Bidding goodbye to another incarnation of the Doctor has now become as much a staple of Christmas Day every few years as Del & Rodders or Morecambe & Wise used to be in the days classic comedy dominated the British television landscape.
Doctor Who over the last decade has cemented itself as the storytelling event in the UK on Christmas Day, after Russell T. Davies revived the series with a new, modern, American ‘showrunner’ style of production in 2005. We have in twelve short years got through four Doctors (five if you count John Hurt) and their life-cycle has become a repeating standard – barring Christopher Eccleston, every successive Doctor has roughly been around for three seasons over a three to four year period. Peter Capaldi has been no exception but this regeneration, in Twice Upon a Time, is different.
We’re not just getting a new Doctor. We’re about to get an entirely new Who.
The last time this happened was 2009, at the very end of David Tennant’s hugely successful run as the Doctor.
The End of Time saw an emotional goodbye for Tennant, which perhaps reflected outgoing showrunner Davies—the man who had revived this entire world. “I don’t want to go!” the Doctor admitted before regenerating into Matt Smith, who sailed into a new era in 2010 with Steven Moffat at the helm. Moffat had already been well-regarded during RTD’s reign, writing some of the cleverest and more memorable stories over the first four seasons such as The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances (“are you my Mummy?”), Blink which introduced the terrifying Weeping Angels, and Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead where he introduced Alex Kingston’s River Song and her unique, complicated relationship with the Doctor. Moffat was the natural choice to take over.
Arguably, Moffat changed the very texture of Doctor Who. His term as show runner coincided with a move to HD and a ramped up budget, allowing for numerous filming excursions abroad to places such as Spain or New York. Davies’ style of storytelling had been earthy, grounded and accessible; his Doctors were broad-accented Northerners or charming, swaggering men. Their companions were council estate girls or traditional British working class, strong women who were swept away into a world of adventure, carried off from their humdrum lives. Davies’ stories centred heavily around Earth or the defence of Earth from alien invaders, introducing classic monsters from the Original Series of Who, tapping into B-movie concepts, and generally having a similar arc each season, building to an apocalyptic battle to save humanity and the planet Earth.
Moffat immediately changed that paradigm when Smith’s Doctor was born. His Doctor was famously an old man in a young man’s body, far less aware of his own charm and sexiness than Tennant’s incarnation, and stripped of Eccleston’s severe angst. Moffat’s companions were far more caustic, sarcastic and in many respects middle-class professional; women who were embroiled very much in the dark, strange fairytale Moffat converted the style of the show into.
Smith’s Doctor was presented as ‘a mad man in a box’, a modern-day wizard entrenched in a level of myth and legend; indeed Smith’s entire run was characterised by how the Doctor was viewed by the rest of the universe, how he tried to reinvent himself as a different man, before facing his ultimate, unspoken sins at the end of Smith’s run. To time with the series fiftieth anniversary, Moffat literally asked, in dialogue and subtext: Doctor… Who?
Capaldi’s Doctor, essentially, was a continuation of this question, and in many ways the ultimate expression of the kind of Doctor that Moffat almost certainly wanted to create from the get-go. It took the rampant success of Smith’s younger incarnation—written as a batty old man—for the BBC to let Moffat give the show the eldest Doctor since Jon Pertwee’s third Doctor back in the early 1970’s. Capaldi was described as ‘letting the old beast roar’ and immediately his Doctor was plagued with questions as to whether or not he was a ‘good man’.
His companions were less fairytale princesses rescued by the mad old wizard, indeed Jenna Coleman’s bridging companion Clara became a much more real, grounded, flawed character once Smith’s tenure ended. Capaldi’s companions were akin to daughters who wouldn’t let their irascible, uncool Dad get away with his old tricks, and they definitely softened Capaldi’s Doctor over the course of several seasons.
Moffat, however, always seemed a little less certain what to do with Capaldi’s Doctor than he ever did Matt Smith’s.
Capaldi should be remembered as a fine Doctor, but he didn’t always have the material. Many of Capaldi’s stories come back to his position as the Doctor, what it means after the trials Smith’s incarnation faced, what it means to be not just in an older body but feel like an older man (and his rebellion within it), and the difficulty he faced in losing his companions. Twice Upon a Time works hard to try and encapsulate many of these themes into the one, final script, taking a cue indeed from Face the Raven, the beginning of what is probably Capaldi’s signature story arc – the loss of Clara to the inevitability of time, space and fate. Moffat’s final script for Doctor Who revisits the idea of death being halted, of time literally being snatched away and analysed, and what it means to reach the end of not just the story, but the fairytale.
Twice Upon a Time, therefore, feels as much a story about Moffat’s final journey as it does the Doctor’s. There is quite clear overlap. It’s all about the Doctor reaching a point where he is ‘ready to go’, a place Moffat himself had reached a significant amount of time earlier. Many believe he was talked into producing Season 10 by the BBC and helping cue up Chris Chibnall’s incumbent era after fully planning to walk away at the end of Season 9, and this is after he contemplated leaving before Season 8, Capaldi’s first year in the role. Moffat feels it’s the right time for him to pass the torch and his final script is about his ultimate Doctor reaching that same level of peace and acceptance. Capaldi’s incarnation does that with the kind of calm & grace we haven’t seen since Eccleston’s sudden and unexpected departure.
