When I think of the Doctor, the image that comes unfailingly to mind is Matt Smith, quiffed, rubber-faced, grinning stupidly and sporting proudly that silly bow-tie without as much as a suggestion of irony. I never hesitate in answering the question “Who’s your favourite Doctor?” It’s Matt Smith. Always has been and I anticipate that he always will be. I became a fan of Doctor Who in the era of Matt Smith; he was my first Doctor. I fell in love with this show through being shown time and space by the bouncy, mercurial, gawkish Eleventh Doctor. Which is why his regeneration story was such a profound occasion for me, and why it still means a great deal to me as a fan, watching over it again and remembering how I felt when I first saw it. Regeneration stories are always big, momentous events, and in The Time of the Doctor I feel we were certainly treated to something that, on balance, constituted a fitting farewell not only to one of the best Doctors ever to inhabit the Tardis, but to a great, memorable era of the show as well.
There’s an awful lot going on in this episode. It ties up arc and plot threads that have been weaving and intersecting their way through the Smith era since Matt Smith first took the role in The Eleventh Hour. The cracks in time. The Silence. The first question. River Song. The fields of Trenzalore. Most recently, the salvation of Gallifrey. It all comes together here. It’s only now that, having continuously bewildered and frustrated you for the preceding four years, you come to appreciate Moffat’s meticulous, sweeping, grandiose long-term planning. It’s stunning to think that he had it all mapped out before he even typed the first words of The Eleventh Hour. This episode certainly runs like a story that’s been written to do a very big and important job. To an extent, at least, its big ideas are conveyed really effectively: I felt an exhilarating chill come over me upon the reappearance of the crack in time from Series 5, an ominous shadow from the past. But Moffat has left so much to explain and tie up in this episode that much of it also comes up in an undignified and confusing disgorgement of arc-revelation. It really isn’t an episode for the casual viewers, as you’d have to have a pretty clear idea of all the arc threads from the last four years in your mind to follow what was going on. It’s blink-and-you-miss it stuff, and I think the story really needed to be a two-parter, like The End of Time was, or at least a 75-minute special like The Day of the Doctor.
If there had been any more arc content to subject to exposition, this episode would have been nigh unwatchable. But, fortunately, enough space is left to develop a pleasing, engaging story about “the man who stayed for Christmas”, into which the arc stuff is woven. There’s something really romantic and appropriate about the Doctor, on his final regeneration, defending an undistinguished little village on some irrelevant rock in some inconsequential corner of the universe for 900 years. The man who never stays still, always running, never looking back, is shown ensconced in this little enclave, making that little place his entire life, for longer than he can remember. All I’d criticise is that it occurs to me again why this story should have been longer, given that 900 years of planetary siege warfare were passed over in the space of minutes. It really needed a whole additional episode to convey the impossibly long passage of time effectively: show the Doctor defending Christmas against more substantial threats than a solitary wooden Cyberman (a scarecrow basically); show the Doctor living this whole other life he made for himself at Christmas; make the Doctor’s life and times on Trenzalore a story in themselves.
The passage of centuries, at least, was convincingly personified in the Doctor himself. Matt Smith was in the form of his career in this story. The script played out rather like a “Matt Smith’s greatest hits” compilation, allowing Matt to showcase everything that defined his Doctor: the larking, childlike humour; the physical comedy; his brooding, mercurial side; the theatrical speechifying. Particularly, he manipulated the emotions of the audience masterfully, as he’s always been able to do. I’m thinking especially of the scene where the Doctor is forced to say goodbye to Handles. Matt Smith really makes you feel heartbroken over an old, rusting Cyber head through the Doctor’s own plaintive, wistful response. And, of course, his acting the part of the aged, decrepit Doctor was sublime. The Eleventh Doctor has always radiated the age of a man much older than his physical years, but at death’s door, not only did he finally look the part, he embodied more powerfully than ever before the weary, ancient creature that he is, although it also brought a smile to my face to see that the Doctor hadn’t lost any of his charm or humour after 900 years stuck in the same little village. “Is there a joke?” the Doctor inquired hopefully. Same old Doctor.
And we come to the moments this story has been leading up to. It’s almost heartbreaking to see the Doctor at the point of death. He faces his end with typical good humour, but with visible melancholy. “I’ve got nothing this time,” he mutters, almost ashamed. No doubt he feels for the people dying below him as the Daleks visit destruction upon them, the people he’s pledged himself to defend, but he looks upon the death and ruin around him as though barely seeing it. His thoughts dwell upon his own imminent death. “If you love him, help him,” is Clara’s teary, impassioned plea to the Time Lords as the Doctor prepares to face his end. One can only assume they were feeling as touched as we were as the crack snaps shut and a glowing substance consumes the Doctor. The Doctor interrupts the Daleks as he realises, an expression of manic animation on his face, what has happened. “Come and get it,” the Doctor taunts, before regenerating the Dalek fleet out of the sky. The Eleventh Doctor’s regeneration is overblown CGI nonsense, but even the most critical fan would have to admit they punched the air and their heart was pounding with exhilaration as they watched that. “Love from Gallifrey, boys.”
Matt Smith deserved a proper farewell scene, though, and, thankfully, he got one. Oh, I think I’m still reeling from when I first watched this two years ago. I will freely and unashamedly admit to being left an emotionally-devastated wreck when I saw it. Matt Smith produces something truly moving, conveying powerfully the Doctor’s emotional state in his last moments. Matt teases out real emotion from the audience in those moments. Crying at Christmas. He delivers that moving eulogy, and then he sees a vision of Amy, and, oh, for goodness’ sake, I can’t take this any more. It’s just sad to say goodbye. “I will always remember when the Doctor was me.” We will always remember you. I will always remember you. You were a fantastic Doctor, Matt Smith. You were my Doctor. Thank you. Thank you for everything. “Raggedy man, good night.”