Doctor Who #995: Twice Upon a Time

"I suppose one more lifetime won't kill anyone. Well... except me."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Dec.25 2017.

IN THIS ONE... The 12th Doctor meets the 1st Doctor and neither of them wants to regenerate.

REVIEW: "...709 episodes ago" is such a great title card, and having already guess the location was tying into The Tenth Planet, seeing the action pick up from that point brought tears to my eyes. It's the final story of a Doctor (actually, TWO Doctors), that was bound to happen eventually. But a few seconds in? And then William Hartnell morphs into David Bradley (with some rather off-model companions, but a great recreation of the old TARDIS) and we're off to the races. Let's get the elephant in the room out of the way first and talk about Bradley's portrayal of the Doctor, or rather Moffat's writing of him. Even the biggest fans of this Christmas special have condemned his prejudiced attitudes. They're played for laughs, but the 1st Doctor being sexist (and borderline homophobic) was never part of Hartnell's performance or the show's writing. It feels like a dig at Hartnell himself, infamous for his dated attitudes, or at the era (though truth be told, the whole "Polly makes some coffee" is from the Troughton era). So yes, it's off-model, but the retcon does serve a purpose in this story. It prepares the audience for a female Doctor, and bluntly tells the fanboys who were vocally against it to get over themselves. The subtext of the latest Doctor meeting his first self is to say and show that it's been more than 50 years (our time) and that things have changed, companions have changed, and television has changed. The bit where Doc1 creates a cover story where Doc12 is his nurse is part of that. As soon as I declared that I'd seen the show (ad the regeneration), someone on social media immediately joked about whether it was now called Nurse Who. Well, Doc12 being branded that at once foreshadows the moment and undoes the sexist joke Internet jerks are likely to make about it. The first Doctor isn't entirely a relic that's meant to be repudiated, mind you. He also brings some strong commentary about the way used to be - like the lack of sonic ex machina - and the best parts of the character are present - like his warmth when dealing with young companions. He's more an idea of what the 60s might have been like, but that's not all he is.

Beyond Twice Upon a Time's lead-up to a female Doctor is the idea of two Doctors refusing to regenerate for different reasons. Doc1 refuses to let go of his first, initial self, not because he's afraid of what the future might bring, but because he hasn't found the answer he left Gallifrey to find. His future selves might not be interested in the question, after all. This is a retcon, but an intriguing one. The Doctor apparently left home to find out why or how good triumphs over evil, when evil has fewer limits. The cute answer is that good has a champion in the Doctor, but he hasn't become that person yet. Sliding this story into the timeline, we'll find Doc1 regenerating into the man who believes evil "must be fought". But there's frankly more truth in the idea that good is simply a more positive force in the universe, and that it is the default. We are born good and sometimes corrupted by circumstances. This is perhaps the point of bringing back Rusty from Into the Dalek, though I admit I'd sort of lost track of that episode and was momentarily confused (I thought "Metaltron's alive?!"). It is most CERTAINLY the point of setting part of the story on December 25th, 1914, when British and German soldiers decided to chuck the war and commit to a cease-fire to spend Christmas night as brothers. Minutes before the realization dawned on me that this was what about happening, I had thought this was a pretty Christmas-free Christmas episode. Usually they're so baroque to the point of silliness. When it hit me the Doctor had brought back Grampa Lethbridge-Stewart a few hours late to coincide with the events portrayed in the film Joyeux Noel (a true Christmas miracle because... how does that make sense for the German soldier in the same pit?), it did so with the force of a ton of bricks. All the tears.

Moffat here reinterprets his own concept of the "War Doctor", not as a Doctor waging war (which the Testimony's clip show might seem to support, what with all the jokes left out - great line), but one that heals the wounds of war. The Christmas armistice isn't his doing, but giving this time of grace to Lethbridge-Stewart is. How many lives saved, wars more quickly ended, truces agreed on, on the Doctor's shift. And so the tired, jaded, defeated Doc12 must also agree that someone must take up the role. When he "lets go" at the end and finally regenerates, it's not just that he lets go of his particular persona, but also of the grief and pain he's been carrying around since at least the Time War. His instructions to himself are entirely positive, they are about love, and Jodie Whittaker's new Doctor is, unlike the last batch, completely happy with her transformation. We go from abject loss on the battlefield that was the Doctor's life to smiles and "Brilliant!" and the capacity to enjoy life again.

Like all the best Doctors, we're sorry to see Capaldi go. His Doctor has perhaps been the most changeable, starting out as a socially awkward crank who couldn't really tell people apart, becoming a cool aging rock star (well, "becoming", that's really who he is in real life) in the middle season, and by the end of this series, turning into someone who gladly embraces his companions for a final farewell. His memory of Clara is restored as a final gift, but his warmth with Bill and Nardole (resurrected via the Testimony - another version of the digital afterlife Moffat seems obsessed with) is what seems more important right now. And this is also goodbye to the quite long Moffat era, the most touching part of which is how the Doctor's wedding ring slides off his finger during regeneration. It's a farewell to River Song, Moffat's most vibrant and memorable creation. Fun for Mark Gatiss and Toby Whithouse, important Doctor Who writers and potential showrunners, to get their goodbyes in too, as the two soldiers in the crater.

