“Previously on Doctor Who… 709 episodes ago”
What an iconic beginning. 2017′s Christmas special “Twice Upon a Time” starts with a quick recap of the 1966 story “The Tenth Planet” and it picks up right at the end of Episode 4, just as the First Doctor (here played by David Bradley) is about to regenerate on the South Pole in 1986. He encounters the Twelfth Doctor, who’s also regenerating soon. It takes a bit of convincing from Number Twelve to get his former self to believe they are the same person but there’s no time for chit-chat. A World War One British soldier appears out of nowhere and the TARDIS gets taken by an alien ship.
They arrive in the Chamber of the Dead where an alien demands that the Doctors give them the British soldier. He was supposed to die in 1914 but he was ripped out of time and ended up with the Doctors in 1986. In exchange for the soldier, the Doctor(s) can speak with none other than Bill Potts again, who reveals to Twelve how Heather saved her from her cybernetic fate. The Doctor is happy at first, but starts having doubts about Bill because she doesn’t seem to remember everything and he fears that she’s only a duplicate.
Angered by this, the Doctors want to know what this Chamber of the Dead business is about. A glass interface manifests itself and tells the Doctors that they are called Testimony and they take “what they want” from living souls before the moment of their deaths and that they want the Captain to return to where and when he was supposed to die. The Twelfth Doctor is having none of that, so after the compulsory “history of the Doctor” montage they escape.
Testimony keeps hold of the TARDIS so they go for the other one, the First Doctor’s ship. Having realized that interface glass lady was based on a real person, the Doctors search for a database that could tell them who it was. The go into the far future, to the centre of the universe, to the Weapon Forges of Villengard. The Doctors search for the database and discuss their reluctant regenerations while Bill looks after the Captain. When they find it the Twelfth Doctor talks to, what a surprise, Rusty, the “good” Dalek from “Into the Dalek”, who has access to the Dalek hivemind.
Meanwhile, Bill has a nice chat with the First Doctor about what he was running to when he left Gallifrey and starts understanding him. She reveals that she’s part of Testimony too just when the Twelfth Doctor also discovers that what Testimony wants is to raise the dead by giving their memories to glass avatars. Twelve is somewhat disappointed that it’s not an evil entity he has to defeat because this means that the Captain really does have to die. They go back to 1914 but with a slight change so it’s now Christmas. The Captain, revealed to be Archibald Hamish Lethbridge-Stewart, is saved by the Christmas truce of World War One. Twelve proves to One that the universe can be a fairy tale with the right help, and so the latter faces his regeneration knowing what the Doctor will become.
Twelve is more hesitant as to what to do. He doesn’t fear the future like his younger self did but doesn’t know whether he should go on or just let the Doctor die. Bill tries to talk to him but he still doesn’t believe she counts as real because all she has is her memories so she shows him just how important they are by giving him his memories of Clara. Not to be left out, Nardole’s avatar also appears to say goodbye. Together Bill and Nardole convince him to go on but also say that at the end of the day it’s his choice. They hug it out and disappear so the Doctor is left alone to either regenerate or die.
Deciding that “one more lifetime wouldn’t kill anyone”, the Doctor begins the last phase of this prolonged regeneration. He goes out with a speech about everything the Doctor should and shouldn’t be and finally lets go. The new Doctor is confused and clumsy as ever but at least she gets to say “brilliant” before falling out of the TARDIS. To be continued with the adventures Doctor Number Thirteen.
Let’s start with saying that plot was neither interesting nor important. If this was any other episode, anything but a regeneration, I would have minded that a lot more. Not that regeneration episodes don’t need a plot, “The Caves of Androzani” and “The Parting of the Ways” are two of the best stories ever made. But in the case of “Twice Upon a Time”, it was all about the regeneration itself and who the Doctor is. It was much heavier on character study than anything else, which is why I for one don’t mind the lack of plot. It just shows that the episode couldn’t have worked as anything else. Even as a Christmas special it’s on the weaker side, the first mention of Christmas is two thirds in and after that the only reason why the holiday is significant is because of the armistice. On its own and without context “Twice Upon a Time” is an almost suspiciously simple story by Steven Moffat standards.
This episode needs context though so let’s give it some. Twelve was supposed to regenerate in “The Doctor Falls”, the reason why we have this essentially filler episode is because Chris Chibnall, the next showrunner didn’t want to write a Christmas special and Moffat didn’t want the show to lose its BBC spot on Christmas Day. The regeneration could have happened without this episode but in the end I’m glad that we got one last ride with the Twelfth Doctor — and the First. My initial reaction to the episode was that it was decent but the more I look at it the more I like it. Its messages about who the Doctor is supposed to be and how the universe works are so fitting for the whole show and the Moffat era in particular.
