I’ve watched it twice now. And I think I probably need to watch it a few more times before I properly understand it. I can’t come out and say that I loved last night’s Doctor Who Christmas special. That was never going to be on the cards, though. I’ve loved Matt Smith as the Doctor, however much I’ve occasionally been annoyed at the directions his character has taken. That’s not his fault, though. He acted the scripts the writers gave him with more flair, quirkiness and originality than even they could possibly have imagined. His last show was always going to be an ordeal, an assault on my emotions. Even 4 years on, I cry whenever I watch David Tennant’s regeneration. And 8 years on my reaction to Eccleston’s isn’t that much easier.
And so we come to Steven Moffat. His ears must have been burning last night. Twitter exploded, evenly split between outrage and adoration for the episode. How very Twitter. I’m quite happy to criticise Moffat and his predecessor as head writer and executive producer Russell T Davies when I think they get it wrong, but let’s get a bit of perspective here. 25 years ish ago, Michael Grade took Doctor Who from its safe Saturday tea time slot and put it up against Coronation Street in the hope of killing it once and for all. In 2013, fresh from the triumphant 50th anniversary episode, Doctor Who went up against Corrie on Christmas Day and whipped its backside. And that’s down to great writing, great acting and great production values. Moffatt is the guy in charge and he deserves gratitude and credit for his part in the sustained revival of the show I feel in love with when I was just 7 years old.
Just as an aside, I have Corrie recorded and I know I’m going to howl my eyes out at that, too. The authenticity and tenderness which David Neilson and Julie Hesmondhalgh bring to Hayley’s terminal cancer storyline is phenomenal. The real mix of emotions, from anger to poignant moments of joy to shock and fear just jump out at all of us.
But back to Who. Last night’s episode, for the hardcore fan, was going to be a very different beast from last month’s The Day of the Doctor. In that one, Moffat managed to satisfy fans with lots of in jokes and a secret kept – the appearance of Tom Baker as the Curator – and appeal to new audiences too. That was never really on the cards for the Christmas Special. For a start, he had to tie up the loose ends in stories that some of the fandom didn’t like anyway. He did it, although he had to use a pretty big shoehorn at times.
This episode had action, drama, pathos, creepiness and comedy all packed into an emotional adrenaline-filled hour. That bit towards the end when you went from the noise of a battle scene to the poignant and tearful regeneration. We all knew it was coming, but Moffat managed to mess with our heads enough, changing what has become the established pattern of a regeneration so that when Capaldi’s head literally popped out of Matt Smith’s neck in a flash, we were all surprised. Very clever.
Moffat is a bloody genius. No doubt about that. I do, though, have one huge plea for him in the new series. He has to learn how to write better female characters. Women seem to come in two types in his universe. River or Amy. I mean Tasha Lem was a “hello sweetie” away from being almost a carbon copy of River Song, right down to the alien takeover that she had to fight. And “hey babes” isn’t really that far away, is it? I guess the excuse would be that the programming River was subjected to was based on Tasha Lem by the Kovarian line who went back to try to kill the Doctor before he ever arrived in Trenzalore. Not buying it, though. Orla Brady was brilliant, though. Pity she wasn’t allowed to age, though, like the Doctor, because you couldn’t possibly have a woman doing that, could you?
And then there was Handles, the cyber head he had picked up at the nicely named Maldovar Market, a tribute to the excellent Dorium Maldovar from A Good Man goes to War. Not sure I liked the way the Doctor slapped him when he got irritated, but as things which replace the TARDIS when the ship isn’t available go, he was pretty good. A slightly mawkish ending for him, though.
The beginning of the episode was action-packed, although if you are being sensible you have to ask what the earthly point was of the Doctor going aboard all these ships when he knew perfectly well who was on them. But at least we got to see the Doctor in mortal peril from his sworn, ancient enemies.
We now come to the entirely gratuitous nudity. It was funny on board the TARDIS, but, and this is a big failing of Moffat’s Eleventh Doctor, why on earth did he think it was appropriate to turn up at Christmas Dinner with Clara’s family in the buff? The Doctor has learnt enough about humans in a millennium to know that’s a pretty serious social gaffe. But then, it’s entirely appropriate in a retrospective in which we are saying farewell to this character.
I wonder if, under Capaldi’s tenure, we’ll be able to have a non-Victoriana Christmas Special. The village of Christmas, snowy and romantic, would have been fine if similar hadn’t featured so relentlessly. I mean, the Doctor has the whole of time and space at his disposal, yet what is allowed to depict Christmas is very narrow. Yea, I know he suits that period, but let’s ring some changes, please. The truth field was brilliant, though. And the Weeping Angels were incredibly creepy. And did we all laugh at the reversing the polarity bit?
No sooner had the Doctor and Clara arrived than they found the crack that joined up the last 4 years’ dots. And then, just like in Mercy, the Doctor appoints himself the Sheriff.
There was a symmetry with the beginning of his tenure, leaving a child waiting again, just like he did with Amelia Pond. And of course he was kept waiting by the TARDIS this time, who had Clara clinging to her in the time vortex.
You have to wonder, though, why when he returned there the second time, with TARDIS in tow, why he didn’t just take all the people of Christmas somewhere else and left Trenzalore to the daleks. That would have been way too easy.
Steven Moffat said at last month’s 50th anniversary convention that Matt Smith’s performance in this episode was the best of any Doctor ever. He was pretty darned good, especially as he aged from young, to old, to ancient.
And what of the time lords? Back, but off-screen back. You can bet your life that the new regeneration cycle is for their benefit, not the Doctor’s. Maybe the events of the Day of the Doctor made them nice people, but I’m too much of a cynic to believe that it was done purely out of altruism on hearing Clara’s heartfelt plea. The Doctor is their passport back. What will they want him to do for them? There are endless scenarios as to how this could play out. They won’t all come back at once, I bet. One or two will get out at a time, with different motivations. And if one nice lot has given the Doctor a new life cycle, what’s the chances of another lot doing the same for the Master?
The last 6 weeks have been an unprecedented time in the life of the show and the character. It’s strange to think we’ve had 3 regenerations in that time, all of them different. McGann’s to the War Doctor was induced by the Sisterhood of Karn. The War Doctor’s to Eccleston took on the form we’ve become used to, beacons of light streaming from the limbs. That’s what we were all expecting. But no. We get the flashy bit, complete with triumphal cry of “Love from Gallifrey, boys,” then Clara opens the TARDIS door, not knowing who she’s going to meet in there, and it’s all familiar. He’s young Eleven again. That’s when it gets teary. Karen Gillan’s brief appearance and “Raggedy man, goodnight” had me howling. Then there was the tenderness of that last “hey” to Clara before Capaldi appeared in a split second.
I was thrilled to hear his Scottish accent as he mouthed off about colour schemes and kidneys. He still seems a bit like Malcolm Tucker in the TARDIS, but that will change as we see him properly get in to the role.
I doubt I’ll ever be able to say I loved it. My emotions are still wrecked. My hopes are high, though. That’s all you really need from a regeneration episode, surely?