The Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison, once uttered the immortal words “That’s the trouble with regeneration. You never quite know what you are going to get.” This can be said of a regeneration story as well. Since Doctor Who has returned an emphasis on the Doctor changing his appearance has been put into place that takes it from being a simple process to a laborious and frightening experience for our main character. This is both a good thing and a bad thing because on one end it shows that despite being a normal process its not a welcomed one beyond being a new lease on life. On the other end it’s constantly displayed as a last chance saloon for not only the current Doctor but his era of the show and often sacrifices a great story and script for a bombastic pay off. A regeneration story is the equivalent of big event American television and that’s kind of expected even when its not always welcomed. “The Time of the Doctor” features an array of touching moments and acts as the book end of another chapter in the show’s lengthy run but its kind of a narrative nightmare often relying on word of mouth game changers and too many ideas crammed into an hour that takes away from being a perfect send off to one of the most beloved incarnations in the show’s history.
Pacing wise we have a lot to cover here for a final story and it makes the narrative kind of a mess. It’s a very straight forward story and not hard to understand but there are so many tiny questions that pop up in a story that is supposed to tie up so much. The Timelords have sent out a message asking the oldest question in the universe but everyone has received it and the next thing you know Trenzalore, the established final resting place of the Doctor, is being invaded by every possible baddie in the universe. You have a show that is book ended by a lot of action with a middle section that slows to a crawl. The Doctor knows he is about to die and he is waiting to die which gives us some of Smith’s most honest moments but he knows that this is his final resting place. This makes his permanent residency in a town called Christmas both honorable and tragic all at once.
As a send-off to a beloved incarnation it feels like a bit of a cheat as the story is overloaded with too many ideas and having to also be a Christmas special we don’t get a closer for the Eleventh Doctor that fully displays his greatest qualities. “The Day of the Doctor” was more definitively his than it is here and one friend of mine even remarked that this was like a greatest hits that just happened to be shown before another greatest hits. For all that is troubling here we are held in place by the two main performances here. For some of the early flack that she received Jenna Coleman is flying high now as Clara, a character that has developed through her journey over this brief “of The Doctor” series. She now knows the Doctor literally better than anyone else which makes her relationship with him easier to understand as she picks up on his actions expected or unexpected. Watching her friend change his appearance despite knowing damn well that its part of life is still tough for her as it would anyone else who happens to see their best friend’s appearance and personality suddenly change after so long.
Smith despite displaying traits that don’t fit his persona puts on one final great performance as both the energetic, cooky Doctor and his decrepit, solemn older self ravaged by age and battle. I can’t picture any other Doctor being given the honor of aging and closing out his original life span. The key to Smith’s performance over the past 3 years is his ability to play an old man through young eyes. Here he is literally given the honor of playing an old man but it was troubling to watch. The show has never been great with aging make up (hello “The Last of the Timelords”) and here it’s almost too much to look at. The fact that 300 years of a war has produced an old man isn’t hard to believe but Smith looked like a combination of Scrooge and Dan Akroyd’s character from Nothing But Trouble. It’s horribly realized and takes away the fighting spirit of the Doctor until the very end when he is winging his cocky nature at the Daleks with a series of windmills and bellowing exclamations.
Having to save a small town against his greatest enemies was both poignant and a bit excessive. Why does it always have to be one or more of his famous adversaries? Why is it hard to believe one threat could just be as devastating to a town as many? Considering the revelations that came out of this episode it would have just been fitting to have the threat be the silence but because we now know that the Madam Korvarian crew were renegades to the cause that created their own paradox, that just wouldn’t be feasible. This was another example of writing a spoken plot point that prevents the story from taking an obvious route out of the situation. However, the nature of The Doctor is his ability to care about everyone big or small so defending a town of people rather than saving a race or a planet exemplifies just who The Doctor is. He takes up a final post and one final battleground as he waits for the inevitable but does so while doing what he does best and that is being a Doctor, a warrior, and a hero.
Which brings us to the notion of just who is the Doctor? When silence falls the greatest question in the universe will be answered. Except it isn’t answered and nor should it. Besides the Doctor needing to be a mystery even down to his name, what would come of knowing that the Doctor is actually named “Jeff?” Nothing and that’s why it’s important to hone home that it doesn’t matter what his name is as Clara does to the Timelords through the ominous and familiar crack in time. The Doctor is The Doctor and no true name can take away his established identity. For this, the Timelords give the aging Doctor a bit of a push to defeat a continuous threat in the form of a new regenerative cycle. This was always going to happen and it’s the best way to keep the show going. My only complaint with this is the use of regeneration as a means to an end. It’s not a weapon; it’s a life force which doesn’t work for me.
But out of this we do get a new lease on life and the final moments of Eleven brings him back to his youthful form if only for a brief moment. Smith’s farewell speech is rather fitting as he speaks of people having different lives at different points but that you can always reflect on those lives as what encompasses you. Being the final incarnation of this life cycle it’s a rather defining statement that puts into perspective the first 50 years and its done through the emotional yet accepting and gleeful tone of the biggest kid to ever step foot into this persona. There were nice little touches here but particularly the ceremonial tossing down of the bow tie and the brief illusion of one Amy Pond wishing her raggedy man good night.
With a quick snap we are dealt a splash of cold water as we feast our eyes on the stunned gaze of the newcomer. Peter Capaldi’s first moments as the Timelord are of sheer terror, well, his face seems to show a mix of awe and confusion. It’s only a hair longer than Tennant’s introduction but much shorter than Smith’s and considering how long we have been clamoring to see the former Malcolm Tucker in this guise I only wish there had been a little more time to let him flex his new found role. It was still entertaining none the less especially his off-hand delivery of “We’re probably crashing!” or the rather Doctor quality of not liking the color of his new kidneys. Much like his predecessor it takes a somber moment and puts the joy and fun back into the show instantly. It leaves a lot to be desire and the only thing that sucks now is we must wait at the latest eight months for a good pay off.
So we look to the future now but in the present how do we look at the Matt Smith era? For many new fans this was their era as Tennant’s was for many before him. Everything is all a fairytale in the Eleventh Doctor’s era and it ends on a rather whimsical and fairy tale-like story that punctuates the many traits of its mysterious and sometimes buffoonish protagonist. “The Time of the Doctor” is a very good send off to this era and one that ties up loose ends and wraps it in a nice little Christmas bow. However, this is not a great episode and far from being a great Matt Smith episode; it is a significant one that wipes the slate clean and begins to lay the foundation for the next era and does so in a rather meaningful fashion in a way that only the endless horizon of science fiction can pull off.