5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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THE TIME OF THE DOCTOR
We seriously, seriously did not want to see this episode. The loss of one of your favourite Doctors ever is not exactly something you cross days off the calendar for. And at Christmas, too! Cheers. At least we were lucky enough for it to show on Boxing Day in our timezone so that our Christmases weren’t trashed.
But as it turns out, it wasn’t as gruelling as we had feared. Not because it was good. If this had been a simple, poignant, deeply felt episode, you’d have had to scrape us off the floor with a spatula. But it’s a lot tougher to feel grief when you’re pissed off. And we were. Because The Time Of The Doctor, with some exceptions here and there, is rubbish.
Now, we could leave it there. You’ve probably got a reasonable grasp on our feelings about the matter. But since we’re enraged, let us amplify. The Time Of The Doctor is an incoherent, self-indulgent, poorly thought-out, wrong-footed vat of drivel. When it finished, a deathly silence fell chez Androzani. Then one of us made a slanderous and unprintable remark about Steven Moffat which we will refrain from searing your eyes with. The rest of us broke into applause.
We have to admit that as so often happens, a second viewing made it make slightly more sense and what virtues there are were more apparent. But so what? It’s supposed to be entirely comprehensible - and impactful - the first time through. So if you’re of a nervous disposition, look away now. We have hatchets, and we plan to use them. Let’s hack open this Christmas turkey.
Remember those exceptions we mentioned? The vast majority of them are Matt Smith’s performance, and a lot of the best stuff crops up here at the beginning. We start off with the Doctor in a Gandalfy cloak, aboard a mysterious ship. Mysterious, that is, if you’ve never seen a Dalek episode of Doctor Who, because otherwise the bumps all over the place are a dead giveaway. Apart from this, the start is terrifically whizzy, with some delicious classical Matt Smith Doctoring. And they introduce the Doctor’s new pet, who we’re betting all the viewers except us immediately fell in love with. (We have a curmudgeonly detestation of being nudged into finding something loveable. Don’t mind us. And it was all worth it for “How those Cyberevenings must fly”.)
Then the Earth Christmas stuff which has to be included by law. Again, there’s some great writing and even better performances here: we’re particularly in love with Matt Smith’s delivery of “Ding dong! OK, brilliant! I may be a bit rusty in some areas, but I will glance at a manual.” Then a pointless incursion to a Cybership, and roll titles, followed by an enchanting couple of utterly Doctorly scenes in which the Doctor’s shaky grasp of dress codes wins over Clara’s delightful Gran.
Back to the TARDIS, and as ever Matt Smith shows he can turn effortlessly on a dime from comic to deeply serious. His delivery of the stuff about Gallifrey tells us all we need to know about his feelings on the subject, without belabouring us about the head with it.
So that’s the good news. The bad news is that like a runaway skateboard on a heavily oiled mountain, with the eternal exception of Matt Smith it’s all downhill from here.
We’re off to church. Orla Brady knocks it out of the park as Tasha Yem: she and Matt Smith play off each other perfectly and there are more sparks flying than on a welder’s bench. But we can’t help wondering: flirting. Flying the TARDIS. References to her inner psychopath. The heavy emphasis on a character we’ve never seen before. Surely there’s been a cut and paste job here? We’re not really fans of River’s, or at least of the writing for River, but she is, after all, this Doctor’s wife and someone you’d expect to see in his last episode. A part that seems made for her but contains someone else therefore has a very, very weird resonance.
Meanwhile Clara, twiddling her thumbs in the corridor, spots a Silent. And forgets. And spots a Silent again. And it’s at this point that our hearts started the inexorable progression into our boots. Gratuitous flinging in of Daleks and Cybermen aside, it’s really been pretty good thus far. But a third enemy tossed in shows us that the Dalek and Cyberman cameos were more than a small and forgivable error. This is going to be a greatest hits remix.
It’s not that this approach is inevitably doomed to failure. It wouldn’t be our choice, but carefully handled it could have been a legitimate way to show off a Doctor’s tenure. But it’s not, though. Carefully handled, that is.
First of all, Steven Moffat commits the same crime he should have been banged up for many times before: wrecking his own mythology. The second time the Silence appear, for example, Clara remembers forgetting them: we’re pretty sure that’s not how it’s supposed to work. And same old same old when the Angels come along: as well as being as pointless as the earlier cameos, the way it plays totally ignores what we’ve been told before about how the Angels work.
