Doctor Who Christmas special 2017 – ‘Twice Upon a Time’

❉ Peter Capaldi takes a subdued bow as the Doctor in a piece of genuine television history.

In 2010, in the first Doctor Who Christmas special that showrunner Steven Moffat wrote, he riffed on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol through the character of the Scrooge-like millionaire Kazran Sardick (Michael Gambon), with the Doctor (Matt Smith) standing in for the ghosts of Christmas Past, Past and Future. Seven years later for his final Doctor Who script, there’s a nice sense of Moffat’s tenure coming full circle, as he crafted another, more subtle variation on A Christmas Carol.

The idea may have been obscured by the stylish colour recreations of the First Doctor’s last story The Tenth Planet and the banter between him and Peter Capaldi’s 12th, but here the First (David Bradley from 2013’s An Adventure in Time and Space, reinterpreting William Hartnell) was effectively the Ghost of Christmas Past, the 12th was Christmas Present and the promise of 12th’s regeneration into the 13th (Jodie Whittaker) the Ghost of Christmas Future. Following the theme of A Christmas Carol, where a man is given perspective on his whole life and the chance to change it, here we had the Doctor being given the same opportunity, through the eyes of his latest incarnation looking back at “the original”.

The story was atypical because, as the 12th Doctor said, there “[wasn’t] an evil plan”. Instead, we had a plot-light, low-key, elegiac coda to the Capaldi and Moffat era. The plot trigger was the Testimony, a huge database of stored memories of the universal dead, through which Moffat was able to revisit one of his favourite themes, that “we are all stories”. Appropriately for the noctural, melancholy atmosphere created by director Rachel Talalay in a regeneration story, the Testimony were basically a hi-tech Heaven.

The tone of the drama was mixed. For every emotionally resonant moment like the reappearance of companions Clara (Jenna Coleman) and Nardole (Matt Lucas), there were rather clunky moments in which the 1960s First Doctor’s distance from 2017 TV was shown up through his sexist comments. It has to be said, though, that his most jaw-dropping statement – “If I hear anymore language like that from you, young lady, you’re in for a jolly good smacked bottom!” – originated in the series, namely 1964’s The Dalek Invasion of Earth (and it was probably dodgy even then). Moffat was able to flip it to show how far the series has come in its attitude to sex, with the response of Pearl Mackie’s Bill Potts: “I’m a broadminded girl. I know we have this whole professor-student thing going on, but…” possibly the most knowingly risqué Doctor Who has ever been. Having said that, a much better joke was how embarrassed the 12th Doctor was at the First discovering his electric guitar in the TARDIS.

On the whole Bradley acquitted himself well. The not-exact-likeness-to-Hartnell was neatly explained through his face being “all over the place” because his regeneration was under way. Beyond that, Bradley certainly caught the spirit of Hartnell’s performance, lapel-clutching, ‘Hmm’-ing and fantastic vintage TARDIS set and all. Something that worked particularly well for both long-term fans and newbies, was that the First Doctor was given a rationale – “Why does good prevail?” He was also convinced to take a more proactive approach on his travels, witnessing how the 12th fixed the timeline of the appropriately stiff-upper-lipped World War 1 officer Captain Archibald Hamish Lethbridge-Stewart (writer and actor Mark Gatiss), so he could survive a confrontation with a German soldier (a cameo from another Doctor Who writer, Toby Whithouse).

I have to say, I saw the Lethbridge-Stewart revelation coming a mile off. Why else would the production team not give a character a surname in the pre-publicity, enigmatically calling him ‘the Captain’? On the other hand, I didn’t see the Christmas truce in the trenches coming at all, which was a clever way of intertwining the Dickensian basis of the story with a real Christmas miracle. For me, Captain Lethbridge-Stewart was Gatiss’s best performance in the series, entirely in keeping with Twice Upon a Time’s restrained, reflective atmosphere. His comment “That’s the trouble with hope – makes one awfully frightened” was both quietly and powerfully moving.

Damn, we’re going to miss Peter Capaldi. You really feel as if you’ve been on a journey with his Doctor. From the scowling, short-haired, sharp-tongued grump of his first season who shunned human contact to the sad-eyed, bouffant haired, grinning adventurer who lovingly embraced Nardole and Bill, this iteration of the Time Lord has come a long way. In the end it was no great surprise that the Doctor decided to carry on – ““I suppose one more lifetime won’t kill anyone” – but it was gratifying to see the twelfth man in go through his paces one more time, especially when confronting the returning ‘Rusty’ the Dalek. Since Doctor Who came back in 2005, Capaldi’s acerbic, sage-like Doctor was the kind I always wanted to see, and turned out to be as good as any of the first four. I still remember the thrill I had on watching Peter’s debut story Deep Breath at the BFI in 2014. My Doctor was back.

There was a thrill of a different kind after the regeneration fires died down and the Doctor realised he’d become a woman. The direction was suitably iconic, and there was a sense that a real piece of television history was unfolding. It’s hard to judge an actor’s performance from one word – “Brilliant!” – but the impish glee on Jodie’s face promises a lot. Is she marooned TARDIS-less on Earth, as the cliffhanger implied? The future lies this way…

Twice Upon a Time was all about coming to terms with yourself so you can move on. Daringly, it was also an extremely positive look at death. At Christmas, that’s not a bad sentiment to promote.

Happy New Year.

P.S. Anyone spot the sign referencing special effects designer Bernard Wilkie above the dematerialisation switch in the First Doctor’s TARDIS? God, I love Doctor Who.

‘Twice Upon A Time – The Doctor Who Christmas Special’ was first broadcast on BBC One on Christmas Day, Monday 25 December, 5.30pm-6.30pm.  Written by Steven Moffat, directed by Rachel Talalay, and executive produced by Brian Minchin. 

 Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’. His biography of the actor Ian Carmichael was one of ‘The Independent’s Top 10 Film Books of the Year for 2011.

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