Doctor Who Christmas special: Twice Upon A Time
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And here we come to the end of an era, not just for Peter Capaldi's reign as the Doctor, but also Steven Moffat's tenure as showrunner (and if rumour has it, long-standing composer Murray Gold too). Not to mention it is a final encore for Pearl Mackie's Bill, who made such a great impact on her small time on Doctor Who. Quite simply, everything is changing when the show returns in 2018. That brief debut of Jodie Whitaker's Thirteenth Doctor was terrific (I loved the "Aw, brilliant!" at seeing her female reflection) but this was a joyous cap to a bittersweet ending.
Moffat wisely chose not to make Twice Upon A Time an action-packed episode featuring the Twelfth and First Doctors saving the galaxy. The climax to the current Doctor's story happened in series 10 finale The Doctor Falls, battling the Cybermen and being critically injured in that final fight. Instead, he made great use of the unique format of the now-traditional 'Christmas special' to deliver an emotional, reflective epitaph to this Doctor's journey that didn't need invading armies or terrifying monsters to drive the plot. This was the story of acceptance in the face of death, not just for this Doctor but David Bradley's First and Mark Gatiss' captain.
The pre-title sequence was a lovely reintroduction to the First Doctor, morphing footage from the original 1966 story The Tenth Planet into David Bradley's recreation. The all-too brief appearance of the recast Ben and Polly didn't make much of an impression to be honest (they were there only for convenience, given their involvement in the original tale). Bradley though, continued his fantastic delivery of William Hartnell / the First Doctor from 50th anniversary special An Adventure In Space And Time; there was never any doubt throughout the episode that Bradley was anyone else but the original, capturing Hartnell's mix of grumpy old man, arrogant personality and earnest warmth beneath that gruff exterior. And when he met up with Capaldi's Doctor - and tying into the cliff-hanger to series 10 - the magic really began.
From the great multi-Doctor specials (The Three Doctors, Day of the Doctor) to the less good (The Two Doctors), there is always magic when they meet each other on screen, and Twice Upon A Time was no different. After the brief sojourn to Mark Gatiss' captain, ripped through his moment of death in the trenches of World War I, the three made their way into Capaldi's TARDIS and the dialogue was gourgeous.
The first Doctor's utter disdain for everything inside - particularly the Twelfth Doctor's mid-life crisis sonic sunglasses left a big smile on my face. Moffatt has the ability to capture the heart of these characters through dialogue and that was definitely true here. Adding in the captain's sheer confusion over what was happening (this was Gatiss's best and most understated role in Doctor Who) and Capaldi's knowing, frustrated performance as he tried to get his predecessor to realise what was happening, made this scene one of the highlights of the episode.
Somewhat more surprising was the First Doctor's blatant sexism - where was Polly to clean the messy TARDIS? It was obviously Moffatt showing just how far the Doctor had come, particularly noteworthy given the upcoming regeneration. But I did wonder if this was too on the nose; his subsequent interactions with Bill were hilarious though.
The 'Testimony' was interesting; these weren't big bads made out of crystal as originally suspected, Instead they preserved the memories of the dying, by plucking them out of time at their moment of death and returning them intact. It was here that the Twelfth Doctor was reunited with Bill and Pearl Mackie shone once more. I will miss her almost as much as Capaldi. She was a breath of fresh air and certainly made an impact in her one series, but it added to the bittersweet nature of the episode, having her back with her Doctor for one last adventure. It was also intriguing that this was not the Bill we saw rescued from death at the end of series 10, but the memory of her from the Doctor (though how did he know she had been rescued by Heather?). It does leave room for her to return if Chris Chibnall allows - a one off appearance might be nice down the road somewhere.
I'm not so sure about the return of Rusty the 'good Dalek' from Into The Dalek way back at the beginning of the Twelfth Doctor era. The whole trip to access the biggest database in the galaxy felt tagged on to the story, even if the reunion itself was a surprise moment. The strongest part of the investigation into the woman behind the crystal figure was the First Doctor relying on his wits rather than technology to determine that the face was based on a real person and not an artificial construct. Items like the sonic screwdriver have been so overused in Nu Who that is was quite refreshing for a Doctor to solve clues without it.
Ultimately this was all about the journey to these characters accepting death. Was it questionable to re-write the First Doctor to have him afraid of regeneration? Perhaps, but given that he had never experienced it before, this was understandable. Even more so was the Twelfth Doctor, lamenting for the many people he had lost over the centuries - he began doubting his ability as a Doctor and that came full circle as he doubted his ability to continue on.
After the incredibly uplifting Armistice Day celebration in the trenches - directed with great passion and flair by the always brilliant Rachel Talalay - we said goodbye to Gatiss's captain, revealed as a relation to the infamous Alistair Lethbridge Stewart. Knowing what I know about the show's questionable use of copyright with the Haisman Literary Estate I wonder whether this was consulted or where it fits into the wider Lethbridge continuity, but it was touching none the less, reminding us of the continued legacy this character leaves behind.
And I have to admit, I had the glimmer of a tear in my eye as the Doctor faced the memories of his past; the return of his memories of Clara was lovely, but it was the farewell to Bill and Nardole that really pulled on the heartstrings. Mackie, Capaldi and Matt Lucas were wonderful together as the latest incarnation of the TARDIS team and this was a fitting farewell.
And as we witnessed the Fist Doctor's regeneration - the episode morphing back into the events of The Tenth Planet - so did we also bid farewell to the Twelfth. Once again, Capaldi did what he has always done best, delivering a passionate, powerful speech.
You wait a moment, Doctor. Let’s get it right. I’ve got a few things to say to you. Basic stuff first. Never be cruel, never be cowardly. And never ever eat pears! Remember – hate is always foolish…and love, is always wise. Always try, to be nice and never fail to be kind."
It was a stunning end to an amazing Doctor, finding acceptance and offering sage advice to his next incarnation. And the episode went out in a blaze of glory, the explosive regeneration tearing the TARDIS apart and out first glimpse of the delightful Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth before she plummeted out of the TARDS in a thrilling cliff-hanger. Already, in his one brief contribution, Chibnall has given us something to be excited about in the long wait to Autumn 2018 and series 11.
I'm incredibly excited for what comes next but I'm also sad to see this era come to an end. Peter Capaldi has given it his all and proved to be a class act to the very end. But it is also a farewell to Moffat's Doctor Who, a man who has made a huge mark on the show as showrunner and writer. He has certainly been decisive, but he was the man who gave us the Weeping Angels, the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors, River Song, Missy, episodes like Heaven Sent and World Enough And Time and two of the finest series of Doctor who in five and nine. You might love or hate his era - but for me, he will be dearly missed.
Of course, Doctor Who has always been about change and it is fitting that Twice Upon A Time visited the first major change in the show's history in that very first regeneration. Fourteen regenerations later, it's another time for sweeping change and as much as I am sad to say goodbye to Moffat, Capaldi et al, I cannot wait for what 2018 and beyond brings us...
Last updated: 20/12/2017 09:01:04