"Twice Upon A Time".
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Rachel Talalay
Starring Peter Capaldi, David Bradley,
Mark Gatiss and Pearl Mackie
This review contains spoilers from the Doctor Who Christmas Episode
To be frank, the more recent “Doctor Who” Christmas Specials have somewhat fallen flat in my humble opinion, predominantly due to Steven Moffat’s overreliance upon festive frivolities and holiday humour. Indeed, with the possible exception of Matt Smith’s swansong, "The Time of the Doctor", I haven’t ‘thoroughly enjoyed’ one of these seasonal-themed shows since Russell T Davies’ 2008 masterpiece “The Next Doctor”. I’m also not the greatest fan of Peter Capaldi’s tenure as the time-travelling Gallifreyan either, and believe the Scottish actor’s considerable talents were woefully wasted during his first two seasons, and only really came to the fore once he was ably accompanied by characters like Bill Potts and Nardole.
"Twice Upon a Time" however, does not seemingly fall into many of the tinsel-laden traps its predecessors have succumbed to, and instead tells a relatively straightforward story of the Timelord trying to understand whether a company capable of replicating the memories of the deceased should be universally viewed as a villainous malignancy or, somewhat perturbingly for the Doctor, an actual cause for the greater good. In fact, the realisation that this particular adventure specifically occurs on Christmas Day only becomes relevant (and resultantly noticeable) at the episode’s end when it enables the titular lead to engineer a military ceasefire through the manipulation of a few blessed hours of time.
Peter Capaldi’s portrayal of a Timelord desperately seeking peace after two thousand years of life, is also far more watchable (and likeable) than the version who required Clara Oswald’s hastily-written handy cards in “Under The Lake” so as to demonstrate even the smallest amount of compassion and humanity. Despite being tired of living himself, the Doctor isn’t about to stand by and watch a single lone soldier die if he can help it, even when Mark Gatiss’ World War One British officer nobly agrees to sacrifice his life in the belief it will save others. Such natural empathy and warmth on behalf of the Twelfth Doctor was sadly missing through so many of his earliest adventures, so it’s nice to see a far more agreeable attitude being shown throughout his final adventure.
Far more impressive though, has to be David Bradley’s ‘tour de force’ as the First Doctor. For those old enough to remember, I thought Richard Hurndall’s performance in the Twentieth Anniversary special “The Five Doctors” would be hard to beat, yet the star of “An Adventure in Space and Time” effortlessly transforms into the grumpy grandfather’s role and proves a pleasure to watch; even if he is given the majority of Moffat’s less than subtle sexist jokes – ‘smacked bottom’ for Pete's sake…
Admittedly, some of the “original” Doctor’s athletics are a bit hard to accept. The oldster’s zigzagging in between numerous Dalek disintegration beams as he fast approaches a watchtower belonging to the only ‘good’ Kaled in the galaxy takes a bit of getting used to, and one could certainly never imagine the frail-looking William Hartnell hurling himself from atop the TARDIS onto the ground, even if his fall was cushioned by a sheet of Antarctic snow.
Fortunately, such physicality doesn’t jar too much upon the senses, and are always quickly eclipsed by Bradley’s acting gravitas. In fact, one of the highlights of the story is the heart-wrenching despondency etched upon the old man’s face when he comprehends that he will become “The Doctor of War” his adversary is seeking after. This fate, despite being engineered through the sheer necessity needed in order to fight the universe’s many wrongs, clearly reaches down to the very core of the Timelord’s fears as to what his violent legacy may become should he accept the need to regenerate for the first time, and the Yorkshire man ‘nails’ this inner turmoil on-screen marvellously.
Mark Gatiss’ Lethbridge-Stewart is similarly an inspiring casting choice, with the English screenwriter putting in a remarkably charming, stiff upper-lipped performance. Such firm fondness for a non-regular character is particularly impressive considering his sombre introduction, trapped inside a bomb blast crater with a wounded German soldier pointing a pistol at him. Yet the World War One Officer (“Sorry… Spoilers.”) soon becomes a decidedly engaging companion, whose baffled bewilderments and naïve nobilities quickly endear him to both the audience and the Twelfth Doctor. It’s certainly a role which seems to far better suit the actor’s strengths than his previous foray into the world of “Doctor Who” as the decidedly over-the-top villain-come-monster Doctor Lazarus.
