- This year’s Doctor Who Christmas Special was always going to be a big event. Already carrying the weight of being Peter Capaldi’s last ever episode and therefore a regeneration story, the showrunners doubly raised the stakes. Not only did they bring in David Bradley to portray the late William Hartnell’s first doctor, but the announcement that Jodie Whittaker would become the first woman to portray the Time Lord meant that interest was sure to be fever pitch.
Flatly, I have to say that the episode did not work at all – but the means I shall use to demonstrate this, is through the eyes of my wife.
My wife Janine is not a Doctor Who fan. She tolerates my slightly unhealthy obsession with the classic era shows (she cannot see past the wires holding up the spaceships and the spacesuits made of tinfoil), but has enjoyed quite a lot of the Russell T Davies era of the modern era. I think she was relieved when I remarked “Well, that was rubbish!” after watching Twice Upon a Time, as she felt free to give vent to her own frustrations. Broadly speaking, these are:
- The fact that the story did not have anything approaching a plot or storyline. It was largely one hour of self-referential character development.
- The story was far too ‘in universe’ to be accessible to those not already familiar with the show.
- The constant smug, self-satisfied, patronising lectures from the characters.
This was perhaps reinforced by the fact we had experienced something very similar when we went to watch The Last Jedi in the cinemas (no spoilers ahead!). Janine is not a Star Wars fan, but she thoroughly enjoyed The Force Awakens; it was good fun, told a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end, had engaging character development, and was accessible to anyone who knew nothing about Star Wars. Her biggest disappointment with The Last Jedi was the lack of a distinct story; one reached the end feeling like nothing had actually been achieved.
So too it is with Twice Upon a Time. What really happened during the adventure? Not very much. We get to be very helpfully reminded how heroic our hero is, because everyone says so, rather than because the Doctor’s actions speak louder than his words. I explored this theme a lot in my Series 10 reviews, and the same remains true; that Steven Moffat has been so obsessed with turning the Doctor into some sort of Messiah, and trying to explore his character, that he’d forgotten he also needs to tell a story while he’s at it.
Star Wars is actually a useful comparison to what has happened with Doctor Who. Much of the focus on the negative press around The Last Jedi has centred on long-term fans being displeased with the story; at the extreme level certain fans want it struck from the official canon. Twice Upon a Time doesn’t commit that mistake, but the two stories do commit a different, shared, mistake; failure to pitch to the biggest possible audience. Doctor Who’s longevity was achieved through its capacity to endlessly reinvent itself, aided not just by a vessel to take the protagonists to any time and any place, but also by a lead character whose very character would change every few seasons. Ever since the conclusion of season 9 there has been a strong flavour of ‘recycled’ in Doctor Who.
Which means, bizarrely, that my future optimism for Doctor Who lies in the last two minutes of the Christmas special, as Capaldi regenerated in Jodie Whittaker. Despite my reservations about a female Doctor, the bold new direction, under new showrunner Chris Chibnall, might be exactly what is required to breath some much needed new life into the show. Twice Upon a Time finished with a fairly substantial cliffhanger, as the newly regenerated Doctor plunged out of the TARDIS, seemingly losing it for good …
That is the kind of bold approach that might break the show, but also might be the making of it. Doctor Who has seen several of these moments before; recasting William Hartnell with Patrick Troughton; exiling Jon Pertwee’s Doctor to earth; casting the relatively unknown Tom Baker to play the fourth Doctor. As Troughton himself said in his debut story, Power of the Daleks, “Life depends upon change; upon renewal.” We have to hope that the renewal offered by Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor proves to be a step in the right direction!