Doctor Who – 2017 Christmas Special
“Twice Upon a Time”
Another Christmas Day brings us more Doctor Who with the swan song of Peter Capaldi’s version of the character to make way for something new.
The most recent season ended with the Doctor resisting regeneration and coming face to face with the first face he ever wore. David Bradley takes on the iconic role of the First Doctor and works with his latest face to accept the inevitability of change.
I’ve said repeatedly that Christmas specials should be largely disposable outings that don’t tie into the continuity of ongoing stories. To my mind a Christmas special should just be a fun adventure to tide us over between seasons. Doctor Who has delivered different flavours of Christmas episodes over the years and there was a lot riding on this one because it features yet another regeneration. It’s very difficult to deliver a Christmas special that can be fun for audiences while establishing the level of emotional heft necessary for the ending of one Doctor and the beginning of another.
Somehow this episode manages to balance the two and deliver something that feels like a satisfying conclusion for Capaldi’s Doctor while telling a self contained story in its own right. Naturally the regeneration hits at the very end but up until that point the story largely stands on its own.
For a Christmas episode the tone is somewhat morbid which makes sense considering the story is all about death. Both Doctor’s are concerned with their upcoming death, Mark Gatiss’ WWI soldier is faced with his mortality, Bill has already died and the entire narrative is focused on what death really means.
Both Doctor’s are forced to consider their own mortality when confronted with a mysterious glass woman representing a project known as the Testimony; something started by residents of New Earth to copy the memories of everyone at the point of death and let them live on in a database. It’s a fascinating science fiction idea and really poetic as it gives all life meaning. Experiences, thoughts and feelings don’t disappear at the moment of death as something is in place to let them continue and endure. It’s something the Doctor experiences in a different way as all of what he is continues on in his next body meaning he is never lost; at least not in the traditional sense. This is strangely similar to the Master’s plan in Capaldi’s first season though the motivation is far different.
The most striking thing is that the Testimony has no malicious intent. Capaldi plays the twist reveal wonderfully by showing shock that it wasn’t an evil plan for once. At that point he has no idea how to approach the situation as he spends so much time putting a stop to evil plans that dealing with something motivated by kindness is confusing to the Doctor.
He also has to accept the fact that he is responsible for the problem and has to make a decision to solve it. Somehow the binary decision to let his life end across two different incarnations created the rip in time and the only way to resolve it is to decide what to do next so that the timeline is put right. Ultimately the story is very simple as it revolves around a very simple choice that is very difficult to make.
As with most Doctor Who episodes this story presents itself as a mystery asking the expected questions. At first time is frozen and neither Doctor is sure why then a World War I soldier shows up further adding to the confusion. This could really be any episode of Doctor Who when it begins and that’s what I like about it as there is no real attempt to add ceremony to it with it being a Christmas Special and a regeneration episode.
The early scenes are more concerned with the two Doctors bickering with one another. Fans of the relaunched series may be somewhat familiar with a multi-Doctor story thanks to the 50th anniversary episode and many of the same beats are followed here. the First Doctor refuses to accept that Capaldi’s Doctor is what he becomes and doesn’t quite believe that he endures at all. As an aside for the purposes of this review I’m going to refer to David Bradley’s incarnation as One and Capaldi’s incarnation as Twelve from this point on.
One has his heart set on dying and his stubbornness suggests that he won’t be talked out of it. David Bradley’s performance is excellent here. I won’t pretend to be intimately familiar with William Hartnell’s portrayal of the Doctor though from what I’ve seen this seems to be a very capable homage to that. The beauty of the performance is that it doesn’t feel like an imitation of anything as it comes across like a fully realised character.
The chemistry between David Bradley and Peter Capaldi is absolutely the highlight of the episode. Their back and forth makes for some entertaining exchanges and I like the way Twelve takes note of everything that has changed over his very long life. He very much sees a lot of himself in this earlier incarnation though there’s a lot that has changed as well. The Doctor has grown and become better as he has went on so seeing Twelve confronted with the very foundation of everything he is makes for fascinating viewing.
Once One does accept that Twelve is what he will become he starts to scrutinise the little details. The Sonic Screwdriver and Sonic Sunglasses are held in contempt by him because he’s very old school in his approach. While Twelve uses technology to analyse what he encounters where One simply looks at it and takes note of the details. Twelve misses the asymmetrical face suggesting that the glass woman isn’t computer generated where One catches it right away. Realising that the old ways still have their uses is nothing new in fiction but it’s a nice touch here that comes from the way the characters think and behave.
Steps are taken to address the romanticism the Doctor associates with his old lives. On many occasions he is shown to regard the past fondly while glossing over the parts that might be difficult and One is very much a representation of that. The most polite way to describe his mindset is “old fashioned” though there are less polite descriptions that could be used. This attitude mostly manifests in his attitude to women who quite clearly have their place as far as he’s concerned. Much of this is cringe inducing and it’s definitely supposed to be but David Bradley delivering these sexist statements with pride and sincerity helps make a mockery out of them. Twelve’s reaction is also perfectly acted by Peter Capaldi and presents the appearance of someone reminded of something from their past they wish they could forget.
The episode is somewhat thin on plot which is fine as long as the characterisation is strong. What the story is about is more important than what actually happens though it does sometimes mean that the narrative itself is somewhat unfocused. The most glaring example of this is when Twelve takes the group to the centre of the universe because it has a massive database that can be used to run facial recognition on the face belonging to the glass woman. It feels somewhat overblown and unnecessary since it provides little more than a change in location for the Doctor’s to continue their bickering.
