There are essentially two kinds of Christmas story, and both are variations on the theme of the journey. In one, a geographical journey is undertaken (the notion of “coming home for Christmas” is such a potent one for a reason), while in the other, the journey is more personal, and usually redemptive (It’s a Wonderful Life is a prime example). And there are essentially two kinds of Doctor Who Christmas episode, the ones that tell a story freed from the ongoing continuities of the regular series, and those that use the extra attention that the seasonal special attracts to introduce or bid adieu to an incarnation of the Doctor; David Tennant made both his bow and his goodbye during the midwinter festivities, but other than last year’s story The Snowman tying into the Clara continuity, all the other Christmas specials have been examples either of Russell T Davies telling a Doctor Who story with Christmas trappings, or Steven Moffat telling a Christmas story with Doctor Who trappings.
The two writers are far more similar as Doctor Who storytellers than we give them credit for being. It was always Russell T Davies’ problem that he’d happily sacrifice the logic of the plot for the trajectory of his characters, and ever since the first series finale in which Rose Tyler became the “Bad Wolf” and magicked everything better, it’s been clear that Doctor Who in the 21st century has steered a slightly different course than the one it did in the 20th (albeit this is probably a matter of perception and emphasis more than it is a simple statement of truth). Moffat’s Doctor Who has taken this one step further and included “magic” as part of the very substance of the series, rather than simply something by which a tight corner can be navigated. For a lot of people (generally self-regarding “old school” fans), this has been anathema, while for others, it has led to literally the most magical period in the series’ history. And if the stories don’t always quite seem to make sense when examined too forensically (albeit when examined forensically enough, the opposite is generally true), as long as they make enough sense to carry the general public along – and as long as they follow their own, fairytale logic – and the audience can see who are the good guys and bad, that there is a problem to be overcome and that something clever is being done to overcome that problem, then all is well.
It is to Steven Moffat’s credit that he manages to achieve all of the above in a way that has made Doctor Who more popular now, and on a global level, than it has ever been. And with The Time of the Doctor, Moffat has managed to combine everything that has been good about 21st century Doctor Who with all those Christmas elements so often sidelined during the first five years of the show’s return, in a manner that marks Matt Smith’s passing in the most magical fashion yet. Yes, there are voiceovers, something that the classic series usually (but only usually) forewent, but by demonstrating the passing of time in both a show and tell fashion, we as an audience are given the best of both worlds; this is storytelling of the kind we remember from our childhoods, of both the bedtime and Saturday matinee kind. Moffat may have repeated a specific meme (and it’s a frequent criticism that Moffat’s memes are repeated too often, or rather that his themes are too obviously worn on his sleeve, rather than up it) by sending Clara home twice – an echo of what happened to Rose in The Parting of the Ways – but by presenting us with the first instance as a throwaway story point, Moffat foreshadows the second in a way that increases its emotional import. Had the first example not been included in the story (with a reference to Captain Jack in Utopia thrown in for good measure), the second would have been the one marred by the reminder of Rose in Series One, whereas here the reminder was dispensed with before the emotion was sought. It’s deceptively clever storytelling, allowing the audience their moment of recognition before hitting them in the gut once they think they know what you’re doing. And it takes a special kind of writer to wring such a huge amount of pathos from a disembodied Cyberman’s head.
In fact, many of the episode’s problems have far more to do with the expectations the audience may have brought to it than any shortcomings of the story itself. In the publicity for The Time of the Doctor, the character of Tasha Lem was described as an old friend of the Doctor’s, and given that this was Orla Brady’s debut appearance in the series, much was made of whether she’d be playing Romana, or Susan, or the Rani... No such speculation greeted Michael Craig’s appearance as the Commodore in Terror of the Vervoids, need I add. It’s been one of the pleasures of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who thus far, that his characters have lived in a consistent universe, rather than the ever-changing one of the classic series. A peculiar problem with a certain kind of fan, and one that they very rarely recognise, is that if the elements in a Doctor Who story don’t add up in quite the way they expect them to, then the fault is surely with the writer rather than being with them. That Doctor Who can resemble anything quite so much as it does here a mash-up between Star Wars and Doctor Seuss is quite astonishing. That it does so in a regeneration story, a story on which so much is riding, is frankly astounding – and yet because it’s also a Christmas story, nothing could be more appropriate or more welcome. And The Time of the Doctor is (as has become the norm with Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who) properly a Christmas story, marrying both the personal journey that the Doctor undertakes with a peculiarly skewed kind of homecoming, one that’s twisted in a specifically Doctor Who kind of a way. The moment wherein the Doctor realises exactly where it is that he’s fetched up and made a long-term home, is wonderful. And chilling.
The Time of the Doctor is far from faultless, though. Moffat’s self-penned episodes since the Ponds departed the series (nice, and very apt, cameo from Karen by the way) have seemingly dropped in key, and while Moffat has always managed to marry the bombast of the Davies finales with the intimacy of his own storytelling (notably in The Big Bang, where the monster mash-up that everyone expected turned out to be four characters on the loose in an empty museum), in this year’s finale to the entire eleventh Doctor’s tenure, the disaffect between the loud and the quiet felt occasionally a little too discordant. It’s as if the conductor, and perhaps Jamie Payne wasn’t the best choice to direct such an important episode, isn’t quite in control of where his orchestra are going. Not that Payne did a bad job, and when it mattered – and we’ll come to Matt Smith and the eleventh Doctor’s demise in good time – he marshalled his instruments with a flourish. The Time of the Doctor is in very much the same register as The Name of the Doctor and The Day of the Doctor before it, of massive import but with far more emphasis on the personal (as opposed to the intimate) than even that first finale might have led us to expect. I do miss the considered lunacy of something like The Wedding of River Song, though.
