Doctor Who: “Twice Upon a Time”

I did, in fact, watch this twice. The second time I was sitting in the theater with my girlfriend, a non-fan / casual fan at the most. She laughed at the jokes and we both cried at the end, during the Christmas armistice scene and when Jodie Whittaker appeared.

That any of this just-OK coda worked at all for people who haven’t been watching the Twelfth Doctor’s era was kind of a relief. Of course my girlfriend had no idea who Rusty was, and I for one would not have minded seeing him relegated to the same introduced-and-forgotten Dalek scrap heap as the so-called “Skittles” quintet from “Victory of the Daleks.” She did recognize the name “Lethbridge-Stewart,” but although she’s seen a few Hartnell episodes, I still had to explain that the First Doctor was not typically, as shown here, a routinely misogynistic creep.

I’ve never been fond of the First Doctor in the first place, and David Bradley’s resemblance to him physically and vocally wasn’t much closer than Hurndall’s in “The Five Doctors” had been, but I have to admit that I started buying the performance by the time the opening credits were finished. I don’t know if the retcon sexism was a reaction to the criticisms Moffat used to get (“see! look how far we’ve come since the Sixties!”), some sort of lead-in to the regeneration, or what, but Capaldi’s reactions sold those moments to me just fine.

In hindsight it shouldn’t have been surprising to see Moffat rolling out tropes he’s used before — the archive of the dead (from “Dark Water”), the last-minute-time-travel visits (from “Let’s Kill Hitler”), and of course the threat that’s not evil, just misunderstood (take your pick). By now I’ve lost track of what actually happens when you die in the Moffat universe, and I’m trying not to probe too deeply into the question of why the Testimony contains memories from past Doctors, since (a) regeneration isn’t death, and (b) this implies a 3D-rendered glass woman from a late-90s CDROM computer game came and visited each Doctor during his regeneration scene and extracted all his memories without anyone noticing. Even more mysterious to me is why it was necessary to use this device in order to bring back Bill, who is (and remembers being) a posthuman puddle-woman traveling the stars with her girlfriend, or indeed Clara, who is an undead person traveling the stars with her immortal pal “Me” in their own TARDIS. What is the point of the two of them having transcended finite human existence if you have to bring them back as anthropomorphic snow globes?

The most important question of the story, though, might be: why didn’t the Twelfth Doctor want to regenerate? The implied answer is fatigue, specifically battle fatigue: he’s tired of losing the people he loves, of fighting the endless war on the evil that his first incarnation believes should logically win every time. I would have expected this feeling from the Doctors closer to the Time War. Then again, this is the first modern Doctor to have seen all of his companions die: first Danny Pink, then Clara, then River (spending her last night and my favorite Christmas special with him), and finally Nardole and Bill. Even Missy dies on his watch, though he doesn’t know it (and we know she’ll be back in one body or another), and then there’s what happens to Osgood and the Brigadier in “Death in Heaven.” It’s been a surprisingly brutal few years when you add it up. My initial hypothesis was that he was ready to lay his burden down in “Time of the Doctor” and got a new regeneration cycle he didn’t really want, but maybe the loss of so many companions since then is a more concrete explanation for the death wish.

It was excellent to see Bill again, as much as I lamented the missed opportunity to bring back Susan to help two versions of her grandfather through his regenerations (and why not bring back both?). Mark Gatiss turned in a lovely performance as the Captain, making a character I initially felt would be superfluous into one of the highlights of the story. I wasn’t so keen on the pre-regeneration valedictory — even as a child, the “children can hear my name” bit would have made me gag — but I was very keen on the post-regeneration line. Sometimes two words say more than an entire speech, especially when spoken by this particular new Doctor. I’m already a fan.

