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.
“The Time of the Doctor” opens with a narration about a bell tolling across the universe and bringing numerous different races to the same place to investigate it. It sets the scene, but simultaneously distances the viewer from the action. Narrations can, unfortunately, have this effect as they create the impression that the viewers are not experiencing things as they happen. Instead, everything’s already over and that brings with it a lowering of the stakes. That’s not to say that narrations can’t be effective, and it’s certainly not the first time Doctor Who has made use of narrations. “Army of Ghosts” and “Doomsday” very effectively use Rose’s narration to create an impending sense of doom. But in that case, the narration is only used to bookend the story (and as a recap at the beginning of the second episode). Throughout the rest of the story, we experience everything with the characters. If the same were true of “The Time of the Doctor”, the narration wouldn’t be as much of a problem. But unfortunately, the narration keeps returning to allow us to skip over periods of time—and not just short periods, not even weeks or months or years, but literally centuries.
To make matters worse, the narration comes from a character we’ve never met before. From the initial moments of the episode, it’s a voice we don’t recognize. In “Army of Ghosts”/”Doomsday”, we know who Rose is and we can relate to her. Here, we’re presented with someone we know nothing about and can’t yet relate to. Even once we’ve met Tasha Lem, she remains a character defined almost entirely by her mystery. She behaves eerily like River Song, suggesting that maybe she is River in another incarnation—except there’s no easy way to fit that explanation into the continuity as we know it. As a result, we’re left with this mystery person telling us what’s happening. And that just distances us from the action even more.
Shortly after “The Time of the Doctor” first aired, one of my followers on Twitter commented that it was “filmed like a commercial”. I think the narration ultimately plays a large part in this impression. Because we skip over incredibly large chunks of time and see very little of the actual siege, the episode feels more like an extended preview of a story rather than the story itself. Like a preview, it concentrates on a few set-pieces to hook the viewer in, but then jumps to the next one. One almost expects to hear the narrator say, “The Time of the Doctor. Coming soon to BBC One.”
Exposition plays another large role. We don’t get to discover events for ourselves, but instead we are told them. Instead of getting to see the Doctor discover what the Silents are (genetically manipulated priests), we just learn that he found that out sometime during the centuries that we never see. The secret is explained in a few lines of exposition to Clara. Similarly, the revelations about Madame Kovarian and the destruction of the TARDIS in Series Five come through a few lines of exposition, this time from Tasha Lem.
This is further exacerbated by the fact that the jumps in time mean we never get to know the town of Christmas or see it develop in any way. Indeed, for a town at war for centuries, it looks remarkably unchanged by the end (just before the Doctor’s regeneration energy levels it, that is) and unaffected by those centuries. We never get to know any characters there. Only one townsperson even merits a name—the young boy Barnable. Steven Moffat is very fond of including children in his stories as a way of pulling at the viewers’ heartstrings. We’re meant to feel for these children simply because they are children. Yet children are people too, and they should have personalities. Barnable has nothing identifiable about him other than his name. And then he’s gone too as the centuries pass. I do like that the very elderly Doctor asks after Barnable and we briefly meet a slightly older character who bears a resemblance to the boy. However, when he tells the Doctor that no, he isn’t Barnable (because Barnable has presumably been dead for hundreds of years), it doesn’t create the sadness it intends because we never got to know Barnable in the first place. His being a child doesn’t change that. With no characters in Christmas to relate to, it becomes impossible to care about the town at all. It’s just a place. And that makes the Doctor’s centuries-long stay so less affecting.
While it doesn’t introduce many characters in Christmas, “The Time of the Doctor” does try to introduce quite a few new characters over the course of the whole story. Most notably it introduces us to Clara’s family, who serve the role of showing Clara’s dissatisfaction with her own life and providing her motivation to get back to the Doctor after he repeatedly ships her back home (also providing a handy way for her to survive the multiple centuries the story covers). In fact, Clara’s story here heavily mirrors Rose’s story in “The Parting of the Ways”, and I’m quite certain it’s an intentional mirroring. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have nearly the same effect as Rose’s story. By the time of “The Parting of the Ways”, the show has spent an entire series developing Rose’s relationship with her mother and Mickey. It has also developed Rose’s character and her frustrations with her life. “The Time of the Doctor” is the first time we’ve had any hint of this in Clara’s life. Previously, she was a nanny for her friend’s children and her actual family only appeared briefly in one episode while the Doctor was travelling through her childhood. Then, in “The Day of the Doctor”, Clara suddenly became a teacher, but there was no hint of her family life. Now we meet her family. But we don’t know her relationship with them. Admittedly, the episode does do a fairly good job of establishing what the relationship is like (although who exactly is Linda? her stepmother? aunt? next-door neighbour?), but the lack of any prior background detracts from the overall effect the story is trying to establish. In “The Parting of the Ways”, it was the culmination of a story. In “The Time of the Doctor”, it is both the introduction and culmination simultaneously. And that just doesn’t work as well.
