Some people save the best for last. With his handling of the First Doctor, Steven Moffat may have done the exact opposite.
Over his long run as showrunner, Steven Moffat has made many controversial decisions. Some, like introducing the War Doctor or bringing back Gallifrey, I’m at least ok with. Others, like bringing back Clara in Hell Bent, not so much. Usually, these choices can be described as “divisive”. They split fandoms down the middle, with some loving them, and others hating them.
However, when he wrote Twice Upon a Time, he made one big choice that has left a lot of fans in agreement. Unfortunately, it’s not for a good reason. It was his decision to include “humor” by making the First Doctor horrendously sexist.
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I can see what Moffat was doing. The sixties were a different time. People had different values. Sexism was a much bigger problem. Since the First Doctor was of that era, he wanted the audience to laugh at how different things were back then. Especially with the constantly horrified reactions of Twelve at his former’s self’s behavior. So what’s the problem?
Short answer, it’s because the First Doctor wasn’t like that. Not even remotely.
The First Doctor may have been written in the sixties. But he wasn’t originally written with some of the worst values of the period. Hartnell’s Doctor was a man who enjoyed exploring the universe and discovering something new. He was someone who understood that different civilizations had different values and customs. He would meet people throughout history, whether it was the past, the present or the future, and draw his own conclusions.
Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t a Doctor without flaws. Especially in the beginning, when he was very protective of his granddaughter. He didn’t like his human companions, Ian and Barbara. Early on, he came close to throwing them off the TARDIS.
But over time, he changed, and he learned to appreciate his companions. He learned what it is to be a hero. He became more open-minded and far kinder. By the end, he was the kind of man who knew not only how to tackle his enemies head on, but also, to finally give his companions the respect they deserve.
So of course, when he’s written by Moffat, he’s telling women to clean the TARDIS and making comments on how the elderly can be “put to use”.
Even worse than those examples, however?
The worst moment in Twice Upon a Time has to be when he tells Bill that he’s going to give her “a smacked bottom” if she continues swearing. Now, I’m aware that the line was originally said to Susan in The Dalek Invasion of Earth. But, in that instance, she was his granddaughter. It’s still not OK behavior, and it is very dated. But it’s about the worst thing One said in his entire run in terms of dated values.
So of course, Moffat not only reuses the line, but finds a way of making it even worse! Suddenly, it goes from a poor example of dated family discipline to something far more sexist and cringing!
It could be argued that One saying that line in the first place makes re-using it justified. In fact, that same argument could be made for his whole attitude in this episode. But imagine, 50 years from now, a writer decides to bring back Rose Tyler. Imagine that writer, casting a new actress, deciding to base their characterization of Rose Tyler on one single line. A line from the episode, Aliens of London. Which line?
You’re so gay!
Now imagine a version of Rose Tyler making many crass and homophobic comments. Meanwhile, the new companion is trying hard to explain that she shouldn’t be saying those things. And then, of course, the line from Aliens of London crops up, and it’s a perfect justification for fans of why Rose would make those kind of remarks.
This is exactly what Moffat has done to the First Doctor. He’s taken one single line, out of context, and based all the “humor” of Twice Upon a Time around it. It’s terribly insulting to Hartnell’s Doctor, to say the least.
Honestly, there’s only one explanation that fits why One is so different. (Well, other than Moffat writing him badly, of course.) Regeneration trauma. Twelves says that One is actually in the middle of the regeneration when they meet. (Mentioning that his face was all over the place was a nice touch, I must admit. It was a neat way of explaining why he was starting to look a little different.)
Sometimes, after a regeneration, the Doctor goes through some mental trauma that causes him to act differently. The First Doctor could have been going through this during the regeneration itself. This is why he’s acting so differently, because his mind and body are all over the place at this point.
Do I believe this was Moffat’s intention? No. Does it make sense? Again, if I’m honest, not completely. But it’s the only in-universe explanation that even remotely fits. But even if it was Moffat’s intention, it’s still a bad story choice.
Like in The Twin Dilemma, when the Sixth Doctor tried to strangled Peri, just because you can say the Doctor is going through mental trauma doesn’t mean it’s a good story choice. That moment still left a terrible first impression on viewers at the time.
And that story actually mentioned that the Doctor was going through trauma due to the regeneration. Twice Upon a Time makes no such explanation with the First Doctor. As such, new viewers are easily lead to believe that this was exactly what the First Doctor was like.
And that’s the biggest problem I have with the First Doctor’s depiction. For a lot of fans, Twice Upon a Time will be their first exposure to the Doctor’s original incarnation. At best, they’ll think his Doctor funny, in a cringing sort of way. At worst, they’ll want to skip him for the wrong reasons.
As I mentioned before, the First Doctor wasn’t perfect. That’s why he was so great, because he got to grow and change over the years. But he was never quite as bad as depicted in Twice Upon a Time. Moffat has added flaws that not only weren’t needed, but completely disrespect Hartnell’s original performance and his legacy.
It’s a shame, as David Bradley is a great First Doctor. As I mentioned in my review, there are occasional moments in Twice Upon a Time when he’s written and performed exactly right. And overall, the rest of the episode was enjoyable, with some truly brilliant and moving moments. It’s just a shame that it’s almost ruined by one of Moffat’s last and biggest mistakes from his entire run on Doctor Who.