Plot-wise, "Twice Upon a Time" undoubtedly still suffers from some of Steven Moffat’s infamously head scratching discombobulations, as no-one ever seems to properly rationalise just why the Gallifreyan’s dual contemplation of ‘ending his travels’ causes a participant of the Great War to be erroneously dispatched to the South Pole in the year 1986? There’s also little explanation provided as to just how the universe’s mysterious benefactors ever came to be in a position to extract everyone’s memories just before their moment of death, nor how they developed the technology to travel back in time and do so retrospectively?
Similarly disconcerting, though perhaps understandable given this adventure is supposed to finish with a feel good finale, are the handful of sickly sweet cameos thrust upon the Doctor at the very end of the show. Rusty the Dalek’s somewhat bizarre appearance mid-way through the tale definitely caught me by surprise, but it at least provided a valid contribution to the plot, seeing as how the Matrix no longer existed, and even Mark Gatiss’ revelation that he was Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart’s ancestor made some sentimental sense. Yet the sudden materialisation of Nardole in No Man’s Land appeared to have been manipulated purely to provide the tenth season TARDIS crew the chance for a last group hug, whilst the ‘blink and you’ll miss her’ manifestation of the Impossible Girl, Clara Oswald, was seriously super sugary-strong stuff…
Sadly, this particular Christmas Special also insists on treating the Timelord’s regeneration as an opportunity for the lead actor to perform a lengthy swansong; a trend arguably initiated by Russell T Davies dreadfully drawn-out dramatics for the Tenth Doctor in “The End of Time”. True, Matt Smith’s “like breath on a mirror” speech from “The Time of The Doctor” was memorably magnificent and encapsulated much of his tenure on the television series within the space of a few minutes. However, Peter Capaldi’s soliloquy seemingly comes across as a bit of an emotionless rant, in which the show’s producer appears, once again, to be trying far too hard to be funny or clever, and thus disappointingly causes the Twelfth Doctor’s final moments to be far more reminiscent of his disagreeable early days rather than the more warm, likeable time traveller he has become over the past twelve months.
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Writer: Steven MoffatBBC One (United Kingdom):
Director: Rachel Talalay
Starring: Peter Capaldi, David Bradley, Pearl Mackie, Mark Gatiss, Jenna Coleman, Matt Lucas, Jodie Whittaker
First Broadcast: Monday 25th December 2017
Nowadays, Doctor Who is a blessed show – whereas thirty years ago, it seemed cursed. After the sacking of a Time Lord the previous year, 1987 saw the show scheduled against a long-running and extremely popular soap opera, while starring a spoon-playing comedy actor who spoke out of his ‘R’s, accompanied by pantomime star Bonnie Langford and children’s television presenter Sophie Aldred.
When it returned in 2005 after a long hiatus, the show had evolved, instead of becoming a popular cult success through continued mass appeal. A declaration of love for the Time Lord quickly became a way into a quirky social scene celebration: geek chic rocks. However, fashion – sadly – is fickle. But the makers of the long-running sci-fi show are well aware of this – so they intentionally reboot the show every few years to ensure they buck the trend of being left behind or dated. Doctor Who is therefore unlike most science fiction franchises; braver than the ever-popular duet of Stars Trek and Wars, it never stays the same show long.
But changing all the time is a risky business. Some eras of the so-called “classic” years are held up as “pure” Doctor Who, while others are seen as the show losing its way, being thought of as either too silly or too violent. So when Peter Capaldi was cast as the Twelfth Doctor in 2013, a cheer was felt across the fan-base as the show looked like it was returning to roots with an older lead. (Although both David Tennant and Matt Smith gave excellent performances, their appeal was their youthful energy – so Capaldi could be seen as a bit of a risk to the non-fan.)
Four years down the line, Twice Upon A Time saw Capaldi’s time as the Doctor come to an end, as well as introducing Jodie Whittaker as – another risk, but this time for fan and non-fan alike – the first female incarnation of the time lord (shock horror!). But before that, there was time enough for one more risk for Capaldi: this time, there’s no evil plan. Instead, similar to Tennant’s or Smith’s departure indulgences, we have the Doctor meet himself to debate whether its time to move on.
Following on from the fan-serving cliffhanger of the Twelfth Doctor encountering his first incarnation, the episode follows the unexpected duo as they quarrel and philosophise about what both the past and future has in store for themselves in a way only Doctor Who can.
