The Simple Story of an Epic Adventure, Jamming, 26/12/2013

Some of the feedback I’ve seen about Matt Smith’s swan song, The Time of the Doctor, was pretty negative. I think one reason for this negative reaction is the collision of the epic and the personal in storytelling. We had been building up to the regeneration of Matt Smith’s Doctor for just under a year. The announcement of his replacement was a half-hour live special on the BBC, simulcast all over the world. The story also wrapped up plot elements that had been left unexplained since Smith’s first season in 2010, ending and explaining all the story arcs that had driven the Smith era.

Yet we didn’t get a story of that kind of epic scale. The truly epic story was the 50th anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor. That redefined the entire Time War plot arc, redeeming the Doctor from having committed a horrifying act that would traumatize and scar his character irreparably, to a moral and ethical penance from having contemplated the act itself. 

Instead, we got a personal story about the Doctor’s relation to his own death, confronting the end of his story and the defeat that goes with it. Trenzalore was the subject of an epic buildup, a meme spread across multiple seasons, spoken with portentous words. What we saw of it in The Name of the Doctor was a macabre wasteland, a planet that had become the lifeless grave of a Time Lord. If this was the Doctor’s end, we knew it was a defeat.

Of course, that terrible end had to be overcome, and I’ll post my established sign indicating that there are 


One of the striking parts of Doctor Who
is its power to create creepy images.
before going on. Because The Time of the Doctor was ultimately a very small story. The epic details that explained years-long story arcs were throwaway lines, moments that weren’t really important to the development of the show itself. The attempts on the Doctor’s life that occupied seasons five and six were the work of a splinter group of the Church of the Papal Mainframe, trying to pull a Skynet and prevent the Doctor from ever reaching the final battle at Trenzalore at all. The cracks in reality were gateways that allowed messages from the Time Lords’ pocket universe to filter through to ours. The main Church was part of the bombardment of the planet, fighting the aggressive races who wanted to restart the Time War. The Doctor was caught up in it because the Time Lords were testing whether this was the right universe to which they should return by looking for the Doctor’s presence. 

None of this really matters, because this is the story of the Doctor and Clara’s relationship. The epic story of the siege of Trenzalore is a subject for montages and cinematic imagery. The wooden Cyberman is a wonderful example of this: a striking image that is ultimately just about the length and ridiculousness of the siege, a sign of how far the villains are prepared to go. 

Because the story is actually about the Doctor facing a mission that is literally his last, and how Clara deals with this. Clara, throughout the story, moves from an awkward Christmas gathering with her family back and forth to various stages of the epic centuries-long battle at Trenzalore. The Doctor is her best friend, and her family thinks of him as her mysterious boyfriend. There’s even a moment early in the story when they first enter the town’s truth-telling field when Clara admits that she fancies him. The Time of the Doctor ultimately becomes an interrupted love story. 

I would have loved a longer sequence of Matt Smith's Doctor
interacting with Clara's awkward family. Comedy gold.
The story is structured by Clara’s multiple forced returns to her family as the Doctor sends her to safety through the TARDIS. She’s sent away at the beginning of the battle, returns in the middle, and finally at the end. The moment at her Christmas dinner before her final return to Trenzalore comes with her grandmother’s tale of her husband’s death. This isn’t a story about epic adventure. It’s a story about someone losing a person she loves; about Clara losing Matt Smith’s Doctor. 

It’s about her encounter with the Doctor’s slow death by attrition as the battle slowly wears him down over the centuries. First it’s because Clara’s grip on the TARDIS door affected its return to him at Trenzalore, trapping him on the planet. Then, after sending Clara away for the second time, he stays because he’s resigned himself to the battle. It’s his task to see it through. Clara is forced to spend Christmas Day watching her friend die. We don’t see the battle in detail because Clara doesn’t see it. She hears only the stories of people on Trenzalore discussing the last hundreds of years they lived under siege from the accumulated rogues gallery of Doctor Who.

Every one of these posts is at most a footnote to the excellent Doctor Who scholarship of Phil Sandifer. He’s posted a discussion of The Time of the Doctor among the community surrounding his own website. One of his major themes is the tension between epic styles of storytelling (the drive to make a story bigger and mythic in its presentation and content) and the exploration of strange worlds and stories as ordinary people. Steven Moffat has a tendency to craft stories in these epic terms, but he also understands that the strength of Doctor Who rests in the small scales: ordinary people becoming extraordinary. 

This is the literal definition of Clara’s arc in her first season. The trick is that we see the extraordinary elements of Clara’s activity before understanding that she has always been a regular young woman. Her strength of character is ordinary, and it’s the condition of her becoming remarkable when life with the Doctor gives her a chance. Facing the Doctor’s death (and the end of the show, no challenge more epic), Clara saves him not through some epic intervention, but through an ordinary activity.

She faces the Time Lords through the crack in the universe, and pleads with them to help him. She speaks with the same sadness that her grandmother did talking of her deceased husband. If there’s a chance to save the life of someone you love, then you take that chance. 

So raise a glass to Peter Capaldi.
And the tragedy of Clara’s story in this episode is that Smith’s final monologue passes over her. Karen Gillan’s cameo as Amy Pond ultimately overshadows Clara’s presence in Smith’s regeneration scene. While Clara is the emotional and narrative heart of the story, and the key force that saves the Doctor’s life, her importance is overwritten by Smith’s Doctor’s vision of Amy. 

If Doctor Who has any sense of justice for its characters, the relationship of Clara with Peter Capaldi’s Doctor will develop a similar importance, if only to reflect what Clara has done as a character for the show. But that gravity will only create a similar effect as Amy did on Smith’s Doctor, or that Rose did on Tennant’s Doctor. When Capaldi regenerates, Clara may overshadow the present companions of that period. This is, for me, the most serious problem in characterization that Doctor Who faces in its modern era, the narrative gravity of “the first face that this face saw.”

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