Previously on Doctor Who: Three Doctors! Gallifrey! ALL THE DOCTORS!
Now, as we view a serene planet, a woman’s voice tells of a world “much like any other and unimportant” that sent a message, “a bell tolling out to all the dark corners of creation,” drawing ships from all over the universe. COULD IT BE THE MESSAGE OF CHRISTMAS? Except, “Everyone who heard it found themselves afraid.” That sounds promisingly creepy! Everyone, that is, “except the man who stayed for Christmas.” Oh dear, that sounds potentially mawkish. Hey, it’s the Doctor Who Christmas special!
So I never dig the DW Christmas specials much in recent (Moffat) years. For me on the scale of things they hit below the “Let’s Meet Famous People Like Queen Victoria and try to get her to say a catchphrase!” eps. They’re too pitched to kid viewers, with child actors shoehorned in, filled by swells of music to tell us we should be feeling moved….RIGHT NOW. But let’s see if we can’t find some cool moments, and have some fun even with the sappy bits, in honor of Matt Smith’s last turn as the Eleventh Doctor. *dives in*
The Doctor, investigating the ships orbiting the message-planet, quickly finds and leaves a Dalek ship. The quick “Exterminate!” clip is a pretty good indication of how we’re doing villains during this 86-minute ep: super fast special guest-appearances that aren’t very threatening. “Handles, I said put me on a ship, don’t put me on a Dalek ship,” the Doctor complains to the broken-off head of a Cyberman he’s using as a mechanical pal.
While the Doctor muses over the message no one can translate, Clara calls on the TARDIS phone. She needs the Doctor to be her date at a Christmas dinner, because (a) she lied to her family for no apparent reason and (b) why not trot out that hoary ship teasing cliché? Before heading Earth-a-ways, he jets onto a Cyberman ship with Handles in hand, because of course, the awkwardness, and so when he replies to Clara’s hysterical “I’m cooking Christmas dinner,” with “I’m being shot at by Cybermen,” she can snap, “Can’t we do both?”
After a quick look-in on Clara’s fairly dull family (cardboard nice-guy dad, jerk-y step-mom, drunk randy grandma), Clara hears the TARDIS grind and runs out to find the Doctor at the console naked. Oh good, he can put on Hologram clothes to make Clara think he’s dressed. Oh, whoops, he didn’t make it so the Oswald family could see the Hologram clothes, so they see him naked, ho ho!
Guess who ruined the turkey? Clara! Girl can’t cook a soufflé, so none of us are surprised. She decides the Doctor should use the TARDIS to help her go back and fix it, though he complains she’s abusing the TARDIS (to fix “missed birthdays, restaurant bookings, and please, just learn how to use iPlayer”). While there, she meets his “bit of a Cyberman” Handles, who has computed the message-planet is, wait for it, Gallifrey. “Even if it’s survived, it’s gone from this universe,” the Doctor says, discomfited. “That is not my home.”
After putting the turkey in the TARDIS to cook, it’s off to the Church of the Papal Mainframe, a flying ecumenical security church “keeping you safe in this world and the next.” They’re the ones shielding the planet from various potential enemies; to see them, Clara swallows a hologram projector to look naked because “you can’t go to church with your clothes on!”
“Hey Babes,” Tasha Lem, the Mother Superious of the Papal Mainframe, coos, telling the Doctor to “give us a twirl” in his body she hasn’t seen yet. The Doctor awkwardly calls Clara his “associate”, and then heads off with Tasha to her “chapel” complete with bed-altar, so Tasha can provide exposition, flirt and be generally River Song-ish.
While Clara is stalked by one of the Silents, who she keeps forgetting (as one does, and why not, because they’re very nearly pointless in this ep), Tasha explains (nearly lip-to-lip with the Doctor as they kneel on the altar-bed at one point) “we maintain the truce” protecting the human colony on the planet by “blocking all” the surrounding potential-enemy ships. She sends him and Clara to the planet, but only for an hour (taking his TARDIS key to keep him from summoning it, abiding by the Mainframe’s no-technology rule on the protected message-planet).
