Thursday, 28 December 2017

I Don't Want To Glow

Doctor Who
Twice Upon A Time
2017 Christmas Special

Here we are again, huh?  Another era over.  And just like last time, there doesn’t seem to be anything left to say about it or to cap off.  Steven Moffat seemed ready to follow Matt Smith out the door when he wrote The Time Of The Doctor, filling it with references and sort-of-but-not-really tying up loose ends, but the fiftieth anniversary Special went better than expected and he got a second wind hiring Peter Capaldi to follow Smith.  At that point, things seemed like they might get interesting again.

Day 1, practicing his David Bradley.
And they... sort of did?  The Twelfth Doctor (also the Thirteenth, Fourteenth or First Mk II, cheers Steven) was abrasive, rude and difficult.  He consequently spent Series Eight wondering if he really was a good man after all.  When it turned out this was in fact still Doctor Who, so duh-on-a-stick the Doctor is still a goodie (despite inexplicably being a prick now), things went sharply the other way: he got a hoodie, a guitar and (nyurgh) sonic sunglasses.  A softer, like totally rad Twelfth Doctor was born, one who could dazzle a room and change people’s minds with Youtube-worthy speeches.  It wasn’t subtle, and it made the whole Year Of The Douchebag seem curiously pointless, but Capaldi was still too good to pass up.  He waded through imperfect scripts and usually got something good out of them.  (And he finally got a hands-down classic episode, though for me it remains his only one.)

Sure enough, the scripts stayed largely flimflam and balls.  Did anyone think recasting the lead would fix that?  We still had a showrunner obsessed with cool-sounding, ultimately dead-end arcs, a Mary Sue companion who held ridiculous sway over the Doctor and a permanent reservation for Mark Gatiss, no questions asked.  Moffat continued to put his mucky stamp on the show’s history at every opportunity, asking silly questions where we can all guess the answers, and the stakes only seemed to get smaller.  Series 10 refreshed some of these elements, particularly with a new companion who was recognisably from Earth, but other shortcomings remained the same.  It wasn’t much of an era for Capaldi (who still seems like the new guy to me), and now he’s off, which just seems like the thing you do after three series rather than a natural progression for him.  (Not that he has been here three years; let’s not forget 2016, The Year Of One Episode.)  He’d have already gone in The Doctor Falls if we didn’t need a Christmas Special, so here we are again, putting his golden jazz hands on hold for one more hour.  As it happens, “on hold for one more hour” is a fairly accurate synopsis for Twice Upon A Time.

The Doctor doesn’t want to regenerate.  “Ah,” I hear you say, “this again.”  For the Tenth Doctor famously Didn’t Want To Go, which seemed overly dramatic at first but was actually in character for him.  (Even that time he was a different species.)  It’s a fear of death, and we can all relate.  But that kind of psychological scaffolding isn’t in place this time.  The Twelfth Doctor never seemed like he had an issue with change (ahem, hoodies), if anything he’s quite pragmatic and unsentimental, so he’s probably quite likely to just get on with the switch.  Alas, it’s not just a new Doctor he’s got a problem with, it’s continuing to live at all.  Eh?  He wants to die?!  Not so relatable.  There’s nothing wrong with him making a principled stand, but it would be nice if they’d properly set it up first.  Okay, there is a hint of no-more-regeneration ennui right back in his first episode when he confronts the Half-Face Man; also Heaven Sent memorably relates the gruelling process of regenerating ad infinitum, although that was a time-loop and it’s not exactly clear whether he remembers it, since he says he’s 2,000 years old here.  These bits do hint towards not wanting to go on any more, but he doesn’t actually talk about it all that much apart from there, and seems pretty zesty in general.  Transparently the only reason he’s stamping his foot now is that we need to squeeze another episode out of him first.