I’ve now been writing about every season of Doctor Who since Moffat took over. It’s had plenty of ups and downs, and I’ve dwelt on the downs a lot, but the truth is I’ve enjoyed the ride overall. Here are few of the things I think the Moffat era deserves praise for:

  1. Boundary-breaking regenerations. Mels to River, the Master to Missy, and the Time Lord in “Hell Bent” all paved the way for Jodie Whittaker, as well as the Doctor of color we will someday get, even if it takes until the show’s second revival.
  2. Continuity reset. I wasn’t initially thrilled about the “universal reboot” in “The Big Bang,” in part because I was no longer clear on how much of Season 5 actually happened, but in hindsight it theoretically allows for anything about the past, present, or future of the show to be different from what’s come before in small or large ways. For a show that’s been running this long, this is practically a necessity.
  3. The end of the Time War. The Doctor couldn’t carry that on his shoulders forever. Moffat wrapped up that chapter as well as anyone could have.
  4. Audacious storylines. Even when I haven’t loved the moves Moffat made, I have to give him credit for taking huge, bold risks with the show and the types of stories he wrote. I hope his successors show half his creativity.
  5. Worldwide popularity. Even though I saw “The Five Doctors” in a theater as a child, I never would have expected to go to the movies in order to watch season premieres and Christmas specials. I loved the show as a cult phenomenon, but being able to walk into stores and see TARDIS merchandise everywhere does not bother me one bit.

And now a quick look at a few things I’d like to see (and not see) in seasons to come:

  1. Quick, traumatic regenerations that don’t destroy the TARDIS. Regeneration feels like way more of an event if it’s not dragged out over two hours. And PLEASE let the next Doctor be smart enough to put the TARDIS into park and just redecorate without setting the whole control room on fire.
  2. Grownup companions who leave for good reasons. Way less hero worship of the Doctor. Fewer companions who have to die (or “die”) before they leave the TARDIS. Even just Martha’s “it’s time” is enough.
  3. Cheerful, optimistic Doctors. Even when I enjoy “dark Doctor” moments, I must admit they’re not as good as the alternative. Grouchy from time to time is fine. Cruel is not.
  4. A sense of adventure and exploration. It’s hard to seek out new life and new civilizations on Doctor Who’s budget, even in the 21st century. But it sure would be fun to see new places and new cultures, not just new monsters.
  5. Much less introspection from the Doctor about herself. In any other show it would be crucial to explore the main character and figure out what makes them tick, have them grow and learn about themselves, center and drive the drama from their character. But this is effectively an anthology show that’s run for more than 50 years and needs to sustain itself after that. The main character is, in many ways, us: our love of adventure, of leaping between genres, of looking for problems to set right, of trying to leave things better than we found them. There’s only so much this can change in a dramatic way without destroying the longevity of the show, and only so much it really needs to be interrogated.
  6. Humility. The First Doctor is spot on about how the speeches and the boasting are ridiculous. More wisdom, less bombast.
  7. Uncool should be cool again. The fezzes and bow ties worked because they were dorky things the Doctor thought were cool. The sunglasses and guitars didn’t because they were “cool” things the Doctor thought were cool. The Doctor is never more charming than when he or she is obsessed with something everyone in the world doesn’t already love.

Doctor Who: “The Pyramid at the End of the World”

The question on my mind about the Peter Harness episode of Series 10 was: would this be more like “Kill the Moon” or “The Zygon Invasion/Inversion”? The answer is that it’s a very special blend of both: swaggering geopolitical melodrama combined with a ridiculous plot requiring every character to be a heedless idiot. Fortunately, it does not require that the moon contain a space dragon; indeed, it has the Doctor unironically describe a future devastated Earth as being “dead as the moon.” (Maybe he just means “crawling with bacteria and not much else.” A clue!) Unfortunately, the swaggering geopolitical melodrama turns out to be meaningless; where the Zygon story was acutely relevant, and perhaps would have been even more so in 2017, this one features somewhat passé concerns about genetically modified agricultural products, despite being up-to-the-minute enough to describe the man in the White House as “orange.” A second viewing did not improve this story for me, and in fact left me with — at least — twenty questions. Let’s dig in, shall we? In no particular order:

1. Why an old pyramid?
If the monks really want to be noticed, why not make their ship look like something truly incongruous, like a gleaming flying saucer? What do they gain by appearing to be 5000 years old? Is it just that the Silents already have the copyright on looking like Greys with UFOs?

