This review originally appeared on The Arts Desk.
So long then, Matt Smith, and thanks for all the fish fingers and custard. I’m sure I wasn’t the only fan left scratching my head as the Eleventh Doctor, clad in smoking jacket and age-enhancing makeup, played out his final scenes – not least because I checked Twitter afterwards, just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. I can’t begin to imagine what your family members, tuned in through force of habit as their turkey dinners digested, must have thought.
I’m not sure whether last month’s 50th anniversary episode is to blame for setting the bar too high, or perhaps for using up all of the nostalgic call-backs and tips of the hat that arguably the finest Doctor of the modern run deserved for a send-off. Although The Time of the Doctor set out to tie up all the loose ends of the Eleventh Doctor’s story – even the ones, like the crack in Amelia Pond’s bedroom wall, that you were under the impression had already been tied – it did so not through affection but through a sense of misplaced duty. And so we got around 50 minutes of fast-paced guddle featuring the Silence, the Siege of Trenzalore and lots of people shouting, “Doctor who? Doctor WHO?” – across the universes, in fact. If we at least get to approach a new series, and a new Doctor, with this most tedious of in-jokes settled then perhaps the episode had its redeeming features after all.
With time at such a premium that episode writer and show-runner Steven Moffat couldn’t make enough time for the plot to breathe, it was hard not to resent pointless diversions like Christmas dinner with the family of Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman). This may have given the Doctor’s companion somewhere to return to every time she was sent away as surplus to requirements throughout the episode, but since the characters had never appeared before it was hard to see their tabletop banter as anything other than distraction.
Meanwhile, the Doctor was trapped – and growing older, despite the past three years of the show giving us about 700 years’ worth of adventure with barely a wrinkle – in a town called Christmas, “fixing toys and fighting monsters” in the form of every iconic baddie champing at the bit to restart the Time War aborted by the actions of Smith and previous incarnations David Tennant and John Hurt during the anniversary episode. The need to resume hostilities in the most devastating war ever experienced is never satisfactorily explained, but it is the job of mystical space nun Tasha Lem (Orla Brady – never satisfactorily introduced, but happy to join a long line of female supporting characters cast to flirt with the Doctor anyway) to stop it from happening.
Long story short: the rest of the Time Lords saved the day by shooting space rays through the crack in the universe and gifting the Doctor another batch of regenerations, before conveniently forgetting that the whole reason they’d been bellowing the most annoying question in the universe through said crack in the first place was to arrange for their return. All that was left was for Smith to make an affecting speech, untie his final bow tie and regenerate into a frantic-eyed, curly-haired Peter Capaldi in time for the madness to begin again.
This final scene was beautifully done and mercifully short – where predecessor Tennant managed to spend what felt like 10 years slowly dying of radiation poisoning as he bid farewell to every companion back in 2010, there was only one face Smith needed to see one last time (that brief reappearance of the faithful Amy Pond, tied to Smith’s Doctor by virtue of hers being the first face that he ever saw, enough to remind the viewer why his chemistry with Coleman has always seemed lacking).
While The Time of the Doctor had its share of great moments – among them the Castaway-style relationship the Doctor forms with a severed Cyberman head whilst left to his own devices, Clara’s apparent use of the TARDIS instead of figuring out how to work iPlayer, and the way that the show owned Smith and Karen Gillan’s need to wear wigs for their iconic roles – it ultimately suffered from too much plot and not enough character. A strange complaint for a drama, sure; but one which ultimately led to an unsatisfying send-off.
Still, those few minutes of our Twelfth, Thirteenth, or First Mark Two Doctor, for whom additional years do not appear to equal control or standoffishness, pressed all the right buttons. He’ll be back – and so, glutton for punishment that I am, will I.
The Time of the Doctor is available to watch again on iPlayer until Thursday, 2nd January 2014