“A long time ago, at the South Pole, the Doctor refused to regenerate…” Sounds like the opening line of a children’s story, doesn’t it. And that title: a reference to the opening words of so many fairy tales. As somebody who has been nattering on about Steven Moffat’s children’s fantasy fiction approach to Doctor Who on this blog for months, this obviously made me very happy. The difference between the two Doctors is explored through the medium of a fairy tale. The First Doctor spent his life learning how to be a hero, having never set out to be one. In fact, we are given for the first time one of his main reasons for leaving Gallifrey: curiosity.
I left Gallifrey to answer a question. By any analysis evil should always win. Good is not a practical survival strategy. It requires loyalty, self-sacrifice and love. So why does good prevail? What keeps the balance between good and evil in this appalling universe?
The answer to his question is of course: the Doctor. When Bill points that out to him he can’t quite believe it. For the First Doctor that’s just “a nice story”. For him, “the real world is not a fairy tale”. And looking at the last year or so of the First Doctor’s adventures, you can see exactly why he might think that. His negativity makes perfect sense when you realise that he suffered defeat after defeat in The Myth Makers, The Daleks’ Master Plan and The Massacre, and then lost his friends. Dodo didn’t even bother to say goodbye. So the difference between the two Doctors is there in a nutshell: one believes in fairy tales and the other doesn’t.
In one of the most meta episodes of Doctor Who ever, the First Doctor is understood entirely in terms of being a product of 1960s Britain, not a product of Gallifrey. That’s the point of those 60s values that keep cropping up to be played for laughs. The First Doctor’s sexism was actually remarkably rare for the 60s. As fun as all the dusting jokes are, it was Troughton’s Doctor who was the one to ask Polly to go make a cup of tea. The elephant in the room is of course Hartnell’s racism, because if you are going to exaggerate his sexism and make him a 60s cliche, then discrimination didn’t stop there in the 60s. If he is sexist, then the unspoken bitter taste beneath the surface is one of both homophobia and racism as well. And that… well, it just has to be ignored in the end. David Bradley walks the line of the difficult material he is given, and somehow manages to keep the right side of it, in a loveable grandfatherly kind of way. He makes some intelligent decisions with the material he is given. When Bill reveals that she is a lesbian, the Captain’s reaction is clearly one of surprise, but Bradley’s reaction is subtle and beautifully downplayed, easier to interpret as him not realising she is a lesbian rather than not realising lesbians exist. I gritted my teeth at what first appeared to be a bit of gratuitous swearing from Bill, until I realised it was setting up a reference to the First Doctor’s “smacked bottom” threat to Susan. Hugely funny, and again it is completely meta. This is all about 60s values, but cherry picking the ones that are actually usable for comedy.
The other big meta aspect of the episode is of course its acknowledgement that David Bradley is not William Hartnell. How glorious to see clips from The Tenth Planet used on Christmas Day, prime time in 2017. The episode doesn’t try to pretend that it is the same man, handwaving the problem with a line about holding back regeneration causing his face to be “all over the place”. Which would work if Ben and Polly’s faces weren’t all over the place as well. But the one big thing Steven Moffat has done for Doctor Who is to bring the series to such a pinnacle of storytelling sophistication that he expects the audience to just accept this and roll with it. The Doctor Who viewer of 2017 is not stupid, and doesn’t need Doctor Who to try to be immersive. That’s largely thanks to Steven Moffat.
And speaking of Moffat, he has had two huge themes that he has spun like threads throughout his work. One of which is the aforementioned fairy tales, and the other is death never being truly final. He has always wanted to have his cake and eat it: kill off companions and then have them not be dead. Both dead and alive. He did that again and again: Amy, Rory, River, Clara, Bill, Nardole. Basically everyone. And here is his final exploration of that theme, and its resolution into one basic truth: living on as memories. It’s a clever parallel for regeneration.
And also, the Doctor cheats. Here he cheats by identifying a very simple problem: there is a language barrier. He solves it by finding a common language that crosses borders, crosses no man’s land. The language of Christmas. Just when we think Christmas will be irrelevant to this Christmas episode, it turns out to be the very thing that defines it. This is a truly beautiful moment because it works perfectly whether you are religious or not. Whatever your own interpretation of the meaning of Christmas, this one’s for you. Take from it what you need.
The departing Doctor always has to get a big speech, and this time round he speaks to his future self, giving advice, and this is Moffat’s big moment to set out what he thinks really defines the character, doubling up as advice for the viewers:
Never be cruel, never be cowardly, and never eat pears. Remember, hate is always foolish, and love it always wise. Always try to be nice and never fail to be kind.
And there’s one final message: children can hear the Doctor’s name. In that moment the Twelfth Doctor says something that was overlooked in his lowest moments and embraced in his greatest. Doctor Who should always be for children, and then stay with them forever.
Finally, we get the moment of change, and as usual we can’t judge much from a few seconds. But I will say this: those few second of Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor are complete perfection. It looks like the future is in safe hands… RP
The view from across the pond:
After a painfully long wait, we finally get to see Peter Capaldi ending his run as the Doctor in this Christmas’s Twice upon a Time. I say “finally” but I don’t mean that as in “oh thank heavens that’s over”. Far from it! I mean, after a stellar final episode, I was dying (without regenerating) to see where the story would end. And now we know…
The fact is, I realize Peter may have been the Doctor more than any other actor to date. Bold statement? Maybe not. He’s the actor who made it a point to reply to fans and do things for them, like write letters to children, because he took the role seriously. He wanted to embody it and he did so admirably. Let him teach those who follow – this is the way to do it. I don’t know if we will ever have a Doctor like him again. Yeah, for those naysayers, he did have a more caustic wit, but that’s down to the writing of Steven Moffat. Of people I’m pleased to see move on, Stephen ranks highly. I’d have watched Peter as the Doctor for another decade because he had the gravitas, humor, and importantly, the sense of who the Doctor is. So for Peter, I say: long live the 12th Doctor!
Let me take a moment to be clear though. When Moffat was on his game, he created some of the most amazing pieces of Doctor Who lore ever. The problem was that when he was off his game, he was so off that he had the Doctor shoot an unarmed man who was actually a friend and supporter. So there is that. I think Moffat mostly redeemed himself between such works as The Return of Doctor Mysterio, The Doctor Falls and Twice upon a Time, but the scar is still there, just not as painfully as it had once been.
But the show is about change and change it does. Reminding us of its origins, David Bradley does an incredible job channeling Hartnell’s essence. And based on what I’ve read about how Hartnell felt playing the Doctor, I’m sure he would have been proud. Bradley, an alum of Game of Thrones and Harry Potter, may have taken on the role he was made for. I’d be delighted to see him come back to play the role again. Contrasted off Capaldi’s Doctor, the differences are shocking and often quite funny.
The return of Bill also touches upon my special love: ontology! Bill states that we are all just a collection of memories. I agree. While I’ve heard the occasional complaint about Bill not being real, I think she was absolutely real. Like what the Doctor experiences in The Rebel Flesh, this version of Bill was just as real as her flesh and blood counterpart. I’d like to think we are all more than our physical bodies. Bill’s inclusion was magnificent regardless of being human or glass. She was one of the best companions to date. Recall her early trailers; I cringed with worry: “Can I use the toilet”… “It’s like a kitchen”…. The person responsible for those trailers should have been exterminated from the show.
Speaking of, what an odd choice to bring back Rusty! A call-back to the second Capaldi episode (first proper episode post regeneration). No complaints; this was not a Dalek along the typical line. This was a means to an end. Meanwhile, the new enemy, the Testimony, … isn’t an enemy at all. That was a piece of brilliant writing on Moffat’s part. I find some of the best stories are the ones without an enemy and this one certainly hits the mark.
The Testimony unfortunately offers the biggest complaint I have about the episode. A species that can reproduce the dead like that takes away from the poignancy of death in a show like Doctor Who. Imagine if they brought back the Brigadier now? Adric? The sheer number of possibilities is amazing but it loses the meaning. I hope they are forgotten as a race in Who history. The only other complaint was a minor one: the Doctor considers going to Gallifrey to peruse the Matrix. But can he really go to Gallifrey now?
This story can be broken into 4 parts. Part 1: intro to the Captain and his plight (played superbly, by Mark Gatiss). His surprise reveal sent a chill through me all 3 times I’ve watched it. Part 2: Villengard where the Dalek is introduced and the enemy is revealed to be so much more fascinating than an enemy. Part 3: Christmas. Part 4: farewell. Part 3 nails it. We get a real life event that is by the sheer miracle of it, very “Doctor Who” and it works into the narrative superbly. What an amazing thing to do. The incredible feelings Doctor Who often inspires as depicted by a very real event on Christmas day. What more could you ask for in a Christmas special?
And then we come to the bit we’ve all been waiting for: the farewell. Capaldi must be a deep man, because his acting at the end of The Doctor Falls was inspired and he kept that momentum going here, giving us such a deeply moving goodbye. Murray Gold’s heartbreaking music plays as he bids farewell to Bill and Nardole, then the best music from Heaven Sent plays as he says his farewell speech. (I’ll talk more about that in a couple days.) There is so much heart in this sequence… simply put: it’s beautiful. Capaldi gave us the full measure of the Doctor. I have always said my Doctor is the current one, but I think something about Capaldi resonated with me. He will be a tough act to follow. But that said…
Jodie gets one line. No, one word. But her word sums up what we’re in for. She is going to be… brilliant!
Although, weirdly, I feel like I should give up pears for some reason… ML