[Editor’s note: Spoilers follow for the “Doctor Who” Christmas special “Twice Upon a Time.”]
Well, that’s it. The show’s ruined. Peter Capaldi has left, the Doctor is a woman and there will be no joy or happiness in the world ever again, et cetera et cetera.
Now we’ve gotten that sort of talk out of the way, on to the latest Christmas special. It’s ultimately a placeholder, Steven Moffat and Peter Capaldi’s final episode before handing over the reins — and the TARDIS key — to Chris Chibnall and Jodie Whittaker, and despite some good moments it shows. Aptly enough, it takes place in a frozen moment of time as a WWI army captain finds himself pulled out of the battlefield and pursued by a mysterious glass woman.
Cue one last adventure for the Twelfth Doctor, with the First Doctor (David Bradley) on hand to act as the Ghost of Misogyny Past. Or rather, the Ghost of Misogyny Present, because while Bradley’s Doctor might think that his female companions are only good for dusting and uncomfortable threats of quasi-sexual violence, the Doctor that William Hartnell portrayed in the 1960s was far more forward-thinking than this cosplay nostalgia trip.
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The tradition of the Doctor pushing back against his regeneration is a recent one, and it makes for a prolonged and unnecessary goodbye. Regenerations are at their best when we’re tricked into forgetting they’re coming, like Eccleston’s magnificent and premature departure in 2005’s “The Parting of the Ways.” So having David Tennant, then Matt Smith and now Capaldi each deliver a drawn-out Christmas special swan song feels like three wasted episodes.
The last season’s finale was pitch perfect, with Missy’s noble about-face brought to an abrupt end by her former self, the agony of watching CyberBill realize what had happened to her, and the Doctor taking a magnificent last stand. Dragging it out only serves to over-egg the pudding, and by the end of what would normally be a decent “Who” episode, the viewer is all but begging Capaldi to regenerate.
Too Many Doctors Spoil… Basically Everything
Whether it’s “The Three Doctors,” “The Five Doctors” or the Tennant-Smith-John Hurt extravaganza that was the 50th anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor,” pitting one incarnation of the Doctor against another is usually a sure-fire win. Perhaps it’s the combination of curmudgeonly One and grouchy Twelve that makes this team up fall flat, or the misuse of David Bradley’s considerable skills for what is essentially an impersonation, but either way, it dilutes what should be a fitting farewell to the most recent Time Lord (and his eyebrows).
Coming face to face with your own former self is never exactly easy, but Bradley’s portrayal of the First Doctor flies right past “crotchety” and into “deeply unpleasant,” and Twelve seems almost as put off as we are. No matter the face, no matter the clothes no matter the accent or TARDIS decor, they’re all the Doctor. Multi-Time Lord episodes are at their best when they’re underscoring the similarities between the iterations of our hero, not their differences.
The Original (But Not the Best)
The key evolution in the Doctor’s personality over the decades has been his relationship to humanity, but here it looks like the first incarnation is fine with mankind. It’s women he’s not too keen on.
An hour of a companion being demeaned and harassed — particularly when the character is a queer woman of color — is frankly uncomfortable, not to mention a shoddy rewrite of a good character. Hartnell reportedly rewrote lines that minimised Polly’s importance and there’s certainly none of that overt sexism on display in his episodes. Neither the First Doctor nor the Captain mention Bill’s race, so it’s clear Moffat knows there are some lines not to cross, even for the sake of politically incorrect “humor” — it’s just a shame they didn’t extend it to gender and sexuality.
All in all, it feels like a last-ditch excuse to get in a few more sexist jabs more befitting the Simm!Master’s petty schoolboy misogyny, as opposed to the hero we love. His threat to spank Bill for swearing might actually be the most stomach-turning thing ever to happen in a series that’s featured farting aliens. It also retcons the Doctor’s previously asexual nature — “I have had experience with some members of the fairer sex.” Not as much as you’re about to get, pal.
“I’m Bill Potts. And I’m back.”
Thank God for Pearl Mackie. She might not be 100 percent Bill — rather, a composite of her memories before “death” (even though she didn’t actually die) — but she’s still the most glorious thing about the episode. She’s genuinely curious about the early version of her friend and never once questions whether he’s “really” the Doctor. The affection practically shines out of her, making their final goodbye all the more affecting. She’d make a terrific companion for Thirteen, but Mackie undoubtably has a wonderful career ahead of her.
Haven’t I Seen You Somewhere Before?
This is “Sherlock” co-creator Mark Gatiss’ third role on “Doctor Who,” previously playing Richard Lazarus in “The Lazarus Experiment” and Gantock in “The Wedding of River Song.” The third time is most definitely the charm: Gatiss does tortured stiff upper lip better than almost anyone and his mix of bravery, stubbornness and patriotism should have clued us in to his identity long before we hear his surname. Of course he’s a Lethbridge-Stewart. Of course he is.
David Bradley played Hartnell and the First Doctor in the Gatiss-penned “An Adventure in Space and Time,” although other viewers might know him better as Argus Filch from the “Harry Potter” films. Bradley is an excellent actor, capable of far more nuance than he is permitted here.
It was also nice to see a brief return of Clara, restored to the Doctor’s memories, and Nardole.
The Future is Female
With less than two minutes to go, the moment we’ve all been waiting for arrives and we have our new Doctor. All we get is two words and a dramatic cliff-hanger — almost literally, since she’s falling through the sky as the credits roll — but it’s enough to whet our appetites. It’s worth pointing out that Whittaker’s three most recent predecessors got far more lines in their first post-regenerative moments, though. And was it really necessary for the first woman Doctor to break the TARDIS?
“Oh, brilliant!” — Thirteen’s reaction on seeing she’s regenerated into Jodi Whittaker. Also, the audience’s reaction.