Tales From the Found: Twice Upon a Time

Pop between realities, back in time for tea, here’s some thoughts about the 2017 Christmas special…

  • Look, asking me to believe that David Bradley looks at all like William Hartnell was going to be a stretch, but it’s the sort of thing a fellow has to accept as just what happens when fifty years pass and people die and all. But that morph shot when archive footage of Hartnell turns into new footage of Bradley? That is nightmare fuel on the level of the new 2017 rebooted Teddy Ruxpin.
  • Look, asking me to accept Mark Gattis… At all. At Christmas? Seriously?
  • Notice that they never say when the Antarctica scenes are set? There’s even a spot or two where the dialogue gets slightly awkward in order to avoid it. There’s an unpleasant sense here of Moffat, of all people, here at the end, being just a little ashamed of some of the goofy stuff that hasn’t aged well. Like how “The Tenth Planet” was set in 1986.
  • I dig the classic TARDIS set. I don’t think it works especially well as a regular set for the modern show, but I would really like for them to find excuses to roll it out once a season.
  • I rather liked the musical reprises, “I Am The Doctor” on Testimony, “Vale Dicem” when the Doctors arrive on Villengard, and the Ninth Doctor’s Theme during Bill’s heart-to-heart with the Bradley Doctor. But Murray Gold seems strangely muted for what I gather is his last outing; none of the big manipulative antics he’s known for.
  • That scene with Bill? That is the only moment when Bradley actually seems to be playing The Doctor, rather than playing an over-the-top caricature of the Fandom Zeitgeist of what “The First Doctor” was like. He complains a lot, he’s curmudgeonly, he’s bitter, he’s sexist, he hates the French. He dislikes his future selves’ sense of taste. Yes, look, Doctor Who was indeed hella sexist back in the ’60s and the Bill Harnell was personally kinda on the regressive side even for his time. But that era of the show was a lot of other things too, and this didn’t feel, outside of that one moment, like an earnest attempt to revisit the feel of that era, just a “The Five Doctors”-style attempt to bring in a William Hartnell impersonator to do a goofy First Doctor shtick. Only in The Five Doctors, everyone’s shtick was meant to be adorable, not sexist.
  • And, I mean, I’m not of the camp that believes Steven Moffat is a misogynist. You have to ignore way too much in order to support that. But we’re into “after three shakes, you’re playing with it” territory here: at some point, you’re no longer mocking the tacit sexism of ’60s Who; you’re reveling in it.
  • Also, did anyone else notice that when Bill outs herself, the Captain looks scandalized, but the Doctor looks kinda creepily aroused?
  • Though I will grant that the Captain’s reaction was fairly understated, which was a relief, especially coming from Gattiss, a guy who, as a writer at least, seems to love writing “people from the past freak out at the concept of gay people” scenes.
  • Oh, that scene with Bill and the Bradley Doctor on Villengard? Bill’s framing of the Doctor’s reasons for leaving Gallifrey not as what he was running from but what he was running to? That’s fantastic.
  • And so, frankly, was the Doctor’s casual dismissal of his reasons for leaving as, essentially, “A bunch of things which seemed way more important at the time than they do now.”
  • I am glad they didn’t try to retcon in a more specific reason for the Doctor’s first regeneration by having him get shot or something.
  • Little surprised they didn’t CGI up an improved regeneration sequence. I have no feelings one way or the other about the decision beyond surprise.
  • I am also glad they let him just say “Time Lords” instead of having him talk around it to maintain the purity of the whole “Time Lords didn’t exist as a concept until The War Games” thing.
  • You noticed, didn’t you, that the speech Bill gives to the Doctor when he sends her back to the TARDIS on Villengard, the one about not being able to see her right in front of him, is the same one he gives Clara in “Deep Breath”?
  • Look, Clara, you’re the one who erased his memory. And sure, you had good reason, but it’s kinda a dick move to take him to task for it when you’re the one who did it.
  • “That’s the trouble with hope. Makes one awfully frightened.” Well, there’s 2017 in a nutshell for me.
  • A story with no real enemies, the Christmas Armistice as a major plot point, themes of rebirth, and this fairytale ending where it turns out that no one is ever really gone makes this very straightforwardly the most “Christmas” of all the Christmas stories.
  • At the same time, with all this stuff about reaching back and fiddling with one’s own past, interfering in the deaths of the parents of one’s friends, and everyone who ever lived getting a second life in the distant future, this is somehow the most straightforwardly Faction Paradox that Doctor Who has ever been. Which is super weird because…
  • It’s kinda also the most fluffy and insubstantial of the Christmas stories.
  • It bothers me how little any of the pieces of the story have to do with one another. Exactly what purpose does the Bradley Doctor serve in the narrative, anyway? I guess on the surface, he’s a plot device to create the temporal strangeness that serves as the setting to the episode. But what narrative function does he play?
  • What’s the Captain doing there anyway? Okay, the two Doctors trying to kill themselves in Antarctica in the ’80s breaks time. This is within the bounds of the sort of things we’ve seen before. Not the same exact thing as happened in “Father’s Day” or “The Wedding of River Song”, but close enough that we’ve established a basis between those earlier two to accept that fucking around with life and death on a temporal level like that can cause time to go sideways, and the exact details of what that means will vary depending on the exact circumstances. But “diverts a guy on his way to being beamed back to 1914” seems like a stretch. Why him? Testimony is apparently picking up people from all of time and space, and the one who gets shanghaied by the Doctors’ temporal crisis is a random Captain from the trenches in World War I? Why any of the infinity other people they’ve been beaming up?
