Thoughts on: The Husbands of River Song

Warning: spoilers.

Steven Moffat stated in an interview that, for a long time, he thought that this script, the 2015 Christmas special, might be his last for Doctor Who. He didn’t know if he’d be continuing as showrunner after 2015, and undoubtedly had at the forefront of his mind the possibility that this year’s Christmas special might very well be the last episode he produces for Doctor Who, at least as showrunner. And, truly, The Husbands of River Song feels very much like a swan song of sorts. It isn’t just that it ties up the seven-year story of River Song in what feels like definitive and satisfying closure — there’s a relief and gaiety, but also a genuine emotional touch, to the proceedings that lends to it a sense of warm finality. I mean, much of it is silly farce, but it’s silly farce done in such a loving, adoring way that it does feel as much a personal statement from its writer as much as it is a bit of lighthearted seasonal fluff. You can feel, in a very real sense, Steven Moffat smiling affectionately through the script. To put it another way, if Heaven Sent and Hell Bent were the soaring final act, the coup de grâce to the Moffat era, then The Husbands of River Song would have been the rousing encore.

As far as Christmas specials ago, this is surely the campest, fluffiest, most farcical yet. And there’s nothing wrong with that. After the intense and emotionally devastating three-week long coda to Series 9, a lighthearted, comedic, self-consciously camp story about the Doctor and River Song stealing a bad old king’s head, jam-packed with the most juvenile, lame humour Moffat could muster, was exactly what we needed to bring Doctor Who in 2015 to a close. It was the perfect tonic to one of the darkest, heaviest ends to a series since 2005. And this episode wasn’t just a worthwhile watch for that reason — lighthearted camp can often be tedious, forgettable pap (e.g. Partners in CrimeThe Crimson Horror), but this was genuinely fun, funny and well-written farce. It was so self-consciously camp and silly — the characters, the lines, the whole situation were supposed to be unutterably ridiculous — that it was good, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. If nothing else, it’s highly pleasurable and gratifying light Christmas viewing, which is as it should be.

At heart, though, this was a story about the Doctor and River Song, not King Hydroflax’s head. It was a joy to watch Peter Capaldi’s Doctor and River Song together, no less in a situation where one doesn’t recognise the other. It was also poignant to watch the Doctor visibly hurt by River’s not recognising him and by her flirtation with what seems like everyone apart from him, when she thinks he’s not watching. The situation made for some fantastic moments, hilarious as well as poignant, not least the Doctor’s side-splitting and eminently re-playable performance when he gets his chance, “finally”, to do the “It’s bigger on the inside” thing. Easily the best “It’s bigger on the inside” of them all, in my opinion. But moments like the Doctor and River’s tension-laden conversation at the dinner table on the supervillain luxury resort spaceship carried great emotional weight. And of course, River’s speech, insisting the Doctor (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”), the love of her life, doesn’t love her back, was very good, very earnest and emotive.

All of which made it so much better when River finally recognised the Doctor. The dynamic between River and Capaldi’s Doctor, and the flirting and the banter, after River recognised the Doctor was every bit as good and electric and convincing as River with Matt’s and David’s Doctors. It does make me wonder, even, whether the moment shouldn’t have been delayed as long as it was, whether we could have been treated to more quality Twelve-River action. As a close to River Song’s story in Doctor Who, though, the episode was perfect: as lovely and beautiful and emotional as you could want. The show, in tying up River’s seven-year long character arc, brings her story full-circle, ending it by leading into Silence in the Library, the first time we ever see River, but the last time River sees the Doctor (in life). As an effective addition, it was interesting to see that the Doctor has learnt his lesson from Hell Bent — he knows, and accepts, that this is the last time he sees River before she goes to the Library, where she will meet her end, and he can’t change that. When he says “Times end because they have to,” and “There’s no such thing as happily ever after,” he’s clearly still internalising his lesson re Clara, as well as resigning himself to River’s fate. Which is as punchy and profound an instance of the Doctor’s character development as it gets, frankly. “Happily Ever After”, though, as River insists, only means time, and it’s such a gratifying and lovely end to River’s story on Doctor Who to know that River and the Doctor will have, practically, as much time as they could want to spend together on their final night. And that final shot, of the Doctor and River gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes, was beautiful. Happy Christmas, indeed.

