“The Time of the Doctor” and a Problematic Goodbye

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And we’re back!

It’s been rather a long hiatus here at The Popcorn Scoop. Erm. Turns out school catches up to you after awhile. But! But but but! What better way to come back from this rather extended break than with a lot of feelings about Doctor Who?

I’ve just come from the AV Club, and if that’s anything to go by, I suspect I’m going to be somewhat in the minority on this one. And that’s fine! There were some very specific things that just hit me the wrong way, and maybe my opinions will even change as I work through this argument. Look, first and foremost, before any of the negative stuff, this was a fantastic sendoff for Matt Smith. Someone clearly learned from the Tennant Regeneration Debacle – didn’t like how maudlin and pathetic Tennant’s last line was? Here’s Smith killing Daleks with regeneration juice and a kickass one-liner. Didn’t like how prolonged and overindulgent Ten’s farewell tour was? Here’s a single, lovely shot of Karen Gillian (that was an excellently kept secret to everyone who didn’t check the Wikipedia entry for Amy Pond right before the episode aired). And moreover, Matt Smith got to do all sorts of acting – comic acting, dramatic acting, old man acting, goofy dancing acting, acting with children, acting with femme fatales, frenetic acting, world-weary acting, acting with a Dalek eyestalk (whatever his other faults, props to Moffat for finally figuring out how to make Daleks work). Smith was a fantastic Doctor, an old man who tries to use his young body to forget all of the bad things he’s seen and done over the many, many years, and if this showcase was perhaps a bit excessive – well, he earned it.

But as far as the rest of the episode goes, am I alone in thinking it did not work very well? The broader humor fell flat, and while I know that’s par for the course with the Christmas special  (although they also lost the right to use that justification when the Christmas special involved genocide and an intimate consideration of mortality), the whole naked thing was silly and didn’t really go anywhere, and the turkey thing was just baffling. I can almost see an attempt to develop Clara’s character (which, believe me, we’ll get to in a second) as a bad cook or maybe glean some pathos out of the way that the Doctor’s aged all these years but the turkey’s only just finished cooking…but no, I think the obvious explanation is the far more likely one, and the attempt at screwball comedy just didn’t work.

The whole episode felt kind of off. The pacing, for one thing, was bizarre; while Matt Smith absolutely deserves all of the praise he’s going to get for his old man acting, the problem with having hundreds of years pass offscreen is that it throws off the whole pacing of the episode. It’s very hard to keep a sense of momentum when the characters don’t seem to have one. Furthermore, while making Eleven into an physically old man was the logical continuation of this character (and, actually, a fairly neat way of recognizing the character growth in Day of the Doctor, when he stopped being ashamed of his age), I would also have been fine with that being used to explain Capaldi as an older Doctor. In other words, part of Matt Smith’s charm is that he is so young but makes that work so well, and I wanted to spend this last hour with him as opposed to the makeup caked on his face.

What really bothered me about this episode, though, is that in terms of things happening…well, nothing really did. A lot of loose ends were quite cleverly tied up (while it might not have been the most innovative solution, I have nothing but thanks for the fact that the Silence FINALLY MAKE SENSE), but there wasn’t much there in terms of plot. It was overtly acknowledged in the episode as a stalemate, and while that’s a fine way to dig into Eleven’s character, it’s a boring way to spend 60 minutes (or 85, if you’re BBC America and feel the need to throw in a commercial break after every. single. scene). But Clara’s jumble of traits still hasn’t cohered into a character, and this episode did little to address that (I think the comparison with Amy made it worse; Amy actually knows the Doctor better than he knows himself, while Clara only thinks she does – or, more accurately, the writers want to make the audience believe she does). But Clara didn’t get much to do here except get sent away and then talk about how great the Doctor is, and I’m a little concerned that she’s been around for half a year and we’ve still only got a Moffat Pixie Dream Girl. The other characters were also underserved; Tasha Lem felt like a role that had originally been written for River Song, and while I admire the restraint in keeping River out of this episode (though holy age appropriateness would I like to see her act opposite a Doctor with whom she doesn’t have to play an entirely unbelievable Catwoman type), Tasha Lem didn’t do much else than move the plot along. Similarly, Barnabus sort of hinted at something interesting – I loved how Amy’s theme started playing when Barnabus said he would wait – but then he kind of disappeared, and it was sad, but it was also an example of yet another character’s development sacrificed in the name of the Doctor’s.

Maybe the problem was that Day of the Doctor was just too damn good, and it raised my expectations of what Moffat could do. DOTD blended with seeming effortlessness humor, pathos, fanservice, and the epic and intimate scales, and maybe it’s not fair to expect this show to reach those heights regularly. Time of the Doctor sacrificed some action and narrative and development of other characters in order to achieve closure for a few seasons of hanging threads and for the single character of the Doctor. I’d really rather not wade into the stormy waters of Moffat verses Russel T. Davies (though, for the record, I’ll always come down on the side of Moffat), but this [Noun] of the Doctor trilogy does have, for better or worse, all of Moffat’s tics on display. Perhaps RTD would not have let Clara go quite this long without giving her something to make her character make sense, but Moffat will always be the better storyteller, even on those days when he doesn’t quite stick the landing in the sense of actually having a story. RTD was always too obsessed with epicness, with extravagance and spectacle, and by the time Tennant was through, everything had just spun wildly out of control. Moffat may not care quite so much about character continuity (and I will rail forever about the way that The Angels Take Manhattan didn’t need to be melodramatically tragic; it could have just as easily been Amy and Rory finally growing up and telling the Doctor that, while they will always love him, they need to live their own lives and that would have been quietly melancholy and lovely and dammit I promised I wouldn’t get into this again), but there is, more often than not, a clarity to his stories that got obscured in RTD’s bombast.

Some people call Moffat cold; I disagree with that (exhibit A: Handles the Cyberman head). But Moffat does have respect for the mechanics of a good story, and in terms of humor and cleverness and restraint and payoff – well, he’s just better. Sure, I was a little disappointed in this episode – seriously, how awesome would it have been if something had actually happened? – but in terms of ending an era, Time of the Doctor was a huge success. And maybe that’s all it had to do. Matt Smith took the character in an entirely new direction, paralleled with what Moffat did with the show, and so, maybe, this was the victory lap they deserved.

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