  • It’s nice to see Rusty again, and I really like his animosity toward the Doctor; it woulda been easy to make him friendly, but the idea that hating the Doctor for his similarity to the Daleks would stick with Rusty is wonderful. Though I felt it undermined his credibility how easily the Doctor manipulated him. You get the feeling that you could basically get Rusty to do pretty much anything you liked by reminding him that helping an inferior lifeform would piss the Daleks off.
  • But speaking of which, Testimony freezes time on Villengard while the Doctor’s with Rusty. Which means that the time-freezing thing is something Testimony was doing, not because of the Doctors. There’s no sense of causality between the Doctor’s meeting, the “temporal error”, the Captain, or anything else that happens.
  • Unless, of course, the whole thing is a rouse. I mean, the Doctor screws around with time right in front of them to save the Captain and no one objects or anything. Could it be that Testimony never actually intended for the Captain to die, but rather set the whole thing up, matchmaking between the Doctor and Alistair’s dad, offering him a chance to see Bill, giving him back his memories of Clara, as a kindness?
  • But this only pushes the question off again: why now, and why the Captain? If this was all a set-up by Testimony, why did we get this episode and not David Tennant catching Colin Baker before he whacked his head and flying off to meet Jo Grant’s grandpa? I mean, other than “Because no one wants to watch that.”
  • The Captain’s identity is a bit out of nowhere, isn’t it? This is largely the same issue as the previous three bullet points, but, like, it being specifically him doesn’t connect to anything else in the story, it’s just “HERE IS A CONTINUITY REFERENCE. YOU NERDS LIKE THOSE DON’T YOU?”
  • I’m feeling a little bipolar about this whole episode now that I think about it. Whiplash back and forth between “There’s a whole bunch of stuff crammed in here for no reason” and “It seems a bit thin, doesn’t it?”
  • There’s the beginning of an arc going on with the Bradley Doctor being reluctant to regenerate, then horrified by his future as “The Doctor of War” (Don’t think I haven’t noticed how completely free they are with acknowledging the Hurt Doctor now that the cat’s out of the bag, despite his introduction as the secret the Doctor would take to his grave), and finally resigning himself to his future when his successor saves the Captain. But this ultimately isn’t his story, it’s the Capaldi Doctor’s, and thusly it doesn’t get enough focus for the weight it ought to have. The emotional heart of the episode has been shifted over to a side-plot.
  • Which gets me to the thing that worked the least for me: the Twelfth Doctor doesn’t have an emotional arc. We don’t actually see him grow or change or react to what happens around him in a way that brings about the ultimate character change. In the end, he changes his mind about dying and decides to regenerate instead. But why? It doesn’t feel like something that comes out of the events of the episode. In fact, his very last scene with Nardole, Bill and Clara suggests that he still hasn’t changed his mind. But then suddenly, for no clear reason, he consents to the regeneration. And despite his long speech, there’s no suggestion for why he does it.
  • You could tell a story about how meeting his former self causes him to face his own fears about regenerating. But that isn’t this story.
  • You could tell a story about how seeing Bill resurrected as a glass avatar and realizing that she is no less real even though she exists now as a being of memory rather than flesh and blood helps him to get past his refusal to let this version of himself be relegated to memory. But this isn’t that story. In fact, it seems like to the very end, he still isn’t completely able to accept that memory-Bill and memory-Nardole are legitimately themselves.
  • You could tell a story about the Doctor finally getting the answer to the question he poses to Bill about the sustainability of good — that he is the force in the universe that tips the scales in favor of good. But, again, this isn’t that story; the reveal happens to the wrong Doctor, and besides, the whole concept is introduced only in the middle of the second act.
  • You could even tell a story where meeting Testimony convinces the Doctor that the kindness he puts into the universe can ultimately be repaid, and this makes death less appealing. But again, this isn’t that story. This is a largely unrelated story, at the end of which, the Doctor shrugs and says “Okay, fine, I’ll regenerate.”
  • Y’know, I’m the one person who actually liked Tennant’s “I don’t want to go.” I think most people wanted some kind of grandiloquent speech instead.  This whole episode was Capaldi’s “I don’t want to go,” and he finishes on a big speech which, honestly, does nothing for me. I mean, it starts out at largely cliche platitudes, saying nothing that wasn’t already said much better in “The Doctor Falls”. By the time he gets to the bits about his name, honestly, the whole thing seems like just random meaningless gibberish trying to sound profound.
  • Jodie Whittaker is lovely, but I wish she’d gotten at least a whole sentence or two. Enjoyed the physical acting, but she gets far and away the least screen-time of any incoming Doctor in the new series. Given that they’ve released her new costume, I will also note that she continues the trend of the new Doctor looking cooler in the remains of her predecessor’s wardrobe than in her own.
  • Though not thrilled with the extent to which it’s a very straight rehash of Matt Smith’s first scene.
  • Overall… It was fine. Least favorite of the Capaldi Christmas Specials. Not disappointing-to-the-point-of-inducing-a-three-year-neurosis or anything. But a let-down all the same.

One thought on “Tales From the Found: Twice Upon a Time

  1. Seed of Bismuth

    You know this still feels like your fake Doctor Who show since the real series finished for me at the end of David Tennant’s run and what little pits of Capaldi I’ve watched I’ve hated with a burning passion. So good you enjoy it.

    However I will say that “I don’t want to go” has become a meme in the Who fandom not I think because people dislike it per say but rather because it’s shifts the conversion from “same character with different actor/directer/writer” too “different character, same name”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *