Tuesday, December 26, 2017

In Which I Review The Doctor Who Christmas Special (2017)

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays and Whomas! It's time, once more, for that most special of Yuletide traditions: the Doctor Who Christmas special. It's been an age since the show aired regularly and, as usual, it's more than a little bit nice to step inside the mad world of the TARDIS and our beloved everlasting Time Lord. But this year, as has happened before and shall happen again, we say goodbye to the current face of the Doctor and welcome a new--more feminine--face into this bonkers fairy tale world. This year's Christmas special, "Twice Upon a Time," isn't only the goodbye to Peter Capaldi as the titular Time Lord but also to Steven Moffat, a man who's steered the real life TARDIS through six seasons; a man who's tenure as said showrunner has been punctuated by brilliance but too often hallmarked by frustration. This is an episode less defined by the sugary sweet sentiments of Christmas specials past and more a writer trying to hang his hat up and finalize his message to a world of fans. Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat, we bid you farewell. 

Steven Moffat's episodes of Doctor Who are usually made up of a few key things: big, bombastic storylines with lots of flare, drama, and explosions; head scratching timey-wimey twists and turns and, fairly often, snappy dialogue and humor. This Christmas special had all of those; to wit, the First Doctor and the Twelfth Doctor accidentally run into each other at the South Pole where their personalities, mannerisms, and experiences clash; time freezes and almost inexplicably we end up on a hostile red planet with an angry Dalek. And that's all before the Doctor--portrayed by a man for fifty years--regenerates into a woman, an event that--when announced some months ago--sent shock waves of both anger and joy throughout the fan base, causing several internet explosions. But more than being a typical Moffat episode (which this episode absolutely is), the writer is attempting to lampshade, quite loudly to mix up some metaphors, the fact that this is his farewell episode and without being subtle (something Doctor Who almost never is anyway) explain to the audience how he wants his tenure to be remembered. For the sake of ease, forget the plot. The plot is a headscratcher at best that can only be rationally explained by scientific mumbo jumbo from a two thousand year old Time Lord. Instead, let's focus on what the plot is trying to say when we remember it in within the context of Steven Moffat's departure. The idea of Testimony--as presented by glass aliens who seemingly abduct the Doctor and his companions--is presented as evil; all plans the Doctor stumbles across are usually ill intended and in true Doctor fashion, he gives a marvelous speech about stopping Testimony and saving the Universe. The about face that comes toward the end of the episode is that, lo and behold, Testimony isn't an evil plot that the Doctor needs to stop by swishing his white cape and waving his magical sword. No, Testimony is Steven Moffat's way of saying that he, as showrunner, will live on in memory. That's perhaps a bit egotistical but Moffat's tenure is egotistical, which isn't always a bad thing; it means that his plot and often times coherence get lost because of the influx of ideas and themes. And nothing reads Theme-with-a-capital-T more than having an entire episode devoid of plot to focus on something as lofty as memory. Second, for a show that changes actors every few years and expects the audience to form the same attachment to the newbie, memory is vital. In fact, the word memory is dropped several times throughout key moments of the episode. Testimony's purpose is to lift people from the moment of their death, duplicate their memories and then put those memories in a glass figure so that the dead can live on amongst the living even while their physical selves die. Bill Potts, upon revealing that she too is part of Testimony reminds the Doctor, "what is anyone supposed to be except a bunch of memories?" Steven Moffat is a series of memories, not just his own that inform his own personal life--like being a long time Doctor Who fan--but the collective memories of TV watchers who now readily identify him through his works, both good and bad--Weeping Angels, the biggest library in the Universe and River Song, the Pandorica, Amy and Rory Pond, the 50th anniversary, Clara Oswald and Bill Potts. These memories, as treacly as it might sound, have been downloaded into us and we carry them forward, ensuring that Steven Moffat himself lives forever through these memories and works. And perhaps it might be overreaching but I also think that Moffat is asking that we remember him kindly; even as a showrunner who caused more than his share of controversy (to be fair, other showrunners of Doctor Who did not have Twitter and Tumblr to contend with, which isn't to say that some of the criticisms pushed on Moffat are not fair and accurate).