The dynamic between the two Doctors could have been explored more, it’s not like there were other things that needed more focus, but what we got was still interesting. This might just be the most chill multi-Doctor episode ever, with little bickering and a heartfelt conversation between the first ever and latest versions of the same person. To bring back the First Doctor is a curious move since William Hartnell died decades ago and few people remember what Doctor Who was like during his time. Even those who go back to see old episodes can’t see all of them. In fact, the very episode this one crosses with, the fourth part of “The Tenth Planet” is a missing one.
But here comes David Bradley, who previously played Hartnell and his Doctor in the 2013 movie An Adventure in Space and Time. Bradley did a better job of portraying Hartnell himself than pretending to be the First Doctor, but he was still fantastic and for a few moments managed to convince me that this is the Doctor of the early 60s.
Speaking of the early 60s… if there’s one thing that annoyed me about the First Doctor’s involvement and made the episode worse it was the casual sexism by Bradley’s character. Make no mistake, the Doctors of early days made some less than pleasant comments every now and then, be it sexist or even more often racist. Viewers watching episodes of the 60s and 70s nowadays might flinch at those and rightly so — although it should be noted that Doctor Who was actually considered progressive even then and better than most shows of its time.
That doesn’t mean you have to have the First Doctor make distasteful comments about Polly and Bill though; it’s disrespectful towards those characters and to the memory of William Hartnell. His behaviour was more of a reflection of the 60s itself than what the Doctor himself was like. It allows Bill to be her iconic self and bite back and it becomes a sort of “take that!” irony when at the very end the Doctor becomes a woman, but the episode would have been better off without it. Barbara Wright didn’t travel with him in his early years for this to happen.
As for Bill herself, she had a beautiful conversation with One after they got over the uncomfortable part. It’s a perfect summary of the episode and highlights just how young and innocent the First Doctor is compared to the Twelfth, how he’s still not sure of his place and the universe and what he’s supposed to do. It’s a touching moment and a reminder as to why Doctor Who is more than a silly sci-fi show with ridiculous costumes and convoluted plots. In a way, Moffat went right back to the core of the series in his last episode while also going over the things that were important to his era: kindness, compassion, fairy tales, remembering. Out with the wibbly-wobbly nonsense, “Twice Upon a Time” is almost solely focusing on characters and their dynamics.
The fact that Bill returned, but not really, was integrated into the story surprisingly well. Usually, I’m not a fan of bringing back characters who are not actually themselves (*cough* Billie Piper playing The Moment in the 50th anniversary *cough*), yet here it worked. Bill spends a great deal explaining that it can be her even though it’s not, that “we’re all just a bunch of memories” anyway so if these are her memories then it is her. It works well with the little plot that the episode has and even connects with Clara’s story, which allows Jenna Coleman to also return for one last time. Hey, if Rose and Amy had cameos right before the regeneration then Clara deserves one as well. And in any case, it’s always a delight to see Pearl Mackie so I’m not complaining. Even Nardole’s return was a pleasant surprise and I say that even though I still don’t get why he had to be a companion.
Not only was this last episode of Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat but also of composer Murray Gold, hence the various different pieces from the Russel T Davies era. At first it was confusing, why is “Doomsday” playing when the Doctors are talking? But since this was Gold’s goodbye as well it makes sense to include his greatest hits. And greatest hits they were, with pieces like the Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Doctor themes, “Breaking the Wall”, “Vale Decem” and the above mentioned “Doomsday”. Not going to lie, it did distract me from the actual scenes and if I hadn’t known it was because Gold was leaving I would have been confused, but his music is so fantastic that I’m just glad I got to hear it for one last time.
As for the regeneration itself, well. It was too long, but then again we had a whole extra episode that was all about the idea of it so that’s not a surprise. One’s fear is completely logical and glad we dealt with that, but Twelve being reluctant not because he wants to stay himself but because he wants to die for good was darkly fascinating. Of course, he does change and go on and that was no surprise, but it’s a nice contrast to One’s thought process and the one that, say, the Tenth Doctor had in his time. “Letting go of the Doctor is so, so hard” — Bill was right about that, but everything has its time and everything ends.
The Twelfth Doctor goes out with a reminder of what being the Doctor means, and just like with Matt Smith his last words are close to breaking the fourth wall. But Capaldi does let go and so Jodie Whittaker appears, here to begin a whole new era and yet stay the same old Doctor deep down.
“Twice Upon a Time” was a pleasant surprise all in all. After the disaster that was “The Time of the Doctor” in 2013, I feared the worst, but this episode doesn’t over complicate things and instead focuses on the Doctor’s character, brings back “the original”, all of Twelve’s companions and declares once and for all what the point of being the Doctor is. Steven Moffat’s era of Doctor Who has been more than controversial at times and despite Capaldi’s talent as an actor Twelve had a bit a bumpy ride. One episode can’t negate all that but it can provide these two with a worthy end that stands as a quiet but significant moment in the history of the show.
Was “Twice Upon a Time” an epic tale? Not by a long shot. For once, though, it didn’t need to be, Series 9 was more than enough of that. Instead, this was a solemn retrospective and graceful end, with flaws and all.