A short while ago I wrote a post in which I reflected philosophically about the then-upcoming Christmas special of Doctor Who, and the changes that were imminent within it. I talked about how even saying goodbye to one’s favorite Doctor revealed something positive about the program – its capacity for growth and reinvention. But now The Time of the Doctor has come, and gone, and I’m left to deal with the sad reality that Matt Smith has indeed left the building.
It amazes me the capacity that stories have to engage us mentally and emotionally. I may scoff at someone else’s obsession with Twilight, but then I have to remember that I’m the guy who had to momentarily put the book down before reading Elizabeth’s answer to Darcy’s second proposal in Pride & Prejudice; and I’m the guy whose heart skipped a bit when Jim asked Pam out to dinner at the end of the third season of The Office. Why is this? I mean, I have a family, I have friends, I have outside interests, and yet I felt pretty misty as we approached the farewell of the 11th incarnation (as we had known him) of the Doctor.
Now, I had also felt pretty misty when we were saying goodbye to the 10th incarnation of the Doctor. I was never the biggest David Tennant fan, but I came to appreciate and enjoy his portrayal. When he plaintively told us, “I don’t want to go,” in The End of Time, I agreed with him. But Matt Smith’s take on the Doctor in The Eleventh Hour hooked me from the get-go, and quickly turned Tennant into a fond memory.
I’ve always sort of maintained that I don’t have a favorite Doctor – I enjoy the show over it’s many years and it’s many styles. But when I think about it, I have to admit that Matt Smith is one of the few serious contenders for that favorite position (and the first one to come along since the early 80’s). He had a combination of lunacy, melancholy, heroism, and fallibility that made him easy to cheer for. More than with prior incarnations, I could identify with the companions’ sense of wonder at being invited to journey alongside with this “madman with a box”.
What about his final story (with SPOILERS, I’m afraid)? Well, it’s crowded and cluttered, but still works for me. Steven Moffat once again proves his ability to pack a whole lot of story into one episode–see Blink or The Girl in the Fireplace for other examples. But this time, it’s not just the whole lives of individuals that we see, but hundreds of years in the life of an entire community. It’s multiple invasions by Cybermen, Sontarans, and Weeping Angels. And it’s centuries in the life of the Doctor, all paradoxically seen in the time it takes Clara to enjoy one Christmas dinner with her family.
The episode is also jam-packed with explanations and revelations and tie-ins to the 11th Doctor’s tenure on the show. Some of these work brilliantly, some are a bit lame, and some occupy the broad area in between. For example – the birth of the Order of the Silence was flawless; the explanation of the role of the Monster known as the Silence was clever as far as a joke goes but otherwise a bit lame; the revelation of who blew up the Tardis was kind of stupid – if it was just going to matter-of-factly turn out to be the bad guys of Season Six, it should have been revealed then.
The episode balanced that out with the best and most obscure Easter egg that the show has ever seen, as the Doctor pulls out the seal of the High Council which his 3rd incarnation took off the Master in the Death Zone back in the 20th Anniversary special, The Five Doctors. Man, that is some keen attention to detail.
And in the midst of all that, there is real tension over the fate of a town called Christmas from the Daleks, and a real sacrifice on behalf of the Doctor. The climax skillfully ties together this Dalek threat with the fate of the Time Lords (see The Day of the Doctor) and the Doctor’s imminent death, which of course every viewer knows about going into this episode. It’s a real treat seeing Smith suddenly come back to life again as he receives the Time Lord’s gift and sees a way to defeat the Daleks.
And then we get to that ending – those final five minutes, full of a number of treats. First, there is the fake-out, where you think for a moment they might actually have regenerated the Doctor off-screen. Then there is the poetry of the Doctor’s dying hallucinations – young Amelia running around a Tardis filled with children’s drawings of the Doctor’s life, and of course his touching farewell with the grown up Amy Pond. There is also the waxing poetry of the Doctor’s final lines about how all people change, but he will never forget when he was this version of himself. There was the amazing symbolic touch of the Doctor taking off his bow tie. And finally, the regeneration itself.
It used to be that the regenerations were always a bit surprising – you never knew what you were going to get. Not just in a new Doctor, but in the realization of the effect itself. Effects were always limited, but still many managed to be creative and innovative with what they had (Caves of Androzani, Logopolis) while others did not (Planet of the Spiders, Time and the Rani). The 9th to 10th Doctor transition was one of the best, with the dramatic burst of energy from an upright Doctor. But that was the last time the show ever did anything different with the concept. Since then, we have seen multiple regenerations , all with that same dramatic burst of energy – big enough to do damage to the Tardis but not to anyone’s clothes. But when we got to the actual moment of change in The Time of the Doctor, just when we were expecting to see Matt Smith’s head engulfed in a ball of flame while he writhed in agony and morphed into his successor…bang it’s done! Smith’s gone, Capaldi’s there, and a regeneration effect surprised us for the first time in many years.
Is there any chance that this new version of the Doctor will be able to capture my imagination in the same way that his predecessor did when he has a proper chance next year? Even though I enjoyed his opening moments (the kidney line is pretty funny), I have a hard time seeing it. But hey, I’ve been wrong before, and I’m willing to give it a go. In fact, I’m ready, I’m eager.
Because even if Matt Smith does turn out to be my favorite Doctor, I’m glad he’s not the only Doctor.