We’re now only hours away from the Doctor’s next regeneration. But how did his last one fare? Join us as we look back on Matt Smith’s festive swansong from 2013…
We mean this in the nicest possible way: The Time of the Doctor is a mess. It’s a chaotic whirlwind of turbulent ideas, explosive emotions, and “everything but the kitchen-sink”-style storytelling. It’s a sombre regeneration story forced to masquerade as a comedic Christmas special. It also attempts to wrap up all of the loose threads from Matt Smith’s convoluted era in the space of just sixty minutes. Even without all the high expectations coming out of The Day of the Doctor, this special was doomed from the start. And yet, despite its inescapable flaws, there’s still something magical about Eleven’s final hour.
The story begins with the Doctor investigating a mysterious message coming from the backwater planet of Trenzalore. He’s not the only one on the case, either. The Daleks, the Cybermen, the Sontarans, and everyone else left in the costume department have turned up as well, trying to decipher what it means. Turns out (you guessed it) it’s the oldest question in the universe, transmitting across all of time and space: “Doctor who?“. The Doctor, having listened intently to all of the foreshadowing in previous seasons, knows exactly what this means. For him, the bell tolls. Eleven’s hour is over now… but will it be striking Twelve’s?
An Undercooked Christmas Turkey
Mercifully, most of this episode’s problems all fall within its opening half. Sure, it leaves a terrible first impression, but at least it leaves a clear path later on for Matt Smith to bow out on a high. But we’re getting well ahead of ourselves. Back to the beginning, and the Doctor’s initial investigations are spliced up with some cringe-worthy Christmas comedy. Clara’s cooking dinner for her family, but she needs a) someone to cook the turkey, and b) the Doctor to be her boyfriend (ding dong). Predictably, it all descends into chaos, especially when the Doctor turns up naked because… umm… something to do with holographic clothes and church, apparently. Seriously? The nude Doctor gag is a painfully unfunny and horribly misjudged bit of “humour” that just comes across as an excuse to make fun of Matt Smith in his last episode, and it really doesn’t work.
The “funnies” don’t end there, unfortunately. The script dares to break the fourth wall by later giving the Doctor a wig, poking fun at the fact that Matt Smith had recently shaved his head. Again, it’s totally at odds with everything else, and not in the least bit essential to the plot. Speaking of which… once the obligatory shenanigans end, the Doctor and Clara find themselves on Trenzalore itself in a town called (what else?) Christmas. They discover that the message is coming through that crack in the wall, originating from Gallifrey in its newly homed pocket dimension. If the Doctor speaks his name, the Time Lords will come through and be restored to the universe. Easy peasy, right? But if they do, every monster in existence is sat waiting in the sky, ready to start the Time War anew. Looks like it’s a stalemate, then.
The Doctor has no choice but to make himself comfy, because he’s going to be here for a while. Nine hundred years, in fact. We dip in and out of the Doctor’s time on Trenzalore as he fights off anyone who comes to threaten the town. However, unlike the Twelfth Doctor’s 4.5 billion year stint in Heaven Sent – which feels harrowing to the last – this whizzes by in a flash. The Doctor goes from young to old, all in the space of a montage or two. Matt Smith’s old man make-up looks great, and ageing the Doctor to death is pure genius. But a bit more time spent with the Doctor here, rather than during his earlier naked turkey crusade, wouldn’t have gone amiss. (Although that’s what the Tales of Trenzalore tie-in book is for, we suppose…)
We do get some genuinely touching moments during this time though. Clara’s persistence to stand by the Doctor is heartwarming (even if she falls for his same trick twice). We’ll also wager you shed a tear when Handles the faulty Cyberman head (voiced by Fonejacker‘s Kayvan Novak) finally kicked the bucket. But above all, it’s Matt Smith’s performance that shines through as the highlight of the piece. He may be the youngest Doctor, but he plays old beautifully – and as he stares down the Daleks in one final face-off, he’s captivating to the end. With a roar of defiance, he shouts to his oldest adversaries: “If you want my life, COME. AND. GET IT!”.
The Regeneration Game
Just as the Doctor is about to bite the bullet, The Time of the Doctor pulls another magic rabbit out of its box of tricks. As he explicitly spells out in a scene with Clara, Matt Smith may be “the Eleventh Doctor”, but he’s actually the thirteenth regeneration. David Tennant’s handy Series 4 cop-out and John Hurt’s War Doctor both count towards the total. Which means he’s got no more regenerations left. So, as he creaks off to meet his doom, Clara pleas to the Time Lords to help save his life. They reluctantly oblige, and in a flash of golden light, he’s conveniently granted a whole new regeneration cycle. Bursting with volcanic energy,the Doctor blasts his enemies to kingdom come, and most of Trenzalore along with them.
That only leaves us with enough time left for Matt Smith’s actual regeneration, and thankfully, they saved the best bit ’til last. Back in his youthful face, Smith delivers a rousing speech that is as much about himself as it is about his Doctor. There’s even a tastefully hallucinogenic cameo from Karen Gillan (although she’s wearing a wig too, which slightly undermines the emotion). Then, with a sneeze, he’s gone. Geronimo!
When all is said and done then, this is not the grandiose send-off that Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor deserved. It’s not the best regeneration story, nor is it even the best Doctor Who Christmas special. Yet there is undeniably something of value still lurking beneath its surface. Had it been able to stand on its own, devoid of any festivities and given more time to breathe, The Time of the Doctor could have been a classic. It’s admirable in its ambitions, but ultimately, it’s let down by its careless commitment to Christmas Day.
Now, to try and bleach the sight of the naked Doctor from our minds forever…