Speaking of transparent: the Testimony.
Delivering the best pain relief on New Earth!
To help said foot-stamping along we have a juicy parallel: the First Doctor himself, sort of, pottering around the South Pole and also refusing to regenerate.  This doesn’t fit what we know about him – our Doctor even points that out! – but I can see how having another Doctor suffer the same crisis might give it some credence.  It’s cheating, but what else is he going to do?  It’s also somewhat redundant as we know both of them are going to regenerate, but it could be compelling to watch them come to terms with it.  However, there’s bonus redundancy: the First Doctor is played by David Bradley, who dramatized William Hartnell’s exit from the show in An Adventure In Space And Time.  Hartnell, too, didn’t want to go.  (Thanks to Mark Gatiss’s mawkish and revisionist script, he even said David Tennant’s final line to ram it home.)  In other words, you’ve seen David Bradley go through these motions – and more affectingly so, as the stakes made more sense for the actor than they do for the character.  (The Doctor’s a Time Lord, and while regeneration must be scary as hell, especially the first time, a figurative gun to his head is not obviously more appealing.  And that’s what not going through with it means.)

If peculiar characterisation of the First Doctor is going to be an issue for you, locate your nearest exit.  Twice Upon A Time has some odd ideas about William Hartnell’s time on the show, knotting together his real life irritability with certain red flag moments like threatening Susan with a “jolly good smacked bottom” to create an embarrassing, frequently non-PC stereotype.  This Doctor is so out of time – chuckling at remarks about women being “made of glass”, casually explaining that Polly is there to clean the TARDIS – that Capaldi-Doc keeps having to apologise for him.  As with his shared refusal to regenerate giving us a convenient “this totally makes sense you guys” comparison, it’s a lazy straw man to show how far we’ve come, and it’s astonishingly unearned.

In the first place, Hartnell wasn’t like this: he could be equal-opportunities blunt with people, but some of that was the actor rather than the character, and any of this sexist rubbish would have rightly earned him a black eye from Barbara or an intervention from Verity Lambert.  More importantly, if any era of the show has given us sexism and a juvenile obsession with stereotypes, it’s Steven Moffat’s.  We’ve had the Eleventh Doctor lusting after Clara’s arse, Amy wanting to shag her duplicate, River Song highlighting The Differences Between Men And Women – Am I Right, Girls? and a general sitcom-esque objectification of females.  (No, making them magically better-than-men is not a compliment.)  It’s the reason I’m very grateful Moffat isn’t the guy writing the first female Doctor, as it would likely be about as empowering as Roy Chubby Brown.  Considering Bradley-Doc is largely here for the fan-service, it’s an utterly bizarre move to then insult him, especially for things either misunderstood or taken out of context.  (The “smacked bottom” remark came right before his granddaughter left the show; infantilising her probably came out of desperation to keep her.)

If you want to be charitable (again), Bradley-Doc’s behaviour can be interpreted as a finger-wagging response to those outraged by a female Doctor, showing the worst knee-jerk response for the silliness it is.  However, they do this by misrepresenting the show’s own past (and annoying people who like Hartnell), risk irritating people who are concerned about Jodie Whittaker but aren’t raging misogynists, and it all sounds completely insincere coming from the Coupling guy anyway.  So I’m not on board this particular train of thought.

"You'll not mind me saying this, since lots of my friends are black..."
As for Bradley, his obvious talents and accolades notwithstanding, I wasn’t convinced by him as Hartnell in the docudrama and I’m still not.  His cadence is quite different, he’s breathless and vaguely amiable, the loveable waspishness is absent; he holds onto his lapels as if his life depended on it, which ends up looking a bit desperate, like Churchill always having a cigar in his gob.  Between him being mischaracterised and Capaldi having his unearned end-of-life crisis, the whole thing has roughly as much depth as Time Crash.  We get the same level of gags with a Classic Doctor mocking new Who tropes, such as the screwdriver, the sunglasses and Capaldi’s rock star grandstanding; Bradley is right to mock them, but it’s no good just serving up your own shortcomings if you’re not able to rise above them.  All it does is make Capaldi look like a collection of stupid habits.

