To begin with, the fiftieth anniversary was an extraordinary milestone, celebrated in style. The tweedily earnest Matthew Sweet documentary was lovely; the Mark Gattiss drama was charming and moving, if unseemly brisk; the Peter Davison red button extra was properly hilarious and the Paul McGann mini-episode totally unexpected and absolutely extraordinary. Over the BBC Three post-show party, I must draw a polite veil in the interests of propriety.
What then of the episode itself? Hardly the direct continuation of the Series Seven finale I thought we had been promised. You’ll remember, if not really comprehend, that the Doctor and Clara were trapped, seemingly forever, in some bleak landscape of the Doctor’s own timeline, with no possible means of escape, and facing a hitherto unknown Doctor whose baleful powers were terrible and absolute. Hell of cliffhanger to leave us on. And resolved by – ignoring it completely. Oh well, maybe they weren’t quite as comprehensively trapped as they had seemed. Maybe there was an escape pod (there frequently is).
What we do get is a lovely widescreened version of the original titles, a glimpse of Coal Hill School where Clara The Impossible Girl (I think that’s her surname), her baffling reason-to-be having now been discharged, is working as a teacher. For reasons not clear even when explained, Kate Lethbridge-Stewart finds it convenient to very, very publicly air-lift the TARDIS to UNIT’s top-secret headquarters in order to explain some plot.
And now we meet the other Doctors. David Tennant slips back into the role so effortlessly that it’s easy to miss that Moffat has fallen into the same trap as Bob Baker and Dave Martin, Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes have before him. The returning Doctor is not written quite as we remember him, but as a rather broader, almost parody version. Tennant’s speech to the bunny rabbit is properly hilarious, but I can’t imagine RTD letting it through under his watch.
“The War Doctor”, as we must apparently call him, is more problematic for various reasons. Firstly, it seemed pretty obvious to me, and Moffat has now confirmed in interviews, that if Eccleston had agreed to come back, this would have been his part, and just as the “together, we’re a match for you” scene in The Five Doctors stumbles a little because Tom isn’t there, so too do the scenes of the three “modern” Doctors creak because we know one of them is a retrofitted interloper.
Far more damaging is the depiction of the Time War itself. As a phrase, as a concept, this fills the mind with all sorts of terrors and wonders. Once shown on the telly it looks like a video game. As another commenter pointed out, the Time War was introduced by Rusty to avoid all the continuity baggage of the Time Lords, but has now become that very continuity baggage.
Pretty soon, The Moment, cheekily played by Billie Piper, is chatting idly with John Hurt – which creates its own problems; surely the Eccelston Doctor would have recognised her in 2005 from this earth-shattering encounter? And before long all three Doctors are cheerfully shooting the breeze. There are some very, very funny lines here, some lovely nods to the fans and some signature Moffat touches with the sonic needing all that time to perform the calculations. And something about some Zygons. But around this point, I began to wonder – where is the urgency? Where is the jeopardy? Where is the threat? Have we finally put The Terrible Apocalyptic Time War on screen in order to turn it into a slightly dull undergraduate ethics class?
The problem is that the notion of wiping out Gallifrey in order to spare the universe, firstly is not adequately spelled out. It’s not really made clear what the Moment is going to do, nor what the alternative is. Secondly, the cost of either choice, not in terms of Universal Armageddon – such a thing is literally inconceivable and therefore undramatic – is not really apparent because the Hurt Doctor is so stoic. Compare his vague mulling over possible outcomes to the agonies which the Eccleston Doctor goes through in The Parting of the Ways as he attempts to decide whether or not to use the delta wave generator. It’s essentially the same plot device, but the extra power of the Davies’ version is hard to miss.
At some point, the Zygon plot rears its head again (even in 75 minutes it feels like there is at least one major plot-line too many here) and the solution provided is genuinely clever and arresting. Such a shame we can’t stick around to see the outcome. And then we pluck Gallifrey out of existence in a Blink-style manoeuvre in order to redeem the War Doctor while not quite unravelling the last eight years of television.
Quite apart from the fact that the entire Dalek fleet simply would not be eliminated in the crossfire, this is a shameless attempt to have one’s cake and eat it too. It undermines the very concept of actions having consequences. It undermines the whole idea of an incarnation of the Doctor who would do unthinkable terrible things (we never see this, the worst he does is graffiti a wall). It undermines the whole idea that the Doctor is alone in the universe. And it doesn’t even make sense.
