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Doctor Who: The Time of the Doctor (Review)

It’s okay, Barnable, don’t worry. I have got a plan. Off you pop.


I haven’t got a plan, but people love it when I say that.

Doctor, what are you going to do?

I don’t know. Talk very fast. Hope something good happens. Take the credit. That’s generally how it works.

– the Doctor and Clara discuss standard operating procedure

An epic struggle for universal peace lasting centuries on a back water world; a conflict spanning generations; the potential to re-spark the Time War; the possibility of burning the turkey. The epic and intimate co-mingle in The Time of the Doctor.

In many respects, The Time of the Doctor serves as an effective counterpoint to The End of Time. Even the title seems to allude towards the Tenth Doctor’s final episode, as if to suggest that “time” is a thing that passes naturally rather than ending brutally. “I don’t want to go,” the Tenth Doctor pleaded in his final moments, a line that Moffat gently tried to re-write at the end of The Day of the Doctor. The Eleventh Doctor is more even-handed. “But you, you are the Doctor,” Clara assures him. “Yep, and I always will be,” he replies. “But times change, and so must I.”

This is when the magic happens...

This is when the magic happens…

(In fact, Moffat has a bit of gentle fun at the expense of The End of Time. Whereas the Tenth Doctor reluctantly sacrificed himself to save Wilf, the Eleventh Doctor quite selfless spends his entire life defending the town of Christmas on the planet of Trenzalore. Discussing the fake regeneration at the climax of The Stolen Earth, the Eleventh Doctor quips, I had vanity issues at the time.” He could easily be hinting at the hubris that built up towards the Tennant and Davies era’s swansong.)

In contrast, The Time of the Doctor was relatively low key. Well, as low key as an episode featuring all of the Doctor’s classic adversaries laying siege to one planet across hundreds of years as the threat of a reignited Time War looms large in the horizon. Still, as wonderful as that epic scale might be, The Time of the Doctor feels like a spiritual companion to Moffat’s other Christmas episodes – the story of the loneliest man in the universe saving Christmas (the town and the holiday), on an intimate scale that just happens to be epic; “the man who stayed for Christmas.”

What's cooking?

What’s cooking?

That’s typically clever Moffat wordplay at work there, much like the poem about the clock striking twelve or the image of the Eleventh Doctor regenerating atop a clocktower at midnight. One of the defining attributes of the Moffat era has been the sly twists and turns – including more than a couple of misleading episode titles. Indeed, The Time of the Doctor revisits The Name of the Doctor in more than just location. Here, as the Time Lords demand “Doctor Who?”, Clara is smart enough to figure out the only answer that matters. The Doctor’s name is the Doctor.

It’s a nice little way of tying up that core theme of Moffat’s run, one the writer made quite explicit at the climax of the second episode of his tenure. The Beast Below allowed the Doctor to admit that he calls himself “Doctor” for a reason; that he accepts the name as a statement of purpose and intent. The idea has come up repeatedly during Moffat’s tenure – the idea that the Doctor in the Time War could not call himself “the Doctor”, or that the universe actually gets the word from him.

A human Dalek?

A human Dalek?

It is an earnest take on the suggestion in The Sound of Drums that the Doctor self-identifies as “the man who makes people better.” So the Doctor is really the only name that he needs. In typically Moffat-esque fashion, The Time of the Doctor gets to shrewdly avoid delivering on the vague prophecy from the end of The Wedding of River Song about “the oldest question.” Teasing the fans about the possible reveal of the Doctor’s original name, Moffat pulled a wonderful sleight of hand.

The character’s birth name – that name written on the crib in A Good Man Goes to War – ultimately means nothing. Any reveal would be anti-climactic. One of the more intriguing – and, perhaps, controversial – themes of the Moffat era is the subversion of the epic. Moffat has a tendency to set up huge moments and gigantic reveals, only to swerve sharply and claim that they don’t matter at all. The real point of the story is not so much the “timey wimey” mystery as it is something more personal.

