Sometimes Steven Moffat can write really well--I know he can. He’s produced some wonderful stories, and some incredible villains. The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances was phenomenal, in its monster, plot, and characters. The Weeping Angels are brilliant monsters. So is the Vashta Nerada. And the Silence.
And then sometimes Steven Moffat can incredibly sexist. And he can write characters that are not people and serve no purpose. And he can wave his hands and things happen just for the magical effect. And it’s not even timey-wimey, it doesn’t make sense anymore.
The Christmas special, the latest in a series of very uncreative titles, Name/Night/Day/Time of the Doctor, fell into the latter category. And after the beauty that was the anniversary special, after I was handed a big platter of hope that this show could redeem itself, watching it fall apart was all the more painful.
Because let’s be honest. In terms of the “swan song” that the episode was supposed to be, Matt Smith got utterly shafted. The plot of this episode was crap. The crack that got closed two seasons ago was opened again for reasons that didn’t make sense. The Silence, the most horrific monsters ever not seen, were suddenly explained away as the “good guys,”--it was only a “splinter faction” that was kidnapping Amy and engineering her child to make a psychopath to kill the Doctor, don’t worry! Oh, and there’s a religious organization that requires everyone to be naked, just so dozens of penis jokes can be made.
And here’s the thing--there was such possibility. Throughout the episode, I kept getting inklings of paths that I could see Moffat taking the story, threads he could have picked up. He could have harkened back to the Time Lord distress messages of The Doctor’s Wife, and really echoed the sadness on Eleven’s face when he realizes that he’s still all alone. He could have had the Doctor really explore the crack, reach through it, try and figure out why the Time Lords were coming back that way, and why he hadn’t heard them before. He could have had the Doctor talk about what Trenzalore meant to him. He could have had the Doctor explain why he saved Gallifrey if he couldn’t bring it back.
The Doctor protecting a town called Christmas could have been such a great story. It could have been an extension of The Power of Three, an exploration of how the Doctor is antsy and can’t seem to live a normal life, to take “the slow path.” What happens when he doesn’t have his TARDIS? And what happens when he resides in a place where you can’t lie? It could have been an exploration of what Eleven, who operates on River Song’s first rule, is forced to change.
He could have done so many things. And yet he did none of those things. Instead, he went for whiz, bang, and flash--bringing back as many aliens as they had in the storerooms, making things explode for no reason, and putting in lots of dramatic music with voiceover narration. We see none of the “slow path,” barely anything of the Doctor aging, barely a glimpse of what it means to him to be stuck in one place, not leaving immediately after he saves the day. And the honesty? Well, there was none--he sends Clara home against her wishes, not once, but twice.
Alastair Wilkins wrote a brilliant piece at io9 before Christmas, arguing that regeneration episodes are something we should think about carefully. He argues that
at their best, the regeneration stories offer the closing arguments for their Doctors, revealing just what each particular incarnation cares about most and what each is willing to die for. There's even an opportunity to fashion the Doctor into a kind of tragic hero, as each Doctor confronts his fatal flaw and comes to understand why it may well be time to become someone new.
It’s a kind of profound insight. If we take him at his word, then the Eleventh Doctor is willing to die for the town of Christmas. He cares about protecting people he’s barely met. And while this is an admirable trait, it’s somewhat puzzling, because just as Moffat fails to show us why Clara is important to the Doctor, he fails to show us why Christmas is important to the Doctor as well. Which is an astounding feat, when you consider that he fails to show us any human moments in 300+ years of the Doctor being trapped on Trenzalore.
And as for the Doctor’s fatal flaw? If you ask me, it’s the very rule that River Song coined: The Doctor lies. And yet, he never confronts that flaw. He continues to practice in deception--to his enemies, to his allies, to his companion. Even at the moment of his change, when he’s about to regenerate, he can’t give the Impossible Girl a moment of his time. Instead, he’s hallucinating that the Girl Who Waited is back. It’s as if he knows he must become someone else, but it doesn’t seem that his new self should be someone new, someone that different.
And therein lies the problem with this episode. The Telegraph has observed that it was as if the production offices suddenly realized they had a messy pile labeled “Later” and had to cash it in all at once. And by shoving all the mysteries of Matt Smith’s tenure into one episode and not addressing any of them fully, it’s not really celebrating or puzzling out the Doctor--it’s a giant self-congratulatory pat on the back for Steven Moffat. By rehashing all the past villains and plot points, it is moving back, not moving forward.
And that is a huge problem, because in a regeneration episode, the Doctor needs to move forward. Looking forward while harkening back can be done--it was just done in Day of the Doctor, in fact! And there were beautiful moments in this episode--both pre-regeneration speeches, on top of the belltower, and in the TARDIS, were beautiful. I cried a bit. But the rest of the episode? Well, it didn’t live up to those moments, in the slightest.
I would like to add a final caveat to those requirements for regeneration stories. Like a conclusion to a good paper or book or dissertation, they should say something profound about that Doctor or his tenure. In this case--profundity? Not so much. But if this episode was a representation of what Eleven has gotten, it unfortunately is a pretty accurate representation. Since he landed in Amelia Pond’s garden, he’s had some wonderful profound moments. But between those moments has been a lot of sexism, horrible jokes, bad plots, a lot of magic timey-wimey handwaving, and a gap of hundreds of years that no one seems to care about.
For a Time Lord, it's only a tiny extra step to learn how to die with joy and a purpose as well.
Eleven, you’re not my Doctor, but I liked you. I will miss you. And I hope that at your death, you had joy, and you found your purpose, because I missed it. And I do apologize for that Moffat fellow. You deserved someone better, especially for your final moments.