Doctor Who Christmas special review: Twice Upon a Time


The Twelfth Doctor era comes to a close with a quieter Doctor Who Christmas adventure that focuses on love, legacies and the things we leave behind.

Here’s a secret: This year’s Doctor Who Christmas special doesn’t actually do that much.

There’s no real monster to fight. There is no secret twist. No one thwarts an evil plan. There’s no sudden betrayal or shocking death. The Doctor’s regeneration proceeds, as we all know it must. Things happen because it is time for them to happen. And that’s not a bad thing. This is a quieter sort of Christmas special, one that explores not only how far the Doctor has come, but why he keeps going, after everything he’s been through up until this point.

How you feel about this episode is largely going to depend on what you, as a viewer, needed it to do. Is it a particularly good self-contained story? No, not really. Does it even have an identifiable narrative? Not exactly. However, as an emotional conclusion to Peter Capaldi’s time as the Doctor? It’s pretty fantastic. “Twice Upon a Time” is basically everything we’ve all loved and hated about the Steven Moffat era, condensed down into one 60-minute installment. There’s laughter, tears, plot twists that kind of make no sense, nerdy in-jokes, time paradoxes and a distinctly fairytale feel. This is Doctor Who at its most epic, forgoing storyline specifics for big thematic swings that remind us all that it’s the relationships we build with one another that matter and that are what will resonate long after we’re gone.

It’s true — Moffat has not always been the best head writer or showrunner of Doctor Who. But he has always had a uniquely firm handle on the series’ heart. Rightly or wrongly, his show will likely be remembered for its big, overly complicated stories, timey-wimey plot twists and surprise reveals. But the best thing about his Doctor Who has always been how unabashedly emotional it is. Moffat’s Who believes in the power of the Doctor, not as a renegade space traveler, but as a person. The Doctor is a crazy alien who runs around having adventures, yes. But he’s also a single individual, dedicated to doing what’s right — being kind — in the face of a world that doesn’t believe those things matter. The Doctor saves the universe, and that’s wonderful. But he also teaches us how to do the same thing. Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind.

Every regeneration is bittersweet. Perhaps none more so than this one, because we all know that the series’ first female Doctor is waiting at the end of it, and it’s natural to be excited about that. What will Thirteen’s era be like? It’s hard to tell. We only see her for roughly a minute in this episode, so we’ll have to wait until next year to find out. But “Twice Upon a Time” still manages to do right by Capaldi’s Doctor, by focusing on a quieter, more meditative sort of Christmas adventure.

"Perhaps there’s just some bloke wandering around, putting everything right when it goes wrong."

Technically, “Twice Upon a Time” is about the Twelfth Doctor running into his earliest incarnation. They’re at the South Pole and time has frozen because there’s some kind of anomaly taking place since they’re both refusing to regenerate. The episode does some marvelously creative things involving incorporating vintage clips from classic Doctor Who installment “The Tenth Planet,” and setting this snippet of story during a very specific moment during that episode. (I’m actually pretty chuffed I was right about “when” this would happen for the First Doctor.)

David Bradley guest stars as Hartnell’s First Doctor, and is clearly having the time of his life in the role. He’s wonderful, playing a Doctor that is pompous and old-fashioned, but warm and inquisitive at the same time. He lacks the world-weary air that so frequently hangs over Capaldi’s Twelve. This makes him seem so very young, and desperately appealing at the same time. Sure, the sexist comments get old quick, and the jokes about them are really only funny the first time. But Bradley and Capaldi have a charming, easy chemistry with one another, and their bickering is endlessly entertaining. The best line is probably the one about the Doctor’s browser history, but the original Doctor’s hatred of the sonic sunglasses also warms my heart. (Because they are extremely terrible.)

Bradley’s performance isn’t a carbon copy of Hartnell’s or anything like that. But there’s enough there that you wish we had time for a story that’s more focused on this original Doctor’s dark night of the soul. Unfortunately, this episode doesn’t really delve into the First Doctor’s fears about regeneration, which is a shame. It seems obvious that it’s simply because he’s never done it before. So, naturally he harbors some concerns about giving up his “original” personality to another incarnation. But I’d have still liked to see that given a little time to breathe onscreen.

In the end, for all that we assumed the First Doctor’s return would be about helping the Twelfth accept his latest regeneration, it’s actually the other way ‘round. It’s Twelve who convinces his original self that the journey he’s about to embark on is worth it, that he will become — over and over again, every time — a good man.

"Remember, hate is always foolish, and love is always wise."

“Twice Upon a Time” doesn’t have a real villain. In fact, its great twist is the discovery that the Testimony isn’t evil. The enchanted glass people aren’t a threat and the mainframe has no nefarious hidden purpose built in. The true danger of this episode is the Doctor himself — not doing what he is meant to do. In truth, we’ve already seen both these Doctors win their final battles. They both even defeated the same thing — the Mondasian Cybermen. They’ve already won, by doing what they always do. By being the Doctor. This is just what comes next.

Perhaps that’s the scariest thing, after all. The unknown. Perhaps more so for regenerating Time Lords, who don’t always know what their next selves will be like, but do know that they’ll have to give something up to get there. That this episode is an hour dedicated to reminding them both why doing so is worth it is lovely. And it reminds us, as viewers, why the Doctor matters too.

Twelve’s final action is one of kindness. He decides to give another lifetime a go, because he sees that the good he does outweighs the personal grief he must suffer to do so. The Doctor fixes things. He puts things right. And in doing so, in the end, he saves people. Sometimes, like in one of Moffat’s very first episodes, the Ninth Doctor adventure “The Doctor Dances,” everybody gets to live. In “Twice Upon a Time,” it’s just one person. It’s a single captain — played with beautiful reserve by Mark Gatiss — marked for death.

He survives because the Doctor was clever and kept him alive long enough to reach the famed Christmas Truce of World War I, a miracle of humanity where two warring armies decided to lay down their arms in the midst of the greatest battle the world had ever seen. The Doctor had little to do with the truce itself, and really only saved one man out of the many who likely would have died that day, but it’s enough. Everyone is important to someone, after all.

"Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind."

Capaldi gets to give one last barnstormer speech in the episode’s final moments. And it’s full of acceptance and grace and hope for the future. After an era of Doctor Who which saw the show  stretch the boundaries of what it could be, as a series, it’s not hard to believe that Moffat, Capaldi and the Doctor himself are not all talking to us here.

Twelve’s final words remind us to always be kind, to choose love over hatred, to run and hope and embrace everything that humanity has to offer us, whenever we can. Amidst the sadness of change, this mantra goes on. Doctor Who goes on. There’s a new Doctor and a whole new world waiting for us next fall.

Next: Love Sebastian Stan? Well, why not watch him shine in Kings?

Doctor Who will return sometime in the fall of 2018 for Jodie Whittaker’s first season of adventures. See you then!