Rating: 8/10.


Quote of the week:

“It’s bigger on the inside!”

Thoughts on: Last Christmas

Last Christmas makes a distinct departure from Christmas specials in previous years. The annual seasonal romp in Christmases past has been either fluffy, frivolous “Who-lite” (The Runaway Bride, A Christmas CarolThe Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe) or a regeneration story with Christmas elements tacked on (The Christmas InvasionThe End of TimeThe Time of the Doctor). This is neither, notwithstanding the presence of Santa Claus, Christmas elves and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. This is a proper, scary, traditional Doctor Who thriller. It’s a base-under-siege with terrifying monsters and an absorbing psychological twist. It’s very much standard fare Doctor Who, and especially standard fare Moffat Who. It could easily have been an episode in the ordinary series, and a well-received one at that. Although I love the fluffy, overtly Christmassy specials, this makes for a bracing, thrilling change-up, and, although I think A Christmas Carol remains the best Christmas special yet, I enjoyed this one so much it became my instant favourite.

The biggest distinction between this special and previous (non-regeneration) specials is the presence of a threat that feels tangible rather than throwaway. It certainly feels like a lot of care went into the construction of this story, and particularly into the psychological conceit at its heart: the “dream state” induced by the horrific Dream Crabs. I love a good psychological thriller of the likes of BlinkMidnight and Listen, which is why I was sat bolt upright, totally absorbed by this episode. The Dream Crabs are a genuinely frightening and repeatable new monster, and they definitely incite a real sense of claustrophobia and terror, and make for a convincing threat. I thought they were ingeniously conceived, as good as any of Moffat’s creature creations. The only doubt I have about them is that, if they’re used again in the future, they might give writers licence to deploy the dreaded “and they woke up and it was all a dream” get-out card to undo events. Nonetheless, I loved the Inception-ness of it all; this episode actually did something really effective with the idea of dreams-within-dreams that Inception didn’t do: you never actually knew at any point (except when it was made explicit in Clara’s dream) whether the characters were dreaming or not. I, at least, found that really gripping.

I think the real highlight of this episode, though, was Nick Frost as Santa Claus. What a masterstroke of casting that was. Nick Frost’s interpretation of Santa was a hilarious cross between a mob boss and Jack Whitehall. I know I said this about Robot of Sherwood, but I take it back: this is the Doctor Who story that made me laugh more than any other. Every time Frost opened his mouth I couldn’t help guffawing. Same goes with the elves. From the moment Santa appears on Clara’s roof, he exudes comedic energy (“How did you recognise me?”). There are so many quotable lines in this episode, particularly those from Shona’s interrogation of Santa, where Santa comes across as though he’s intentionally trolling the increasingly bewildered girl: “Obviously, I’ve got a second sledge”, “It’s a scientific impossibility. That is why I feed mine magic carrots.” Also: “It’s bigger on the inside.” Classic. The comedy of Nick Frost’s Santa and his elves appropriately lighten the mood enormously of what could otherwise been an episode too dark and heavy for a Christmas evening. I also loved the rivalry between the Doctor and Santa. Peter Capaldi and Nick Frost, two great comedy actors, were a terrific joy to watch together.