If the importance and immortality of memories is one sticking point of this episode, then surely the other is Moffat reminding us what the heart of Doctor Who is: a fairy tale. The First Doctor, brilliantly played by David Bradley, tries to remind those around him, including the Twelfth Doctor, Captain Lethbridge-Stewart and Bill, that the universe is not a fairy tale; there must be some logical reason why good triumphs over evil even though evil so very clearly has the upper hand. His way of looking at the universe is devoid of magic; the victory of good cannot possibly come down to the works of one bloke who drops down from the sky and fixes problems without ever asking for anything in return. "The real world," he says, "is not a fairy tale." Sometimes, good captains die in war on a cold hard battlefield, never to see their children again. Miracles are rare. And sure, that's certainly reality but it's not what Doctor Who is concerned with. It has never cared much for reality, especially at Christmas. At its heart, Doctor Who is a fairy tale with a hero who slays dragons. Steven Moffat uses the Twelfth Doctor to remind us that "the universe generally fail to be a fairy tale. But that's where we come in." And he's right! That's how to sum up the whole 54 years of this program. Moffat is reaching out across the fourth wall and asking, one final time, for us to understand his version of fairy tales. It might be louder, more explosive, and often a confusing jumble of plot points, but he tried to keep the fairy tale in mind. Think back on the various 12th Doctor finales of Moffat's tenure: he went to Hell and Heaven; he saved the planet; he sacrificed his life. He did what superheroes and fairy tale heroes do. Moffat, more than his predecessor, had the Doctor walking the Heroes Journey. The Doctor never lost sight of that, not for long, but fairy tales evolve and change. Sometimes there are robots as faithful companions. This, in turn, leads us to the next evolution in this fairy tale called Doctor Who: Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor. Finally, a woman! If Doctor Who is a fairy tale then the Doctor isn't just the dashing knight, at least not only a male gendered one. The Doctor is an archetype; he is above and beyond gender. The Doctor exists as we want him to exist--male, female, sexless and genderless, black, white, even green if we so chose. The archetype exists as a great series of bullet points, it's up to us (or Chris Chibnall, I suppose) to fill in the details based on what kind of fairy tale is going to be told next. And from this point onward, the fairy tale is mystery waiting to be told--or, perhaps it's better to say, to be retold. After all, it's been told twelve times before. Once upon a time....a hero fell from the sky. The rest? We'll just have to wait and see.

Miscellaneous Notes on Twice Upon a Time

--How about one big final round of applause to Peter Capaldi? While he wasn't often given the best storylines, his performance never suffered. He was truly a great Doctor.

--The other lampshading moment that I didn't touch on too much was the rather backwards attitude of the First Doctor with regards to women and their roles on the TARDIS, a relic of the 1960s much like some fans hangups over the new Doctor. Most of this provided us with some quality chuckles, but when the First Doctor threatened to smack Bill's bottom, that's when it went a titch too far.

--The Dalek was really pretty unnecessary, right?

--"I turn in to you?!" "Well, you have a few false starts but you get there in the end."

--Clara appeared for thirty seconds and because I was never a big fan of hers all I could think about was Queen Victoria and why she wasn't with Albert.

--I couldn't figure out the purpose of the Captain except as a way to make the Twelfth Doctor a Christmas hero until he revealed his last name. Tying the Captain to the Brig was a smart move.

--The Twelfth Doctor's final words read less as final words of a man dying and more like a showrunner exiting the building trying to pass on wisdom to his successor, which isn't to say that Peter Capaldi didn't deliver them beautifully: "never be cruel, never be cowardly. And never eat pears. Hate is always foolish, love is always wise. Try to be nice, never fail to be kind. Laugh hard, run fast, be kind. Doctor, I let you go."

--Welcome Jodie Whittaker. I can't tell you how pleased I am to meet you! Now, kindly get back inside your TARDIS, okay?

No comments:

Post a Comment