Thursday, December 26, 2013

In Which I Review the Doctor Who Christmas Special (7x15)

Everything ends....

It's never easy to lose a Doctor. We welcome them into our homes, we memorize their catchphrases, their pain is our pain. So when it's time for their regeneration, the viewer often feels as though they are losing a dear friend, never to be seen again. When the 10th Doctor regenerated, I thought my heart would break into a thousand pieces. I almost quit watching Doctor Who altogether. I couldn't stomach the idea of another man in the TARDIS, fiddling with the controllers, waving the sonic about, and not be 10. I was very hesitant about Matt Smith when he first appeared. He was young and his version of the Doctor was eclectic and strange and fast talking. He wore bow ties and fezes and was incredibly alien. But by the end of the fifth season, when the Doctor stood at Stonehenge talking to the universe and all its creations, I knew that I was slowly falling in love with this Doctor. And so when it was announced that the 2013 Christmas special would be Matt Smith's swan song, I began to prepare myself for the inevitable crying jag that would come when suddenly 11 was no more and 12 took his place. 

 The Christmas episodes of Doctor Who are almost always standalone episodes that are designed to invoke Christmas-y emotions of yuletide cheer and joy. They are self contained little highlights for the Doctor and sometimes his companions (he is often alone for the Christmas special). Last year's offering "The Snowmen" was brilliant and gave me a lot of hope for the second half of season seven after a rather lackluster first half. I find that I am growing increasingly tired with the inconsistency in Moffat's writing. The second half of season seven was poor until the last episode; the 50th anniversary episode, which I raved about, was complicated and strange but because it had a separate grading scale, I didn't mind the timey wimey-ness of it because I went in with both eyes open, knowing it had to be epically larger than your average hour of Doctor Who. But the Christmas episode, even if it is a regeneration episode, is nevertheless supposed to have a different flavor to it--more hopeful, more optimistic, more joyful. It shouldn't be an overly convoluted disaster where the writer tries to answer as many questions as possible in 60 minutes. It should be emotional, especially if there is a regeneration; it should be an emotional gut punch to your insides, not a lukewarm slap. Moffat is continuously trying to recapture the magic of his episodes before he became show runner, like "Blink"--a truly spectacular episode that should never be recreated nor attempted. This year's Christmas episode, "The Time of the Doctor," was--if I am going to be perfectly frank--awful. After 3 seasons, Matt Smith deserved a better send off than what he got: long drawn out plot that really made no sense, call backs to previous seasons, a very slow middle; it was as if Moffat dumped out all the toys in the box to play with but only for a split second before he moved on to something else. Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarians, and Weeping Angels--who exactly was the Doctor up against? And where was the Christmas spirit? You can't just put me in a town called Christmas and expect the spirit of Christmas to grow organically. And if I judge regeneration episodes based on "how much did you cry" then this one was the worst of the series; I barely shed one tear, which is telling as I adore the 11th Doctor.

So what is the plot of this episode? I'm not sure I even know. It's overly complicated and seems to have no focus. It feels as though Moffat spent a great deal of time on Doctor Who message boards figuring out what were the big questions in regards to 11's time in the TARDIS and then set out to answer those questions. And if you add snow to the scene then it means it's Christmas! There was so much back and forth--the Christmas town, London Christmas, and the "church" ship. The London Christmas portion of the episode was wholly unnecessary. While I like Clara, I find that I don't care about her in the same way I cared for past companions. She's there, she sometimes helps to save the day, and the Doctor cares for her, but Clara doesn't have the same spark that past companions have. Clara is the Doctor's "Impossible Girl" but all that seems to be swept away now that the Clara mystery is solved. Clara's holiday dinner with her family just ate up more time until the action went back to the Doctor, which may have been the point, but was so lackluster and forced that I groaned every time Clara got sent back to her house to have another awkward five minutes with them. And--random question--who are they? Clara's mother is dead! We learned this in "The Rings of Akheten" so who was the pushy blonde at the end of the table? So on the one hand, we have Clara zipping back and forth through time and space, not doing much besides reappearing when there needed to be an emotional chat with the Doctor and then be there for the regeneration. On the other hand, we have the Doctor trying to keep war from breaking out by protecting Christmas town.

