Saturday 30 December 2017

WHO REVIEW: 2017 Christmas Special - "Twice Upon a Time"

That was a very unusual Christmas special. Over the years we've had OTT Christmassy trimmings, explosions and bombast, and comedy silliness, often all three. This year, after the extraordinary two parter that ended series ten, we have a much gentler, much quieter affair that acts as an epilogue more than a story in its own right. I might question the wisdom of making the Christmas Day episode - the episode most likely to attract casual viewers - a follow-on from the previous episode and a sequel to 51-year-old black-and-white story, but Moffat seems to have pulled it off. I have to say seems to, because I can only view this from the perspective of someone who's steeped in this stuff. Of course I loved it, and most of my friends who are fans but not diehard Who nuts enjoyed it too. What it must have meant to someone who's taking a punt and has never seen the show before is beyond me.

In spite of the risk of starting something with a flashback to 1966, the opening is one of the best things about the episode. "709 episodes earlier..." states the caption, and shows us a scratchy bit of black-and-white footage of William Hartnell. This is a tricky thing to pull off, not least because you're about to see someone else take on the same role, but the segue from Hartnell to Bradley works beautifully. The move from lo-res monochrome to HD colour makes the differences in their appearance and voice less obvious, not more. It's almost saying, "and here's how it really looked." It also provides context for the fannish indulgence that helps makes sense for newer viewers. Most people who've heard of Doctor Who will know that the actor changes once in a while, so the obvious inference was that there was a first. This is his special comeback.

It's perhaps a little unfair on Capaldi to have him share his swansong with another actor in the same role. He's already going to face the inevitable overshadowing the moment his successor appears, so to have a guest star come in and pretty much steal every scene he's in is a bit harsh. But, we know he's enjoying this. It was Capaldi's idea to bring the Mondasian Cybermen back, and it was apparently his idea to get Bradley to play the first Doctor. This is as much an exercise in indulgence for Capaldi as it is for Moffat, two overexcited fanboys giving themselves one last treat before they go.

What did I love? Capaldi's was excellent throughout, as always. He brings any material up a notch. Rachel Talalay's direction was superb, as it always is, really lifting the scenes which could have dragged as just a bunch of people talking isn't the most visually exciting spectacle.Murray Gold's music was especially good, full of little callbacks to his earlier episodes (the Eccleston theme was a lovely touch). Seeing that he's going as well, it's only right that he should get to give himself a little send-off after twelve years of composing for the series.

Bringing Bill back was the right move. It's slightly baffling that Moffat creates one way to bring her back from the dead, has the character reference it, and then creates a completely different way to bring her back again. No character's safe now, the Testimony could bring anyone back for a cameo. It works though, because not only does Bill really need to be on hand to wave the twelfth Doctor goodbye, she also provides a perfect illustration of how times have changed since the series started, which is what this episode is all about. There barely were any black actors working for the BBC in the 60s, we certainly wouldn't have got an openly gay character, and it the contrast feels right. The little cameos from Nardole ("Aw, cuddle,") and Clara worked well too, although they probably would have played better reversed.

Mark Gatiss was absolutely perfect. Casting his buddy in a major guest role smacks of Moffat indulgence again, but he's so excellent as the war-fatigued Captain that it's entirely forgiveable. Gatiss really is astonishingly good at these "stiff-upper-lip" roles, bringing enormous pathos to a character that in other hands could have fallen very flat, in spite of the fine dialogue. I was waiting for him to be revealed as a Lethbridge-Stewart, and it was a moment that brought a little cheer when it came. Again, more fannish indulgence, but it's such a little thing that it didn't seem intrusive.

