TV Reviews

Doctor Who & Saying Goodbye to Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat

So, the Peter Capaldi era is officially over. “Twice Upon a Time,” which premiered on BBC and BBC America Christmas night and streamed into select theaters in North America last night, saw the elderly Doctor regenerate into Jodie Whittaker, who got all of two words (“Oh, brilliant”) before she was tossed straight out of an exploding Tardis and dropped to Earth. The reviews for the episode have been mixed-to-positive:

And Whittaker’s Matt Smith-esque introduction – alone and displaying instant exuberance despite being tossed around like a ragdoll in a Tardis undergoing an extreme makeover – seems to have been well received. “I mean if I was Jodie Whittaker and I looked at myself in a mirror for the first time those would be my first words too,” wrote one on Twitter. Those who argued Whittaker’s casting would kill the show’s ratings will have to wait a little longer to see if they’re right since “Twice Upon a Time” managed to at least top last year’s Christmas special in live UK viewership.

However, before we move on to the next Doctor and her new showrunner, Broadchurch’s Chris Chibnall, let’s stop to appreciate the Capaldi era as well as Steven Moffat’s run. Under Moffat’s watch, the show reached new heights, both creatively and in worldwide popularity. Karen Gillan, for example, has now starred in two different blockbuster movies this year – Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle – and it’s all because of Doctor Who. Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman have moved on to award-winning period dramas, The Crown for the former, Victoria for the latter, and Arthur Darvill is three seasons into Legends of Tomorrow, the goofiest, but most purely enjoyable comic book show on TV right now.

Actors from the pre-Moffat era have also found similar success after the show, e.g., Billie Piper in Secret Diary of a Call Girl, David Tennant in Broadchurch and Jessica Jones, Christopher Eccleston in The Leftovers, John Barrowman in, um, everything. However, no one has crossed over into film quite like Gillan, and that’s largely a testament to how her performance as Amy Pond both connected with audiences and put her on the map of Hollywood casting directors and geek-leaning directors like James Gunn. Capaldi’s final Christmas special aired in the same theaters currently playing Jumanji to surprisingly packed crowds, laughing along as Gillan (and Jack Black) manage to kind of steal the movie from The Rock.

It’s almost hard to believe it’s now been five years since Gillan and Darvill left the show and four since Smith followed them. In the time since then, Doctor Who has lost a fair deal of its cultural cache, shedding several million average viewers (e.g., the audience for Smith’s final episode was double the size of Capaldi’s swan song) as audiences struggled to adjust to Capaldi’s decidedly un-Smith like Doctor and/or grew tired of Moffat pulling from the same old bag of storytelling tricks. In truth, his once tantalizing mystery box narratives and epic escalation of scale and mythical worldbuilding wears on you after a while. So, for some bidding adieu to Capaldi and Moffat is less goodbye and more good riddance. Bring on Jodie Whittaker and Chris Chibnall as fast as you can, please. However, I will miss Capaldi and Moffat.

The Smith era gave audiences an easily imitated, childlike Doctor and companions who were still on the cusp of becoming adults, their roles in the story initially being framed in more fairytale-like terms. It’s easy, then, to see how that resonated with younger audiences just as it is to see why the Capaldi era turned some of them away. In Smith’s place we got a more mysterious, grandfatherly figure with attack eyebrows and enhanced capacity for gloom and doom, and Coleman’s Clara, always awkwardly paired with Smith, morphed from a girl with a crush to a woman stuck in a codependent relationship so destructive it cost her the love of her life, which turned her so reckless she stormed right into her own death a season later. The somewhat more innocent fun of years past gave way to deeper explorations of grief, particularly the level of denial the Doctor and Clara would indulge or the extent to which they would go to save those they loved. It was the type of storytelling which was deeply rewarding for those who gave themselves over to it but off-putting for those whose idea of Doctor Who differed from what they saw before them (e.g., Clara, not the Doctor, is basically the main character of season 8).

