Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Auld Lang Time

As a kid, I used to marvel at how my mum would manage to co-ordinate a full Christmas roast and, through some miracle of logistics I couldn’t grasp, everything from spuds to stuffing, sprouts to stuffing would be ready to dish up on the plate at around the same time.

This year’s Doctor Who Special felt like a Christmas dinner gone wrong. Appropriately enough, given Clara’s problems getting her turkey cooked on time for her Christmas with the family. SoufflĂ© girl can’t handle poultry – who knew? Disparate ingredients – meat, veg and entirely too much stuffing – emerging from the oven in various states of readiness and flung at the plate without a great deal of thought to organisation or  as to how it might all come together in a wonderful meal to sate all manner of Whovatarian appetites.

One key feature of those Christmas dinner plates of yesteryear was that they were entirely too small to accommodate all the food my mum liked to pile up on them. Nobody would ever go hungry when she was catering. Of course, the only recourse when faced with space limitations is to build upwards so we were each served our own food mountain. Substantial, somewhat daunting, but loaded with good stuff and somehow, despite the immobility brought on by conquering this edible Everest we’d all be raising our hands to the question, “Who wants pudding?”

The Time Of The Doctor was only an hour long. In that respect, very much a dinner plate too small for the meal it was expected to hold.

Christmas theme. Matt’s departure. Capaldi’s intro. Daleks. Cybermen. Cyberman head. Weeping Angels. Every alien under every sun amassed around a planet. A weird space-church fending them off. Gallifrey looking to return through the cracks. Silence falling. Naked Doctor gags. Silence falling. Etc.

And yet, expanded to full feature length – say, an hour and a half – the sort of duration you’d need to tell a story of the epic scale Moffat appears to have had in mind, I don’t get any sense that this would have fared any better or left me wanting more.

As it stands, I wasn’t at all keen on rewatching the episode and settled for just a second viewing of the closing fifteen minutes or so, to clarify a few issues in my mind.

Viewed from a safe distance of a few days afterwards, it’s easier to appreciate the bright spots and shinier moments. Taken individually, there are some tasty morsels and delicate touches. There’s a particularly sweet moment between Clara and her nan at the Christmas dinner table, for example, ending in her making a wish and the return of the TARDIS.

But therein lies one root of the overall mess.

While the Doctor makes his stand to defend A Town Called Christmas, Clara is pushed out, removed from it all, with occasional revisits to catch up on how the Doctor’s ageing is progressing. We can feel for her, as she frets over the Doctor’s fate, wondering what’s happening all those light years and centuries from the dinner table, but we, like her, have been effectively distanced from the situation.

Obviously it’s the only way to tell a story of this nature without ageing – and presumably killing off – the companion alongside the Doctor altogether or removing her altogether. And I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather have Clara to stick around and preferably not under a fairly poor geriatric make-up job. That notwithstanding, a Doctor who has to stand in defence of a population and watch his companion die, leaving him utterly alone, well, that’s the more powerful story. Albeit a bit of a downer at Christmas time.

Safely detached from proceedings, we’re shown very little of how the Doctor actually defends this idyllic community with its Truth field and its teeming population of approximately ten men, women and children. It appears to involve striding forth with the Silence against a backdrop of explosions and/or standing and shouting at the Dalek invasion force while the town gets blasted to smithereens. Last I checked, these were not the optimal tactics, even for defensive forces with a spot of military clout. For a progressively decrepit old geezer with a stick, a sonic screwdriver and perhaps a packet of Jammie Dodgers tucked away in a pocket, it’d be remarkable if he lasted five seconds.

Yes, it’s the usual Doctor Who grandstanding. Utterly devoid of substance. Brave speeches with nothing to back it up. The Daleks and all his other enemies appear to be fooled by it but it gets less convincing every time I see it trotted out.

Talk fast and hope something good happens. More and more, it seems that’s all the Doctor has got. And it’s all very amusing to throw that in as a joke but in the face of the overwhelming odds the writers love to pit him against, all it does is expose the weaknesses in the plotting and the scripting. As well as, arguably, the wisdom of constantly writing your protagonist into such corners.

Luckily, the Doctor does have allies. Allies apparently more powerful than the Gallifrey that’s looking to seep through into our dimension. Because while the amassed alien forces were all set to destroy the Time Lords if they so much as poked a Prydonian Chapter House into our dimension, they were held at bay by a single space church and a strange lady priestess.

For all I know, she may be the most powerful being in the universe. Alas, we don’t know a great deal about her, other than she can pilot a TARDIS, commands the Silence (who can admittedly be quite scary but whose principle ability with regard to their enemies amounts to being eminently forgettable) and, like a worrying majority of DW females born from the pen of Steven Moffat, has a serious case of the hots for the Doctor.

Anyway, as far as I can gather the space-church is precisely powerful enough to hold off the largest force of aliens ever gathered in one place – including the Slitheen, no less – but not powerful enough to concern said aliens that maybe they should be focusing on destroying it instead of Gallifrey. I confess some details may have escaped my notice due to increasing disinterest.

