This review is spoiler-free, but refers to plot points from previous Twelfth Doctor episodes of Doctor Who, including this year’s tenth season. Read on below for additional spoilery notes.
Several eras of Doctor Who come to an end all at once in this year’s Christmas special, Twice Upon A Time. Outgoing executive producer Steven Moffat pens this final fling for Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, picking up the pieces from the devastating finale of Season 10 with a story that’s altogether more festive than where we left off.
However, the tongue-in-cheek “Previously On Doctor Who” recap that begins this tale recounts events from “704 episodes ago”, revisiting the First Doctor (first played by William Hartnell and here played by David Bradley) at the end of his life, from the 1969 serial The Tenth Planet. Reluctant to regenerate, he wanders off from a South Pole research base to what he thinks is his TARDIS, where he meets the Twelfth Doctor, wrestling with a similar existential pickle.
Out in the deserted icy wastes, they’re shocked to happen across a lost British captain (Mark Gatiss), who has been rudely pulled out of his original time during the First World War, and Twelve’s own recently departed companion, Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie). As they try to get to the bottom of this coincidence, two Doctors with a vast age difference find themselves on the horns of the same dilemma – to die as they are, or to go on as someone else.
Moffat has accurately described Twice Upon A Time as both a coda and a drum roll. You may know how that twin dilemma (hey, why didn’t they call the episode that?) will pan out, and in that regard, this is fairly spoiler-proof. But there are plenty of pleasant surprises along the way, and hardly any of them are bigger than the unique approach to a regeneration episode we see here.
Previous send-offs have entailed final confrontations with Daleks, Cybermen, other Time Lords, giant spiders and the like, but this low-key finale is more of a victory lap for both the writer and Capaldi’s Doctor. The peculiar nature of this episode gives Moffat a chance to go out with a story that’s very much in his style, but also more like something from the Short Trips range of stories published by Big Finish than the bombastic TV finales of previous Doctors. It’s a landmark episode in and of itself, so it needn’t behave that way, especially not when The Doctor Falls was already so climactic for the Twelfth Doctor.
It balances the comedy with the more emotional beats quite expertly, although it’s a shame that the comic side is unusually cringey. Bradley is a fine choice to play the First Doctor, as suggested by his turn as Hartnell in Gatiss’ docudrama An Adventure In Space And Time, but his portrayal is let down by Moffat’s bizarre choice to write him as more chauvinistic than Hartnell’s character ever was. It’s all very well to claim that he’s from the 1960s, but he’s also from a show that was created and produced by Verity Lambert, and his jokey out-of-date remarks grate really quickly, even with Bradley gamely playing along, and Capaldi’s mortified comic timing in response. The two of them bicker, as Doctors always do, but within their unlikely double act, the episode still finds all the time in the world for introspection about their respective futures.
There’s a real leisurely “last day of school” feeling, with many of the show’s recent alumni chipping in. Capaldi and Mackie are watchable as ever, having done the really hard work at the end of the last season. Rachel Talalay directs the story marvellously, making it look distinctive even though it’s her third episode on the bounce, and composer Murray Gold, who also marks his final episode here, lends some ceremony to the proceedings, with many of his most spectacular motifs, including his Doctor’s Theme, Breaking The Wall and A Good Man. Going forward, the cinematic sweep that his soundtrack has afforded the series since 2005 will be missed.
Speaking of old themes, Moffat wraps up his unexpectedly lengthy tenure as Doctor Who’s “showrunner” by going right back to the fairytale feeling of his first full season. From the title down, that aspect is precious here, and even though this isn’t the most driven or focused episode, Moffat’s coup de grace leaves no doubt of his massive talent as a storyteller, knowing, as writers in the past always have, that the story of this show never ends, as he hands the reins to new head writer and executive producer Chris Chibnall for the final scene.
Christmas only gets about as much lip service as in last year’s The Return of Doctor Mysterio, but there’s a thematic sense of festivity that makes Twice Upon A Time a welcome romp, concerned as it is with the past, the present and what is yet to come. It doesn’t just feel like “Doctor Who but at Christmas” and, even with the aforementioned reservations, it’s a truly unique send-off for a superb Doctor, leaving us with that Christmas Eve feeling – until the Thirteenth Doctor gets her first full adventure next year…
Twice Upon a Time is available on BBC iPlayer until 24th January 2018.
Doctor’s notes (contains spoilers)
– “It’s not an evil plan. I don’t really know what to do when it isn’t an evil plan.” The alien of the week, a female avatar made of glass (and played by Nikki Amuka-Bird), turns out to be Helen Clay, a researcher from the University of New Earth representing a project called Testimony. Like a counterpart to Moffat’s Teselecta from Season 6, they travel through all of history preserving the personality and wisdom of humanity as a person dies.
– The lack of a more sinister plot allows Moffat to pace this one at his leisure, and lends to that aforementioned “Short Trips” feeling, which we like a lot. On the other hand, it’s unclear as to why Bill working with them in her puddle ghost form, apparently unsure where Heather has gone, is a better ending for her than the one we got in The Doctor Falls. Mackie has brilliant scenes with every one of the other leads to justify her return, but story-wise, if we didn’t know better, it would feel like Moffat has brought her back to leave her open for a return down the road…
– That same lack could be what drives the story to the weapons factory at Villengard (first mentioned in Moffat’s first ever Doctor Who story, The Empty Child) where Twelve feels he has to consult with a Dalek to identify the glass woman. That Dalek is Rusty, the malfunctioning moral pepper-pot from Into The Dalek, back in Capaldi’s first season. It’s a detour that doesn’t really go anywhere, and it wouldn’t have made the episode much more story-intensive to have the First Doctor react to the fact that his older self is casually going to his worst enemies for help…
– As soldiers enjoy the Christmas armistice of 1914 at the episode’s end, the much-vaunted true identity of Gatiss’ captain is Moffat’s last big call-back to the Brigadier. As Archibald Lethbridge-Stewart requests that the First Doctor check in on his children, there’s one more hitherto unseen gap in their relationship filled. If the next series is truly starting with a clean slate, many of the call-backs here seem designed as a last treat for the continuity-loving fans who have been well served in this era.
– The surprise special guest stars are former companions Jenna Coleman and Matt Lucas as Clara Oswald and Nardole, both manifested as personas of Testimony, rather than getting real comebacks. The restoration of the Doctor’s memories of Clara ties up an old loose end in an unexpected Christmas bow, and, after that, it’s lovely to see one last slanging match between the Time Lord and his valet. This was only a day in the life of the Doctor: any one of those days could be extraordinary enough to convince him to go on – that’s really lovely.
– A couple of notes on Capaldi’s final scene. Firstly, “One more lifetime won’t kill anybody. Except me” would have been a great final line, but who can resist one more big monologue by the outgoing Doctor? There are similarities between the ending and David Tennant’s explosive regeneration in The End of Time, so it may well be a conscious choice for this incarnation to finish on the opposite sentiment: “Doctor, I let you go.”
– And lastly, why does the Doctor always take off in the TARDIS when he’s dying? He leaves a terrible mess for 13 and barely any time to admire her reflection, before she tumbles out of the TARDIS doors. Don’t regenerate and drive this Christmas, folks.
– “Oh, brilliant!”
Photo: BBC / Simon Ridgway