“And now it’s time for one last bow,
Like all your other selves.
Eleven’s hour is over now,
The clock is striking Twelve’s.”
It hardly seems a heartbeat ago since we were celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of “Doctor Who” and slightly longer than that since the newly baked eleventh Doctor was holding on to TARDIS for grim life following his regeneration at the beginning of “The Eleventh Hour”. But on Christmas Day, it was time for “Eleven” to bow out in what was, in essence, a celebration of “The Matt Smith Era”.
There have been a lot of synopses and opinions flying around since the transmission of this story and, to be honest, it’s a case of “damned if you do and damned if you don’t”. What I will say is from the outset is that what I write are MY feelings after a second viewing nearly one week after the event, once the initial emotions have died down.
Firstly, I’ll go into the story itself. Writing a regeneration story must be difficult, I mean, if you think about it, there have been only seven episodes out of 800 episodes where an actor has REALLY had to say “Goodbye” as the Doctor before handing over to his successor. (I don’t count 6 to 7, 7 to 8, 8 to “War Doctor”, “War Doctor” to 9, or the 10 to 10 regeneration). For Steven Moffat, it must have been more so as not only does he have to carry the emotive weight of the regeneration, but he also has to tie off numerous continuity strands which have been a part and parcel of Matt’s tenure as the Doctor – namely the cracks in time, the Church of the Silence, River’s creation as the Doctor’s assassin, Gallifrey Falls No More and, most specifically to this story, the battle of Trenzalore and “The First Question”.
With the weight of continuity to support this episode, I have to admit that I sympathise that this story was seen unfavourably in some quarters. I have to admit, that whilst the story has its faults – and this is from a personal perspective – it does the job that it needs to in honouring The Eleventh Doctor (or Thirteenth if you wish to be pedantic about the actual number of regenerations) and tying up the majority of the continuity references before handing over to the next fella.
The story opens in usual Christmas special fashion with balancing the adventurous, in this case the Doctor being threatened with extermination or upgrading, and the homely with Clara cooking the turkey for her Dad, her Nan and her Dad’s girlfriend.
However, once the warm silliness – including an insight into religious nudity – is over, we are thrown headlong into the main story with Dorium’s warning message from the conclusion of “The Wedding Of River Song” coming into fruition. The Doctor has arrived at Trenzalore, nobody can speak falsely and the first question of “Doctor Who?” has been asked by the Time Lords with the sole aim of returning to the Whoniverse. To add complications into the mix, the Doctor’s most deadliest adversaries have massed around Trenzalore and the Church of the Papal Mainframe, who become the Church of the Silence, are keen to ensure the Doctor remains silent.
The plot then moves on into various unsuccessful attempts at invasions of Tenzalore which are repelled by the Doctor. Whilst it could be seen as this is a reason for more silliness, what with Sontarans being “offed” by the Papal Mainframe with a great deal of politeness and wooden Cybermen invading like the Christmas Nutcracker, it also serves to highlight the Doctor’s resolution that he will act as the town of Christmas’s sheriff, as he was deputised to be in “A Town Called Mercy”, and acts as a taster to the episode’s third act when the Daleks come into play.
Amongst these invasions, however, we are treated to two occasions where the Doctor sends Clara back to Earth. ‘Hang on minute,” you may have said, “didn’t he do this in “The Parting Of The Ways” when he returned Rose to Earth… during a Dalek invasion?” On the surface, these two stories do bear that similarity, but it also acts as the enabler for the emotional strand with Clara seeing the Doctor age over the centuries with him becoming increasingly vulnerable due to time and conflict and his “Impossible Girl” being the person to help him out one more time. (That said, I did have a personal niggle with this that I will touch on later).
The final act sees the Doctor backed into a corner, the regenerations all used up and facing his mortal enemy one more time. However, whereas this incarnation of the Doctor, up to the closing scenes of “The Day Of The Doctor”, would have taken a more martial solution to this invasion, the newly reformed (from our perspective) Doctor tries to take on what his assumed name entails – by taking the Daleks on in one last war of words whilst protecting the people he cares for, rather than wiping them out. As his promise states, neither “cruel or cowardly” and never giving up or giving in.
His reward for this act of bravery, a new regeneration cycle, which eliminates the vision of Trenzalore that we witnessed in “The Name Of The Doctor”. Whilst the act of regeneration has been approached with a degree of sadness throughout the Doctor’s lives, the preliminary stage of this regeneration is seen almost as an occasion for defiance, even glee, by the Doctor as he rubs the Daleks’ collective blobs into the fact that he is regenerating for the thirteenth time whilst windmilling his arms in the style of Elvis Presley or Pete Townsend from “The Who” before using his regenerative energy to repel this final Dalek taskforce. It’s only in the regeneration’s second stage where we feel the emotional punch.
