After three seasons of excitement, adventure, mystery and romance, the Eleventh Doctor’s journey in Doctor Who finally comes to a bittersweet end in “The Time Of The Doctor”, the grand finale of the Matt Smith era. For the Eleventh Doctor’s curtain call as this show’s leading man, Steven Moffat wraps up the ‘Silence will fall’ storyline that has defined his entire tenure by tying together unresolved plot strands from the cracks in time arc (“The Eleventh Hour“, “Flesh And Stone“, “Cold Blood” and “The Big Bang“), the Lake Silencio arc (“Day Of The Moon“, “The Almost People“, “A Good Man Goes To War“, and “The Wedding Of River Song“), and recent revelations from the Impossible Girl arc (“The Name Of The Doctor“, “The Day Of The Doctor“).
Like “The End Of Time” before it, “The Time Of The Doctor” serves as both a regeneration story and the show’s annual Christmas special, which means it has to balance a good amount of hearty Christmas cheer with meaty plot developments and a side of tragedy. As you would expect, that kind of balancing act can occasionally lead to some tonal whiplash, and a part of me does wish this story was a two-parter like “The End Of Time”, so all the cool concepts and ideas in it could have a little more room to breathe. Ironically, Eleven’s regeneration story has the opposite problem that Ten’s did. “The End Of Time” could sometimes feel too slow and overly padded (since it was a whopping 130 minutes long), while “The Time Of The Doctor” can feel too rushed in places and a bit overstuffed.
Notably, there are a lot of similarities between the plot of this episode and “The Parting Of The Ways“, the Ninth Doctor’s regeneration story: namely that the Doctor gets trapped in the future, fighting a battle he cannot possibly win, so he sends his best friend / love interest away from the fight against her will so he can face his greatest challenge alone. The following episode, “Deep Breath”, also emulates “The Christmas Invasion” in a lot of places (i.e. Clara having to deal with the immediate emotional fallout of this story, entirely unsure of whether or not the Doctor is still the same person she developed feelings for), so Steven Moffat clearly decided to take some inspiration from his immediate predecessor, Russell T. Davies, when it came to handling his first and only full transition between two Doctors.
The first half of “The Time Of The Doctor” feels very reminiscent of the main set-up from “The Pandorica Opens”, which is appropriate, because chronologically speaking the events of this episode set up that two-parter. In the 51st century, a mysterious message is beamed out through time and space, drawing in the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) and many of his enemies in large numbers to an unassuming planet (with a tiny human settlement located on it), to try to decipher what it could mean. Along the way, we see the origins of the religious cult called the Silence. The Silence have influenced the Eleventh Doctor’s entire era ever since he made his debut in “The Eleventh Hour”: trying to kill him in his past to avoid a major conflict with him in their present. In this episode, we’re finally given some context about what that clash is about.
On the planet Trenzalore, there’s one last crack in time leftover from the Series 5 finale: a tear in the fabric of the universe that can act as a wormhole. The time lords are trying to send the Doctor a message from the pocket universe they were banished to at the end of the last episode, so they can travel through to the other side of the void and re-establish their old place in the world. Obviously, the Doctor has a lot of enemies who would like to prevent that from happening – especially the Daleks. The Daleks, the Cybermen, the Sontarans, and a whole bunch of other races would raze the planet in a heartbeat and slaughter every living thing that’s situated on it, to stop another time war from breaking out. The Doctor feels very responsible for this predicament, and he refuses to let this village full of innocent people become another list of senseless causalities in the war between his people and the Daleks.
So the Doctor decides to stay on Trenzalore, to protect the time lords and protect the innocent civilians living in the settlement. If anyone can handle a crazy, suicidal decision like this, it’s the Doctor. He may hate warfare, but he’s always been shown to be an excellent strategist, to the point where he’s almost a one-man army. The Doctor’s decision to give up traveling and plant his roots on Trenzalore (even if it’s made in the heat of the moment) is a very significant bit of character development for Eleven, because there have been several episodes throughout his tenure that stress how much he hates being tied down in one place and time (most notably “The Power Of Three“, where he could only chill in Amy and Rory’s house for two days before he almost went mad with boredom). But he’s willing to stick around for centuries and metaphorically grow up out of his old childish ways, so he can do right by these people.
