The ninth Christmas special, the eight hundredth broadcast episode, the end of the eleventh Doctor and the finale of a four-year-long twisty-turny war through time. New characters, old characters, a multitude of monsters, the fallout from the anniversary special, the resurgence of the Time War and a regeneration. Oh, and Christmas dinner. Steven Moffat chose to pack a hell of a lot into one hour's worth of festive television, and while it was a brave attempt, the ultimate result was, perhaps inevitably, disappointing.
The beginning of The Time of the Doctor is very wonky indeed. The most ineffectual Daleks ever, intercut with Clara's Christmas dinner preparations, before the episode started proper. Then it moves onto some very misjudged comedy involving a naked Doctor and holographic clothes, a joke which outstayed its welcome and wasn't actually very funny in the first place. Fluffing the beginning so badly was a very poor move, with the episode having to play catch-up for its remaining runtime. The first half of the episode is oddly paced – not necessarily a bad thing, but with only an hour's runtime to cover so much, the story sagged in the middle. Somehow, a ground war between Daleks, Silents, Cybermen and Sontarans managed to come across as a little boring, which is no mean feat.
Which is a pity, because there is so much to enjoy here. All of the best moments of the episode are character beats, with more attention being paid to them than to the pyrotechnics and plot developments. This, again, is not bad thing, particularly when the majority of the characters are so well-explored and well-acted. But this is the Christmas episode, and it requires a certain amount of bangs and flashes to keep dozy post-dinner viewers engaged. There's a tricky balance to be met, and this production missed it.
While it's a nice touch to get back to ordinary, contemporary life for a moment after all the cosmic angst we've seen recently, the sequences with Clara's family could have been cut completely. What a miserable bunch. With the exception of her gran, played by Benidorm's wonderful Sheila Reid, I'd happily never see that lot again.
I love Christmas Town though, and the whole set-up. It's the scenes set in Christmas that really work. From the beginning, when we meet the cheerful couple (good to see Only Fools' Tessa Peake-Jones again at Christmas), the quaint human colony where lying is impossible is a wonderful setting. God knows how a village in a perpetual winter, with no crops or livestock apparent, on a planet surrounded by an impenetrable force field, actually survives, but at least it provides a pleasant backdrop. It's the sort of place one can imagine the Doctor actually settling down; somewhere nice and simple, that reaffirms his faith in humanity, but still has a constant threat for him to fight.
The best moments are the quiet ones between Clara and the Doctor, with both Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman shining throughout the episode. Smith, in particular, is exceptionally good. It's a wonderful idea to have the youngest of the Doctor's grow old defending one group of people, actually settling into a home. Smith has always focused on the old man nature of the Doctor, to contrast his youthful appearance, and here, bolstered by some effective ageing make-up, he steals the show as an aged Doctor. It's a completely believable performance. The scenes with the people of Christmas, displaying Smith's incredible way with children, are beautiful, but it's the quiet moments with Clara that are most effective. Clara gets the Rose Tyler treatment, tricked into going home in the TARDIS, and gets back to the Doctor with much less snivveling and without ripping the Vortex apart.
The most moving scene of the episode is not the regeneration, but Handles' death scene. Only the Doctor could rip the head off a Cyberman and become friends with it. Handles has been praised as the new K-9, but he's rather better, with Kayvan Novak managing to sound endearing and monotone at the same time. The poor, battered piece of kit, the one constant friend the Doctor has had throughout his long, long life on Trenzalore, manages to be the most emotionally engaging element of the episode.
So, the big plot: four years worth of mystery and confusion regarding the Silence, Madame Kovarian and the cracks in time are wrapped up in a couple of sentences, clearing the decks in the most undramatic and unsatisfying way imaginable. The quest for the Time Lords is brought to a head with astonishing haste, the Doctor spending centuries protecting them on the other side of their time rift while they continually ask his name as confirmation of his identity. It's powerfully effective stuff, even if it doesn't hold up to much scrutiny. Again, it's plausible to imagine the Doctor sticking around for this. After all this time, what he really wants is a home. Unfortunately, after the triumphant bombast of The Day of the Doctor, this episode was always going to struggle to make an impact, and following it up directly like this doesn't help its case.
And, after all of that, with the Doctor on his last legs, Clara whispers to the Time Lords, who promptly change their centuries' long game plan and bugger off, giving the Doctor a full new regeneration cycle as a Christmas present. Quite why the eleventh Doctor has been bumped up to the thirteenth version is anyone's guess. While it makes perfect sense, it is entirely of Moffat's making. He introduced the missing Doctor played by John Hurt, making Smith the twelfth version, and he could easily have ignored the middle-regeneration taken by David Tennant. After all, it has not, until now, been established that it “counted” as a full regen. Instead, Moffat hinges the plot on it. (I did love the Doctor confessing to “vanity issues at the time.”) I can only imagine that, with the thirteen-lives limit approaching, Moffat decided that it was best if he sorted it out while he was still in charge, apparently not trusting his successor to do so, and engineered the situation. As it is, it does add an extra level of jeopardy to proceedings, even though we know, as viewers, that the Doctor will continue on.
