2013 was a massive year for Doctor Who, having reached 50 years since the show’s creation. The celebrations were marked most notably with a stunning anniversary episode, The Day Of The Doctor. Stand back from this and observe the titles of the two previous Doctor Who servings (The Name Of The Doctor/The Night Of The Doctor) and it seems evident that the anniversary show is actually part of a quartet, and The Time Of The Doctor gives us the final chapter. As well as rounding up such an epic anniversary year, the 2013 Christmas Special is the Eleventh Doctor’s last episode, and Matt Smith’s long and highly successful stint as the Doctor comes to its conclusion, a sorrowful occasion for a wide proportion of Doctor Who audiences.
The Time Of The Doctor is written by Steven Moffat, who can be largely credited with taking the gamble on a young Matt Smith, introducing him from obscurity to play the Eleventh Doctor back in 2010. Beating back most would be critics, Smith stormed onto the scene, becoming so popular that this final episode would be his fourth Christmas Special. Fitting then that Moffat writes the last movement for Eleven, who is in most ways Moffat’s own creation.
It’s Christmas time on planet Earth, but the Doctor is in far off space, orbiting an unknown planet, drawn there like every other race in the universe by an undecipherable message. We see that the Doctor has a new robot companion, Handles, merely a head with a great likeness to that of a Cyberman (complete with ‘handle’ style ‘ears’). There is nothing hostile about Handles though, and we learn that he is greatly cherished by the Doctor, and indeed some have argued is the Doctor’s longest serving companion when this story’s timeframe is considered. The Doctor and Handles are engaged in seemingly random chit-chat and we see a couple of comedy sequences where the Doctor is investigating other ships orbiting the mystery planet in an effort to learn more, each time the Doctor manages a major faux-pas which he childishly blames on Handles who actually is nothing but logical and helpful despite frustrating the Doctor.
Next we have an incoming phone call from Clara, the Doctor’s impossible girl, who is struggling in her own way, with a turkey, back on Earth, at an Oswald family Christmas. She begs the mostly oblivious Doctor to play the part of her boyfriend to perfect this domestic Christmas scene, only half listening, the Doctor launches into excuses mentioning his own troubles until Clara cuts through his babble with ‘Can’t we do both?’.
There’s a good deal of comedy in this special, and there’s no better example than when Clara greets the Doctor on his arrival, shocked to find him naked in the TARDIS (I think it’s a first for Doctor Who) needless to say a strategic camera angle protects the Doctor’s modesty. This prompts one of the funniest Doctor/companion exchanges, Clara spluttering ‘You’re naked!’ the Doctor replying ‘Yes, I am naked, I wondered if you’d notice’. The Doctor’s explanation for his nudity is almost funnier than the sight itself, it’s because he’s going to Church. The viewer’s imagination is put to hard work for the following scenes as eventually both the Doctor and then Clara make use of hologramatic clothes. The illusion in the Doctor’s case fails at the Oswald family party, and Clara soon realises she’s introduced them to a naked boyfriend, much to the delight of Clara’s Gran.
Time machines of course have their uses, cooking turkey with the TARDIS’ exhaust fumes is apparently one. And so it is that Clara joins the Doctor for his trip to Church in the search for answers about the ominous unknown planet. Returning to the planet’s orbit, Handles shocks the Doctor by identifying the planet as Gallifrey. The Doctor angrily refuses to accept this (although the reason for Handle’s information is later explained).
Church for the Doctor is in the form of the Papal Mainframe, a kind of floating Vatican City, and led by Tasha Lem, the ‘Mother Superious'. There’s a vague inkling of Christianity here, and a long view of the main hallway depicts a cross. This theme is strengthened by an altar style bed and a confessional box style teleport. Tasha Lem privately explains to the Doctor the predicament the unknown planet presents, with so many different hostile races surrounding the planet, all drawn by the coded message, it is a place of potential conflict and bloodshed. The orbiting Papal Mainframe, has been able to create a defence shield around the planet, but it is not completely infallible. The Doctor is eager to be the first to investigate and Tasha Lem grins, admitting that this is what she had hoped. The Doctor has awkwardly introduced Clara as being his ‘associate’, and the two are granted access to the planet’s surface, the Doctor intent on finding the source of the message.
After an initial close call with some weeping angels which somehow managed to break the planet’s defence, the Doctor and Clara need refuge. Tasha Lem had banned the use of the Doctor’s TARDIS, but the Doctor has outwitted her, and is able to summon the TARDIS and access it by means of a spare key hidden inside his wig! Yes his wig. This is another moment of shock for Clara as the Doctor reveals his shaved head and ‘rocket fin’ ears. Clara voices her disapproval of this look and the wig is swiftly put back in place. The Doctor locks onto the source of the message and Clara and the Doctor find themselves in a town called Christmas!
