Christmas is, famously, a time for indulgence and “Twice Upon A Time” finds demob happy showrunner Steven Moffat and his leading man in very indulgent mood indeed.
Still refusing to regenerate following the events of “The Doctor Falls”, The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) finds himself at the South Pole, a very familiar South Pole as it turns out because his previous self – his ‘original’ self – is also there. As The Doctor regards himself from opposite ends of his lifespan, a temporal accident drops a World War I British Officer into the midst of the Gallifreyan standoff, the Doctors must join forces to unravel the mystery of The Testimony and their Chamber Of The Dead.
This era of Who has been unique in that the title role and control of the programme has been in the hands of superfans, and it shines through – for better or worse – in this episode. Sloppy, sentimental and silly, both Moffat and Capaldi are the anti-Cawdor, because the leaving of it does not become their time in the TARDIS at all.
The forced jollity of the ‘odd coupling’ of the first and twelfth Doctor grates more than it amuses and the awkward, clumsy excusatory old-fashioned attitude jokes of the First Doctor are an unwelcome intrusion of real-world social mores into the fictitious universe of Doctor Who where we’re expected to blithely accept that the Doctor, a renegade from the technologically enlightened yet stuffy, conservative and staid Time Lord civilisation, would hold such retrograde views in the first place. It’s just an excuse for Moffat to indulge in a kind of mean-spirited snickering at the petty social attitudes of bygone eras and while there’s ample justification for generational discontent in the world at large at the moment, here is only serve to distract and deflect attention from David Bradley’s fine performance as Hartnell’s First Doctor.
The Testimony are a fascinating invention, not an adversary as such but a great Doctor Who ‘monster’ nonetheless. Of course, this may or may not be the only time we encounter them despite the opportunity for revisiting old characters – without upending established canon – in their Chamber Of The Dead (a wonderful design nod to the staircase to heaven from “A Matter Of Life And Death”). They’re the bright spot in an otherwise aimless continuity tour through the history and nature of the Doctor. While originally ground-breaking and brave, the tiresome deconstruction of the nature of the Doctor has become something of a cliché. “Twice Upon A Christmas” is an over-stuffed Christmas pudding of a festive special, rich and fruity with continuity references that overpower the more delicate ingredients. Rusty the Dalek (“Into The Dalek”) returns because the story can’t afford the awkwardness of taking the First and Twelfth Doctor back to Gallifrey to consult the Matrix while both are on the run from their people and their regenerations and even Mark Gatiss’ largely superfluous British Officer is saddled with needless continuity baggage. The return of Bill Potts is handled well, but a brief return for Clara turns the tragic denouement of season 9 into a throwaway moment.
The main problem is there’s no plot to speak of, no evil plan for the Doctors to join forces to foil. The inclusion of the First Doctor is a gimmick, an unnecessary adornment to prevent the departure of the Twelfth Doctor from being an anti-climax. Speaking of which, the long, drawn-out regenerations are becoming a real chore. Capaldi has had many fine speeches as The Doctor, but his last one isn’t among his best, especially the nonsense about the real name and children. As with Tennant and Smith before him, Capaldi is given a metatextual moment of self-indulgence to say goodbye to the role as an actor and it undercuts the significance and import of the change. Of course, this change is one of the most significant in the show’s storied history. The regeneration will break new ground and, while addressing a long-standing criticism of the show’s casting, will make the show vulnerable to a whole new line of wrong-headedly misogynistic attack, in an increasingly toxic world of fandom.
While it’s long been fashionable in a certain segment of Doctor Who fandom to pour all their cares and woes and scorn onto the shoulders of head writer Steven Moffat, I have found his tenure as showrunner largely a triumph. Of course, I’ve not loved everything he’s done unconditionally but I don’t believe in the entitlement of individual fans to have their every whim catered for and I embrace the need for the show to grow, change and adapt to fresh new audiences. Moffat is steeped in Doctor Who history and lore and has been wise enough to challenge and change and reconstruct it where required. The changes of approach, tone and attitude have been necessary to re-ensure the longevity of a programme that has already far outlived even the wildest of expectations its creators could have had. Whether you like it or not, he canonically paved the way for Jodie Whittaker to take over the role and despite accusations that he can’t write women characters gave the series the likes of River Song, Amelia Pond and Bill Potts oh, and Madam Vastra and Jenny, and Sally Sparrow.
There’s no denying, though, that this Christmas special feels a little tired and it’s down to Chibnall now to re-energise the show and the fanbase. In her opening moments, Whittaker makes a bright impression but it’s a shame that she’s immediately forced to endure a virtual rerun of Matt Smith’s post-regeneration experiences, hardly the hoped-for harbinger of innovation I was looking for. Fingers crossed Chibnall’s got much more up his sleeve for the forthcoming series eleven.