TV Review: Doctor Who 2017 Christmas Special

Doctor Who
2017 Christmas Special “Twice Upon A Time”
Directed by Rachel Talalay
Written by Steven Moffat
Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Jenna Coleman, David Bradley, Mark Gatiss
BBC America
Air date: December 25, 2017

A long time ago, in a place not far, far away, it ends. The TARDIS arrives in a snowy landscape, an aged and fading First Incarnation of the Doctor leads his companions Ben and Polly out onto the Antarctic landscape in 1986 where the Doctor first encounters the Cybermen from the planet Mondas. After being taken prisoner aboard a Cyberman ship, the Doctor looks weak and confused. He insists on returning to the TARDIS. He tells his companions to “keep warm” and heads out into the snowy cold. Then, a voice is heard and a figure appears. It is the Doctor in his Thirteenth Incarnation!

With “Twice Upon A Time,” two eras end in Doctor Who: the tenure of Peter Capaldi as the Doctor and that of Steven Moffat as executive producer and showrunner.

After a plot-heavy, two-episode lead in with “World Enough and Time” and “The Doctor Falls,” Moffat seems to offer us a coda. He uses one, final episode to examine what Doctor Who has become since its inception and meditate on what it means. He gives Capaldi a fine (not) death scene in the process. It is beautiful, but after ten years since the show returned to the air, it raises some disquieting points that incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall should not ignore.

I tend to believe that Doctor Who is a show that mines its own past at its peril. With over fifty years of material to draw upon, there always is a temptation to “do a show for the fans” by bringing back some monster or tying in to some old plot point with the idea that this will bring big ratings. Where Russell T. Davies did this rather slowly, with only occasional more carefully chosen references to the past, Steven Moffat embraced the tendency more fully. He brought back old monsters, and frequently cribbed Classic Series tropes, with much, much greater frequency.

There are two traps inherent in these backward glances. First, they recycle material from the show’s past, possibly blocking new ideas. Second, their nostalgia speaks most directly to the core of committed fans, not the general public, reinforcing the cult-like nature of the Doctor Who phenomenon. Despite the near universal acclaim for “World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls,” I have a hard time seeing past the nostalgic gimmicks. The two episodes are cleverly plotted, and written to the usual Steven Moffat high standard, but a big part of the draw is a 1966-era Mondasian Cyberman costume and the return of John Simm as the Master (as well as giving the Master a hand in yet another origin story for the Cybermen.) It also seems to get a couple bits of black hole physics wrong as well, but perhaps my memory is faulty.

Here, we have yet another episode full of backward glances. It starts by consciously linking to the Doctor Who serial that both introduces the Mondasian Cybermen and shows the first regeneration sequence. It does this so strongly that it even bothers to morph William Hartnell into David Bradley in the cold open. It also brings back Pearl Mackie as Bill, and Jenna Colman as Clara (the last sequence shot for the episode was apparently Coleman’s part) using very deus ex-machina slight of hand.

The plot, well, there is not that much of a plot. Without getting too deep into spoilers, the bulk of the episode centers around the fact that a minor mistake occurs and needs to be corrected. The correction shows the usual Moffat amount of cleverness (i.e. a lot,) but it also reveals a backward glance that again appeals to fans.

The plot, however, is not the reason for this episode. The encounter between Capaldi and Bradley is. By bringing the two of them together, the episode proposes to examine the original narrative conception of the Doctor in relation to the most modern idea. While still nodding to the past, that’s a worthy dramatic idea to my mind.

The idea of the Doctor that Moffat has most fully realized during his seven year tenure as the show’s creative force is probably best summed up by a description spoken by River Song in “The Forest of the Dead” just before Moffat took over:

Well, yes, the Doctor’s here. He came when I called, just like he always does. But not my Doctor. Now my Doctor, I’ve seen whole armies turn and run away. And he’d just swagger off back to his TARDIS and open the doors with a snap of his fingers. The Doctor in the TARDIS. Next stop, everywhere.

It’s a conception of the Doctor as the heroic, romantic leading man. He is a known quantity, to the point that armies, and whole cultures, fear him. He has swagger, and gadgets, lots of gadgets, or at least one gadget that can do absolutely anything. The sonic screwdriver was partly used to kill a Cyberman in “The Doctor Falls” after all; that’s a long way from the multi-functional tool that premiered in “Fury of the Deep” in 1968. He is more James Bond or Indiana Jones, than Sherlock Holmes or Bernard Quatermass.

The Bradley Doctor calls the Capaldi Doctor on nearly all of this. Bill asks the Bradley Doctor (in a blatant retcon) what his motivation was for stealing the TARDIS in the first place. The answer is of the sort that comes from a philosopher or a scientist, rather than a romantic leading man… as if that was something Hartnell ever really played. He points out that the Capaldi Doctor needs to take off his sonic sunglasses and actually observe. He seems slightly aghast when the Capaldi Doctor says that “the planet earth is defended.”

What criticisms are made of the Bradley Doctor? The bulk of them seem to be that he is not politically correct, particularly toward women. That doesn’t strike me as being terribly fair. The Doctor, as created in 1963, reflected those times, or earlier times. He was supposed to be an older man, a grandfather, who did not even reflect the values of young people of that day. Beyond that, he’s not really criticized… only treated as an information source and a subordinate version of the Doctor.

Steven Moffat was executive producer and showrunner of Doctor Who for six seasons, across two full incarnations of the Doctor. That’s a record second only to producer John Nathan-Turner in the 1980s, who shared creative control with three script editors (two good, and one not-so-much). The show was restarted as an all-star showcase project, much as if Aaron Sorkin or Shonda Rimes (in the United States) were given a chance to do anything for TV. Russell T. Davies wanted to revive it. Moffat took the reins on the strength of his past experience producing situation comedy and solid Doctor Who scripts — he didn’t become a real star until this and Sherlock made him one. His tenure was marked by some stellar writing, a lot of ideas (perhaps too many), a very young Doctor, and the oldest in recent memory. I’ve largely enjoyed the work he produced, but it’s time to move on.

Doctor Who has been many shows, with different producers and different stars. Now Chibnall and Jodie Whittaker come next. I hope for a slightly smaller, more anonymous Doctor. I hope for a better pacing and rationing of good ideas. I hope for somewhat more dimensional companions, who end their time with the Doctor with better times not worse ones. Whittaker was thrown from the TARDIS after the regeneration… what does that mean? I wonder.

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