Ring out the old, ring in the new. It’s not just the anthem of Christmas; it’s the mantra that Doctor Who has to follow every season, every episode.
Balancing reverence for the past with constant, relentless looking forward has always been Doctor Who‘s bag. And yet, this Christmas, more than ever, there’s a feeling that the programme, and the Doctor himself, more than usually reflect that bittersweet midwinter spirit.
References to River Song aptly evoke the Christmas melancholy of remembering those we have lost: the kind of maudlin sentiment that seems particularly appropriate to Capaldi’s superficially brusque, but increasingly rheumy-eyed Time Lord.
But of more excitement to Doctor Who fans will inevitably be the hints and promises, laid thick in ‘The Return of Doctor Mysterio’, of what’s to come – and not just in the ‘Coming Soon’ trailer. So, in the spirit of looking forward, not back, let’s investigate what this year’s special may suggest about the coming season of Doctor Who.
To begin with, that trailer, which is, all told, rather a lovely thing. There’s confirmation of many fan whispers: emoji-faced aliens; the university setting of Episode 1. (How can David Suchet convey so much screen presence in just one reaction shot?) But what’s most noticeable is how the production team are living up to their promises to treat season 10 as the starting off point for something fresh and revitalised.
Lessons have clearly been learned from the fudged launch of Season 9, and its battle-weary tagline, ‘Same old, same old. Just the Doctor and Clara Oswald in the TARDIS’. Here, instead, we are invited to ‘See the universe anew’, and it strikes exactly the right note of optimism and adventure.
Rightly, the trailer puts the focus on new companion, Bill. For fans, such as ourselves, who read too much into everything, it’s tempting to see in her fleeting characterisation here the echoes of former companions: Rose serving chips in ‘School Reunion’; Ace every time she referred to the Doctor as a ‘Professor’. (‘He’s a professor,’ Bill says of the Doctor.)
But actually, the one comparison that most comes to mind from this limited evidence is Educating Rita: a university setting; a sparky pupil figure who is too straightforward to be impressed by her mentor’s attempts at pretension….
As Doctor Who fans, thanks to the likes of Ace and Leela, we’re accustomed to thinking of the companion as an Eliza Doolittle figure, and so the character of Rita – effectively a 1980s update on Eliza – feels an entirely appropriate match.
‘Doctor What?’ says Bill – asking always the more natural question than the rhetorically self-conscious ‘Doctor Who?’ – and there’s just the suggestion that they are going to use her to subvert the programme’s clichés. We certainly hope so.
If we were in the mind to make predictions – and, if 2016 has taught us anything, it’s *never* make predictions – we’d say that Bill was going to be a hit. Nardole, on the other hand – his name now seemingly pronounced with the stress on the second syllable – may prove to be a more controversial fit within the show.
Already the CultBox team are divided on this one, for many of the reasons you’d expect: when Matt Lucas’s background in broad comedy is accentuated with perhaps a few too many gormless reaction shots, of course there are going to be critics. But such things are to be expected in a Christmas special that is often comic in nature.
For me, I sit on the other side of the fence. That final speech of Nardole’s is so clearly written to position him as an audience identification figure – a true and faithful custodian of the Doctor – while the many moments of Nardole whimsy work because they’re played, almost at the back of shot, as comic colouring.
If this is going to be the Nardole we are going to see from now on – someone who wanders in with deceptive gormlessness to undercut the Doctor with a bathetic riposte – well, that’s fine by me.
While Doctor Who may have much to fear from the kind of po-facedness that is the opposite of this approach, I’d suggest it has rather less to fear from casting an actor who can deliver this kind of crumpled charm and decency. Besides which, if the Doctor has reassembled Nardole to provide him with company and stave off a certain kind of madness, who is to say he hasn’t given Nardole’s brain a bit of an upgrade in the process?
And so, there we have it: no more Who until ‘A Star in her Eye’ – a star which is either literal or metaphorical, but presumably not a gemstone formed in the heart of a red hole….
2016 may have been a hell of a year, but, with the Doctor back on call and a whole universe to see anew in 2017, what else is there to say except ‘a merry Christmas to all of you at home!’?
What are your expectations for Season 10? Let us know below…