Completely separate to Clara’s family, the story also introduces us to Tasha Lem, the Mother Superius of the Papal Mainframe. As I said before, Tasha comes across as a character very similar to River Song—eerily similar at times. She has the same sort of flirtatious relationship, and the Doctor refers to her fighting the psychopath inside her all her life, much like River. She even inexplicably knows how to fly the TARDIS! Of course, Steven Moffat’s female characters all tend to be rather similar (especially in their story arcs), but it’s even more so here. It’s possible that Tasha’s similarities to River are just a convenient short cut to allow Moffat to introduce a new character and make her seem familiar to the audience without having to spend time developing her (time that the episode just doesn’t have as there’s too much else going on). It’s also possible that the character was originally supposed to be River, but had to be changed due to Alex Kingston being unavailable. Either way, the similarities detract from the overall experience. Tasha ends up yet another character defined more by the mystery of who she is than by having an actual fully developed personality.
That said, Tasha does have the one moment in the story that actually manages to be downright chilling: the revelation of her death at the hands (suckers?) of the Daleks. “I died in this room screaming your name. Oh. I died. It’s funny the things that slip your mind.” For that brief moment, we get a glimpse of what the Daleks are actually capable of. We learn that the Daleks have slaughtered everyone on the Papal Mainframe. In a way, it’s another parallel with “The Parting of the Ways”, when the Daleks invade the space station and exterminate everyone there one by one. But in “The Parting of the Ways”, almost everyone who dies stays dead (Jack being the one exception, and even that resurrection somewhat cheapened his death at the time). Here, Tasha overcomes her Dalek conditioning and is effectively resurrected just like everyone else who dies in Moffat’s Doctor Who. Even though Tasha says she can’t hold off the conditioning forever, she apparently does as she continues to fight on his side for the remaining centuries of the war. And despite the fact that everyone in the Mainframe was slaughtered, the Church continues to have readily available soldiers and Silents to fight with the Doctor. As Tasha herself goes on to narrate, “Only the Church of the Mainframe remained in the path of the Daleks. And so those ancient enemies, the Doctor and the Silence, stood back to back on the fields of Trenzalore.” I guess they got lots of reinforcements after that Dalek slaughter. It’s a believable explanation, I suppose, but it also continues the pattern that death really doesn’t mean anything on Doctor Who anymore.
I’ve seen people on-line respond to this criticism of Moffat’s Who as a call for over-the-top violence and gore. That’s simply not true. Non-stop death and destruction would be just as bad. I simply want death to have some meaning. I’m perfectly okay with people striving against the odds and surviving, but if—IF—they die, I want them to stay dead. Otherwise, death is meaningless and there’s no threat at all and no reason to worry or care about the fate of any of the characters. Yes, some unnamed characters die off-screen in this story and presumably stay dead, but they’re not people we know, and their deaths have no effect on the story. There’s an unending supply of reinforcements to replace them, just like the unending supply of Daleks. Death remains meaningless.
To be fair, I actually consider Handles a bit of an exception to this. Despite just being a robotic Cyberman head (all the organic parts are gone, the Doctor says), Handles manages to be surprisingly sympathetic and human. This robot head has a distinct personality and when it finally succumbs to age and expires, the scene is actually somewhat sad. Oddly enough, this is the one moment where “resurrecting” the character would make sense as the Doctor says he just hasn’t been able to get the parts to do an effective repair, yet the Doctor seems to have forgotten that he now has the TARDIS back. Couldn’t he find parts in there? Still, Handles’ death adds a poignancy to the story lacking from the other characters.