Unfortunately, although some great humour is found as the more current Doctor finds his early persona less than PC – we all look back and cringe at ourselves in the past, the doctor being no exception – the story itself lacks a hook. We know our modern Doctor is leaving, and the Earth isn’t threatened, so there’s no real concern to the outcome. Even the effect of the Doctor’s emotional reunion with previous companions was severely lacking when it is revealed that they are just memories, rather than the “real thing”.
Also, the First Doctor’s desire not to regenerate comes out of nowhere. Just before his final moments, William Hartnell’s original First Doctor dramatically declared “it’s far from being over!” and walked out into the heavy Antarctic snow, determined to reach his ship; that’s an example of powerful acceptance rather than refusal. Bradley’s softer recreation of this scene doesn’t entirely change the meaning. So was hearing the Twelfth Doctor shouting ‘Nooo!’ to the polar skies what changed his mind?
Throughout the episode, Peter Capaldi gives a superb final performance, as does David Bradley as the First Doctor, although he’s more a homage than a full-on virtual Hartnell. Show writer and occasional actor Mark Gatiss, meanwhile, gives a wonderful final turn as a confused and charming War World One soldier out of time in more ways than one.
Being both experimental while at the at the same time oddly similar to his previous episodes, Twice Upon A Time was also the last episode ever to be written by current showrunner Steven Moffat, who has helmed the show since 2010, and written episodes since 2005, and will be stepping down to be replaced by Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall. So it was no surprise that the episode featured a few nods to the Moffat era, including an obligatory Dalek cameo and the usual mix of knowing meta moments, both funny and fan servicing.
On a technical level, the various worlds and past Earth settings are fantastically realised, as was the all-too-brief recreation of scenes from the First Doctor’s final adventure from 1966. With such effort into detail, I was thinking (indeed, hoping) for a “Back To The Future” approach to the old meeting new – but sadly, for most of the episode, only the two differing TARDIS console rooms show the contrast in the show’s development.
As a coda for the explosive previous season’s two-part finale, it works perfectly well: the third and final part of Capaldi’s farewell. The look, the laughs and occasional dab of poignancy of the episode made up for the narrative lulls. What plot there was – people being alive when they should really be dead – made the episode focus on the parallels being the Time Lord regeneration process, and bringing new life from death. Which was very appropriate, because as with Matt Smith before him, Jodie Whittaker’s fun and surprising entrance, though shorter than previous others, is a clear declaration of a new era in the show: the youthful energy is back.
Only the Twelfth Doctor’s actual final moments aboard the TARDIS – though exquisitely performed by Capaldi – felt completely indulgent, being more a chance for the Twelfth Doctor to go out speeching than saving a friend, a planet or the universe. Previously, we’ve seen this Doctor emote deeply against war; we’ve seen him plead for help to two versions of his best frenemy, and we’ve seen the heartbreak of him losing the memory of his closest friend. Wouldn’t it be better if we saw him leave as he arrived – cross and ranty?
But let’s be fair. As a piece of drama put on as Yuletide seasonal entertainment, it’s very strong. Though not that representative of the Moffat style or even the Capaldi arc, Twice Upon A Time gives a mature wave goodbye to the pure rebel Time Lord realising his war was over and to step aside and let new blood continue the fight. Yes, it is lacking any real sense of peril or threat, but instead, it is witty, moving and at times very sad. Anyone dealing with a family loss at this time of the year might wish it had been more a traditional festive romp with killer Christmas trees or robot santas.
But then, that’s the nature of risk – you end up with something you hadn’t had before, and change is good. So here it is: Doctor Who at Christmas. Look to the future – it’s only just begun.
Filters: Television Season Specials Twelfth Doctor
This final Target novelisation brings us bang up to date with the Doctor’s adventures, recounting the 12th Doctor’s final journey towards his future, covering events following the end of series 10 that saw him lose his companion Bill to the Cybermen. Arriving at the South Pole and deciding he doesn’t want to regenerate again he meets his first incarnation who is also wrestling with the prospect of change. When time stops and the Doctors encounter a First World War soldier who is being pursued by a woman made of glass they begin a journey that sees both incarnations finding out what it means to be the Doctor.
