“He’s too old!”
The words rang out loud and clear from the armchair. It was the first thing my mother had said for the duration of the episode, and it came as the closing credits rolled.
I turned to her, aghast. “What did you say?”
“That new chap. He’s too old to play the Doctor.”
“The Doctor’s about sixteen hundred years old at this point! He’s an old man!”
“But they always cast a younger man.”
“They have in recent years. They didn’t used to. The first Doctor was fifty-five.”
“Well, yes,” she said, “but they should have someone who’s nice to look at. You know, for the TV magazine spreads.”
“Really,” I said, hoping that Peter Capaldi’s wife doesn’t read this blog (somehow I doubt it). “A pin-up star, you mean? Like Hartnell, or Troughton? Or John Pertwee? Or Colin Baker? Or Sylvester McCoy?”
She shrugged. “I just think he’s too old, that’s all.”
“What do you care? You don’t even watch the show!”
I’m guessing that when Steven Moffat sat down to write ‘The Time of the Doctor’, he was desperate to have Matt Smith do some Actual Acting during his Whovian swansong. He did this by having him face off against all the principal villains he’s encountered, in a wintry landscape where the snow stands in for the emotional resonance usually caused by falling rain (it’s a standard directorial trick that if you want to make people cry in a scene that isn’t working, bring on the rain) and at the expense of any actual plot. What’s more, he has Smith play three roles, all of whom are basically the same, but which require additional levels of prosthetics under which we can actually believe that a thirty-two-year-old man was walking with a cane, visiting the British Legion and collecting his pension once a fortnight.
The image of an elderly Doctor is nothing new to anyone who’s ever seen ‘The Leisure Hive’, of course, but Moffat gets away with it here by having the Doctor stay in the town of Christmas for hundreds of years, during which time it does not appear to evolve or progress one iota. When we first encounter its inhabitants they’re living inside a Truth Field, which prevents anyone from telling a lie. Moffat utilises this gimmick by having the Doctor and Clara get briefly confessional, but it felt like something a missed opportunity, because they could have used it to answer some of the show’s most oft-asked questions, such as “How old are you, honestly?” and “Why did Christopher Eccleston actually leave?” and “Timelash? Really?”.
The entire episode reads like a roll call of the casual Whovians’ most wanted. Daleks? Check. Sontarans? Two of them, and once more they’re reduced to casual comic relief (and both played, of course, by Dan Starkey) in a cameo that screamed “This didn’t belong here, but I promised my niece”. There’s a wooden Cyberman, which the Doctor manages to destroy with an indirect lie, causing it to shoot itself. The Silents / Silence are wearing dog collars. Oh, and out in the forest, the weeping angels have been having a snowball fight.
The reason for this massing of villainy? They’re all gathering around a planet called Trenzelore, which – as anyone who’s been watching the show regularly should know – is where the Doctor is buried, bearing out the prophecy of Dorium Maldovar. Meanwhile, the Papal Church is gathering above in a gigantic structure that resembles a Borg cube that’s been opened up so that you can change the batteries. Oh, and there’s that crack again.
Moffat then weaves everything together in a sort of haphazard maelstrom. It’s clear he’s been building to this, and it’s clear that he’s known where it’s been heading, in much the same way that J.K. Rowling allegedly knew how the Harry Potter books would end before she even started writing them. But like most men, he’s incapable of actually reading the map properly, and the route to the destination is hopelessly fudged. Moffat doesn’t just revisit old ideas, he revisits old plots. The image of hordes of aliens gathering over a planet’s surface, all afraid to attack first, was one he used in ‘The Pandorica Opens’. Coincidentally, this episode also featured a righteously angry Matt Smith shouting up at the sky.
‘The Pandorica Opens’ isn’t the only episode to be referenced in this glorious display of self-borrowing. So, too, Clara’s last-minute pleading echoes ‘Cold War’ and ‘The Rings of Akhaten’, which coincidentally featured a huge cast of different alien species, and a righteously angry Matt Smith shouting up at the sky.
I mean, I’m OK with the idea of the Time Lords granting the Doctor an extra regeneration cycle. We know they can do that, because they did it with the Master, and Rassilon, and who knows who else. I’m even OK – just about – with Clara’s impassioned pleading, even though the fact that it’s the Time Lords asking the question actually makes no sense, because they should damn well know who he is, given that they have access to the Matrix. But seriously. When the new cycle is granted, it’s done in the form of golden sparkly magic dust that comes down from the sky. I will repeat that, in case you’re skim-reading out of general boredom: Golden sparkly magic dust that comes down from the sky.
The image of regenerative energy as a tangible object, that the Doctor can move and redirect, is bad enough – although that’s one thing I can’t blame on Moffat. But this smacks of creating an appealing visual at the expense of anything that actually makes any sense. What’s worse, he then uses this golden sparkly stuff to destroy a Dalek warship in a scene of apparent mass murder that feels most unfitting given that this material is, quite literally, the stuff of life. It’s no sillier than having Timothy Dalton chuck a diamond into a holographic model of the Earth in ‘The End of Time’, but that doesn’t excuse its inclusion. The whole scene also reminded me inescapably of Santa Claus: The Movie, in which Dudley Moore mass-produces magic lollipops for John Lithgow that contain a secret ingredient.