The town of Christmas lives up to it’s name, in the most traditional of senses, a colourful array of small houses and buildings, treelined, lamplit and covered by the gently falling snow. Every person in the town seems to be dressed in festive clothing, and the Doctor soon realises the town exists in a ‘truth field’ (where people can only speak truth) which seems to make the place friendly and cheerful. Clara asks the Doctor why the town is called Christmas, he answers that he doesn't know and why is an Island called Easter? Whatever the meaning, this place is to become the Doctor’s long term home, and for a very good reason.
The Doctor, with Clara and Handles, homes in on the source of the message - the message every ship above the planet’s surface is locked onto. The sound is coming from within an old disused church building, after searching about the Doctor finally finds the place, his eyes wide with alarm at seeing the famous ‘crack in time’ that has haunted his existence from day one of his current generation. He softly exclaims ‘I knew, I always knew it wasn’t over’. The Doctor gives a brief explanation to Clara, saying it is a fracture in reality and attributes it to the time he re-booted the entire universe on June 26th 2010 (This gives Doctor Who a great sense of ‘realtime’ as this is the broadcast date of the episode The Big Bang, in which the Doctor did indeed re-boot the universe by flying the Pandorica into his exploding TARDIS). The Doctor quickly remembers how Handles had identified the planet as Gallifrey and suspects that some part of the universe Gallifrey is locked in is trying to break through this fracture. He conveniently pulls from his pocket the seal of the high council of Gallifrey (something he says he stole from the Master) which holds an algorithm Handles can use to decode the message. As the Doctor fears, it is the Time Lords, and the message is a looped question ‘DOCTOR WHO?’ You can only think Steven Moffat must have been waiting all his life to turn this phrase into an issue!
With the message finally decoded it echoes out to all who have surrounded the planet. The Doctor finds himself in a trap, and this is the crux of the story. The town of Christmas is now under siege, every hostile race surrounding the planet wants to destroy the source of the message as well as the Doctor, seeing both as a threat. The Doctor explains to Clara if he was to answer the Time Lord's question through this crack in time, the Time Lords will know they have found ‘the right place’ and that it’s safe to come through. In this circumstance all hell would break loose, the Time Lords would confront every other species that’s assembled and re-start the Time War. It is the Doctor who stands in the way of both warring sides, and he decides to take upon himself the duty of protecting the town. He sends Clara off on a fool’s errand to the TARDIS to keep her safe, and speaks to Tasha Lem who has projected herself hologram style into the skyline. He demands to know the name of the planet, and her answer is ‘Trenzalore’. We know this word strikes fear, and for the Doctor it’s the missing piece to the puzzle, it is the place where the Doctor witnessed his own grave (in the episode The Name of The Doctor). Here, he knows, is where he must live and die.
What follows is the tale of ‘The man who stayed for Christmas’. The Doctor announces himself as the new Sheriff of the town, and as we’ve seen in the Doctor more recently (in Series 9), he creates for himself a ‘duty of care’, essentially an act of complete selflessness, and the choice of taking on a painful responsibility. He later explains to Clara that he has finally found a place that needs him to stick around. He engages in a ceaseless effort to save an innocent town’s people from fear and destruction, and so becomes frozen in a place where he decides he cannot allow himself to turn his back on, anything less would betray his deepest principles. His conscience, realistically, is of a depth and scale no one can fathom.
The person who pays the highest price for the Doctor’s sacrifice is Clara. Clara by this point in time appears to be in love with the Doctor. Consider all they've been through together, and the risks they’ve taken for each other, the closeness they have developed is one of dedication and gentle adoration. There are likenesses between them, made legendary by the concept of ‘The Hybrid’ in Series 9, and the Doctor’s deepest concerns have always become very much those of Clara’s too. It’s interesting to think of the episode Deep Breath where Madame Vastra ‘interrogates’ Clara regarding her feelings past and present for the regenerated Doctor. Vastra crosses a line in exploring Clara’s emotions, but in doing so has a pretty accurate gauge of Clara’s past feelings as she readjusts to the Doctor’s new appearance. The phone call from Trenzalore in the same episode is almost too much for her to take.
Given these emotions are real, for the Doctor to program the TARDIS to take Clara away from him pretty much breaks her heart. It’s a grief the Doctor inflicts on Clara twice throughout his lonely existence on Trenzalore. The first time is for her safety. It’s not too clear how exactly Clara returns to Trenzalore 300 years later (Quantum relativity is very much a thing in this episode, centuries pass on Trenzalore before the Oswald family have even started pudding back on Earth) but Clara claims the TARDIS tricked her. At this moment, following a blazing row regarding the length of time it’s been, they can only fall into each others arms. We see an extremely moving scene as the aged Doctor has to say goodbye to Handles, his long serving Robot companion. Clara watches the Doctor comfort Handles in the most loving of ways as the ancient robot fades and dies under Trenzalore’s fleeting dawn sky. Clara’s silent unnoticed tears accentuate the irony she feels seeing the Doctor acting in this way without being aware how he himself is suffering in age, as much a servant to a cause as Handles had been.
