BBC

Doctor Who Christmas Special: reviewed

Science and Technology Screen

As River Song would say, ‘Spoilers!’

At 5:30pm on 25th December 2017, I, along with many other members of the Oxford Doctor Who Society, sat down to watch the latest Christmas Special, ‘Twice Upon A Time’. We were all understandably rather excited, what with the departure of Peter Capaldi as the twelfth Doctor and the arrival of Jodie Whittaker as the thirteenth – poetically during the thirteenth Christmas Special – but as the Strictly Come Dancing theme began to ring out, the group chat made it clear that our opinions were divided.

Opening with a recap of ‘The Tenth Planet’, William Hartnell’s last serial, broadcast 51 years, and as the caption helpfully reminds us, 709 episodes ago, we are reintroduced to David Bradley’s interpretation of the first Doctor, briefly seen at the end of the previous episode. The recreation of the sets and scenes, now in glorious technicolour, was a treat for the whole minute or so they appeared – this brevity grated with some of our members who wanted to see more. As for David Bradley’s performance, the seamless transition of William Hartnell’s performance into his own shows the effort he has put into resurrecting the character, from the mannerisms to the speech patterns. While the voice itself was regarded as slightly off, he fares better than the actors playing his companions, Ben and Polly. While the recasting was necessary, and with Polly faring slightly better than Ben, the performances don’t quite do justice to Anneke Wills and the late Michael Craze. We were also surprised that they weren’t in the episode more, given that Doctor Who Magazine had dedicated a feature to their casting, but with so many returning characters already, perhaps it was for the best.

As for David Bradley’s performance, the seamless transition of William Hartnell’s performance into his own shows the effort he has put into resurrecting the character, from the mannerisms to the speech patterns.

From the bleak landscape of the South Pole in 1986, we move to another, albeit one of human creation. This is Ypres in 1914, where the First World War is underway. Facing off in no man’s land are a British and a German soldier (played by Mark Gatiss and Toby Whithouse, both also writers for the show). It is here we meet Testimony, the antagonist of the piece. Appearing as a lady made of glass, Testimony lives up to her name, recording the memories of the dying and using them to comfort the living. With the return of the Doctor’s latest companion, Bill Potts, we speculated whether she was connected to Testimony. At the start of the previous series, Heather, the subject of Bill’s affections, was incorporated into an alien ship as the Pilot, with the ability to transport anywhere at will. She later returned to save Bill, who had been converted into a Cyberman, forming a gestalt entity composed of them both. We wondered if perhaps, given that Testimony shows similar abilities to Heather, perhaps the pair had arrived in the future to become the basis of the Testimony foundation’s technology.

perhaps the pair had arrived in the future to become the basis of the Testimony foundation’s technology.

Testimony represents the concept of moving on, and this is placed at the heart of the episode, with both Doctors in a quandary over whether or not, as the first Doctor puts it, they ‘have the courage and the right’ to live on as another, or whether they should just die as themselves. While they are both struggling with this same problem, they are doing so for different reasons. The first Doctor is ‘very, very afraid’ of the future, of becoming another for the first time. For the 12th Doctor, this isn’t an issue, having regenerated 13 times previously. He is tired of life, of continuing to save a universe and a species (humanity) that don’t seem like they care anymore. As we know, both must eventually regenerate, but this doesn’t prevent the episode from being at its most thought provoking when this is discussed.

He is tired of life, of continuing to save a universe and a species (humanity) that don’t seem like they care anymore

As the adventure continued, we were treated to a range of references to episodes past. For example, we saw the Doctor return to the planet Villengard, a reference to ‘The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances’, Steven Moffat’s first story for Doctor Who, where the ninth Doctor told Captain Jack about how he’d replaced the weapons factory with a Banana Grove. Unfortunately, contrary to one prediction, the ‘friend’ The Doctor had gone to meet was not the good Captain, but Rusty, the corrupted Dalek from Peter Capaldi’s second episode, ‘Into the Dalek’. This served to bring Capaldi’s era full circle, though as it turned out, it was otherwise something of a narrative dead end. Perhaps the most important reveal was that Mark Gatiss’ Captain was a relative of The Brigadier, a companion to many Doctors, and not Gilbert Mackenzie Trench, the real-life designer of the Police Box, as some of us had predicted. The episode was accompanied by the departing composer Murray Gold’s score, dropping in themes from episodes past such as ‘The Doctor’s Theme’ for David Tennant, forward to more recent episodes like ‘Heaven Sent’, often seen as Capaldi’s best.

