This review contains spoilers.
Please note: the version of Twice Upon A Time we saw had the final 30 seconds or so chopped off. This review will be updated when we’ve had a chance to watch and digest Jodie Whittaker’s first moments in the TARDIS.
Amongst the many delights and surprises I took from the Doctor Who Christmas special, “Twice Upon A Time,” is the moment that ultimately moved me the most. I was expected it to be Peter Capaldi’s ultimate farewell as the Doctor, as Twelve succumbed to the regeneration he was holding off for a good chunk of series 10. Perhaps even the return of a few old friends to say goodbye.
They all hit me, and hit me hard. But the moment, when the soldiers got out of their trenches in Ypres in 1914, coming together for a brief armistice in the midst of a horrific war, was really, really something. Shot skilfully and with breadth by director Rachel Talalay, there was something incredibly moving about it that’s meant it’s rattled in my head ever since. An outstanding, earned moment, in an episode I liked an awful lot.
I noted in the spoiler-free review that one of the things it does right is to narrow its focus. At the start of “Twice Upon A Time,” it soon becomes clear that it’s effectively a four-hander. The Doctor, The Doctor, Mark Gatiss’ Captain and Bill Potts. All four either dead or dying, with no massive dastardly plot to foil. Rather, each coming to terms in their own way with their own mortality, and accepting it.
By keeping the narrative arcs to a concentrated minimum, Steven Moffat – for his final Doctor Who script – can flesh these characters and their stories out (and he really does), free from the need to gallop through exposition to get to a resolution. The advantage here is we all know where “Twice Upon A Time” was heading, but it was about how it was going to get there.
It started, actually, more as a two hander. With footage from “The Tenth Planet,” it then picks up from the surprise ending of “The Doctor Falls,” as two Doctors at the end of their respective generations come together. Multi-Doctor episodes – even the one with Colin Baker and Patrick Troughton – are always a lot of fun, and Moffat doesn’t resist the opportunity to have Peter Capaldi and David Bradley clashing with one another. It’s often very funny, too, with the terrific Bradley’s first Doctor capturing the look and feel of William Hartnell’s take on the character, even if the words coming out of his mouth don’t always seem to. As enjoyable as the dialogue the first Doctor is given very often is, there’s an argument that there’s a slightly too outdated streak to it that doesn’t feel very Hartnell-y. I suspect that’ll bristle with some, although I quickly soaked into it, and very much enjoyed the interplay, and the benefits of having two different generations of Doctor gradually learning off one another.
The Christmas Armistice
I can’t overstate just what superb work Mark Gatiss does too, as The Captain. Even before the moving revelation as to who his character really is comes out (maybe it’s Christmas, that that gave me a very warm punch), Gatiss’ quiet, diligent, matter-of-fact performance was tinged with a melancholy edge. Appreciating he had to do some of the ‘what are you talking about’ dialogue to the Doctors, I thought he played it superbly. Polite, baffled, and quietly curious.
The return of Pearl Mackie’s Bill, as is the modern way, wasn’t much of a surprise, given that promotional material had long since given the game away. But the twist was that she’s still, bluntly, dead. She’s still Bill, it’s still her memories and personality. But her resurrection is tied to Moffat’s final alien creations for Doctor Who, which I can’t but think is a gift to future writers: Testimony.
One of my favourite Steven Moffat Doctor Who moments comes at the end of “The Doctor Dances,” as Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor joyfully screams “just this once Rose, everybody lives!” Testimony, for me, is along similar lines. A force for good, almost to the disappointment of Capaldi’s Doctor, who’s looking for the sinister plan. I loved that moment. The disappointment on Capaldi’s plan that there was nothing to beat was a joy.
Testimony, though, means that nobody ever needs to die in Doctor Who again, as their memories are taken and uploaded at the point of death to the kind of database you wouldn’t trust Microsoft Access to run. Sure, should Bill be plucked back at some point in the future, there’s some explaining to do if she’s not going to be a pile of memories on a glass body. But Moffat’s parting gift to Doctor Who? Just this twice, everybody lives. Everything is back in play.
Back to Bill, though. Fate has worked against Pearl Mackie getting a prolonged run in the show, as new showrunner Chris Chibnall is bringing in a clean sweep of new talent for the now-filming series 11. But Mackie, as she did all the way through series 10, is really excellent again. Furthermore, her farewell to the Doctor was beautifully done, and whilst it may have been the return of Clara and Nardole that warmed the cockles for many, Bill’s understated farewell was really well handled.
There was a moment in the midst of all of this that didn’t work so well for me, and that was the return of Rusty the Dalek.
Appreciating that the Doctor needed the biggest database he could find again, I thought the sequence with Rusty – from “Into The Dalek,” Capaldi’s second full episode – slowed things down, and broke the mood just a little. Perhaps Moffat wanted one more go at the Daleks, and I fully get that if that’s the case. But conversely, it felt just a little odd and flabby. Given how concentrated the rest of “Twice Upon A Time” was, it was the “Twice Upon A Time” equivalent of the new Star Wars film heading off to a casino for a bit. Just, er, with a Dalek.
Once Rusty business was sorted, though, the episode quickly regained its footing, and a course towards a goodbye barely anyone wanted to say was duly plotted.
Everybody Just Stoppped. Everybody.
Oh Peter Capaldi: what else can I write about you as the Doctor? It started, for me, with 3000 words on the One Direction movie, and it’s ending with a feeling that we’ve been bloody lucky to have him. His regeneration brings the curtain down on a substantive era of Doctor Who, one that’s been heavily scrutinised, during which time the parameters of television had changed dramatically. It’s a near-miracle that Doctor Who has kept up, and stayed as popular as it is worldwide. I think Capaldi, and the departing Steven Moffat, deserve much credit for that.
“Twice Upon A Time” felt to me like an episode where virtually everyone knew it was their last time around, and they were determined to enjoy it. Capaldi’s moving final speech, Moffat’s last nerdy Who jokes (in Doctor Who at least), Rachel Talalay’s quietly cinematic direction (was it just me who got A Matter Of Life And Death and Close Encounters vibes from this one?), Murray Gold’s precise, beautiful score… I really loved “Twice Upon A Time.”
And I love the fact that, amidst the sadness, Doctor Who goes on. That, with TARDIS duly blown up (again), we have a new Doctor, a new direction, a new future and a new era to look forward to.
But you know what I also love? The fact that the exiting team have gone out on such a high, with such a beautiful piece of television.
See you again in the autumn, Doctor. Can’t wait to see her again. And yeah, I’ve still got something in my eye thank you very much. Quite a lot in my eye. Sob.