The Doctor snugs Clara on the planet’s snowy surface (until her hologram projector heating function kicks in, and for yet more ship teasing), she sees an arm sticking out of a pile of snow. “Don’t even blink,” the Doctor shouts when Clara laughs it’s only a statue, because OF COURSE it’s a Weeping Angel (it’s honestly, and I can’t mitigate this in any way, a damn shame ever to use the Weeping Angels as a cursory blink-and-you’ll-miss-it guest appearance villain).
After flashing a mirror at the Weeping Angel, the Doctor yanks off his hair for “the old key in the coif routine, classic!” It was a clever way to get the TARDIS past the anti-technology shield (and a little nod to Matt Smith’s shorn hair for his role in a film). “Your ears are like rocket fins,” Clara sniffs, which the Doctor takes as a compliment (though he obligingly re-dons his wig).
After changing aboard the TARDIS (to Clara back in her signature red-skirt), the Doctor and Clara prepare to greet the colony’s inhabitants with a cover story — only to find they cannot lie in the town called, you don’t even have to wait for it, CHRISTMAS. There’s a “truth field” in town, especially near the Tower. Oh, tee hee, Clara nearly confesses she fancies the Doctor!
Wow, all the “of course she’s in LOVE WITH HIM” gestures feel super forced this episode particularly. For real, I would be 1000% fine with it if it came from actual character development and relationship building rather than “She companion! Must love Doctor! Love Doctor, Companion!” club-us-on-the-head heavy-handedness.
“There you are,” the Doctor whispers to a crack in the wall when they get inside the tower. Okay so. The “split in the skin of reality” is connected to “the day the universe blew up” on 26 June, 2010. The Doctor uses a Seal of the Gallifreyan High Council (nicked from The Master in the Death Zone) to have Handles translate the message (Handles’ repeated “Affirmative” echoes K-9’s catchphrase, and good gravy, how awesome would it have been to have K-9 for this ep?)
The message is “the oldest question in the universe, hidden in plain sight”: Doctor Who? But of course! If the Doctor gives his true name, the Time Lords in the pocket universe will know they’ve found the right place and can come through. But it will also re-start the Time War, with “half the universe up there waiting to open fire.”
The Doctor asks Clara to take something to the charger slot in the TARDIS. While he confers with Tasha Lem (who confirms Christmas is on the planet of Trenzalore, where Eleven has been told he’ll meet his end), Clara finds herself sent back to her block of flats (much as Nine sent back Rose in The Parting of the Ways). “Don’t you dare, no!” Clara pleads, fitting her TARDIS key in as the TARDIS de-materializes.
“Spot of news: Christmas has a new Sherriff!” the Doctor tells the colonists, prepared to stay and protect this settlement. Up on the Papal Mainframe, Tasha Lem announces a “faith change”, re-dedicating “all chapels and choirs” to Silence. “Silence will fall,” so that the Doctor will not speak his name, and war will be prevented.
On the planet, the Doctor protects people in Christmas, stopping a wooden Cyberman with a tricksy Truth-Field play on words, and halting other enemies who try to circumvent the anti-technology shield. A set of would-be-invading Sontarans kindly blow themselves up; the rote announcement: “The Church of the Papal Mainframe apologizes for your death. The relevant afterlives have been notified,” is quite possibly most memorable line from the episode.
While the Papal Mainframe gets all the good lines, The Doctor has gone slightly, well. A bit toothless for someone known as the Oncoming Storm. He channels his middle-aged appearance into sentimental behaviors, using a cane, fixing kids’ toys with his Sonic Screwdriver, befriending a stalwart little chap named Barnable, who rings the warning bell to alert the townsfolk of enemies and puts himself on TARDIS-guarding duty.
“In time,” we’re told by Tasha Lem’s narration, “the Doctor seemed to forget he’d lived any other life” and “the people of the town came to love the man who stayed for Christmas.”
Gosh. *scratches head* Believe me, I would like to find moments in this episode touching. But things like the Doctor teaching the children to shout “Geronimo” and telling them to “give me a hug, bring it in,” seem more like Matt Smith at Comic-Con than the Doctor of DW canon, you know, anywhere. And seeing a Punch and Judy show of the Doctor versus a Monoid (a little First Doctor tip-of-the-hat) just drives home the puppet-show appearances of villains in this episode (up pops a Dalek! Whee, we escaped a second later!). The danger seems child’s play throughout the episode.
