And so, we have come to the end of two eras. Peter Capaldi departs the role of the Doctor after four years in the role and writer Steven Moffat departs the role of showrunner after seven years. Following the monumental triumph of the two parter World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls, this year’s Christmas Special had to be truly, well, special to live up to it and provide a satisfying conclusion to both the Capaldi and Moffat eras of Doctor Who.
In a unique twist, there isn’t an identifiable “antagonist” within Twice Upon a Time. This makes it stand out from every other regeneration story. Instead it gives us another hour with the Twelfth Doctor, managing to end his era with a bow and a sense of hope. And I feel this is possibly the best decision that could have been made; the Doctor has already fought his final battle in The Doctor Falls and really, what was going to top two Masters and an army of Cybermen?
Instead, the special saw the Doctor encountering his first incarnation (played brilliantly by David Bradley) and attempting to solve the mystery of why a WW1 Captain ended up so far from the battlefield and of Testimony; a mysterious group that harvests the memories of the dead to allow the living to commune with them. This was a rather small-scale adventure that was more focused on the Doctors learning to accept change and that your memories make you who you are; not your body.
This message was imparted by one of the Testimony using the form of Bill, trying to explain that even though she may not have technically been Bill (Bill is still travelling with Heather through time and space), she still was debatably Bill as Bill’s memories are the sum of who she is . This tied into the regeneration incredibly well, for as the Doctors began to realise, it didn’t matter if they changed; the next Doctors would still have all their memories and would still be the Doctor. While each Doctor may be slightly different, they still are the same person acting on the same memories.
However, this led to a slight lack of urgency within the episode. With no immediate threat or ticking clock of any kind, it meant the special was slightly oddly paced. But yet, this didn’t negatively impact it. As I said before, this episode didn’t need a threat or urgency.
For this was an episode about performances.
Peter Capaldi delivered one final show stopping performance as the Doctor, reaffirming one last time why he is without a doubt one of the finest actors to ever take the role. Capaldi’s Doctor was a tour de force for the accomplished actor and this episode was no different. Capaldi brought the Doctor to life, delivering a Doctor who was both brand new and instantly familiar at the same time. Capaldi is a massive fan of the show, so to learn he had a hand in the writing of his regeneration speech comes as no surprise. The speech was masterful and a wonderful showcase of Capaldi’s range as an actor. Peter Capaldi was a wonderful addition to the show and he will be sorely missed.
The episode marked the return of the First Doctor (last properly seen in 1983’s The Five Doctors played by Richard Hurndall) this time played by David Bradley. Bradley doesn’t try to do a William Hartnell impression however, which was probably the wisest decision he could have made as an actor. Bradley chooses to focus on getting the character of the First Doctor right through his performance, this in turn lets Hartnell begin to slip through. After the initial few scenes, the issue of Bradley not being Hartnell vanishes. Instead, only the First Doctor is on display and Bradley plays the character brilliantly. However, Moffat makes the decision to narrow down the First Doctor to a few traits. While this is common practice for multi-Doctor episodes, it does mean that the character development the First Doctor had throughout his tenure is undone in order to present a First Doctor that most remember – the grouchy old man with 60’s attitudes and sensibilities. While this leads to a lot of the episode’s funniest moments, it is a little bit of a misrepresentation of the Doctor’s first incarnation.
Pearl Mackie returns as Bill for, presumably, her final time on the show. Mackie is once again fantastic as the character and all that can be said is that she remains instantly loveable and delivers more of what we all loved in Series 10. It’s also wonderful to see the Doctor and Bill have “one last ride” so to speak. Capaldi and Mackie have fantastic chemistry and it’s great to see them get to bounce off each other one last time. Perhaps the only sadness is that this isn’t really Bill. While Testimony makes the continued assentation that with all of Bill’s memories their duplicate is Bill, we the audience know that Bill is still alive and travelling the universe with Heather. So, the Doctor’s moral problem of “is this Bill or not” has a definitive answer – it’s not. But it kind of is, but it really isn’t.
Mark Gatiss shines in the guest role of Captain Lethbridge-Stewart, the Grandfather of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. Gatiss does a fine job, delivering an excellent performance with rather limited screen time. As opposed to his previous three roles on Doctor Who, Gatiss delivers a more restrained performance here that manages to lend the character a sense of dignity and elegance that might not have worked with another actor. Gatiss showcases his great range as an actor and why he’s a treasured Doctor Who talent both in front of and behind the camera.
Twice Upon a Time is marvellously directed by Rachel Talalay, her seventh episode on the show. Talalay is an excellent director for Who, her style instantly at home with the show. Talalay manages to bring the Twelfth Doctor’s final hour to life with some truly beautiful shots and editing. If Chris Chibnall does not invite Talalay back to direct in the future, then he’s missed a trick.
With rumours circulating about his departure, it seems fitting that the score for this episode would be a “best of” of Murray Gold’s twelve years on the show with Twice Upon a Time’s score revisiting some of Murray’s most iconic themes such as Doomsday, I am the Doctor, A Good Man, The Doctor’s Theme, Clara’s Theme and of course, the regeneration music being a reprise of the epic Breaking the Wall from Heaven Sent. If the rumours about Gold’s departure are true (his not introducing a theme for the 13th Doctor in the closing moments and instead reusing old music seems to indicate so), he will be a treasured talent from Doctor Who which will be sorely missed.
And as for this being Steven Moffat’s final script on the show, it certainly wasn’t his best. And that’s fine. It was fun, it was witty, it hit all the right beats and I enjoyed it. Moffat had clearly intended The Doctor Falls to be his final episode on the show and, as an extended epilogue to that story, it works. It flows beautifully from that story and ends the Twelfth Doctor’s story on an uplifting note rather than a downbeat one, giving Twelve one last victory before his regeneration – even if it was just something as simple as saving one man’s life. As mentioned before, the regeneration itself was beautifully written. Almost written as a set of instructions of Chibnall’s take on the show, the speech was the Doctor asserting what sort of character the Doctor should always be; never cruel, never cowardly, never hateful and always full of love and kindness. While this may not be the final episode Moffat intended, it was a good one. As a goodbye from Moffat, it is as Danny Pink described his and Clara’s last goodbye in Last Christmas; “This is bonus. This is extra.” And extra Steven Moffat is never anything to turn your nose up at.
But enough about the old. What about the new? Well in her first moments on screen, Jodie Whittaker was filled with joy and wonder and breathed new life into those closing seconds. While we have a long wait until we can form a proper opinion, I am loving what I’m seeing of Jodie’s Doctor so far and I cannot wait for her to kick things off properly come Autumn.
Twice Upon a Time may not have been the best Christmas special, but it was certainly one of the most magical. Sharply written, brilliantly directed, masterfully scored and beautifully acted; Twice Upon a Time was as fond a farewell to both Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat than you could ask for. As an epilogue to the Steven Moffat era, it was perfect. As the running theme in Moffat’s Christmas specials goes; Every Christmas is last Christmas. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be happy.