As we've known for months now, "The Time of The Doctor" is the episode where Smith bows out so that his daft energy can be replaced by the craggy intensity of Peter Capaldi, and I think it's important to start at the end, and the regeneration itself, since that's what everything builds to. The actual moment when The Doctor's appearance changed was shockingly sudden, especially given how flashy the past regenerations have been. There were plots reasons for it - The Doctor is granted a new cycle of twelve regenerations by The Time Lords and has an excess of energy, and that causes a slight hiccup in his current regeneration - but also felt like writer Steven Moffat trying to deal with the loss of his Doctor, the one who helped usher in his fitfully brilliant tenure running the show, as quickly and painlessly as possible. Like pulling off a Band-aid, it was best to get it over with, and not to belabour the point. Then again, considering that much of the last season seems to have been building up to this moment, perhaps it was just a case of the little voice in his head finally saying "Get on with it."
While the crucial moment was over and done with fairly quickly, the scene up until that point took plenty of time and consideration in giving Smith a fine send-off. As he talks to Clara about how he's going to change, and how he'll still be The Doctor, but not The Doctor that she knew, he got to have a lovely little speech about how we are all different people over the course of our lives, and the important thing is to remember all the people that you were. It's a beautiful sentiment within the world of the show, but it's also a typically Moffat-esque bit of meta-commentary, acknowledging that Smith is leaving and that he won't be forgotten by either the show or its fans. Moffat can sometimes get a little bit too clever when winking at the audience - especially when he dips into straight out insulting them - but that struck just the right balance in creating a moment that can envelop both the people on-screen and the people watching them.
It also featured a surprise appearance from Amy/Amelia Pond, the person who The Doctor first met after he regenerated, and the one who he most wanted to see in his final moments. It was a sweet moment, and it was nice to see Karen Gillan again (in a scene that reminded me of Wesley's death in the final episode of Angel), but it also typified what did and didn't work about the episode as a whole. Much of the episode was concerned with reaching for emotional moments of catharsis (as did "The Day of The Doctor", particularly the final shot of all the different Doctors standing next to each other) and for moments that allowed Smith to embody the very best attributes of his version of The Doctor, be it when he talks about how each life he saves matters, underlying the basic humanism of the character, or the funny opening in which he accidentally shows up on a Dalek ship holding a piece of a dead Dalek. It may not have been his finest hour, but it felt like the purest performance of Smith's time in The TARDIS.
But these moments, which seemed designed to show off everything that Smith did well - his sense of fun, his interplay with Jenna Coleman, his angry face - did so at the expense of the episode as a whole. The Doctor appearing naked to Clara's family may have played up his knack for wacky comedy (as did the revelation that Clara uses The TARDIS for everything from correcting cooking mistakes to catching TV shows that she's missed) but it didn't make for a cohesive episode, from a tonal or thematic viewpoint, especially once the action moved away from the Christmas day frivolity to The Doctor's last stand on Trenzalore. In that regard, it felt more like a Russell T. Davies episode than a Steven Moffat one: It valued emotion over plot and narrative, and pursued a particular endpoint (the moment when The Doctor regenerated) above all else.
To that end, it was successful. The regeneration itself was affecting, and worked as a eulogy for Smith's rendition of The Doctor. The episode was filled with enough grace notes, and displayed enough relentless energy that it more or less papered over the cracks as it chased its goal. Moffat also managed to wrap up a lot of the more tiresome plot threads that he's left hanging since the sixth season - the religious order known as The Silence, the prophecy about what will happen when The Doctor says his name (it will bring The Time Lords back, but in doing so it will trigger a new Time War) and how The Doctor is meant to die on Trenzalore - in a way that feels fairly satisfying, if only because it finally clears the slate and hopefully means that Moffat can leave all that baggage behind when Capaldi starts properly in 2014. They even resolved the question of how the show will get around the Twelve Regenerations rule by basically just giving The Doctor more lives, which might seem cheap, but does have a basis in the original series. Besides which, the show has never had the most strictly maintained mythology, so playing around with it is hardly sacrilege.
But even though it accomplished a great deal, and a lot more than might be expected from the Christmas special, which tends to be light and fluffy, it didn't make for a particularly good piece of storytelling. The central plot, in which The Doctor goes to a town called Christmas, which turns out to be on Trenzalore, and discovers that there is a crack in space and time there which could free the Time Lords, was pretty straightforward and not particularly interesting, and seemed burdened with too many ideas (such as having all the people in the village be forced to tell the truth) to be easily digested. While it allowed for plenty of heroics and moments of nobility on the part of The Doctor, who decides to stay on Trenzalore and spends thousands of years defending it, eventually ending up old and wizened, it also felt very thin, and occasionally distracted. As a showcase for Smith and as a way for Moffat to clear up some of the messier aspects of his run, it worked pretty well, but as an episode in and of itself it felt a little half-baked.
Then again, considering that it was not envisioned as an individual episode, but as a culmination of at least a year, possibly even four years, of storytelling, that is probably the best way to consider it. Did it give Smith the send-off his Doctor deserved? Yes. Did it provide for a fresh start with Peter Capaldi? Well, any story that ends with history being comprehensively rewritten is something of a fresh start, so yes. On those terms, it succeeded, which makes it one of the better Christmas specials (faint praise, I know). I'll miss Smith's silly, energetic take on The Doctor, but he got a good send off, and leaves things in decent shape for the new guy. The Doctor is dead, long live The Doctor.
- Capaldi only appeared for about twenty seconds at the very end of the episode, but already he seems like a totally different version of The Doctor. He obviously has a much less manic energy than Smith, but the main take away from him is how weird and off-kilter he already looks. That might just be because he's wearing another man's suit, though. We'll see how he feels once he's settled into his own clothes and refurbished the TARDIS.
- I greatly enjoyed all the stuff with Matt Smith and the reconfigured Cyberman head he had christened Handles. Can we start a campaign to bring him back and make him a Companion?
- I really liked that the people of Christmas drew pictures of The Doctor. It's perhaps a slightly too cutesy take on fandom - it's basically a low-fi Tumblr - but still quite a sweet touch.
- Since both Matt Smith and Karen Gillan have shaved their heads for roles recently, this episode was probably slightly more demanding for the wig department than usual.
- Since Moffat wrapped so many long running plotlines up in this episode, does this count as him admitting that some things didn't work or pan out like he had hoped, or was this how he always planned for them to end up?