As is normal, the changing of the guard overshadows every other aspect of the story, which is why I didn't go into the plot much. It gets everyone required to make two Doctors take stock of their past and future together, and that's all it needs to do. I don't think it's particularly clear at times, but Moffat has always been good at distracting you over here so you don't really think about that over there (which is why he manages to telegraph things and still have them be surprises). Why was there a timeline error on Lethbridge-Stewart "coinciding" with the Doctors meeting each other? I like to think it's because Doc1 not regenerating has an impact on the Brigadier's life, so that perhaps his grandfather MUST come home from the war after all, but it's not said. It's just this weird temporal anomaly that happens. Heading for parts unknown to meet Rusty is likewise a strange bit, though it keeps up the "battlefield" motif that visually ties this story into the very WWI-looking The Doctor Falls. The Testimony is a clever way to bring back companions without undoing their fates, but the show missed a (financially prohibitive?) trick by not having a crowd scene with ALL the companions behind Clara et al. I'd have been happy with identifiable silhouettes.

So even if that's not what you remember, there are flaws. A final one: The optics of having the first female Doctor apparently ejected out of the TARDIS aren't great, but I will give new showrunner Chris Chibnall props for starting us out on a massive cliffhanger. We have months yet to anxiously ponder the meaning of the sequence, whether it means Doc13 will be exiled on Earth (Chibnall did pen a tribute to / rip-off of the 3rd Doctor era in The Hungry Earth, after all), or it's just a crazy way to signal the TARDIS' own regeneration and redesign. Just more for fans to bite their nails about, but it feels like the show itself has regenerated and I can't wait to see what they come up with next.

REWATCHABILITY: High - A touching final story for two Doctors, it's a great look back AND forward.

7 comments:

Tim Knight said...

A great, and insightful, review (as always).

I have yet to pen mine, but now I'm slightly intimidated, as my thoughts were already echoing what you've now written ;-)

Siskoid said...

Don't be. I left a lot of stuff on the cutting room floor. There's a lot to unpack here, which is why it took this long (or at least one reason).

Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts about River Song. It would have been cool to bring her back somehow and see how this particular regeneration affects their relationship; would the Doctor's feelings for River change? Would River's feelings change toward a female Doctor? They could've gotten a season-long B-story arc out of that, but I guess it ain't happening. Too bad.

Mike W.

Siskoid said...

Some would say enough is enough. Or perhaps they'll revisit the idea on audio.

Brendon Wright said...

A very nice writeup Siskoid! I feel tempted to print and keep it with the DVD!

On audio River's certainly busy enough at the mo' -looking BACK: meeting Davison's Doctor and recording with Tom Baker at the moment (or rather in post production).

River still has a fair bit of life left in the character, and Gomez's Missy is far too fresh to lose. I hope SHE gets some reason to come back.
Jenny, the Doctor's daughter is out on audio soon too, as an interesting aside.

Anonymous said...

"a true Christmas miracle because... how does that make sense for the German soldier in the same pit?"

Lethbridge Stewart called for a medic to save him. Had he not been able to so -- had the pit not been shifted a bit in time -- that German soldier was likely to bleed to death.

"The optics of having the first female Doctor apparently ejected out of the TARDIS aren't great"

The part of me that looks for snarky jokes reacted to that scene: "figures ... the Doctor becomes a woman and the first thing she does is crash the TARDIS". Though in reality, Matt Smith crashed the TARDIS too, and we didn't precisely see what happened with Capaldi, but it involved a lot of dinosaur poop. So it seems more a constant with Moffat and regenerations.

I maintain that the best thing Moffat ever wrote -- not the most clever, not the most poetic, but the BEST -- was the bit about how it's "just some bloke" who keeps evil in check. It's a reminder that each of us might be that "just some bloke" at some point.

About the Christmas Miracle of 1914 ... I'll let Moffat slide on this, but there were entire sections of the trenches where the soldiers on both sides got along whenever there were no officers afoot to object. The BBC did a great series on WWI and they discuss it here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=prLBKl9AcMw&index=6&list=PLA5e6wnPHowgLX0lUJGrL2ddNIrZUXgI7

Starting around the 20 minute mark.

About HartnellBradley's Doctor's sexism ... yeah it was overdone, but as you point out, it was done to be very very firm with the fan base. Also, did you notice the comment Capaldi made to him, about how he could tell he was starting to regenerate because his face was all over the place? That's Moffat for ya, tossing out a quick line to explain why the First Doctor looks a little different.

Siskoid said...

So the whole pit shifted in time? Okay.

As for the Miracle, this is Doctor Who, so we're getting the iconic legend more than the nitty-gritty history. As with most historical stories. Thanks for the link.

 

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