But yes, the big star of the episode was David Bradley. His version of the first Doctor is quite different in many ways from the original, but it's an interpretation of a character that convinces and Bradley becomes his own Doctor, much as Richard Hurndell did when they tried something similar back with The Five Doctors. He has just the right mix of grumpiness, compassion and humour, and for all the retconning, it's a fine exploration of the character. It makes perfect sense that the Doctor would resist his first regeneration - the idea would be terrifying! It was even part of earlier drafts of the script for The Tenth Planet. On the other hand, Hartnell's Doctor was never that sexist or pig-headedly old-fashioned. I understand why some fans are put out by this, but I see it as more of a comment on the time the series was created than the character itself. Sexist old first Doctor illustrates that yes, times have changed - after all, it doesn't make much sense that a time-travelling alien would reflect the mores of contemporary Western society, but he always has, so why not lampshade it? It works well, mainly because Bradley's performance of the lines, and Capaldi's cringing reaction to them, makes it so funny. And the "jolly good smacked bottom" line is a direct quote. We should probably be grateful he didn't start going on about Arabs.

For fans, the stronger contrast is between the "early days" first Doctor, who still wasn't quite the heroic figure we now know, even in his final few stories, and the brash superhero that the Doctor has become. Since David Tennant's first episode, the Doctor has been proclaiming that he's the protector of the Earth and threatening aliens with how awesome he is, and it's good to see this approach taken down a peg a little. Moffat is well aware of what works in the modern series, but isn't afraid to send up his own material and call back wistfully to times gone by. It's a tricky balance, but it works.

I love the idea of making the seemingly alien threat a very human, compassionate scheme, especially as the twelfth Doctor is left at a loss when there's no evil plan to defeat. Indeed, everything that happens in this episode is the Doctor's (and the TARDIS'), fault. The most powerful and affecting part of the episode, though, was the Christmas Day armstice. It would have been bizarre not to visit this, if we're doing a Christmas story involving WWI, and it's somewhat surprising that the series hasn't done so in the past, because it seems like such a perfectly Doctorish moment in history. I'm very glad they resisted any temptation to make the Doctor responsible for it, though. It's a truly wonderful moment in our history that needs to be treated with reverence.

The not-so-good? Well, the diversion to see Rusty the Dalek was a bit of an oddity, even though I guessed it was him pretty early on. It's an effective sequence, but it feels out of place in the episode and messes with the, already languid, pacing. Overall, it's a very talky episode and that's perhaps not the best idea for a Christmas extravaganza, so at least the Dalek mutants and laser blasts should have regained some of the kids' attention. As previously said, Capaldi misses out by having to share the limelight here, so it's only fair that he gets a long monologue to say goodbye to the character. That's what these farewell speeches are, of course - it's the actor's chance to say goodbye, not the Doctor's. It's beautifully performed, but my, it does go on a bit, doesn't it? I kind of miss the days when it was all over in a flash.

Altogether, though, this was just lovely, a cosy, reassuring little adventure for a winter's day that bids a fond farewell to Capaldi, Moffat and Gold. It's the biggest shake up since 2010, and even then, the music was still consistent. I'm a big fan of Moffat, but he's been running the show for seven years now - a couple of years longer than he even wanted to do - and it's time for a change. Speaking of which...

Number Thirteen:

I love regeneration episodes. The feeling of sadness as a Doctor leaves moving to excitement for the first few moments of the new Doctor. I have no time for people bitching about Jodie Whittaker's performance because of thinly-veiled reactionary sexism, and nor do I have much time for people gushing over here saying "OMG she's gonna be my favourite!" She has said two words. As with all the Doctors after their first few seconds, it's too early to judge her performance. Calm down! That said, I like her delivery of those two words, I love her smile, and I'm pleased she's kept her West Yorkshire accent.

Links and references:

The first Doctor's new last words, "Well then, here we go. The long way round," call back to the eleventh Doctor's closing line in the 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor. That episode also featured a mix of footage of William Hartnell and a guest appearance by a stand-in first Doctor, in that case, a voice part for John Guilor.