We take our bow ties off to you, sir!

We take our bow ties off to you, sir!

Sometimes this approach works. The Pandorica Opens featured all of the Doctor’s enemies laying a trap at Stonehenge before the universe exploded, only for The Big Bang to devolve to four characters running around the British Museum. Sometimes the approach does not work. Spending half a season (in the fiftieth anniversary year) building up a mystery around Clara only to reveal in The Name of the Doctor that the resolution is that there is no mystery (she’s just a normal person – and is awesome) is bound to alienate some viewers.

The Moffat era refuses to hold the hands of viewers. There are those who are still unsatisfied with the explanation for various events over the past couple of seasons. There are probably still people wondering about why there aren’t any ducks in the duck pond in The Eleventh Hour. Moffat has a tendency to trust the audience to fill in a significant portion of the “connective tissue”, leading his plot arcs to feel a little disjointed and confusing. (It’s not unlike Grant Morrison’s approach to writing comic books, most evident in Final Crisis.)

The sound of Silence...

The sound of Silence…

More than that, Moffat has a habit to shrug his shoulders and reflect that the actual plot reveals don’t matter. Dark Water is essentially a brilliant forty-five minute joke about how the Doctor can’t figure out that the Cybermen are waiting for him at the cliffhanger. So expecting The Time of the Doctor to wrap a neat little bow around the Moffat era is perhaps a little pointless. As with the message echoing through the void, it turns out that the answers are unimportant. The questions are more interesting.

To be entirely fair, The Time of the Doctor does provide an explanation for the big unanswered questions looming over the Eleventh Doctor’s tenure, but in the most fleeting of manners. The entire plot of the show’s sixth season is explained in a couple of throwaway lines that might easily be cut from an international broadcast. The explanation for the events of The Big Bang is offered almost as an afterthought. The Time of the Doctor even makes a point to note how this dangling plot threads really don’t bother the Doctor. “I thought I’d left the bath running.”

The Doctor dances...

The Doctor dances…

It is all a very clever – perhaps too clever – shell game. The Big Bang is not an episode to be enjoyed as the build-up to some bigger multi-season arc; it is an episode to be enjoyed on its own terms. The death of the Doctor in The Impossible Astronaut is not a stepping-stone to some bigger story; instead, it is simply a great storytelling hook in its own right. Moffat seems to be arguing that the audience should accept each story on its own merits, rather than expecting it to exist as just one link in a long chain.

As with “the Impossible Girl”, this can feel like something of a cruel joke on an audience conditioned to expect extended epics and (really) long-form storytelling. On the other hand, it is also an argument that every story should matter on its own terms. The Time of the Doctor should not be measured as the culmination of plot points spread across four broadcast years, but as a thoughtful regeneration story in its own right. Moffat has a tendency to playfully tweak the noses of certain types of viewer, and this is one of the more blatant examples.

Silence will fall...

Silence will fall…

In fact, the biggest question lingering after The Time of the Doctor is not anything carried over from earlier episodes; it seems unlikely to be anything addressed by a future adventure. Without explicitly stating anything, The Time of the Doctor seems to suggest that Tasha Lem is River Song. Tasha Lem. “I’d never have made it here alive without River Song,” the Doctor notes pointedly. Later, he advises Tasha, “You have been fighting the psychopath inside you all your life. Shut up and win.”

Later, Clara is surprised to find Tasha operating the TARDIS console – something associated with River Song. “Flying the Tardis was always easy,” Tasha confesses to Clara. “It was flying the Doctor I never quite mastered.” While it is entirely possible that Tasha Lem is a completely original character with an unseen relationship to the Doctor, the episode goes out of its way to suggest that Tasha Lem might be a version of River Song. It doesn’t explain how this could be, which makes it all the more intriguing and open-ended. Besides, it makes sense for River to be here.

That healthy green glow...