The novelisation follows the broadcast story extremely closely, with relatively little additional material in terms of story development. However, while the TV episode might have suffered, at least in the eyes of some, from the lack of an enemy to see the Doctor off in spectacular style, this seems less the case here, in a novel that has the space to explore the nature of the change and personal sense of loss that regeneration inflicts on the Doctor. It, therefore, feels less of a postscript to what went before and more an exploration of some big themes in their own right, with a deeper reflection on the life of the Doctor as he faces his latest regeneration, and on the sense of the unknown as he faces his first. To fully exploit this, a quite significant development that seems even more explicit here than on broadcast is the idea that the Doctor can choose whether he regenerates or dies, something that raises big questions for the Doctor personally but also for the web of time itself.
This serious subject matter doesn’t stop Cornell having fun throughout the book though. The Doctor’s nicknames for his earlier incarnation prompt him to recall past encounters with various stars from the world of entertainment including a shared holiday with Mary Berry and a pub crawl with Clive Dunn. There’s also some fun referencing the show’s history. When the VHS tape held up by Archie is revealed to be the Doctor’s recording of the Daleks master plan, it elicits the comment ‘how they’d love to get that back’ – a nice acknowledgment of fans’ desire for the return of lost episodes. And there’s further mischief with a joke addressing the old Dimension/Dimensions inconsistency in the TARDIS acronym.
In common with the other recent releases in this range the author also indulges fans with occasional continuity – some obvious, including references to events in the Snowcap base in The Tenth Planet, to companions Steven and Sara Kingdom, and a moving reference to Susan, - some more subtle, such as the reference to people being the sum of their memories. The First Doctor getting to use the sonic screwdriver for the first time provides another fan-pleasing moment. Throughout, Cornell shows the attention to detail one would expect, taking the opportunity to explain why the Blinovitch Limitation Effect isn’t functioning, and delightfully explaining why the First Doctor has to do more work at the console when flying the TARDIS compared with his later incarnations. There’s also a nice acknowledgment of the legacy of the Target novels themselves with a chapter titled ‘Escape to Danger’. These references demonstrate real respect for the show but don't distract from the storytelling.
Cornell finishes the book on a very serious note, adding perhaps the most chilling moment in the book with what was for me the revelation that plans for a subsequent Christmas truce in 1915 were stopped by the authorities. This moment darkens the sombre mood as the story draws to its conclusion, as ever, reality proving to be far more shocking than anything the show can create. This addition is well judged and feeds the somewhat melancholy mood as the Doctors finally come to terms with their destinies.
The book is not without its problems, however. In remaining faithful to the broadcast episode the novel does retain what many people felt to be an over the top characterisation of the First Doctor’s dated attitudes. This can be forgiven as it merely reflects the TV episode itself, however, it may possibly be compounded in the novelisation by an occasionally overstated characterisation of the First Doctor as devoid of humour. This is something that doesn’t really reflect the softer characterisation that had evolved by this point of this incarnation and even contradicts him making a joke himself earlier in the story, albeit one that demonstrates the first point of criticism. These are however relatively small points and don’t detract significantly from the positives.
As the final book in this batch of releases it’s worth reflecting on the nature of the Target range and what they offer in the twenty-first century. My own Target collection has been packed away and living in my parents’ loft for a few years now, these books a remnant of my childhood, a feature of the past, not needed in an age of on demand TV and DVDs. Reading these recent releases however I’ve rediscovered the joy of Target novels and realised that they can still have a unique place in Dr Who fans' collections . Whilst they may not be the most challenging of reads it is clear they are written with a great deal of love and it’s a joy to be able to join the Doctor for a couple of chapters on the bus to work or a few spare moments during the day. And given that these books have a style of their own, the reader can connect with (and appreciate) the series in a uniquely different way. Until there are further new releases (hopefully!) it may be time for me to pay a visit to my parents’ loft.
Filters: BBC Books Twelfth Doctor Target
Adapted by: Paul Cornell
Based on the script by: Steven Moffat
Read by: Mark Gatiss
Cover by: Anthony Dry
Duration: 3hrs 15mins
Publisher: BBC Audio
Originally Released June 2018
“Stories too broad and too deep for the small screen.”
That was the credo of the Doctor Who New Adventures novels of the 1990s. It’s a phrase that is written on the heart of certain circles of fandom right next to “Never cruel or cowardly.” It seems appropriate then that one of the authors that most defined the voice of those books, Paul Cornell, uses his last Doctor Who book (though he’s said that before, in fairness) to lend greater breadth and depth than the small screen could allow.