Look, I get Eleven is a childlike Doctor, and sometimes his manic performance of that is endearing and hilarious, even as he can quickly shift to channel an old-man’s mannerisms. It’s performed well, a serious skill of Smith’s; I’ve always found him to show incredible range, like in his depiction of the Cyber-Planner Doctor, which was ah-may-zing.
But it’s an issue that continually drags the Moffat-era Doctor, this constant awkward contradiction between the Doctor’s own over the top declarations about how super duper dangerous he is, and how innocuous and fangless Eleven seems half the time. I’m sorry to see Smith go, you know? But I’m hoping we get more of the sense of command and menace back with Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor.
A wild TARDIS appears! It’s the TARDIS returning to Trenzalore — “where have you been for 300 years?” the Doctor asks. Clara clings to the outside; she’s traveled in the Time Vortex, like Captain Jack Harkness and the Doctor before her (now there’s an elite little club).
“No wonder she’s [the TARDIS} late, dragging you around,” grumps the Doctor, while Clara accuses him of tricking her. He’s furious! She’s not talking to him! And of course they giggle and hug a moment later, because there are no real consequences for things with the Eleventh Doctor. I mean, how is Clara’s hair not FRIGHT WHITE by now? The Time Vortex, seriously?
“Fixing toys and fighting monsters,” Clara observes of Eleven’s current position at the Doctor’s Tower abode (children’s drawings adorn the walls, depicting various villains or alien species from the stories the Doctor’s obviously told the kids of Christmas). “Turkey isn’t done yet,” the Doctor offers, reminding us that back on Earth, Clara’s Christmas Dinner is still waiting.
The Doctor takes Clara to the top of the Tower to view the few moments of daylight Christmas gets. Handles, the Cyberman-head-buddy, has been fading because the Doctor can’t get the parts. “One more dawn,” the Doctor urges Handles, who takes this moment to fail utterly in order to deliver a predictable moment of pathos. He’s obviously Eleven’s Wilson (from Castaway), but it’s hard to muster much feeling for a thing that’s a literal plot device.
When Clara disputes the Doctor’s claim he would have buried her long ago if he hadn’t sent her back, he reminds her “everyone gets stuck somewhere eventually; everyone dies.” Not him, though, because regeneration, right? Eleven explains how technically he’s the thirteenth version of himself (counting the War Doctor who he dismissively calls “Captain Grumpy” and Ten’s vanity regeneration). So this is the end for him! Seriously!
“What about your life?” Clara argues when the Doctor talks about the value of what he’s doing, staying for Christmas. Hasn’t he earned the right to think about himself? Slow sad music swells to make sure we understand this is moving (and gah, truly, I want to be moved! But I can’t do it on command; I need material to move me, rather than notes to cue the emotion).
Unexpectedly, the Church of the Silence requests parlay. After a requisite sad little moment with Barnable, who doesn’t want the Doctor to go, they meet with Tasha Lem. A mention of the Kovarian Chapter of the Papal Mainframe links in the River Song storyline to the Church protecting Trenzalore before they move on to the heart of the matter: the Daleks have attacked the Papal Mainframe. “The Time Lord has entered the trap,” we hear.
When the Doctor mentions how the Mainframe must have stopped the Daleks, Tasha objects, “Stop them? It was slaughter…I died in this room, screaming your name.” Uh oh. “Fight it,” the Doctor urges as Tasha briefly collapses and then manifests as a Dalek Puppet. As he’s threatened by her and surrounding Daleks, the Doctor threatens that he’ll take ages dying, “enough time to answer a question” (i.e., Doctor Who? with his real name).
Tasha Lem grabs Clara, threatening to kill her; the Doctor urges her to do it. Clara says she’s not afraid; the Daleks would have killed her anyway. “That. Is. A. Woman,” the Doctor crows, taunting Tasha as pointless. She slaps him, regaining her personality and destroying the menacing Daleks.
He orders Tasha to keep her personality and fight; she regains a bit of her own by saying, “None of this was for you, you fatuous egoist; it was for the peace.” I would honestly have loved seeing Tasha Lem triumph over the Dalek programming trying to take over her body if the Doctor (and Moffatt) hadn’t reduced her to a dame there to get a kiss planted on her lips. “Kiss me when I ask you,” she objects when he grabs her. “Well, you better ask nicely,” he says archly. Ugh.
