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Doctor Who Christmas special 2017: Twice Upon a Time

Doctor Who: The Captain played by Mark Gatiss, the current Doctor Who played by Peter Capaldi and the first Doctor played by David Bradley
Doctor Who: The Captain played by Mark Gatiss, the current Doctor Who played by Peter Capaldi and the first Doctor played by David Bradley Photograph: Ray Burmiston/BBC/PA

Spoiler alert: this blog contains details of the Doctor Who Christmas special, Twice Upon a Time.

“Love hard, run fast, be kind…”

Merry Christmas! Despite the sense of occasion, we must offer a little critical analysis. This wasn’t really a Doctor Who adventure, since it was barely an adventure at all. This was something… perhaps less, but perhaps more. At the nub is the First Doctor (played here with unsettling skill by David Bradley, who portrayed William Hartnell’s portrayal in the 50th anniversary biopic) equally unsettled by his future as ‘the Doctor of war’, and our 12th’s horror at the unreconstructed 60s humanoid he used to be.

Twice Upon a Time
Twice Upon a Time Photograph: Simon Ridgway/BBC/BBC Worldwide

There is one thing I know for certain about people - and I probably learned it from Doctor Who. The younger you are, the more seriously you take yourself. The older you get, the more everything becomes a hoot, and frankly a bit ridiculous - however happy or sad the circumstance. Twice Upon a Time plays this out more than any other multi-Doctor story we’ve seen. And Moffat has a lot of fun playing the first Doctor’s political incorrectness against the 12th’s electric-guitar-and-sonic-shades midlife crisis. Bravo, frankly.

“Don’t die, because if you do, I think everyone in the universe might go cold.”

Doctor Who
Doctor Who Photograph: Simon Ridgway/BBC/BBC Worldwide

It’s wonderful to see Pearl Mackie back. It was simply an accident of scheduling that this character had to be a one-season wonder. But there’s little danger of her future being less bright than the rest of her Nu-Who alumni. (Mackie’s next project sees her join Zoe Wanamaker and Steven Mangan in a West End revival of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party.) Glorious, too, see the return of Jenna Coleman as Clara, Bill’s final gift being the return of his memories of her. I know she was divisive, with many thinking Clara too big for her boots, but personally I loved the partnership. Although, it must be said, all that time playing Queen Victoria has poshened up her Blackpool accent - and it showed.

Fear factor

Unusually for this series, there’s no actually ‘baddie’ as such. Even the Dalek (Rusty from 2014’s Into the Dalek) has been turned against his own murderous kind and become a strange sort of ally. In some sense, the villain of the piece is the Doctor himself, resisting survival, and the consequences of what his carrying on means for everyone else. That blasted universe keeps need saving - a man could get exhausted. Indeed, the only opponent surely capable of preventing such a grave mistake is ….himself. And so it is, perhaps the only reason to do a multi-Doctor story. To give him a reason to meet himself (gender pronouns are about to become a nightmare from hereon in).

Christmas continuity

Doctor Who
Doctor Who Photograph: Simon Ridgway/BBC/BBC Worldwide

It’s hardly a surprise that Moffat knows his Who-lore, but it’s still rather delightful that so many retro-references are thrown in - the Tardis windows being wrong shape, the First’s insistence on calling it ‘the ship’.

The whole adventure, of course, takes place between the final moments of Hartnell’s final story, The Tenth Planet, which marked the introduction of the Cybermen, the original ‘Mondasian’ version of which were reintroduced - at Capaldi’s request - in the previous story. Sadly, The Tenth Planet was left as a weak ending, due to Hartnell’s failing health removing him entirely from episode three and his participation in number four being spare. Does it seem a /little/ odd that the episode barely recognises that at all? Possibly, but it hardly matters when there’s 54 years of continuity to navigate. I was only a little bit sadder that the recast Ben and Polly (Jared Garfield and Lily Travers replacing the late Michael Craze and the alive Anneke Wills) were not given a little more to do. And while the ending played out respectfully, might we have asked for Reece Shearsmith to double up for Patrick Troughton just as Bradley did for Hartnell in Adventure in Space and Time?

“Oh, brilliant.”

In their final favour to fans, Moffat and his team removed the final sequence introducing Jodie Whittaker (which was written by incumbent Chris Chibnall) from all preview versions, meaning nobody outside the inner circle saw it until Christmas Day.

With all the anticipation building, Capaldi’s final soliloquy packs an even harder emotional punch - it’s just easier to cry about on Christmas Day than at a press screening when faced with such a message of hope for the future. As for Thirteen - we’re teased with very little, a ring falls off (marking perhaps an end to the River period which wouldn’t be necessary any more?).

And then she stares at the Tardis console with wide eyes of wonder and is given one single line, “Oh, brilliant” - reassuringly in Whittaker’s own Yorkshire accent. Because she’s always wanted to be a woman? Or because this Doctor’s excitement and clear and mortal danger is even more pronounced than any we’ve met before? A while before we find put, because that final shot of the Doctor falling serenely through space is all we’re getting until autumn, folks. As always, let us know what you thought.

Deeper into the vortex

  • The final twist! Gatiss’ character The Captain is revealed as the father of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart - both honourable military men to the end. It might be obvious but it’s gorgeous too.
  • The German soldier was played by Toby Whithouse: a Who stalwart having penned stories including School Reunion, The God Complex and Under the Lake.
  • With so much continuity going on - I don’t exactly recall the moment Bill found out about the whole regeneration thing?
  • “You’re a stupid bloody arse!” Was that the sweariest line in Doctor Who history? But nicely counterpointed with Hartnell’s unsettling reprisal of his threat to granddaughter Susan right at the beginning - “you’re in for a jolly good smacked bottom!”

It won’t have escaped a single reader of this blog that this Christmas marks the departure of Doctor Who’s other leading man - Steven Moffat. We can’t deny that he has been at times a controversial figure (the curse of the job) and that some of the (to my mind, mostly ridiculous) criticism has come from our Guardian community. But he has, in my interactions over the years, proved an occasionally grumpy man with the biggest heart.

This article titled "Doctor Who Christmas special 2017: Twice Upon a Time" was written by Daniel Martin, for on Monday 25 December 2017 07.10pm

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