In recent years, there was always a good deal of pomp and circumstance whenever an actor decided to leave Doctor Who and make way for a different man to fill out an entirely new stylish coat. When that departure happened to coincide with the showrunner also leaving, pomp and circumstance could become sturm and drang. The last time this happened was in 2010, when star David Tennant and showrunner Russell T. Davies said goodbye with an entire year of specials culminating in a star-studded check-in on every single Companion who ever traveled with Tennant’s Doctor and a full reckoning with their chapter in the decades-long Who saga.
By those standards, this year’s bon voyage for Steven Moffat and Peter Capaldi seems comparatively restrained. The duo said goodbye with a single Christmas special featuring only one surprise cameo, from Jenna Coleman’s companion Clara. But look a little closer and you’ll see Moffat—always a controversial steward of the Who legacy—taking an ambitious stab at defining not just the entirety of 54 years of Doctor Who, but also the larger culture war raging in comments sections and social media around the world. The episode ends with Capaldi and Moffat letting go and a new era, led by showrunner Chris Chibnall and the first female Doctor, Jodie Whittaker, starting over from scratch.
This year’s Christmas Special titled “Twice Upon a Time” features two Doctors for the price of one. The episode opens with archival footage of the final episode from William Hartnell—the original actor to play the Doctor. Grainy black and white footage goes full color as David Bradley (of Game of Thrones and Harry Potter fame) steps in to play the First Doctor. Hartnell died in 1975, but Bradley has played the First Doctor before in a 2013 TV movie about the origins of Doctor Who titled “An Adventure in Space and Time.” In a snowy white wig and the First Doctor’s famous togs, Bradley makes a reasonable Hartnell facsimile.
His function, throughout, seems to be to serve as a reminder of how far the white male Doctors have come since the series began in 1963. Bradley is forever commenting on how the young women who serve as Companions to the Doctor are responsible for tidying the TARDIS and even threatens to smack the latest companion, a lesbian of color named Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie), on the bottom if she persists in using foul language.
Capaldi’s far more modern version of the Doctor, exasperated and embarrassed, pleads for the First Doctor to stop. “You can’t say that,” he hisses, channeling any number of us home for the holidays and grappling with out of touch relatives. Bradley’s Doctor practically pops his monocle when Bill refers to her own very intimate familiarity with the fairer sex.
The message, here, could not be any clearer. #NotAllWhiteMaleDoctors, Moffat firmly argues. This white male as portrayed by Peter Capaldi knows a woman’s value as an equal. It’s a tricky argument for Moffat to be attempting when he’s become so famously divisive for his repeated excuses as to why the Doctor had not, under his watch, been played by a woman. Though we’ll never know for certain the behind-the-scenes chicken/egg timeline of Moffat leaving the show and an actress finally being cast in the role, after years of explaining why he hadn’t, it seemed clear that if there ever were to be a woman taking the reins in the TARDIS, it wouldn’t be under Moffat’s watch.
And here is where Moffat’s final episode hoists a clever flag of surrender—or at least truce. The A-plot of the episode doesn’t matter too much. It involves benign crystalline creatures called The Testimony who come from the future and hold the memories of all the people who have ever died. It’s their job—specifically the one who looks like Bill Potts—to convince the Doctor to go ahead and regenerate and carry on the good fight rather than choose to stubbornly die and make his 12th incarnation his last. There’s always been a bloke, Bill argues (emphasis on “bloke”), to set the universe right and keep it spinning. That bloke, of course, is the Doctor. But we knew all along Capaldi’s Doctor would regenerate and we’ve had months of press releases preparing us for who he would regenerate into.
But the B-plot of the episode is where Moffat incorporated his most self-aware concession. Mark Gatiss who wrote for (and guest starred in) Doctor Who long before he became Moffat’s co-showrunner on and star of BBC’s Sherlock, appears as a mysterious WWI Captain who, in classic Christmas Special style, gets swept up into the Doctor’s adventure. This is Gatiss playing an entirely different role than the one he previously played on Who and it’s not until the end that we find out his character’s name: Hamish Lethbridge-Stewart. That should set off some bells for old-school Who fans. General Sir Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart a.k.a. the Brigadier or the Brig was one of the classic Who Companions. This character is his ancestor and, honestly, the mustache really should have tipped us off.
Gatiss’s Captain is yanked out of time just as he and an equally frightened German soldier were about to shoot each other in a muddy trench in Ypres, Belgium. The First and Twelfth Doctor deposit him back in the trench and the Captain is ready to face death by episode’s end. But after a little bit of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey. . .stuff, Capaldi’s Doctor tweaks the timeline by a few hours so that Lethbridge-Stewart is spared thanks to the Christmas Armistice of 1914. This is a Christmas Special after all. In a scene familiar to any history buff or fan of the film Joyeaux Noel the mud-caked soldiers begin to sing “Silent Night” (in German and English), lay down their weapons, and cross enemy lines for holiday drinks and a game of football. To quote Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor on a different battlefront: “Just this once, everybody lives!”
The scene allows Capaldi’s Doctor to do what all the Doctors before him have done best: marvel at humanity’s capacity for good against all odds. But it also could represent Moffat waving his own flag of truce. After years of fighting the show’s progressive fandom—and even as recently as this month characterizing the decision to cast an actress as the Doctor as a divisive political one—Moffat surrenders. On this Christmas Day, he’s not fighting anymore.
It’s an odd moment for a man who has been arguing for a while now that both the media and the fandom should make less of a big deal every time Doctor Who pushes the needle of progress. He insisted that there shouldn’t be much of a “fuss” over Pearl Mackie becoming the first full-time gay companion and accused the media of fabricating the very real backlash to Whittaker taking on the role. This episode feels like Moffat both acknowledging that he’s been battling progress and taking himself out of the fight.
This message extends beyond the Christmas Armistice scene to Capaldi’s big farewell peppered with a number of callbacks. As he dies, the 12th Doctor gives his version of the “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen” speech with heaps of advice for anyone who will listen: “Laugh hard. Run fast.” But the most repeated sentiment—rephrased a few times—is “be kind.” This seems like a direct message to all the culture warriors angry that a woman hasn’t played the Doctor before now, as well as to those angry that a woman ever will. As every single aspect of film and TV fandom seems to become a vicious fight Moffat is urging kindness from both sides on his way out the door. Capaldi’s last line, “Doctor, I release you,” might as well have been uttered by a weary Moffat himself.
But as one beleaguered Doctor exits stage left, a new one bounces enthusiastically into frame. Usually when a new Doctor appears to take the old one’s place he does a bit of cute grumbling over his new packaging. “Awww, I wanted to be ginger,” Tennant’s version famously whined. Checking out his own dramatic new features, Matt Smith’s Doctor muttered: “Nose? I've had worse. Chin? Blimey.” Then grasping at his long hair, Smith (incidentally the first Doctor under Moffat’s watch) squeaked incredulously and disgustedly: “Hair? I'm a girl! NO! No?!” But, grinning, Whittaker’s new Doctor only had this to say when she caught sight of her reflection in the TARDIS monitor: “Oh, brilliant.”
But just as Smith and Moffat did before them, it looks like Chibnall and Whittaker will start a bit from scratch when they return in 2018. Smith’s Doctor had to grapple with rebuilding the TARDIS from a flaming wreckage, while Whittaker fell out of hers entirely and tumbled to earth as the ship vanished from view. (Kindly stow your clever “woman driver” comments.) The thirteenth Doctor will begin her tenure without any of the trappings of the twelve men who came before her. That, frankly, feels like a very good place to start.
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