Inevitably, the episode made time for the emotional fallout from the end of the finale. The critical moment was when the Doctor and Clara both admitted they lied to each other for the other’s good, prompting them both to wistful rumination. Moreover, Clara’s dream, inhabited by a romanticised Danny, had a distinct melancholy about it, even before the Doctor showed up and ruined the party. In any case, Clara and Danny were given the touching farewell they deserved; it felt like the fitting end to that onscreen relationship, that chapter to Clara’s life. The teasing of Clara’s exit at the end was a real emotional merry-go-round. It was a profoundly beautiful scene, and, if the Doctor and Clara’s relationship had ended there (as was originally planned, before Jenna changed her mind), it would have been perfect. But the euphoric reunion of the Doctor and Clara as they run off into the Tardis again was so exhilarating that I think I prefer the real ending. Before watching this episode, I was hoping Clara would leave, but this final scene changed my mind: the sheer excitement and ecstasy of those final moments made me excited to see them both together in Series 9, presumably at ease with each other and in a much stronger, more understanding partnership than before. Roll on the new series.

Rating: 9/10.

Thoughts on: The Time of the Doctor

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. 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.”

Rating: 9/10.

Thoughts on: The Snowmen

Boy makes snowman. Snowman talks to boy. Snow grows stronger and attempts to attack London with frozen corpse. Put like that it seems simple enough, but I struggled to wrap my head around what was going on in this story. Perhaps I was too distracted by the stunning Jenna(-Louise) Coleman. But it’s probably because it was actually all quite hard to follow. I divined something about a disembodied “intelligence” possessing snow. And then there was something about the snow being a mirror for Richard E. Grant. And an old woman’s frozen corpse entered into it somehow. Although not unenjoyable to watch, it was a somewhat convoluted plot, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who would have failed to explain the plot after viewing. It didn’t help that the “snow monster(s)” was the show’s annual lame, laboured concession to seasonal themes; it was obvious the story would have worked much better if the threat wasn’t a bunch of poorly-realised CGI snowmen. Viewers familiar with the Great Intelligence might have had an easier time following it all, but that’s a pretty small constituency, especially for a Christmas episode.

Okay, gripe over. I hate to start with negativity, but I just wanted to get it out of the way. I have plenty of good things to say about this episode. This episode sees the Doctor coping, as we all were, with the pain and heartbreak of losing Amy. The first time we see the Doctor again after the unhappy events of Manhattan and he’s a gruff, Scrooge-like miser moping around Victorian London, resolved to have nothing to do with the world and its problems any more. He meets Clara, who seems set to tempt him out of his self-imposed solitude with her beckoning smile and her mysterious snowmen, but he shan’t be moved. “Those were the days…” he sighs sadly, wistfully, as he turns and walks away. Matt Smith portrays the Doctor’s jaded, weary, moody demeanour compellingly, and the Doctor in his miserable reclusion is written well. It was a powerful portrayal of how much the Doctor was missing Amy and Rory, and an effective tribute on the part of the show to how much Amy in particular meant to Matt Smith’s Doctor, and how much losing her means to him.

Perhaps it says something about Clara that the Doctor begins to thaw over her. He’s determined to remain in his sulky seclusion, contemning the world, but he can’t help himself when he meets Clara. And who can blame him? Clara is a wonderful character. She has “companion” written all over her, and the Doctor knows it. She’s inquisitive, perky, spirited, clever and brave, and not afraid to speak her mind to the Doctor. That said, she’s a bit of a standard Moffat major-female-character trope, her pertness, cheekiness and flirtatiousness strongly reminiscent of other Moffat female characters like Amy and River Song. Moffat doesn’t exactly differentiate his female characters to a great extent, but it’s early days here. And I’m not criticising necessarily, Jenna genuinely endeared herself to an audience still grieving over Amy. The portrayal of Clara’s collision with the Doctor over the course of this episode was wonderful, though. Unlike Amy, the girl who waited, Clara doesn’t wait around to become involved with the Doctor, even after he effectively tells her to naff off. The scene where Clara follows the Doctor back to the Tardis, and climbs her way up the Jack-in-the-Beanstalk-like ladder into the clouds was simply magical. As was watching the Doctor quickly finding himself irresistibly enchanted by Clara (dat kiss tho). “I never know why. I only know who.” He finds himself saying this with disbelief.

