As I've already discussed at some length, the 50th Anniversary special "The Day of the Doctor," which aired just a few short weeks ago, was the culmination of everything executive producer Steven Moffat had set out to do in his first three series of Doctor Who. That episode was not perfect, but it was a triumph: a satisfying fulfillment of what I've called the "Moffat Masterplan," and a bold reinvention—or restoration?—of the series as a whole. Without disrespecting everything that previous showrunner Russell T. Davies had done to not only resurrect Doctor Who but to turn it into a massively successful worldwide phenomenon, Moffat had spent three years carefully addressing some of the more problematic aspects of Davies' legacy. "The Day of the Doctor" was the final bit of major rejiggering, and it succeeded in undoing the darkest moment in the Doctor's personal character arc, rescuing some key elements of the classic series that Davies had jettisoned, and bringing all 50 years of Doctor Who into glorious agreement. History, I believe, will remember Davies as the man who salvaged Doctor Who from the scrapyard of television history, and it may well remember Moffat as the man who lovingly restored the show's engines to their original specifications.
However, after any major reconstruction project, there is always a lot of cleaning-up to be done: there are always extra bits left over, loose parts to sweep up, and random pieces that no longer seem to belong. And so we now have "The Time of the Doctor," which sets out—as one of its two major goals—to accomplish this necessary cleaning-up process. Make no mistake, "The Time of the Doctor" is, literally and figuratively, a mess: in fact, it's the mess Moffat has made for himself over the past three seasons.
"So that's who blew up my TARDIS! I thought I'd left the bath running." – The Doctor
Moffat has accomplished some world-class storytelling during his three-year stint, while undertaking this long-term restoration project, but in both pursuits he has sometimes been more than a little slapdash about his technique. To the frustration of many a vocal Who fan, many mysteries have been teased and left unresolved, many questions have been asked and never answered, and huge plot points have been waved at in passing and never really explained. I am a Moffat fan—as I think I've made clear—but not even I believe he knew the answers to these questions when he raised them, or that he isn't better at seeding mysteries than resolving them.
And so "The Time of the Doctor" sets out to resolve them all at once. It is belaboring the obvious to say—as I'm sure many fans and critics will say—that this episode puts all of Moffat's worst habits as a writer on display: it's certainly true, but it's also more or less the point. I mean it not as a defense of the episode, but as a partial explanation for it, when I say that "The Time of the Doctor" is Moffat finally putting all his unresolved mysteries to rest, trying to weave all those loose threads into something resembling coherence. He accomplishes that goal—just barely—but it shouldn't be a surprise that the result is more than a little ugly, a patchwork of leftovers and scraps hastily sewn into something vaguely episode-shaped.
I'm not going to recap the plot: you've all watched it, and you've probably made as much sense of it as there is to make. What I will say is that "The Time of the Doctor" was a distillation of the entire Matt Smith/Steven Moffat run of Doctor Who, good and bad. We have Daleks and Cybermen, Sontarans and Silents, Weeping Angels and Warrior Clergy, all summoned—exactly as his enemies were in "The Pandorica Opens"—by a mysterious message broadcasting throughout all of space and time. The message turns out to be coming from our old Season Five friend The Smile-Shaped Crack in the Wall—the result of the TARDIS's mysterious explosion—and the question it is asking turns out to be "the oldest question in the universe:" Doctor who? We are given an explanation for what that question means, and why it's so important. We are given an answer—though far from a satisfying one—to the question of who exactly blew up the TARDIS in the first place, and we now understand the importance of Season Six's running catchphrase, "silence will fall." And, of course, all of this takes place on Trenzalore, the supposed site of the Doctor's grave, which we learned about in Season Seven. So many of Moffat's wild geese come home to roost in this single episode that it almost seemed strange that River Song (Alex Kingston) wasn't there to complete the set. (But no fear: we get Tasha Lem [Orla Brady], the Mother Superior of the Papal Mainframe, to play River's part: flirting suggestively with the Doctor and flying his TARDIS when he's not around.)
None of this works very well—particularly since it's all crowded with a bunch of superfluous nonsense about holographic nudity and the like—and very few of the answers feel like a worthy payoff for years of speculation. However—taking the most charitable view possible of "The Time of the Doctor"—we should celebrate the fact that Moffat seems to know this: the hasty way in which he dispenses with all these mysteries suggests to me that he may be done with such things for a while. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that this episode also carelessly dispenses with mysteries Moffat had just begun to seed, and which we might reasonably have expected to linger well into the future of Doctor Who. The question of whether Gallifrey survived the Time War, for example, is something we might have expected Moffat to stretch out over a season or two, but here it is answered definitively. And the issue of the Doctor's regeneration limit surely could have driven at least a season, but here it is resolved in one fell swoop with the granting of an entire new regeneration cycle.
My point is, any writer will recognize "The Time of the Doctor" for what it is: a slapdash conclusion slapped onto a long, meandering, sometimes ill-conceived piece of writing, in a desperate attempt to tie up all the loose ends and be done. After all the careful and clever tinkering Moffat has done over three seasons, culminating in "The Day of the Doctor," this was the final bit of deck-clearing he had to do, and—though I didn't love the execution—I applaud him for the intent. For consider where we are now: we will enter Season Eight with a refreshingly clean slate, and begin a new era—with a new Doctor—free from the narrative baggage of the past. (There is still the quest to find Gallifrey to be dealt with, but that's not so much a lingering mystery as a welcome and exciting expansion of possibilities.) I said in my review of "The Day of the Doctor" that the Moffat Masterplan was to return Doctor Who to a show much more like that of the classic era, and—having now cleaned up all the lingering continuity tangles—that's exactly where "The Time of the Doctor" leaves us as we look forward to Season Eight.
