While the 2017 Doctor Who Christmas special, “Twice Upon a Time” might be the least Christmas-y of the specials since the yearly tradition began in 2005 – though last years’ “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” might be a close second – it is one of better special episode overall as it weaves together one last fairy tale for outgoing showrunner Steven Moffat and star Peter Capaldi.
It also told a wonderful story about the Doctor’s first incarnation. Played here by David Bradley, the Doctor is on the brink of his first regeneration and rightfully scared. Considering the idea was so new and fresh when it was first executed in 1966, investigating the emotional content was not a consideration. In “The Tenth Planet” and the following story “The Power of the Daleks,” the whole thing was meant to shock companions Ben (Michael Craze) and Polly (Anneke Wills) and the audience. Luckily, “The Tenth Planet’s” final scenes allowed for a space in which Moffat could depict the First Doctor (originally played by William Hartnell) fearing the change. Considering the way Hartnell played the character, his private terror at thought of becoming someone else made a great amount of sense and underscores the Doctor’s decision to run back to the TARDIS in “The Tenth Planet.” It also echoed the fear and weariness of the Capaldi Doctor.
Granted, it would’ve been nice if “Twice Upon a Time” had weaved that into the story a little bit better than having the first and the fourteenth incarnations of the same character stop the action to discuss it. But I suppose that’s a trick only Doctor Who can pull off. And while we’re pointing out a few flaws, the episode could’ve used a tighter plot from which to hang its ideas.
Really, though, the main attraction here was watching Capaldi and Bradley spark off one another. While Bradley may not sound like Hartnell – a surprisingly difficult person to imitate, in fact – he channeled much of the character’s (eventual) warmth and irascibility. But as the Doctor rarely gets along with himself, his mocking of the sonic devices perfectly encapsulated just how different Hartnell’s Doctor was from the men he would eventually become.
Capaldi, for his part, was delightfully bewildered by the presence of his oldest self. This was particularly true anytime the First Doctor makes chauvinistic comments about Polly (played briefly in “Twice Upon a Time” by Lilly Travers) or Bill (Pearl Mackie). It is interesting Moffat decided to highlight this element of the character; a by-product of the times the First Doctor stories were produced and, in part, Hartnell’s own attitudes. In the context of the story, they seemed to indicate that it took the Doctor a thousand years to escape those antiquated ideas (the other Classic Series Doctors could be chauvinistic at times) and finally be at a place where he could regenerate into a woman.
The outgoing Doctor also excelled at operatic grandstanding and his ability to assume absolute authority will be missed.
But I might miss Bill most of all. Mackie gave the character such a refreshing sense of self that it is quite a shame she will not stick around and help usher in the new era of the program. Even here, as a collection of Bill’s memories, she was so delightful and genuine in her reactions to First Doctor, the state of the older TARDIS and the Captain (Mark Gatiss) that you just want to spend more time with her. In fact, it would have been nice to spend more time with her in this episode, even as it had a so many things to accomplish.
One of those things was establishing Gatiss’s Captain so it would have impact for those unaware of recurring Doctor Who character Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. I always assumed The Captain was the Brig’s grandfather, but the confirmation still brought tears to my eyes. As a fan of the Classic series, I’m a sucker for anything related to the Doctor’s favorite military man, but the character had to also work without that context and set up the emotional impact of the 1914 Christmas truce revelation — the real timeline anomaly encountered by the story’s non-antagonist, the Testimony. Because of the Classic Series connection, I may not be qualified to judge if Gatiss – or indeed the moment – works without understanding the Captain’s significance; but in light of that bias, I think both worked well. Gatiss is such an effortless Doctor Who performer that it is almost cheating to cast him.
The sequence itself also underscored the final summation of Moffat’s overall Doctor Who fairy tale. The raggedy man, revealed as a Doctor of War, is also a field surgeon. Throughout his long years, he has tried to tip the balance against a cruel and unsympathetic universe filled with tin dictators and greedy men toward kindness and compassion. True, he sometimes cuts off a leg to save the patient. But those actions, as devastating as they can be both for him and the people nearby, are in service of a wonderful idea: it takes direct action to make the universe a less thoughtless place.
Of course, being the War Doctor is not an easy thing. And Moffat, like Russell T. Davies before him, keeps coming back to the emotional toll this philosophy takes on the man himself. Despite the knowledge that he did not destroy his people, the Doctor is still an isolated figure trying his best to avoid the deep sense of loss he has known – one presumes – since he first left home with his granddaughter in a rickety old TARDIS. In “Twice Upon a Time,” the Doctor even acknowledges that as long as he exists, he will continue to travel time, help people, and be kind no matter the cost to his own hearts.
Which is an interesting place to leave the show as a new creative director and star come onto the scene. Despite feeling restored enough not to die, the Twelfth Doctor leaves as a broken, tired man. It is still unclear how much of a choice the Doctor makes when they regenerates, but becoming a woman is fundamentally a new start for the character. Perhaps the Thirteenth Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) will finally be able to come to grips with her sense of loss, isolation and guilt. Maybe her smile will not mask so much pain and, just maybe, she will finally be able to let it go and move on.
After ten seasons of the New Series and thirteen Christmas specials, she deserves that much.
Doctor Who returns in 2018.