Some final thoughts. I’ve never cared much for the Paternoster Gang, here no more than anywhere else. I find them tedious. And I’m afraid I don’t find their comic relief very funny. They’re obviously there for the kiddies, but there’s a fine line between catering for the pre-adolescents in the audience and patronising everyone over the age of 12. Okay, maybe that was a bit harsh. I know there are plenty of mature fans who enjoy the Paternosters, and I’ll concede they’re sometimes good for a laugh, but in general I just find them a bit of a bore. The new Tardis interior is attractive; it has a dark, moody glamour about it, reflecting the Doctor’s emotional state, and the maturity he’s reached at this stage of his regeneration, but I’m obliged to say I find it a bit cold and soulless. I preferred Matt Smith’s original warm, fantastical, space-baroque Tardis interior. Finally, I rather liked the Doctor’s Victorian get-up. It suits him really well and, although the new costume the Doctor wore in Series 7b was also good, I wouldn’t have minded if he’d kept the Victorian garb (with the glasses, obviously).

Rating: 8/10.

Thoughts on: The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe

I have a confession to make. I really, really love this episode. It’s one of my secret Doctor Who pleasures. I say secret because apparently this Christmas special has a pretty poor reputation among a not insignificant section of the fandom. I can sort of see what they’re getting at: it appears to be little more than a children’s tale with an excess of (God forbid) maudlin sentimentality dolloped on top. At any other time I might be inclined to agree with such critiques, but this is Christmas, and this episode is exactly what Doctor Who at Christmas is all about. I find it simply a hugely enjoyable story, with a magical setting, engaging characters, an intriguing plot, genuinely funny comedy, and more emotional stimulant than is probably healthy to consume in its sixty minutes’ duration. It all makes for probably one of the first Doctor Who episodes I’d reach for unfailingly when, maybe at the end of a long day, I just want something to put my feet up to. It’s that kind of episode.

Maybe one of the charms of this episode is its cast of wonderful characters. First, there’s Madge Arwell, of course, played superbly by Claire Skinner, whom I recognised from another brilliant maternal role of Sue Brockman in Outnumbered. From the quaintly English way he went about nonchalantly accompanying the spaceman with his helmet on backwards who fell from the heavens back to his police box, to her restrained private grieving over the news of her husband, to her strategic weeping to fool the (admittedly dim-witted) miners into disarming themselves, to her telling the Doctor off for not visiting his friends at Christmas, Madge was an excellent character. She would be another name in a fairly long list I’d raise to rejoin assertions that Steven Moffat is sexist and can’t write women. Then there was Lily Arwell, who was an engaging and inquisitive young girl, who seemed admirably sceptical of the Doctor’s absurdity. She was also very pretty, for what it’s worth (I can say that, Holly Earl is older than me). Between them Madge and Lily Arwell made this episode, but the three stooges (Bill Bailey, Paul Bazley and Arabella Weir) were also great, albeit underused, additions.

Another of this episode’s best aspects is its emotive quality. The enchanting Narnia-like story is punctured by a handful of very poignant, affecting scenes that raise this episode from the ordinary run of entertaining seasonal romps into something quite special. There was Madge grieving quietly over her husband, looking wistfully at that dread telegram. There was the Doctor trying to ease Madge’s apprehensions about her children, assuring her that it was good for them to be happy now, “because they’re going to be sad later.” There was that piercingly affecting scene where Madge forces herself to watch Reg’s death to secure a psychic, emotional link strong enough to pilot them all back home. Skinner gave a deeply stirring performance in those moments, making for a really affecting and memorable scene. Who says Moffat can’t write emotional? Was it maudlin? Sentimental? Hell yes — it was the best moment of this episode. That following scene, too, where they discover that Madge has guided her husband safely home, was wonderful. I’d question whether Madge would be making witty remarks at that moment rather than throwing herself upon her husband, totally overcome, but meh, I’m not bothered. Some say that bit was emotionally dishonest. Perhaps in a normal episode, I’d agree, but this is a Christmas story, and at Christmas I’d call it a happy ending, and a welcome one, too.

