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Doctor Why?

January 5th, 2014

Some belated thoughts on the Doctor Who Christmas special, the 50th anniversary year, and Matt Smith’s tenure in general…

Smith’s final episode, “The Time of the Doctor,” was–like much of his era–a slapdash construction, full of unsatisfying answers and ideas that appear clever until you think about them for, oh, a second.

Which is not to say that it wasn’t enjoyable, just that it was another undelivered promise of the Smith/Moffat collaboration. It seemed less the culmination of a three-season/four-year story arc, more a realization of “oh, crap, I meant to include solutions to all of these puzzle boxes I’ve been leaving lying about.”

One lingering mystery–the destruction of the Doctor’s TARDIS that resulted in the cracks in time permeating Season Five–was answered in a few lines of exposition. That the Silence was involved was, of course, pretty much assumed. But a tossed-off line about the “Kovarian faction” of the Church travelling back along the Doctor’s timeline to prevent him from reaching the planet Trenzalore in this episode was underwhelming. Besides, it didn’t answer the “how.” Blowing up the TARDIS is a big deal, how did they manage it?*

The revelation that the Silents themselves were confessional priests¬†genetically engineered to allow the faithful to confess their sins without remembering they’d done so is one of those seemingly-clever ideas that don’t stand up to scrutiny. As Friend Dave pointed out to me, that’s not the way that confession works. And this origin doesn’t fit with their modus operandi in “The Impossible Astronaut”/”Day of the Moon,” in which we’re told that the Silents are parasites incapable of developing their own technology. They spent thousands of years secretly influencing humanity for the sole purpose of building a 1960s-era astronaut’s flight suit. That’s right, these members of a far-future, galaxy-spanning church required millennia to acquire a spacesuit.

That a televised story arc features blind alleys and obvious “making it up as we go” explanations isn’t unexpected. That’s what happens when you have a bunch of creative folks collaborating over a period of years and responding to changing production circumstances. It’s less forgivable, however, when all of the major plot points emanate from the singular vision of its showrunner, a writer (rightly) praised for the twisty constructions of his Davies-era Who scripts. How then to explain that something established in one episode (the Time Lords are frozen in time) is flatly contradicted in the very next story?**

On top of his pile of incomplete homework, Moffat decided to tackle the issue of the Doctor’s limited number of regenerations (established in 1976’s “The Deadly Assassin,” back when no one in their right mind would’ve thought we’d still be talking about this 38 years later). To be certain, this had been haunting the show as it prepared for the transition from the Eleventh to the Twelfth Doctor, and it’s understandable that an uber-fan like Moffat would want to be the one to solve it. It’s just that there was no need to do so this soon. Not only did it require the inclusion of a previously-unknown incarnation in the form of John Hurt, it hinged on a technicality–that the aborted regeneration seen in the David Tennant episode “Journey’s End” counted as one of the twelve allotted.

So, instead of having years to develop the concept of a “final” Doctor attempting to have his typical adventures knowing that he couldn’t count on regeneration to save his hash, it was shoehorned into an already overstuffed episode. Which would’ve been okay if the solution had been more interesting or unexpected than “the Time Lords did it.”***

Of course, the primary purpose of “The Time of the Doctor” was to give us an opportunity to say goodbye to Matt Smith. It was effective enough in that regard. For me, it’s just that I wasn’t all that invested in this Doctor. I’m more than ready for a clean slate.

As we move into the 51st year of Doctor Who, I have to say that on the whole I very much enjoyed the big 50. I would’ve preferred a proper inclusion of the surviving Doctors, but it’s hard for me to argue too much with a year that saw Paul McGann return as the forgotten Eighth, the effective reintroduction of fan favorite classic foes the Ice Warriors and Zygons, and shoutouts to stories ranging from “The Ark” to “Planet of the Spiders” and “The Brain of Morbius.” And, as I discussed a few weeks ago, 2013 was the year that Doctor Who stopped being that cult thing and became a legitimate worldwide phenomenon.

*Perhaps the business with the Doctor handing over his TARDIS key to Tasha Lem was meant to answer how Madame Kovarian gained access. Though it hardly seems necessary when you have minions who are forgotten the moment they are out of sight. This would’ve been a good place for a flashback to Season Five depicting the Silents sabotaging the works as the Doctor and the Ponds remain unaware.

**Similarly, Moffat conveniently forgets part of his own prophecy about the siege of Trenzalore, “when no living creature can speak falsely or fail to answer.” Yet the Doctor spends hundreds of years within the Truth Field, failing to answer the question posed by the Time Lords.

***And yes, it had been established that the Time Lords were capable of granting a new cycle of regenerations. I suspect that’s the reason for the unexpected callback to “The Five Doctors,” the story in which they make this very offer to the Master.

 

 

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