As to whether Moffat managed to wrap up four years’ worth of eleventh Doctor story all in one sixty-minute bite, that’s debatable. There’s a touch of genius in the way the Silence were explained entirely satisfactorarily in a single sentence, but while Madam Kovarian and her breakaway group seemed plausible enough, the way the exploding TARDIS was written off was neither. I have a feeling that Moffat always knew himself what had happened to the TARDIS at the end of his first series, but never made it clear in a satisfying enough manner on-screen – and apparently it’s just too late to fix that oversight now. On the other hand, the way the cracks in time story was dovetailed into the disappearing Gallifrey plot was brilliant; not only do we now know that Gallifrey survives, but the conclusion to the story here once again left it lost, and Clara’s scene persuading the Time Lords to help the Doctor change the future was gratifying for any number of reasons: for one thing, I was on the edge of my seat wondering if Moffat would cross that line and have Clara utter the Doctor’s real name out loud (and she would know it, of course, having read it in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS if not from The Name of the Doctor); as it was she managed to placate and confirm something we already knew, that the Doctor is the Doctor. And on the other hand, the way the Time Lords presented the Doctor with a new life cycle surely puts him in their debt, and the quest for Gallifrey thus becomes more paramount than ever.
Speaking of which (and let’s jump ahead of ourselves for a moment)... Peter Capaldi’s first few moments as the Doctor were a revelation. Not for the performance (or even for the editing, although the jump-cut to Capaldi, by-passing the usual regeneration visual effects – which we had already seen, of course, earlier in the story – was certainly a shock moment), but for the implication. Have the Time Lords actually reset the Doctor back to a first incarnation, one that neither knows how to fly a TARDIS, nor will probably recognise the Daleks and Cybermen – and perhaps even the Master – as he “first” encounters them? Is Peter Capaldi’s incarnation as good as being a brand new Doctor? We’ll have to wait and see, but for now, this is perhaps the most-anticipated a new Doctor will have been for... well, ever. The fact that we have a longer than usual wait to see how this begins to resolve might actually be a good thing.
That it seemed implausibly more like a fan describing John Hurt’s incarnation as “a regeneration” than a character in the story would have done so, was made up for by the sarcastic fashion in which Matt Smith’s Doctor glossed over David Tennant’s two regenerations, and it felt right that Moffat chose to elevate Smith to the position of Final Doctor with a simple scene of dialogue rather than making the actor’s final episode all about that element. In fact, The Time of the Doctor could easily have been all about any one of a number of different elements (“Silence Will Fall” chief among them), but Steven Moffat opted to make it a story about Matt Smith’s acting, and if the episode fell short in other departments, then it was wholly successful in achieving this one aim. For Smith was given more to do in this single sixty minutes’ worth of Doctor Who than he ever has been before (and let’s face it, it’s not like he’s short-changed us for the last four years), and Matt Smith lived up to every story beat, from the madcap comedy we know he’s so capable of early in the episode, to the entirely believable way he aged and stayed true to his principles later on. That The Time of the Doctor was such a slow burn of a story, and one that allowed the actor plenty of room to grow into his changing character, might be seen as a criticism, but Moffat’s Christmas Doctor Who stories have generally eschewed the frantic in favour of a more measured approach. There was some very real magic at work here, both in the script and in the performance, and while some will argue with the notion of the Doctor giving up his travelling to effectively look after a small village full of “nobodys” (the Doctor Who version of Whoville if ever there was one, although calling the village “Christmas” was a delightful touch), Moffat even foreshadowed that with Tom Baker’s appearance at the end of the previous episode. The Time of the Doctor perhaps wasn’t the best farewell a Doctor has ever had (although I’m hard-pressed to think of a regeneration story I prefer, other than maybe Eccleston’s), but in terms of the character and his predilections, and the actor and his capabilities, it’s very likely the most appropriate since Planet of the Spiders.
And strangely enough, it’s a very conventional regeneration story as well. Apart from Moffat entirely understandably breaking the rules (or maybe just bending them rather alarmingly) in order to allow a non-aged Matt Smith his one final scene with Clara, the rest of the regeneration aspect of The Time of the Doctor was considerably less “timey-wimey” than we might have been given to expect from the author of Blink. Evidence of a writer who likes to play with the rule-book but knows when to stop himself from going too far.
It’s an oddly unassuming end to the eleventh Doctor’s tenure, though, and it will be a while before it’s had time to live long enough in the memory to know how satisfying it truly was. In many ways, there was a haphazardness about The Time of the Doctor (the Star Wars and Dr Seuss elements don’t marry nearly as well as they ought to have, although the wooden Cyberman was gorgeous and fitting) that didn’t gel in quite the way some of Steven Moffat’s crazier efforts have done previously. But the magical logic that Moffat has sought to bring to Doctor Who ever since The Eleventh Hour (and before; there was evidence aplenty of its presence in his four stories for Russell T Davies too) was ramped up to extreme levels, and if that has divided the viewers in a way that The Day of the Doctor united them, then that’s a sacrifice that creating a fitting departure for such an enchanting and extraordinary character as the eleventh Doctor has had to make.