So farewell, fair Doctor! After 44 episodes spread across four years, magnificent Matt Smith discards his bowtie and lets it drop, poignantly, to the floor of the Tardis. And – after a rather protracted regeneration – in pounces Peter Capaldi. Gaunt, lizard-like and with frou-frou hair. Was anyone else put in mind of Doctor Pretorius from Bride of Frankenstein?
I doubt Capaldi will portray his Doctor as a venomous dowager (unlike Ernest Thesiger in that 1935 black comedy) but I live in hope of a degree of archness. For now, all we know is that he is using a Scottish accent, or at least the hint of one, and his Doctor is adapting to new kidneys – not new teeth (like David Tennant) or hair (Matt Smith). The Capaldi Doctor has senior concerns. If Clara was hoping for another cute, boyish associate, she’s out of luck. She almost recoils.
Yet she should have been primed. The vogue for ever-younger Time Lords has elapsed. This year, the series has boldly volleyed Peter Capaldi (55), David Bradley (71), John Hurt (73), arguably even the majestic Tom Baker (79) into primetime TV as viable Doctors. Now, in The Time of the Doctor, Steven Moffat shows us an ancient version of Matt Smith.
The lead writer achieves many things in this 2013 Christmas special: tying up straggly ends from Matt’s era – why the Tardis exploded in 2010, why Silence must fall, the big question that must never be answered… Points that most viewers have long since forgotten. The attentive fan is being serviced here.
But in ageing Matt’s Doctor to stooped decrepitude, Moffat also ensures that the incarnation he’s nurtured is now the longest lived. In narrative terms, the youthful “11th” had already survived several hundred years longer than most of his predecessors individually managed. In The Time of the Doctor he clocks up many more centuries. The make-up job is effective and Matt becomes fully Dickensian, but there’s no hiding the youthful light in Old Father Time’s eyes. Which is surely the point.
As hoped, Moffat clearly explains, in the Doctor’s own words, how he’s unexpectedly run out of regenerations: taking into account John Hurt’s Doctor (“Captain Grumpy”), and David Tennant’s Doctor (“vanity issues”) having expended another life early (in Journey’s End, 2008). And, as I predicted, the Doctor is gifted another full regeneration cycle by the Time Lords. (This is nothing new: they casually offered the Master a new cycle, for slender services and despite his villainy, in The Five Doctors 30 years ago!)
So, lots of ticks for advancing the legend of our hero and giving him a new lease of life. You can’t blame Moffat for taking on the responsibility – and allowing himself the honour in this golden anniversary year – of dealing with the “12 regenerations only” issue, which has dogged Doctor Who since it was established in The Deadly Assassin (1977). The future looks assured.
The Time of the Doctor is – extraordinarily – the ninth Christmas special since the series returned in 2005. Of course there’s immense kudos in being central to BBC1’s Christmas Day schedule, but with the slow-down in production rate, this works out as the Time Lord’s third Christmassy outing in a run of 17 episodes. I may be in the minority, but Doctor Who doesn’t say “Christmas” to me. Never has. And does each special need to be so blooming Christmassy? Steven Moffat has told me that as long as he’s in charge and they’re making Christmas specials, they will have a Christmassy tone.
Clara’s Christmas emergency is bearable, even amusing – what with the hologram clothes/nudity, baking a turkey in the Tardis and the touching scene with her gran (Benidorm’s Sheila Reid). Although I’d like to believe its design is a homage to RT’s classic double issue from 1977, calling the town on Trenzalore “Christmas” is one twee bauble too many for me. Maybe that’s why I don’t give a fig or a brazil nut that the Doctor spends centuries defending the place. Bah!
My bells also remain unjingled by the drippy music sloshing about under “talky” scenes. Just let Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman carry the scene. Have faith in the viewer to be absorbed. Otherwise, the production design is dazzling – and looked flawless on the cinema screen where I first saw it.
Daleks, Cybermen, Silence, Weeping Angels… There’s a danger when you have a parade of deadliest foes that they’ll lose impact, but Moffat’s script plays to their strengths in short-burst encounters – the Angels half-buried in snow being the real chiller.
Santa Steve is being stingy with guest characters, but Orla Brady is striking as Tasha Lem, an ally-turned-opponent-turned-ally we’d never heard of before.
Her gigantic face looming in the sky reminds me of the Face of Kronos from Jon Pertwee’s 1972 season finale, The Time Monster.
I love Amy Pond/Karen Gillan’s pop-up farewell (“Raggedy Man, goodnight”) and the fleeting glimpse of young Amelia running around the Tardis gantry. (Let’s not forget Gillan’s cousin, Caitlin Blackwood, is a teenager now so cannot reprise her role.)
It’s fitting that this departing Doctor should think back to the first face he saw, but a moment for Rory (Arthur Darvill) would have pleased no end, too.
Two of my chums have grumbled that the Amy moment is a little de trop, but nods back to the past are a tradition in Doctors’ farewell episodes reaching right back to Patrick Troughton (Jamie and Zoe going home) and Jon Pertwee (Jo’s letter and her return of the Metebelis crystal leading to his downfall). Tom Baker and Peter Davison had “companion flashbacks” and David Tennant did the rounds of all his chums in person.
I’m really warming to the current companion, especially now she’s free of the “Impossible Girl” baggage. Perky, resourceful, best-friend material, Jenna Coleman’s Clara has a tangible echo of Lis Sladen’s Sarah about her. I hope she stays by the new Doctor’s side for many more rides.
As for Matt Smith, well, his tenure seems to have flown by. He instantly “got” the character and captivated me in 2010. He’ll be sorely missed. He’s up there with the greats of Doctor Who – easily my third favourite Doctor after Pertwee and Troughton. That may sound like faint praise but I intend it to be high indeed.
And so, on with the show. What does it hold? Apparently, a full season starting next autumn. Scripts are in. The read-through for episode one took place in early December. Filming starts in January. Jenna is around for the foreseeable, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a fit young guy joins the Tardis line-up to keep an important demographic gushing.
In Peter Capaldi, we have a dream-wish Doctor with a full new regeneration cycle. An older traveller who cannot fly his Tardis and cut off from his own people, just as he was in 1963…
As we gaze into the future, it feels as though an adventure in space and time is starting all over again…
Patrick first joined Radio Times as a teenager in the black-and-white days of 1984. A career in journalism led to ES Magazine, Time Out, rival TV guides and Doctor Who Magazine. The Tardis returned him to RT in 2005, since when he’s been reviewing Nordic noir and Sicilian vice, saucy sitcoms, the BBC Proms and the further adventures of the Time Lord. He lives in the Smoke but prefers a sea breeze.