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Doctor Who's 2013 Christmas Special: "The Time of the Doctor"


It's easy to say that the magic of Doctor Who is that it's constantly able to reinvent itself, but that's not entirely true. It plays a part, yes, but the real magic—the magic that has fueled the series for the last 50 years—is the relationship between the Doctor and his companion. It's a special relationship; without companions, the Doctor would not be the Time Lord he is today. They keep him grounded, they teach him lessons, they save his ass. And just like with the Doctors themselves, fans have their own personal favorites. 

David Tennant will always be my Doctor. It doesn't mean Matt Smith didn't worm his way into my heart over the course of the last three seasons—if I'm being honest, he did much more than that—but Tennant has always been and will always be my Doctor. But the title of favorite companion? That's a difficult question to answer. If you'd have asked me prior to Smith's run, you probably would've heard a resounding cheer for Catherine Tate's Donna Noble. She was adventurous, she was loud, and she was bold. She wasn't in love with the Doctor, she was in love with the time spent with him, the adventures she experienced while traveling in the TARDIS and helping him saving the world. Donna was a firecracker and she was fantastic. But just as Tennant left, so did Tate, and fans were, for the first time since Russell T. Davies rebooted the series in 2005, facing a new world with both a new Doctor and a new companion at the same time. Who was Matt Smith? Who was Karen Gillan? Why should we care about them?


I'll be the first to admit that at 26, I didn't expect Smith to be any good in the iconic role of the Doctor. He was the youngest man ever cast in the role, and I wasn't entirely convinced that he could successfully portray a character who was supposed to be several hundred years old. I wasn't convinced he could play the deep-seated anger and regret that was necessary for a man who had killed his entire race. But by the time the credits rolled on "The Eleventh Hour," Smith's first episode as the Doctor, I knew that I'd been wrong. Smith's Doctor was eccentric and silly and unable to sit still. He brought a sense of energy to the role that Tennant didn't really possess. That's not a dig at Tennant, it's just that he was a different Doctor, he possessed different skills. While Tennant was funny and charming in his own right, the tenth Doctor definitely carried the burden of his past sins. Smith's Doctor was more light-hearted, and he seemed to exist purely on a diet of coffee and Pixy Stix. But it worked.

Part of the reason it worked so well was Smith's chemistry with Gillan's Amelia Pond. She was as fierce and loyal as he was erratic and goofy, and as a team, they worked like magic. Because fans were introduced to the two of them together, they were a package deal. You couldn't really have one without the other. The addition of Arthur Darvill as Amy's fiance and eventual husband Rory added a certain level-headedness to the TARDIS, and together the three of them were the ultimate trio. Because Amy and Rory were a couple, the series never really had to worry about the romantic aspect of the show that accompanied the Tennant era. Amy tried to jump the Doctor a couple of times, but it was never like Rose's relationship with Ten, or Martha's unrequited love for him either. Amy and Rory loved the Doctor and the Doctor loved Amy and Rory.


When it was announced in December 2011 that Gillan and Darvill would be departing the series in the middle of Season 7, but Smith would be staying on, many fans questioned whether or not this was the right call. Eleven without the Ponds? Was that even possible? And although I was not one of those fans—I've yet to be let down by a new Doctor or companion—I have found myself looking back at Smith's time with Jenna Coleman's Clara Oswald and wondering if maybe the series would have been better off if Smith had departed alongside his former castmates. 

It's not that I dislike Clara as a companion, it's that she had the misfortune of following a really great first act. She suffers from what I call Martha Jones Syndrome. Just as Martha wasn't Rose, Clara isn't Amy. They weren't/aren't terrible characters in their own right, they just couldn't/can't live up to the beloved companions who came before them. The chemistry between Smith and Coleman also isn't as electrifying, and Clara, while seemingly independent, still feels a bit too much like she's in love with the Doctor for my liking. There have been times where Coleman has been wonderful—"Asylum of the Daleks" (as Oswin Oswald), "The Snowmen," and "Hide" come to mind—but there have been even more times where I've felt hollow in response to her character. By no means do I blame Coleman for this, however, because even if she isn't Gillan, she's also not being given the best material.


While I've never been as harsh as some critics on Steven Moffat's version of Doctor Who (I loved "The Pandorica Opens" and "The Big Bang" despite their convoluted nature), his penchant for over-complicating stories and then overwriting them by a simple out has grown to be worrisome. I gave him a pass for the "The Day of the Doctor" because it was the 50th Anniversary Special. That episode existed on a separate grading scale. By essentially erasing the act of the Doctor killing his entire race and actually saving Gallifrey, he changed the direction of the series. Some fans hated this, but I gave it a pass because it's probably something the series needed. It opened the door to a new set of possibilities and it also allowed for the Doctor to receive a new set of regenerations in "The Time of the Doctor," to fix the strict 12 regenerations problem. But Moffat cannot continue to write these long, drawn out, over-serialized narratives and still maintain the quality that fans have come to expect from Doctor Who.

Yes, it actually was rather nice to see Smith's era wrapped up in a nice little bow with the crack in the universe returning, and having the TARDIS explosion explained. And I'm actually tearing up again as I remember Gillan's Amy returning to say goodbye and goodnight to Smith's version of the Doctor, but the over-complicated stories that have accompanied the Smith/Moffat era have definitely been controversial among critics and fans alike. It happened with Amy as The Girl Who Waited, and it happened with Clara as The Impossible Girl. Moffat has spent a lot of time dreaming up new ways to recapture the magic of "Blink," a truly magnificent hour of storytelling, but that wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff worked because it was a contained story. And many of Moffat's complicated stand-alone episodes in the Smith era have been truly great, but I think it's time to hang up the extended mysteries and questions before it's too late. He painted himself into a corner by introducing Trenzalore and the Doctor's death, but then wiped it all away with the equivalent of a throwaway line of dialogue.