The most recent season, Capaldi’s third overall, played like a giant course-correction. Real life budget cuts forced a reduction in scale, which was maybe a bit of a gift since the Capaldi-Coleman run had escalated the stakes to an insane level, e.g, the Doctor spent a millennia stuck in a Time Lord trap just to save Clara. So, the Doctor got a new bright-eyed companion (Pearl Mackie’s instantly lovable Bill) and a mystery box puzzle anchoring him to Earth, thus giving us the relatively new sight of the Doctor actually holding down a job (as a suitably quirky college professor) and having an office of his own outside the Tardis. Michelle Gomez’s revelatory turn as Missy came to an end after undergoing a rather satisfying redemptive arc, and a hit-and-miss season culminated in one of the finer Cybermen stories of the modern era. Missy went out in a multi-Master episode, setting Capaldi’s Doctor to go out in a multi-Doctor episode.

Which finally brings us to “Twice Upon a Time.”

The most recent Doctor and the first one (David Bradley subbing in for William Hartnell) teamed up together to return a displaced WWI soldier (played by long time Moffat collaborator and frequent Who guest star Mark Gatiss) back to the timeline and…

That’s it. Doctor Who Christmas specials often play bigger and broader than a normal episode, but “Twice Upon a Time” surprised with how reserved it was. The antagonists – crystal-like beings from the future – turned out to be benign historical observers. The Doctor had a civil conversation with a Dalek. The inevitable conflict between Doctors was mostly used to poke fun at the show’s misogynist roots, the original Doctor’s casual sexism being admonished by the most recent one thus setting the stage for the first (canonical) female Doctor to be ushered into existence. Moffat returned to the glorious theme of his very first Doctor Who story, which is that just once everyone actually lives (well, kind of – the WWI Christmas truce of 1914 still resulted in those soldiers killing each other after the armistice), and Capaldi got to say goodbye to his companions, including Clara.

I had some quibbles with the special. I’ve seen enough of the Hartnell era to know he wasn’t quite the cartoon he’s made out to be here. Clara’s return felt tacked on and overly green screeny, shoved in-between the Doctor’s goodbyes with his most recent companions Bill and Nardole. Amy’s cameo to send Smith’s Doctor off was far more seamless.

Fun fact: All the hair in this shot comes from wigs since both Gillan and Smith had already shaved their heads for different projects.

However, for the most part, I loved “Twice Upon a Time.” It was a graceful final note for a beleaguered, but sneakily rewarding era for the show.

It’s one of those geek “what if?” questions to look back at Moffat’s decision to cast Capaldi and wonder what might have been had he cast a person of color or woman or at least someone younger at that point since those are the kinds of choices everyone was arguing for. Would the show’s popularity still have crested with the 50th anniversary special, or could that momentum have been if not absolutely then at least somewhat maintained with a more popular choice? However, I look back on the past four years of Doctor Who and see some of the show’s best all-time episodes – “Listen,” “”Mummy on the Orient Express,” “Flatline,” “Face the Raven,” “Heaven Sent,” “Hell Bent,” all of which I struggle to imagine anyone other than Capaldi playing. I also see a show which had to deal with its past – the return of the Time Lords, the redemption of The Master – before it could head into the future. I am ready to see what Whittaker and Chibnall have to offer, but I am grateful for everything Capaldi and Moffat gave us.

Well, maybe not that space dust episode in season 9. That was just bad.

But Doctor Who always swings big. Now, for the first time in a decade, it’ll be someone other than Moffat stepping up to that plate. May their worst episodes be no worse than Moffat’s and best episodes even better. May they live up to Whittaker’s first line. Please, Doctor Who, be brilliant. But it’s not like you have to start being brilliant. You’ve done a pretty good job of it for the past four years.

What did you think of “Twice Upon a Time”? And how do you feel about the end of Moffat and/or Capaldi’s time with the show? Let me know in the comments.


  1. While I admire this series, I am not a fan and haven’t watched an episode in years. However I watched this episode with my brother-in-law and really liked it. It was a good starting point for new viewers and a proper send off for the twelfth Doctor. I loved his words of wisdom at the end!

    1. Just out of curiosity, what was the last episode you watched before this one, if you remember?

      The Christmas Specials are quite frequently used as starting points for new viewers since they are going to be seen by such a bigger audience, and this one did a nice job of summarizing the show’s history via the first Doctor and most recent and then marching toward the future with not just the arrival of Whittaker but also Capaldi getting to list off the things he wants her to remember about being the Doctor.