Overall though, the lack of meaning for death—the lack of consequence—is particularly unfortunate in this episode as this is a regeneration story. It is a fact that regeneration is, ultimately, a way for the show’s main character to cheat death. It arose out of a need to replace William Hartnell and keep the show going, and so the Doctor was given a way to resurrect himself with a further spin that his entire body and personality changes. It’s a way to renew and reinvigorate the show itself, not just the character. I may sound a bit hypocritical when I say that I think regeneration is good for the show. After all, I’ve just criticised the show for constantly resurrecting the dead. Why should the Doctor get a pass with regeneration?
Well, I don’t actually think that resurrection should never occur. It just shouldn’t happen all the time. Indeed, it should be very rare. And when it does happen, it needs to have a real effect on the character. When the Doctor regenerates, he becomes an entirely new person. In the case of Captain Jack, Torchwood goes on to explore the effects coming back to life actually have on him, and how those effects change him as a person. But both the Doctor and Captain Jack remain exceptions to the rule. As the Doctor himself says in this episode, don’t try to make him follow the rules. But not everyone should be breaking the rules.
Yet even so, the Doctor does more than just regenerate in “The Time of the Doctor”. For even regeneration was eventually given a limit—twelve times and then it’s up. Here, we rather suddenly learn that the Doctor has used up all twelve (through some contrived reasoning) already and can’t regenerate anymore. The final end has come for even the Doctor. Except it hasn’t. The Doctor’s resurrections are themselves resurrected by the Time Lords, who give him a whole new set of regenerations, beginning the cycle anew.
This was inevitable when you think about it. For the show to go on, the Doctor has to survive past his last incarnation. Perhaps the limit of twelve itself was a mistake, although to be fair, at the time it was created, no one ever expected the show to last long enough to actually use them all up. However, this was the worst time for that limit to be reached. When the Doctor is surrounded by people constantly coming back to life (in this story alone, we’ve already had Tasha Lem), there’s no longer anything special about the Doctor coming back. But more than that, it didn’t have to happen now anyway. The Doctor has only run out of regenerations because Steven Moffat decided to retroactively add some previous regenerations. Just before “The Time of the Doctor” aired, I posted an article talking about this, so I won’t go through it all again here, but suffice it to say, I think an opportunity has been missed to actually do something with the Doctor’s final incarnation, rather than tacking it on out of the blue in this story.
That said, there are things about this regeneration that I do like. In the old series, the Doctor’s regenerations looked different each time. Since the new series started, there’s been a uniformity to the regenerations, yet this time, there’s just enough difference to keep it similar to the new series pattern but also bring back the idea that regenerations aren’t always the same. I’m not at all fond of the Doctor blowing up the Daleks with regeneration energy. It’s too much of a magic wand escape, and if regeneration energy is really so powerful, why didn’t the Time Lords use it to wipe out the Daleks in the Time War? It could be that it’s only this powerful when it’s a new set of regenerations, but then, they could have given lots of Time Lords new sets of regenerations to achieve it. It also stretches belief that, despite the energy blowing up scores of spaceships and levelling the entire town, the townsfolk are all able to survive by hiding in the church. I’m reminded of Indiana Jones surviving a nuclear explosion by hiding in a fridge in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It’s not quite at the same level, I suppose, but it’s similar. I would have much preferred to have seen the Doctor defeat the Daleks through some other means (he’s had centuries to come up with something clever after all, and it also defies belief that he hasn’t) and then die of old age afterwards.
Because that part of the regeneration is brilliant. While trying to cover centuries of events in one 60-minute episode doesn’t really work very well, the idea that the youngest-ever Doctor is the one who dies of old age is perfect. More than that, everything that happens after the big explosion is the best part of the episode (if you ignore the weird reset, but that also happened in “The End of Time” and its repetition here actually helps retroactively justify that moment). There’s real emotion in this scene, and the Doctor’s final speech is brilliant:
We all change. When you think about it, we’re all different people, all through our lives, and that’s okay. That’s good. You gotta keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be. I will not forget one line of this. Not one day. I swear. I will always remember when the Doctor was me.
It makes a particularly nice contrast to the Doctor’s last regeneration. While David Tennant’s Doctor fought his regeneration and didn’t want to go, Matt Smith’s is at peace with it. He accepts the end, and that makes it all the more beautiful.