2. Why look like mummified corpses?
The monks claim they chose to make themselves look like the people of Earth, and when challenged, reply that the people of Earth look like corpses to them. This is a cute zinger, but it doesn’t make any sense. If your goal is to invade the planet and have everyone love and welcome you, maybe show up looking like Care Bears or something? It’s almost as if either Harness or Moffat had the idea of these aliens looking like mummies in pyramids because it would be cool and then retrofitted the reasoning. I mean, they’re not wrong — it’s certainly more interesting than the flying saucer would have been. But it’s also pointless, so far anyway.

3. Why telegraph the eco-disaster?
We see the disaster at the biochemical research plant taking shape from the beginning of the episode, and though we don’t know the exact nature of it, we see it coming and we know it’s crucial. This would have bled all the tension out of the confrontation of military forces for us (the audience)…if there had actually been any, since the representatives of the three armies are perhaps the most laughably inadequate and unbelievable characters of the whole thing. Some of the blame must go to the actors, who behave as though their respective countries are all on the friendliest of terms already, but a great deal of it is in the script, wherein none of these people appear to consult with anyone else from their countries let alone their armed forces, behaving as though they’re stranded on the moon and forced to make insane decisions in isolation. This setup could still marginally work as misdirection if we’d been as in the dark as the Doctor about the real threat, but instead we just watch these people dither and bumble around a conference room for the required amount of time.

4. What did the doctor gain from the information his simulation sent him?
He begins the episode knowing that the monks are coming, that they’ve been able to simulate Earth events in enough detail to predict possible crisis points, and that their intention is invasion and conquest. I guess that’s enough?

5. Why did the Doctor propose attacking the pyramid?
How could he have known that the monks wouldn’t simply have killed the attacking soldiers, rather than returning them safely?

6. Why does the Doctor now solve EVERYTHING by blowing it up?
And how could he have been sure he wasn’t bringing bacteria out with him on the hand he used to put wires into the soil?

7. Why send Penny, the best supporting character in the whole episode, out of the story in an Uber?
Kinder to her, duller for us.

8. Why does Bill’s love for the Doctor work for the monks?
They want everyone in the world to love them, right? If it’s just that one person has to consent to them out of love for another person, then…

9. Did the Secretary General and other three not have anyone they loved too much to want to see dead in a year?
Why didn’t that love work?

10. What do these super powerful beings want with the Earth, anyway?
I guess you can’t force people to love and worship you, but if that’s the goal, why not show up as pop stars? There’s that vague talk about a “link” which will presumably be explained in the next episode, as might a lot of these things, but it doesn’t make this episode any better. Not that needing a motive for conquering the Earth is a big prerequisite for an alien invasion in Doctor Who. With all the talk about the monks possibly being related to the Mondasian Cybermen, I started thinking about how the monks need love, but the Cybermen are (per “Closing Time”) allergic to it.

11. Couldn’t the Doctor have held up a mirror or the reflective surface of a tray or something up to the combination lock for Erica to see the numbers through the window?
Maybe there wasn’t one; maybe he couldn’t have found one easily, being blind; maybe he didn’t have time, with only two minutes to spare. Still, it felt like an awfully long two minutes, most of which he spent talking to Bill.

12. Why were the military leaders so reckless about putting themselves in harm’s way?
They’d seen the monks murder the Secretary General. They clearly knew they were risking disintegration themselves. Assuming they would survive the encounter unscathed seems as silly as, I dunno, assuming that a giant space dragon living inside the moon wouldn’t hatch and attack the Earth.

