“And now it’s time for one last bow, like all your other selves. 11’s hour is over now, the clock is striking 12.”
That’s the poem Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) reads to The Doctor (Matt Smith) as his finale arrives. And what a farewell to Matt Smith it is. The problem is that there’s 55 minutes of screen-time before it.
Yes, The Time of the Doctor is here – and Steven Moffat is determined to make the most of it. Daleks, Cybermen, Weeping Angels, Sontarans; all the familiar favourites get a cameo appearance in his goodbye to the Matt Smith era. But so much stuff is crammed in that there’s not very much room for any real sense of climax. Plot-wise, it’s an incredible piece of writing. Emotion-wise, it’s just a disappointment.
Moffat makes his intentions clear from the get-go. A mysterious message is broadcast across space, attracting the usual suspects from galaxies past, present and future. The source? Trenzalore, the graveyard of The Doctor, a planet we last visited post-The Doctor’s death in The Name of The Doctor. A few mythology re-writes later and The Doctor seems well on his way to fulfilling that destiny, helped along by The Silence.
Remember them? They’re back too, along with a whole host of explanations for the mess that was Season 5 and 6. Who blew up the TARDIS? Who are The Silence? And, for that matter, who is The Doctor? Moffat ties everything up, for once leaving no loose ends behind – a shame in some ways, because if felt like he’d answered that last question in the excellent 50th anniversary special, and a relief in others, because now we never have to talk about this narrative arc ever again.
Moffat is so busy putting a giant bow on every hurried knot, though, that he forgets about the thing that matters most: telling a satisfying story. Holed up in a town called Christmas, Smith’s Doctor decides to live out his last years defending a cute village of people (who can only tell the truth) from a range of enemies. That sparks some neat bursts of creativity: a wooden Cyberman intrigues, while the introduction of the Papal Mainframe, led by the intimidating Tasha Lem (a supremely feisty and fun Orla Brady), makes you wish we spent more time at church in recent series instead of looking at giant lookalike robots. It also sees The Doctor break the rules, first of all by telling lies multiple times and then by finding a way to regenerate.
The latter is, of course, no secret; for a show whose motto is timey-wimey, the mechanism by which Doctor number 11 (or 12) is allowed to become 12 (or 13) was always going to be taken with a pinch of salt. And Matt Smith sells it brilliantly, one last hurrah for the bow-tied mad professor. But despite his superb old man make-up and characteristically unpredictable delivery, the script requires hundreds of years to pass within just a few minutes; the scale looks good, but even with a dramatic voiceover, it never carries any weight.
An earnest closing monologue and some touching moments with his companion tug at the heartstring, but with no strong story to engage with, there’s an unexpected lack of heart – and that, perhaps more than anything, has been what defines the great moments of modern Doctor Who. The juxtaposition of Amy Pond and Clara, meanwhile, only ends up highlighting the similarity of their semi-romantic relationships, undoing the nice interludes at The Oswald family flat, including an amusing granny.
Still, The Time of the Doctor almost makes up for it as the new hour finally strikes. When Peter Capaldi appears, it’s with a pop rather than a bang; an underplayed move away from CGI face-swaps that works unexpectedly well. A tantalising glimpse of his angry confusion, coupled with Clara’s reaction and several mentions of Gallifrey, hints at a promising future for the TARDIS.
Overall, then, a fitting send-off for the 11th Doctor: an impressive showcase for a wonderful actor, but as a piece of entertainment, this timey-wimey episode was more than a bit wibbly-wobbly.
The Time of the Doctor is available on BBC iPlayer until 15th January 2018, along with every other modern regeneration episode.
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Photo: Adrian Rogers (BBC)