But that’s the minor point. Far worse is that the greatest hits in this episode are not about the Doctor. Instead, they’re about Steven Moffat: his inventions and his ever-dangling arcs. (Yes, we see what we could do with this, but we’re going to leave it on the table. Go ahead and write your own joke.) A Doctor’s regeneration episode, no matter what else it’s about, should be primarily about the Doctor. Not, we repeat not, about the showrunner. This makes the Eleventh Doctor a bystander in his own regeneration.
One entirely gratuitous scene later, in which the Doctor and Clara tangle with never-heard-from-again Angels (one more tick for Moffat), there’s some nice stuff making the most of Matt Smith having shaved his head for another role. It’s little stuff, but it’s the little stuff that gets you the most: small moments, if you ask us, are the most powerful and what Moffat should have been concentrating on.
Then there’s a ladleful of Christmas slush as the Doctor and Clara find out the town’s under a truth field. This has promise, and is nicely executed, but in fact all it turns up is stuff we already know, like that Clara fancies the Doctor. (We do hope that wasn’t meant to be a revelation.) Worse, what’s the point of the truth field in the first place? As a cunning plan, it lacks a certain efficacy. The Time Lords put it in place to make the Doctor say his name, but why would he lie about it? Either he wants to tell them, or he doesn’t want to, in which case all he has to do is not say anything. Which he does. Frankly, on this showing a gerbil could run rings round the High Council.
And then, oh God, the crack of doom’s back. Thought we’d put that all behind us? If only. The Doctor saying “I always knew this wasn’t over” and “the scar tissue remains” can’t make this tally with what went before, but we hurry on, only to trip over the next absurdity, which is that good ol’ Handles insists on broadcasting the message to all and sundry. Because…no, we got nuthin’. And then brace yourself: you know it’s coming, and here it is, like an avalanche of wince: the return of the dread “Doctor who?”. Nooooo! On and on it goes, as we clap our hands over our ears and pretend none of it is happening.
But it is, and the Doctor has a terrible dilemma: if he lets the Time Lords know it’s him, they’ll come blasting through and trigger off the Time War again. But hold on a minute: why is saying his name his only option? Clara talks to the Time Lords through the crack later and they have no problem understanding her and taking the appropriate action. How come the Doctor can’t just say “Me here, but can you hang on a bit? There’s a bunch of Daleks and stuff hanging around that would make your arrival kind of inconvenient. Oh, and would you mind turning off your broadcast throughout time and space? As well as attracting all the riff-raff in the universe, it’s making the Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special all fuzzy”.
But no. So instead, Tash forbids the Doctor to speak his name, and yet another domino tumbles with the return of “Silence will fall”. How this actually works, after all the heavy foreshadowing, is a wee bit of a letdown. It’s not as if she’s struck him dumb or anything, so all “Silence will fall” actually amounts to is a repetition of her threat to burn the planet. Yawn.
Time for another gratuitous cameo - Sontarans, this time. And we hear that the Doctor is protecting Christmas. How? Mostly, it appears, with the sonic screwdriver. And we don’t like it. The Doctor using the screwdriver as a weapon has become so common we’ve got habituated to it, but that all changed when as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations we saw the 1977 Whose Doctor Who. Obviously we’ve seen the classic episodes, but putting excerpts together in one place as Whose Doctor Who does reminded us forcibly of who the Doctor used to be. He got into as much trouble then as he does now, but he got out of it not by brandishing a weapon (mostly), but with cunning, reason, and sometimes just some really splendid blathering. The sonic screwdriver was used as a shortcut, but never as a weapon. We’ve got to say we enjoy that take on the Doctor a lot more than the one that has him forever relying on firepower. It’s boring, it’s morally questionable, and it takes away from the essential brilliance and uniqueness of the character.
The next time we see the Doctor, he’s getting on a bit. This, in our opinion, is a huge mistake. First of all, ageing makeup never looks remotely natural. But worse, why take one of the best actors that’s ever played the part and give him perhaps the one thing he has difficulty doing? Sorry, Matt: he’s much better playing the extremely old Doctor, but this…middle-aged?...version just doesn’t work. The gestures and movements are too extreme, and there’s too much youthful vigour.
And worse, too many needless enemy cameos mean there’s not enough time and effort put into justifying why the Doctor stays so long. He has three hundred years to ponder the problem, and he can’t come up with a solution? That’s about the least Doctorly thing possible. And “After all these years, I’ve finally found someone who needs me to stick around” is ridiculous. We can instantly come up with dozens of situations where the Doctor’s continued presence would have been helpful to the locals.
