Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Doctor Who: The Time of the Doctor Blu-ray review

Should read: "As endured on BBC America"
At Christmas, I was not a particularly happy Whovian - in direct contrast to the excitable boy I’d been back in November during the 50th Anniversary celebrations. How could Steven Moffat pen one of his greatest episodes of Doctor Who, only to follow it with one of his worst? And as the grand finale to an entire era of the series, no less? My recap for Vulture was pretty scathing, yet, believe it or not, I held back a bit for fear of coming across like a crazed, fanboy lunatic. I quickly discovered, though, through the comments section of the recap, other online commentaries, and simply chatting with friends in person and on Facebook, that I wasn’t alone: “The Time of the Doctor” appeared divisive even by often divided modern Who standards, and folks normally given to an open-minded approach to the current series were having difficulties accepting that this jumbled, frenetic mess was indeed the last hurrah for Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor.

Fast forward two months, at which point I received a review copy of the Blu-ray disc. I had only viewed the episode once back on Christmas night, as once felt painful enough (never before have I been so quick to delete an episode of Who off the DVR). So, with a fair amount of trepidation, I put on the Blu-ray and gave it another spin, in an attempt to see it with fresh eyes. My reaction this time around was not one of crushing disappointment for the material. Such a reaction can easily manifest itself in a word like hate, as in “I hated that episode so much!” Truth is, I’ve never truly hated an episode of Doctor Who, probably because hate is so not what the show is about. And this second viewing revealed that “The Time of the Doctor” wasn’t much different than all the “Silver Nemeses” and “Underworlds” that came before it. “Time” is an episode overflowing with so much good will, that hate was no longer on the table. (This does not mean I suddenly fell in love with it.) More on this later.

"You're in for a *big* surprise!"
One might think that unrealistic expectations for “Time” played a part in my initial reaction, but that wasn’t at all the case. In fact, if anything, some of that reaction had to do with fears being realized. When it was announced last summer that Smith would be leaving at Christmas, it was disheartening. We hadn’t even seen the 50th yet, and Matt was now due to exit the TARDIS a month later. The game-changing “The Name of the Doctor” had just aired a few weeks earlier – an episode which felt as though big things were in store for Eleven. Everything seemed to be happening so fast in comparison to the exits of previous Doctors. Tennant had a lengthy series of four specials built around his exit, which culminated in a nearly two and a half hour, two-part send-off. This smacked of suddenness, reminiscent of Eccleston’s hasty exit from the series.

When November rolled around, and “The Day of the Doctor” was finally unveiled, sure enough – nothing in that monumental episode’s narrative indicated that the following episode would be the fall of the Eleventh. Quite the contrary, it ends with a Doctor who has a renewed sense of purpose. It seems obvious in hindsight, to me at least, that somewhere after shooting “Day,” during the 4 month break he took before shooting “Time,” Matt decided to leave the show, for whatever reasons. Who knows what they were? We may never find out. I know that conventional wisdom and logic dictates that these things are planned out far in advance, but if that had been the case, then why did Steven Moffat do such a sloppy job of dramatizing Matt’s exit, especially given the care that had clearly gone into the previous two episodes?

The script is as clumsy as this Cyberman
“The Time of the Doctor” feels hastily written, as though boxes are being ticked off, one by one, from one scene to the next. It’s not organic like the very best Steven Moffat writing is. Even Moffat-penned episodes that I don’t much care for are put together with considerably more thought than this. It’s like an entire season has been squished into a single episode – as if Moffat had very definite long term plans (or at least plans that extended to another season) for the Eleventh Doctor that were cut short, but he had to execute them anyway, in order to complete his vision. (For instance, he must have known for some time – perhaps since creating the War Doctor – that he would address the 13-incarnation limit at the close of Matt’s tenure.) Because I can maybe imagine a version of these events that play out over a season, and it feels more dramatically right. Maybe a town called Christmas would’ve been involved, but likely not…which brings me to another issue.

Christmas - not just the town, but the holiday, and the now ubiquitous Christmas specials. It wouldn’t be sporting to call for an end to the annual special (though it feels like the areas in which it can be taken have run their course), but please, for the love of all that is Gallifreyan, can we never again have the Doctor regenerate at Christmas? A regeneration episode should be a dangerous, difficult scenario infused with all manner of gravitas – not the treacly sort of sentimentality this was made up of. (RTD at least had the good sense to wait a week and regenerate him on New Year’s Day.) But a holiday regeneration? Never again, I say! This further underscores my above theories, which, it should be reiterated, is all they are - theories and speculation: Moffat must have begrudgingly settled on this, as I simply cannot believe that his plan all along was to have the Doctor end his regeneration cycle at Christmas. Indeed, the town called Christmas feels entirely at odds with everything concerning the doom-laden Trenzalore that was set up in “Name.”

"My turkey isn't the only thing half-baked here..."
So, either some version of the events I’ve laid out above is true, or Steven Moffat is the most incompetent dramatist in the kingdom. Now I’ve had my issues with the Moff here and there over the years, but never has my opinion of his talents changed: He is one of the best and smartest TV writers working today, which is why I must believe something along the lines of what I’ve laid out above is closer to the truth than accepting that the events as they went down in “Time” were his plan all along. It simply makes no narrative sense whatsoever, given what came before in the previous two installments.

Having gotten all of that off my chest, let’s go back to my minor reappraisal of the episode. What struck me as worthy on the second viewing was the emotion of it all, which is pretty sound. And I do believe that for a substantial portion of the viewing audience, the emotions and feelings of the series are amongst its strongest attributes, hence the reason it worked for about half the people who tuned in. Another thing that I was pretty blinded to on the first viewing was Matt’s performance, which is pretty great, especially given all the different stages of his Doctor’s life he has to wade through. I don’t think it’s the best work of his tenure by a long shot, but given the frequently subpar material he has to work with here, it’s a touching showing on his part. “The Time of the Doctor” is essentially a “Greatest Hits” package, and like all such collections, it can please in the short term on its own, but is ultimately hollow, and shown up by the bigger picture of everything that led up to it.

For me, Matt Smith’s time as the Doctor will always end with him surrounded by all of his previous selves, eagerly moving forward into a bold new direction that’s promise will hopefully be fulfilled by Moffat as we enter the Peter Capaldi era of the series later this year.

The Doctor carts around what's likely the remains of a human head for hundreds of years

Blu-ray Extras: In addition to the main program, there’s a touching “Behind the Lens” piece that runs about 13 minutes - a making-of that includes bits from the heartrending final table read, as well as the cast and crew saying goodbye to Matt on set. It will tug at your heartstrings, perhaps even more so than the episode proper. Also present are two, 45-minute BBC America-produced docs: “Tales from the TARDIS,” which features interviews with most of the previous living Doctors; and “Farewell to Matt Smith,” which is something of an overview of his era. All in all, a decent package given the asking price, and if, like me, you’re not a fan of the episode, there are at least these bonus goodies to justify the purchase.