"I will always remember when the Doctor was me." – The Doctor
I mentioned that "The Time of the Doctor" had two major goals to accomplish: the first was to tie up Moffat's loose ends, and the second, of course, was to say a proper goodbye to the man on whom Moffat has rested his entire tenure so far: Matt Smith, the Eleventh Doctor.
On this front—though I wish this second goal had not been burdened by the overly-complicated requirements of the first—I think "The Time of the Doctor" largely succeeds. Matt Smith, as I've often said, has become my Doctor, and "The Time of the Doctor" plays to his strengths, honors his interpretation, and serves as a satisfyingly suitable send-off to this fantastic actor.
For, as I said above, everything about the Eleventh Doctor's era is well-represented here. Since he first appeared to little Amelia Pond, the Eleventh Doctor has been the fairytale Doctor, the imaginary friend who saves children from monsters and bad dreams. This was Moffat's interpretation, to be sure, but it was an interpretation that perfectly and uniquely fit the gentle, sometimes childlike personification of the Time Lord embodied in Smith's strange, playful performance. (It is somehow impossible to imagine Christopher Eccleston or David Tennant eating fish-fingers-and-custard with little Amelia, or popping out of a cake at Rory's stag night, or dancing like a spaz at Amy and Rory's wedding. It is equally—or more—impossible to imagine Peter Capaldi doing these things, and so I suspect this particular fairy-tale era of Doctor Who has come to an end.)
And I've always felt that Matt Smith was equally adept at playing the old man the Doctor truly is. For all his youthful appearance—and all his youthful exuberance—the Eleventh Doctor has actually been one of the least dashing, action-oriented incarnations in Doctor Who's 50-year history. (I can't picture Smith's Doctor using "Venusian Aikido" anymore than I can picture Jon Pertwee's Third Doctor dancing with children.) The Eleventh Doctor carries himself like he's 1,000 years old, and Smith has a gift for channeling the gentle, weary old man inside the Doctor's youthful form. (Some of my very favorite moments from his run—his soliloquy beside little Amelia's bed in "The Big Bang," for example—are when he suddenly seems to crumple inwards, and we see centuries of travel and tragedy weighing on the Doctor's face.)
And so "The Time of the Doctor" gives us Matt Smith's Doctor in concentrated form: the funny, fairytale hero of a storybook town—a town called Christmas, no less—who grows into a gentle old man while saving children from monsters. We see him befriending the children of Christmas, we see him fixing their toys, we see him dancing with them like a spaz. For all my problems with this episode—and they are many—I can't think of a more appropriate image for the Eleventh Doctor's send-off than his room (and later his TARDIS) papered with the crayon-drawn thank-yous of thousands of children.
The truth is, I'm probably the kind of fan who thinks of whoever currently occupies the TARDIS as "my Doctor." (This is, in my humble opinion, the best kind of fan to be, and my sincere wish is that, by this time next year, Peter Capaldi will have become my Doctor.) But I have adored every moment of Matt Smith's performance, and this is something I can not say about all previous Doctors. In even the weakest episodes, Smith found humor, and surprises, and genuine emotional depth in nearly every line reading, and he gives one of his best performances here.
And kudos to Steven Moffat for giving the Eleventh Doctor a swan-song that was both touching and dignified. The last scenes of the Doctor and Clara—and the Doctor's vision of both Amelia and Amy Pond—are perfectly weighted, and his final speech is lovely: a sad but celebratory farewell that deftly avoids the maudlin self-pity that marred the Tenth Doctor's valedictory episode:
"It all just disappears, doesn't it? Everything you are, gone in a moment, like breath on a mirror...But times change, and so must I...We all change, when you think about it. We're all different people, all through our lives. And that's okay, that's good. You've got to keep moving. So long as you remember all the people that you used to be. I will not forget one line of this, not one day, I swear. I will always remember when the Doctor was me."
"Don't change," Clara says—speaking for many of us—but the Doctor is right: change is the one constant, and none of us can stay exactly who we used to be. Change, in fact, for Doctor Who, is how the show stays the same, offering it a new lease on life, a fresh start, an opportunity to avoid staleness and begin anew. Bow-ties are cool, but there comes a time—however sad—when the bow tie has to come off.
I have treasured Matt Smith's performance, but I think he's leaving at the right time, before we can get sick of him, before he's overstayed his welcome. I have enjoyed—more than some—the Moffat era, with its messy, wibbly-wobbly plotting and its running mysteries, but I think Moffat is absolutely right to put to rest the more burdensome elements that both he and Russell T. Davies introduced. "The Time of the Doctor" is not a great episode of Doctor Who, but it honors the recent past while leaving us with what we need: a clean start, and a new direction.
That new beginning is a long way away: Doctor Who will not return, as we are accustomed to its doing, in the spring, but in the fall of 2014, some nine months from now. But that's okay: it feels right to have a good long break, so Doctor Who can return as something unexpected and fresh, with a new Doctor and new stories—even new kinds of stories—to tell. For some nine months we can let our imaginations roam freely: we can wonder what sort of man the Twelfth Doctor will be, and what he will wear. (Maybe a cravat? Cravats are cool...) We can wonder how he and Clara will get along, and whether they'll find the Time Lords, and what it will mean if they do.
How marvelous that a 50-year-old institution can still leave us wondering; how marvelous that it can still inspire wonder. That's the magic of Doctor Who: we know everything will be different, and yet we trust that—somehow—everything we love will be the same.
Goodnight, Raggedy Man. See you in 2014.