Some final thoughts. The Doctor’s visiting the Ponds at Christmas was also an enchanting scene. Watching the Doctor and Amy fail to resist the urge to embrace each other brought a glowing smile to my face. And the Doctor surprised to find he’d shed a happy tear upon realising how much his best friends love him? Just touching. The Doctor in general was great in this episode, from his bouncing around the old Dorset pile excited to show the Arwells his “repairs”, to his engaging chemistry with the Arwell children, especially Lily, to the more earnest moments with Madge, which Matt Smith does just as well as the comedy. Next I thought Madge’s confrontation with the miners was hilarious, which only makes me wonder why those three were so scandalously underused in this episode. Bill Bailey in particular was a high-profile guest star whose fleeting presence onscreen was puzzling. Finally, I’m reminded again by this episode of the superiority of the 60-minute format as perhaps a better length for single episode stories. Extending the time and slowing down the pace works wonders for the story, allowing the story to breathe, giving us character moments and quality plot progression we just don’t get in a 45-minute whirlwind adventure. I’m gratified to learn that Moffat seems to agree with me, given that there are to be a number of 60-minute episodes in Series 9 (along with an unusually high volume of two-parters — *squee*).

Rating: 8/10.

Thoughts on: A Christmas Carol

I thought this was the strongest Christmas special yet. A Doctor Who “adaptation” of Charles Dickens’ beloved Christmas tale could easily have been very embarrassing, but Steven Moffat pulled it off wonderfully here. This was easily the most “Christmassy” of Doctor Who’s Christmas specials; apart from The End of Time, previous years’ tended to be fairly light, mindless throwaway fluff without much substance, paying only cosmetic lip-service to seasonal themes. This Christmas special was fairly light on substance, as well, but unlike in previous years, it totally indulged itself in the Yuletide spirit. That’s the kind of story premise that tends to make me sceptical, but this Christmas special was an absorbing, magical standalone story. It’s filled with enchanting moments. It oozes wonder. It’ll make you, as it did me, laugh and cry and not even be ashamed to admit it. It’s just the perfect Christmas special.

Moffat has put an ingenious Doctor Who twist upon the original A Christmas Carol as the Doctor finds himself in a situation remarkably similar to that in Charles Dickens’ story and seizes the opportunity to employ his time machine to recreate Ebenzer Scrooge’s life-changing visitations in the life of Kazran Sardick. I thought this was a brilliant use, once again, of time travel as a plot device by Moffat. This show is about a time traveller, after all, and it’s surprising, to say the least, that the full potential and the possibilities of this show’s central conceit only begun to be fully exploited under Moffat. I can’t believe that there’s someone who wouldn’t grin indulgently at seeing the Doctor announce that he’ll “be back… way back” and then reappear a second later in a film recording made decades ago. The idea of Kazran watching the Doctor invading and changing his own memories in real (relative) time was just brilliant. The Doctor, the Ghost of Christmas Past. I love it.

And it was magical viewing watching the Doctor on his adventures with younger versions of Kazran. The Doctor makes a delightfully mad “babysitter”, the babysitter of every child’s dreams. Kind of like Mary Poppins, but more completely bonkers. It was touching to see that Kazran was really quite a kind, sympathetic person inside, as the Doctor knew he’d see when he visited Kazran as a boy. Compare the boy who seemed anguished over a dying shark to the hardened old man who callously insisted he didn’t care if 4003 people died. Or young Kazran, who seemed romantically enamoured with the idea that the fish liked Abigail’s beautiful singing (vehemently protesting the Doctor’s assertions to the contrary), to old Kazran, who seemed too cold-hearted to let Abigail’s family have her back for just one Christmas. More than anything, Kazran and Abigail’s love story showed what a kind and loving person Kazran is inside. Their love story was beautiful, even if it ended on quite a sad note.

