Thursday, December 26, 2013

Doctor Who Review: "The Time of The Doctor" - Smoke and Mirrors

Matt Smith made his swan song and Jenna-Louise Coleman wore a funny hat in "Doctor Who"

Steven Moffat writes Doctor Who like a magician performs an illusion.  He generally spends a great deal of time setting things up, posing the questions he wants to answer, and slowly drawing the viewer in until he reaches the climax and, with a flash of light, a puff of smoke, and a little bit of sleight of hand, everything pops into place and The Doctor (and by extension Moffat), jumps to his feet, raises his hands in the air and shouts “Ta-da!”

Moffat’s storytelling style isn’t necessarily a bad thing and it’s not like his predecessor Russell T Davies didn’t have some of the same quirks.  But last night’s swan song for Matt Smith, “The Time of The Doctor,” was like an illusion gone horribly wrong.  The trap door didn’t open.  The smoke bomb didn’t go off.  The assistant missed her cue.  All the whizzing and banging and lights and pomp were unable to conceal the stagehands working behind the curtain.  The entire thing didn’t make a damn lick of sense.  And yet there, at the end, were Matt Smith and Steven Moffat raising their hands in triumph, yelling “Ta-da!” and hoping beyond hope that we’ll applaud even in spite of the mess we’ve just seen.

I’ll be the first to admit that I can make the occasional misread of an episode of Doctor Who.  I had an extremely negative initial reaction to the 50th anniversary special, “The Day of The Doctor,” but I realized fairly quickly that that reaction was a result of my own expectations going into the episode as opposed to anything the episode actually did.  Here, however, I don’t think that it was my expectations causing problems.  This was after all, a fairly straightforward episode of Doctor Who.  The Doctor shows up to a place where mysterious things are happening, investigates, determines the problem, and saves the day.  The problem here is that the “mysterious things” are so convoluted and so obviously an attempt to wrap up four years' worth of story with a neat little bow that the result is more confusing than intriguing.  And The Doctor’s “solution” is basically to do nothing for 500 years until he’s saved by a Deus ex Machina (see also: “Parting of the Ways, The,” “Last of the Time Lords,” “Big Bang, The,” and “Wedding of River Song, The”).  It’s easily the most common way that Davies and Moffat have wrapped up their respective Doctor Who seasons but it often comes across as a cheat.  And the worst part is that here, again, it doesn’t make any sense.

Let’s see if I can understandably summarize the plot for “The Time of The Doctor” in a single paragraph.  The entire universe is being drawn to a planet by an undecipherable signal.  The Doctor investigates the planet, finds a lonely town called Christmas that’s surrounded by a truth field (preventing anybody from lying) and inhabited by maybe a couple hundred people, and discovers another rip in time (previously seen in season five).  It turns out the Time Lords are on the other side of this rip anxious to get back to our universe so they’re broadcasting a signal to get The Doctor’s attention.  That signal?  The question that must never be answered: Doctor Who?  That’s right.  This planet is Trenzalore.  And The Doctor’s greatest foes have gathered to keep him from saying his name and releasing the Time Lords on this universe once again.  At this point, “The Time of the Doctor” decides to “yada yada”* five centuries' worth of attacks and war as The Doctor decides to sit on his arse “protecting” the people of Christmas as he slowly dies of old age, having run out of regenerations.**  In the end, Clara (yes she’s still around, sort of) begs the Time Lords to help The Doctor.  They do…something, giving him a new set of regenerations, and letting him blast the hell out of the Daleks, who became the big bad about three-quarters of the way through the episode.  And did I mention that Madam Kovarian’s church and the Silence are the good guys now?  Yeah, that happened to.

* “Then the doctor said "No," yada, yada, yada.  Then the Sontarans and Cybermen attacked, yada, yada, yada.  Then there was a war, yada, yada, yada.”

** And let's not forget that "The Day of The Doctor" was an entire episode built around The Doctor(s) tricking the humans and the Zygons into negotiating a peace treaty.  He couldn't do the same with the church in 500 years?

