Time of the Doctor Proves Moffat Can’t Write Death to Save His Life

matt smith

Well, goodbye, Matt Smith. You were wonderful, but sadly I can’t say that it’s been a pleasure.

Not only was last night’s Doctor Who episode, Time of the Doctor, a Christmas special, it was also a farewell to Doctor 11 (or 13, apparently). Unlike Steven Moffat and his horrendous script, I won’t meander around aimlessly in search of a point for an hour. I’ll just get right to it: the episode was an absolute mess that served neither as a fitting goodbye to our most recent Time Lord, nor as a particularly good Christmas episode.

Since my gripes are many, I’ll skate right over last night’s horrific sexism, because frankly it was so blatant and so teeth-grindingly awful that I don’t feel like giving Moffat the satisfaction of  hearing me whine. Suffice to say he likes pushing fangirl buttons and telling them to get out of his Boys Only clubhouse. So let’s just not. Because I could go on and on about the fact that every woman (and some men) in Moffat’s era wants to hop on the Doctor’s sonic screw driver with more frequency and desperation than in the David Tennant era when the Doctor looked like David Tennant.

I won’t talk about the fact that Clara’s plot centered around her needing a boyfriend for Christmas, or cooking a turkey, or confessing her crush on the Doctor. Or the fact that she got cruelly ditched twice for no discernible reason and was only important when she was either helping the Doctor or crying over losing him.

clara

I’m definitely not going to talk about the head of  the military Silence church trying to sleep with the Doctor on an alter bed.  Or — and this isn’t sexist, but it was weird — why everyone needs to be naked to enter army Silence church. Talk about a half-cocked Chekov’s gun that just blew smoke.

chekov

And let’s definitely not discuss Amy coming down the steps of the TARDIS to caress the Doctor’s face in a sexually charged moment that should’ve just been sweet.

amy pond

No. Thankfully we’re not doing that.

Instead, let’s focus on the fact that the Christmas special this year was an episode all about the death of the show’s lead character, and yet once again Steven Moffat appears to be terrified of actually pulling the trigger.

A lot of Moffat fans kept claiming that those of us who were critical of his writing for the last three years would look like real fools when all the pieces of the puzzle during Matt Smith’s era finally came together and Moffat’s spectacular and brilliant long game would finally be revealed.

To be fair, Moffat did try to make that happen, but he did so in the messiest and most confusing way imaginable. There was no moment last night where I got that old heart-pounding sense of anticipation that the Davies era regularly instilled in me. Remember when Captain Jack turned out to be the Face of Boe, or the Master returned? Or that hand in a jar at Torchwood wound up being the Doctor’s hand from the Christmas special? That was some long game brilliance. Those were carefully-laid and well-executed plans.

doctorwho

This felt slap-dash and hastily cobbled together. And, frankly, most of the “reveals” seemed more like Moffat found a way to force together two puzzle pieces that didn’t fit but looked roughly correct. So the army church from the Season 5 Weeping Angels episode use the Silence as confessional priests and that’s why you don’t remember them after you look away? Okay. That makes a basic and logical kind of sense. Do I believe that it was planned from the start? Absolutely not. Because when did the Doctor find out that that’s what the Silence were for and that they were working with the church? Were we, the audience, ever told that? But even on a simple fan service level, did that revelation feel remotely interesting or cool? Not really. And the cracks in space were created by the Time Lords, or is it that the Time Lords are just trying to get through now that they’re there? I’m pretty sure it’s the latter, right? But the Silence aka. Army Church blew up the TARDIS to stop the Doctor from getting to Trenzalore where the real crack is? Or was blowing up the TARDIS what caused the crack? And so does the Doctor not die at Trenzalore anymore? Or is it that he does die, and it’s simply the 11th/13th Doctor who’s housed there? Does that make sense, if he doesn’t lose his TARDIS?

trenzalore

If the answer to all of these questions was clear last night, I must have missed it.

But by far my biggest problem was the lack of death. Let’s side-step the regeneration for a moment to talk about the 600-year war of Trenzalore that apparently did not make that much of an impact on this small town whose population did not manage to get wiped out despite the fact that  it was typically The Doctor and the Silence Priests vs. countless daleks and Cybermen. Or that we literally never saw a single person in the town die. Did they die? Were we even told that anyone had been killed in this SIX. HUNDRED. YEAR. WAR? Even if we were told that there had been casualties, we didn’t see them and we certainly didn’t feel them. If you’re going to write a war, write a damn war.