"The Time of the Doctor" was, if I'm being honest, kind of a letdown as Matt Smith's final episode. It felt like it dragged a bit in the middle, and I never really cared about the town of Christmas or the Doctor being its savior for several hundred years. To be fair, I've been building this episode up in my mind for months, and it had to follow the well-received "The Day of the Doctor." So it would have been nearly impossible for "The Time of the Doctor" to live up to expectations. And there were aspects that I enjoyed. For example, the truth field was a nice touch, because the Doctor has never been a truthful man. He's skated by on lies and half-truths and being the smartest person in the room, so it was interesting to watch him simply have to stay quiet after several seasons of being a wound-up chatterbox. 

It was also a fine showcase for Smith's specific talents as the Doctor—he was funny, he was awkward, he was flirty, and he talked a lot while pretending to have plans. I also really enjoyed seeing him age as the Doctor, even if it felt a bit like a plot contrivance for him to work in the explanation about the regeneration issue. This episode was great if you look at it strictly in terms of Smith's performance in the role. But I can't say I particularly cared all that much about the actual story, or about Clara's storyline within it. Every time she appeared to save the day, the Doctor would send her away to save her life. And every time that happened, I wondered why I didn't feel anything. 


Coleman did a fine job portraying Clara's sadness over the possibility of losing the Doctor forever—I felt the same sadness whenever I remembered this was the last time I'd see Smith's bowtie, for instance—but knowing that Capaldi's Doctor was on the horizon, there were never any real stakes. It seems silly to be complaining about stakes on Doctor Who, but even when you know that everything will turn out all right in the end, viewers still want to feel those emotions as if they really might lose the Doctor forever. I still cry during "The End of Time" as if I'm watching it for the first time. When I look at "The Time of the Doctor," the sadness that usually accompanies the parting of a Doctor and his companion wasn't there. The pain I felt came from simply knowing this was the end, not from anything I was watching on the screen. 

I cannot speak for anyone else, but I can't be the only one who felt this way. Why else would Moffat write in an extremely emotional cameo for Karen Gillan's Amy if Jenna Coleman's Clara were enough? Is it not telling that even he realized Smith's success as the Doctor rested on his relationship with Amy Pond all along? When young Amelia showed up as a vision only the Doctor could see, I knew that an appearance by an adult Amy was coming, but it still didn't stop me from crying like a little girl when she said, "Raggedy man, good night," an echo of "Raggedy man, goodbye," which were her final words to him in "The Angels Take Manhattan."


Matt Smith's Doctor will forever be remembered for his eccentricities, for successfully filling the very large shoes of David Tennant, for his inability to talk without flapping his arms about, and for his love of fish fingers and custard, bowties and fezzes. But the most important aspect of his tenure was his relationship with Amy Pond, the first face Eleven ever encountered, and it's unfortunate that Smith's swan song was nearly devoid of any real emotion until the final few moments when she returned to say good night as he regenerated into Capaldi's Doctor. The second half of Season 7, and this special, will probably never live up to the rest of Smith's tenure, but aside from a few gripes about Moffat's convoluted storytelling, it's hard to say that Smith wasn't a great Doctor. He'll be fondly remembered by Whovians everywhere for years to come, especially in the United States, as he was many Americans' first experience with the Doctor. But his best episodes will always be those stories in which Amy and her raggedy Doctor traveled the universe and saved the day. It's nothing against Clara, and I hope she and Twelve (or Thirteen, WHATEVER) will mesh better as Doctor and companion, but you simply cannot have Eleven without Amy. It's just science.



NOTES

– There wasn't enough action for this to be Smith's final episode. Where was the tension? Where were the emotional stakes? This felt like any other episode that just happened to be his swan song. 

– Smith's regeneration into Capaldi happened awfully fast, no? It felt all wrong. I know the Doctor was fading as the regeneration was working during his final monologue, but I didn't care for the way that he was Smith one second and then Capaldi in the next cut. As for his confusion about not knowing how to fly the TARDIS, I worry that he will have forgotten Clara, especially as he was just going on about how he'd remember everything. He has new regenerations, but what does that mean? Will they change him? This is new territory and I'm really looking forward to it.

– I'm still very excited about Capaldi's Doctor. After two successful runs by Tennant and Smith, I do actually believe the people behind the series know what they're doing. I foresee a more subdued, yet still quirky version of the character. 

– I jumped on Tumblr right before posting this and I noticed that everyone is obsessed with the idea that Capaldi's Doctor is Scottish because Amy was the last thing Smith's Doctor saw. Interesting theory, but I doubt it's true. Many people are citing Tennant not using his native accent as evidence to support this, but I'm fairly certain I remember that was a decision made by the producers because they wanted a less distinct accent after Christopher Eccleston. But I love me that Scottish accent, so YAY.

– The explanations we received in this episode were great, including what the Doctor saw in "The God Complex" and an explanation for the Silence, but once again, I do hope Moffat puts these complicated narratives aside for a bit. It's too hard to keep everything straight, and I simply don't have time to keep up with the necessary flowcharts.

– R.I.P. Handles, thanks for reminding us about the phone.


Are you sad to see the end of the Smith era? Did you tear up when Amy returned? 


thekaitling:list:doctor-who-what-did-you-think-of-matt-smiths-goodbye/

 

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