That healthy green glow…

After all, The Time of the Doctor is interested in paying of the big themes of the Moffat era as a whole. The Doctor’s defence of Trenzalore unfolds across a single Christmas dinner for the Oswald family, who have just finished the Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special. It’s a nice bit of the meta-commentary that Moffat likes to work into the show, turning Doctor Who into a show about watching Doctor Who. It is, after all, one of the very rare television shows that can navigate you across centuries and universes without having to leave your sitting room.

More broadly, The Time of the Doctor fits within the context of the Moffat Christmas Specials. It’s not a direct nod at a particular classic Christmas story in the same style as A Christmas Carol or The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe. Instead, it’s a story about how the Doctor tends to wander into people’s lives at Christmas, despite generally being quite lonely. As written by Moffat, the Doctor Who Christmas Special tends to feature the Doctor by himself – even if he is still with a particular companion (or set of companions) at a given moment.

Holding the line...

Holding the line…

A Christmas Carol unfolds while Amy and Rory are on their honeymoon; The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe takes place while he thinks they think that he is dead; The Snowmen is set during the Doctor’s temporary retirement; Last Christmas follows on from the Doctor’s separation from Clara after the events of Death in Heaven. These are all times when the Doctor is alone. Inevitably, however, the Doctor winds up creating a surrogate family around himself – drawing people together for the holidays.

The Time of the Doctor follows a similar pattern. The Doctor evokes The Parting of the Ways by sending Clara home twice. He faces his gravest threat alone; but not really. Just like all the other Moffat era Christmas Specials, the Doctor inevitably learns to share the holiday. This is one of the great paradoxes of the Doctor, particularly in the relaunched television show; for a lonely wanderer, he certainly has a lot of friends. At Christmas, he allows his life to intersect with those of other people, perhaps more directly and expansively than usual.

Wizzing along...

Wizzing along…

In A Christmas Carol, he visits Kazran every Christmas for years. In The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, he visits the same family on two very different Christmas Eves. In Last Christmas, he finds himself trapped with four random strangers in an exciting dream – with Shona eagerly hoping to exchange phone numbers so that they can stay in touch afterwards. Even in The Snowmen, he finds another Clara from another time, while spending time with the Paternost Gang.

Here, the Doctor spends hundreds of years in Christmas. He becomes part of the community. He mends toys. He fixes barns. He settles. He integrates. Apparently Christmas is the exception to the Doctor’s wandering ways. Here, Moffat seems to owe a bit of a debt to Cornell’s The Hopes and Fears of All the Years, which hit on the same themes associated with Christmas. Published before Moffat took over the show, The Hopes and Fears of All the Years feels like it could easily be a prelude to the Moffat Christmas Specials.

Go on, give a hand...

Go on, give a hand…

Of course, all hell breaks loose. But the Doctor does find a way to save Christmas. Moffat tears into the Daleks once again here, reinforcing the idea that, for all they are the Doctor’s iconic adversaries, they are a bit crap. “The trouble with Daleks is, they take so long to say anything,” he deadpans. “Probably die of boredom before they shoot me.” Even as he addresses them from the clock tower, the Daleks still can’t just shoot him outright. “You still can’t work up the courage to shoot me, can you?” he taunts. “You’re still worried I’ve got something up my sleeve.”

Even beyond the way that this exchange demonstrates the uselessness of the Daleks, it also taps into another key Moffat theme. The Doctor doesn’t break a sweat with these big universal threats. They are easy enough to deal with, even en masse. It’s the smaller stuff that concerns him, the little things that he has problems with. His late return severely damages Amy Pond’s emotional development. He can’t save young Melodi Pond. Here, helping Clara cook Christmas dinner is just as much of a challenge as saving the town of Christmas. The epic is intimate.

A town called Christmas...

A town called Christmas…

The intimate is also epic. If Moffat spends a lot of his time subverting the expectation of epic storytelling, he spends just as much time building up the little details. If the Tenth Doctor was “the Lonely God”, the Eleventh Doctor is “the Ragged Man.” The Tenth Doctor was a Time Lord who walked in eternity. The closing moments of The Time of the Doctor suggest that the Eleventh Doctor will be primarily defined as Amy Pond’s imaginary friend. It’s the little things, amid the galactic chaos. Tasha Lem’s opening narration describes Trenzalore as “unimportant.”