While I was never a fan of Amy, the Doctor hallucinating her at this moment is fitting and adds closure to Matt Smith’s time as the Doctor (even if it does sideline Clara a little). The Doctor removing his bow tie is both the icing on the cake and the moment that ought to open the tear ducts. If the rest of the episode built to this moment better, if we got to fully experience the Doctor and Clara’s journey to this moment, then this would be perhaps the most heart-wrenching scene Steven Moffat has ever written and perhaps one of the most heart-wrenching on Doctor Who, period. I actually find that watching this scene by itself, completely separate from the rest of the episode, achieves this effect. There are actually tears in my eyes. Unfortunately, when I watch it at the end of the entire episode, I’m just too distanced from everything to care enough.
There are a number of other nice moments throughout the episode as well—set-pieces that work well on their own. There’s the aforementioned death of Handles and the chilling revelation of Tasha’s death. Clara helping the elderly Doctor to pull a cracker is also a very touching moment. I also really like the Doctor’s comments about dying of boredom before the Daleks actually get around to shooting him.
On the other hand, there are also numerous moments that just fail to work entirely. Because the story feels the need for a cameo appearance by just about everything, none of the various recurring monsters are used to good effect. The Daleks have one fleeting moment when they appear to have taken full control of the Papal Mainframe just before Tasha manages to overcome their control and effectively resurrects herself. Their rediscovering who the Doctor is again also completely undermines their forgetting him in their last appearance, and further shows how little consequence there is in Doctor Who anymore. The wooden Cyberman is a clever idea, but like so much else, it’s just there and then gone. The Sontarans are used for nothing more than comic relief. I had more or less resigned myself to Strax (who thankfully doesn’t appear in this episode) being nothing more than a comic relief character, but I had hoped that when other Sontarans actually showed up again, they wouldn’t be relegated to that role, but alas, that is exactly what has happened.
While “The Time of the Doctor” does attempt to tie up numerous loose ends from the last few years, it also opens up a number of other questions and possible continuity errors. In “The Day of the Doctor”, the Time Lords were frozen in a single moment of time, so how exactly are they able to send and receive messages? Indeed, they’re apparently able to come out whenever they want, just so long as the Doctor tells them it’s okay? The Time Lord general in “The Day of the Doctor” was horrified at the prospect of being frozen because they’d be unable to do anything. He only relented because he knew that Gallifrey was doomed otherwise. Yet now the Time Lords can essentially come and go as they please? And what happened to just how nasty the Time Lords became? “The Day of the Doctor” mostly ignored that fact (despite “The Night of the Doctor” right before it reinforcing it), but at least it gave it lip service with the comment that the High Council had its own plans. Yet here, the Doctor says that when the Time Lords come back, they’ll come in peace. Really? That’s a rather sudden change of heart on their part, and how exactly does the Doctor know they’ve had this change of heart? Their message includes only two words. Speaking of the message, why send it all across time and space rather than straight to the TARDIS?
Finally, there are a number of little, problematic moments of the style that have plagued Steven Moffat’s time as showrunner—those little moments of sexism that just leave me cringing: the Doctor kissing another woman without her permission, the Doctor slapping Clara’s butt, the Doctor effectively flashing Clara’s family. I don’t like seeing the Doctor behave this way—not and get away with it. Even when he’s called out on it, he doesn’t apologize, and the offended party—Clara or Tasha—continue on as if nothing has happened.
So, while “The Time of the Doctor” has some good, even brilliant moments, including a beautiful regeneration scene, as a whole, it just doesn’t hang together. It’s tedious and it’s dull. We’re told about things happening via a narrator, but see almost none of it. Centuries pass in a town called Christmas where nothing ever changes. A war is going on, but the buildings all stand undamaged. Centuries of stalemate pass for no apparent reason. The Daleks, who can blow up planets, don’t bother to do that. The Doctor, who is always coming up with brilliant ideas to save the day, can’t come up with one over centuries, yet there’s no clear reason why. Matt Smith gives an absolutely astounding performance, but it’s not enough to save a script that basically goes nowhere until it’s suddenly there at the end.
As I’ve thought about “The Time of the Doctor” over the last few days, my mind has constantly gone back to “The Caves of Androzani”. “The Time of the Doctor” should not have been that earlier story. As I said before, every regeneration story needs to be its own thing. But “The Time of the Doctor” tries to do far too much, and ends up doing so little as a result. Doctor Who has become far too big and too caught up in itself. But Doctor Who is also constantly changing. So it’s time for another change. It’s time to go small again. Here’s hoping that Peter Capaldi’s period will see that happen!