Thursday, January 04, 2018

Dr. Who Christmas Special: Twice Upon a Time

Double jeopardy

(WARNING: plot twists throughout new Who's timeline discussed in close detail!)

It's the thirteenth Doctor Who Christmas Special; it's the Twelfth Doctor meeting the First (or as he prefers to put it the 'original') Doctor; it's Peter Capaldi's final bow; it's Steve Moffat's last word on the subject.

'Twice Upon a Time' has Twelfth (Capaldi) kneeling in Antarctic snow, yelling defiance; he's dying but refuses to regenerate (where a Time Lord has been mortally wounded and survives by growing into a different person--basically a plot gimmick to replace the series' lead with a new actor) in which case he just dies (no new actor no more show, which BBC wasn't about to let happen). Twelfth in his angst meets First (David Bradley playing William Hartnell playing The Doctor) who happens to be in the same predicament.* Throw in The Captain (Mark Gatiss), a World War 1 British officer about to die, and Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie), Twelfth's former companion miraculously come back to life, and you have the makings of an epic faceoff, a grand adventure across time and space with First and Twelfth competing with each other for the honor of resolving all, the Captain's fate included.

*(In 'The Tenth Planet' the First Doctor is aware he's about to regenerate and leaves his companions behind to wander in the snow; later they find him in the TARDIS, where he finally transforms into the Second Doctor--this is Moffat's extrapolation of what happened in between)

Except it doesn't quite happen that way; instead we have an subdued little drama of four people--two dying Doctors, a dead woman turned avatar, a lost army officer snatched from impending doom--trying to deal with their respective mortalities. There's comedy sure--can't have a Moffat script without a few laughs--but under the comedy there's this sad sense of constant change, of life flowing inevitably past your ability to stop or control, and the equally constant struggle to accept this change.

The crucial moment on which emotions peak--around which the whole episode seems designed--occurs when the Captain is returned to the scene of his death: a startlingly low-key almost reverent moment, strangely based on an actual event. Not the kind of ending you'd expect for the Twelfth (easily the darkest incarnation of The Doctor to date) and definitely not the kind of ending you'd expect from a writer who for good or bad or both has made the show his own.

A eulogy you might say but lightly done; Moffat seems determined to make his leavetaking the opposite of previous headwriter Russell T. Davies' bombastic final episode, where the Time Lords--all of em--descend to conquer the Earth and the Oods sing the Tenth (David Tennant) out the door. This one takes place on a battlefield but after a battle, the blasted landscape hushed deserted: First takes his leave of Twelfth, Twelfth takes his leave of the rest, decides to accept his fate. 

It's also Moffat's farewell to the show he's helmed for some nine years. Back in 2005 when the show was renewed and Davies was headwriter Moffat popped up at least once in each series, his script being easily the best ('The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances;' 'The Girl in the Fireplace;' 'Blink'). Each episode betrayed a love for timetwisting intricacy ('Timey-wimey' Moffat called it; the term stuck) for verbal wit and sparkle ("I'm not sure if it's Marxism in action or a West End musical") for more adult banter ("Bananas are good;" "so many species so little time;" "life is short and you are hot. Drink?").

Then the best--or worst depending on how you look on it--news: Moffat was to take over as the series' new showrunner. 

Meant Moffat could paint his broadest canvas yet, twelve episodes per year, for years; also meant Moffat stretching that eccentric little talent to its breaking point (some would say way past it). 

But with Moffat's debut the change meant serving up one of the best series on the show. With 'The Eleventh Hour' the writer hit the ground running, charming us with fishsticks and custard and Matt Smith as the Eleventh--a whirling gangly fasttalking (but aren't they all?) "madman with a box"--and Karen Gillan as Amy Pond, the Girl Who Waited (redhead with crack comic timing, able to keep up with Smith's supersonic patter). Moffat stumbled ('Victory of the Daleks') as much as soared ('Vincent and the Doctor') but finished the series with a monumental windup starting with 'The Pandorica Opens'--about an inescapable prison built and designed to contain the greatest menace in the universe--and concluding with 'The Big Bang' which involves the end of the universe, or at least its cosmic reboot.

Right there we learned a little something about Moffat: that he's willing to take the time and effort to construct an intricate gewgaw (the Pandorica) and just as enthusiastically toss it aside for something bigger and more bizarre (The Big Bang). In effect he's saying "Forget scriptwriting rules! Forget dramatic structure! We'll make up our own rules, rewrite the script in mid-story! Witty dialogue and flow of ideas--that's what people remember, if ideas and dialogue are clever enough funny enough." In this case I submit they were, perhaps the best idea being to take a 19th-century rhyme about marriage ("Something old something new") and tailor it without changing a word to fit the description and history of a madman with a box.

