Saturday’s episode of Doctor Who, entitled ‘Closing Time’, has apparently received a bit of a beating online. This doesn’t altogether surprise me – every episode of Doctor Who gets trashed online, apart from three episodes that were broadcast in 1975 and starred Tom Baker. However, I’m the guy who likes to find something positive to say, so here goes…
Some background: The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) is fated to die, and so is going on a farewell tour throughout the universe. One of his final stops is a visit to old friend Craig (James Corden), a new and struggling father. Mysterious power outages lead them to a plot by alien cyborgs the Cyberman and hilarity ensues.
Now, I’m the sort of sci-fi fan who isn’t particularly bothered about sci-fi plots; I just like the characters that tend to inhabit them. And despite it being played as something of a comedy episode, Closing Time is really about one character – the Doctor, and how he’s facing up to impending doom.
(This isn’t really a surprise, as Doctor Who’s always been a show that embraces the fact that its lead character should be funny and charismatic. I tend to like shows like this – Fringe and Stargate: SG1 being two examples, and I stand by the idea that the most meaningful episodes of The X-Files were the one off comedy episodes.)
The Doctor’s death immediately encourages us to draw parallels with the last time this happened, back when David Tennant left and the Tenth Doctor died. The Tenth Doctor was a dashing, romantic lead, a man who’d finally been incarnated with good looks and social skills and who had therefore discovered he liked kissing. This meant that, when he discovered he was going to die (and regenerate into another body/actor) he railed against it, throwing petulant abuse at the man he would ultimately sacrifice himself to save. This was a shock, an out of character display from a character who’d started to believe his own galactic legend. His last words were “I don’t want to go”, and while the sentiment is fair enough, it came from a man who had become touched by arrogance and hubris. His fate paralleled that of his people, the Time Lords, and so the Tenth Doctor had to die to himself in order to put aside those flaws and become a new man.
That new man was the Eleventh Doctor, a bumbling professor, clumsy and lacking understanding of basic human interactions. It’s interesting that when he tries to deliver a big, epic, Tennant-style speech to his enemies, it blows up in his face and he drops the mic beforehand. It’s humbling, but also makes the Eleventh Doctor endearing and lovable, as well as bring him down to Earth. In ‘Closing Time’ he finds himself working in a shop, something to which the Tenth Doctor wouldn’t stoop (he sent his friend out to work back in the episode ‘Blink’).
(Incidentally, I don’t want anyone to see this as Tennant-bashing. David Tennant did a fantastic job and deserves all the kudos he gets as an actor and as an ambassador for the show. This is about the Tenth Doctor’s character flaws and how they’re tackled by Smith’s Doctor, who’s also fantastic.)
In contrast, the Eleventh Doctor seems to really enjoy working in the shop. Part of this is because he’s working in the toy department. Well, of course he is; the Eleventh Doctor has a rapport with children (all the Doctors have been able to speak pretty much any language under the suns, but only the Eleventh admits he can speak Baby). This is important – Doctor Who is a children’s programme that has been adopted by adults, and it’s at its best when it embraces this bit of its DNA, a dark children’s fairytale about a kindly wizard who fights the monsters, all dressed up in sci-fi robes. That’s why criticisms of this episode being childish may be missing the point – it’s interesting that the two main guest actors in this are regulars on the children’s channel CBeebies – James Corden is the voice of Little Charley Bear, and Lynda Baron played Auntie Mabel in Come Outside. A pseudo-romance has got the Doctor into his current mess, but I suspect a child will be key to saving him.
The Doctor also loves his name badge, bizarrely enough. I guess it’s understandable – it reads ‘The Doctor’, Here to Help’. That doesn’t just relate to the toy department, it’s his job role, his mission statement. The Tenth Doctor started to run away from this; the Eleventh embraces it, showing off his badge at every opportunity. Even at the start of the episode, when he just wants to leave and not get involved, his protests are completely undermined by the fact that he’s investigating even while telling himself not to investigate. The name badge just sums this up for a man who’s taken a lot of knocks lately – good people dying, friends put at risk, terrible choices being made. On the eve of oblivion, the Doctor gets to be the man who he always was, before he got a little too legendary.
(It’s worth noting that, in one of his Doctor Who novels, comic book writer and novelist Paul Cornell rewrote the writing on the TARDIS door to read “Call here to help”, which is pretty much a mission statement for the series as a whole.)
In the end, the world is saved and the Doctor goes to meet his destiny. It’s inescapable, we’ve already been told that – no tricks, no trapdoors, no regenerating into Hugh Grant. The Doctor is doomed and he goes to his death regretfully, yes, but also with humility and with the knowledge that he lived his life well. That’s in stark contrast with the last time he was in this situation – back then he pretty much had to die – but this time he’s going to face oblivion with dignity, an old man in a young body who accepts that his time is up. He’s learned his lessons.
And maybe that fact, the idea that this Doctor may have escaped the hubris of his predecessor, means there may yet be hope…
Tune in next Saturday!