The entire episode can’t just be a refusal to regenerate followed by a shrug and an “Oh well, I guess I’ll regenerate then”, particularly as it’s instantly obvious to Capaldi that Bradley snuffing it would erase him anyway.  Sure enough, there’s no real discussion to be had on the subject: they admit they’re a bit scared, cheer up and then it’s time to go.  So time goes a bit wonky, and Mark Gatiss arrives as an unintentionally Hitler-esque First World War soldier, who is also about to die.  He’s been taken out of time, or rather some aliens are trying to put him back in his proper time because of the Doctors not dying, possibly – it’s not very clear what he’s doing in the South Pole, but the Testimony are keen to get things moving deathwards.  They are a futuristic database who come to all of us when we die, for reasons the Doctor immediately assumes to be sinister.  He is keen to keep the Captain alive, which provides a sort of parallel to his own situation.  I’m not sure it’s needed with Bradley having literally the same crisis right next to him, and the character’s happy ending scuppers any parallel about accepting your own death, but let’s face it, it’s a gig for Gatiss.  He’s rather good here, although the repeated “I’m not really following all this” gag doesn’t appreciate in value.  The notably nameless character does end up in fanwank territory, inevitably, retconning the Doctor’s relationship with one old friend as something he always intended; like all of Moffat’s retcons, it doesn’t actually fit and you’ll instantly file it under “Nope”, but hey, it’s his last episode!

Also here: Bill.  Sort of.  Because this is Moffat Who and nobody ever dies, Bill already survived her own demise in The Doctor Falls, flying into space with Heather.  This isn’t the same Bill – it’s a collection of memories created by the Testimony, which she argues is exactly the same as Bill anyway.  (There’s a bigger discussion to be had there, which we of course skip.)  Much like Clara hanging around with Smith before he regenerated, Bill is a latecomer and doesn’t have that strong a bond with the Doctor, and there’s not much left to say besides her telling him to regenerate, and also having some awkward downtime with Bradley-Doc.  In some of Pearl Mackie’s most forced dialogue, she quizzes the First Doctor on why he left Gallifrey and what he was running to, which Bradley/Moffat promptly points out is a brilliant question and not just a nothingy way to ask the same thing again.  Yes, we get another examination of the Doctor’s history, followed by another summary of how wonderful and cuddly and gumdrops he really is.  (Provided you ignore all the sexist comments.)  It made me realise just how much time Moffat has spent revising and repeating the basic tenets of the show and obsessively trying to own them, and not for the first time, it made me clock-watch.

"I left Gallifrey, of course, to get a bit of peace and quiet!  Women, you see.
Also they can't drive."
Bill also restores the Doctor’s memory of Clara, i.e. gets Jenna Coleman in for a cameo, which is also a bit like Smith’s exit – sorry Clara, Amy’s calling!  This chucks away whatever lingering relevance Hell Bent might have had, with its confused amnesia resolution, but it’s not the first time Moffat’s made a big stink about something, got bored with it and then binned it altogether.  For example, he seems to have forgotten that Clara erased the Doctor’s memory, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense for her to complain about it here.

As the episode draws to a close, it’s awkwardly clear there’s been almost no plot.  The Testimony are apparently a nice enough bunch, so there’s exactly no danger here: they want to store memories so we don’t truly lose people, i.e. they do exactly what Gallifreyans already do with the Matrix, which the Doctor has no problem with.  (It also recalls the “Heaven” stuff from Series Eight, probably unintentionally.)  The Doctor needs to look them up first on “the biggest database in the universe” for some reason, which shockingly-not-shockingly involves the Daleks, and gives him a weird excuse to go and see Rusty from Into The Dalek.  Then it’s back to the war, somehow skipping forward in time to the Christmas Armistice in order to save the Captain’s life, although time was frozen when they left so how does that work?  Both Doctors agree it’s time to cark it, and the First Doctor successfully pilots his TARDIS for the second time this episode, after reminding us it’s something he can’t do.  Because Christmas.  Capaldi-Doc talks to not-Bill and not-Nardole who implore him to regenerate, so he does.  While this whole journey could be seen as a fourth-wall bothering look at a TV show that must go on and on like no other, in that arena it’s scuppered by Heaven Sent, which said all of that already.