The scene with the curator is lovely, (now you turn up, do you, Tom? Where were you in 1983?) and the Doctors Assemble shot is a magnificent summation of the series, if slightly-iffy effects-wise and it brings to an end, a frustratingly uneven episode. The Fiftieth Anniversary Story had to be so many things to so many people it was almost doomed to fail. It had to be a love letter to the fans, in which it really did succeed. Just by putting Tennant back in the suit, it stood a good chance of doing that, but we got so much else besides. And it had to be an epic turning-point in the history of the show and to tell a really good story. It largely failed in both of these because the former undermined the latter. Take out all the Gallifrey stuff and have Ten and Eleven joining forces to battle the Zygons and you probably have a really good hour. Even with all the Gallifrey stuff, it might have worked if there had only been a greater sense of urgency – if Moffat had been able to make the awful choices faced by his heroes actually feel awful and then avoided that “with one bound they were free” ending.
But Moffat’s work is not yet done. The Christmas special also awaits in which supple, mercurial Smith must give way to Caledonian Capaldi. As is traditional, we start with a companion’s family. As is far from traditional, we also start with a slightly off-colour gag about the Doctor’s nudity. It’s odd that despite two return visits to Clara’s estate (see below) and the plot going to great lengths to remove Clara’s clothes as well, we never get the expected pay-off of both time-travellers returning to Christmas dinner in the altogether.
Thousands of ships are massing around a planet, bewilderingly identified as Gallifrey, later identified as Trenzalore – grave of the Doctor. Sepulchral voices demand to know “Doctor Who?” and so the Doctor has to go down and investigate. Clara and Eleven find themselves enveloped in a truth field, a startling idea which might give rise to all manner of best-kept-hidden secret hopes and fears but which is subsequently entirely ignored.
In fact, what they have discovered is a crack in time, the same crack which was first seen in Matt Smith’s debut episode, The Eleventh Hour, through which the Time Lords are now calling. Before this episode aired, Moffat promised that many unanswered questions would finally be addressed in this story. Good news, if like me you found the endings of the previous three seasons all utterly confounding. But we are no clearer now about what the hell was happening on the shore of Lake Silencio, or just how Amy Pond was able to reboot the universe by getting married, or what Clara Oswald was actually doing which made her so impossible. Instead, various elements of the previous three years are treated more like running gags to be mentioned briefly and occasionally connected to each other, while shedding very little light on anything.
The plot gears grind on and before long place the Doctor in a suitably impossible situation. If he speaks his name, the Time Lords will emerge and the Time War will start again. If he doesn’t the massed forces above will murder the people of Christmas. Unless of course, the Doctor bundles them all into his TARDIS and hides them away somewhere. It’s a bit of a feeble contrivance really, made more feeble by the fact that the murderous alien hoards as presented are so pathetic and easily-defeatable.
In yet another repeat of The Parting of the Ways, the Doctor tricks Clara into leaving not once but twice. It would be bad enough to repeat a story beat almost exactly, and with so little emotional cost; it’s unforgivable when that beat is lifted entirely from an earlier episode, part of whose function was also to regenerate the Doctor. Once again, see how much emotionally welly Russell gives to the Ninth Doctor abandoning Rose, and how little anyone seems to care that the Eleventh Doctor flagrantly breaks his promise to Clara.
That having been said, the scenes with geriatric Eleventh Doctor are some of the episode’s most effective. Old age make-up is always tricky, requiring expert co-operation between actor and prosthetics. Here, as the younger older Doctor (if you see what I mean) Matt Smith’s face sometimes looked unnaturally puffy, but the illusion of the older older Doctor I thought was superbly maintained. And what a clever device it was, I thought, to avoid the fact that Smith is so much younger than Capaldi, to age him almost to death before the regeneration occurs.
The cleverness of this idea is then immediately undermined by the final goodbye scene with the young Matt Smith. As nice as it was to see Karen Gillan again briefly, this scene was too maudlin, too late and had far too many final-sounding lines. Frustrating in an episode which didn’t seem to have time to pay off all its set-ups as it was.
For both these two episodes, then I have very mixed feelings. Professional standards are generally as sky-high as ever (although there was some nostalgically dodgy greenscreen work during the Doctor and Clara’s first entrance into the Mainframe) and the programme can now command top-flight actors in even minor parts – quick shout-out to Kayvan Novak as the voice of “Handles”, a lovely performance – all of the directors are working professionally within the show’s house style, so it’s all up to the scripts and while they both delivered in superficial ways, neither of them entirely made sense, lived up to their promise or created any truly memorable moments.
But, there it is. The Matt Smith era is done. Moffat has done all he is ever going to to tie up loose ends and resolve plots from this part of the show’s history. Having written some of the finest scripts ever for the Ninth and Tenth Doctors, and having cast one of the most unexpected and yet brilliant actors ever to have played the part in Matt Smith, who in turn has given us several stone cold classic episodes including The Doctor’s Wife, A Good Man Goes To War, The Girl Who Waited, The Crimson Horror, Steven Moffat can now leave the show in at least as good shape as he found it, with a strikingly different lead actor and – let us hope – a strikingly different approach to storytelling.