And then, you know, there’s Tree-Fu Tom.
“Right! Copy me. Into your spell pose. Take one finger, and put it into your mouth, as if you’re retching. Now the other finger. Now, take your hand and stick it as far up your arse as you can. Now the other hand. Now clap, and say ‘super-regenerate’ to send the magic to me. SUPER…REGENERATE!”
If I’m being flippant here, Moffat started it. The episode is awash with bad dialogue and general silliness, and not in the quirky, ironic way that made ‘The Day of the Doctor’ such a winner. Instead, we’re told that the Doctor is “the man who stayed for Christmas”, which should be sweet and inspiring at the same time, but which instead echoes the dreadful pun at the end of The World Is Not Enough, in which Bond, about to have his wicked way with the unfortunately named Christmas Jones, declares “I thought Christmas only came once a year”. Amusing, too, is the image of the Doctor and the Silence standing ‘back to back’ as they go into battle – whereupon the Doctor presumably forgets they’re there at all and goes off to check on the turkey. Guest stars are wasted, and the story is so convoluted and nonsensical I really can’t be bothered writing about it in any detail. There are no hugely obvious holes, but that’s because Moffat’s woven the tightest of abstract tapestries – opaque, but ultimately indecipherable.
One thing ‘The Time of the Doctor’ does, however poor the execution, is put a cap on the regeneration thing. It’s been a point of hot debate for years now, as the clock ticks on (I was about to describe it as the elephant in the room, but an elephant is something you don’t talk about, and it’s often difficult to get the fanboys to talk about anything else). Moffat’s taken the bull by the horns and accelerated the Doctor’s life, inserting a whole new ‘hidden’ Doctor along the way, and then having our hero reach botox-inflated middle age after three hundred years of Christmas dinners and ringing the clock tower bell. The fact that he manages two hundred years of hedonistic philandering without ageing a day in ‘The Wedding of River Song’ is conveniently overlooked, and I’m happy to let this go because Time Lords have a different physiology and regeneration is regeneration, which means that you can do it how you like.
The regeneration itself is, at least, relatively quick, even if the build-up isn’t. Gareth suggests it could have worked on the clock tower, when Smith is in full King Lear mode, but New Who regenerations only seem to happen in the control room, presumably because of the technical and logistical specifics involved. So we get a newly youthful
Eleventh Twelfth Thirteenth Doctor talking about “never forgetting when the Doctor was me”, and then there’s a quick cut to Clara, and then bang! it’s Peter Capaldi, who has in his post-regenerative confusion apparently forgotten how to fly the TARDIS. Well, it never stopped Patrick Troughton.
My mother was confused. “You see, before,” she said, hearkening back to ‘Logopolis’ and ‘The Caves of Androzani’, the only two she’s seen, “they used to lie down, didn’t they? And then they’d get up and be somebody else.”
“Yes,” I said. “Traditionally, the Doctor is mortally wounded, and collapses, and then regenerates while he’s on the floor. But since 2005, he’s been doing it standing up.”
“Oh, yes. Times move on. Look, it’s like birth positions. They used to have you sitting on your bed for the whole of labour. These days they encourage you to get up and walk around.”
Capaldi has less than ten seconds to make his mark and assess his internal organs, and it would be pointless to speculate on his voice, choice of dialogue or anything else, or even describe him as ‘Hapless’ (as the Independent did, rather unfairly). He gets to make his mark next year. The episode is really all about Smith, and the surprise appearance of Karen Gillan. Certainly Smith’s youthful appearance in his final scene, although justified (just about) by the plot as part of the regenerative process, has deeper significance. “Look,” Moffat is saying to us. “Here’s Matt Smith. He looks young, but he can play old. And isn’t that great? And besides, isn’t this the way you’d like to remember him, rather than covered in makeup?”
But it’s not the way I’d choose to remember him. Smith did his best work as the Doctor in his first series, when the idea of a very young man playing a heroic figure who was simultaneously sprightly and ancient was something of a novelty. Before the River Song romance. Before the world-weary ‘old eyes’ thing. Before the grumpiness with Strax. Before that dreadful cowboy episode and his uselessness in ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’. Before all the dancing round the TARDIS, and the looks to camera, and the self-conscious displays of buffoonery.
Oh, he’s a talented actor. And I could have had more. I was tired of Tennant by the time he left, and that’s one thing I couldn’t say for Smith. And you can’t blame him for the lacklustre quality of his recent episodes – just the musings of writers who didn’t know what else to do with him. Nonetheless, my overriding memory of Smith won’t be that of an old man hobbling across a balcony to shout down a Dalek warship. Instead, I’d rather remember him as the one who shouted “I WAS NOT EXPECTING THIS!” at James Corden. Or the one who told Amy that he was definitely a mad man with a box. Or the one who cradled a giant invisible turkey and lamented “Sometimes, winning is no fun at all”. Or, perhaps more fitting than any of these, the man who stepped through a holographic projection device of his previous selves, broke the fourth wall, and said “Hello. I’m the Doctor. Basically…run.” That was a nice way to come in. It would have been a nice way to go out.