But you can hardly blame Moffat for having nothing left to say.  This episode, after all, is stalling.  With no great threat to kill the Doctor (it happened in The Doctor Falls, and frankly it was disappointing), this is the over-extended farewell tour from The End Of Time, stretched to a whole episode.  You’re here for the regeneration scene.  Finally, it comes, and it’s just as noticeably out of puff as the rest of it, not helped by treating regeneration as something you can virtually ignore, save for one scene where Capaldi gets a slight cramp.  When it comes to the famous last words, Moffat already wrote a beautiful speech about regeneration in Matt’s (otherwise pretty wretched) send-off: all about looking at your past and accepting that was all you, but it isn’t you now, it was poignant and apt, and troubled the fourth wall only a little.  What else is there to say, especially with no one to say it to?  So Capaldi, a Doctor now known mostly for speeches and grandly pointing at things, reels off an overcooked confection of Terrance Dicks, Bertrand Russell and Capaldi’s own remarks at a convention, which merrily puts a fist through the fourth wall.  (Granted, “only children can hear my name” probably sounded great in front of adoring fans, but it’s doolally coming from the Doctor, who is not prone to self-mythologizing.  It also sidesteps that River knows his name, although if we can now go forward and pretend she didn’t happen, I’m all for it.)

First drafts included: "Fandabbydozy!"
"Eh bah gum, I got new eyebrows I 'ave!"
"They're pickin' us off, one by one!"
Push finally comes to shove and we’re reminded how far Peter Capaldi has come from the unpleasant guy of Series Eight.  Or possibly we’re just ignoring it; they didn’t have to write him that way in the first place, and they just twisted him 180 degrees afterwards.  His era was consequently all over the place.  But he’s a ferociously good actor, and while the mean stuff was a bad fit for the Doctor, those pricklier moments were always interesting to watch.  (Look at Dark Water when he coldly ignores Clara’s threats, or Face The Raven when he brutally snaps at Ashildr, or any time he smiles, looking like a dinosaur on the hunt.)  Capaldi has always been better than the material, sometimes sailing above it (“I am the Doctor and this is my spoon”), but Twice Upon A Time doesn’t give him enough to deliver anything heart-rending.  A vague moral wobble complete with standard issue terrible jokes (“You’re the very first Dalek to get naked for me”) and a handful of good ones (“I assumed I’d get… younger.”  “I am younger!”), it’s as empty and twee as its title.  So long, Angry Eyebrows.  We’ll always have Heaven Sent.  And toodle-oo, Moffat.  Cheers for the good episodes.

Over to you, Chris and Jodie, for the one bit of the episode people will be talking about for the next year.  What of the new guy?  (Gal.  Person.  The new Doctor, right, there we are.)  Jodie Whittaker makes a likeably goony face on seeing her reflection, which some have taken to point us in a David Tennant direction, but her first words are about as inspiring as Capaldi’s last: “Oh, brilliant!”  (Hey, at least we’re spared the “I’ve-got-new-[blank]” gag, but this is still barely above a pleased grunt.)  The scene itself is such a repeat you could call it a parody: the TARDIS crashes again, this time with the Doctor falling out of it.  So that’s every New Who regeneration, plus the opening of The Eleventh Hour, with less grip?  Would it be possible, once in a while, for something else to happen during a regeneration?  But let’s leave the fears of unoriginality to Series 11, with the appropriate ducking and covering that entails.


  1. Watched this last night in perfect conditions - after dinner, comfortably relaxed with a glass of wine and full attention. Earlier in the day ABC television here in Australia had been running through some old Christmas specials. I happened upon The Runaway Bride from 10 or so years ago. Not an episode I had thought about in a very long time.I sat down briefly to watch some of it amidst foldimg ironing and with children and pets coming and going. 50 or so minutes later we all got up and went about our tasks again. Twice Upon a Time is objectively better television in every way compared to Runaway Bride - far better actors (nobody in their right mind could argue Tennant and Tate are better actors thsn Capaldi, Bradley and Mackie), much better production values, infinitely better direction and cinematography and written with high emotion, sophistication and soaring rhetoric completely absent from the RTD era episode. And yet, and yet, seeing that silly overblown nonsense with Catherine Tate shouting at everythimg and everybody, David Tennant doing his annoying teeth gritting shtick and no attempt to disguise high summer in Cardiff for winter in Chiswick gave me more joy, more pleasure and kept the kids rapt than the final Capaldi episode. It crackled with wit and invention and the plot rocked along and the doctor DID things, not Just SAID things no matter how eloquently delivered. It was ALIVE. I miss that silly old show. Jodie's two minutes of pure wonder and delight rekindled an interest I hadn't felt in years. After mostly enjoying series 1 to 5, I gave up on large chunks of series 6 (not due to Matt Smith, but it felt airless and over complicated), Returned for some of series 7, was keen for series 8 because of my enjoyment of Peter Capaldi's acting, but it peetered out to watch later before the end of that series. Series 9 is a bit of a blank but I started watching again in series 10 due to the marvellous Pearl Mackie. My brain (and reviews) kept telling me that this was the best the show had been but my heart simply hasn't been in it. Jodie Whittaker though? YES YES YES. Let's just hope Chris Chibnall doesn't stuff it up. Thanks for letting me rant!