He appoints himself protector of their little village and (like Rory in “The Big Bang” or the Gunslinger in “A Town Called Mercy“) he becomes a living legend, as generation after generation passes by but the Doctor remains as a steadfast figure of safety and security. As the siege of Trenzalore stretches on, the Doctor tries to make life in a war zone more bearable, by doing his best to brighten up the villagers’ existence. Even when the opportunity to leave Trenzalore does present itself, when he gets his TARDIS back, the Doctor resists the incredible temptation to fly away again and sticks to his old decision. As we learned in “The Name Of The Doctor”, Eleven is destined to die on Trenzalore, fighting his last battle, and he’s well aware of that, so he’s willing to sacrifice his life so these people can live. The last two episodes have made it very clear how much the Doctor’s chosen title means to him, and he certainly lives up to it here, because the Eleventh Doctor is easily at his most selfless in this story.
As soon as the siege started, the Doctor tricked his best friend Clara into going back to the TARDIS, so he could send her back to her own time against her will – the same thing Nine did for Rose at the end of Series 1. He’ll miss her terribly of course, since he still has feelings for her, but it’s the only thing he can do to stop her from dying of old age in the future, so very very far home, since her lifespan is nowhere near as long as his. From there, he spends nine hundred years trapped in the same village, fighting a never-ending war, out-living all his friends and neighbors over and over again, and as you would imagine, this miserable and lonely existence does eventually take a major toll on the Doctor’s mental health. For once, he doesn’t have a long-term plan or a way to win: the only thing he can do is stall and buy these people enough time to live out their lives. He gives and gives and gives until his strength finally starts to wear out, and watching the Doctor grow old and grey to the point where he can barely walk anymore and he starts to grow senile is deeply sad.
In “The Deadly Assassin”, the classic series established that time lords could only regenerate twelve times, and once they reached the end of their thirteenth life, they would permanently die. The Doctor is currently on his last life, so if the Daleks don’t kill him, old age will eventually, until Clara decides to put her foot down. She calls out the time lords for not showing the Doctor some more gratitude for everything he did for them during the war, and she urges them to use the their god-like powers over time and space to change the future and save him from the Daleks (plus, if they still plan on using him to get back to their old universe, it really is in their best interests to step in). So for once, the Doctor’s iron-will and his heroic actions are repaid in full by the universe, and he’s granted a brand new regeneration cycle from the high council of Gallifrey. Now that the Doctor’s regeneration limit is no longer a problem, the show can continue on unencumbered for the foreseeable future, and the Doctor now owes Clara another life debt (that will only continue to strengthen their bond in his next life).
After he’s been empowered by the time lords, the Eleventh Doctor goes out like a boss and destroys a whole spaceship full of Daleks with his regeneration energy, finally ending the siege of Trenzalore for good with a big bang. And from there, as he departs in his TARDIS, he says his final goodbyes to Clara. After how tragic and depressing the Tenth Doctor’s exit was in “The End Of Time” (dying afraid and alone in the TARDIS, with plenty of regrets about things he couldn’t change), I’m glad the Eleventh Doctor was given a more bittersweet ending like Nine as a direct contrast. The Doctor is sad that this period in his life is over (like he always is), but he’s grateful that his life will get to continue onwards after he had previously given up, and he’s ready for another good reset after he spent the last few centuries of his life aging to death.
All his affairs are in order, the Daleks are gone, and Clara is safe, so he’s ready to let go and be reborn again. While the Eleventh Doctor’s final speech (which seems to be directed more towards the audience than Clara) is poignant, what will really hit you in the feels is Karen Gillan making one last cameo as a vision of Amy Pond, saying goodbye to her Raggedy Man. And just like that, Matt Smith is gone: he’s replaced in a flash by a wild-eyed (and super Scottish) Peter Capaldi as the cycle of the Doctors begins anew. The horrible and traumatic experience that the Doctor went through in this episode (that lasted for nearly a millennia) does have a long-lasting effect on his personality, which becomes very apparent in the next season, when we’re properly introduced to the Twelfth Doctor: someone who’s a much more stern and pragmatic incarnation than Eleven was.
“The Time Of The Doctor” is a very pivotal episode for Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) when it comes to her long-term character development, and after this adventure, the status quo of her time with the Doctor changes forever. In this episode, Clara is cooking Christmas dinner for her family, and she begs the Doctor to pretend to be her boyfriend, so she can hide the fact that she’s still single (that will change pretty soon, in a few episodes’ time). Clara is a notorious perfectionist, so this task has got her very stressed out. She tries to keep everything under control as she plays host to her family (including her father’s finicky new girlfriend), trying to give them all a perfect Christmas, but really she has no idea what she’s doing and she’s floundering around, making plenty of rookie mistakes along the way. And unfortunately, things only get much worse for her from there, as things slip further and further out of her control over the course of this special.
