DOCTOR WHO + LITTLE WOMEN + ERIC, ERNIE & ME + ERIC & ERNIE’S HOME MOVIES
DOCTOR WHO: Christmas Day, BBC One
LITTLE WOMEN: Boxing Day to Thursday, BBC One
ERIC, ERNIE & ME: Friday, BBC Four
ERIC & ERNIE’S HOME MOVIES: Friday, BBC Two
A piece of television history occurred on Christmas Day, when Peter Capaldi regenerated into Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to play the lead in DOCTOR WHO.
As epochal though that moment was – Whittaker’s brief burst of screen time was suitably tantalising – it didn’t overshadow the brunt of this enjoyable festive special, during which outgoing show-runner Steven Moffat gave Capaldi the emotional farewell he deserved.
Instead of going out with an epic bang, Moffat marked the end of this era – the first twelve years of ‘Nu-Who’ basically – with a relatively low-key, character-driven hour in which the dying Doctor, having fought, loved and lost for thousands of years in an eternally evil-scarred universe, couldn’t go on any longer. He didn’t want to regenerate once again, he just wanted to quietly die in the Arctic tundra.
And not, as it turned out, for the first time.
Moffat, who can’t resist adding pieces to Doctor Who’s vast ongoing lore, conjured a bittersweet storyline in which the Doctor’s original incarnation – David Bradley doing a pretty good job of replacing the late William Hartnell, despite the first Doctor’s political incorrectness being awkwardly overplayed – also tried to stave off his imminent regeneration. Here were two iterations of the same Time Lord separated by aeons, yet united by fear, confusion and weariness.
Nothing says Christmas quite like a double dose of existential fatalism.
It wasn’t as depressing as that sounds, of course. Moffat juggled pathos and gags while building towards an uplifting final act in which both Doctors came to realise the importance of their place in the universe. They lived to fight another billion days.
The Twelfth Doctor’s turnaround was admittedly rather sudden – all it took was a group hug from his loyal companions – but in the context of a moving recreation of the Christmas Armistice of 1914, I’ll let that pass. Moffat’s heartfelt Christmas messages – death can never erase memories of loved ones and human beings are essentially kind – never came across as trite.
Moffat had his faults, as did Russell T. Davies before him, but this was a dignified last stand.
One of Doctor Who’s most talented directors, Rachel Talalay did a typically beautiful job. I hope we’ll see more of her work on the show in future.
Capaldi and Bradley were ably supported by the excellent Pearl Mackie in her final performance as companion Bill – oh if only she’d been paired with Capaldi from the start – and Mark Gatiss delivering a sensitive guest performance as a World War One Captain (and grandfather of classic Doctor Who stalwart Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart) stoically facing down death.
This was a touching celebration of everything the Doctor – and the hit TV series Doctor Who – stands for. The Twelfth Doctor’s pre-regeneration speech, though brilliantly performed by the great Peter C, was a tad overlong but just about succeeded as both a meta and in-universe declaration of the selflessly heroic Time Lord’s core attributes.
If incoming showrunner Chris ‘Broadchurch’ Chibnall heeds Moffat’s checklist, then Doctor Who and Jodie Whittaker should be in safe hands. I remain cautiously optimistic.
The umpteenth adaptation of the classic novel by Louisa May Alcott, LITTLE WOMEN hopefully managed to introduce this immortal coming-of-age saga to a new generation.
After all, its themes are eternally relevant. Young women in the late 19th century share the same fundamental concerns as their modern counterparts. Attitudes may have evolved, but the human condition is unchanging.
Heidi Thomas, creator of Call the Midwife, captured the charm, wit and gender-political thrust of Alcott’s source material, while newcomer Maya Hawke (daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke) shone brightly as proto-feminist Jo.
You’d have to be a total numbskull to botch this timeless celebration of female strength and charity. Thomas is not that numbskull.
Morecambe & Wise were always a gifted double act, but it wasn’t until the brilliant writer Eddie Braben refined their onscreen personas that they found a permanent place in the nation’s collective heart.
Eric was an innate comic genius. Ernie was the consummate foil. It was Braben, however, who hit upon the Eureka bulb of making them both funny in different ways. Inspired by Laurel and Hardy, these three wise men (including one Wiseman) struck immortal comedy gold.
Braben received his due in ERIC, ERNIE & ME, an affectionate drama starring Stephen Tompkinson as an inspired freelance writer who was eventually driven to extremes of nervous exhaustion by the crushing burden of creating an annual Christmas spectacular for millions of expectant viewers.
I’m automatically suspicious of tears-behind-the-laughter biopics, but this one had no truck with voyeuristic sensationalism. How could it? There’s no dirt to be found underneath the fingernails of this story, just sweat, toil and the nerve-straining demands of sincerely cheering people up for a living.
The boys themselves were the stars of ERIC & ERNIE’S HOME MOVIES, a truly heart-warming documentary boasting recently unearthed silent footage – most of it shot by Eric – of them enjoying their offstage lives in the ‘50s, ‘60s and early ‘70s.
One usually endures other people’s family mementoes with a polite smile while desperately scanning for the exit, but watching these priceless documents in the intimate onscreen company of delighted friends and family members – most of whom had never seen them before either – was an honour.
I was glad when it ended, but only because the lump in my throat was becoming painful to the point of asphyxiation.
Morecambe and Wise were the beloved funny uncles we never knew in person. This beautiful programme confirmed what we’ve always known. We loved them because they loved each other.
TV HIGHLIGHTS of THE WEEK
New Year’s Day and Tuesday, BBC One, 9pm
This over-hyped drama stars James Norton as a wealthy investment banker struggling to escape from his Russian family’s links to international organised crime. A must for fans of bald gangsters droning on about business deals.
THE REAL T-REX WITH CHRIS PACKHAM
Tuesday, BBC Two, 9pm
Using new ground-breaking studies, Packham oversees an accurate CGI recreation of the ever-popular dinosaur. Not only does he find out how it moved, he also gets an idea of the sounds it would’ve made.
INSIDE NO. 9
Tuesday, BBC Two, 10pm
Hot on the heels of the triumphant League of Gentlemen reunion, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith return for another series of their blackly comic anthology series. They begin with a Shakespearian farce set on the ninth floor of a luxury hotel. Still one of the best things on television, clearly.
Wednesday, STV, 9pm
From the prolific pen of Kay Mellor, this typically humane new drama series stars Phyllis Logan, Miranda Richardson and Zoe Wanamaker as three lifelong friends. When Linda loses her husband under mysterious circumstances, she turns to Gail and Sue for support.
FILM of THE WEEK
THE WIZARD OF OZ
New Year’s Day, ITV3, 1:15pm
Follow the yellow brick road into 2018 with this immortal musical fantasy about a young girl (Judy Garland) from depression-era Kansas who learns about love, loyalty and courage when’s she whisked off to a magical kingdom over the rainbow. One of the most perfectly realised family films of all time, it doesn’t put a ruby-slippered foot wrong. The screenplay, performances, production design and score are exemplary. Every child, young and old, needs this glittering masterpiece in their life.