Whatever the true extent of their powers, it’s apparent that only the Doctor and the Silence are up to the quantity of the striding around in front of explosive backdrops that a protracted defence requires. And the Silence aren’t quite functioning at their best as, in one clumsily handled scene, Clara repeatedly forgets them then remembers that she forgets them. A bit like jokes, if a monster needs explaining then the delivery’s probably flawed.

But why bother with clever solutions when you can conjure a miracle out of the hat? Especially at Christmas. Christmas is a time of miracles.

After all the centuries of asking the Doctor’s name, Clara ultimately persuades the ancient and wise Time Lords to forego formal identification procedures by pointing out that he is the Doctor. The Doctor is who he is. The Time Lords are really old, you see, and it helps if you spell out the bleeding obvious. Whereupon they open a massive crack in the sky, puff out a spritz of Vortex, the new fragrance by Gallifrey, so that the Doctor can breathe it in and shoot awesome rays of destruction from both arms, thus lifting the siege around the planet.


So that means Gallifrey can safely pop into existence now, right?

Well, not that I noticed.

No, but this level of energy expenditure takes its toll on the poor old Doctor and triggers a regeneration. This, I think, is supposed to amount to dramatic cost. But these days, regeneration is not so much a mini-death but more of a ticket to a new job. There’s generally time to hang around, say your farewells and, in this case, change your clothes.

At least on this occasion, it’s not as prolonged a departure as Tennant’s. It’s not a major galactic tour, merely a jaunt back to the TARDIS to leave clothing strewn all over the floor, to get dressed so that he can symbolically discard his beloved bow tie that he’d just put on for the purpose.

(Side note: I'm also left picturing a Time War fought by Time Lord suicide bombers, all primed with Vortex energy to destroy the Dalek fleets, each one happily surprised to discover the detonations triggered new cycles of regenerations. Why the tactic never worked, I guess we'll never know.)

The gift of Vortex (by Gallifrey) is also a means of addressing the tricky issue of the thirteen-incarnation limit, investing the Doctor with a new cycle of regenerations that none of us realised he needed yet. Until a nifty exchange of dialogue in this episode explained how there’d actually been two Doctors who looked like David Tennant and what with the War Doctor and everything, well, that’s thirteen right there. Blimey, if only they’d gone one further and explained the past incarnations of the Doctor seen in The Brain Of Morbius that might have sewn everything up even more neatly.

The hallucination of Amy Pond is a welcome touch. Imagining Karen Gillan is, I believe, quite a common condition among males, even without the impetus of impending regeneration, so it’s fair enough. Besides, she kind of had to be present in some way, because all in all, Matt’s Doctor is/was her ‘raggedy man’. And Doctors have often been visited by the floating heads of past companions at the very least during these difficult moments of transition.

Either way, the universe can’t let a Doctor depart without making a speech. But less is more. And these delayed effects and strained contrivances like a ‘reset’ – what? – just serve to detract from the emotional potential of the moment. We’re supposed to be sorry to see Matt go – and I am – but most of all I felt sorry that this fell far short of the departure story he deserved.

And so the role of the Doctor is handed over to Peter Capaldi.

Not a great deal to comment on here as we are not given much beyond the now customary observation on some new physical feature – “Kidneys!” (prompting one to wonder what the first female Doctor’s first exclamation will be – “Ovaries!” was my wife’s suggestion). And a spot of amnesia relating to TARDIS piloting skills. But there’s energy and enthusiasm in the delivery and Capaldi has an intensity and presence that might arise from experience and seniority or might simply be a product of him being a talented actor.

Doesn’t matter. What matters most is that he is a promise of change. We’ve seen our change of Doctor, now there’s huge potential here for a change of direction. I’m looking forward to what happens from here on.

All this might sound like a merciless savaging but it’s not intended as such and the episode almost certainly wasn't as dreadful as this review probably seems like it makes out. It’s only an impression coloured by the level of disappointment I felt while watching The Time Of The Doctor on Christmas Day evening. The potential highlight of the holiday viewing for me (DVD goodies aside) and there it was, singularly failing to grab my attention, to intrigue, involve or even entertain me.

There’s a risk, I guess, in having a momentous birthday close to Christmas that folks will combine your presents and by December 25th you’ll have opened all the best ones. Result: a Christmas Day that could feel a little anticlimactic. Moffat gave Doctor Who such a whopping 50th birthday present, I got the impression he was spent out. Exhausted his creative budget.
For what it’s worth, I don’t believe for one moment that Moffat is ever guilty of lazy writing – I’ve consistently been an admirer of his contributions to the series. And The Day Of The Doctor was such a phenomenal achievement, there can be no doubting his love and understanding of the show. This story just asked too much and gave not nearly enough.

Talk fast and hope something good happens, said the Doctor. For the audience, that becomes keep watching and hope something good happens.

And I’m glad to say that we can at least end on that note of optimism. Because even if you’ve had a bit of a disappointing Christmas in the Doctor Who universe, we can all look forward to a Happy New Year.


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