The Doctor has her strip down so they can visit a church full of space nudists (which she finds to be very embarrassing). She’s terrorized by the Silence, the Daleks and the Weeping Angels, because she’s nowhere near as knowledgeable about these creatures as Amy, Rory and River were. The Doctor tricks her into being sent away from the action (twice), and when she tries to get back, she winds up riding on the outer shell of the TARDIS through the time vortex (when Jack did the same thing in “Utopia“, it looked like an absolutely terrifying experience). From her perspective, every time she returns to Trenzalore, the man she loves seems to be rapidly aging to death. The Doctor readily accepts his fate and for a long time, it seems like there’s nothing she can do to help him. Then when she finally thinks she can breathe again, the Doctor she knows changes forever. Then the TARDIS crashes into the Jurassic era. This was easily one of the worst days of Clara’s life, and it’s no wonder that when we rejoin her again in the next episode, she has completely shut down and gone into denial about what’s happening.
“The Time Of The Doctor” tells us quite a few things about Clara’s current situation with her family that we didn’t know about before. She’s not as close to her father as she used to be anymore, possibly because of his new relationship with a woman who Clara clearly doesn’t like very much. However, she does get along well with her saucy and eccentric grandmother, who comforts her when she uncontrollably breaks down in tears over the Doctor. Like Rose in “The Parting Of The Ways”, Clara has shared plenty of ship-tease moments with the Doctor in the past (which neither of them have really taken seriously), but it’s not until she’s forcibly separated from him, while he’s on death’s door, that she seems to fully accept that she likes him as more than just a friend. And just like with Rose, that lofty realization will have an effect on how she reacts to the next Doctor in the cycle and his change of personality in “Deep Breath”.
Clara has only known the Doctor for a relatively short amount of time, but she’s still been a big help to him in some of the most trying times of Eleven’s life. In “The Time Of The Doctor”, she can’t contribute much compared to him – since a galactic conflict on this scale is way beyond her – but she does manage to turn the tides when it counts. She does something very few people in this show do and stands up to the time lords: calling them out for doing nothing when their greatest champion is about to die. Clara has never given a single flying fuck about the Doctor’s status as a time lord when it comes to giving him a good telling off when he needs it (which we’ll see another excellent example of in “Kill The Moon” next season), and the same can be said for the rest of his people. I’ve mentioned before that it’s fitting that Clara should know so much about the Doctor’s past, since she was introduced during the franchise’s 50th anniversary, and likewise, she manages to leave her mark on the show’s future going forward. The Twelfth Doctor and all the Doctors after him directly exist because of Clara’s help and support, which will only continue to strengthen the bond between her and the Doctor in the Capaldi era.
A notable recurring character throughout “The Time Of The Doctor” is Tasha Lem, the head of the Church of the Papal Mainframe. As you’ll recall, the Church is a militant religious order that we’ve previously seen in action in stories like “The Time Of Angels” and “A Good Man Goes To War”: they give themselves the task of maintaining peace and balance throughout the cosmos in the 51st century. During the early days of the siege, they’re initially the Doctor’s tentative allies, because Tasha thinks it would be helpful to get him involved and let him investigate Trenzalore. But once they learn what’s truly at stake – another potential time war – they quickly turn against him, and some of them even decide to wage war on him along with the rest of his foes. They decide to change their name and rebrand themselves as the Silence, to reflect their current goal of ensuring the Doctor’s silence. The war drags on and on for centuries, until eventually, out of desperation, some members of the Silence decide to go back along his timeline and try to change history, creating the events of Series 5 and 6.
As for Tasha herself, she’s a very curious one-off character in this special. When it comes to conflicts in Doctor Who, I always like to see the leader of an army who’s working towards the same goal as the Doctor, but isn’t necessarily on his side when it comes to his way of doing it. She’s a very unpredictable figure, who’s both an ally and an antagonist to our hero at different points within this special. At the same time however, her personality is very bland. She’s basically a great big collection of tropes that you would expect to find in your generic Steven Moffat female character. She’s a feisty, flirty and domineering woman. She’s totally infatuated with the Doctor (because of course she is). She even dies at one point and gets converted into a Dalek puppet, but once she regains control of her body, she treats her new affliction like it’s a mild inconvenience for the rest of this story. Tasha has a fairly important role in this story, since she’s the one who drives the main plot forward several times, but her personality is so forgettable that she doesn’t leave much of an impact on the viewers’ minds.
