Matt Smith bombastically stumbled onto our TV sets nearly four years ago with the incredible ‘The Eleventh Hour’, quickly putting to rest any fears that this 26 year-old was too young to play Doctor Who. He has since been at the forefront of three series and seven specials of what is, ultimately, unparalleled family television. It is a shame therefore that his final departure, the Moffat-penned Christmas special ‘The Time of the Doctor’, is a deeply disappointing spectacle, failing to do justice to Smith’s spellbinding reign as the eleventh Doctor.
The plot is an utter mess; the central conceit of the Doctor spending his final days on Trenzalore to protect the inhabitants against a second time-war is novel but drearily executed. So maniacal is the narrative in cramming the writer’s every fan-boy impulse into an hour’s show that one can almost envisage Moffat sitting at his desk with the whiteboard ‘Ideas for Matt’s last episode’ as he moves through the various post-it notes labelled ‘Weeping Angels’, ‘Cracks in Space and Time’, ‘Daleks’, ‘Amy Pond’.
Moffat is a brilliant and brave screenwriter, always one to tread the fine-line between complex and convoluted story-arcs, but now is not the time to experiment in these areas. The joy of the 50th anniversary (which was a rip-roaring dramatic success) was its recognition of the need to streamline the ‘plot’ sequence in order to shift utmost focus on to the interplay of the doctors, and their wrestling with past identities. Here the work feels artificially episodic, driven by a hyperactive imagination which is beginning to forget the need to slow down and grant the audience a lingering final moment with their doctor.
There is nothing wrong with a frivolous romp. Indeed, it may have been too soon to repeat the dramatic intensity of the anniversary (and it is Christmas day), but if this was Moffat’s initial line of thought then he simply doesn’t commit to it. While the episode opens with an explosion of extraordinary ideas – Gallifrey still exists, the Time-Lords are returning, a fleet of the Doctor’s worst enemies have assembled, Clara has feelings for the Doctor – around the episode’s half-way mark one can feel the writing team going into panic mode.
For example, the Christmas festivity elements are violently shoe-horned into the work and the misjudged plot points are inadequately explained away in hurried voice-overs. As the writers begin to remember who exactly this episode is supposed to be about, both the fact it is a Christmas special and the fact it is a family adventure feel less like joyful dynamics and more like unwanted burdens.
Because the piece is so inorganically stitched together, Smith spends the majority of his time reciting exposition, while Coleman (a highly engaging actress when properly directed) is given little else to do other than run around and cry. Thus caught in-between desires to be a Christmas romp and a satisfying departure for Matt Smith, the episode sadly achieves neither – merely occupying a boring liminal space between the two.
That’s not to say there is nothing to appreciate in the hour. As with every Doctor Who episode the set-pieces are tenderly observed and lovingly performed. The notion of the doctor as a toy-maker, the repeated motif of childhood drawings and Orla Brady’s role as a ‘galactic nun’ are positively enchanting. Furthermore, even though there is something counterintuitive about making Matt Smith unrecognisably old in his final episode, his parting speech will bring a tear to the eyes of anyone who has followed the eleventh Doctor’s trajectory.
Christmas specials are never particularly good. The best have been last year’s ‘The Snowmen’ and 2006’s ‘The Runaway Bride’ and then only because there was something aptly festive and ‘new-beginnings-esque’ about the introduction of different companions. Perhaps it is we, not Moffat, who are asking too much of ‘The Time of the Doctor’, or perhaps Moffat is too busy working on the New Year special of Sherlock. Certainly though, it will be the 50th anniversary episode by which we remember the last days of Matt Smith, and it will take more than a dull Christmas special to taint the spectacular virtuosity with which he has embodied the eleventh Doctor.