In A Tale of Two Cities, itself somewhat allegorical for the Smith era, Dickens pens the line “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, and this, to me, sums up the “Moffat” era, so far, pretty concisely.
Russell T Davies may not have suited all of the people all of the time, but his Doctors and tenure were, on the whole, consistent. You knew what you were getting and you either bought into it, or you didn’t. And you can’t ask fairer than that.
Steven Moffat on the other hand has had an era blighted by change and necessity. Huge swathes of arcs had to be dropped due to budget cuts, consistent writers and directors not used due to, ahem, other reasons, a myriad of producers came and went and the series itself was split in two, then in pieces, then over two years. Matt Smith hasn’t had a fair run at the Doctor for his regeneration story, and, as a result, there’s been no momentum running up to it. This negates a lot of motifs that were available to RTD for Tennant and Eccleston’s swansongs that, whilst used by Moffat for Smith’s, didn’t have the same impact. A stuttering and highly protracted series seven had the best and worst add on – the fiftieth anniversary special – which, whilst filling that remit very adequately, took away from what usually would be happening – thirteen episodes, week after week, leading to a Doctor leaving and a Doctor beginning.
Of course, it can be argued too that David Tennant left after a series of specials, and this is true, of course, but at least he was afforded the time to breath, with things being bled into the series from Easter and leading up to a big, splashy, two hour double header.
Matt, and Steven, had a bare 60 minutes to go epic, tie loose ends, end a Doctor’s life and introduce a new one, and, by having to use series 7 to run up to, not this, but The Day of the Doctor, it almost felt that the idea was to quickly finish this stuff off, get rid of Matt and start again. That’s unfair to Steven, and, more specifically, Matt.
Matt Smith has been a wonderful Doctor. He’s layered it, he’s found new nuances, he’s been surprising, funny, sad, moving and a hero. He’s echoed the past and rebooted the future. He truly has been a Doctor we will all remember fondly. He deserved better.
The Time of the Doctor strives hard to give him better, by indulging the story deeply around the Doctor – this isn’t a story about anyone else other than how one man will live for centuries just to save one little town, and, again, Matt’s Eleventh Doctor underlines just how important and faithful he is to the iconography of the series as a whole. But, by having to run up, and little time to tell the story, Steven Moffat gives us the best and worst of him all wrapped up in a Christmas cracker.
All the worlds in Moffat’s Christmas Specials have been the same – dark, twinkly, snowy, smokey, a Victoriana concentrate screaming CHRISTMAS!!! at us, and this one, which turns out of course to be Trenzalore, is no different. It’s more Christmassy than Chrissy McChristmas, this most Christmassy man in all of Christmasshire, so much so that the town is actually called Christmas. This allows Steven to indulge in some not so subtle puns – the man who stayed for Christmas, the man who saved Christmas, oh I wish it could be Christmas every day… and, with the unChristmassy summer-shoot of The Runaway Bride very much in my mind, I’d day, perhaps, less is more. It was just too, well, Christmassy…
As well as that, of course, we have three and a half years of convoluted plot points to get through and tie up, but, since Steven was a) making it up as he went along b) changing his mind half way through c) scuppered by dropped stories, split seasons and budget what we got was a starter of continuity soup which will probably alienate Gran and Uncle Peter who’d be sitting there, digesting their sprouts and wondering what the Christmas Pudding is going on.
But a regeneration episode isn’t made for everyone else, it’s made for us, and it’s how we fans perceive these episodes that matter.
There are some great concepts in here. The Doctor aging to death to save one little town as well as his whole planet is wonderfully Doctor Who, the juxtaposition of both is mouthwateringly exciting, and Matt’s play on it – a barely conceivable flicker in his eyes when he realizes he’s walked into the Final Trap, is brilliant. But then, Matt’s perfomance from start to finish was a video reel of everything he’s every done as the Doctor, from socially awkward, to hero, to geek, to ancient old man, all wrapped up in a bow for us to enjoy with one last flourish of his gawkish sonic screwdriver. Matt was, as always, superb, and, on this occasion, relegated Jenna Coleman to a perfectly serviceable but pretty generic Impossible Girl of a companion just saying “why Doctor?” a lot. Nothing wrong with tradition, and of course, she’s redeemed in her final appeal to the crack on Amy’s wall, now, not holding Prisoner Zero, a giant eye, deleting Rory from history or eating Weeping Angels, but holding the Time Lords, saved, as we know, in Day of the Doctor (it really is a catch all crack in Amy’s wall, isn’t it?).
The carnival of monsters we get too, is a little self indulgent, but it IS Christmas, and it IS a swansong, so what the hell (nice mention of Tereleptils, incidentally). The most effective, of course, as always, was the underused Weeping Angels, and it was a nice conceit to use them in a snow storm. Worst used – the Sontarans. Moffat really hasn’t a clue about them, does he?
At the end, naturally, we’re left with the Daleks, who smell blood. Again, though, another plot point is conveniently rewritten in an instant with their Asylum memory wipes being rebooted in a throwaway line, and, to be honest, quite right too.
The Papal Mainframe is an intriguing idea as was the reason for the Silents, and all credit to Moffat for bothering to clear up that little mystery. We still didn’t find out who the voice in the TARDIS river heard was did we?
The regeneration itself was an odd thing and will probably jar with some fans. His joy at receiving (what we’ve discovered is) a “complete new life cycle” (echoed nicely with the Doctor still having the Master’s Seal of Rassilon from The Five Doctors), was a punch the air moment, as was the Daleks’ destruction and fear. The final vignette with Matt in the TARDIS was beautifully played by Smith and Coleman, and it was heartbreakingly beautiful to see Amy back, and, of course, her (sorry I spoiled it ages ago!) “Raggedy man” comment. Matt looks so lost in scenes like that. To get a final bite at saying goodbye after the spectacular regeneration effect earlier was fitting, but it also meant that the new Doctor, Peter Capaldi (who looks INSANE by the way!) didn’t get much time to stamp any personality on the role other than to confirm hair style and accent – another little nod at the Doctor picking an accent from his companion (having just heard Amy). The snap change though was a bit jarring – surely there could have been another way to do that, other than to scare the bejesus out of us and Clara?
So, The Time of the Doctor was indeed the best and worst – of the Moffat era. It encapsulated everything you’ll enjoy – Matt Smith, timey wimey plots, clever retconning, myth-pushing revelations – with everything you won’t like – “old” friends we’ve never heard of, not so clever retconning, weak monsters, confusing contradictions, wasted opportunities – but perhaps on this occasion though, rather than grab the churlish branch, we can allow the self indulgence (which is no more that Tennant’s tear filled “I don’t wanna go” snotfest), and simply celebrate Matt Smith, who has been a superb Doctor and is absolutely going too early.
Goodnight, Raggedy Man.