      1. I was very young when I occasionally watched the series with my Grandma- it was the 80’s so it was the 4th, 5th & 6th Doctors. When it was rebooted, I was aware of it, but never sat down to watch entire episodes although I caught bits & pieces here and there.

      2. Are you coming back to it now because of the female Doctor? Because I wonder how much that might be happening.

        BTW, if you are curious to jump back in to the show, the best starting point would be with the Matt Smith/Karen Gillan era of season 5. But if that’s too big of an ask I think you probably are pretty well prepared for the new season just from watching the Christmas Special.

      3. To be honest, I was just curious about the female doctor. I was visiting my in-laws for Christmas and since my bro-in-law is a big fan I watched it with him for fun. I don’t have the time to pick up a new fandom 😦

  2. Multi doctor stories are always fun to watch but usually too complicated and wasting of the talent. However next to Day of the Doctor this one was a good strong story. A simple story. Yes I thought the end (particularly Capaldi readying to regenerate) was a bit too long and the shoehorned cameo of Clara was wasted given she is out there in space having her own adventures in time and could have popped up for real to see him. I agree that the first doctor was a bit of a caricature here but it made him interesting for 2017 audience who would today dismiss his era as dated and I love when Who nods back to its rich history. I’m nervous bout Jodi Whitaker. Not because she is a girl or her acting. She just hasn’t shown charismatic lead roles to date. I watched Trust Me on the bbc and that worked only because she was ordinary. Likewise with Broadchurch. This is different, she has to be extraordinary and not sure if she can do that. What a cliffhanger to start her series with though. I loved all the jokes about the TARDIS [must use capitals] looking different. A nod to all the fan criticism of the new tardis being bigger and the windows. The Capaldi era wasnt bad, it just pleased a more narrow audience. True Doctor Who fans and those liking the classic series. Matt smith was great for lunch boxes and merchandise and Tennant pleased the mass (ladies liked him and men liked him and kids liked him). But you cant keep the formula the same or it goes stale. Tennant still on air in the role today wouldn’t work in a Trump/Brexit age. This showed in his return in Day of the Doctor 4 years ago. Is anybody going to visit the 8th doctor Paul McGann? I really feel there was a missed opportunity there for a spin off show like Torchwood or Sarah Jane Adventures. It could either be child friendly or adult themed and McGann still has it as shown in Night of the Doctor.

    1. Your fears about Jodie Whittaker are certainly sensible. If you go back and watch Party Animals you can see hints of what Matt Smith brought to the Doctor. Ditto for David Tennant and Casanova, Peter Capaldi and The Thick Of It. With Whittaker, nothing I have seen from prior performances screams Doctor to me. That’s why I was in favor of Phoebe Waller-Bridge from Fleabag – because based on that show I can more easily imagine her as the Doctor. However, while I am cynical when people like James Cameron talk about how great the latest Terminator movie is when British actors all voice their support and enthusiasm for Whittaker, raving about how great she’ll be, I tend to actually believe them because they know her work far better than I do. I would have loved to have seen more from her in this special. Her tiny amount of screen time isn’t much to go on, yet I can say her reading of her one line did sound Doctor-like.

      “The Capaldi era wasnt bad, it just pleased a more narrow audience. True Doctor Who fans and those liking the classic series. Matt smith was great for lunch boxes and merchandise and Tennant pleased the mass”

      Well put.

      “But you cant keep the formula the same or it goes stale”

      Perpetual creative rebirth is baked into the DNA.

      “Is anybody going to visit the 8th doctor Paul McGann? I really feel there was a missed opportunity there for a spin off show like Torchwood or Sarah Jane Adventures.”

      Instead they did The Class spin-off which ended up getting canceled after one season. In an alternate universe where schedules and ambition didn’t come into play, a spin-off starring Coleman and Maisie Williams traveling on their own TARDIS together would have happened, and it would have been amazing.

      “A nod to all the fan criticism of the new tardis being bigger and the windows.”

      The Moffat era was chock full of Easter Eggs like that.

