The first regeneration story I saw (and remembered seeing) was Tom Baker’s finale, “Logopolis”. It was an emotional moment, but not in the way I generally respond to regenerations now. It was not a sad moment for me, but rather an immensely exciting one. As much as Tom Baker was the Doctor to me at the time, I couldn’t wait to see the new Doctor. I had only recently really gotten into Doctor Who, and was still learning about its history. And so I didn’t shed any tears when the fourth Doctor uttered his famous last words, “It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for.”
When Peter Davison’s final story arrived a few years later, my response was a bit different. I was still excited to see the new Doctor and looking forward to the regeneration, but for the first time, the story actually grabbed me emotionally. It was more than just an exciting adventure, and when the Doctor’s regeneration approached, I found tears in my eyes. That had never happened to me with Doctor Who before. Adric’s death had shocked me, but not upset me. The fifth Doctor’s death, though... That was powerful and upsetting.
“The Caves of Androzani” is one of the most highly regarded Doctor Who stories, and it remains one of my personal favourites. A great deal of its strength comes from the fact that it is such an intimate tale. It’s not about the end of the world or the universe. It’s about a group of complex characters fighting each other and the Doctor and Peri caught in the middle. The Doctor dies making the ultimate sacrifice to save just one person, and somehow that small-scale quality makes the story far more epic and powerful than the universe-ending regeneration stories some of the other Doctors have faced.
Of course, every regeneration story should be different and appropriate to its particular Doctor. Not every one should be small-scale like “Caves”, and indeed, not every one is. “The Tenth Planet” has a threat to the entire world. “Logopolis” has a threat to the entire universe. More recently, regeneration stories have tended to go big. “The Parting of the Ways” involves saving the Earth from the Daleks. “The End of Time” is about saving the Earth from the Master and the universe from the Time Lords. And now there’s “The Time of the Doctor”, which is about preventing another Time War and saving the Doctor and a whole lot more on top of that.
There’s no doubt that “The Time of the Doctor” pretty much encapsulates the entirety of Matt Smith’s time as the Doctor and Steven Moffat’s time as showrunner. It’s big, bombastic, and full of wild and wonderful ideas. Yet at the same time, it tries to do far too much, mixing everything together in a kitchen sink effect. There are Daleks and Cybermen, Sontarans and Weeping Angels, and the return of the Silence. There’s a brand new character that the Doctor has known for a long time. We see Clara’s family for the first time. Dangling plot threads from the last three series are finally tied up in quick lines of exposition. There’s a surprisingly relatable and sympathetic Cyberman head. There’s a multi-century siege/war set in a town called Christmas. There’s Matt Smith cavorting manically around and acting his socks off. And of course, there’s a regeneration—which has its own extra revelations to go with it! This episode has everything and more. And consequently, virtually nothing actually happens.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some nice set-pieces here and there in “The Time of the Doctor”, some individual moments that work exceptionally well. But unfortunately, the whole is disjointed and just doesn’t hold up. To be fair, like most Moffat-written episodes, it is better on subsequent viewings (especially when the first viewing is interrupted by commercials), but it’s not better enough to really save it. Besides, it really shouldn’t be necessary to see something twice in order to like it. Ultimately, this episode just leaves one feeling unsatisfied, disappointed, and rather bored.