There’s without doubt a connective between these two Doctors, and John Hurt’s The War Doctor. Twice Upon a Time roots its story in the central dilemma of whether the Doctor is a Doctor of war or a Doctor of peace, which goes back to the overarching themes discussed above that Moffat has been exploring since he took over producing the show. The alien ‘menace’ of the story (in quotes because, rare for a Who episode, the story actually has no villain), the Testimony, are all about helping the Doctor reach that level of equilibrium which can help him move on, and not give up as the Doctor seems ready to do. Remember, he begins this story—after losing Bill Potts and his trials with the Master/Missy—ready to die. Not regenerate, but die. End the cycle. Bring the curtain down. It takes facing his first incarnation to help him realise life is worth living.
When you consider Moffat’s subtext here, it’s not hard to wonder if the writer is questioning whether or not Doctor Who should live on in the form it has existed for the past decade. Chibnall’s approaching run has been swirling with rumours about Jodie Whittaker’s incoming Doctor front-loading a much different approach to the elastic Who concept, and you sense Moffat is encouraging us to accept these changes. Capaldi’s Doctor, reaching his epiphany of life, delivers a monologue in which Moffat almost reaches out to Chibnall—as the Doctor reaches out to his future self—to deliver advice as to how to move on. Capaldi’s Doctor actively encourages letting the past die, his final words reflecting this: “Doctor – I let you go!”. Contrast this with Tennant’s final words and you can feel the difference.
Tennant’s era ended a run of the show which reached its peak in terms of viewership. It helped launch Doctor Who as a global brand. RTD arguably ended on a high and grappled with the idea of making a fifth series, possibly with Tennant himself (which he describes in his fabulous tome, The Writers Tale). ‘The End of Time’ saw a Doctor fighting against his own mortality. The Time of the Doctor saw a Doctor accepting a new life cycle and begrudgingly handing over the torch. Twice Upon a Time is both a Doctor and a showrunner contentedly saying goodbye, ready to begin a new and radically different life cycle. One of the things Moffat’s script skilfully does is have the Doctor regenerating into a woman, for the first time, make sense, born out of his bond with the most sexually fluid companion he’d ever had, and seeing writ large the institutionalised sexism the First Doctor had as part of his character.
This is partly Moffat tapping into a level of zeitgeist here. 2017 has of course been marked by the shocking scandals of Harvey Weinstein and a slew of celebrities in terms of sexual harassment, but Twice Upon a Time more uses the presence of David Bradley’s take on William Hartnell’s First Doctor as a chance to draw out the casual, retrograde sexual politics of the 1960’s, which even crept into a seemingly innocuous science-fiction romp like Who. Much is made of both Doctors wondering who is older (Twelve of course technically is) but it’s more of an in-joke and nod to how far television and sexual equality has come over the last fifty years. The First Doctor is doddering, unintentionally misogynistic to Bill, unable to grasp modern concepts such as a ‘web browser’ or the sonic screwdriver, and serves to make Capaldi’s Doctor seem like a much younger man, despite his age. What Moffat is actually doing is showing how far we’ve all come.
The conditions therefore feel right for Whittaker’s female Doctor. The character hasn’t just reached a point of acceptance about his life cycle, about the reasons to go on living even in the face of all the death and loss he faces, but he has also had his eyes opened to the power of gender politics. It’s why Pearl Mackie will be so much missed as Bill, as she’s easily the best written, most interesting companion since Rose Tyler; she had the agency of so many of Moffat’s companions but without the cruel, sarcastic wit and Mary Sue storytelling. Amy Pond and Clara felt like fairytale princesses – Bill was real. Bill exists out there. Many of us know that woman. Moffat finally learned, by the end, how to write and develop a rounded female character who was the Doctor’s perfect foil, and this hopefully will bleed into the approach taken by Chibnall with the female Doctor.
Thematically, therefore, Twice Upon a Time works as a curtain down on Steven Moffat’s science-fiction fairytale because it introduces reality to the scenario, in the form of accepting death and putting the past to bed where it should lie. Some of the most affecting scenes of Capaldi’s tenure concern his presence at the Christmas Day Armistice at Ypres in 1914, as World War One rages. Mark Gatiss, another divisive figure amongst Who fandom, plays a WW1 soldier yanked from the crosshairs of death, quite poignantly and helps draw out the ideas at play in Moffat’s script, which have been at play in his entire Who tenure. The Doctor, ultimately, may be a man who goes to war, but he brings peace. Understanding this helps the First Doctor begin his journey, and it helps the Twelfth bring this one to an end.
What happens next for Doctor Who is uncertain. It’s entering a brave new world. Twice Upon a Time, one of Moffat’s strongest scripts for a while and a fitting send off for Peter Capaldi’s incarnation, proves Doctor Who has a lot more than ‘one last life’ left in it.
★ ★ ★ 1/2
DIRECTOR: Rachel Talalay
WRITER: Steven Moffat
CAST: Peter Capaldi, David Bradley, Pearl Mackie, Mark Gatiss, Matt Lucas, Jenna Coleman