over-analyse the story from now until the universe explodes into small fragments.
If you're going to wear the geek party hat and play this game, then there's still a heck of a lot that doesn't make sense in The Time Of The Doctor. While Moffat answers plenty of questions, he's opening fresh cans of worms in other places. Take the whole “Doctor can't regenerate any more” conundrum. Think back to The Impossible Astronaut when River apparently shot The Doctor. OK, so it wasn't the real Doctor, but the copy sure started to emit regeneration energy. So where was all this fuss about not being able to regenerate any more times in 2011? Sloppy plotting, or what? In the present day, apparently, The Doctor can't think of a solution to the whole Trenzalore problem in 300 odd years. He's been faced with similarly weighty problems in the past, and still managed to figure a way out. Perhaps his wig's pressing too heavily on his cerebral cortex. And then there's all that nonsense about The Doctor not being able to say his name directly to the Time Lords on the other side of The Crack. Couldn't he have just said something along the lines of “It's me. I got put on trial by you guys many times. I killed Goth in the Matrix. I helped defeat Omega for you. Twice. Now, for Spandrell's sake, help me out!” Again, it's left to Clara to help sort out the problem. There's too much plotting to disentangle in The Time Of The Doctor, so perhaps it was inevitable that the end result resembles a pile of 200 coat-hangers meshed into one wiry mess.
"The Weeping Angels have been over-used to the point of annoyance, and The Doctor and Clara escape from them in the blink of an eye"
The Time Of The Doctor features lots of crashes and bangs and returning monsters. But the dramatic side of the story needs much more cooking than Clara's turkey. The problem with having lots of bangs and flashes is that you need a good, dramatic story to back them up – otherwise, it all feels a little on the empty side. The returning monsters get a raw deal again. The Weeping Angels have been over-used to the point of annoyance, and The Doctor and Clara escape from them in the blink of an eye. The Sontarans, it seems, are now only to be used as silly potato-headed figures of fun. The Daleks get to yell a lot, but again, prove to be lousy shots and empty threats on castors. Tasha and her buddies are turned into human Daleks, but there's zero build-up to this revelation. Even after Tasha's been converted and “killed”, she's remarkably agile, running around and even piloting the TARDIS on The Doctor's behalf. Everybody. Lives. Zzzzzzzzzzzz.
It's not just the monsters who get a rawer deal than the food in Hell's Kitchen. Sadly, Doctor Eleven's last story doesn't offer him much in the way of dignity. Not only is he made to strut around without any clothes on or turned into a baldy, he's also buried under layers of ageing latex make-up and then finally regressed into a cross between Professor Lazarus and Albert Einstein. Despite battling through every indignity under the sun thrown his way, Matt Smith delivers one of his finest performances as The Doctor. In parts, I'd even be tempted to say it's his best showing as The Doctor. Thankfully, the OTT undergraduate waving of arms and over-wacky behaviour has been shoved out of the window, and the wise, mercurial alien comes back with a vengeance. Smith's a revelation as the aged version of his Doctor. He plays the lines with a winning mix of vulnerability, humour and pathos (particularly the Christmas cracker scene). There's a touch of vicious irony in that this most youthful of Doctors ends up as a wizened, weakened old man, ready to face his final day. While the material provided for him hasn't been that hot in this story, Matt Smith commands the screen in every scene he's in. Ditto for Jenna Coleman, who again overcomes the thin dimensions of her character to deliver a lovely performance. She's a key player in making the regeneration scene work like a charm, and for once, there's a glimmer of hope that maybe Clara's character will show more emotion and personality in future stories.
The regeneration scene is one of those ironic cases of “If only the rest of the story had been this good”. It lacks the dramatic momentum of David Tennant's last scenes, but the crisp writing and the superb acting from Smith and Coleman add up to a last bow that's achingly sad. The Eleventh Doctor acknowledges that his time's up, and while he's upset at the prospect of change, he's proud of who he was (“I will always remember when The Doctor was me”) and what he's accomplished. Clara's teary reaction recalls the death of the Third Doctor, and her plaintive cry of “Please don't change” really sells the moment. Two other lovely touches here: the neat cameo of Karen Gillan as Amy (also in wig mode) and her final “Raggedy man – good night” and Doctor Eleven's poignant dropping of the bow tie to the floor. It's all highly moving in its own understated way and provides Matt Smith's Doctor with one gasp of greatness.
"Moffat's fairytale vision for the show didn't agree with me, resulting in a show that's lost its dramatic drive and it's original raison d'etre of scaring kids"
Too bad that the regeneration itself is rubbish. Again, it's like the broadcast copy DVD skipped a few seconds, since it's literally a case of BAM! New face! Where's the changeover? I've seen negative reviews of the Third Doctor's regeneration, but at least it had the good grace to show the transformation from one Doctor into another. Here, there's nothing – it's over just like that. While I've resigned myself to the fact that Moffat doesn't like showing death on screen, the least he could have done was to have given Doctor Eleven a decent transformation into Peter Capaldi's Doctor.
I'm not so sure about the new Doctor. The first few lines are generic, by-the-book post-regeneration trauma babble. New kidneys. Lots of lurching from side to side. Amnesia. Capaldi's a top-class actor, and securing him for the part was a huge coup for the show. I'm just wondering where the show goes from here. Moffat's fairytale vision for the show didn't agree with me, resulting in a show that's lost its dramatic drive and it's original raison d'etre of scaring kids. The complexity of the show was an admirable attempt at trying something different, but it's too bad that it came at a price. Not only did the drama get diluted to watery minimum, the characterisation became similarly non-existent. Perhaps the biggest regret I have about the Matt Smith era is how all that potential was wasted – while there were some great stories tucked away in the last three years, there was still that nagging feeling at the back of my mind of how the era could have been so much more consistent and so much better.
The Time Of The Doctor sums up my disappointment with the last three years. It's a swansong that sacrifices good, enjoyable storytelling in favour of problem solving, box ticking and overly convoluted plotting. But, luckily, it's Jenna Coleman, and especially, Matt Smith who save the day. Smith looks set to have a long and prosperous career ahead of him – he's made Doctor Eleven a successful and popular incarnation in his own right, and while some of the stories didn't serve him particularly well, he's always given the role his all, providing laughs, quirks, and one or two tears along the way.
And he made the bow tie cool again – now that's one heck of an achievement.
John Bensalhia limbered up for his Shadowlocked writing with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work here. His Twitter feed is @JohnBensalhia.
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