Where do even begin?  Setting aside the small plot holes, let’s look at the big picture.  What does this all mean?  It sounds like a trite question, but “The Time of The Doctor” is the culmination of four years of the show and The Doctor’s adventures.  Is it too unreasonable to expect this episode to put a definitive stamp on who, exactly, the Eleventh Doctor is?  Instead, Moffat seems less concerned with whom The Doctor is and more concerned with what The Doctor did, eschewing any attempt at actual character development in favor of explaining long forgotten bits of plots like how the Silence blew up the TARDIS and Manchurian Candidated River Song in desperate attempts to change The Doctor’s timeline and prevent him from coming to Trenzalore. 

So who was The Doctor in this, his final episode?  The only thing you can really say about him is that he was the Man Who Waited.  Waited for what?  I don’t know.  But there’s no indication given at any point during the half-millennium Siege and Battle of Trenzalore that The Doctor did anything but wait for the next thing to happen.  But maybe that’s a fitting end to the Eleventh Doctor.  After all, throughout his run, Matt Smith’s Doctor has been defined not by himself but by the people (women really) with whom he has surrounded himself.  First with Amy, then River, and finally with Clara, no attempt has been made during Moffat’s tenure to really explore who The Doctor is.  Rather, it’s his companions who have been the mysteries in need of solving whether it was The Girl Who Waited, the sweetie with spoilers, or The Impossible Girl.  The Doctor has always had companions but never before has he been defined by them, as opposed to giving them definition.

This is a serious problem for Doctor Who because, while the show may get a bit of a reboot with the transition to Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor, the same man is still behind the curtain pulling the strings.  Moffat has had four years to put his stamp on The Doctor and what has he shown the character to be?  “The Day of The Doctor” called the Eleventh Doctor “the one who forgets.”  But he could just as easily be called “the one who wants to be forgotten…except when he doesn’t.”  Nine was defined by The Time War, a manic figure clearly, in retrospect, suffering from PTSD.  Ten kept a bit of that mania, still regretting his actions, but capable of forging real, human connections and, in his final moments, showing how human he had become, begging and yearning for just a little more time.  Eleven?  I just don’t know.  He was an egomaniacal madman, utterly convinced of his own brilliance and invulnerability (especially remarkable given his admission last night that this was his final form) until he wanted to be forgotten, which he was, until he wasn’t anymore.  “The Time of The Doctor” was Moffat’s chance to define the meaning of Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor and he failed.

It really is a shame.  I first started watching Doctor Who weekly with “The Eleventh Hour” after binge-watching the first four seasons (and specials) over a couple of months.  I do consider Matt Smith, more than anybody else anyway, to be “my Doctor.”  And yet I can’t help but think that he was let down by Moffat.  The first season and a half of Smith’s tenure were amazing, with Moffat and Smith seemingly perfecting the nature of an 1100-year-old man in a young man’s body.  But the last two years have seen the story spiral out of control as Moffat has lost his focus on The Doctor in favor of spinning more and more intricate plot webs every year.  A new Doctor is here, but the same showrunner remains.  Hopefully, Capaldi’s iteration allows Moffat to focus on his characters, rather than his illusions.

A couple of spare thoughts –

I think it says a lot about Moffat that, of all the ways he could end Smith’s tenure and of all the people he could have paired him with, it’s Amy who gets the last goodbye and not Clara or, you know, The Doctor’s WIFE, River.

Clara also gets sidelined for pretty much the entire episode, serving only to delay the return of the TARDIS to The Doctor and as the jumpstart to the Time Lords’ Deus ex Machina.  She’s mostly served as a puzzle to be solved thus far but hopefully, with a new Doctor, whom SHE PLEASE WON’T FANCY (because dear God we don’t need another companion in love with The Doctor), she’ll be developed more as a character.

So thoughts?  Comments?  Just want to tell me my blog sucks?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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