13. Wasn’t the “President of Earth” stuff cheesy enough the first time?
It’s necessary for the plot of the story, and of course was established in “Death in Heaven,” but it’s not a good look for the Doctor to be king of the world. I don’t like the Doctor as President of Gallifrey (even when it’s necessary); I don’t like him blowing everything up as a first resort; I don’t like him bragging about himself and calling himself “handsome”; and I don’t like him wearing cool shades and playing guitar.

14. Why does the guitar thing look so lame?
I get that Peter Capaldi plays the guitar and is cool and stylish. I’m not convinced the Doctor needs to be Peter Capaldi. At least this episode undercuts this nonsense by having Bill interrupt.

15. What’s with people in Harness stories making decisions based on instinct rather than reason?
Granted, this is how a lot of people behave, including me. But “how people really behave” and “what’s dramatically satisfying” are not always the same thing. I guess the goal of this episode is to get everyone in trouble so the next one can get them out of it.

16. How do the monks intend to hold the world to ransom based on an accident no one will know about till it’s too late?
I assumed they were relying on the Doctor to reveal it for them — which they could expect him to do based on their simulations and extrapolations — but they seem genuinely surprised when it seems like he’s going to successfully stop the disaster. So maybe they’re just relying on showing people visions of the future based on their glowing threads, which raises another question:

17. What makes those threads so convincing?
Apparently the future visions “feel real.” You mean the way a fake 5000-year-old pyramid feels real? Or being a simulated person in a simulated world feels real? If the Doctor knows they can do this, why does he believe them so readily? Why is it not equally plausible, if one believes in the devastated Earth, that it could be due to the monks’ predation?

18. What if this is ANOTHER simulation?
What if “Extremis” was the deepest level of simulation, “Pyramid” is the simulation containing that simulation, and there’s a real world above it still? In favor of this theory is that the monks seem to have absolute power, as you would in your own simulation, and that this more sophisticated simulation would probably preclude the dopey random number issue from last week, and that the disintegration of the four leaders was similar in style (if not appearance) as the digitization of people from last week, and that doing Inception Doctor Who-style would be a classic Moffat move. Against this theory is that it would be a cornball Moffat move.

19. What knocked out Nardole?
Did he inhale some bacteria into his human lungs? Even after my second viewing, I couldn’t quite follow what happened there.

20. Did the Doctor really beam all the classified information in the whole world into the internet by touching his sunglasses?
Sigh.

The Moffat > Chibnall regeneration

There’s a civilized discussion happening at Eruditorum Press about the showrunner change coming two years from now. Here’s what I wrote there:

Not only has Chibnall never written an outstanding Who episode, but I have a hard time picturing him doing a charismatic, daring, innovative job promoting and orchestrating the series as a showrunner. So I’m in the disappointed camp.

Apart from “Hungry Earth”/”Cold Blood,” though, I haven’t actively hated any of his stories, and so to make a dutiful effort at optimism, I ponder the question of what point of view is Chibnall Who likely to take.

To be reductive about it, I think you can extrapolate from “Rose,” as though it were a piece of fairy cake in the Total Perspective Vortex, almost everything you need to know about the RTD era. Or, if you don’t buy that, pick “Bad Wolf / Parting of the Ways,” which folds in the rest of the important stuff about gods and hubris and too much power along with the pop culture and the beauty of the ordinary. Similarly, you can take one of Moffat’s early episodes — I think “Girl in the Fireplace” has it pretty well covered — and extrapolate lots of the key elements, concerns, motifs, and themes of the Moffat era. You can see from his individual episodes what his era would be about, generally speaking.