I need you. I’m cooking Christmas dinner!

I’m being shot at by Cybermen!

Well, can’t we do both?

Argh! Yeah, why not?

– Clare and the Doctor

Which is perfectly in keeping with Moffat’s vision of Doctor Who. Like a lot of Moffat’s work, there’s a sense that he’s writing from the same angle that he used to work on his sit-coms, that he’s writing the story of the Doctor learning to manage his relationships. As much as “the truth field” is a plot gimmick, it is used more like a sit-com gag. When Tasha invites the Doctor into her private room of worship, we notice the central object isn’t an altar. “That altar looks like a bed,” the Doctor exclaims. It is almost a bedroom farce.

Naked truth...

Naked truth…

Moffat’s Doctor Who is fascinated by the idea of injecting the rules of Doctor Who into more mundane everyday interactions. The Doctor enjoys a deep and meaningful relationship with a psychotic assassin programmed to kill him. He becomes a young girl’s imaginary friend. “You can’t keep using the TARDIS like this,” he advises Clara early in the episode, as Clara struggles to fix Christmas dinner. “Missed birthdays, restaurant bookings. And please, just learn how to use iPlayer.” Even time travel is just something with which the characters can play.

The Time of the Doctor has little time for science-fiction trappings, despite its epic scale. At one point, the Doctor even laments Handles’ inability to speak in anything but science-fiction clichés. After asking Handles to figure out the signal emanating from the planet, Handles reports, “Message decoding. Message analysis proceeding. Information available. The message is a request for information.” The Doctor has no time for such awkward phrasing. “It’s a question,” he insists. “Why can’t you just say it’s a question?” Make it something understandable; something human.

His performance was a bit wooden...

His performance was a bit wooden…

Quite a few of the gags in The Time of the Doctor involve nudity, an derive humour from inappropriate displays of nudity or misunderstandings surrounding it. The Doctor is so dysfunctional he doesn’t think to extend his clothes to make them visible to Clara’s family. When Clara and the Doctor land in Christmas, the Doctor begins to rub her in a very suggestive way – particularly if both of them are naked. Moffat is clearly more interested in the relationship dynamic than he is with the bigger plot points or sci-fi elements.

Interestingly, the nudity seems to call forward to Deep Breath. The idea of being naked in front of somebody reflects Moffat’s approach to the Twelfth Doctor – suggesting that perhaps the Twelfth Doctor is a more honest reflection of his true self than the persona he wore around her as the Eleventh Doctor. Indeed, The Time of the Doctor hints towards the title of Deep Breath with a line towards the regeneration, as the Eleventh Doctor reflects, “It all just disappears, doesn’t it? Everything you are, gone in a moment, like breath on a mirror.”

Get you to the church on time...

Get you to the church on time…

A mirror becomes a key plot point in Deep Breath – a way for the Twelfth Doctor to deal with his own identity issues. The Eleventh Doctor’s suggestion that an identity is like breath on a mirror seems to imply that perhaps deeper elements of the personality come out with deeper breath. One of the big ideas of Deep Breath is that the Doctor is no longer “flirting” with the universe (or the audience); instead, he is asking the universe to accept him for who he is deep down. The “rollercoaster” gag in the teaser is another call forward to the Twelfth Doctor’s tenure.

There are also echoes of Last Christmas to be seen in The Time of the Doctor, foreshadowing the following Christmas Special. Last Christmas cheekily compared the Doctor to Santa Claus, a fantasy that is no less powerful for being imaginary. The Time of the Doctor makes the same comparison in a more subtle manner. The Doctor moves to a town called Christmas and grows old there. Although we see few of his interactions with adults, he seems to have become a hit with the children; he protects them, makes them toys, becomes a fixture of stories.

