Image Description: Handles in a bucket
By Oli Jones
Controversially, I adore The Time of the Doctor. It celebrates Smith’s era, from the playful comedy to the whimsical fairy tale, with lots of specific callbacks as well. But it doesn’t just focus on the past (which would be an easy mistake to make, given how arc heavy the Smith years were) and instead gives some nice forward development for Eleven. It’s a brilliant character piece and the essential final note in the arc of my favourite Doctor.
We open with the Doctor flying around Trenzalore, calling on Daleks and Cybermen alike in trying to work out what the message from the planet’s surface means. Meanwhile, this is interspersed with The Doctor bickering with Handles, and trying to deal with Clara’s Christmas crisis. It’s a fun sequence, and I appreciate the frontloading of comedy. This sort of silliness is a staple of Smith, particularly his early years, and it would have felt wrong not to have it somewhere in his swan song. With the drama to come, it’s good that we get it in early, allowing the rest of the episode to take on a more thoughtful tone as this Doctor draws to an end.
The silliness carries on for the next ten minutes, but unfortunately, it gradually gets much less funny. The Doctor and Clara running around, first Clara’s family and then the Papal Mainframe, naked is just a frankly odd concept. We also get the introduction of Tasha Lem, and, while I don’t intend to get into a long discussion of how well Steven Moffat can write female characters, Tasha Lem is a solid point against him. In my opinion, this is easily the weakest part of the story, and serves to turn people off the story.
Once we’re through that, and a visually appealing but rather pointless encounter with the weeping angels, the quality picks back up again. The Doctor and Clara find themselves in a lovely, snow-covered village called Christmas, which like a lot of the episode, and the era as a whole, has a very fairy tale feel to it. This gives Smith, who’s on top form throughout the episode, the opportunity to lean further in to the nature of the story, and nowhere more so than the scene in the base of the tower. When the omnipresent crack is revealed, and the question introduced, Smith does an excellent job of being scared, setting an appropriately ominous air for the rest of the episode.
His response, sending Clara home, is typical of Eleven, who cares a lot about his companions but rarely gives them much say when he thinks he knows what’s best for them. The following sequence dials the fairy tale feeling up to the next level, with Tasha narrating the Doctor’s three-hundred-year defence of Trenzalore. I love the idea of the Doctor growing old in Christmas, fixing toys and fighting monsters. While, due to time constraints, we only see snapshots of his time there, I enjoy what we get to see, even the wooden cyberman! Yes, it is a slightly silly idea, but Eleven’s answer is undeniably witty, and a very satisfying use of the sonic to solve a problem.
I want to highlight how important this part is for Eleven’s character. Smith’s Doctor is a trickster and a strategist. He took over Demon’s Run in five minutes flat; he utilised the entire human race to defeat the Silence; he is willed back into existence in series 5 using nothing but Amy’s subconscious, and the entirety of The Wedding of River Song is about him cheating his own death. He has no patience for sitting around either, as shown in The Power of Three – another episode I get funny looks for liking. But in Time, there’s no clever way out, no cocky monologue and master plan, just a little town which will suffer if he doesn’t stay. If he simply left with Clara then, while the Daleks might burn the planet, there would be no wider impact on the universe. The Time Lords would remain trapped, and everything would proceed as normal. But because he’s the Doctor, he stays. He settles for a simple life as the town’s guardian and toymaker, even though it’s completely against this incarnation’s character. Indeed, dying to save a handful of people is something of a theme in regeneration stories; Caves of Androzani, The Doctor Falls and even the original idea for Ten’s regeneration (discussed in A Writer’s Tale) all feature the Doctor sacrificing himself for a few ‘normal’ people. It’s a clever way to end Eleven’s arc, showing him growing up and adding to the story’s theme of acceptance.
Though it’s moments for us, Clara’s back three hundred years later after pulling a Captain Jack, providing the impetus for further insight into The Doctor. Smith always played the weary old man very well in my opinion and here he really makes use of that, demonstrating the Doctor’s acceptance of his fate. Unfortunately, the arrival of Clara means that it’s time for Handles to move aside, which in this case is his rather sad death. I have to say, at this point, that I think Handles is a great companion. He’s memorable, despite only featuring in a smattering of scenes, and his death is quite touching. Again, through a companion we see Eleven grow. Previously, he’s been very bad at dealing with loss, going so far as to isolate himself above the clouds in The Snowmen. But here, he is sad yet composed: “Thank you handles. And well done mate.”
Shortly afterwards, we go back to the Papal Mainframe, now the Church of the Silence, in the name of advancing the plot and getting some hurried exposition on where the Kovarian chapter came from. While I often hear people complain about The Time of the Doctor’s rushed solutions to long standing arcs, I personally think it’s a strength. Of course, it’s no secret that some of the arcs in Smith’s tenure became a bit of a mess and it’s not that I mind them – I appreciate the attempt to try a more serialised format – but the landing wasn’t perfect. Some things were just too convoluted to tie up neatly in an hour, and so the episode doesn’t try to do the impossible. It’s telling that we get two lines to justify a two series arc immediately after five minutes of quiet reflection on top of a tower. Rather than trying to tie up every dangling thread from the last three years, the episode decides to be the best ending for Smith’s Doctor.
Eleven then shows another slither of his ice-cold brand of love, again sending Clara home, and we go back to fairy tale mode for another time passage. At six hundred years, I think the episode over does it, and would prefer something closer to hundred. All the same, it gives Clara’s Gran the opportunity to tell a story about her husband, which feeds nicely into the themes of inevitable change and loss that permeate the story.
This leads almost immediately into the very emotional conversation with the ancient Doctor in the base of the tower. It’s striking, to see the youngest, liveliest Doctor grow so old, both in appearance and spirit. The extract from ‘Thoughts on a Clock’, meanwhile, is perfect. It’s nice that at the end, there’s no bitterness to Eleven – he’s just an old man who, like the rest of us, has accepted that it’s his time. Despite this age, he is surrounded by the drawings of children, which are very reminiscent of Amelia’s. But while hers were just fantasies, born from The Doctor’s mishap which warped her entire childhood, these are the drawings he earned ‘the long way around’; depictions of real events. By the end of this episode, Eleven has finally earned the fairy tale persona that surrounded his run.
We now come to the major bone of contention – the ending. While the resolution may be a bit deus ex machina, it has to be said that Clara is right. The Time Lords owe the Doctor at this point, and as the episode is a character piece, rather than plot focussed, I’m prepared to let it off the hook. You could argue that the regeneration somewhat undermines the themes I’ve been preaching, but it doesn’t undo any of Smith’s character development. In fact, it allows his closing words a more hopeful tone as well as, you know, letting the show continue, which is a big plus.
As for the final moments, Eleven’s is the best final monologue I’ve seen. It’s both optimistic and reflective, which is only enhanced by the lovely Long Song. His arc completed, he welcomes the change, something that ties the episode’s themes up perfectly. We also finally see him drop some of the self-loathing that plagued his Doctor – “I will always remember when the Doctor was me.” It celebrates him, and is hopeful for the future: it says that change is inevitable but, more importantly, that change is good.
Tides 43 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link