“Twice Upon a Time,” Doctor Who’s 2017 Christmas special, is a story of endings and of continuing beyond them. It caps off the Doctor Who careers of both showrunner Steven Moffat and the current Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi, and heralds a time of wholesale change both in front of and behind the camera, as new showrunner Chris Chibnall arrives with his new Doctor, Jodie Whittaker. Moffat’s swan song is a fittingly elegiac tale that looks at how the Doctor has changed in the course of his 54-year journey by placing Capaldi’s Doctor side by side with his very first incarnation, originally played back by William Hartnell and here by David Bradley.
Bradley previously played Hartnell in An Adventure in Space and Time, the 2013 docudrama about Doctor Who’s origins. Here, he successfully brings the first Doctor back to life as he almost literally steps out of history, with the start of this episode consisting of a mixture of original footage and recreated moments from the end of Hartnell’s final story, 1966’s “The Tenth Planet.” Fatally weakened after a battle with the Cybermen, the Doctor is making his way back to his TARDIS through an Antarctic snowscape when he encounters Capaldi’s Doctor, who’s in the same situation after his previous episode, “The Doctor Falls.” Both Doctors are so damaged that they need to regenerate but are resisting the upcoming change with all their might—the first Doctor from fear of the unknown and the current one from sheer weariness at his seemingly endless wandering of the universe, which has led to him losing so many people he cares about, like his companion, Bill (Pearl Mackie).
As in previous multi-Doctor stories, there’s a lot of fun in seeing the Doctors spark off each other, with the original Doctor unimpressed by the new Doctor’s sonic screwdriver and sunglasses and his tendency to make grandstanding speeches about protecting whole planets—something which, indeed, was not in the Doctor’s character at the start of the series but developed gradually over time. Considerably less pleasant are several moments where Moffat seems to be attempting to “explain” or justify the fact that the Doctor will shortly be assuming a female form for the first time as some kind of reaction to his earlier self’s rather unenlightened attitudes toward women (which raised no comment in the 1960s). One of these is at least based on a real quote from the Hartnell era, as the Doctor did actually threaten his granddaughter with “a jolly good smacked bottom” in 1964’s “The Dalek Invasion of Earth,” and fans seeing that story today tend to echo Capaldi’s embarrassed reaction here: “Can we just pretend that that never happened?” The rest, though, are so exaggerated as to amount to a distortion of the first Doctor’s character (for example, his suggestion that Capaldi’s Doctor must miss Bill because he needs someone to do the dusting in the TARDIS), and Bradley’s slower and more emphatic delivery compared to that of Hartnell makes these moments gratingly unsubtle and preachy.
Fortunately, this sermonising is confined to the first half of the episode. Traveling through the story at the Doctors’ side is a British army captain (Mark Gatiss, Moffat’s closest writing colleague on Doctor Who and Sherlock) who’s engaged in a tense stand-off on a World War I battlefield with a German counterpart when a moment of “frozen time” strikes and deposits him in the Antarctic several decades later. (Amusingly, the German soldier is played by Toby Whithouse, another major Moffat-era actor-writer.) The captain, having been given an unexpected reprieve from death, realizes that he’ll ultimately have to be returned to the same moment, and struggles to recapture the fatalistic acceptance he had been jarred out of—an ironic counterpoint to the fate of the two Doctors, who both gradually come to accept that they must continue on, albeit in different forms.
An era of the series has ended, but as always, Doctor Who continues moving right along.
Ultimately, the Doctor manages to save the captain when he realizes the particular day the man was taken from: By delaying the captain’s return by a few hours, he ensures that the stand-off is resolved by the famous Christmas armistice of 1914. The Doctors look on as British and German soldiers emerge from their trenches and shake hands under flags of truce, and an episode which until this point had seemed to have nothing to do with Christmas rather beautifully turns out to be a true Christmas special after all.
Director Rachel Talalay again creates wonderfully memorable imagery with the frozen snowstorms and battlefields and a woman made of glass (Nikki Amuka-Bird) who represents those responsible for the disruption of time. Appropriately for this reflective episode, the glass woman and her people are eventually revealed to be no threat at all, but a benign far-future organisation, the Testimony Foundation, which intercepts people at the point of death and preserves their memories (and Capaldi’s Doctor is comically nonplussed when he realizes that, for once, he’s not actually facing an evil plan that has to be defeated). As the Doctor tracks down Testimony, Moffat slips in some final references to his previous episodes: The weapon factories of Villengard were mentioned in his very first Doctor Who, 2005’s “The Empty Child,” and there’s even an appearance by Rusty the “good” Dalek from Capaldi’s second episode, 2014’s “Into the Dalek.” More importantly, Testimony’s ability to create simulacra of the formerly living allows Mackie, who was so impressive throughout season 10, to bring back Bill for one last adventure. And at the end, Capaldi’s other companions, Nardole (Matt Lucas) and Clara (Jenna Coleman), also return for brief but emotional farewells.
A little too severe in his first year, Capaldi’s Doctor loosened up to provide some of the funniest and most powerful moments in the show’s history. Capaldi’s ability to hold an audience entirely by himself is unmatched, and it’s appropriate that the Twelfth Doctor goes out with a three-minute monologue in the TARDIS, set to the magnificent climactic music from 2015’s “Heaven Sent.” (Composer Murray Gold, responsible for scoring every episode of modern Doctor Who to this point, is also leaving the series, hence the excerpts of many of his greatest pieces popping up throughout this episode.) Capaldi is no doubt speaking for himself, as well as for all those departing, as his final words before disappearing in an explosion of energy are soft and heartfelt: “Doctor…I let you go.”
As happened with Moffat’s arrival at the beginning of 2010, the departing showrunner makes way for his successor for the final sequence of the episode. After the emotional climax of the regeneration, the slow reveal of Whittaker’s Doctor is a lovely moment of hushed stillness that allows the full significance of what has just occurred to sink in. But it’s only for a moment: She’s barely uttered a line before she falls out of the TARDIS into life-threatening peril, complete with a “TO BE CONTINUED” caption to leave us in suspense until some time in the second half of next year. An era of the series has ended, but as always, Doctor Who continues moving right along.
Classic Doctor Who Recommendation: “Logopolis,” from 1981, was the last story for the fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker. Like “Twice Upon a Time,” it uses the approaching regeneration to create a somber, reflective background against which the departing Doctor’s final adventure plays out.
For more Doctor Who recaps, click here.