Doctor Who

Finally, whether or not you liked his run as the Doctor, I think we can all agree that Matt Smith deserved better than that. Hanging out in a town for 600 years, rapidly ageing (for some reason, even though he did not rapidly age after his last 300-year time jump back in Season 6), having the Time Lords (who, if you recall from the Tennant era went insane and are basically evil, but not anymore I guess) give him all of their lives (?). And then they chose not to come back to their own Universe, and instead gave the Doctor the power of Regeneration Lazer Arms that kill the Dalek overlord ship and a few other enemies? Beyond the fact of “What the fuck was that,” surely if the Time Lords had this ability, they could have and should have used it during the Time War, no?

war

Then the regeneration itself was confusingly drawn out so that Matt Smith can get one final bow in his normal face. It’s nice to see Matt looking like Matt, rather than a Party City version of William Hartnell, but I think it still brings home the inescapable fact that Moffat is afraid of writing death. There’s a ridiculous irony in the youngest-ever Doctor dying of old age. And maybe I’m sadistic, but I enjoy watching the Doctor die and explode into his next form. Here, the Doctor lazer arms his enemies, uses a hologram to restore his face to factory settings and then apparently dies of old age and blinks into Peter Capaldi.

capaldi

That was not a death. That was not a regeneration. That was even weaker and more indulgent than David Tennant going on a world tour of all of his companions after getting radiation poisoning, but at the very least it did serve as one long final bow — both to Tennant and to showrunner Davies. So it was fitting, even if it was a little over the top. This didn’t even feel like a bow, even though Moffat gave Smith a heavy-handed speech about how much he’ll miss himself even though he changes and doesn’t change. Both Eccleston and Tennant got similar speeches, but they were made tragic and brilliant by the fact that they were clearly dying. Matt Smith was standing there looking completely fine, like he was just about to head off on a long trip.

So here’s to hoping that Capaldi will be a stronger captain of this ship. He’s a great actor with arguably more gravitas and certainly more experience than Smith. Maybe the real issue is that Smith, as good as he is, simply isn’t a lead and never quite had what it took to lead a show. Maybe. Because at the moment I think I’m ready to go on a long trip away from this show as well. Mostly I’m worried that everything I really liked about this show is gone — dead and buried and replaced by sexist, meaningless, heartless and feckless nonsense.

18 thoughts on “Time of the Doctor Proves Moffat Can’t Write Death to Save His Life

  1. The reason that they didn’t show a lot of death is because this is a family show. Also, I assume that the writer of this piece is American and doesn’t understand how the British view things differently and that some of it is just silliness in an attempt to survive the seriousness of the situation. In my own life I find that my American coworkers sometimes have a hard time understanding my sense of humour, it seems disrespectful and confusing to them.

    • Being a family show has never stopped there being a lot of death on Doctor Who before. The very first episode showed you crowds of people being mown down. The next introduced you to a likeable new character only to unceremoniously kill them off. And that continued on into the Tennant run. Consider the ‘Silence in the Library’ or ‘Impossible Planet’ two patters.

      Under Moffatt, everyone on the world died of a heart attack and a quick electric shock was enough to reboot everyone with apparently zero fatalities (apparently noone was driving at the time). So actually, I think the author has a good point – Moffatt seems averse to death compared to those who’ve written the Doctor before. There’s an essay somewhere that goes into it in more detail than this (maybe on this site, I forget).

      I don’t agree with everything the author wrote (See my own comment below) but this episode falls far short of Doctor Who’s best.

      Australian, BTW. We generally understand the British sense of humour just fine, though personally I find stuff like the League of Gentlemen rather puerile.

      Honestly, it seems a bit petty to try and blame the author’s nationality for not appreciating the episode when there’s been a lot of dislike for it on ‘both sides of the pond’.

      I actually like a lot of what Moffatt’s done with Doctor Who as shown under, but this is far from his best work.

      • It does seem to me that the Americans are critical of certain aspects of the show because of the cultural differences but I have not done a scientific count. As far as death goes remember that it was a Christmas episode and plenty of death was implied though not shown. I think when Mr Moffat does have death though it is much more personal and deeply felt (River) rather than mass numbers of unknowns dying, but you are right he does have a habit of defying death i.e. Rory and Clara plus the Power of Three episode you mentioned (the magic sonic strikes again!).