Trying to get a Handle on the situation...

Trying to get a Handle on the situation…

At the same time, the episode hits on some of the baggage from the rest of the Matt Smith era. When the Doctor’s TARDIS returns to Trenzalore, he clearly considers leaving. However, the Doctor seems to change his mind when confronted by Barnabus. Barnabus makes such an impression that the Doctor is still asking for him, hundreds of years later. The implication is obvious. He is still atoning for abandoning Amelia Pond in The Eleventh Hour, still trying to make things right. The Eleventh Doctor’s last story is the story about deciding not to leave a child in need.

It is worth noting that Moffat also takes the time to try and correct one of the more serious problems with The Crimson Horror. In Mark Gatiss’ episode, many fans were shocked by the Doctor suddenly and passionately kissing Jenny – an old friend who is also married. Here, the Doctor tries a similar move on Tasha, only to get a similar rebuke. “Kiss me when I ask for it,” she advises him, making it clear that the Doctor still has difficulty with boundary issues. The Doctor is still learning how to form proper and healthy relationships.

The long sought after return of the monoids...

The long sought after return of the monoids…

Of course, The Time of the Doctor does demonstrate that the Doctor is learning. Clara remains a fiercely independent character, with a life outside the TARDIS. She’s not even travelling with the Doctor at the start of the episode, having her own adventure. For all the criticism that Moffat attracts (some of it well earned), there is a sense that he is also willing to learn. Like Tasha’s firm rejection of the Doctor, Clara’s developed and mature relationship with the Doctor demonstrates the show’s willingness to learn from its mistakes.

Clara’s relationship remains a somewhat healthier take on the companion dynamic, a companion who isn’t defined by the Doctor, and who has her own life beyond travelling in space and time. There’s a sense that the Doctor may have found a companion who will be equipped to deal with life outside the TARDIS when she must eventually part ways with he new friend. It’s a massive step forward for the show. It is a relief that that the show has figured a way to avoid the problem Sarah Jane raised in School Reunion of the Doctor being the companion’s entire life.

Snow angels...

Snow angels…

Indeed, Moffat even finds a new spin on regeneration. He doesn’t treat it as a death, like the Tenth Doctor did in The End of Time. Instead, Moffat argues that it’s a perfect analogy for life itself. The Doctor argues that everybody changes as they grow and develop. It’s certainly a more mature relationship with himself than he had the last time around. At the same time, it’s about learning to be at peace with yourself. Change is natural and inevitable, the Doctor suggests.

Which is, after all, the perfect sentiment for the show’s fiftieth anniversary season – a year about celebrating the past and preparing for the future. After all, while The Time of the Doctor has Tasha observe that it’s impossible to change the past, the future is an entirely new world. It’s full of wonder and potential – change and evolution. Moffat’s take on Doctor Who is very much about trying new things and shaking up what the audience thinks they know – even as it draws on the show’s rich history.

Tomb of the Cybermen...

Tomb of the Cybermen…

More than that, Moffat takes the opportunity presented by a regeneration story to tie the concept of regeneration into something more relatable and down-to-earth. The Eleventh Doctor has occasionally been presented as an old man trapped inside a young man’s body, and The Time of the Doctor allows the character to age and mature – to grow old and face mortality. These human moments are the emotional heart of The Time of the Doctor, as the Doctor begs Handles to stay. “One more dawn; you can do it. You’ve got it in you. Come on, just hang on in there.”

The Time of the Doctor posits regeneration as a process of change and evolution analogous to the experience of growing and ageing to normal people. “We all change, when you think about it,” the Doctor assures Clara. “We’re all different people all through our lives.” The fact that Moffat took such glee in messing up the “number” of the Doctor (so the Eleventh Doctor is actually the thirteenth regeneration) suggests that he doesn’t consider the differences between the iterations to be fundamental. The Doctor is the Doctor, one person who changes through his life.

Walk of life...

