Review: DOCTOR WHO, THE TIME OF THE DOCTOR (Or, Farewell To Matt Smith As The Christmas Special Welcomes Peter Capaldi To The Title Role)
Opinions appear to be divided when it comes to "The Time of the Doctor", something that is bound to make discussing the episode rather lively. Personally, I liked it in parts but don't think it adds up to a complete whole. It's an ambitious Doctor Who Christmas special that doesn't have half as much time as it needs to tell the story of the Doctor's latest regeneration.
These seasonal specials tend to be designed to appeal to a much wider audience than usual because there are many viewers who'll tune in to watch the show on Christmas day even if they've missed it throughout the rest of the year. "The Time of the Doctor" hardly bothers to be accessible at all, though, flinging us all into a heavily serialised and sometimes baffling succession of events that are more likely to leave casual Who fans puzzled than entertained.
The plot of the episode finds all manner of spacecraft from all over the universe brought to surround a single planet emitting a mysterious signal. Everyone's fascinated by the prospect of what it might be but none of them, including the Doctor, can decipher it. When his new sidekick (a detached Cyberman head called 'Handles') determines that it is coming from Gallifrey, it becomes clear something more complicated is going on.
The whole thing gets increasingly more befuddling from there, as the Doctor finds himself working with Papal Mainframe Mother Superior, Tasha Lem (Orla Brady), and the Silence to defend a town called Christmas. This goes on for many many years, as the Doctor tries to keep the Time Lords that are stuck in another universe safe. It doesn't take long for tiny references and callbacks to become vaguely irritating as Doctor Who sheds the simplicity it usually has at Christmas.
Despite this, there are many moments that play rather wonderfully. Steven Moffat still either needs to learn how to adopt a calmer approach to storytelling or be replaced by somebody who understands pacing, though. This episode has its fun bits but is a frenetic mess, skipping essential details all over the place and rushing through so much narrative that even if you get what is happening onscreen it feels as though the show wants to make you lose track of the thread.
Too often, the rousing soundtrack swells to build up a big moment and it feels flat because the show hasn't done the work to sell the emotional consequences or effectively outline what exactly is at stake. Of course many fans can follow it all successfully but that's not the same as Doctor Who doing the hard work to get us on the same page as the characters. Thankfully, Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman deliver terrific performances in the key roles, managing to make moments more convincing than the writing can.
Smith, in particular, is tremendous in his final episode. He will be remembered with a lot of affection. He's the actor who brought Doctor Who to so many new viewers and he filled the character with charisma, charm and wisdom. His supremely confident portrayal is certain to stand the test of time. He brings meaning to every moment of "The Time of the Doctor" and looks excellent in his old age makeup. No matter how scattershot the storytelling of the episode, Smith enhances the material and is completely committed to those huge final moments where he's able to regenerate (let's just ignore Moffat attempting to box himself into the limited regenerations thing before finding a halfhearted way out of it).
This is a perplexing episode that disappoints overall but works in some areas. Sure, it can be explained logically and it almost makes sense as a story but it's not sensibly paced or executed throughout. It is only the very strong performances and a couple of inspired beats (I rather enjoyed the arrival of a wooden Cyberman) that prevent this from being more frustrating. The regeneration itself largely works and I like the brief few seconds of Peter Capaldi that close out the episode. I've got high hopes for him as a new and refreshing take on the Doctor, although I can't help but feel a new creative direction is needed to keep Doctor Who compelling.