Thursday, 26 December 2013

Time Expands And Then Contracts

Perhaps a little under-cooked?
"Time of the Doctor"? Time of the bleedin' massive spoilers, more like!

Four years is a long time to have the same argument, but at this point we can consider it settled: Steven Moffat simply does not give a shit about actually ending the story threads he starts.   It's been three years since the TARDIS exploded - and then didn't - and the final reveal of who was responsible is... a bunch of crazy priests so tired of a war over a single planet that they decided to obliterate the universe?  Wouldn't it have made more sense to sabotage their own ship?  Hell, wouldn't it have made more sense to leave the siege and then just head for a beach somewhere? You would think spending decades watching the Doctor defeat every monstrous war-hungry alien force that dropped onto the surface of Trenzalore (ostensibly because they're so terrified of another Time War they're determined to restart the Time War) would lead the renegade Silence to conclude avoiding the last of the Time Lords might make more sense than actively seeking to destroy him.

So, all of that was terrible (though I truly love the idea that the Silence were originally simply intended to be confessors). It was also terribly predictable, of course, so whilst I entirely understand anyone who was spitting out their egg-nog with rage last night, I myself can't get too worked up about it.  I long ago made my peace with Moffat on this. You can either accept that the mystery is a Macguffin to allow insane plots to spiral around you, or you can't. Both approaches are equally valid, though I suspect my conscious choice as of "The Big Bang" to never watch a Moffat episode sober has paid great dividends over the years.

(Speaking of predictable: can we lay the "every monster ever shows up at once to be super-scary" idea to rest once and for all, please? Yes, it looks pretty cool, and yes I giggled when those two Sontarans got immolated, but if nothing else, the idea that the galaxy in general is so terrified of another Time War that they've joined forces with the Daleks makes precisely zero sense.)

Eight years is a long time to have the same argument, but at this point we can consider it settled: a Time Lord gets thirteen lives to live under normal circumstances.  I explained in my post on "Day of the Doctor" just how little time I have for those who argued the twelve regeneration limit on a Time Lord was somehow a ridiculous imposition on the show, and those who chose to remember it and wished to see some drama wrung from it were somehow missing the point.  Well, those people lost, presumably because Moffat realised the upcoming final death of a man who had lived for a millennium and a half might actually be something one could work with.

Of course, there's a catch here.  For eight years I've been arguing you'd have to possess the imagination of a tape deck to not think a "final end" story couldn't work exceptionally well.  But then that actual story comes along and, well, I didn't actually enjoy it all that much.  The question then has to be asked: how much of that dissatisfaction was Moffat having an off day, and how much of it was structural?

Personally, I figure almost all of it is column A. Moffat is generally pretty terrible at writing Christmas specials - though I should note that a) "The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe" is better than its reputation suggests, and b) no-one can ever write an Xmas episode worse than "Voyage of the Damned" unless someone actually films the Doctor spending six minutes punching puppies to death.  I have a lot of sympathy for Moffat here, actually, because his work suggests he's simply not suited to writing about the magic of Christmas.  His writing is simply too cynical and detached for that.  This is not necessarily a problem during the show in general - well, it doesn't bother me, but then I'm cynical and detached - especially when one considers the horrific mawkish excesses of the Tennant era, but with Christmas time apparently mandating the sentimentality be brought in by JCB, Moffat clearly struggles.  It's like watching an angry robot trying to pen a Valentine's card, or watching Stanley Kubrick attempting to capture emotion on film.  Personally, were I Moffat, I'd just pen a fucking terrifying ghost story and be done with it, but apparently we have to deal with "the man who stayed for Christmas".  Ugh.

With the inevitable discomfort of a Moffat paean to a season which is stupidly fetishised anyway set aside, there are two potential reasons I can see for people not liking the episode.  One of these, indeed, I've already seen raised by the ever-readable Jane Carnall:
Part of the Doctor's canon is now 300 years stuck in Christmastown because the TARDIS was late?  #goodgrief

I had the exact same reaction whilst watching the special, but on reflection, I'm starting to think that actually, this is missing the point.  What's important here isn't that the Doctor spent 300 (eventually 500) years trapped on the same planet saving, at most, a hundred thousand people.  It's that he doesn't seem at all bothered that this is how his life finally ends.