Tasha Lem summons the Doctor and Clara to the orbiting Papal mainframe - this is a trap set by the Daleks which the Doctor escapes through freeing the possessed Tasha Lem in an intense psychological battle of words. Following this, Clara thinks she’s done enough to convince the Doctor to relent on his duty of care in Christmas, she’s overjoyed to be together with him again, and having secured a promise from him never to leave her again things lighten up as she goes to find the TARDIS exhaust has finally cooked her turkey. What happens next is hard to forgive, the Doctor decides his duty to Christmas comes first, without explanation he dematerialises from Clara leaving her standing alone back on Earth.
Now we see the Doctor return to Trenzalore to play out his old age, single handedly keeping the town of Christmas safe and free from a Time War, but against ever more punishing odds. The Mainframe shield is failing, the Doctor can barely keep pace with the attacks on the town from the likes of wooden Cybermen and Sontarans. The Doctor’s mortal ageing is drawing him closer to regeneration. It’s a losing scenario. For the town of Christmas there seems to be no other outcome than doom.
On Earth, the heartbroken Clara is being consoled by her Gran when she hears the magical sound of the wheezing TARDIS returning to her. To Clara’s surprise Tasha Lem is piloting, and she anxiously looks at Clara explaining ‘The Doctor shouldn’t die alone’.
By this point we know the Eleventh Doctor has very little time left. Arriving at Christmas Clara fights her way through scenes of chaos and danger, a Dalek attack has overpowered the town. She finds the Doctor as an ancient old man, in the same church-building as before, and gently tries to reassure and comfort him. She helps him open a christmas cracker, in which a melancholic poem all but predicts the Doctor’s death. A Dalek ship surrounds the building and demands the capture of the Doctor. He hobbles into action and Clara questions what he’s going to do - the Doctor seems tired of life in saying he will ‘talk very fast and hope something good happens’. The situation becomes a face-off and the Doctor, with great effort, angrily shouts out in defiance to the Daleks. Clara, doing some very quick thinking, then does what she does best, she saves the Doctor.
Steven Moffat took the decision to tackle the limited regenerations issue in this episode, Matt Smith we still know as the Eleventh Doctor. Part of the known law of Doctor Who says the Doctor, a Time Lord, is limited to 13 lives (12 regenerations). The War Doctor (as seen in The Day Of The Doctor) accounts for an additional life, which means Peter Capaldi could effectively arrive as the 13th Doctor. Moffat, however, accelerated this narrative with a touch of comedy, the Doctor having explained to Clara that his 10th incarnation regenerated into the same body due to ‘vanity issues’. This means that the Doctor is maxed out on lives by the end of this special, a new precedent has to be set.
With the Doctor clinging on to life by a whisker at the mercy of a Dalek fleet, Clara, in a last gasp attempt to help, heads to the place in the church the Doctor has been guarding all this time, the fracture in reality (or crack in time). She knows the Time Lords, the Doctor’s own kind, are on the other side of this line. She pleads with them saying ‘If you love him - and you should, help him’. Dramatically, the crack in the church wall reseals, and instead, appears in the night sky above the Doctor. As the Doctor swaggers in rage, Clara’s wish is answered and the Time Lord’s send a powerful energy, through the crack in time, to the Doctor. With shock he appears to let this breathe through him, and we become aware the Doctor has been granted new lives. There’s no going back for the Eleventh Doctor though, he’s reached the end of the line, but delights in a spectacular regeneration explosion that wipes out his enemies.
We don’t see Peter Capaldi’s arrival straight away, Steven Moffat allows Matt Smith a little longer for his onscreen farewell. With noise and confusion everywhere, Clara dashes back to the TARDIS (It seems like meticulous continuity planning that the TARDIS exterior phone is exposed, presumably the Eleventh Doctor has just placed his call to Series 8!). Clara finds the Doctor, young in appearance again, and he gently explains the new regeneration cycle is taking a while to break in. Enjoying a last taste of fish fingers and custard, the Doctor all-knowingly reflects. As he speaks he is greeted by the vision of Amy Pond, both a young version and an older one, he dreamily says ‘the first face this face saw’. Not seeing this vision Clara can’t understand what he means. In joy and sadness the Doctor turns back to the weeping Clara, he reaches for her hand and delivers his final lines before a flash change into the Twelfth Doctor:
‘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 ok, 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’
Later today, Louis will be bringing you right up to speed as he rounds up TGT's Christmas Special reviews, hold tight for a look back at 2014's festive episode, Last Christmas.