It’s time for the Siege of Trenzalore, but first it’s back to the TARDIS, where the turkey is actually done cooking and the Doctor even has Christmas crackers. Despite the Doctor outright promising Clara he’ll never send her away again, welp. He sends her away again (she emerges from the TARDIS back home).
The Winter of the Doctor wears on as various races helping with the defense “retreated or burned”; the Church of the Mainframe continued to resist alongside the Doctor under Tasha’s direction. Back on Earth, Clara’s suffers through crappy Christmas crackers that have poems instead of jokes (damn that aspiring-to-a-higher-class stepmother!). “Oh, that’s nice, crying at Christmas,” Clara’s stepmum says sardonically of Clara’s gran’s emotional recollection of seeing her husband (giving us the second-best line of the ep).
Then the TARDIS sound grinds again outside; Clara grabs a cracker and finds Tasha Lem waiting to bring her back to the dying Doctor. “Go to him,” Tasha urges emotionally (oh my god, I can’t believe that line really made it in the final script) and Clara finds aged Eleven alone in the Tower.
As Clara leans companionably at the Doctor’s feet, she reads him the poem from the cracker: “And now it’s time for one last bow, like all your other selves. Eleven’s hour is over now. The clock is striking Twelve’s.” “I don’t get it,” Eleven claims.
They’re interrupted by a young townsman from Christmas, who the Doctor mistakes for hundreds-of-years-ago Barnable. The Daleks can’t be stopped. “I have a plan, off you pop,” the Doctor reassures him (touching his finger to his nose as the Tom Baker’s Curator did in The Day of the Doctor). “I haven’t got a plan, but people love it when I say that,” he confesses to Clara.
While the Doctor climbs the Tower (readying himself to “talk fast; hope something good happens; take the credit”) Clara (instead of heading to the TARDIS as the Doctor wants so his “impossible girl” will stay safe) goes to plead with the crack in the wall/reality. “His name is the Doctor, all the name he needs,” she insists. The crack seals.
At the Tower, the Doctor taunts the Daleks, but a rip rents the sky, and Time Lord energy reaches Eleven.
“We’re breaking some serious science here, boys,” Eleven says delightedly while the Daleks proclaim in a panic that “the Doctor is regenerating!” The surge of regeneration energy allows him to cause a storm exploding Daleks, and stopping the Siege.
Back in the TARDIS, Clara finds Eleven again looking young. “You’re okay; you didn’t even change your face,” Clara says, only to hear “this is just the reset, whole new regeneration cycle.” “Times change, and so must I,” he says gently, hallucinating first a young Amelia Pond and soon after, grown-up Amy Pond.
It’s lovely in a way that the Doctor envisions Amy, and I know lots of fans must have felt moved at hearing one last “Raggedy Man,” from her. But at the same time I think it’s telling that Eleven doesn’t have a substantive relationship with Clara, that her being there to watch him regenerate wasn’t thought to provide enough emotional substance.
“I will not forget one line of this,” the Doctor says, giving us a bit of fourth-wall breaking meta. I will always remember when the Doctor was me.” He takes off his bow tie, gently letting it drop.
“Please don’t change,” Clara begs, but there’s a small flash, and we see the new face of the Doctor, Twelve.
“Kidneys,” Twelve proclaims, keeping with a tradition of NuWho Doctors remarking on their new appearances straight away. “I’ve got new kidneys! I don’t like the color.” When the TARDIS shakes, Clara asks what’s happening. “We’re probably crashing,” he says as he stumbles. “Just one question. Do you happen to know how to fly this thing?” Aaaand that’s it until we get Series Eight with Twelve as our brand-new full-time Doctor.
And now, say it with me: Wooo-eee-awhooo-athoo! It’s a tough burden for the Christmas episode to shoulder, not only being the family-friendly holiday story the show has come to deliver for that ep, but standing as Matt Smith’s farewell and tribute. But I hope it’s the opening for a different sort of Doctor as Peter Capaldi takes the helm as Twelve. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the episode and the transition!