The Doctor Who Christmas Specials have always had a somewhat mixed history, with some of them delivering strong stories that really tug at the heart strings, or, in some other cases, being completely forgettable. The Time of the Doctor kind of falls in the middle of those two, but what it does, it does very, very right.
On the one hand, it gives Matt Smith a suitably melancholic farewell that hits most of the right notes, but on the flip side, the plot and pacing are all over the place that it ends up being far more convoluted than it needs to be. I was loving it one minute and scratching my head in confusion the next; and that’s not a good thing.
It all starts with a mysterious signal that is transmitted throughout all of time and space, attracting the worst alien baddies out there, and of course, the Doctor, whose curiosity once again gets the best of him. When the Doctor tracks down the signal to the not-so-subtly named town of Christmas, he begins to realize that things are not as they seem to be.
The strange signal is not only originating from the same ‘crack in the wall’ first seen back in Smith’s first episode from Series Five, but is, in fact, coming from Gallifrey itself, carrying a simple question: what is the Doctor’s name? Things get even more interesting when it’s unveiled that the planet the Doctor finds himself on is Trenzalore, the planet he is supposed to die and be buried on.
Faced with the decision of either freeing his own people, and inevitably starting the infamous Time War all over again, or standing firm to protect the crack from his enemies, the Doctor does what he’s always done best. He saves the day, but at a cost so great that he whisks Clara away for her own protection.
Committed and fearless, the Doctor stays in the town of Christmas for over three-hundred years, endlessly protecting it and its people from the never-ending threat of destruction. This was a great way to demonstrate just how determined and strong the Doctor really is, and while it completely caught me off-guard, it was an especially saddening sight to see him age and decay like all the rest of us.
While that all sounds great, the actual delivery is sadly disappointing. The plot starts out great, but sadly loses itself in all the ambitious things it tries to accomplish and buckles under its own weight. When it focuses on the Doctor and Clara, and the emotional effect his coming regeneration has on them both, The Time of the Doctor is great. But when the two are separated, things start to falter.
The Time of the Doctor is just to busy and moves far too fast to let anything feel truly powerful. While the previews leading up to the episode teased that the Cybermen, Daleks, Weeping Angels, and the Silence would all be a part of the story, that was hardly delivered on, and demonstrates just one instance of how The Time of the Doctor misuses its tremendous potential.
Instead of the bloodbath we were probably expecting from having all these villains in the same place, they act as little more than cameos. Even the incredibly exciting prospect of the Doctor teaming up with the Silence is underwhelming, and we get nothing more than a brief clip of them walking side-by-side. Only the Daleks get all that much to do, and even then, it’s only in the final act that they succeed in being worthwhile.
Even Clara isn’t given enough to do, which is a shame, because when she’s actually involved the episode is at its absolute best. Seeing her plea with the Doctor to reconsider his own destructive decisions is something that is just heartbreaking to watch, and delivers the much needed emotional impact that seems to be lacking from the rest of the episode.
With all that said, when it comes to the Doctor himself, the story succeeds on a number of levels. It thankfully gives Matt Smith a ton of material to work with, and he does an absolutely brilliant job of showing off the many sides of the Eleventh Doctor. One minute he’s flirting with the especially feisty Sasha Tem and the next he’s fearlessly confronting the nastiest scum of the universe.
If The Time of the Doctor succeeds at anything, it’s giving Smith the perfect amount of room to make his last appearance as the Doctor memorable. It reminds us that the Doctor isn’t immortal, but vulnerable and even fallible. And seeing him old, tired, and dying, while not something I exactly wanted to see, does that in spades.
The Time of the Doctor left me really conflicted. It felt rushed and busy, and barely left us with any breathing room to stop and reflect on what we were watching. While I appreciated getting answers to all the questions that were left over from Smith’s run as the Doctor, they came and went so quick that I actually had to pause and rewind just to make sure I understood it correctly.
Even with its shortcomings, The Time of the Doctor thankfully ended on such a high note that it very nearly redeemed the flaws that came before. I loved how it was Clara who was responsible for the Time Lords of Gallifrey giving the Doctor a whole new set of regenerations, and it was a nice way to remind us just how important the Doctor’s companions really are.
However, the very best moment from The Time of the Doctor came from the very end, which was built around one of the smartest cameo appearances the show has had in years. Seeing Amy Pond appear to her “raggedy man” moments before his change was something that finally left me teary-eyed. Giving them the chance to say the goodbyes they were so viciously robbed of was an ingeniously executed way to conclude Smith’s run as the Doctor.
With so much going on in The Time of the Doctor, it’s almost a miracle that it didn’t completely crash and burn. It has some undeniable flaws to be sure, with the rushed pacing being the most glaring, but it came through where it needed to and gave Matt Smith a fitting send off that was so good it almost made me forget about the problems of the past.
It’s a mixed bag to be sure, but I can’t say I’m unhappy with how it ended. While I wish the actual regeneration hadn’t been so abrupt, and that we got to see just a little more of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, when it all comes down to it, Matt Smith went out on one of his highest notes yet, and I know I’m not the only one who is anxiously waiting to see where the show goes next.