Thursday, 28 December 2017

Doctor Who: Twice Upon A Time ( review with spoilers )

"Time to leave the battlefield..."

This year's Doctor Who Christmas special, the final Peter Capaldi story, was a strange beast. It didn't have much of a plot, didn't really have a villain, and it starred a companion who wasn't really there. And yet I loved it. I must be a strange beast too...
The concept of this story, of course, is the unlikely meeting of the First and Twelth Doctors, both at the point of regeneration, both refusing to change. After mysteriously appearing at the South Pole while still dying from the mortal wound sustained in his last battle with the Cybermen, Capaldi's Doctor meets his former self ( David Bradley channelling William Hartnell ) and also a World War One captain ( Mark Gatiss ), also plucked from his own time-stream and dumped in the snowy landscape. As the two Doctors inevitably bicker the Tardis is captured by a strange glass-like humanoid, one of a race known as Testimony, who want the Doctors to tell them a story. A fairy tale if you will...

As I said, it's quite a slim plot to hang a story on but, in true Steven Moffatt style, it's really an excuse for the Doctor to examine his own mortality and his own fears... and for each iteration of the Doc to crack a few jokes at his counterpart's expense. ( The "Mary Berry" line had me in stitches. ) The First Doctor is refusing to change because he fears the unknown, while the Twelth is tired of saving the universe after all these millennia and just wants to slip away. The consequence of them both dying at the same time in the wrong timeline would be catastrophic for reality, but luckily Bill Potts is on hand to help out...
Apparently, Bill wasn't originally intended to be in this story but Moffatt found, during the writing of the script, that there was a need for the character to appear and luckily Pearl Mackie agreed. This isn't quite the Bill we saw in Series 10, but "the sum of her memories" to paraphrase the Fifth Doctor  -  the essence of the long-gone Bill's personality, encased in a crystal simulacrum of life by Testimony. This "slight return" for Bill Potts is a delight. As bubbly and funny as ever, and still asking the questions no-one else would, this echo of the character is still recognisably herself while at the same time also something alien and melancholic. It puts me in mind of the last, heart-breaking scene in John Crowley's SF novel, Engine Summer, and is just as moving.
The scenes set during the iconic Christmas armistice at Ypres in 1914 hit home in a similar way, even though they are obviously sanitised for a Christmas Day tea-time TV audience. This brief respite from the insanity of the Great War is a lovely evocation of the Doctor's philosophy of seeing things from both sides and, when it comes down to it, just being kind to each other. This idea of kindness is now the defining theme of the initially cold and prickly Twelth Doctor, a man who has been made better and indeed kinder by the time spent with his human friends.
Of course, he also spends some time with his former self too, as portrayed by the wonderful David Bradley. The veteran actor has a ball as the First Doctor, ridiculing Twelve's sonic screwdriver and sunglasses ( "Indoors"? ) and generally being very un-PC. ( This does overstate the conservative attitudes of the early '60s but is funny. ) Bradley's Doctor shares some charming moments with Bill as they talk about the real reason he left Gallifrey long ago, and there is a genius moment at the top of the show when B&W footage of William Hartnell from The Tenth Planet morphs into colour HD footage of Bradley. If there is one small criticism I have of Bradley's performance it's that he doesn't quite catch Hartnell's impishness  -  his Doctor wasn't just a crusty old man, there was a real twinkle in his eye at times too. Otherwise it's a fine performance without the extra baggage of him playing Hartnell playing the Doctor, as in An Adventure In Space And Time.

As for Capaldi  -  what can I say? It's another barn-storming turn from this great actor, bringing us a Doctor who's at the end of his tether, wanting to give it all up, but finding renewed hope in the future. The scene where Testimony restores the Doctor's memories of Clara is just sublime, Capaldi purging all the hurt from the Doctor's eyes and giving us a heart-melting glimpse of his softer side. And it was so good to see Jenna Coleman again, if ever so briefly.
I'm really going to miss Peter Capaldi. His Doctor may have started out a little shakily by being just a tad too unemotional and distant but he's grown into the role until he IS the Doctor  -  a crazy old rock 'n' roller who rattles around the universe in his old blue box, helping out, trying to be nice but not always succeeding, saving people ( most of the time ) and trying to find the good in his enemies. We've had 40 episodes of the Twelfth Doctor and he's been amazing. But now, a brand new era is just around the corner...
Well, if you can call next Autumn "just around the corner"  -  it can't come soon enough!

Four And A Half Out Of Five Sonic Scredwrivers :-)

1 comment:

Kid said...

Best thing about it was David Bradley. The first Doctor is where I came in - he's also where I get out. R.I.P. Doctor Who.


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