Archibald Lethbridge-Stewart is presumably the grandfather of the legendary Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, and great-grandfather to Kate Stewart. This is certainly what Gatiss and Moffat intended, although tie-in fiction in the Lethbridge-Stewart prose series suggests he's more likely the Brigadier's grand-uncle. It's up to you which you prefer. Maybe Archie was knocking off his sister-in-law?

Although it's taken a long time for the Doctor to visit the Christmas Day armistice on television, he has made the odd visit in other media, such as in the ninth Doctor's appearance in the comic series The Forgotten, the fifth Doctor's appearance in the short story "Never Seen Cairo," and another visit by the first Doctor in the short story "Little Drummer Boy." Surprisingly, the eleventh Doctor doesn't appear to have been there to play football.

The twelfth Doctor says it's been 1500 hundred years since him and his white-haired predecessor. This is roughly consistent with what we've been told, with the twelfth Doctor referring to himself as "over two thousand years old," in "Deep Breath," and the second Doctor stating his age as around 450 not too long after his regeneration, in The Tomb of the Cybermen. This ignores the massive fudge of bringing the Doctor's age down by decades or centuries to 900 at the start of the modern series. How you want to count the four billion years of endless loping in "Heaven Sent" is also a quizzer.

The first Doctor takes one look at him after realising who he is and says, "I thought I'd get younger," to which Twelve replies, "I am younger!" Well, he's younger than Bradley, who's 75, but not Hartnell: Capaldi is about a year older than Hartnell was when he left the role.

The many scary names of the Doctor include "the Shadow of the Valeyard," hinting again at the Doctor's possible future as the evil villain the Valeyard. The potential to become this dark incarnation might be another reason for the twelfth Doctor to resist regenerating again.

The weapons factories of Villengard were destroyed by the Doctor sometime prior to The Empty Child, and replace with a banana grove. Clearly the bananas have yet to be planted by the time Rusty gets there.

Polly and Ben were the Doctor's companions during his first renewal, originally played by Anneke Wills and the late Michael Craze, and here by Lily Travers and Jared Garfield. I'd have liked to see more of them in the episode, but that would have probably taken it too far down the route of 60s fanwank for tolerance.

Twelve refers to One as "Corporal Jones" and "Mr. Pastry," at least one of whom is a recognisable character to more than twenty people in the audience. Richard Hearne, who played Mr. Pastry, was considered for the role of the fourth Doctor, but dismissed because he insisted he would play the part as Mr. Pastry. Also, by all accounts he'd gone a bit peculiar by this point. Clive Dunn, who played Corporal Jones, actually did play the Doctor, or at least a send-up of him, in a sketch show called It's a Square Day in December 1963, probably the first ever Doctor Who parody.

Oh, and anyone moaning that the Doctor crashes the TARDIS as soon as he becomes a woman, the tenth, eleventh and twelfth Doctors all crashed their ships immediately after their regenerations, with varying degrees of severity. Eleven almost destroyed his with his regeneration. So shush.

Maketh the Man:

It's sad to see the Doctor's beautiful velvet coat in such a state. Bradley wears a very good recreation of Hartnell's costume from the original serial. One very nice touch is the Doctor's ring falling from her finger immediately after the regeneration. Capaldi reportedly never takes off his wedding ring, and so kept it on while playing the Doctor, albeit covered up by another ring. The first Doctor also wore a ring, which slipped from his finger when he regenerated. He's got a bit of a cheek moaning about sonic gizmos when his blue gemstone was basically magic...

While it doesn't appear in the episode, you cannot miss seeing Capaldi wearing Jon Pertwee's original velvet jacket from the 1973 story Planet of the Daleks. It belongs to Mark Gatiss, who you can see in the mirror taking the picture.

Best lines:

"Always remember where you parked; it's going to come up a lot."

"World War One? ... What do you mean, one?"

"To be fair, they cut out all the jokes."

"Laugh hard, run fast, be kind. Doctor, I let you go."

"Oh, brilliant!"

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