      • @dschram (looks like replies only go down to a certain level). What death was implied? As far as I can tell, the town of Christmas was completely unaffected by centuries of war (as an aside, they seemed to be trapped in the town proper so one wonders where they got food from. I’d say the TARDIS’s pantry, but the TARDIS was missing for several decades at one point there).

        Christmas specials are hardly immune from death – remember the Space Titanic one?

        River never exactly died. In a way she was Moffatt’s *first* character death save. And it was AWESOME because it hadn’t become a pattern yet. That ‘Silence in the Library’ two-parter is still arguably the best single story in modern Who (and its main competitors, Blink and The Empty Child) were by Moffatt, too). But now that it’s happened again and again it’s seriously losing its charm.

        Donna’s erasure comes close but I’m not sure *any* modern Who has actually killed a major supporting character. Unless you count the Face of Boe.

        BTW, it looks like the article I was thinking of was “What Stephen Moffatt doesn’t understand about grief and why it’s killing Doctor Who”. It’s in the links below this blog post.

      • The town’s food probably came from the church, I think that is where the Doctor got his marshmallows.

        Don’t believe Space Titanic was Moffat’s.

        Death and/or separation, that is was causes the grief. I find the Moffat era and stories to be more tragic and heartfelt (except for Donna) than the Davies but that is my personal opinion and just how I feel.

        I read the other article you mentioned about grief/death in the show. I often wonder if we are all watching the same show. But it seems to be a matter of what you focus on and personal preferences. I like Moffat’s timey-wimeyness and the storylines and how he connects things together.

      • They had enough food in the church to feed an entire village for decades (if not centuries)? Really?

        Yes, Space Titanic was one of RTD’s Christmas specials, which was my point – you said that Time of the Doctor went light on the body count because it was a Christmas special. The Space Titanic episode is evidence that Doctor Who is hardly averse to killing off people en masse just because it’s Christmas. (Christmas ended poorly for the Sycorax and the Racnoss too). It’s specifically a Moffett thing.

        I may have given you the wrong idea: there’s an awful lot I like about the Moffett era. He gets ‘timey-wimey’ like noone else, he’s probably the most innovative Who creator out there and he’s a genius at planting story seeds that bear fruit in the finale.

        But he’s not infallible. He has a number of flaws and those flaws become increasingly noticeable the longer his run goes for. His emotional arcs are shallow (Rory and Amy experience severe marital difficulties for ONE episode, for example), he seems to have a stock template for female characters (and poor River was completely swallowed by exposition girl by the end), he likes to reboot the universe for a finale a lot and he has every single female character develop a crush on the Doctor, amongst other quirks.

        RTD wasn’t perfect either – he had his own flaws (an over-fondness for Daleks amongst them). And Moffatt’s now been running the show for about as long as RTD had when he stepped down and let someone with fresh strengths and weaknesses take the helm. IMO it’s time for Moffatt to consider the same, although I very much hope he continues to contribute individual stories because he is phenomenal at that and, IMO, his greatest weaknesses tend only to emerge at the long-running scale.

  2. I’d like to add a gripe of my own: If the Time-Lords are waiting on the other side of that crack for the Doctor to speak his name and let them know they’re in the right place, how is it that they’re able to close that crack and open the SUPER crack in the sky?
    I really wanted to feel as emotional at the end as I did at the finale of The End Of Time as I’ve enjoyed Matt Smith in the role (although I don’t think he’s always had very good scripts to work with), but I just felt a little cheated when he didn’t “explode” the way Eccleston and Tenant did, as you put it.

    • One assumes that opening a super crack is a massive expenditure of effort and energy and the Time Lords were holding off on opening it until they knew the time was right (ie. That it was safe on the other side).

      Presumably they weren’t planning to bring the entire planet of Gallifrey through that crack in the wall.

      When they learnt that it *wasn’t* safe on the other side but that the Doctor needed help, they opened the super crack that they would’ve taken Gallifrey through and helped him.

  3. “So the army church from the Season 5 Weeping Angels episode use the Silence as confessional priests and that’s why you don’t remember them after you look away? Okay. That makes a basic and logical kind of sense.”
    No it doesn’t. It makes no sense whatsoever. What is the point of confessing if you don’t remember doing it?

    • Sounds like human nature to me. Do you really believe that, over millennia, people wouldn’t invent a way to make confession easier on themselves?

      The point of confessing is religious, and I can totally see people coming up with a way to ‘tick the boxes’ of confession but remove the awkwardness around the whole thing.