Early on in this story, the Doctor seems to have acquired the disembodied head of a Cyberman, that’s filled with all the information that the Cyberiad possesses. He calls him ‘Handles’, and he basically uses him as technical support: local knowledge for a visiting time lord. Once the Doctor makes the decision to stay on Trenzalore for the foreseeable future, Handles stays by his side and is the only real remnant he has of his old life for centuries. As a result, the Doctor grows very fond of him and gets very attached to him, as his mental health steadily starts to decline. When Handles’ power source finally gives out, and the artificial intelligence inside of him dies out of old age and disrepair, it’s actually a surprisingly sad scene because of how badly it hits the Doctor. Not to mention, the unsettling purpose of this scene: it’s clear, sobering reminder that entropy claims us all eventually, and unless someone does something, the Doctor himself will go the same way eventually.
For the Eleventh Doctor’s final story, we’re given a greatest hits collection of returning monsters from the Matt Smith era: like the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Sontarans, the Weeping Angels, and of course, the Silence. The Silence are revealed to have started out as genetically-engineered priests of the Church in this story (who were given the ability to mess with people’s memories), before they became ambitious enough to try to reshape history the way they desired. After their whole order was portrayed as being completely and totally evil in Series 6, Tasha Lem’s branch of the Silence is shown a slightly different light in this story and given a bit of redemption, when they team up with the Doctor once again, during the last few centuries of the siege, to hold off the Daleks. The fact that the Daleks outlast everyone else during the siege, and are still going strong by the end of it, is a rather impressive testament to how relentless and obsessive they can be, and how they were the time lords’ only true equal during the time war. Say what you will about the Daleks – they’re completely insane and they have delusions of grandeur – but they do not give up until they either get what they want or they’re all killed off.
“The Time Of The Doctor” is helmed by newcomer Jamie Payne, who shoots his first and only episode of Doctor Who with this special. You can tell he’s a new guy, because his direction certainly stands out compared to previous episodes directed by Toby Haynes, Nick Hurran or Saul Metzstein. There’s a certain lithe touch to it that makes this story feel like a frothy British comedy in space sometimes, while at other times it can also have a grand and looming sense of scale that’s reminiscent of an old school “Star Wars” movie. Like always, the CGI from the Milk VFX team is pretty impeccable throughout the hour: we’re given some gorgeous establishing shots of thousands of alien armies circling Trenzalore, along with an equally beautiful climax, where the Doctor destroys a whole fleet of Daleks with his explosive regeneration.
The scenes outside of Clara’s apartment building were filmed in Lydstep Flats in Cardiff, the same location that stood in for the Powell Estate during the first season of the show, while the forest scenes outside of Trenzalore were filmed in Puzzlewood in Gloucestershire. A lot of old age make-up and a few prosthetics were applied to Matt Smith’s face throughout this episode, to progressively age him up with each time skip of a few centuries, and how effective the illusion tends to be can vary from scene to scene. Though Matt Smith’s body language (as the Doctor grows more and more physically and emotionally exhausted, and even starts to walk with a limp) certainly helps to compensate for any scenes where the old age make-up is less than convincing.
Like his work in “The Parting Of The Ways” and “The End Of Time”, Murray Gold’s score is the end of an era for many of the themes and leitmotifs he’s been working with throughout the Eleventh Doctor’s entire tenure, so his soundtrack is an equal mix of new material and recycled music from the last three seasons. “A Probe In The Snow“, “Final Days“, “Cyber Army“, “The Emperor’s Wife“, “Can I Come With You?“, “Clara?“, “The Time Of Angels“, “The Leaf“, “A Troubled Man“, “Trenzalore“, “My Silence“, “The Majestic Tale“, “Remember Me” and “Infinite Potential” all make a comeback at some point in this story (“Infinite Potential” in particular creates a rather touching bookend to the emotional climax of “The Rings Of Akhaten“, the scene that really helped to solidify the Doctor and Clara’s tentative new friendship during their first journey together).