The performances in this episode were all fantastic. Michael Gambon was a triumph of a choice as Kazran the Elder, giving at times both a provoking and sympathetic performance. His best moment was when the Doctor conscripted the elder Kazran into the role of the ghost of Christmas future, and Kazran breaks down when he realises that, in becoming what he was, he had betrayed himself. I felt myself welling up at that moment, so moving it was. Laurence Belcher as young Kazran and Danny Horn as also-young-but-not-quite-as-young Kazran were both excellent as well. Katherine Jenkins was luminous as Abigail. Her singing alone was entrancing, but she also played a sweet and lovesome Abigail. Matt Smith was electric. He’s as strong as he’s ever been in the role, treading masterfully, as Peter Capaldi remarked of him in a recent interview with Doctor Who: The Fan Show, that fine, careful line between comic and dramatic.

I felt that this Christmas special in general was an excellent story. It’s not just good Doctor Who, it also makes for wonderful television in general. It stands by itself as a perfect, heartwarming Christmas story. Top marks.

Rating: 10/10.

Thoughts on: The End of Time

The Tenth Doctor’s final story was always going to be huge. David Tennant had held the role for four years, and had engrafted himself permanently into the national consciousness as the cultural icon that he was. His Doctor was the most beloved and celebrated since Tom Baker, and Tennant’s leaving the role was inevitably going to be a momentous occasion. The End of Time, in my opinion, delivered wonderfully on expectations and rose to the occasion exceptionally. Apart from being an epic tale that culminated the Time War arc and returned John Simm’s bewitching Master, portraying the Doctor’s most monumental challenge yet, it also delivered probably the most memorable and affecting regeneration ever. Everything and everyone came together to produce a story that completes both the Tenth Doctor’s era, as well as Russell T Davies’ era as showrunner, perfectly.

The plot concerned a prophecy, that “something is returning”, and the end of time is imminent. The Master is somehow implicated. The Doctor finds the resurrected Master, but knows there’s something more. It’s only until the second episode that it becomes clear that it’s Gallifrey that’s returning, and that the Time Lords are going to bring the last day of the Time War with them, to end it all and take time itself with them. I like the way the story was set up like this, as the culmination of some celestial prophecy. It brings a sense of epicness and scale to the story that sets up something as significant as the end of time really well, more so than if, as usually happens, the Doctor just happens to stumble on this plot to destroy all of reality, time and everything and is conveniently there to save the day. I thought the Time Lords’ plot could have been more prominent in the first half of the story, though. The first episode was, understandably, focussed on the Master and his schemes, but the episode could at least have cut to Gallifrey every 20 minutes or so to give us hints and teases of what the story was building up to, as viewers would be forgiven for being confused about what was going on, with the Doctor talking about a mysterious prophecy while the Master was just carrying on as his usual madcap self, taking over the Earth for no particular reason.

To say something about the wonderful Bernard Cribbins before I move on, I thought Cribbins as Wilf was just dazzling in this story. Wilf is adorable and endearing and really pulls the heartstrings. He’s a slightly quaint, bumbling duffer of an old man, but that’s exactly why we love him, and Cribbins portrays him brilliantly. Cribbins’ acting was phenomenal, and it’s easy to see why he became a recurring character in Series 4 and was now even taken on as a “proper” companion. The Doctor and Wilf have a lovely relationship. There were two quiet little scenes showing the Doctor and Wilf talking privately that were just touching to watch, in the cafe and in the Vinvocci spaceship. It’s a testament to how close the Doctor has become to Wilf and how special their connection is that the Doctor admitted to Wilf that he’d be proud if Wilf were his father. Wilf weeps over the thought of the Doctor dying. It’s touching, profoundly moving stuff, and, I think, in those moments, Wilf sealed his place as the best one-off companion of all.

