It was a bright cold day in December, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
On Christmas Day, Doctor Who will begin again. Peter Capaldi takes his final bow as the Doctor and Jodie Whittaker takes on the role. But, before that, the Time Lord must face his past and future in the most literal way.
Luckily, we’ve seen that future so have a guaranteed spoiler-free review of ‘Twice Upon a Time’ for you. Come back on Christmas Day for our in-depth review after the UK broadcast.
The Tenth Planet
Anyone worried this episode would be impenetrable to a casual viewer can, for the most part, rest easy. Half-century-old Doctor Who canon is being referenced, yes, but clever editing decisions early on make it easy to follow. Using stock footage and some incredibly detailed scene recreations helps a great deal. By the opening titles, the identity of this other Doctor and his situation is thoroughly hammered home. Perhaps a little too much as the pace takes a serious dip by about the ten minute mark. It’s clear a lot of thought went into making sure this wasn’t too deeply entrenched in continuity, but the script could have been tighter to stop those scenes becoming dull.
Twice Upon a Time
Two Doctors meet at the South Pole, time stops and a bewildered WW1 soldier emerges from the snow. A glass woman time spells a moment of truth for the Doctors. It’s no spoiler to mention that Bill shows up and is used to great effect as a counter to the Doctor’s deathwish. The character was so well developed during series ten that her role in this story fits as a logical continuation. The Glass Woman presents an interesting, and unexpected, idea. With so much to resolve it’s a shame there wasn’t more time to explore it. But as a means to service the story from a character perspective, it’s a clever conceit. The Captain serves as a foil to the Doctor with some of the best lines of the episode. We knew Mark Gatiss could act but he gives the performance of his life in this story.
The First Doctor is not put on a pedestal in this story as he often is by fans. David Bradley gives an excellent performance and allows the Doctor to come alive as a character rather than a nostalgic ideal. In some ways that really works but, in others, it turns into a conduit for Steven Moffat’s sitcom sensibilities. Some of the First Doctor’s dialogue comes across as casually sexist. While that was a prevailing attitude at the time, it was never really part of the Doctor’s character. It starts off light but, as the episode goes on, leads to a few really cringeworthy moments. Nevertheless, it was smart to give the First Doctor a character arc of his own. The resolution respects the character’s autonomy and reaffirms him as a hero.
Meanwhile the Twelfth Doctor gets less of an arc but a sense of closure. Some unresolved plot points from his era are revisited without derailing the main story. He has a mixture of pride and embarrassment at his younger self that’s really fun to watch. At times you see the Twelfth Doctor naturally fall into a mentor role to his first incarnation despite the latter appearing older. The contrast between the original and latest Doctors are sharply satirised as the Twelfth Doctor’s heroics and the First Doctor’s scientific approach clashes at a moment of confronting the villain. Capaldi is on fine form as usual but gets to really dig deep for the final ten minutes of the episode. It’s a tearjerking sequence that, under the direction of Rachel Talalay, is given the space to realise its emotional depth.
This wouldn’t be a spoiler-free review if we gave you any detail on the Thirteenth Doctor’s first scene. Not that we could anyway since our preview, as with the Northern screenings, cut off mid-regeneration. However, having just left what felt like the perfect farewell from the Twelfth Doctor, we get a bonus pre-regeneration speech. You can never have too many Capaldi speeches but this one felt a bit scattershot and less cohesive to me.
The fact that the Doctor knows the change is coming instantly gives this story a different spin from most regeneration episodes. Rather than a standard Doctor Who adventure with fatal consequences, this one is more about character than plot. It’s a bold take which, early pacing issues notwithstanding, pays off rather well. Though the villain could have had a lot more to do, it’s a well-composed story that uses each of its elements to take the Doctor on an emotional journey. A worthy, if a little uneven, send-off for the Twelfth Doctor.
- The Doctor references ‘Dad’s Army’ in calling his original self “Corporal Jones“.
- Villengard was mentioned in Steven Moffat’s first story. It was the former location of a sonic blaster factory visited by both Captain Jack and the Doctor, in that order.
- Nikki Amuka-Bird plays the Glass Woman. She appeared as Beth in the Torchwood episode ‘Sleeper’.
- David Bradley plays the First Doctor. He played Solomon in ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ in series seven. Bradley also portrayed First Doctor actor William Hartnell in the 2013 docudrama ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’.
- Mark Gatiss appears as The Captain, he’s a regular writer-performer for the series with nine writing credits. He also wrote the docudrama in which Bradley first played Hartnell.
- Toby Whithouse plays the German soldier with whom the Captain ends up in a stand-off. Whithouse has written for Doctor Who, Torchwood and created the horror-comedy series ‘Being Human’.
“One doesn’t want to die, of course. But one gets in a certain frame of mind, pulls oneself together and gets on with the matter at hand.”
“The paradox would rip the universe apart, and do you know how much hard work it is putting it back together again?”
“You were right, you know? The universe generally fails to be a fairytale…but that’s where we come in.”