There is a planet out there--a blue unremarkable planet--that is sending out an untranslatable message to the whole universe across space and time. And every type of creature comes to investigate the message, to breech the protective barrier that fortifies the planet and discover the meaning of the message. Everyone who hears the message is scared except for the Doctor. The Doctor can't translate the message and he doesn't know what planet lies below his TARDIS but that's ok cause he has his trusty Cyberman robot head, Handles. Why does he have a detached Cyberman head? Where did he get it? And why did he connect it to the TARDIS? Aren't all Cybermen connected; wouldn't this put the Doctor and the TARDIS in danger? I get that it's supposed to be cutesy and a little adorable to have the Doctor talking to a Cyberman head named Handles, but does it make sense? Not really. The Cyberman head's job is to translate the message and figure out what planet is below the TARDIS (something, incidently, the TARDIS should be able to do itself!) and eventually, after some tap dancing about the Doctor being Clara's boyfriend and being naked to go to church, we learn that the planet is Gallifrey. Except of course it's not Gallifrey, cause that planet is in a different universe, safe and protected until it can come back.

Of all the ships in the vicinity of the planet, the first ship to have arrived is a security ship under the head of Tasha Lem. This ship is a floating church that put the planet under the shield. I don't know if Moffat is trying to make a political commentary on the nature of faith and religion in general but everything to do with this "church" was odd for the sake of oddity instead of relevant. Lem has members of the Silence as priests who eerily whisper "confess" to people before being erased from your memory; everyone is naked; Lem and the Doctor have some sort of steamy history. Lem also provided the exposition desperately needed at this point: the signal is coming from Christmas town and she sends the Doctor down to investigate, where he is met instantly be Weeping Angels. Are you keeping track of the monsters at this point? Cause we've got Daleks, Cyberman, Weeping Angels and the Silence and yet none of them have been any sort of threat to the Doctor. Where is the tension? If you're going to have that many monsters then you can't just brush them aside after showing them to me. Use them, for pity's sake.

Speeding along, the Doctor and Clara find the source of the message: a crack in the wall. A crack that is a tear in the fabric of space and time. For those who don't remember, this is a call back to the fifth season (first season for the 11th Doctor) and how there were cracks in space; the TARDIS exploding in the future was responsible for it but the Doctor reset the universe. The message, finally able to be translated, is the oldest question in the universe, the first question: Doctor Who? Of course it is. Was this at all surprising to anyone? I could have told you that this would be the message! The repeating message of "Doctor Who?" is coming from another universe, from the Time Lords. And if the Doctor gives his name, the Time Lords of Gallifrey can come back; they'll know it is finally safe to return. The Doctor won't be alone anymore. Of course, all hell would break loose and the Time War between the Time Lords and the Daleks would start once more, this time fiercer and more devastating. Oh, and in case it wasn't clear before, this planet (we learn through Lem) is Trenzelore. We've been to Trenzelore once before, at the end of Season 7. It's the final resting place of the Doctor, where he falls and finally dies. Alright so now that Moffat has brought up three seasons worth of unanswered questions, time for one more: Silence will fall.