The Master was back more delightfully unhinged than ever before. John Simm delivers a riveting, manic performance in the Master’s first scenes back, and the Master himself seems to have truly gone off the edge since we saw him last. He’s definitely distinctly more insane than he was in Last of the Time Lords. We shouldn’t be surprised, given how many times he’s died and been resurrected, not to mention how many different bodies he’s inhabited (that’s actual bodies, not regenerations. I count four since Roger Delgado). Simm was equal to the task, and gave a suitably unnerving performance. I wasn’t particularly impressed with how the Master was brought back, though. He was resurrected, inexplicably, by what looked like black magic using his old ring according to the “Secret Books of Saxon”… by some sort of weird cult whose motive in resurrecting the Master was not explained. “We give ourselves that Saxon might live.” Seriously? Is this the best RTD could come up with? That said, the Master was an impressive, frightening presence when he appeared, cackling madly in that fountain of ethereal light. Apart from that, it was all just very corny, perhaps the one major cringe moment of this story. I thought the Master’s scheme to transform the whole human race into himself was delightfully evil, almost certainly the Master’s most nefarious scheme yet. What made it even better was that the Master didn’t plan any of this: he was abducted by John Naismith and just hungrily seized the opportunity he was given to create mayhem on a terrible scale. It was pretty typical that, after turning the human race into him, he didn’t know what to do with himselves, so he reverted to type: he was going to turn the Earth into a warship to wreak havoc across the universe. He simply can’t help himself.

The Master and the Doctor’s relationship was explored through some compelling dialogue. The Master’s reminiscing back to when he and the Doctor were children together on Gallifrey: “We used to run across those fields all day, calling up at the sky. Look at us now.” The Doctor’s entreaty for the Master to come with him, to see the universe with him, “You could be beautiful. With a mind like that, we could travel the stars. It would be my honour.” Nor did the Doctor, even once, get angry at the Master. The Doctor looks upon the Master with sorrow, and sympathy and regret. Repeatedly the Doctor pleads with the Master to let him help him. They’re arch-nemeses, sure, but they’re also friends, friends who’ve become estranged and taken wildly different paths, but still friends. They share a bond: they can’t live with each other or without each other. “I wonder what I’d be, without you,” said the Doctor. “Yeah,” agreed the Master. The Doctor-Master relationship is complex and compelling. I think it makes the Master, at least potentially, the most interesting of the Doctor’s enemies. The Doctor has just as much, if not more, history with the Daleks and the Cybermen, but his relationship with them is one of mutual hate on both sides. With the Master, it is far, far more complicated and nuanced, as the Master’s most recent appearance in Dark Water/Death in Heaven showed.

In the culmination of constant harks back to the Time War, and progressive revelation of the nature of the Doctor’s role therein, we finally saw the Time Lords return to Doctor Who for the first time in the revival. Led by a tyrannical Lord President who is later revealed to be Rassilon, the Time Lords, on the last day of the Time War, plot to escape the time lock through the Master, bringing the Time War with them, and complete the Final Sanction, destroying time and reality itself, for only the Time Lords to survive as “creatures of consciousness alone”. We knew before now that the Doctor had ended it all on the last day of the Time War, but only in this story did we find out what drove the Doctor to commit that terrible deed: the alternative was too unthinkable; the Doctor had no choice. The End of Time, in contrast with the romantic, idyllic, mythological depictions of the Time Lords we’ve heard from the Doctor before now, portrayed the Time Lords corrupted and debased and depraved by endless, horrific war. We’re shown a once peaceable race standing aloof from the rest of the universe turned into tyrants and monsters by the Time War, warped and perverted by their uncompromising, unthinking devotion to the glory and victory of their own depraved civilisation. Rassilon was an imperious, malignant presence who typified everything the Time Lords had become. Given the Doctor’s vivid, haunting description of the Time War’s last days, it’s no wonder the Time Lords went mad:

“You weren’t there in the final days of the War. You never saw what was born. But if the Timelock’s broken, then everything’s coming through. Not just the Daleks, but the Skaro Degradations, the Horde of Travesties, the Nightmare Child, the Could-have-been King with his army of Meanwhiles and Never-weres. The War turned into hell. And that’s what you’ve opened, right above the Earth. Hell is descending.”

