Reviews | Written by JR Southall 27/12/2017

DOCTOR WHO Christmas Special 2017 ‘Twice Upon a Time’

And so the time to bid farewell to not just Peter Capaldi’s twelfth Doctor, but also Steven Moffat’s showrunnership has arrived. Except the funny thing is, we already did that in The Doctor Falls – until Moffat realised we wouldn’t be getting a Christmas Special this year unless he was able to somehow extend Capaldi’s regeneration story into a discrete third episode six months down the line from the second, hence this unique and ostensibly somewhat bizarre coda to Series Ten. Does it work? As a Doctor Who story, probably not; the jeopardy, such as it is – and it would have been very difficult and rather destabilising to suddenly give the twelfth Doctor a brand new threat to deal with just as he’s on the point of regeneration – barely exists, and even then only in order to tell us something we of course already know, but given that we’ve been provided with an opportunity to look under the bonnet of Doctor Who in a way we’re not generally accustomed to doing, Twice Upon a Time at least tries to disguise itself as a story in its own right.

Make no mistake, this is a twelfth Doctor story with a guest cast that includes the first Doctor, not a first Doctor story that happens to have the twelfth in it. And like the War Doctor in The Day of the Doctor, the guest Doctor comes with a little baggage but ultimately proves to be there for a reason. Whereas the War Doctor allowed fans of the classic series to look at the revival and say, ‘You’re like this now?!’, here the first Doctor instead allows fans of the revival to look back at where Doctor Who came from and say, ‘Things used to be like this?!’ And that may have been overstated a little on occasion, but it was really a very minor part of Twice Upon a Time and it wasn’t what the first Doctor was there for.

The first Doctor, far from being the gilding on a Steven Moffat’s last episode, was actually a crucial part of proceedings. Capaldi’s twelfth was the Doctor who inherited the new regeneration cycle that Matt Smith was presented with, and so here was a Doctor who – as we have seen – has spent much of his existence questioning who he is. He’s a character who, inside the fiction, should not have existed and thus was immersed in a deep existential angst. A character who, when it gets to the end and it’s time for his Time Lord life to renew itself once again, allows that angst to explode outwardly into a decision to stop this new cycle before any further unbidden Doctors can be born. A Doctor who thought he was done with changing before he even got to be this Doctor, and who therefore no longer wants to continue.

The mirror onto this decision comes when he’s faced with his very first incarnation on the eve of his very first regeneration, a man who admits privately – to himself, of course – how frightened he is of what he will become. Not that he fears the new person will be so very different from the one who he is replacing, but maybe simply that this new person won’t really be him any longer. It’s a very intelligent switch; the twelfth gets to show the first not just how important change is to the universe in general, but also how important the Doctor is to ensuring that universe is safely allowed to continue changing. It’s in the twelfth Doctor going through the motions of what the first Doctor will become, that the first Doctor gets to see why he must become that person – which is not to say that he’s not already a good deal of the way there – and it’s in the going through of those motions that the twelfth Doctor gets to see why the universe (and the television audience) would miss him if he stopped doing it. This was the perfect opportunity for a writer who revels in holding a mirror up to the characters and series and reflecting them back upon themselves, to devote an entire episode to such an enterprise and not have it feel unwarranted.

In part, it’s because Steven Moffat tends to write plots that echo the stories he’s telling that Twice Upon a Time isn’t quite the dramatic send-off that Capaldi and his Doctor might have deserved. There is no alien invasion, mad scientist or malfunctioning technology here, rather the technology is working perfectly fine and, as Capaldi’s Doctor tells us, he doesn’t know what to do when there’s no evil plan. That’s not Moffat’s problem, as the narrative is here to reflect and inform the characters, and the Testimony manages to do so in that very Steven Moffat manner wherein you barely even notice how cleverly the pieces are knitting together. This is a story that reinforces that very regeneration-based idea that it’s not who you are on the outside that’s important, but that as long as you’re the sum of your actions, you can still be who you have always been – in spite of appearances and in spite of huge external change.

