“Previously on Doctor Who… 709 episodes ago.”
What a way to pique the interest from the start, and to make sure warily set-in-their-ways Classic Who fans still felt comfortable watching a show which was about to unveil one of the most talked-about television moments of the year – the arrival of Jodie Whittaker as the 13th incarnation of the Doctor, in place of the departing Peter Capaldi.
This episode, however, was all about Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor, even as a strong cast of unexpected returnees and new characters gravitated around him during his final moments.
Most surprising of all his companions – as we first saw at the end of July’s previous episode ‘The Doctor Falls’ – was David Bradley as, well, himself.
Having once before played original Doctor William Hartnell in the 50th anniversary ‘An Adventure in Time and Space’ in 2013, Bradley returned here as the late Hartnell’s character, the original Doctor himself. Like Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor, Hartley/Bradley’s First initially refused to accept his own regeneration after being fatally wounded.
These two regenerative rebels, we discovered, had been brought together at the moment of their ‘death’ by a time-travelling supercomputer from the future named Testimony, represented by a female avatar made of glass. Also present were Pearl Mackie’s returning Bill Potts (although she couldn’t quite remember how she ended up here), and Mark Gatiss as a First World War Captain plucked from the battlefield at Ypres in the split second before his death.
Ammunition for complaints
The glass woman effect (played in the flesh by Nikki Amuka-Bird) was, it’s fair to say, a low point of a reasonably strong episode, with the admittedly higher-budget Terminator 2 having done better 26 years ago. There was also more ammunition for past complaints aimed at showrunner Steven Moffat’s seven-year reign, which also ended here.
Occasional quick-fix solutions sprang out of nowhere, in the absence of real earned progress; for example, a diversion to visit Rusty the ‘good Dalek’, last seen in 2014’s ‘Into the Dalek’, on an admittedly stunning and atmospheric dead armoury planet at the heart of the universe; or with the quick technical reset which saved a character’s life all too easily at the end.
Attentive long-timers might also have rolled their eyes at the Captain’s predictable relationship to a classic character, although in all fairness, the reveal was far more deftly handled than the same character’s previous, horrifically clunking ‘cameo’ in 2014.
Minor faults picked, however, there was far more to love about Capaldi’s swansong, even if it did leave us with the niggling feeling that potentially one of the series’ finest Doctors had never quite been handed the story his striking balance of compassionate and sinister deserved. Too often, he was parked in shade-wearing, guitar-playing Top Gear dad territory, and it was a joy to see Bradley’s crotchety old schoolmaster pull that front down.
The sharply-written interplay between both Doctors, in fact – and later Bill – was one of the joys of this episode. “Atmospheric? (It’s like) a restaurant for the French,” sneered Bradley’s First, gazing around the Twelfth’s hugely modified control room. “I thought I’d become… younger,” the earlier incarnation mused, gazing worriedly at his older self.
“I am younger!” yelped Capaldi’s wounded Twelfth, wracked by centuries of mid-life crisis. For the record, Bradley is sixteen years older than the 59-year-old Capaldi, yet when Hartnell’s final episode aired in 1966, he was a year younger. That we don’t notice the join is an indication of how emphatically Bradley inhabits his borrowed role, and how beautifully the episode knits itself within the fabric of what has gone before.
In particular, the framing sequence of Hartnell’s final scene is sublime, taking original footage of 1966’s ‘The Tenth Planet’ and bringing it vividly to full-colour life in a perfect recreation of the original TARDIS, with actors Lily Travers and Jared Garfield taking the place of Anneke Wills and Michael Craze as period companions Polly and Ben.
In the absence of any substantial footage of Whittaker yet, we’re left to speculate that perhaps the current Doctor had putting himself in a woman’s shoes on his mind, so unremittingly unreconstructed were the 1960s-dwelling First Doctor’s attitudes.
Some of Bradley’s crisp and unselfconscious one-liners were beautifully on-the-nose, from his insistence that a new female companion for the Twelfth might give the TARDIS a good spring clean, to his jaw-dropping declaration that Bill will receive a “jolly good smacked bottom” if he catches her swearing.
In what’s likely to also be her swansong, Mackie gave as good as she got, and inspired a real tear or two in her final scene with Capaldi, as this very different Bill conjured not-unexpected farewell visions of Matt Lucas’ Nardole and Jenna Coleman’s Clara to teach the Doctor how to come to terms with his endless memories anew.
It was a strong conclusion for all concerned, and for the First Doctor after all these years. You suspect the TARDIS is unlikely to see a spring clean any time soon.
This article first appeared on our sister site, iNews.