But instead of worrying about any of this, Moffat’s more concerned with meticulously setting out where the Doctor is with regard to number of regenerations and who blew up his TARDIS. Oh, do let’s get the fanwank all lined up. It’s not like there’s anything else they could be filling the screen time with. Sigh. And despite the attention paid to this kind of stuff, nobody bothers to explain why, once he gets the TARDIS back, he can’t shovel all the people into it and whisk them away. (We know this is often a problem, but in an episode where the Doctor hanging around is so important, you’d think they’d have made some effort.) Nor do they bother justifying why the Doctor can piously spout all that crap about not changing history if you’re in it after he did precisely that in the rebooted Time War (amongst other time offences).
All this, and it’s still not much past halfway. The first time through at this point we were just bored, and the second time we were losing the will to live. As well as all its many other faults, the bloody thing’s just dull. Too much portentousness, too long on some things and not enough time on others: as a piece of entertainment, it’s a signal failure.
Then the Daleks and everybody else cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war. Um, tell us why that is again? Weren’t they only supposed to fight if the Time Lords came back? Who are they fighting on Christmas? The simple honest peasants? Each other? What for?
Clara falls for the Doctor’s ruse a second time (dim much?) and it’s back to the fam with the turkey. In amongst the mysterious Linda’s sniping (who the hell is she, anyway? They never bother to tell us), there’s a really lovely moment as Gran recalls time standing still. Like we said, small stuff.
Then a recycle of the earlier plot as Clara returns to Trenzalore to find the Doctor decrepit. Matt Smith’s much better at this, possibly because he’s not moving around as much, and we like the trace of resemblance to William Hartnell. Matt Smith is stellar here, and as a result we get a deeply affecting scene, before Clara has to rescue the Doctor yet again. After all, she’s the Impossible Girl. But didn’t the Doctor retcon all that stuff with what he did with the Time War, thus making the entire Impossible Girl timeline moot? Maybe there’s a clever explanation for this, but given how much Moffat has monkeyed around with the timey wimeys, damned if we can figure out what it is.
And the Doctor gives his last speech, sounding, in his “I will always remember when the Doctor was me”, very much like Matt Smith himself. And here we did cry, because despite how shabbily he has been treated both in his final episode and in the many episodes not worthy of his talent before, he always redeemed whatever was wrong just by being onscreen. To bring that unearthly quality to the Doctor is an extremely rare talent: so rare that despite the stellar lineup of actors who have portrayed the Doctor, out of ten other Doctors only one has managed it before him. We lament the shortness of his seasons and his tenure, because we’ve loved virtually every moment of this Doctor, and we don’t want him to go.
If only. If only Matt Smith had got the full number of episodes each season. If only Steven Moffat was answerable to an editor instead of having free rein over the scripts. If only Matt Smith had a sendoff that was a tribute to him and not to Moffat’s created universe. But none of those things can change what a truly exceptional Doctor Matt Smith was. Thank you, Matt, for everything you brought to the role: we treasure it all. And we always will.
MORAL: Bah, humbug.
“How can a town be called Christmas?” “I don’t know, how can an island be called Easter?” Tsk, tsk. There are tons of towns called Christmas in the US alone, not to mention a Christmas Island belonging to our Aussie neighbours.
LIGHT AND SHADE
Presumably they wanted to film in the dark to make things cheaper, darkness being the most cost-effective set dressing there is, but did they have to make such a song and dance about it? The Doctor carefully explains to Clara that the sun’s only up for a few minutes, only to have her express surprise about it getting dark so quickly five minutes later. Goldfish attention span or what?
Modern regenerations always remind us of a scarecrow, except instead of straw stuffed up the Doctor’s sleeves, he has light. At least this one was mercifully short.
So now not only is the screwdriver a weapon, so is regeneration energy. Considering the Doctor’s angsting just before about his part in the Time War, this seems a touch inappropriate.
PASS IT ON
Tasha zaps Clara with crackly green energy: is this how she gets Daleked? And does that mean the new Doctor’s companion is actually part-Dalek?
No doubt for many people Amy’s appearance was a sentimental highlight. Not us, though. Since “Raggedy Man” has always made us gnash our teeth, it was just a final burst of annoyance.