      “I agree that the first doctor was a bit of a caricature here but it made him interesting for 2017 audience”

      The most important thing, as you said, is that it works for this episode, and it’s not like I have some deep love for the Hartnell era that prevented me from accepting and enjoying this version of his Doctor. I was a little confused as to where his companions were supposed to be the entire time, but as I’ve never seen his final episode I don’t know the full details and just went with it.

      “Multi doctor stories are always fun to watch but usually too complicated and wasting of the talent. However next to Day of the Doctor this one was a good strong story. A simple story. ”

      It was, as with much of the Capaldi era, perfectly calibrated to having a lead whose greatest weapon is probably his voice. Just give us a simple story that can be slow enough to have Capaldi and Bradley simply sit down and talk about the fear of death. I loved it.

      1. There is no 1st doctor regeneration. Some bright spark at the bbc decided to wipe all the tapes so they only have audio and stills. Being a sad person i bought the special they made that shows an animated version of the episode which is good. Paid for a black and white cartoon then a month later the b#stards released a colour version arghhh BBC worldwide you greedy sods. Yes you are right capaldi has the voice for the doctor. Best scene is when he explains tardis to Bill when she first sees it. Very commanding. I loved how they explained the first doctor not being the exact same as hartnell by explaining the regeneration is already changing him or how he is stronger now. In the scenes in the original he was very weak which was why they were exiting hartnell from the show so he did little to the lead up. You raise a good point what happened to his companions and where were they when he dissapeared? Massive plot hole. Answers on a stamped addressed postcard please. One thing i would like is to see a new kind of regeneration. Always the yellow flames in the new series whereas the fun used to be seeing how the change would happen. Other than tom bakers weird watcher effect they were all pretty good for their time. They show capaldis on you tube with the special effects lady talking about it like it was different but it wasnt. Its the same glow.

      2. “I loved how they explained the first doctor not being the exact same as Hartnell by explaining the regeneration is already changing him or how he is stronger now.”

        Thank you for mentioning that. I forgot to bring it up in my review, but I too thought that was an incredibly clever workaround for the inevitable “he kinda looks like him, but kinda not.”

        Yeah, the true story behind Hartnell’s exit from the show, at least as it was told in Mark Gatti’s TV movie made for the 50th Anniversary, is particularly sad. Doctor Who oddly owes its longevity to the fact that its original star was dying on the job.

        “There is no 1st doctor regeneration. Some bright spark at the bbc decided to wipe all the tapes so they only have audio and stills.”

        I suspected as much. This struck me as one of those classic Moffat moments of looking to fill in a canonical gap, such as using the 50th Anniversary short videos leading up to the special to finally give us McGann’s regeneration on screen. It’s just that the exact whereabouts of Hartnell’s companions is never referenced. So, it leaves you wondering.

        The old regenerations were so very different, you’re right. I remember the odd adjustment of watching Eccleston and Tennant’s super-charged regenerations and then going back and seeing Tom Baker’s and Peter Davison’s for the first time. More subdued and decidedly bereft of the shiny yellow energy from the new era, but at least those exits had some fanfare. I was more stunned to see Romana’s regeneration where she just enters a room looking completely different to a nonplussed Doctor treating her new appearance like a mere change of clothes. These things, I learned, used to be far more casual. The Tardis didn’t always have to blow up. I felt like Smith’s regeneration into Capaldi tried to bring some of that back at least in how quickly he changes and how non-explosive it was, yet it still had the yellow glow and all that. This new one went right back to the Tennant way of turning a regeneration into an obvious excuse to throw the new Doctor in the deep end and gift her with an entirely redesigned TARDIS interior, assuming she reunites with it sooner rather than later.

  3. I got into Doctor Who around the second doctor thanks to a TV station that played old TV shows. (Like many, I loved Tom Baker’s doctor.) I was excited when it was rebooted, and I faithfully followed Eccleston’s and Tennant’s doctors. I started getting bored around Matt Smith and from then on only dropped in occasionally.

    I tuned in to the Two Doctors because I wanted to see the end of Capaldi’s doctor and where the show was. About half an hour in, my viewing companion said “This is boring”, a conclusion I had reached some time before. That’s what I felt about Moffat’s episodes, that they are all very similar with slight variations. The companions are girls, not women, and the beats of the episodes stuck in a pattern.

    Bring on a new showrunner. It’s past time.

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