Back in season six, we learned that the Silence is an organization that is determined that the question will not be answered, that is must not be answered. And now we have the question and a conundrum. Despite the fact that the Time Lords would come in peace, the races such as the Daleks would never let them return at all. These enemy races are determined to destroy the town and thus destroy the Time Lords only chance of coming back; but the Doctor is equally determined to protect this Christmas town. So the "church" under Lem dedicates itself to maintaining this delicate equilibrium. She is determined that the Doctor must not speak his name, that silence must fall. And thus the siege of Trenzelore--which drags out for 300 years (and 20 mins on screen). This siege dragged on and on and on and on. The Doctor gets older, wrinkles and white hair. Clara comes and goes. There are cute kids and Christmas gifts and wooden Cybermen who try to breech the Doctor's defenses. The Silence and the Doctor work in tandem to keep everyone safe. It was a long drawn out 20 mins that needed to be reduced greatly. At one point Clara comes back to see the Doctor and they discuss how Trenzelore will be his final resting place. He has no more regenerations; he is only allowed 13 and this is his final one (go with it, it's complicated). Clara wants him to change the future, to somehow subvert his own death but the Doctor insists that he can't. Which is true except that River Song gave the Doctor all her remaining regenerations, meaning that the Doctor should have several left. If River only regenerated three times, then she gave the Doctor ten more lives. Are we forgetting this? Is Moffat sweeping that under the rug?

Finally (finally) the final battle begins. The Daleks (of course) come to kill the Doctor, having defeated everyone else. The Doctor, incredibly old by this point in time, goes up to his death, despite Clara's begging him to change history. One important thing about Clara: she knows the Doctor's name. Desperate, Clara goes to the crack in the wall and tells the Time Lords that it doesn't matter what his real name is, "his name is the Doctor and if you love him, help him." It must have worked because the crack in the wall seals itself. Yes, because the Time Lords are a sensible race that listens to puny humans. (HINT: NO THEY DON'T! That's what made the Doctor unique to his race. The other Time Lords, while they are the protectors of creation, wouldn't give two cents about what a human had to say). The Doctor and the Daleks have a standoff, when suddenly the crack reappears, this time in the fabric of space above the town (wut?) and the Time Lords send a burst of regeneration energy to the Doctor, which he ingests. Full of regeneration energy, it is time. The clock strikes 12 and the Doctor uses the power of his regeneration to blast the Daleks out of the sky. "Love from Gallifrey, boys!" (alright, Moffat. You get props for that line. I'll give you that one).

Clara renters the TARDIS and sees the 11th Doctor, young once more but getting ready to fully regenerate. He has 12 more cycles of life and it's time to say goodbye. This was the highlight of an incredibly clunky episode. Matt Smith has grown by leaps and bounds as an actor and it was a privilege to watch him. 11 shed his skin, removing his bow tie and dropping it on the ground. He has flashes of young Amelia Pond running around the TARDIS and 11 tells Clara "I will always remember when the Doctor was me" before his Amy (GASP) is in front of him, telling him "Raggedy man, goodnight." And just like that, Peter Capaldi is standing in front of Clara, sans bow tie, telling her that he doesn't like the color of his new kidneys. Also, he has no idea how to fly the TARDIS. That's a good sign.

Miscellaneous Notes on The Time of the Doctor

--Honestly did not expect to see Karen Gillian again. I give Moffat credit for keeping that under his hat.

--I wonder if there is a picture out there somewhere of Karen and Matt trading wigs. Both actors were bald(for other movie roles) and wearing wigs for this whole episode.

--When Clara discovers that the Doctor has shaved his head: "Did the same thing happen to your eyebrows?" "No they're just delicate." Nice way to play to the fandom who are forever making fun of Matt Smith and his vanishing eyebrows.

--Pretty sure the Doctor was wearing the 3rd Doctor's opera cape in the opening segment.

--1 minute on screen and already I feel like Peter Capaldi and I are going to get along. I love that he's using his native Scottish accent.

--I skipped over most of Tasha Lem's plot in the episode because it was contrived and odd. The Doctor needs to stop having these romantic entanglements. Also, the Daleks have their memories back. Good to know? 

--So where does Doctor Who go from here? Safe money is on Season 8 (which begins in the fall of 2014) being the return of Gallifrey. I look forward to it, but I think it's time for Moffat to step down as show runner. Past time, honestly. His writing is getting way too complicated and inconsistent to be enjoyable. Pass the torch, Moff. It's time.

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