Doctor Who: 2017 Christmas Special – Twice Upon a Time

“Letting go of the Doctor is so, SO hard. Isn’t it?”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

It’s been a strange Christmas for me, with my life changing so much so quickly. In the circumstances, a story about letting go and embracing change was hugely appropriate, and strangely cheering. Twice Upon a Time felt like it should have been momentous – not only were we saying goodbye to Peter Capaldi’s superb Twelfth Doctor, but also to showrunner Steven Moffat. In the event, I didn’t think it quite lived up to that; though if I’m honest, neither did David Tennant / Russell T Davies farewell The End of Time.

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There was a lot to like here though. For his final outing as writer and showrunner, Moffat let his fondness for referencing the show’s past off its leash. The result was a story that, slight though it was, may well have been incomprehensible to those not steeped in the lore of the show. That’s unusual for a Christmas special, which usually try to appeal to a broader audience than just the fans since so many casual viewers will be sitting down to watch just after their huge Christmas meals.

The most obvious reference to the past was of course the return of the First Doctor, perennial baddie David Bradley stepping back into a role he played at one remove in moving William Hartnell biography An Adventure in Space and Time. Those casual viewers may have been baffled by that “709 episodes ago…” prologue, but it worked to crossfade from the real Hartnell in The Tenth Planet to the face of David Bradley mid-line.

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Bradley didn’t quite pull off a convincing Hartnell remix, but he was at least as believable as Richard Hurndall in 1983’s The Five Doctors. In part, this was because the writing was as “all over the place” as his almost-regenerating face. Some of the time, the Doctor was written as earnestly as Hartnell, but a significant chunk of his dialogue seemed to be casting him as a Gene Hunt-style embodiment of political incorrectness, which didn’t quite convince. I could see what Moffat was trying to do in making him a reflection of the politically incorrect attitudes of the time Hartnell played the part, and it certainly was funny; but I don’t recall the First Doctor being quite so crass in his sexism.

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Interestingly, it was only sexism that he was guilty of; he didn’t exhibit any of the racism or homophobia that went hand in hand with it for Gene Hunt. That was surely intentional, given the fan furore about “political correctness gone mad” over the casting of a woman in the part. But given good lines, as he was in explaining his “mission” to Bill, Bradley gave the role some real gravitas (though to be fair, the line threatening Bill with “a jolly good smacked bottom” actually is a quote from 1964’s The Dalek Invasion of Earth).

Perhaps conscious of the rather overcrowded plot of 2013’s The Time of the Doctor, Moffat went the other way here with a story that was extremely slight. So, there’s these godlike beings preserving the memories of everyone about to die, they don’t really mean any harm, but they get knocked off course by the temporal paradox of two Doctors both refusing to regenerate, in the process unmooring a soon-to-die WW1 officer from his proper time of death. And… that’s it. It was at least fairly short on the obligatory Christmas references – the final sequence, in that legendary 1914 Christmas truce, was the only nod to Yuletide. It was a bleaker one than usual, but one full of hope – that’s one of few occasions in history that genuinely affirms faith in humanity.

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It’s possible that the story was so slight in order to properly revel in the possibilities of having the very first Doctor meeting up with the current one, in the first multi-Doctor story since 2013’s The Day of the Doctor. Bradley and Capaldi certainly made a good double act, with their bickering over the TARDIS décor (“it’s not a restaurant for the French!”) and the much-reviled ‘sonic shades’ (“Indoors?!”). The net effect, though, was reminiscent of Comic Relief mini-episode Time Crash, the sole purpose of which was to be a multi-Doctor sketch.

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In keeping with Moffat’s usual style was the fairly small number of guest characters – basically two, if you consider Bill, Clara and Nardole to be regulars of a sort. Mark Gatiss surprised me by doing something he hasn’t done for a while – acting. His polite, cheery Captain was believable and sympathetic, worlds away from his usual mannered, off-kilter bad guy performances. That the Captain turned out to be the ancestor of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart was not a huge surprise, if you’re a fan; though again, casual viewers may well have been baffled at the significance of the name. That said, this was certainly a more tasteful reference to Nick Courtney’s legendary character than having him rise from the dead as a flying Cyberman…

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It genuinely was a surprise to see the return of Rusty, from 2014’s Into the Dalek, as the other guest character. Nick Briggs gave the “good Dalek” a distinctive, more nuanced voice than the usual screeching pepperpots, and the whole sequence looked fantastic, with that constantly-exploding moon and the hordes of scuttling, unshelled Kaled mutants. Nonetheless, it was basically little more than plot filler – the Doctor needed information, came here and got it. Had the show needed to be a bit shorter, he could have just used the TARDIS Wikipedia and this sequence could easily have been cut.

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Still, it allowed for more exploration of both Doctors’ characters, and all that dialogue would have looked even more stagey had they not been moving from place to place to have the conversations. Both benefitted from the return of Pearl Mackie’s Bill as a sounding board / conscience, and I was actually quite glad to have her back. It was fitting that Jenna Coleman popped up in little more than a cameo as the ever-inconsistently written Clara; but for me, Bill was the Twelfth Doctor’s proper companion, not someone he inherited from his predecessor.

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As was Nardole, and Matt Lucas was as funny and moving as ever in the part. (“I have invisible hair!”). Their final scene, trying to convince the Doctor not to die, was both amusing and poignant; I certainly teared up a bit. Unlike his predecessor, Peter Capaldi didn’t get a Big Speech with which to say goodbye; instead, this scene and his advice to his oncoming regeneration made for a bittier but still tearjerking restatement of principle – “Love hard. Run fast. And be kind.”

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I’ve ended up loving Capaldi in the part after a fairly shaky start, and letting go of him really was a wrench. I’ve always found it a bit odd that, since the show’s revival, the Doctor can only regenerate in the Christmas episodes (and only while standing up and crashing the TARDIS). Since it’s effectively the death of the main character, that’s a bit bleak for a merry Christmas teatime.

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But it’s also a rebirth, and as such ends on a note of hope and optimism about change, something I very much needed this Christmas. I haven’t, as some of you might have expected, written anything on the choice of gender for the new Doctor – this is because I genuinely don’t see it as an issue. All that matters is whether the actor can fill their predecessors’ shoes. It’s a little hard to judge from our very brief encounter with Jodie Whittaker, but her one line on seeing her appearance – “oh, brilliant!” – gives me plenty of hope. Dubious though I may be at the choice of showrunner, I’m looking forward to a re-invigorated, changed Doctor Who for the future. And the same for my own life.

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