Compare this with the bombastic bullshit of the Tenth Doctor's final days, in which he views the need to save just one person as a terrible imposition, a waste of his (second) life with David Tennant's fate, which should obviously been expended in a battle of intergalactic proportions (this is a swipe at neither Tennant nor RTD; those final moments with Wilf were quite the best thing about "The End of Time").  The idea that the Doctor at the end of his entire life could be satisfied with nothing more than saving the same town over and over strikes me as wonderful.  Indeed, one of the reasons the mawkish Christmas nonsense stuck out so horribly was that the emotional core of the Doctor's time on Trenzalore was so much stronger.  "Every life I save is a victory" is one of the greatest lines the character has ever been blessed with.  Faced not only with the prospect of abandoning his great journey through all of reality, not only with being tethered to a single planet out of obligation to the Time Lords (the very thing his youngest self found intolerable), and knowing that history already insists that eventually he fails, and Christmas is destroyed, he goes about his task gladly because this is what he always does.  For over a thousand years the Doctor has travelled through the universe absorbing its wonders and saving lives.  Three hundred years - that's more than one hundred times as long as he was stuck on Earth in the Pertwee era - he's had to give up the former.  And then, when he's finally given the chance to escape, and return to his whistle-stop tour of All That Exists, he decides that isn't what he's into any more. Saving lives is more important.  Has always been more important.

If you like, you can focus on how ridiculous it is that the Doctor is even in this position because the TARDIS gets slowed down by centuries if it has to drag a petite human along with it (directly contradicting Utopia, for instance, and that may piss you off as well).  For me, the obvious hand-waving nonsense of that "explanation" matters far less than the Doctor's response to it, which is to look back at three centuries of exile and say "Yes, this will do."

I simply cannot think of a better way for the Doctor to live out his last life. Certainly it beats the 10th Doctor's implied Tour of Smugness just before the Ood made him go all sulky. And it goes further.  Note how Clara asks the Time Lords for help.  Not by pointing out the obvious fact that the Doctor's death would guarantee that Gallifrey would be trapped for all time - up until the Daleks figured out how to obliterate them from an adjacent universe - but by arguing that saving him was self-evidently the right thing to do. Admittedly the script here wasn't too great, but Clara's message essentially amounted to "Fuck you; the universe is better with the Doctor in it and you know it".  And after all this time, it turns out they did.

In short, then, the Doctor proved himself worthwhile one final time to both the terrified citizens of a single forgotten town and from the most powerful species the universe has ever brought forth. Meanwhile, Clara takes pains to remind Gallifrey - and us - that the mystery has never been the point.  What the Doctor was doing whilst the mystery unfolded around him was what was always important.  Sure, you can read this as a writer who's terrible about resolving stories arguing resolutions aren't important - and the smugness with which so many people insist good writing is utterly divorced from crafting satisfying resolutions makes me want to reach for a baseball bat covered in box jellyfish. You could also extend that criticism to the fact that ultimately the Doctor's gift of a new life cycle consists of him breathing in some sub-Twilight sparkles and blowing up Daleks with his regeneration energy (this would be the second major objection to the episode - having spent eight years arguing one could put together an awesome story about the Doctor's search for another life, I always assumed the story would be about that, rather than just rushing through it in 30 seconds and moving on).  You could even point out that lecturing the audience (however subtly) that Doctor Who should be about who the Doctor is and what he does rather than surrounding mysteries is pretty hard to take from the man who created the time cracks, the Silence, River Song, Amy Pond and Clara Oswald - it wasn't our idea to start loading down the show with season-long plots that almost never end satisfactorily (though at least Moffat's efforts here are more interesting than RTD's). For that matter, there's something profoundly unconvincing about having the Doctor reject spectacle for the quiet business of saving lives in the midst of endless attacks from Every Enemy Ever.

Really, though, the only metric worth applying here is this: did "The Time of the Doctor" make its point?  I think it did. It didn't do so without error - indeed the problems with the Moffat era have never been so on display. But as a final opportunity to demonstrate who the 11th Doctor was, and how he reflected the same character we were first introduced to in a 1963 junkyard, it succeeded admirably. If the Doctor spent these final moments reflecting on what he should truly deem important in his centuries-long life, it feels as though Moffat has done the same.  Perhaps it is hypocrisy.  Perhaps it is apology. Perhaps it is merely a calm between two storms. None of that is as important as the fact that it is what the Doctor wanted. 

And, at the end, it turns out he wanted the right thing. May we all prove so wise and kind when our time comes around.

Merry Christmas.


Gooder said...

I found the episode itself rather dull overall (and yes the plot was a little vague & mechanical but still ahead of a lot of RTD's nonsense) but I did really like Matt Smith's final scene (with the imagined appearance of Amy - who for my money is by far the best of the modern companions).

It was touchingly written and nicely understated unlike the emotional bombast of Tennant's last scenes.

SpaceSquid said...

Yeah, having the horror of the 10th Doctor's regeneration hanging over proceedings helped a great deal, I think.