The resolution. I was a bit unimpressed with this. As I was watching, I wasn’t sure what exactly it was the Doctor shot to break the link and send Gallifrey back to the Time War. I later looked it up and found out the Doctor had shot the white point star. I suppose that makes sense, but, after equivocating between shooting the Master or Rassilon, I thought it seemed like a bit of a cop-out on RTD’s part. The Doctor’s vacillation between the Master and Rassilon was a profoundly powerful scene. You could almost see the gears whirring behind the Doctor’s piercing, furious gaze. One of them had to die—but which one? That’s why I was somewhat disappointed when the Doctor realised he could just shoot the white point star and end it, as I’m sure he’d prefer, bloodlessly. All that emotional buildup came to nothing. It was almost an anticlimax. Sometimes tough choices, terrible choices, have to be made, without the option of a convenient, agreeable third way out. After emphatically making this precise point in describing why he ended the Time War, I find it a bit incongruous that Russell T Davies would pull off a cop-out like this, just to give the Doctor a way to send the Time Lords back without dirtying his hands with violence or anything so disagreeable. That said, making the Doctor kill the Master or Rassilon in his final story would probably have cast too much of a shadow over his regeneration and even the next Doctor’s first series. The next Doctor would hardly be going “Geronimo!” after he’d just committed cold-blooded murder. Also, if the Doctor had killed one of them, we wouldn’t have got that amazing, blood-pounding moment when the Master finally gets his revenge against Rassilon. That moment never fails to affect me; the passion and anger and tears of the Master as he takes out his lifetimes of resentment against Rassilon is truly a sight to behold.

Finally, we come to the Doctor’s farewell. It’s initially a buoyant moment, when the Doctor finds himself, unbelievably, alive. He’s relieved and astonished beyond words. He’s done it. He’s defied death. And then RTD swoops in and, in typical style, sadistically snatches it all away. Knock knock knock knock. You see the life drain from his face at that moment. He’d forgotten about Wilf. He lets out his anger and resentment in what remains, in my opinion, one of the most moving monologues of this show’s history. It always gets me. I remember watching this when it was broadcast on New Year’s Day, 2010, with my mum and my brother, and feeling profoundly caught up in the emotion of the Doctor’s tirade. It was some of the most powerful and compelling acting any of the actors who have played the Doctor have ever given. Tennant was giving his absolute all into that moment, and it showed. It felt. The feels, man. It seems at first as though the Doctor has survived absorbing five hundred thousand rads, but then our suspicions are confirmed. “It’s started.” Thence follows yet more of the most poignant, affecting viewing I’ve ever seen on this show. The Doctor’s farewell tour is uplifting, but at the same time deeply sad. He says goodbye to all his friends and companions for the last time, before he becomes a new man and leaves them all behind forever. His parting gift to Donna is a particularly touching gesture. Perhaps most touching of all is his visit to Rose, shortly before it all begins for her, and for him. That’s RTD’s symbolic farewell to the show he’s nurtured and raised and devoted himself to for four years. He’s gone back to where it all started, allowed himself a sad, reminiscent smile, and turned over the final page.

The Doctor’s not done, though. The Doctor lives on, longer and older and greater than any of the writers and showrunners who’ve built the show over its fifty years. After he’s said his final goodbye to Rose, he drags himself back to the TARDIS, now clearly struggling through great pain. That beautiful Vale Decem track plays in the background as the enigmatic Ood declares that the universe will sing him to his sleep. The old soldier struggles on, enters his TARDIS, hangs up his coat for the last time, and bravely faces the end. “I don’t want to go.” Oh, the feels. Like a dagger piercing through my Whovian heart. We barely have the chance to tearfully plead “Don’t go!” before he erupts in a blaze of regenerative glory and turns into Matt Smith. The King is dead. Long live the King.

Rating: 9/10.