      A better question is why Confessor need the ability to electrocute people to death. For when ordinary penance just isn’t enough?

  4. You are right to gripe about this thing – it *was* a muddled mess, with a number of supposed-to-be funny-but-actually-just awkward bits and lacking the emotional impact it should have had. Oh, and apparently “stupid” is now standard for the entire Sonaran race. Joy.

    But you’ve indicated that a number of the reveals/answers were unclear when they really weren’t. In rough order:

    1. The Doctor had plenty of opportunity to find out about the Confessors either (a) during the 300 years he spent wandering towards the end of Season 6 or (b) during early Season 7 when he was travelling on his own a lot. It might’ve been nice to see him find out the information on-camera, but he’s had countless adventures off-camera and I don’t mind hearing bits about them in dialogue. It makes the show feel larger than just what’s shown onscreen.

    2. The cracks in time were created by the TARDIS exploding in Season 5 and they remained a weak point in reality even after the universe was rebooted at the end of Season 5.

    3. Yes, the Time Lords hoped to take advantage of those weak points to return to the universe.

    4. The Church of the Papal Mainframe aka The Silence dedicated themselves to the goal of preventing the return of the Time Lords (and thus reignition of the Time War) by preventing the Doctor from speaking his name at Trenzalore.

    5. The explosion of the TARDIS was caused by a renegade arm of The Silence who attempted to prevent the return of the Time Lords by killing the Doctor. In doing so, they inadvertently created the very cracks in reality that the Time Lords were attempting to return through.

    6. Regeneration energy has been shown to be explosive before (remember it crashing the TARDIS at the start of Season 5 because Tennant held off too long on regenerating?) and presumably being given an entire new regeneration cycle is even more so. The Time Lords probably *did* use regeneration energy as a weapon during the Time War, but honestly it’s not that effective (it took down *one* Dalek capital ship and a couple of fighters) and the Daleks had millions of ships and weaponry of to rival the Time Lords’ own.

    7. Whether or not the Doctor will still die at Trenzelore is still unclear. There are two basic possibilities: (a) the Time Lords changed time and averted his death when they granted the Doctor his new regeneration cycle, or (b) The Doctor will still die at Trenzelore when he reaches the end of his new regeneration cycle. It’s probably #a since changing time has been stated in the new series to be within the Time Lords’ power. It doesn’t really matter until he burns through his new set of regenerations, though.

    With the exception of #7 all these were explained within the episode itself.

  5. I agree with all of this, except I really don’t blame Matt for this trainwreck – he did his best with an extremely dodgy script.

    Hands down the worst part of the episode was the treatment of Clara. The first time the Doctor sent her home, there was definitely, as you put it, no discernible reason, but it felt like a nod to Parting of the Ways. The SECOND time he sent her home, it just pissed me off. “9 tricked Rose into going home to keep her safe, so let’s top that, and have 11 send Clara home TWICE even though he PINKY PROMISED not to so its WAY MORE DRAMATIC.” Ugh. Since Dalek-Clara/Oswin her character development has basically reversed a little every episode and I’m running out of ways to defend her.

    • I’ve gotta say — I love Matt, but I’m really starting to wonder if he didn’t contribute to the sheer dullness of the show the last couple of years. I think he’s a good actor, but he’s not a lead. That’s the hardest thing about Doctor Who casting, to be honest — finding a weird-looking man who also functions as a solid lead actor.

      • You’re suggesting a female also couldn’t function as a lead. That’s quite the 360 on your baseless accusations of sexism in the episode.
        It’s a TV show based around characters who have motivations and emotions etc. You can’t cry about character development but then scorn them for having any sort of depth: maybe Clara did have a crush on the Doctor and maybe she wanted to pretend to have a boyfriend. Why does it matter? It’s Clara’s decision. If one of your friends did the same, would you scorn her? If you did, she’d probably stop being your friend – and rightly so.
        And as for many of your other points, as Irrevenant pointed out: most of the answers were actually in the episode. Maybe if you weren’t creating things to take issue with, you would have gathered the brain power to pay attention for five minutes.

  6. You captured it perfectly. I felt a tiny bit emotional at the very end when he was about to change, but otherwise I was confused and annoyed. All of Moffat’s worst tendancies as a writer were on display.

    • Yeah, the worst part is that I wanted to have a big emotional goodbye to Matt, but the fact that he mostly didn’t die (and the the CrackLords “saved” him in a way I still don’t understand) made it feel like it wasn’t real and it didn’t matter.

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