Walk of life…

Of course, this leads to perhaps the episode’s biggest subversion of the epic formula. The Deadly Assassin famously put an arbitrary limit of thirteen regenerations on the life the Doctor. Fandom has fixated on that number; as if expecting some big plot around the “final” regeneration of the character. Ever since Tom Baker faced that limitation, fans seem to have been counting down the Doctor’s lives. It’s not to hard to imagine a year-long arc about the Doctor’s thirteenth life, desperately staring down mortality and fate. The epic writes itself.

Between knocking off one of the Doctor’s thirteen lives and promising that Gallifrey is out there, The Day of the Doctor seemed to set up a pretty epic and sweeping eighth season for the revived show. Instead, The Time of the Doctor takes a sharp left turn and has the Eleventh Doctor reveal that he is the “final” iteration of the character about twenty minutes from the end of the episode. Given that his regeneration is a certainty and the audience knows that Peter Capaldi will be showing up, it throws a bit of a curve ball.

Matt Smtih gets his Hartnell on...

Matt Smtih gets his Hartnell on…

The limitation on the Doctor’s thirteen lives does not service some epic plot about racing to find Gallifrey or struggling to stay alive long enough to earn a new regeneration cycle. Instead, it gives weight to the Doctor’s decision to remain in Christmas. The Doctor’s decision to stay on Trenzalore only really matters if it is his last life. So what would have been fodder for a larger epic story instead becomes a minor detail in this one. In fact, the idea of the Doctor actually dying feels very much like an afterthought in The Time of the Doctor, a detail that undoubtedly upsets some fans.

Moffat is quite aware of what he is doing. As with the quick dismissal of the larger plot threads running through the fifth and sixth seasons, Moffat is tweaking the nose of a certain type of fan. He even draws attention to it, with the Daleks standing in for those hardcore Doctor Who fans counting down regenerations. “The rules of regeneration are known,” the Daleks inform the Doctor at the episode’s climax. “You have expended all your lives.” One suspects that the Daleks spend time on Doctor Who message boards; that is why they have so much anger.

Winter wonderland...

Winter wonderland…

Of course, the Doctor is having none of that. “Sorry, what did you say?” he taunts. “Did you mention the rules? Now, listen. Bit of advice. Tell me the truth if you think you know it. Lay down the law if you’re feeling brave. But, Daleks, never, ever tell me the rules.” The Doctor then proceeds to break the rules, just as Moffat breaks out of all the expectations imposed upon him by that regeneration limit. There are no rules. There are no limitations. Anything is possible.

Here, it’s natural and healthy that the Eleventh Doctor would regenerate with an enthusiasm about the future. At the same, The Time of the Doctor rejects the parts of the past that would hem the franchise in – the death impulse installed by The Deadly Assassin with its limit on the Doctor’s regeneration. To Moffat’s Doctor Who, the show is limitless. It is not something that must inevitably end in one final and epic death. It is something that is always ready to be reborn in a new and bold form.

You might be interested in our other reviews of Matt Smith’s third season of Doctor Who:

2 Responses

  1. “One suspects that the Daleks spend time on Doctor Who message boards; that is why they have so much anger.”

    LOL!!! That was a brilliant line 🙂

    The possibility that Tasha Lem could somehow be a different version of River Song never occurred to me. But, yes, now that you’ve mooted the notion, it actually makes sense. Time will tell… or not. Perhaps this will remain one of the unanswered questions that pepper the series’ history, such as the identity of the woman from “The End of Time.” Was that the Doctor’s mother? We may never actually find out, and perhaps that is for the best.

    As a huge, long-time fan of Doctor Who, it has been a real pleasure reading your articles on these episodes. As with your analysis of the different incarnations of Star Trek, you really bring a different, insightful perspective to your examinations.

    In case you are interested, here is a link to my own review of this episode:


    • Thanks Ben.

      I’ve been going back and tweaking my Matt Smith reviews a bit with the benefits of hindsight, seeing how they fit together. I might throw them together into an eBook at some point.

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