There was a distinctly consoling and comforting tone to Peter Capaldi’s and showrunner Steven Moffat’s final Doctor Who outing. In many ways, this year’s Christmas Special provided a bridge across the troubled waters of the conclusion to a disappointing era and a contentious future for the landmark British show. It was also perhaps the finest that the series has offered at Christmas since David Tennant took on invading aliens wearing a bathrobe and was finally an effort worthy of Capaldi’s formidable talents.
The Doctor Who Christmas Special is now a fixture of British life on December 25th but rarely do they exceed their mandate of being some festively tinged sci-fi silliness to keep families wistfully distracted while they digest their turkey and Christmas pudding. Of course, when a changing of the guard is upon us such a lackadaisical approach simply won’t do. So it is with huge relief I can report that Moffat has not only upped his game by several notches in Twice Upon a Time but has also delivered a sympathetic open letter to fans urging them to accept the changes ahead by asking them to recognize that the show has always been about transformation.
DOCTORS OF FUTURE PAST
We begin with a flashback to half a century ago when the very first Doctor (William Hartnell) was about to undergo his first regeneration. The footage from Hartnell’s final episode, The Tenth Planet, bleeds into our current timeline with David Bradley filling Hartnell’s stern shoes with warm reverence as he stumbles out into the arctic wastes only to come across his twelfth incarnation. As the two most stubborn interpretations of the Gallifreyan, it’s no surprise that both of them are trying desperately to circumnavigate their impending metamorphosis with Bradley’s Doctor fearing of his future while Capaldi’s is afraid of his past. It is a masterful juxtaposition presumably employed to demonstrate the huge changes that the character and the show have undergone over the last 54 years and why the upcoming alteration is merely just another modification in this seemingly eternal process.
Joining the two Doctors is longtime guest writer and actor, Mark Gatiss, playing a First World War captain whose number was nearly up on the battlefield. With Bill Potts’ initial absence, it is the Captain’s duty to provide us with a surrogate sounding board that the Doctor’s assistant traditionally fulfills and distract our protagonists from their infernal squabbling. As soon as we have done the whole “bigger on the inside” bit, the Tardis is hoisted into the heavens as time itself freezes around them.
The “villain” of this year’s festive treat is a hive of crystalline figures known as “Testimony”. These serene beings provide vessels for the memories of every human who has ever existed (think the Shoah Foundation except for the whole universe rather than just holocaust survivors). And what’s so bad about that, you may ask. Well, not a lot it turns out later in the episode as Capaldi expresses with knowing relief when he gets to the bottom of their origins via the mainframe of an old frenemy. What they do provide, though, is a potent metaphor for preservation in the face of change and a brief way back for one Bill Potts.
Oh Bill, we hardly knew thee before you were so unceremoniously written out after just one season. Although Pearl Mackie’s character only gets to enjoy her brief resurrection for approximately half the episode, her appearance here is a timely reminder of not only how she made finally made Capaldi’s Doctor click but also the show’s persistently progressive attitude towards women since Hartnell’s tenure. Bill spars brilliantly with the First Doctor’s embarrassingly outdated views on the “fairer sex” that we can gently forgive given the pre-sexual revolution status of his character. It’s almost like Moffat is deliberately pointing out that women are just as capable in this universe as men. I can’t think why he would be taking such a stance and painting those who disagree as chauvinistic dinosaurs (yes, alright, I can and I will get to that shortly).
Unfortunately, Testimony’s functionality also allows Moffat to remind us of his biggest mistake: Clara Oswald. Jenna Coleman may only appear for a tiny reprise, but it’s more than enough to prompt memories of how far the show went off course during Moffat’s time as showrunner. And it is a shame to be reminded of such matters because Twice Upon on Time completely transcends the chief writer’s predilection for convoluted plotting and impenetrable lore by keeping matters relatively straightforward and his writing becomes infinitely more evocative as a result.
If you’re wondering where the “Christmas” is this episode then you’re in for a wait, but does it does arrive in poignant form once Gatiss’ Captain is returned to the time of his imminent demise. This gives leave for Capaldi to let rip on not one, but two, beautiful soliloquies as his own time comes to an end. They are both potent and memorable but most of all, they are a fitting send-off for arguably the most talented actor who has ever filled the role of the Doctor.
In a way, it’s frustrating that we’re only seeing this now. Capaldi’s time in the role has often been hampered by lackluster scripts and the series as a whole feeling directionless, unable to either support or transition the show’s unwieldy legacy in a satisfactory manner. The esteemed Scottish actor has been pristinely bold throughout and perhaps Moffat giving him his finest work since The Impossible Astronaut is by way of apology. But it would be the height of churlishness to wallow in the memories of misgivings in the face of such magnificence – however belated it may be.
Never before has a regeneration episode been so self-aware of the winds of change reaching gale-force. The theme of past memories runs molasses-thick through Twice Upon a Time and offers reassurance that your own memories will remain of Doctor Who, regardless of the seismic change ahead. But that reassurance is also accompanied by the timely reminder that Doctor Who has always been a show about transformation and re-writing its own history and fate.
TIME, GENTLEMEN, PLEASE
While our introduction to Jodie Whittaker is fleeting, it is remarkable how cohesive it already feels. The transition in sex, as well as actor, has caused the kind of conniptions that have become so sadly predictable in our current times, but it is a change that has already been canonically established in a race of beings that can change their entire physiology, so why not their chromosomes too. The real tragedy of this “debate”, is that Whittaker’s suitability for the role as an actual actor has become lost in the mix.
When her era begins in earnest in 2018, she will also be served by a new showrunner in the form of Chris Chibnall. There may be a degree of nepotism at work here since the two have previous working on the acclaimed British crime drama, Broadchurch. And it is this heavily dramatic background that makes one wonder if both can bring the levity to the Doctor that the role demands.
Moffat tees up his successors here with a moment of comic relief and immediate peril that leaves matters open to their interpretation. Both will be needed in the times ahead as the pressure mounts on Doctor Who to levels the show has possibly never experienced before. Although the focus will undoubtedly be on Whittaker to relay charisma alongside her already proven acting chops, Chibnall has the greater task in refocussing the show into a more concise nature that was so often forsaken by Moffat.
Luckily, and conversely, Twice Upon a Time has given them the perfect start and if it can be maintained, then Doctor Who will be truly regenerated.
A BEAUTIFUL AND HEART-RENDING GOODBYE FOR PETER CAPALDI’S DOCTOR REMINDS US WHAT ITS NOW FORMER SHOWRUNNER IS TRULY CAPABLE OF. TWICE UPON A TIME MAY BE LATE, BUT IT IS CERTAINLY NOT TOO LITTLE TO MAKE AMENDS FOR A DIFFICULT ERA IN THE SHOW’S LEGACY THAT WILL HOPEFULLY ONLY PROSPER FROM HERE IN ITS NEW GUISE.