Doctor Who: Twice Upon A Time (2017)

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Contains spoilers for the 2017 Christmas special

The Twelfth Doctor has left the building. And in a passing of the flame ceremony not seen since New Years Day 2010, we also say farewell to much of the creative talent that had been driving Doctor Who forward for the last seven years, including series star Peter Capaldi, regular contributor Mark Gatiss, composer Murray Gold (or so it’s rumoured) and last but by no means least showrunner and main writer Steven Moffat.

They sign off with “Twice Upon A Time”, which is a love letter from them to the series itself. As well as characteristically outstanding direction from Rachel Talalay, it features performances of the highest order from Capaldi and Gatiss, from Pearl Mackie as companion Bill Potts, and especially from David Bradley as the First Doctor who was originally played by William Hartnell and who briefly returns here in archive footage from 1966. It’s also an example of Moffat’s writing at its highest quality, providing a thoughtful character-driven drama that delivers a perfect Christmas message while signing off an era of the show and clearing the decks for what’s to follow in Autumn 2018.

Objectively speaking, “Twice Upon A Time” isn’t strictly necessary. There isn’t much story to speak of, and if the final story of season 10 had ended with Capaldi’s Doctor regenerating then I don’t imagine many fans would have been left complaining that anything particularly significant had been left out. It feels a tad self-indulgent, a case of cast and crew determined to enjoy themselves with one last hurrah before going gently into the night. You could argue that Moffat in particular has earned the right for such an indulgence because of all his contributions to Who over the years – and to be honest, I would agree with you. But not everyone will.

It’s certainly the case that instead of a plot, what we get here is an epilogue consisting of Moffat’s closing comments and summation of how he thinks of and feels about the show, along with some postscripts to elements of his tenure that he feels need to be made before he lays down his keyboard for the final time.

The hour-long Christmas special picks up at the moment that “The Doctor Falls” left off, with the Doctor at the South Pole resisting the imperative to regenerate. He’s joined by his first incarnation, and also by an unnamed army captain (Gatiss) whose anomalous presence here appears to have done something rather unfortunate to the flow of time (although this never really convinces). All three characters are linked by the fact that they are at the end of their respective lives and need to make decisions about how they face their deaths: the Captain is about to be shot dead by a German soldier in a bomb crater on the World War 1 battlefields; the First Doctor is afraid of what will happen with his first experience of regeneration; and the current Doctor is simply tired, racked with doubt and wondering whether it isn’t time to simply expire.

The First Doctor is initially horrified by the prospect of the swaggering, rock-and-roll ‘Doctor of war’ that appears to be his legacy, while the current Doctor is embarrassed by some of the more antiquated attitudes and opinions of the man he once was. Ultimately however they both learn from the other: in a faint riff on It’s a Wonderful Life, the First Doctor comes to appreciate what he will go to achieve and what will be lost if he were to give up now; and the current Doctor can see how much he’s changed and grown over the centuries, while re-connecting with the honourable and noble intentions of his first incarnation. The Captain, meanwhile, lives out an abbreviated version of A Matter of Life and Death before accepting his inevitable fate. The scene when he returns to his own time stream is the emotional high point of the episode, a perfect beat for Christmas Day and the one moment in the episode when I found I had something in my eye.

Underneath this, Moffat also returns to some of the themes of season 8, which began with the Doctor asking whether he was a good man or not. There was also the memorable scene in “Deep Breath” in which he feared that he had been through so much change that he doubted he was even the same man any more. That question is definitively answered here by the arrival of Bill Potts whom the Doctor had thought converted into a Cyberman and killed. He doubts she’s the ‘real’, Bill and the story never really answers this question in the way that it’s posed. Instead, it points out that a person is ultimately the sum of their memories, experiences, feelings and thoughts, and that the rest – the vessel – is irrelevant. Once the Doctor accepts that the truth of that, he can find peace with his own nature as well: he is still the same Doctor, the same good man, and he still will be even after the next regeneration. Well, maybe not the ‘man’ so much, but change is good.