Moffat also uses the Testimony to address his own past – not the only time he does so during the episode. Having left both Bill and Clara’s departures open-ended, the two companions’ reappearances as “Memory Glass” confirms both that Clara really did return to die at Trap Street and, because the last thing she remembers of life was of being with Puddle Girl, Bill never did get home in one piece. Furthermore, the Doctor’s refusal to accept these downloaded memories as the real thing, takes us back to River Song’s death in her very first story, and confirms that the River who lives on as a Data Ghost isn’t really River, simply a memory of who River was. There’s a bittersweet undercurrent to all of this, a recognition that the process of regeneration that sustains Doctor Who isn’t just about the oncoming Doctor, but about the outgoing actor for whom we will no longer be able to enjoy new adventures. The new incarnation might be tremendously exciting to anticipate – never more so than here, of course – but the old one is, insofar as the series and the fiction is concerned, properly dead.

Moffat’s hall of mirrors reflects this angle of the story back yet again by including as its seasonal element the 1914 Christmas Armistice, whereat for a brief moment hostilities were put on hold before recommencing the following day – crucially at a point whereby the faceless enemies of both sides of the conflict had developed a face and a voice. The recognition of life, death and regeneration run through Twice Upon a Time like a rash.

That’s also why the Brigadier’s grandfather is the perfect foil for the two Doctors, another example of the future being the past that becomes that future, the cyclical, paradoxical storytelling of Steven Moffat never more fitting than in this conjunction between Moffat’s sensibilities and Doctor Who’s mechanics. After fifty-odd years, repetition and renewal have become ingrained in the series’ mythology, and repetition and renewal are the by-words for Moffat’s approach to scriptwriting. This episode is almost painfully self-appropriate.

It is such an incredible shame, then, that in spite of performances from all concerned – not just the actors, but the director, the production designer, everybody – that are treating the material with every ounce of respect and enthusiasm they can muster, Twice Upon a Time feels ultimately somewhat tired, and perhaps an episode too many. The author’s snappy, 1940s-style movie dialogue is in short supply (and what humour there is, and there’s plenty, feels just that bit forced – which is the real issue with the interplay between Bradley and Capaldi, rather than the assumed sexism that was simply an exaggeration of something that was always a latent ingredient of a character created four years prior to the Summer of Love), and while Moffat has successfully told stories that don’t rely on such humour before, without the crackle of energy the screwball element of Moffat’s plots provides, the narrative is robbed of any urgency and almost grinds itself into not feeling like it matters.

As legacy episodes go, this certainly wasn’t either Capaldi’s or Moffat’s best work – maybe the low-key performance from Capaldi earned him his extended goodbye, doubling as a welcome to the incoming Doctor, although the off-centre but recognisable Bradley first Doctor quickly made comparisons with William Hartnell moot – but as an experiment in texture and content by which to sign off, it’s one that future generations of Doctors, writers and fans will never forget.

Steven Moffat’s first televised Doctor Who was a loving pastiche of the past surrounding a restatement of the series’ credo ahead of a revival that was, back then, no more than the glimmer of a possibility. Here he did the same thing ahead of a certain change that might leave viewers wondering if this is still going to be the same programme; it is, Moffat tells us, very much so. And he proves it by – particularly in the case of the regeneration itself – wrapping Twice Upon a Time up in a deferent, respectful and yet still metatextual inclusion of the first Doctor’s actual regeneration. Very nicely played.

As to Jodie Whittaker, the future will decide whether she’s a worthy successor to one of our greatest Doctors. But her “Oh brilliant” was delivered in a manner that suggested the tenth Doctor’s sense of wonder with none of the attendant ego or self-knowingness, and the suggestion of a quirky first female Doctor (a quirkiness in that line that immediately banished any notion of gender comparisons) harkens back to the very first “replacement” Doctor, Patrick Troughton. Which is, of course, where we came in. Even in the heat of the showrunning handover, the appropriateness of every beat of this story prevails. Maybe time will be kinder to it once such a curate’s egg of an episode has had enough opportunity not to feel so very different.