For me, this double climax is a double edged sword. On the one hand, it could have been seen as smarter that Steven Moffat wrote Eleven’s goodbye to Clara prior to the first regeneration cycle and then introduced Twelve on board the TARDIS. However, this would have robbed Matt Smith of his chance to break the “fourth wall” and speak to the fans. It’s not Clara who says “You… you are the Doctor.” It’s the fans. It’s not Eleven who states he’ll always remember when he was the Doctor… It’s Matt Smith, much in the same manner when David Tennant said that he didn’t want to go.
In the midst of this regeneration, there is consistency with previous regenerations, specifically those of the Fourth and Fifth Doctors, as he hallucinates the first person who he saw in that incarnation, Amy Pond. Again, this is a personal double edged sword as on the one hand as this scene rounds off the Eleventh Doctor’s era nicely by adding a sense of “Alpha” and “Omega” with the first face he saw wishing him goodnight in that body, however, it also relegates Clara to the role of a bystander rather than the current travelling companion.
Once the regeneration happens, we expect the whole blazing light routine that we have seen previously. But again, Steven Moffat wrong foots us by transforming the Doctor in the blink of an eye, ensuring that we don’t mourn for too long and providing us with the sensation of shock that Clara undergoes, with no small thanks to Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman’s pacey delivery.
On to the acting front, for such an epic story, the “lead” guest cast is small in size. Orla Brady delivers an effectively slippery performance in the role of Tasha Lem. You have to believe that you don’t know which side she’ll fall down on – the Doctor’s, her own and that of the Papal Mainframe/the Silence or the Daleks, whilst carrying an element of seductive flirtiness for the Doctor. Good as Ms Brady’s performance is, you have to wonder whether this character is a recycle of River Song and whether Alex Kingston was due to be in this finale to round off River’s relationship with Eleven.
Kayvan Novak gives a nicely underplayed voiceover performance in the role of the Doctor’s temporary companion, “Handles”. One the one hand, you get a relationship between “Handles” and the Doctor which could be compared with the fourth Doctor and K-9 with “Handles” annoying Eleven when asking him when he should give a reminder to move the TARDIS’s phone function back into Console Room, but he also acts as the McGuffin when he not only identifies that the original signal comes from Gallifrey but also translates it, thanks to the High Council seal that the Doctor took from the Master in “The Five Doctors” (who said the anniversary celebrations were over). Finally, “Handles” acts as the foreshadowing for the Doctor’s imminent demise once he shuts down due to a lack of parts.
Additional notable support is provided by James Buller, Sheila Reid and Elizabeth Rider in the roles of Clara’s Dad, Clara’s grandmother and her father’s new partner Julie respectively and Jack Hollington in the role of the Doctor’s young friend Barnable.
Nicholas Briggs reprises his role as the Dalek and Cyberman voices whilst Dan Starkey goes on to show that it isn’t just Strax who is short of brains in his particular clone batch. Meanwhile, Peter Capaldi grabs the audience by the lapels with a dynamic performance as Twelve, whilst Karen Gillan underplays at pulling the heartstrings in her surprise return as Amy Pond. (“Moffaaaaaaaaaaaaattttt!!!”)
Jenna Coleman uses her screen time well continuing the change in the dynamic between Clara and Eleven from the two enigmas prior to “The Day Of The Doctor” into two firm friends. If I had the chance to be selfish, it would have been nice to see one more series featuring her and Matt Smith together to see this change in dynamic flourish. Unfortunately, I have to admit that this story doesn’t really use the character of Clara effectively as it could have done, relegating her to the sidelines when the Doctor sends her back to Earth whilst pushing her to the sidelines again in favour of the Amy hallucination. The character of Clara deserved better than this due to the fact that she made the sacrifice to be scattered along the Doctor’s timeline to act as his constant protector and used her humanity to avert the bloody conclusion of the Time War at the Doctors’ collective hands.
But, appropriately, it’s Matt Smith who was the star of the show. Unlike previous regeneration stories which have had an element of the doom laden about it (Yes, I’m looking at you “Logopolis” and “The End of Time”), this story is a vehicle to act as a celebration of Matt’s time as the Doctor. Granted, the conclusion was always going to be sad, but Matt prevented it from being stuck in a weight of misery by adding a life and zest to the role right up to the actual regeneration. He had to convince that this was the longest time that the Doctor was stuck in one place – forget “The Year Of Hell”, we don’t know how many centuries he was stuck in Christmas, and he did it admirably by making the Doctor more curmudgeonly and older and yet retain the Doctor’s magic and determination without parodying an old man, which would have weakened the eleventh Doctor’s departure. In addition to this, when the regeneration comes, he manages to “speak” to the fans whilst not being mawkish or too funereal.
All in all, it wasn’t the most perfect story in the “Doctor Who” canon, but it did the job of casting off the majority of the plot strands given to the Eleventh Doctor, celebrating the legacy of Eleven and the work that Matt Smith has given to the role, and giving the Twelfth Doctor a clear mission statement for his return in 2014.
The bell has tolled and Trenzalore has been and gone. Gallifrey awaits and a new Team TARDIS are crashing headlong into new adventures.