**WARNING! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS**
And so, the time has come for the Twelfth Doctor’s final bow. Marking the Doctor Who departure of both Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat, does this heartwarming last hurrah prove to be a fairy tale ending to their era?
Twice Upon a Time is one big, beautiful paradox. And not in Steven Moffat’s usual “wibbly wobbly timey wimey” way, either. Rather, it’s a story where quite a lot happens – and yet barely anything happens at all. And without a doubt, there will be some who are disappointed coming out of it. If you were expecting an explosive last adventure for Peter Capaldi’s regeneration… well, we’re afraid you aren’t going to find it here! But that’s not necessarily to its detriment. The Twelfth Doctor made his dramatic final stand back in Series 10’s The Doctor Falls. We saw him fight, we saw him fall. The battle’s over now. This is the coda. The epilogue. The curtain call. And what a wonderful goodbye it is.
Admittedly, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that Twice Upon a Time is a wholly unnecessary addition to the canon. It essentially exists to keep Doctor Who’s Christmas Day slot warm, with Chris Chibnall preferring to start his tenure in Series 11. So, much like its plot, it’s a bubble of frozen time filling the gap between one regeneration and another. There’s no real reason why this story needed to happen, but we’re still rather glad that it did. In a way it’s a poetic, almost perfect send-off for its lead actor and its writer. What it lacks in complexity, it makes up for in pure magic. This is a Doctor Who Christmas special that the entire family can enjoy, promising to make your heart soar and break in equal measure.
The Original, You Might Say
Considering how many disparate elements there are on paper here, it’s a pleasant surprise that the narrative is as simple as it is. Not only do we have to deal with the Twelfth Doctor’s regeneration, we’ve got the return of Bill and the introduction of a brand new character: the Captain. Oh, and the small matter of the First Doctor wandering in, too! The episode starts in intelligent fashion, flashing back to the events of The Tenth Planet in their original black and white. Mid-speech, William Hartnell morphs seamlessly into David Bradley in glorious HD, and away we go! He’s on the cusp of regeneration too and refusing to change: not out of defiance, but out of fear. He wanders out into the snow and bumps into his future self, bringing us full circle to Series 10’s final scene.
If you’ve seen An Adventure in Space and Time then it goes without saying, but David Bradley is magnificent. He imitates Hartnell beautifully while still retaining a twinkle of his own. We won’t lie, the running gag about him being politically incorrect does drag out a bit too long. The “smacked bottom” line in particular is especially awkward when it lands. But he’s not entirely played for laughs, and gets some well-rounded character development of his own. The banter between him and Capaldi sizzles, highlighting the huge gulf in attitudes between the First and the Twelfth Doctors. His reactions to his future version’s status, actions, and accessories are spot-on. Moffat really knows how to write multi-Doctor episodes, and it’s a thrill to know that, even if Capaldi never returns, he’ll have been in at least one.
Bill and the Captain have comparatively less to do in the episode, but they both serve a purpose. One of the big worries was that Bill would be shoehorned into the story and be given a cop-out for returning. Quite the opposite. The Doctor twigs straight away that she might not be legit. Instead, she directly links to the episode’s… well, ‘not-so-baddies’, we suppose! As part of Testimony, she’s really just an enchanted glass avatar. Or is she? Her role in the story is to pose a metaphysical question about what makes a person who they are, and underpin the importance of memories (more on that later). Real or not though, Pearl Mackie plays her with aplomb. Just as energetic as ever, and still asking all the right/wrong questions, it’s great to have Bill back on our screens one last time. It’s a shame this is her goodbye as well.
The Captain, too, is a crucial part of the story. For the most part he just sits around in the background looking rather bemused – as is understandable, to be fair – but when he does pitch in, he’s a great addition. Mark Gatiss has played a few roles in Doctor Who, but this is undoubtedly his best. Indeed, he even gets some of the episode’s finest lines. Is there anything more heart-wrenching than his “what do you mean… ‘one’?” when hearing about the possibility of another world war? His is a simple and understated performance, and that’s exactly what the episode needs. He may have an important connection to the Doctor’s future, but here, he’s just a man out of time, swept along by the chaos. The Doctor refusing regeneration twice has caused chronology to go out of whack, so it’s up to the Time Lord(s) to set things right.
