For a show about time travel it’s remarkable how rarely Doctor Who ever addresses the paradoxical trauma inherent in the concept of visiting one’s own future or past. Outgoing showrunner Steven Moffat, the man who coined the term ‘wibbly wobbly timey wimey’, would probably argue that, of all the writers the show has had over its fifty plus years, he’s the man who explored temporal paradoxes the most. Except he didn’t. The time travel capabilities of the TARDIS have always been no more than a maguffin to him, a plot device to get us to the next location, be it ancient Rome, Victorian London or, as in this episode, the trenches of the First World War. Time is treated, like Space, as a place to visit. A tourist location at best, a cheap holiday in someone else’s misery at worst. The odd occasions where Moffat has decided to really investigate the ramifications of time travel (“Blink”, “The Girl in the Fireplace”, “The Wedding of River Song”, “Listen”) it’s been as an opportunity for him to indulge the more irritating puzzle box tendencies of his writing.
Doctor Who has always been a show more wrapped up in itself than most. Its convoluted fifty year back-story and simultaneous ongoing refusal to accommodate a cohesive canon (despite the best efforts of its more rabid fans to define and map the Whoniverse) have created a show that’s become a little off putting to potential new viewers and a little too cosy for seasoned fans. Which is a problem if ratings are what define your success. The viewing figures have fallen steadily since Peter Capaldi took over the titular role from Matt Smith, whose populist bumbling take on the character (Frank Spencer as mad professor) proved a hit with young audiences. So what to do? Luckily, by accident in 1966, Doctor Who invented the literally life-saving concept of regeneration.
But regeneration episodes are tricky things. We’re saying goodbye to one Doctor, knowing that the most we’ll get is a glimpse of the new one right at the end. I expect Moffatt, considering his options, decided that this time, with the innovation of Jodie Whittaker as the first female incarnation of the Doctor (having tested the water with the Master/Missy) the all-important regeneration episode could be left to fend for itself until the explosive final scene. Then, being the showman he is he thought no! where’s my trademark everything but the kitchen sink? What deep concepts can I examine in an hour of Christmas TV? What if the Doctor refused to regenerate? Why have one Doctor when I can have two? Get me David Bradley on the line while I phone my old chum Gattis.
Bradley’s impersonation of The Doctor as played by William Hartnell reflected off his performance in 2013’s An Adventure in Space and Time where he played William Hartnell playing the Doctor. This self-indulgently convoluted casting decision must have made old Whovians Moffatt and Gattis (the author of the aforesaid drama doc) hug each-other in glee and to be fair it generated enough pre-publicity along with the gender-swapping Doctor headlines to probably guarantee a fair-sized Christmas day audience but did it work and if so on what terms?
It did work and was an enjoyably atmospheric Xmas episode. Any intention to unpack the paradox of visiting one’s own future or past and examine in any seriousness the mirroring of two dying men refusing a chance to live again was, probably sensibly, (no-one wants a Samuel Beckett Theatre of the Absurd episode of Doctor Who, except me) ditched in favour of the running jokes about the old Doctor’s anachronistic sexism which fell a little flat and tended to be more about a perceived assumption about Hartnell the actor not the Doctor as a character. Serving only to take us out of the narrative and be made aware of Moffatt sniggering over his clacking keyboard. Capaldi referring to the first Doctor as ‘Mister Pastry’, Mary Berry and Corporal Jones at various points underlining the television nostalgia self-referentiality of the writing.
Indeed, more than the writing, the success of the episode relied heavily on Rachel Talalay’s accomplished direction. Her swooping tracking shots and visual trickery saved what could have been a dull generic runaround. Many times characters were framed or reflected, creating fractured points of view that delineated Moffatt’s theme of identity being a set of memories, that essentially we are created by those who observe us and are the sum of our experiences. No-one in the cast grasped this more strongly than Pearl Mackie’s Bill Potts. Her heartfelt, cracked voice pleas for the Doctor to accept her as real even though she knew she was a memory construct really resonated and served to set up the cameos by Clara and Nardole, providing the only real emotional response of the story.
The nature of the glass lady, while visually continuing the theme of reflection and ultimately throwing the Doctor by not having an ‘Evil Plan’ was a perfunctory threat, casually dealt with in the final half so that we could get to the cheap bathos of the Christmas Armistace scene and Capaldi’s grandstanding swansong, which I personally thought was overwritten. The reveal of the Captain’s name as Lethbridge-Stewart was easy to see coming a mile off (did any other Who fanatics spot his reference to Cromer?) and the Rusty the Dalek sequence was blatant padding. The time stopping effect, snowflakes suspended in the air, was just that, a special effect that we’ve seen a dozen times before. It did, however underline how Doctor Who has always been a show about effect, about the nature of television itself. The Doctor has always travelled, not through time and space as such but through genres and spectacle. It’s telling that the first glimpse we get of the regenerated Doctor is her reflection in a monitor screen.
Now, let’s look forward to the autumn of 2018 and the first proper chance to assess Jodie Whittaker’s portrayal under Chris Chibnall’s showrunning. I hope, in the Doctor’s own words it’ll be ‘Brilliant!’
Comedy actor Richard (Mr Pastry) Hearne was allegedly offered the Doctor Who role after Jon Pertwee, but a disagreement over his interpretation of the role (he wanted to play the Doctor as Mr. Pastry) meant the part was given to Tom Baker.
In 1973s Multi-Doctor story The Three Doctors, Lethbridge Stewart refuses the evidence of his eyes that they have landed on an alien planet, insisting it looks ‘If I’m not mistaken very like Cromer!” Itself taken to be a jokey reference to the then new technology of ‘Chroma Key’ used to back project alien landscapes.