    1. You’re welcome! And thank you for reading.

      Runaway Bride has a certain tiredness just from not being the first Christmas Special – it reuses a few ideas, like robot Santas, without really justifying them. But I’m still nostalgic for all that, as even at his worst, RTD wrote scripts about people who want something. He’s quite a nuts-and-bolts writer. His characters have motivations. Tennant, for example, has solid emotional work to do there getting over Rose’s departure. (If only he DID then get over it.) Tate’s character is all bluster, but there’s a desperate pathetic quality to her as well; she was worth bringing back. It has some depth to it. Also some shit jokes and that bloody awful Racnoss, swings and roundabouts.

      “Airless and overcomplicated” is a very neat summary of the next era; Moffat spent so long on clever-clever bells and whistles that nobody really wanted anything, the stories often weren’t about anything. You end up with things like Twice Upon A Time which is an hour of procrastination – it should be a heartbreaker about a guy coming to terms with this huge change, but it’s tedious going through all that again anyway, and they never bothered to seed this problem into his character. (Unless you count Heaven Sent as a big signifier, which I suppose we ought to since it’s Moffat’s best script in years.) When he comes to say goodbye to Bill and Nardole, what’s any of that worth? Is there anything left to say to them – or in the case of Nardole, was there ever *anything* to say?

      I’m under no illusions about the next era will make it all better. Chris Chibnall’s mostly terrible. But I hope he’s at least more interested in people who do things for a reason.

  2. I share the almost universal concern about Chibnall taking over the reins but maybe we need some meat and potatoes Who akin to RTD's days after the gourmet Moffat era. Let's just hope he has his own Moffat somewhere in his writing team to give his series that magic and "quality" which Moffat sprinkled over the workmanlike RTD era. Not hopeful but casting Jodie seems a good start and my other big wish is that Chibnall remembers to write for the family audience. A dash of angst and introspection is fine but a new generation of viewers won't be won over by endless soliloques, regardless of the magnificence of the delivery. We need the highmindedness but the silliness and sense of wonder too. Oh and I do hope we lose the blue light filter. Let's bring the show blinking out into the light of day. Onwards and upwards and back to BF while we await Chibbers with that slight shiver of apprehension.

  3. ACED IT.

    So much good stuff, and we agree with all of it. You're much better than us at tracking the development(?) of the Twelfth Doctor's character.

    Re the Jodie start: one of us (granted, she is endearingly prone to loony theories) is convinced that Chibnall is going to be all Pertweeish and have everything set on Earth. She was even more convinced after seeing Jodie plummet out of the TARDIS. The rest of us are worried it will be wall-to-wall trad Who. Deep sigh.

    1. Thanks! Your review was very satisfying. Conversely, I think you went to town on the Moffat era more than I did! He had it coming.

      With Twelve, I don't feel they nailed who he is and consequently he didn't have his own era. Some of it was just Matt's on life support. The more I think about it, Heaven Sent is probably meant to explain his position here, but I just don't think it's a theme for him. That's a great episode and in that context, contemplating death over regeneration makes sense. It just hasn't come up elsewhere. Plus he's the Doctor - he can toy with this but as you say, come off it, he loves being alive.

      Also fun fact: I just realised he withheld his regeneration for TWO episodes. Jesus, I hope Chibnall goes back to just getting it over with. The drama is whether he'll do the thing that makes him need to regenerate, not the process.

      Agree with your loony theoryist that we're probably getting some time on Earth next. Big whoop in Doctor bloody Who - sometimes for a treat, it ISN'T set on Earth! - but hey, it would be a change of pace. If not exactly a new one.

      Let's face it, any port in a storm.