Memories Become Stories
The story moves along at a gentle pace, with plenty of room to breathe and focus on character where it’s needed. The first encounter with Testimony in the Chamber of the Dead is captivating stuff and things rattle along nicely from there. Even when things slow down a little on Villengard (a throwback to The Doctor Dances), sheer spectacle pulls it through. This is a gorgeous looking production and Rachel Talalay has once again done a mighty job at directing. From frozen snowflakes, to desolate forges, to the sunrise over the trenches, there are so many breathtaking shots to marvel at. It may as well be art. Underpinning it all is Murray Gold’s greatest hits of Doctor Who music, including surprises like the Ninth Doctor’s theme and “Vale” from The End of Time. They’re a lovely touch and cue in at subtle, relevant points of the story.
Speaking of old favourites, it wouldn’t be a regeneration without a few old faces popping up. The most substantial (and unexpected) is actually Rusty from Into the Dalek. This is a nifty way of getting both a Dalek and a cameo in for Twelve’s last adventure. And, in a way, Rusty opens the door for other cameos to come. His data banks reveal that Testimony aren’t evil at all. They just harmlessly copy the memories of the deceased into enchanted glass so they might live again. Think Death in Heaven, but y’know, with less Cybermen. This means the glass avatars can turn into anyone the Doctor has lost. Time to bust out those hankies! Nardole shows up for one last wise-crack and cuddle, and as a final farewell present to Capaldi, the Doctor’s memories of Clara are restored as well. Jenna Coleman’s comeback is tastefully done – it’s short and satisfying enough to inspire, yet it doesn’t interfere.
O Doctor! My Doctor!
Of course though, this episode rightfully belongs to Peter Capaldi, and he totally owns his final performance. He’s always been stellar, but here he really gives his all. Whether he’s acting light or heavy-hearted, he nails every line. He even gets one last defining moment when the Doctor learns the truth about Testimony. Taking the Captain back to the battlefield to die, he makes a small but significant adjustment. It’s 25th December, 1914, and the Christmas truce breaks out just in time to save him. It brings a tear to the eye seeing the armies putting down their guns to sing together, and it’s a fitting final act for Capaldi’s Doctor.
With the story all but over, the First Doctor jumps back in his TARDIS, ready to regenerate at last. In a neat little bookend, Bradley’s Doctor morphs back into Hartnell’s greyscale version – and the rest, as they say, is history. Back in the trenches, the Twelfth Doctor makes one last impassioned speech to Bill and Nardole. Capaldi is the master of the monologue and he wrings every ounce of emotion out of his goodbye. Left alone at the end, he stumbles back into the TARDIS to make his decision. Change and live on, or die as he is. He accepts his fate, on one condition – that he gets it right. Speaking out to his future self, he defines his character in an address that is every bit the Doctor. As “Breaking the Wall” swells in the background, Twelve readies himself for the long-awaited moment. With a final line that’s apt for both Capaldi and for Moffat, he throws his arms out – and the explosion of golden light begins…
Doctor, I Let You Go…
So, what of the Thirteenth Doctor, Jodie Whittaker? Well, that’s impossible to say, because we didn’t actually get to see her debut scene in our review copy. Rest assured then, we’re probably losing our collective minds about it right now, just like you. From what (very little) we’ve seen though, we have every confidence she’ll be great. Everything ends and it’s always sad, but everything begins again too, and that’s always happy. We’re going to miss what Capaldi and Moffat brought to the series, but we also can’t wait to see what Jodie brings to the TARDIS next year. A whole new era is upon us – the biggest change to the show since 2010 – and it’s exciting to see where it’s going to take us.
How to sum it all up then? Twice Upon a Time might well be our favourite regeneration story of the modern era, and it’s certainly one of the best Christmas specials in recent memory. It’s not as overblown or as schmaltzy as The End of Time. It’s also not as rushed or convoluted as The Time of the Doctor. Instead, it’s just… well, nice. It’s easy, cosy Christmas viewing. There are laughs, there are tears, and there’s a whole lot to love. Capaldi and Moffat may be leaving the show quietly rather than with a bang, but one thing’s for sure. Their influence on Doctor Who’s past, present, and future definitely isn’t going to be forgotten any time soon…
Doctor Who will return in Autumn 2018 with a brand new writer, a brand new team… and a brand new Doctor!
Editor’s Comment — May we say “Oh Brilliant!”