At long last, who is the 11th Doctor? The man we met in “The Eleventh Hour” was a character out of a fairy tale, a magical old man with a younger face and an even younger temperament. It’s appropriate that the first person this new incarnation met was an eight-year-old girl, because that childlike sense of wonder has suffused this Doctor’s entire era. The problem is that such innocence has almost always been an illusion. After all, the raggedy man abandoned that little girl for 12 years. He didn’t mean to do it—this Doctor never means to hurt people, except on the rare, terrifying occasions in which he very much does—and the little girl who was no longer a little girl ultimately forgave him, but the pattern of this Doctor’s life was established. He, more than any previous incarnation, would be defined by the mad impossibility of the time traveler’s existence. When all of space and time is within one’s purview, it can be awfully hard to keep track of causes and effects, or even to make sure they are in the right order. All that was left to him was to try to do the right thing in the moment, and the universe would generally sort itself out later, assuming he hadn’t blown it up or something.
The Doctor of tonight’s Christmas special is an elusive figure, as the reality and the mythology of the Time Lord become hopelessly interwoven. He spends centuries protecting a town called Christmas on a planet called Trenzalore, because any other choice would mean senseless slaughter or universe-spanning war. The man who lies finds himself trapped within a truth field, meaning his only option is to say nothing. That leaves the audience some room to interpret the deeper meanings behind his choices here. He is either the selfless hero or the fatuous egotist, as Tasha Lem puts it. He might be a man who loses sight of the bigger picture in his desperate attempts to save the little people, or he might be a mad god who can only wreak havoc when he meddles in the affairs of mortals; all of that is part of the disconnect that was captured when a 26-year-old Matt Smith was cast as this ancient alien. Somewhere at the intersection of all the disparate, contradictory strands of the 11th Doctor is a child’s fairy tale, and “The Time Of The Doctor” is the realization of that story, as the Doctor spends a good chunk of eternity fighting to save a dream. The result is one of Doctor Who’s best regeneration stories, one that beautifully encapsulates what this Doctor stands for.
This episode belongs to Matt Smith, and it’s entirely likely that this will go down as his finest work in the role. Steven Moffat takes great care to spotlight every aspect of Smith’s Doctor. He is alternately grumpy, funny, awkward, flirty, inquisitive, giddy, and heartbroken, and that simply covers the bits up to the reveal of the crack in reality. The old-age makeup isn’t entirely convincing—though I’m not honestly sure any old-age makeup has ever been entirely convincing—but Smith nicely modulates his performance to suits the increasingly wizened versions of his Doctor. As he’s done in so many previous episodes, Smith makes being riotously, unbelievably uncool seem like the coolest thing in the universe. The Doctor’s regeneration scene, in which he explains just why it’s fine to move on to the next life as long as he remembers all the ones before it, perfectly captures the goofy profundity that is so uniquely him. It’s quite right that the Doctor takes off his beloved bowtie before he goes. The next man might get to wear his old clothes, but the bowtie stays with him forever. Who else would understand how cool they are?
Admittedly, there’s precious little room for anyone else in this story. It’s hard to know what to make of Tasha Lem, the Mother Superious of the Papal Mainframe. Her flirtatious relationship with the Doctor, knowledge of how to fly the TARDIS, refusal to age, and inner psychosis all strongly recall River Song, which could mean that she is some previously unknown incarnation of River—although there’s a handful of logical problems with that theory—or that the role was originally written for River and Alex Kingston simply wasn’t available. Whatever the case, she’s a character who is really only as interesting as Orla Brady can make her, and Brady acquits herself exceedingly well; this is a character I wouldn’t mind seeing again in the future. Clara fares better here, but this episode isn’t going to answer any criticisms that her character is defined primarily in terms of the Doctor. That’s a debate for another time, really—or at least a separate thread in the comments—but “The Time Of The Doctor” does at least demonstrate why the Doctor and Clara are right to place so much faith in each other. More than anyone else, Clara understands the scope of the Doctor’s sacrifices, and she refuses to let him face his end alone, whether that means traveling back to Trenzalore while clinging to the outside of the TARDIS or pleading with the Time Lords to grant the Doctor renewed life.