So what does Chibnall’s work on Who have in common? I’m cheating a bit by thinking of his Torchwood episodes and Broadchurch as well, but if there’s any thread at all, it’s something about past wounds causing a savage (over)reaction in the present. Revenge and retaliation are all over “42,” “Hungry Earth / Cold Blood,” and “Dinosaurs.” The recurrence of past friends as present enemies is there in “Cyberwoman” and the Captain John Hart character. I couldn’t tell you exactly how, but the unearthing of past trauma in “Adrift” and even Broadchurch series 1 seems connected to this. It’s a stab in the dark, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this (gothic?) mode ended up dominating Chibnall’s Who. It’s not the worst approach to Who ever — arguably it has a lot in common with the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era — but also arguably we’ve already had it, with evil Rassilon and the ripples of the Time War.

I didn’t think the RTD and Moffat eras were perfect, but they were of such a high quality, and with such heart underpinning them, that it’s hard to imagine this will be a patch on them. The one silver lining I see is that — and I don’t know why I give him this kind of credit — I can imagine Chibnall casting a female Doctor and/or a Doctor of color. I can’t quite see any of the other prospective showrunners doing that.

Doctor Who: “The Zygon Inversion”

Imagine you’ve been forced to move to another country, one where you don’t speak the language and the customs aren’t your own. You probably still dream about home, where everything is as you understand it, but then you wake up in your new apartment and everything is strange. Perhaps the clock still shows numbers you can read, but the newspapers are in another language, and even the toothpaste looks a little strange.

This is how Clara experiences being asleep inside the Zygon pod at the start of this episode, but she could just as easily be in another country, on another planet. The Zygons imitating humans have the advantage of absorbing at least some of the memories and personality of the originals, but some of the strangeness of Earth must be difficult and terrifying for them to grasp. We get a glimpse of this later in the episode, when the Doctor and Osgood encounter a Zygon whose ability to maintain human form has been disrupted by Clara’s duplicate, Bonnie. He’s the only representative of the Zygon majority we meet, the only one not in the militant splinter group, and while he seems to consider Earth his home, he seems disoriented and terrified and disheveled even before Bonnie attacks him. He doesn’t make much of a well-adjusted, integrated human.

I’d call these scenes highlights of the episode, but the episode is entirely highlights, no filler. We also get the Doctor and Osgood trading pure gold banter after escaping Bonnie’s attempt on their life (perhaps the reason for the Moffat co-author credit on this half), Clara using the Zygon link to influence Bonnie’s actions, Bonnie using it to detect Clara’s lies, Kate Stewart at her very best (echoing her dad’s famous line “five rounds rapid”) and finally everyone in a room with the Doctor urging them to stand down from the brink of war. It’s unflagging brilliance and, as much as I liked “The Woman Who Lived,” I have to admit it’s the best episode of the season so far.

If I had to pick a few bones, I’d first point to the fact that the two key monologues might have been improved as dialogues. The scene with the frightened Zygon who just wants to live and can’t see a way to do it depends on the fact that he’s too overwhelmed by panic and paranoia to listen to a word the Doctor says. And the Doctor’s bravura speech against war and revenge and violent revolution depends at least in part on Bonnie being a bit simple-minded and not having thought through her goals. That she’s the sort of revolutionary who just wants to tear things down without any idea of building them up again is plausible, but maybe not as interesting. It’s still just a bit troubling that none of the Zygon violence from the previous episode was subverted in any way — they were as unsympathetic and bloodthirsty as they appeared after all, and that one peaceful Zygon was too far past sanity to tell that side of the story effectively. And there are a few moments where the Doctor slips into an American accent for comedic purposes, and neither the accent nor the jokes really achieve those purposes.

But none of these flaws stand in the way of a story qualified to be a classic. It doesn’t hurt that Peter Harness has once again written a political subtext that seems to be read in opposite ways by different viewers, even though the full import of the line “you’re not superior to the people who were cruel to you” ought to cut deep into all parts of the political spectrum. But the Doctor knows as well as we do that these kinds of lessons must be learned over and over again all throughout history; it doesn’t take a memory wipe for people to forget that they should be talking instead of pressing the big red buttons.