Meanwhile, with his new material, “The Crack” serves as an ominous throwback to the enigmatic bridge of “Little Amy“, when Amelia’s infamous crack in time becomes relevant to the plot once more. “Back To Christmas” is about as joyous, wintry and wholesome as Doctor Who music gets, while “Handles” is silly, bouncy and prim. “Snow Over Trenzalore” is an almost beat-for-beat reprise of “Home (Song For Four)“, a downbeat, melancholy little melody that Murray introduced in the previous episode. Clara’s theme is given some bittersweet remixes in “Beginning Of The End” and “This Is How It Ends“, as Clara slowly realizes that nothing between her and the Doctor will ever be the same again. And for the climax, Murray composes a souped-up hybrid of “This Is Gallifrey” and “The Doctor’s Theme Series Four” with “Never Tell Me The Rules“, as the time lords give the Doctor a heroic second wind.
All in all, even though it could probably have used another good draft to round out its rougher edges, “The Time Of The Doctor” is a pretty strong and satisfactory regeneration story that ties up a lot of loose ends and sends off Matt Smith’s Doctor with a bang when he’s at his most heroic. The Eleventh Doctor had a good run throughout his three seasons – with Series 5 and 6 in particular featuring a lot of hard-hitting, high-quality stories – and I’ll always remember him as one of my favorite NuWho Doctors.
* “Emergency! You’re my boyfriend!” “Ding dong. Okay, brilliant. I may be a bit rusty in some areas, but I will glance at a manual”.
* “No, no, you’re not actually my boyfriend!” “Oh, that was quick. It’s a roller coaster this phone call”.
* Series 7 is the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to quality Doctor Who cringe. Early on, Clara walks in on the Doctor being totally naked and insists that he puts some holographic clothes on for the sake of her eyes. But when she brings him in to meet her family, she quickly realizes she’s the only one who can see the hologram. Oof.
* “Boss of the psycho space nuns. That’s so you”.
* Apparently, Clara has never seen the Apollo 11 landing. Because when she encounters the Silence, her first instinct is to run away in fear, and not to try to find the nearest sharp object so she can shank them.
* “I’m not an idiot. Everyone in this church is trained to see straight through holograms” “Ah, great“.
* Around late 2013, Matt Smith shaved his head for a role and is wearing a wig throughout this episode. Steven Moffat actually decided to incorporate his current baldness into the plot for a quick gag. Karen Gillan also shaved her head for a role at the time, so both of them are wearing wigs during their last scene together.
* “You shaved your head. Is that what happened to your eyebrows” “No, they’re just delicate”.
* “This town, what’s it called?” “It’s Christmas” “It’s July” So it’s Christmas in July.
* “A tiny sliver of June 26, 2010: the day the universe blew up” “I must have missed that”.
* “How’s your father’s barn?” “You’ve fixed the leak all right, but he says it’s bigger on the inside now” “Shhh, they’ll all want one”.
* “Come back. Handles? Handles! Oh… Thank you, Handles, and well done. Well done, mate”.
* “Why didn’t you call me? I could have helped” “I tried. I died in this room, screaming your name!” Oof, the Daleks weaponizing the dead will always be creepy.
* “See how the time lord betrays!” That’s a bit rich: a bunch of Daleks, probably the most two-faced villains in this show, sneering about betrayal.
* “Thank you” “None of this was for you, you fatuous egotist. It was for the peace!”
* “These crackers are rubbish” “They’re classy” “They don’t have jokes, they have poems” “They’re more dramatic crackers!”
* “Tell us a joke, Gran. You know loads of jokes” “I think we’re probably talking about my list now!” “Probably not” Clara telling her father’s rude girlfriend to shut up is just so satisfying.
* As an aside, Clara’s family probably grew very concerned for her. From their point of view, her ‘boyfriend’ shows up and is apparently a shameless nudist. Then he leaves and she starts crying uncontrollably over him. Then she runs off and ditches everyone, and probably never came back – because when the Doctor returns her to her own time in the next episode, it does not look like it’s Christmas day anymore.
* “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”.
* “No. You’re going to stay here. Promise me you will” “Why?” “I’ll be keeping you safe. One last victory. Allow me that, give me that, my impossible girl. Thank you, and goodbye”.
* “You’ve been asking a question, and it’s time someone told you you’ve been getting it wrong. His name is the Doctor. That’s all the name he needs, everything you need to know about him. And if you love him, and you should, help him. Help him“.
* “Love from Gallifrey, boys!“
* “We all change, when you think about it: we’re all different people all through our lives. And that’s okay, that’s good, you’ve got to keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be. I will not forget one line of this: not one day, I swear. I will always remember when the Doctor was me”.
* “Raggedy Man, goodnight”.
* “Stay calm. Just one question: do you happen to know how to fly this thing?!” And it was at that point that Clara knew, she was totally screwed.