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Double jeopardy

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Television
Doctor Who Christmas Special

By Noel Vera

IT’S THE 13TH Doctor Who Christmas Special; it’s the 12th Doctor meets the 1st (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 12th 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). Twelfth in his angst meets 1st (David Bradley playing William Hartnell playing The Doctor) who happens to be in the same situation (he’s regenerating and terrified of the change). Throw in The Captain (Mark Gatiss), a World War 1 British officer about to die who suddenly finds himself kidnapped and then stranded, and Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie), 12th’s former companion miraculously come to life, and you have the makings of an epic faceoff, a grand adventure across time and space with 1st and 12th competing with each other for the honor of resolving all, Captain’s fate included.

Except it doesn’t quite happen that way; instead we have a subdued little drama of four people — two dying Doctors, a dead woman turned avatar, a lost army officer — 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 unutterably sad sense of change, of life flowing inevitably past your ability to control.

The key moment on which accumulating emotions peak, on which the whole episode seems designed around, happens when the Captain is returned to the scene of his death: it’s a startlingly low-key moment almost reverent; not the kind of ending you’d expect for the 12th (easily the darkest figure in the new Who series) and definitely not the kind of ending you’d expect from a writer who in many ways has made the show his own, has put an indelible mark — good or bad or even both — on it.

A eulogy you might say, but lightly, almost negligently, done; Moffat seems determined to make his leavetaking the opposite of previous headwriter’s Russell T. Davies’s bombastic last episode, where the Time Lords — all of ’em — descend to conquer the Earth and the Oods sing the 10th Doctor out the door. This one takes place on a battlefield but after a battle — the blasted landscape hushed, deserted. First takes his leave of 12th, 12th takes leave of the rest, finally accepts his destiny.

In a way it’s Moffat’s personal farewell to the show he’s helmed for some nine years. With the 2005 reboot back when Davies was headwriter, Moffat has popped up at least once in each series and in each series his episode was easily the best (“The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances”; “The Girl in the Fireplace”; “Blink”). Each one showed 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 a little 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 show’s new runner.

This meant Moffat could paint on his broadest canvas yet, 12 episodes per year, for years; also meant Moffat stretching that beautifully eccentric little talent to its breaking point (some would say way past it).

But on Moffat’s debut series it meant serving up one of the best on the show. “The Eleventh Hour” had the writer hitting the ground running, charming us with fishsticks and custard with Matt Smith as the 11th — a whirling gangly “madman with a box” — with Karen Gillan as Amy Pond the Girl Who Waited. Moffat stumbled (“Victory of the Daleks”) as much as soared (“Vincent and the Doctor”) but he ended that season on a high note with a monumental buildup in “The Pandorica Opens” — about an inescapable prison built and designed for the greatest menace in the universe — to “The Big Bang” where the Pandorica is tossed aside in favor of the End of the Universe.

Tough act to follow. Moffat tried but the 6th season showed the strain, with “The Impossible Astronaut” setting up the Doctor’s death and “The Day of the Moon” resolving the buildup with a disappointing whimper. The rest of the season flailed at both complicating and resolving all the loose plotlines and timelines; while I was charmed by “The Wedding of River Song” I also felt that the bloom in the marriage — between Moffat and the show, between the show and myself — had died a little.

Moffat did manage to send off Gillan in a lovely norishly styled finale, bringing back his most famous villains The Weeping Angels (“The only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely”) to, well, kill her nicely (“It’s called marriage, honey” — perhaps his hostile-affectionate-ambivalent take on long-term relationships?).

The Doctor’s new companion Clara (Jenna Coleman) was as pretty and talked even faster but was something of a blur, a nanny with a vague destiny somehow intertwined with the Doctor’s (“The Name of the Doctor” — where we finally learn of that destiny — helped explain some but not all). When Matt Smith left and was replaced by Capaldi things clarified a bit; Clara became less of a nanny and more like a headstrong woman with the competence and ambition to become a Time Lord herself. By this time — the 9th series — Moffat is co-shaping the episodes with other writers, delivering arguably the strongest and at the same time darkest episodes in the new show, from the politically astute “The Zygon Invasion”/“The Zygon Inversion” (with Peter Harness) to the metaphysically and emotionally devastating “Heaven Sent,” where the Doctor literally goes to hell.

From what I’ve read the ratings have steadily declined, especially since Matt Smith left; Moffat took a gamble on Capaldi and though the gamble may have paid off artistically — Capaldi is tremendous, all fiery eyebrows and hoarse desperation — it hasn’t commercially. Hence Moffat’s departure (Is this true? It’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 than anything, I suspect) — he does achieve this, some of the finest plotting and dialogue in the series, and I submit anywhere in television and much of recent film; hence this bittersweet and not a little melancholic goodbye. The feeling’s mutual, at least for this viewer.