Tough act to follow, but Moffat tried. In 'The Impossible Astronaut' the Doctor dies then comes back to life (how he comes back is another clever conceit); at the same time Moffat introduces one of his most fiendish monsters, The Silence--creatures straight out of Edvard Munch, instantly forgotten the moment you look away. Only having introduced them he didn't quite know what to do with them; the resolution (in 'The Day of the Moon') seemed wan and unenlightening, despite involving the Apollo 11 moon mission. 

Which tells us another thing about the man: he's not afraid to paint himself into a corner then write himself out of it; not afraid of loopy logic (lovers with opposing time streams--his first meeting is her last, her first meeting is his last) or cleverly realized puns ('Hand mines' anyone?). The downside of all that creativity being when inventiveness palls, when he fails to produce a dazzling enough resolution--then you can't help but notice the unholy mess left behind. 

The rest of the season flailed at both complicating and resolving all the plotlines and timelines; while I was charmed by 'The Wedding of River Song' I also felt that pall spreading over the show. The bloom in the marriage--between Moffat and the show, between the show and myself--had died a little.

Moffat did manage to send Amy off in the stylish noirish 'The Angels Take Manhattan,' bringing back his most famous villains The Weeping Angels ("The only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely") to, well, kill her nicely.

The episode--a favorite of mine--taught us two more lessons about Moffat: he's constantly trying to redefine terms, put an fresh spin on a familiar word--'marriage' for example. Where in 'Blink' marriage seems too complex an activity for The Doctor to manage properly ("I'm rubbish at weddings, especially my own") and in 'The Big Bang' a rhyme about marriage is able to bring him back from oblivion, in 'Angels' marriage has the power to alter timelines--no small ability to a Time Lord ("You just changed the future!" "It's called marriage, honey"). The Doctor here is being thoughtless and demanding and River Song (Alex Kingston) quietly delivers; for them marriage is by parts selfishness and sacrifice and contrition, in endlessly variable iterations. Later the younger couple presents their version: "What the hell are you doing?" "Changing the future--it's called marriage!" For Amy and Rory marriage is solution borne out of both logic and desperation, mutually arrived at and lovingly agreed upon.

The episode also inspired a common complaint about Moffat: that he hates for a beloved character to die. "Everybody lives!" the Ninth Doctor (an exuberant Christopher Eccleston) declared in 'The Doctor Dances.' It was like a Declaration of Principles, or a curse laid on viewers; somehow episode after episode is wrangled to avoid a final solution--River is downloaded, Amy sent back in time, Clara (Jenna Coleman) paused on her penultimate moment, Bill whisked magically away. 

'Angels' gives us a darker take on the issue: Amy and Rory suffer a specific fate (if 'suffer' is the proper word--they do end up together) but at a heavy price (no TARDIS, no Doctor, no space-and-time ranging adventures). Death (the writer seems to suggest) isn't always a fate to fear or avoid--there's worse out there.

The Doctor's new companion Clara was as pretty and talked at an even faster pace but was something of a blur, a nanny with a vague destiny somehow tied in with the Doctor's ('The Name of the Doctor'--where we finally learn of that destiny--helped explain some if not all of the mystery). When Matt Smith was replaced by Capaldi things clarified a bit; Clara became less a nanny and more a headstrong woman with the competence and ambition to become a Time Lord herself. By this time--the ninth series--Moffat is co-shaping episodes with other writers, delivering arguably the strongest stories in the show, from the politically pointed 'The Zygon Invasion'/'The Zygon Inversion' (with Peter Harness) to the metaphysically and emotionally devastating 'Heaven Sent,' where the Doctor literally goes to hell.

Actually 'Heaven Sent' might be Moffat's definitive word on the subject, an episode where the grief-stricken Doctor (Clara had just died) is trapped in a brooding castle, an implacable hooded creature with buzzing flies and huge clutching hands in slow pursuit. The Doctor is in effect doomed and will at one point or another die--

--and then Moffat reveals one possible scenario worst than death: eternal damnation, or something close to it. After this episode the words 'Everybody lives!' feel more like a threat than a sunshine promise.

From what I've read the ratings have steadily declined, especially since Matt Smith left (count on a young face to draw in crowds); Moffat took a gamble on the older Capaldi and though the gamble may have paid off artistically--Capaldi is tremendous, all fiery brow and hoarse desperation--it hasn't commercially, hence Moffat's departure (that's my impression, however blinkered). If Moffat leaves under something of a cloud--not just the faded ratings but charges of sexism and homophobia (more out of ignorance and stubborn insensitivity than anything else, I suspect)--he does achieve this, some of the finest plotting and dialogue in the series, and I submit anywhere in television and recent film. His farewell being this Christmas special and this Christmas special being his farewell, one takes the tone of the other: bittersweet and not a little melancholy. The feeling's mutual, at least for this viewer.

First published in Businessworld 12.29.17

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