“Twice Upon A Time” also takes the opportunity to correct one of his tenure’s most controversial missteps – Missy’s artificial afterlife that formed the story arc of Capaldi’s first season in the role, culminating in “Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven”. This story takes pretty much the same basic concept and repurposes it for completely good, altruistic purposes in the form of Testimony in which people’s memories can be saved for all time so that no one need ever truly die. There’s no twist, no dark plot – it’s just a nice, reassuring thought that there is a form of uplifting life after death awaiting for us all, rather than one where we’re all retroactively composted into Cybermen. It might not be a vital point to Doctor Who as a whole but it’s a nice touch, and one feels that Moffat felt that it was an important correction for him to make to his canon before handing over the reigns. (When it’s revealed, the identity of the Captain also gives us a welcome warmer way of signing off on one of the most beloved characters of 54 years of Doctor Who.)

The Christmas special is not perfect. The lack of a science fiction threat means that it sometimes meanders and lacks pace, and could probably drag for the younger audience. The First Doctor – while brilliantly played by Bradley – never really convinces as the real thing largely because the dialogue he’s given is too modern and recognisably Moffat-esque. The politically incorrect views he’s made to express appear to come more from backstage anecdotes about Hartnell than anything we saw from the character on-screen. There’s also the return of Rusty from “Into the Dalek” which feels unnecessary and the story in question will probably be barely remembered by the viewers – Moffat even feels the need to throw in a little episode synopsis to remind us. And naturally, Moffat can’t conclude a Doctor’s tenure without gratuitous cameos from one or two faces from his recent past, much as happened at the end of “The Time of the Doctor”. I’m not sure they add much other than an opportunity to give the audience something to snuffle into their tissues about; if I’m honest, they left me cold.

Once the Doctor does finally make his decision to allow one more regeneration after all, Moffat gives him a typically big exit speech which is of course performed to perfection by Capaldi, one of the greatest talents ever to play the title role in Doctor Who. He gets to go out in a high, and then – with one last close-up of those ferocious eyebrows – he’s gone.

Sad as I am to see Capaldi go – I’ve been a big fan of his portrayal – I have to admit that my response at this point was “Finally! At last!” It does feel that this regeneration has been extraordinarily extended. It makes the final 15 minutes of “The End of Time” feel positively brisk and unsentimental by comparison. This regeneration has been teased and fainted and faked and withheld for half of season 10, so that by the end of “Twice Upon A Time” I wasn’t so much as in anticipation of the event as I was impatient to just get it out of the way at last. Perhaps I’ve simply been through too many Doctors, too many regenerations and am becoming jaded and melancholy about the whole thing, but I felt no excitement about it. It was just something that had to be done, albeit somewhat reluctantly. I’d even begun to contemplate the possibility that I might need time out from the Doctor, a few years off to recharge my enthusiasm for the Time Lord.

But then, somewhat against my expectations, something happened in the last few seconds of “Twice Upon A Time”. The sight of Jodie Whittaker standing at the Tardis console and her first words in the role – “Oh, brilliant!” as she catches sight of her reflection – and something stirred deep within me. The flame was rekindled and started to first flicker and then burn again with hope and expectation after all. The scene was only very brief – surely the briefest appearance of a new Doctor in a handover episode of the modern era – but it was enough to snap me out of my funk and make me think that whatever happens next is going to at the least very interesting, and certainly well worth the ride.

And that’s Doctor Who‘s core strength, its undoubted USP. With every ending comes the promise of a beginning, and something bright and shiny and new. That was the lesson of “Twice Upon A Time”: unnecessary and self-indulgent as it might have been at times, it was also vitally important. And a universal gift to everyone, old fans and new alike, at Christmas time.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

Twice Upon A Time is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on January 22 2018. Season 11 is expected to be begin in September 2018.

One thought on “Doctor Who: Twice Upon A Time (2017)

    John Hood said:
    December 26, 2017 at 9:35 pm

    A certain cameo and a Star Wars reference was icing on a festive treat.

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