Thursday, 26 December 2013

Doctor Who: The Time of the Doctor (Episode Review)

So here we are, the fall of the Eleventh and the finale to all that has come before now. A conclusion to the many plotlines left unresolved and a send-off to Matt Smith tenure as the Doctor. For all its ups and downs, failings in plot or problems with approach, the man has truly been the Doctor for the past several years like few others.

On Christmas Day on Earth, Clara Oswald is preparing dinner for her relatives and attempting to cook their turkey. Far into the distant galaxy meanwhile, the Doctor investigates a massive signal emanating from a single world above which orbit countless vessels of every race in existence. Something has scared every race from the Daleks and Cybermen to the Silence themselves, and it involves the Doctor very directly.
Things are far more dire than either realise. Christmas itself is soon to become a warzone, and even the Doctor's many miracles will not be enough to save him this time...

Before we really begin, there's the subject of Steven Moffat's writing style to discuss. Yes, we had an entire post about this prior to looking at The Name of the Doctor, but this needs to be brought up again to discuss the episode critically. Especially as, from this tale, his issues as a writer have become apparent.
While undeniably a talented man capable of weaving great arcs and producing great stories when he puts his minds to them, he seems to suffer from the same issues as Stephen King. Both are great at creating situations, both create great mysteries and suspense, both create memorable characters. Both can also usually sell very fantastical, outlandish elements to a reader. However, at the same time, both often rely upon the same character types on many occasions. Both have trouble actually delivering pay-off to their works and they seem to not work with a whole story. Instead coming up with stuff as they go along and with no obvious answer to what they should do.

The above really sums up all the failings of The Time of the Doctor. The episode is supposed to serve as a payoff for several years worth of mysteries. It's supposed to be answering a metric ton of questions people have kept asking while also retaining its own story and showing us how the Doctor regenerated. This ends up making the episode extremely cluttered and turns it into a downright mess by the end. It's trying to juggle too many ideas just left it being unable to fully realise even one of them.

Here's two quick examples: After several years with no answers, we finally have confirmation on the identity of the being which caused the TARDIS to explode. It's revealed in a single sentence then quickly swept aside without real explanation. The first of many such instances, all of which skip any explanations of "How!?" that the audience might be asking.
The identity of the Silence themselves is quickly revealed in a very unfulfilling and questionable manner, filled to the brim with questionable plot holes and a very obvious River Song clone. You know the kind, witty response to everything, obviously flirting with the Doctor with sexual suggestions, possesses sudden inhuman capabilities, capable of flying the TARDIS better than him etc.

Furthermore, events are resolved in a manner which is less whimsy science fiction and more Dragonball Z. You'll see what that means when you get to that particular scene.

Even ignoring the problems with payoffs, or even the fact the episode presents acts which outright defy human logic. The script tries to be clever, but at the end of the day it just ends up creating a mishmash of jarring scenes which fail to resemble any kind of emotional beat. Basic establishment of a first act is almost entirely abandoned in favour of action, and to top this all off half the episode breaks the "show, don't tell" law of writing. Near constantly veering away from the most interesting parts of the story to display something which, by comparison, is utterly meaningless and not worthwhile.

Those who saw The Name of the Doctor will know the circumstances of the character's supposed death. His fate, the site of his fall and the dead world left behind in his wake, displaying a conflict unlike anything seen since the Time War. We miss all of that. The story skips hundreds upon hundreds of years while seeing next to nothing of what is going on. Instead, events are relayed through a narrator with brief glimpses of the action and veering away to instead show Clara eating with her family.

As if all that wasn't enough, the episode then proceeds to perform what reeks of being a desperate effort to desperately one up the Russel T Davies finales. His had ten million daleks as the enemy? The Time of the Doctor has ten million of several classic villains, but won't show you even half of them!
It's as if the script was attempting to distract the audience of the gaping problems with the script by putting on a parade of fan favourites. Ones which are barely glimpsed.

If there is any good to be found in this, the series' usual strengths come into play. Along with a fantastic performance by Matt Smith, par for the course by now, the villains look great and the sets are outstanding from beginning to end. The music also remains strong, even if it ends up re-using major elements from past stories, and most of the special effects are pretty solid overall.

The problem is that while these are in play, it's almost as if the script tries to avoid truly using them. The best sets are only seen once or twice, and not displayed very well in terms of camerawork, instead leaving the audience watching vastly less interesting environments. The villains somehow manage to be reduced to minor side roles within their own episode, only being seen for a few seconds at a time if you're very lucky. Smith suffers from this to a thankfully much lesser degree, but a lot of his comedy becomes diminished when you realise one fact very early on: He's taken to keeping a brain damaged and decapitated human as his pet for several hundred years. Yeah, that makes him a bit harder to like during such scenes.

The cinematography also is far from great and honestly seems lacking by comparison to the standards we're used to. Far too many times, shots seem to be just reused for the sake of being reused and were repeated ad nausium during the final confrontation. Something which turned what was supposed to be an epic moment into something almost dully uninteresting at times.

The final greatest failing of the story however? It doesn't make use of plot elements set up in previous episodes. What we saw in the conclusions to Asylum of the Daleks and Day of the Doctor are both quickly swept under the rug, destroying any possibilities which might have emerged from their situations. The daleks manage to instantly re-learn everything about the Doctor, off screen no less, and an emerging plotline involving a re-introduced element relating to the Doctor's people is utterly destroyed by the episode's end.

The unfortunate issue with this being so heavily laden with spoilers for recent episodes is that it's hard to directly talk about it. As such it's difficulty to really go into this particular televised adventure's problems without ruining something for someone. So as such, let's just put things this way: As a result of watching this episode, The End of Time looks good by comparison. For all its failings, it managed to remain vastly more coherent and made better use of what it had on hand.

If you want something good to watch, dig out DVDs or go sit through Day of the Doctor again. This is really just going to leave you with equal amounts of disappointment, fan rage and confusion.


  1. I'm only halfway through this but I just wanted to thank you, I've been unable to place exactly why I love Moffat's earlier stuff and not his head writer stuff and the comparison to King has put it perfectly in place, thanks!

  2. What this episode did was give the Doctor 13 more lives and get everything back to normal at least from the end of the Time War

  3. Well, apart from having better direction, The End of Time was mostly filler. Apart from the (emotionally manipulative) regeneration it had precious little else going on, with characters being brought back to great fanfare & yet criminally underused, *cough* Donna *cough* Timelords *cough*.

    Like I said, I'm with you on the direction of the ep though. Why they couldn't have roped in Hurran again, or another 'Who' vet (Euros Lyn, perhaps?) to direct this one is beyond me.

    And don't get me started on 'Day', it's got the same issues as 'Time', but it's crammed full with so much fan service:

    Bring back Gallifrey? Check.
    David Tennant? Check.
    John Hurt? Check.
    Tom Baker? Check

    :that you overlook the flaws.