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Doctor Who Christmas Special Recap: A Whole New Life Cycle

You know that maxim that says the third movie in a trilogy will suck? It’s not a hard and fast rule, as there are plenty of movies that buck it, but likewise there are enough failures to justify the coining of the rule in the first place. I thought of that rule often while watching “The Time of the Doctor,” which, after the exhilarating one-two punch of “The Name of the Doctor” and “The Day of the Doctor,” was a letdown of, I dare suggest, epic proportions. Ambitious to a fault, it never achieves the grandeur of the previous two “… of the Doctor” episodes, though it appears hell bent on outdoing both as hard as it possibly can. And you know what they say about trying hard — actually, I’m not sure, but it must be something awful. I’ll stop short of describing the episode as just that, because there was some nice stuff nestled in between all the loud, incomprehensible bits, which were countless.

Since the mystery of the Impossible Girl was solved at the close of “Name,” Clara Oswald (and Jenna) is blossoming. Much the same happened with Amy Pond after her mystery was wrapped up at the close of her first season. There’s something slightly suffocating about the way these seasonal mystery arcs have played out for their leading ladies, but with that behind her, Clara could very well end up being my favorite companion of the new series. She’s refreshingly uncomplicated and her directness at this point is a welcome change of pace. It’ll be interesting to see how her character plays against Capaldi.

The episode had a few genuinely great scares, most notably the Weeping Angel attack from beneath the snow, and the scene in which Clara met the Silence for the first time. The wooden Cyberman wasn’t so much scary as inventive — even though I’m not sure I understand what the point of it was. In an episode crammed with the Doctor’s foes, it never felt like there was any real threat — as though the episode was meant to fly on the dramatic tension sustained by the mere fact that the viewer knows it’s the final story of Matt Smith’s era. Unfortunately, drama doesn’t quite work that way.

Speaking of Smith, he did a fair enough job on his final outing given all the hoops Moffat had him jumping through, which were many. From the fake nudity (which, it turned out, was actually one of the funnier bits in this thing) to the scene in which he’d shaved his head and was wearing a toupee (a terrible, unnecessary meta gag I guess was meant to acknowledge that Smith’s head actually was shaved) to the layers and layers of heavy makeup that was piled on him throughout, it just seemed like the series no longer had any use for the Eleventh Doctor as we’ve come to know him, and wanted to experiment with a slew of new things.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a bold move to have the Doctor living out the remainder of his life in the town called Christmas — with hundreds of years passing, and signs of age showing on his face and body — but it never seemed like the episode was particularly comfortable with the world it had created. Even at the end, the episode felt the need to “reset” the Doctor to his previous youthful form before regenerating him proper, which was sort of ageist, and implied that if we didn’t get one last glimpse of him looking slick and young, that we were somehow being cheated.

The biggest development for the series itself was the acquisition of a new life cycle for the Doctor, something that happened like magic, as Clara went to the crack from Amy’s wall and pleaded to the Time Lords to help the Doctor change the future “if you love him.” What!?!? Herein lies perhaps the greatest fault of the episode: Plain and simple, the story should have been entirely about the Doctor acquiring a new life cycle, rather than presenting it as something a Time Lord can inhale via some regeneration energy mailed in from another universe. It was too easy. There was no weight to it. In interviews, Moffat made such a big deal about the Doctor only having thirteen lives, and then did nothing substantial with the idea (if he had, I might be singing a different tune). The Doctor had made peace with himself and the universe, and was ready to die, and now all of a sudden he has to essentially start his long life over again? Surely that’s worthy of some sort of verbal recognition? Something, anything!?! Speaking of regeneration energy, wow — the Doctor’s regeneration can destroy a Dalek ship? Good god, did that really happen?

Something that’s starting to scare me about Doctor Who: It’s become far too reliant on its own mythology. Unless you were a fan, “The Time of the Doctor” made no sense. (Actually, even to a fan it made little sense.) But similar complaints could be lodged at “The Day of the Doctor,” and probably “Name” before it, though since those were relatively tight, quality stories by comparison, it was easy to overlook their fan wankery. Doctor Who cannot continue on this trajectory, otherwise the casual viewers – the ones who make up the bulk of audience over in the U.K. – may very well tune out.

The show needs to pull back and become the episodic series it’s supposed to be. Doctor Who was built on monster/adventure/situations of the week, and this sort of three-season arc B.S. that ultimately went nowhere satisfying is not doing the show any favors. It’s difficult to believe a fine dramatist like Steven Moffat had all this in mind way back at the start of Smith’s first season. It just felt like he was filling in potholes rather than seriously addressing plot points. It’s like he wrote this episode in one night, and there was no second or third draft. I found myself saying, “Who cares?” throughout much of it, and for a fan like me who is so often willing to cut this show an immense amount of slack, that cannot be a positive sign.

At the close, the Doctor gave a nice little speech about how we’re all many different people throughout our lives, and how we should never forget who we were before; pretty forgettable prose, written by a human, and placed in the mouth of a Time Lord. In the end, Karen Gillan showed up also wearing a wig (as her head was shaved for the upcoming Marvel movie Guardians of the Galaxy), and it was the only place where I found myself emotionally moved, though by that point it was probably owing to a longing for better days. The dropping of the bow tie was a nice touch, as was the bowl of fish custard and little Amelia Pond running around inside the Doctor’s mind. Peter Capaldi got the standard three lines of dialogue, and as usual, we can tell nothing about his Doctor based on that – and that’s fine, because when he arrives on our screens proper next year, I want to forget all about the events as they were presented here.

It kills me to trash this episode (though no more than it killed me to watch it), and I have given “The Time of the Doctor” two stars, which I believe is the lowest rating I’ve assigned to an episode since I started doing recaps for Vulture. It’s possible there have been worse episodes in that time, yet surely none needed to be so much more. Two stars feels apt given what this episode should have achieved, and how it missed on pretty much every count. Let’s hope this was just a colossal misstep rather than a sign of things to come, because I really can’t handle Doctor Who ruining next Christmas as well.

Photo: Adrian Rogers/BBC