“The Time Of The Doctor” is the culmination of three seasons’ worth of complex, frequently baffling narrative arcs. The Christmas special does about as good a job as can be expected in explaining the major lingering mysteries of the last few years, as it is revealed that the 11th Doctor has effectively been chasing his own tail from the moment he first popped out of the TARDIS in Amelia Pond’s garden. Madame Kovarian and the Silence are revealed as a massive paradox; they broke away from the siege of Trenzalore, enacted various mad schemes to kill the Doctor, and ended up creating the very cracks in reality that led to the siege in the first place. It’s not that the Time Lords have been trying to break through since way back in “The Eleventh Hour,” but rather that their means of escape is a byproduct of its own existence. I won’t claim that this isn’t confusing, but it is basically coherent, and it’s a brilliant touch to reveal that the Silence were actually genetically engineered by the Papal Mainframe as memory-proof confessors. Still, those looking for straightforward, emotionally rooted explanations—which certainly aren’t bad things!—are not going to find them in “The Time Of The Doctor,” at least not outside of the narrow context of the Doctor himself, as the episode does endeavor to explain who the Doctor is at his core.
The conversation between Clara and the aging Doctor midway through the episode is the most important scene of “The Time Of The Doctor.” Clara tries desperately to convince the Doctor that he can allow himself a moment’s selfishness after 300 years, that he can imagine a scenario in which he lets someone else bear his cosmos-spanning burden. Her assumption, at least in that moment, is that the Doctor is a saint, someone who takes on such an awesome responsibility because it is his first and only thought. That just isn’t the case. The Doctor sent Clara away in the TARDIS not only to save the life of his companion but also to stop himself from losing his nerve. From the very beginning, this Doctor has presented himself as the stuff of fairy tales, the kind of magical, all-knowing, and perfect hero that a lonely little girl would spend a childhood dreaming about. Yet the Raggedy Man was never who this Doctor really was; it was who he was trying to be. It’s fitting then that a vision of Amy Pond appears to him just before his regeneration; with his actions in tonight’s episode, he has finally lived up to her seemingly impossible ideal.
In the meantime, the Doctor could never fully banish the anger and the sadness inside him, at least not without forgetting part of who he was—a point that the Moment was getting at with her “man who forgets” label in “The Day Of The Doctor.” Before then, in “A Good Man Goes To War,” the Doctor warned Madame Kovarian that good men don’t need rules, and she did not want to find out why he has so many. The Doctor has grown considerably since that fateful day, but the Doctor once again mentions rules when he begins his 13th regeneration. He warns the Daleks to never, ever tell him the rules, and the reason is simple enough: As soon as the Doctor knows the rules, he can start figuring out a way to break them. The 11th Doctor, like so many of his predecessors, is an anarchist at hearts, and he never met an authority he couldn’t rebel against or a prison he couldn’t escape from. It’s what he did in “The Big Bang,” it’s very definitely what he did in “The Wedding Of River Song,” and it’s what he did times a billion in “The Day Of The Doctor.” What stops him from being monstrously, destructively selfish in his flagrant rewriting of the rules of the universe is the fact that he always remains committed to saving others before himself. He isn’t perfect, but it’s his imperfection that drives him to far greater triumphs.
“While there’s life, there’s hope.” It’s an old saying—it’s generally attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero, but that dusty senator probably stole it from the 3rd Doctor—and it’s one of the fundamental credos that defines all of the Doctors. That belief is why the Doctor is generally so unwilling to consider convenient short-term sacrifices in the name of long-term victories. There’s always a chance the Doctor can find some other way to win the day, but any life lost while under his protection is lost forever. The Doctor took this principle to its logical endpoint in “The Day Of The Doctor,” in which he rewrote the end of the Time War and stashed Gallifrey away in a pocket universe. That decision made for one hell of a rousing climax to the show’s 50th anniversary festivities, but it didn’t represent a solution in and of itself. Any restoration of the Time Lords would have to deal with the omnicidal evil they were prepared to unleash in “The End Of Time,” and that still leaves the question of whether the rest of the universe would be willing to coexist with the Time Lords once more. As “The Time Of The Doctor” emphatically demonstrates, the rest of the universe isn’t quite ready to welcome back Gallifrey.
And that’s precisely the point: Tonight’s episode maneuvers the Doctor into an impossible situation. The Time Lords are lurking on the other side of the crack in reality, waiting for the Doctor to answer the first question, speak his name, and release them from captivity. Doing so would trigger the new beginning of the Time War, and odds are that the cosmos wouldn’t survive this sequel. The Doctor can run away in his TARDIS, but then the Papal Mainframe would burn all of Trenzalore, killing the denizens of Christmas and likely trapping the Time Lords forever in their pocket universe. Either option would have the most terrible consequences, leaving the Doctor stuck in a hopeless situation. And in that case, the Doctor’s only recourse is to keep on living, to place Christmas, Trenzalore, and Gallifrey under his personal protection for as long as it takes. Because, again, while there’s life, there’s hope, and the Doctor is a man with a tremendous amount of life to give. All he’s really doing throughout the special is stalling for time, but the innocent humans of Christmas can live out countless lifetimes in the space of the Doctor’s delays.
