On “The Death of the Doctor”

In spite of my love for Lis Sladen, I don’t normally watch The Sarah Jane Adventures. I watched the first season and enjoyed it, mostly, but there were other things to do with my time and, to be honest, getting ahold of the episodes always seemed like more trouble than benefit.

But I made an exception last year for “The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith,” the storyline that co-starred David Tennant as the Doctor, and this week I made another exception for “The Death of the Doctor,” the storyline co-starring Katy Manning as Jo Grant and Matt Smith as the Doctor.

For old-skool Whovians, this is the long-awaited return of beautiful, wonderful, bubblehead Jo. For nu-skool Whovians, this is the long-awaited return of RTD to the keyboard as he writes the eleventh Doctor.

On the first, I don’t have a lot of complaints; I think my tweet of last night says it all: “Does RTD’s fanwankery know no bounds?” The first part has references ranging from classic Pertwee stories to more obscure material like Timelash (Jo’s adventure on Karfel) and Death Comes to Time (UNIT’s super-secret moonbase); the second part has new and classic clips, clips, and more clips.

On the second, if you love RTD’s work, you’d love “The Death of the Doctor.” If RTD’s work sometimes sits wrong, “The Death of the Doctor” will leave you confused and frustrated and, ultimately, unsatisfied.

Sadly, I fell into the second camp.

Problem One. The villain’s plan was interesting. The henchmen were cool. But what, precisely, were they planning to do? What was the villain’s motive? James Bond super-villain plans make more sense than stealing the TARDIS to make everyone in the universe immortal. No, this was serious Underpants Gnomes territory.

Problem Two. This was The Jo Grant Adventures, not The Sarah Jane Adventures. Sarah gets kicked to the curb narratively when Jo Grant shows up about fifteen minutes into the first episode, and then once the Doctor shows up she’s a non-entity. Honestly, her only significant role in the story was to be the person who could explain to everyone else that the Doctor can regenerate (since Jo had last seen the Doctor when he was Pertwee and Clyde and Rani both knew Tennant). Sarah doesn’t even get a good-bye scene with the Doctor.

Problem Two-and-a-half. For that matter, the Doctor’s departure is strangely handled, and I have to wonder if the story ran over-long so they cut it in post. Basically, the TARDIS lands in Mr. Smith’s attic, the kids leave, the Doctor has a few words with Jo, and the TARDIS buggers off. I kept expecting something more, but there wasn’t. It was curious.

Problem Three. RTD’s great problem as a writer, in my view, is that he favors the emotional beats of the story over the plot beats. He’s not good at achieving a balance between both, and he’s especially not good at combining both. He does one, or he does the other, and he always prefers the emotion over the plot. “The Death of the Doctor” has this in spades. It’s not so terrible in the first part, but in the second part the emotional moments overwhelm the story and stop it cold. The most egregious example? Clyde and the gang are being overheated to death back on Earth, so the Doctor takes time out to give Jo a huge speech about all the wonderful things that she’s done with her life since he wasn’t there. Or, a machine is on the verge of exploding, killing everyone in a locked room, so all the characters have to say extended goodbyes.

Problem Four. The Doctor himself. Matt Smith gave it his best, but he felt off. Much of his part of the story felt like an epilogue, not just to the Pertwee era, but to “The End of Time.” Sarah asks the Doctor what regeneration felt like, the Doctor tells Jo that in the Victory Lap of Death he went and visited all of his past companions, not just the ones we saw on screen at the end of “The End of Time.” None of this really felt organic to Matt Smith’s Doctor. He also didn’t seem as darkly manic; the Doctor we followed in the spring would have let the Shansheeth create the TARDIS key from the minds of Jo and Sarah — “Go on, create the key, take it from their minds. It won’t work; I’ve changed the locks in the past seven hundred years!” What he would have come up with at that point I don’t know. But it would have been better than reprising the ending of Torchwood: Children of Earth, where characters are hooked up to alien brain equipment and they send a feedback signal that overloads it and makes it go kaplooey. The one moment that felt right was the Doctor’s use of last names instead of first names. Out of a lot of moments, one’s not many.

One issue that some people have had with the episode has been the regeneration limit; we learned in “The Deadly Assassin” that Time Lords can regenerate twelve times, for a total of thirteen lives. While escaping the Shansheeth, Clyde asks the Doctors how many times he can change his body. “Five hundred and seven,” the Doctor says, deadpan. This doesn’t bother me. Not one iota. Tony Lee, the writer of IDW’s Doctor Who comics, thinks the Doctor is just telling Clyde to shut up; it’s a throwaway line. Me? I think it’s the Doctor pulling Clyde’s leg; like you wouldn’t fuck with Clyde’s head if you were the Doctor. 😉 At the end of the day, the number of regenerations the Doctor is capable of doesn’t really matter, and I don’t see this one line as breaking faith with the past.

All in all, like much of Russell T. Davies’ work, “The Death of the Doctor” engendered mixed emotions in me. On a purely visceral and emotional level, I enjoyed it as I was watching it. I grinned like a madman when Jo Grant showed up. My heart broke when the Doctor and Jo had their heart-to-heart in an alien quarry. But it also didn’t sit right with me. I wanted more from it — more story, more logic. And when it was done, I thought it was merely adequate at best. It is, by far, the weakest of Matt Smith’s stories as the Doctor.

2 thoughts on “On “The Death of the Doctor”

  1. I’m quite sure Eleven said “507” because Clyde was asking so many personal questions – Classic Who canon implies that regeneration is a very personal thing – and here’s a teenage human boy asking lots of questions about it. And while we know the Doctor loves inquisitive humans, it’s a bit like someone you barely know asking you how many people you’ve slept with…

    I just wish they’d given this episode to someone else to write – if Moffat wasn’t available, almost anyone else would’ve done.

  2. I suspect the Shansheeth’s plan was a victim of either cutting for time constraints, or the production team chickening out- when they said they wanted to prevent all death, logically the only way to do that would be to stop life beginning, and that’s what I interpreted them as wanting to do.

    I’m not sure how merely having a TARDIS could prevent natural deaths otherwise….

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