With Season Four due to arrive next year, Sherlock and Watson return in with a Victorian-themed special, which is perhaps the most perplexing episode to date.
Showrunner Steven Moffat has stayed away from two-parters for a while, but as is traditional for Doctor Who, a new Doctor means a fresh start for the show and it’s only fitting that the Twelfth Doctor get the same two-parter blowout end-of-first-series as his predecessors. After a season of teases, Missy is revealed as the latest regeneration of the Master (Missy being a shortening of the Mistress) and she’s come to Earth to turn the entire population of the planet, current and former, into a massive army for the Doctor, so they can be buddies in universal domination. As far as plans go, it makes sense for the Master, even if it is a bit disappointing. Michelle Gomez is fun in the role, particularly in “Death in Heaven*,” but seeing the Master reduced to an agent of chaos, rather than someone with a particular agenda or motivation all their own, feels more appropriate for a mid-season romp than a season-ending two-parter.
Despite its larger arcing issues this season, Doctor Who has had a surprisingly strong year. Each episode has featured entertaining and engaging moments and a good blend of comedy and drama. Even the season’s least substantial episode (“Robot of Sherwood”) still on the whole worked. As a Whovian, this reviewer will give the series many things. The moon is really an egg? Sure. Robin Hood was an actual living person, his persona accurately captured and unchanged by centuries of storytelling? Fine. But a giant, world-wide forest appears overnight, shields the planet from a massive unpredicted solar flare, then disappears into gleams of twinkling light and no one’s going to remember it? Nope. Sorry Who, can’t give you that one.
In their reviews of “The Caretaker” and “Mummy on the Orient Express”, the fantastic Tom and Lorenzo postulated that Clara has become addicted to traveling with the Doctor, showing many of the signs of addict behavior. While this is absolutely the case, and could certainly be part of where showrunner Steven Moffat is planning to take the rest of the season, with “Flatline”, another aspect of Clara and the Doctor’s arcs this season finally becomes clear—Clara is becoming more like the shifty, callous late Eleventh and now Twelfth Doctors, and the Doctor is none too happy about it.
Remember when the Doctor was nice? Let’s not even reach that far back: remember when he wasn’t an asshole? “The Caretaker” should be a lighthearted episode, a character-heavy look at what happens when Clara’s two worlds come crashing together. Instead, the episode’s lighter moments are weighed down by the Twelfth Doctor resuming old habits and treating Clara just as disrespectfully as the Eleventh Doctor. After weeks of promising developments (Clara’s front and center in “Deep Breath”, “Robot of Sherwood”, and “Listen”), after thoughtful, honest conversations between the Doctor and Clara and episodes that took their time, with “The Caretaker”, writers Gareth Roberts and Steven Moffat put the two right back where they were last season.
Steven Moffat loves childhood fears. He’s mined them for some of nuWho’s most effective villains: Something lurking in the dark (the Vashta Nerada), a threat waiting to pounce the moment you look away (the Weeping Angels), and now, the monster under your bed. These creatures tap into the intense, pervasive fears so many experience as children and like its predecessors, “Listen” is hugely successful drawing from this well. It also takes a common and, when explored, curious habit and exploits it for significant dramatic potential: why do people talk to themselves when no one’s around? Both ideas have been explored by Moffat to some extent already (“The Girl in the Fireplace”, the Silence), and so here he puts them together, hoping that between the two, there’s enough new material to make the story work.
The Daleks aren’t going anywhere, but with massive Whovian Peter Capaldi’s Dalek story out of the way, they’ll hopefully go on hiatus for a while and take their tiresome plot retreads with them, leaving behind the significant structural and character-based improvements demonstrated here. It would seem many of the season eight premiere’s most prudent choices are here to stay; only two episodes into the Twelfth Doctor’s tenure, there’s already a lot to be excited about.
There’s a new Doctor on the TARDIS, one with the energy and gravitas to bring significant and much-needed change to the series, and on the whole, this episode is a promising start for the Twelfth Doctor. Unfortunately, as big a difference as the Doctor’s regeneration has on the show, in the end, he is only the lead—the buck stops with the showrunner, and if Moffat’s unwilling to step away from his favorite and at this point, very overused toys, it seems unlikely the series will get the fresh start it deserves.
Doctor Who Christmas Special promo imageIn short, “The Time of the Doctor” features a plot that, while it is easy (on the Moffat scale) to follow, almost immediately fails the, “But why?” test. Why does the fleet understand what “Doctor who?” means? Because the plot needs them to. Why doesn’t the Doctor take the townspeople out of harm’s way with the TARDIS? Because. Why do the Doctor and Clara need to be naked, for that matter? Because. The answers we finally get to lingering questions aren’t satisfying, the promising new character of Tasha Lem is a pretty straightforward copy of River Song, and the gender politics are terrible (and in this reviewer’s opinion, destructive). The Doctor may have some fantastic scenes, including the final moments with Clara before his regeneration, but he treats her terribly and she doesn’t for a moment stand up for herself. After the wonderful “The Day of the Doctor”, this final story for the Eleventh Doctor is a significant disappointment, highlighting all of the most problematic elements of his tenure.
Doctor Who may be an international phenomenon, but when it comes to specials, particularly multi-Doctor specials, it doesn’t have the best track record. The Three Doctors (1972-73) , which kicked off the 10th season of the show, is fun, but lacks any significant emotional punch. The Five Doctors (1983), the 20th anniversary special, is a bit of a lark but it not only fails to live up to its title (the Fourth Doctor only barely appears, in one looped clip), it wastes most of its special guest stars. Then there’s The Two Doctors (1985), which doesn’t carry the extra burden of being an anniversary special but still fails to leave much of an impression, despite being an entertaining outing. Throw in the modern series’ spotty history with Christmas and Gap Year specials and current showrunner Steven Moffat’s season seven struggles with pacing, payoffs, and character and “The Day of the Doctor” looked to have a lot riding against it, despite the much-touted return of Tenth Doctor David Tennant and Billie Piper, who played fan-favorite Companion Rose Tyler. Fortunately with “The Day of the Doctor”, all of these fears are proven to be unfounded, as Moffat and director Nick Hurran deliver an exciting, emotional special.