Finally, the Doctor gets a zap of twinkly orange stuff, and begins to regenerate. The regenerations have been becoming more violent each time, and now the Doctor is able to wipe out a Dalek squadron and cause a small avalanche with his artron blasts. It's a satisfying moment, but the overall solution to the problem is disappointingly obvious. He's out of lives, so the Time Lords give him some more. Anyone could have come up with that solution.
Smith's final moments work well, though. The chemistry between him and Coleman has never been better than in this final scene. While Clara is supremely au fait with the concept of regeneration, and has met several of the Doctors now (or all of them, if she recalls her trip through his timeline), it remains an abstract idea. It'll be interesting to see how she copes with the man she adores being permanently replaced with an older gent, with potentially a very different outlook. Initially, I thought the ageing of the Doctor would explain why his next self is so much older; an ancient Smith becoming a relatively young Capaldi. In the event, Smith's Doctor gets a “reset” before he finally changes, albeit affirming that the process cannot be halted. The slow goodbye while the new cycle beds in is well written and played, moving and sentimental but not saccharine. Smith's Doctor accepts his fate with grace, unlike the histrionics of his predecessor (but then, he's had centuries in this form, rather than a few frantic years). The cameo by Karen Gillan is no surprise. It's traditional to have a flashback of past companions in some way before a regeneration, and with Amy being the eleventh Doctor's only major follower other than Clara, it is entirely fitting.
And then, suddenly, he's changed. With all the flare of a particularly big sneeze, the Doctor flinches and changes. It's hard to say what Capaldi will be like based on his first brief moments. The first lines of a Doctor are rarely anything to get excited about. For now, based on the very Smith-esque lines (that had already been released, so they weren't even a surprise), the Doctor doesn't seem much changed, but it really is no indication as to how Capaldi will play the part. We'll have to wait till the autumn to find out.
Hanky-Panky in the TARDIS: Does every woman have to fancy the Doctor now? I have no complaint with the Doctor displaying sexuality, but it's not necessary for him to flirt with and snog every attractive female he meets. Clara admits that she fancies him in the truth field, which is fine, it's obvious that she does, but it's a sweet, embarrassed sort of fancying, one that never really seems requited. Then he meets Tasha Lem and it's all “Hello babes,” and altar beds and snogging her Dalek-ised face off. The long development of his relationship with River Song doesn't mean much if he just locks lips with the next Mrs Robinson figure he bumps into.
Monster, Monster, Monster: A whole gaggle of aliens arrive at Trenzalore, including Sontarans, Weeping Angels and Terileptils (who we don't see). The Silents are revealed to be confessionals, genetically engineered by the Papal Mainframe. What the benefit can be of going to confession and immediately forgetting it I don't know. Also, were they called the Silents before the Tasha declared her order to be the Church of the Silence? The Cybermen are present, in their newly advanced form, and fare a little better than most of the forces. The wooden Cyberman is a neat idea for getting through a no-tech barrier, but is mostly there for a good visual. The main alien enemies are the Daleks, of course, who are utterly incapable of shooting the Doctor at point-blank range on their own starship. The Dalek cadaver agents are still effectively creepy, though, particularly the Dalek-ised Silents.
Explain this one: The Doctor destroys all the Daleks with his artron energy blasts. Why don't the Time Lords just come through then? No, they slip back into their parallel universe, apparently content to wait a few more centuries. Also, if the regeneration energy is so powerful, how did the Time Lords ever do so badly in the Time War? They could have all lined up, sacrificed one regeneration each and wiped the Daleks out for good.
Time can be Rewritten: Right, so the Doctor's timeline has been altered, so that he doesn't die on Trenzalore. Which means that his remains, the temporal scar we saw in The Night of the Doctor, isn't there. Which means that Clara can never throw herself into it and become scattered amongst the Doctor's timeline. Which means that her Oswin incarnation can never wipe the Daleks' memories of the Doctor. Not that it matters, because they all get their memories of him back with no trouble anyway, so that was entirely pointless.
Best joke: Matt Smith whipping off his wig to reveal a bald head, a cheeky nod to his wearing a wig for this episode after shaving his hair for How to Catch a Monster. What's even funnier is that, after shaving her head for Guardians of the Galaxy, Karen Gillan must be wearing a wig too.