Twice Upon a Time was always a remarkable story to play out on a Christmas Day. Ultimately it’s the story of a man, standing at the precipice, deciding whether or not to commit suicide. Normally that sort of thing is the reserve of Albert Square, where Christmas means even more misery than usual. But in 2017 Doctor Who danced on the tiny overlap that allowed it to be a funny, thrilling adventure about wanting to die with dignity. Part of that trade-off was the Doctor’s exact reasons and feelings not having room to be deeply explored, but Cornell takes full advantage of his page count to give us exactly that. It’s no less witty or packed with incident, but it more clearly acknowledges that this is a story full of characters who are, one way or another dead or dying.
The Doctor’s yearning for completeness comes to the fore of his thoughts. His desire to be able to finally provide a full stop to his life and say ‘so that was it.’ River comes to the fore of his thoughts and, in a genius spark of perspective, Cornell notes that this is a Doctor who lived for 75 years in a rather settled life. Twenty-four years in one long night with River, and then fifty years at St.Luke’s University. He’s had his retirement and his good death. Why can’t he just have it?
Bill’s future history with Heather is also fleshed out and with purpose as it shadows the Doctor’s dilemma. We learn of them returning to Earth to live a full, long, human life and how Bill ultimately chooses to die of old age rather than resume her ‘puddle’ form and return to the stars, even as she urged Heather to go without her. The faint hypocrisy of this isn’t touched upon, but it’s very human. The deeper, broader question of Bill’s existence – something the TV episode has time to little more than nod at – gets intelligently examined too. The Doctor connecting the concept of Testimony to growing up with the everyday reality of the Matrix on Gallifrey seems obvious in retrospect, as does that informing his opinion on whether such digital ghosts are actually the person involved, or simply an extremely detailed diary left behind by them.
All in all, Cornell has constructed a novelization which adds a new dimension of tenderness and emotion relative to the time and space of the original. A fine example of a Target which doesn’t so much overwrite, or compete with, the televised version in your mind, but rather adds additional layers of quality and grace to it.
As an audiobook, Cornell’s efforts are assisted hugely by Mark Gatiss. Himself no stranger to reading the Target range as a child, he knows exactly what’s required and turns in a touching, sensitive reading of the material. Not only are his Doctors note perfect in their voices (interestingly, he’s definitely decided to channel Bradley rather than Hartnell for his First Doctor) but he invests them with a sense of performance and character beyond the voice that truly captures their personalities.
Gatiss’ own persona also meshes smoothly with the tone required by the text. At times you can almost picture him in a comfortable antique leather chair, relating a diverting anecdote he thinks might amuse you. At others, his dropped voice and quiet control effortlessly communicates the pathos of a moment. All of the audiobooks in this series have selected appropriate and talented readers. But Gatiss is probably the only one so far to feel like he could genuinely have read any of them.
The sound design also keeps up the high quality of the series. Unobtrusive, yet giving an appropriate sense of setting, it hits just the right balance. It’s particularly nice to get the unique, and never repeated, bloops and whirrs of the console going crazy during the First Doctor’s regeneration faithfully presented her. One tiny niggle though is when the polar winds continue to blow in your earphones even when time stops still – which did prompt a little Bradleyesque “Oh, surely not? That can’t be right, can it, hmm?” from this listener that momentarily took me out of the action. But when that’s the worst criticism one can make of a three-hour recording…
This is the final of the current set of new Target novelizations and it’s fitting that they’ve proven just how varied the original range was, and just what their readers loved about them. We’ve had Jenny Colgan’s deeply traditional Dicksian take, and RTD’s version which took cues from both David Whittaker and Ian Marter (gleefully raiding other stories for bits and pieces, while upping the gore and violence beyond anything BBC One would have allowed at 7pm on a Saturday). We’ve had Steven Moffat’s wildly experimental take which doesn’t so much expand on the original but treats the TV episode as a kind of Serving Suggestion for where the story could go. And now Paul Cornell’s fine novel which manages the trick of adding massively to the inner lives of the characters while altering the actual events hardly a line.
Here’s to the next batch (“The Unquiet Dead by Mark Gatiss” anyone?)
Filters: BBC Audio Target Twelfth Doctor