My first review of contemporary Doctor Who for DWM was The Waters of Mars, in DWM #417. One hundred and four issues later…
(From DWM #521)
Imagine some cheerful waving to go with that, and me not quite getting the eye-line right. Like I’ve been CSO-ed into a sequence shot at a later date. Because as I write this, in your past (retweet if you remember early December 2017), I haven’t actually witnessed Jodie Whittaker’s first scene. As is right and proper, that’s been kept from all preview copies of Twice Upon A Time, and reserved for Christmas Day so that everyone can enjoy it together.
Without that breath of life, this story really feels like The End. Of everything. This Doctor, this Doctor Who team, and a philosophy for making the show that’s been around since production began on The Eleventh Hour in 2009. I’m going to guess – I do not know – time is also up for the current theme arrangement, the TARDIS (both INT and EXT), and even the fonts. Never liked the fonts. But everything else? It’s hard to watch it all go up in flames.
It is the tough love the programme’s been subjecting us to since 1966. And, as one senses a broader, more accessible, possibly saner version of Doctor Who about to emerge through the blizzard, why not do something as self-reflexive as set a final adventure within the closing moments of The Tenth Planet Episode 4? While you still can.
It may sound arcane in synopsis (as the Twelfth Doctor prepares to become the Thirteenth, he meets the First, who’s on the cusp of transforming into the Second) but Steven Moffat’s last script makes brilliantly light work of such complications, finding neat televisual solutions to quickly get us up to a jog.
The first is the very greatest – that ‘Previously on’ wheeze, which delivers a trio of satisfactions. We have the ‘old’ show being joined to the ‘new’, the veneration for the original aspect ratio, and the hand-holding between Hartnell and Bradley which comes with the “Have you no emotions, sir?” morph. That last is entirely necessary. The fiction and meta-fiction around Doctor Who requires additional clarification about the nature of this revival, that he’s no Auton-replica or a knock-off from some tatty alternate Time Lord timeline. This is the original, you might say. If you were Richard Hurndall.
Which brings us to our obligation for assessing how successful David Bradley is in reprising the First Doctor. He does quite well. Quite well. The truth is, you rarely see William Hartnell – although one exception was when the First Doctor stepped from the ship into the Chamber of the Dead. It helped he was mostly cast in shadow, and with the camera craning from above, but for a moment he was there. Most of the time, one understands he is an acceptable modern-day synonym, with Bradley doing enough to keep the connections alive. Obviously, there’s the lapel clutching, but he also has the supercilious tilt of the head, and, better yet, Hartnell’s wide-eyed, choking-on-a-gobstopper expression of horror.
Moffat, meanwhile, has fun playing with the character’s lack of pace on Doctor Who format changes, such as the fact it’s been forgotten along the way that the TARDIS is supposed to be impossible to pilot, or his incomprehension at the Doctor’s intimacy with Bill. Better yet, the First doesn’t recognise himself as Earth’s protector, or any of that guff. Although ‘The Shadow of the Valeyard’? Yes, I’ll allow it.
When Doctors meet, it also comes with a requirement for repartee. The old boy isn’t known for his mic drops, so it’s the Twelfth who makes most of the running, variously dubbing him ‘Mary Berry’, ‘Mr Pastry’ and ‘Corporal Jones’. That’s something Moffat’s always understood – while the show’s got a heritage to be celebrated, that should come with a robust insolence. This point of view is also addressed to the present; the snazzy modern-day Doctor seeming rather gauche when viewed from the stand point of Lime Grove.
But this is Peter Capaldi’s last stand, and I had concerns too many Docs could muddle that singularity. However, in practice, it brings new focus. The Time Lord has never before had a confidante during regeneration, someone who knows the process as he does. And while I profoundly distrusted the fact both were expressing a preference for death rather than change (no!), I was fascinated in their shared indignity about being made defunct. Arguably, the story treads a little too far in that direction, which then inadvertently frames the Twelfth Doctor’s outgoing speech as the bittersweet, leaving party cheers offered up by the guy who’s been made redundant. Laced with subtext about how, although things will go on, it won’t really be the same. Mansplaining, even, putting the next incumbent on notice: “You wait a moment Doctor. Let’s get it right. I’ve got a few things to say to you…”
It’s no disaster, but not the most memorable of departures, with gymnastics required to get our hero into a position where he can express, in the third-person, the dear sentiment of cast and crew: “Doctor, I let you go”. Perhaps, when it came to the crunch, the load was too much for everyone to bear.
With life and, more specifically, death no longer binary in Doctor Who, it’s no surprise the Twelfth’s exit comes with such complications. The flipside of that is it allows Moffat to fill this Christmas tale with fallen friends. Thus, we have beyond-the-veil returns for Bill and Nardole, and even another Clara, who’s sported so many iterations and reissues, she’s now the in-universe version of Shada. But it’s what you want at this time of the year. Auld acquaintances coming together to do-good and talk of goodness. This is the right sentiment.
Plus, there’s Archibald Hamish Lethbridge-Stewart, an extra gift, possibly for Mark Gatiss (a lovely turn, particularly the sorrowful embarrassment of the “I’ve lost the idea of dying” line) and possibly Moffat himself (who has threaded the Brigadier throughout his time). Granted, it’s also a final spurt of continuity, but it’s so clever, raising a ghost from one Doctor’s past and another Doctor’s future, who illustrates to both that theirs is a wonderful life…
…Which will continue in the form of the Thirteenth, with her new friends, and her new team. But as I said up top, as I write this, I’m yet even to see her hellos. That’s for another time. Right now, here’s a last salute to the Twelfth – the scary, silly, grand and frail one, who ventured outside into the snow this Christmas.