For a TV fan like myself, the Brits have really given us a wonderful (long-running) tradition in the delivering of special Christmas episodes (aired on Christmas day) to both Doctor Who and Downton Abbey. (If you have been waiting for the North American airing of Downton season 4, I will tread lightly on spoilers, but use caution if you want to be completely uninformed.)
Doctor Who – The Time of the Doctor
I am the first to admit that I have trouble following this show, especially when it gets into its mythology, or when actor Matt Smith talks really fast (which they actually poked fun of in this episode), so I knew it was going to be a bit tricky watching an episode that deals with the end of the Doctor, as we saw in previous episodes. It was clear that he was going to die on the planet Trenzalore, which is unfortunately where most of this episode takes place. As you’d expect from a “special” episode, all the old faves are trotted out, including the Daleks, Cybermen, The Silence, Sontarans along with other familiar elements from the Smith-era Doctor’s episodes (including a touching little cameo). From what I could understand, the story also ties things up nicely in a sci-fi, time-travelling, cause-effect way.
This episode is Matt Smith’s goodbye to the series as well, and he gives his best manic-tender performance even though he’s shackled by age-makeup for much of the time. The other conundrum to be answered is the problem of regeneration — the immortal character of the Doctor regenerates from one form to the other, but he’s run out of his 12 regenerations, so now what? Frankly, I think the resolution was exceedingly pat and unexplained, but I don’t really care. I am looking forward to Peter Capaldi as the new Doctor (though not from the few seconds he had in this episode). So even though the only thing really Christmasy is that the TARDIS chooses to pick up the Doctor’s companion Clara from the moment she’s about to have a disastrous Christmas dinner with her family (she actually called the Doctor to pose as her fake boyfriend — how Three’s Company of her!) and that the town on Trenzalore is inexplicably named Christmas, but it’s got that Christmas sentimentality, and is a nice finale for Smith. (4 out of 5)
Meanwhile, back in 1923, cousin Rose is being presented to the King — it’s an aristocratic debutante thing — and much of the activity of this extended episode revolves around that. The entire household heads down to London for the event (which includes special dinners and balls to be thrown by the Crawleys). Despite their less-than-loving way, you’d think that Rose’s own family could have shown up to take part in this, but whatever (we all know she’s just a Sibyl-replacement). In any case, there are storylines to be had by all: Edith is super-mopey as usual (but with good reason); Mary has at least two suitors (let the battle commence!); Tom is still caught between upstairs and downstairs (with no help from scheming Thomas). With stuff going on for everyone, it seems surprisingly odd that they had to bring in all kind of guest characters to build an episode around. Most notably, Shirley MacLaine makes a wonderful return as Cora’s mom and this time she brings with her Cora’s brother Harold (played wonderfully by Paul Giamatti). A lot of the episode revolves around Harold and his affection for one of Rose’s friends; Harold’s servant brings a little American frankness and cheer (much to Carson’s chagrin) to the downstairs; and the upstairs get wrapped up in a silly bit of intrigue because of some trouble that Rose gets the family into — that Rose, she’s such a scamp! Things wrap up pleasantly enough, but there is not really much of that “season finale” feeling that accompanied past Downton Christmas specials. It seemed very much like a double-episode that could have happened during the main season. There isn’t even any mention of Christmas (since the episode is set in the summer). However, it’s nice to give our happy household some breathing room before the troubles mount up again! (4 out of 5)