But even the Doctor’s life is not infinite, and this time he really is approaching the end of the line. The notion that a Time Lord can only regenerate 13 times is one of the most iconic elements of Doctor Who lore, although it wasn’t introduced until the 14th season, specifically in the Tom Baker classic “The Deadly Assassin.” As immutable a law as it now seems, this regeneration limit was actually a revision of sorts; the 2nd Doctor had previously suggested that Time Lords live forever, barring accidents. Still, that particular continuity bomb has been ticking away since 1976, with the show reaffirming its ironclad nature on multiple occasions. Steven Moffat uses some creative accounting—thanks to the recent addition of John Hurt’s War Doctor and the 10th Doctor’s fake-out regeneration in “The Stolen Earth”/“Journey’s End”—to position the 11th Doctor as the final incarnation. As such, “The Time Of The Doctor” claims for itself an outsize role in the show’s history; it is effectively the ultimate regeneration story, and it has a responsibility to live up to all the dramatic potential of the Doctor facing his final end.
Moffat comes up with a most ingenious solution to this particular challenge, as the Doctor’s unprecedented 13th regeneration is what actually destroys the entire invading Dalek fleet. In that instant, the Doctor unleashes the full fury of a god, but he does so like the daffy madman he has always been, flapping his arms about and joyously taunting the Daleks as he fires bolts of regenerative energy. Back in “The End Of Time,” the 10th Doctor got to take his reward, as he was able to hold back his regeneration long enough to visit all those people who touched his lives. The 11th Doctor’s reward for all his selfless sacrifice is more life, which, as you may have heard, rather neatly means more hope as well, specifically in the form of fiery death to the assembled Dalek horde.
The unseen Time Lords also gain a measure of redemption in their decision to sacrifice their own restoration in order to save the Doctor’s life. Although “The Day Of The Doctor” indicated that there were aspects of Gallifrey worth saving, it’s only here that the Time Lords demonstrate once and for all that they are capable of looking beyond their own immediate self-interest. By giving the Doctor the life that he needs to end the siege and become a new man, the Time Lords leave open the possibility that they can be saved someday in the future, and on that day they will truly be worth saving. This Doctor gave everything to ensure that that dream, and perhaps every other dream, could endure. Now it’s up to the next guy to turn it all into reality.
- The review belongs to the 11th Doctor, so let’s turn the stray observations over to his successor, as I think I’ve said just about all I can about the rest of the story. (Although, the whole nudity gag? Eh, that was a bit silly. Though I did quite like all the stuff with the wig.) Anyway, Peter Capaldi’s introduction as the 12th Doctor isn’t quite as short as David Tennant’s scene at the end of “Parting Of The Ways,” but it isn’t nearly as long as Matt Smith’s debut in “The End Of Time,” so it’s difficult to say too much about the new Doctor. All that said, I may already be in love with the 12th Doctor, as I am wont to do with any new Doctor.
- The initial look on the 12th Doctor’s face is terrifying, which one would expect from Peter Capaldi, but it seems to give way to something between fear and curiosity; it’s possible that the new Doctor has forgotten who Clara is along with the knowledge of how to fly the TARDIS. Either way, I already feel sorry for all the monsters that must face the wrath of this Doctor.
- The way Capaldi delivers the offhand declaration that “We’re probably crashing!” is what convinces me the role of the Doctor is in very safe hands, as the lines shows the Doctor’s alien perspective is still very much intact.
- “Kidneys! I’ve got new kidneys. I don’t like the color!” The Doctor is officially Scottish! Until the show directly contradicts this, I’m going to assume the new voice is a little tribute to Amy Pond, and I might keep on believing that even after the show directly contradicts this.
- “Just one question. Do you happen to know how to fly this thing?” And the adventure continues…
Next time: We’ll back with coverage of the eighth season whenever it kicks off. Until then, why not stop by our classic Doctor Who reviews? Christopher Bahn continues his journey through the original series, while I’m currently working my way through the first three years of the new series. In fact, on January 5, I’ll be taking a look at the Steven Moffat-penned all-time classic, “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances.”