With the episode approaching its conclusion, there was still time to up the Christmas factor. The scenes of the Christmas Truce were genuinely warm and touching; this was only added to by the Doctors finally accepting their future. There was also time for the return of Capaldi’s other companions, including Matt Lucas as Nardole, last seen settling down on board a Mondasian Colony Ship as the Cybermen inexorably advanced towards him and his new family. The reappearance of Clara suggests that despite her new lease of life, travelling in her own TARDIS, she finally returned to the moment of her death in the Trap Street. Finally regaining his memories of her, the twelfth Doctor was now whole again, and ready to regenerate. His University lecturing days came to the fore as he gave his closing speech, which took the form of advice to his next incarnation. Once again Steven Moffat’s exploration of The Doctor’s true name resurfaced, causing ridicule from some members over the assertion that it can only be understood by children “if their hearts are in the right place”. But his final line, ‘Doctor, I let you go’, is beautiful; with the twelfth Doctor finally accepting that his legacy is not one to keep for himself.

Once again Steven Moffat’s exploration of The Doctor’s true name resurfaced, causing ridicule from some members over the assertion that it can only be understood by children “if their hearts are in the right place”.

The Doctor’s legacy was where the society had the most issue, due to this episode’s portrayal of the first Doctor. . While the line about the Doctor smacking someone on the bottom was lifted from a William Hartnell serial (‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’), that was referring to his granddaughter, not a grown woman he had only just met, like Bill. The character was certainly a product of the 1960s, a time where sexism was more prevalent,but that doesn’t mean the first Doctor shares its values. While we appreciated that the episode was trying to show that change is good, that The Doctor has evolved as a character, the intentional character assassination used to achieve this didn’t work at all. While there were many small moments where his character shone through, like explaining his grand intentions for leaving Gallifrey to Bill, or mocking the modern Doctors’ reliance on technology, his presence unfortunately still left a bad taste overall.

The character was certainly a product of the 1960s, a time where sexism was more prevalent,but that doesn’t mean the first Doctor shares its values.

Despite concerns about this version of the first Doctor, we looked forward to the arrival of the thirteenth. Her arrival, with the camera utilising her point of view, was very symbolic, showing the first Doctor’s chauvinism in sharp relief as the Doctor, and the viewers by proxy, see their world from a female perspective for the first time. The symbolism continued as the ring fell from her finger, recalling the first Doctor’s ring not fitting the second. And finally, her dramatic exit from the TARDIS, falling out as it dematerialised in flames, seemed to confirm rumours that Chris Chibnall may be planning an earthbound series, like the third Doctor Jon Pertwee’s first season, where the Doctor worked with UNIT on Earth.  While it may not have been the most original introduction for a new Doctor, with the TARDIS having crashed after regeneration for the past two Doctors, the final few seconds, seeing her fall from her ship, was certainly a memorable way to introduce a Doctor, with her literally dropping onto our screens. It is perhaps another symbolic moment, with the last action of the twelfth Doctor literally causing the fall of the next; his regeneration causing the TARDIS console to disintegrate which ties into the title of Peter Capaldi’s last episode, ‘The Doctor Falls’.

Her arrival, with the camera utilising her point of view, was very symbolic, showing the first Doctor’s chauvinism in sharp relief as the Doctor, and the viewers by proxy, see their world from a female perspective for the first time.

Steven Moffat pitched this episode as ‘somewhere between a coda and drumroll’. As such, it was perhaps not as deep or meaningful as it could’ve been, but it provided a good bookend to Capaldi’s era anyway. With reactions ranging from love to outright hatred, it was certainly a divisive affair for the denizens of WhoSoc. One thing we could all agree on is that, having bid a fond farewell to Peter Capaldi, we’re looking forward to seeing Jodie Whittaker take on the mantle of The Doctor very soon!

 

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