Since the high point of the 50th Anniversary special, and Matt Smith’s ending close behind it, I have gone a long way from Stephen Moffat’s Doctor Who. From the little I have seen of her in the role, I think I have done a disservice to myself over Pearl Mackie as Bill Potts, but how would it have been possible to enjoy a single, however delightful, character/actress when I found the writing so tiresome and ridiculous, and the direction it has meant for Peter Capaldi so meaningless and irrelevant?
This year’s Xmas Special marks Moffat and Capaldi’s departure. It’s always intriguing to watch a new Doctor emerge, to try to guess from the seconds of time they are allotted in such Specials what they might possibly be, to wonder if a lost enthusiasm is about to undergo its own regeneration.
Of course, the decision to break with tradition and go with a female Doctor, Jodie Whittaker, for the first time has attracted controversy and much head-full-of-shit predictions of doom from a large part of the Whovian audience. One particular YouTuber has poured out a stream of videos castigating the decision, predicting that the show will be killed off, this time forever, and generally being completely Cassandra about the whole thing.
I use the term ‘head-full-of-shit’ for this gentleman and those who flock to ‘like’ his pronouncements of doom because their reasoning is full-of-shit. The key moment came when he said that he had no intrinsic objections to there one day being a female Doctor, providing it was done for the right reasons: apparently, the selection of Jodie Whittaker is solely due to a stridently feminist agenda, crossed with fervent Social Justice Warrior preoccupations.
Do you recall that episode of Yes Minister in which Jim Hacker decides to spearhead the promotion of women within the Civil Service, in an attempt to bring parity forward? This led to a glorious scene where the Private Secretaries all meet to welcome the scheme, to heap praise on it as a worthy intention and one to which they would all lend their support, before going on to explain why a female Private Secretary would be completely unsuitable for their particular Department.
Yeah, full-of-shit, like I said.
In condemning this bozo-esque response, I’m not maligning those with genuine, and reasoned concerns about the idea, or about what we already know of how it’s to be executed, and in particular those who, for some strange reason, plan to actually watch the new series before making up their minds. Weird bunch, aren’t we?
In the end, and of course it literally was the end, Capaldi regenerates, the camera does everything it can to actually prevent us seeing anything of the Thirteenth Doctor, except that her left and right eyeballs are definitely surrounded by women’s eyelashes, then there’s one facial shot, two words (“Oh, brilliant!”) and the usual cheap melodramatic chaos. The Tardis goes haywire (why do they always regenerate inside the Tradis when they know it always wrecks the bloody place?), turns on its side, opens the door and, after a bit of desperate clinging to run out the last of those measly seconds Moffat left to Chibnall, she falls out. Into the raw timestream. And the Tardis vanishes.
Oh, of course I’ll watch the first episode of the next series. But it’s hardly encouraging.
After that long digression, what of the story? What of the meeting of Two Doctors, of Twelfth and First (a lovely performance by David Bradley, echoing my distant recollections of William Hartnell to gentle perfection), both determined to resist Regeneration and die?
Twelve’s got the better excuse. He’s been doing this for so long, he has seen so many people come and go, and that goes for versions of himself too, he’s tired beyond endurance of saving a Universe that never gets better for it, that only wants saving all the more for his doing so. Is he never allowed to seek rest?
One is the anomaly. He’s the hard-headed, practical Doctor, the rebel who left Gallifrey to learn why Good, with everything it’s got stacked against it, always beats Evil. He wants to claim the right to live and die as himself. If he does so, all that everyone from Troughton to Capaldi will cease to exist. But One doesn’t yet know that he is why Good wins every time (little bit megalomaniacal there, Moffat, but we’ll let you have that one).
The story’s about One learning to accept his future, which comes as a lesson learned from how Twelve resolves the practical problem before them, a case of Frozen Time for which their joint decision to commit Time Lord suicide at the South Pole is responsible. You can read that as a bit of reflexive ego from Moffat, propounding NewWho’s superiority over Old… sorry, ClassicWho, teaching it a lesson: I certainly didn’t miss that implication.
How it’s worked is this: a First World War British Captain facing a scared German Soldier in No Man’s Land, both wounded, both with a gun pointed at the other, neither able to speak the other’s language, is about to die. With the stiffest of upper lips, he is prepared for it, accepts it. Instead, he winds up at the south Pole, with the two Doctors, kidnapped by a barenakedlady made out of CGI glass.
To save confusion, this is not an enemy. This is Testimony, an organisation created in the 5 Billionth Century, that reaches through time to people at the moment of their death, extracts and copies their memories and returns them to that moment, so as not to upset the flow of history. In short, they are granting immortality, to everyone, who’s names, faces, bodies, personalities can be recreated on these women of glass. The dead, all of them, can live again. Including Bill Potts.
Much of the hour is taken up with working through this plot, to find out who Testimony are and learn they’re not baddies. In the end, Twelve and One have to take the Captain back, to the crater, to the frightened German, to his death. By then, hope of a miracle has undermined his stoicism.
The Captain is played by Mark Gatiss. In a way, he’s a stereotype, almost but not a caricature. Gatiss plays him note-perfect, in every quaver and semi-quaver. He may be a type but he’s a human type, quiet, determined, incredibly brave. He breaks your heart just standing there, so clearly baffled by what has happened to him, yet accepting of his fate. He goes without a name until the moment he has to return to his position in the crater, and then that name is both so obvious and yet so heart-achingly perfect: Captain Lethbridge-Stewart.
But Twelve has a trick, one impossible trick.bTime can be cheated, but only because of the day this is, the one impossible day in all the history of War. He moves the scene forwards in time, two hours. From the German trenches, the sound of singing, Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht. From the British trenches, Silent Night, Holy Night. It’s the Christmas Day Armistice, the troops spreading out into No Man’s Land, shaking hands, sharing food and drink, booting a football around. And two wounded men in a crater receive first aid, and don’t shoot each other.
Of course, it’s all a Moffat cheat, it’s the complete upset of everything Testimony do, it’s changed time, and I can see that even as I’m swept up into the great big swirl of emotion, and I give way to the sentiment being evoked, and to the stoic, quiet man who accepted his duty, who trusted his wife to carry on, whose love for his sons was evident even as he was accepting that his removal from them was the natural way of things, who gets to go home after all. Goodwill and tidings of joy to all Lethbridge-Stewarts, whenever you are.
He’s pulled it off, or enough of it for me to give Moffat credit for a beautifully judged finale, only he’s Stephen Moffat and he can’t help himself, he has to go and blow it completely with some twattishly stupid, overwrought, overdrawn-out writing that Capaldi has no alternative but to go Over The Top with, as he rants around the Tardis shouting instructions to the next Doctor as to what he’s got to be, like the next Doctor doesn’t already know after twelve times round the houses, sounding for all the world like Stephen Moffat trying to stamp an indelible stamp all over Doctor Who and tie Chris Chibnall into a strait-jacket.
Then Chibnall gets his, what was it, ninety seconds? and chucks poor Jodie out of the door still wearing Capaldi’s clobber (her own is nothing to write home about either).
So, behind the running around, the outrageous appeals to sentiment (I so did not need Jenna Coleman popping up to play Clara-the-Calamity, even for sixty seconds) there was a deeply affecting story that deeply affected me. Only it wasn’t the Doctor’s struggle with himself to accept Regeneration, which was a hideous piece of ghastly hamming, it was Mark Gatiss and Captain Lethbridge-Stewart, and the understanding that no matter how alien they seem to us now, such men were real, and what they thought and felt was real, no matter how much they had to mask it.
And that made this hour worthwhile to me.