Twelve finds himself confronted by the Dalek he encountered during the events of “Into the Dalek“. This Dalek is significant because it is the only one to turn against its own kind and dedicate its existence to destroying its own kind. The inclusion of this is perhaps unnecessary though it is a physical representation of something the Doctor shaped and influenced across his lifetime. In many ways it’s what Twelve needs to see as he has to be reminded that his actions have positive consequences. The Daleks are synonymous with relentless and unchanging so the fact that the Doctor was able to change one of them is a testament to everything that he has been working to accomplish. Showing this is both powerful and effective though in story terms it feels like little more than a diversion that slows the episode down so it’s a double edged sword.
Bill’s appearance has a very important and specific purpose in terms of Twelve’s acceptance of his need to move on. Being his most recent companion she has unique insight into who is is and what motivates him. Couple that with the fact that Bill was always able to challenge him and you have the perfect foil for Twelve in this story. Without a companion to make him think differently he can make his mind up about things that he hasn’t considered properly. Bill is able to force him to look at his life and his deeds differently. He sees her as someone that he failed but she doesn’t think that way because she made his life whether she died or not.
Of course Bill didn’t die in the traditional sense and this is addressed which confuses the notion of consciousness being copied at the moment of death. Bill’s death meant that she became something else and continued to explore the universe and her duplicate has that knowledge so I’m left wondering how that knowledge was carried into the Testimony. It doesn’t derail the story at all but it does stand out. At least the Doctor gets to interact with a representation of his most recent companion that has all of her experiences. She also acts as a great foil for One as she is a living contradiction to his old fashioned thinking. Pearl Mackie is excellent as always showing an ability to bounce off anyone she shares screen time with.
Each Doctor arrives at the decision to regenerate pretty much at the same time. One realises that he still has so much to give to the Universe and chooses to honour that legacy by making it happen. The implication is that he forgets the events so that his motivation to help others is still his own but it’s interesting that he arrived at that decision by witnessing first hand how his life would continue.
An episode like this is always going to challenge how the Doctor is perceived. The Testimony shows footage of him that depicts him as a warrior which is something the Doctor actively tries to avoid though it’s easy to see how people might perceive him that way. It has come up on several occasions before now and is likely to be brought up again but having this scrutinised by the First Doctor is particularly noteworthy as it allows him to express concern that his ideals may be somewhat corrupted as his life continues. His arc becomes about realising that he consistently remains true to himself and making the decision to let his life continue. It isn’t complicated or even explored to a great extent but it does justify his presence in the episode.
Mark Gatiss’ WWI soldier feels like something of an afterthought in the overall context. That’s very much the point of the character but it means that his presence feels somewhat perfunctory. That’s not to say Mark Gatiss’ doesn’t deliver a good performance because he definitely does but the character doesn’t really have a place in the narrative beyond being caught up in events.
Despite this the whole notion of what it means to die comes through him to an extent. He is introduced contemplating death and faced with a choice over whether to let his life end or let it continue in a tense standoff with a German soldier. It’s essentially the same choice the Doctor has and the episode should have made that his arc. If the morality of killing to survive or letting someone else live by killing you had been explored then he might have been more of an important presence rather than fading into the background. Both Doctor’s could have looked to him to contextualise their own thinking at different points and made him more necessary.
When he is returned to his own time and it turns out to be the 1914 Christmas armistice it makes for a great scene. Twelve delivers a speech about this being the only time during a War that both sides simply decided to declare peace and put their differences aside. It’s an oasis in the midst of a brutal conflict and celebrates the fact that Wars are fought by people making choices. Everything in this episode comes down to a choice and this shows a historically significant one. It’s oddly detached from the rest of the story but still manages to be effective. Once again it’s inconsistent with the end of life being captured as the soldier’s life clearly doesn’t end there. Some more work was definitely required on the concept and how it was executed.
Twelve’s regeneration ends the episode and it’s handled with the appropriate amount of sentimentality. The Testimony is the perfect device to allow him to confront his past and have that spur him on. Clara appears to him, Bill helps him move on and Nardole is also there to remind him that the universe is a better place with him in it. Ultimately this leads him to decide that regeneration is the best option and at least one more life might just be a good idea. Twelve’s final words are a message to his future self about not losing the essence of what the Doctor is while always having fun in the process. It’s also a goodbye to his old life and acceptance that all things end.
Jodie Whittaker’s first appearance as the Doctor is really strong considering it is only the first few seconds of her tenure as the Doctor. The look of shock and excitement on her face as she processes the change was a really nice touch and immediately being thrown out of the TARDIS potentially provides the setup for her first adventure which could be more about realising who she is before returning to familiar trappings. It’s also worth noting that the TARDIS appeared to expel her on its own which could be a reference to the negative reception to her casting from some fans. I look forward to Doctor Who continuing with a new Doctor and new writing team.
An effective yet slightly uneven adventure that excels in characterisation but feels somewhat limp in plotting. David Bradley and Peter Capaldi have great on screen chemistry as the two versions of the Doctor constantly bicker. Bradley’s performance feels distinct and doesn’t come across as an imitation though I concede that I know very little about the First Doctor. Using the First Doctor to help the current Doctor realise that he has so much more to give and vice versa was a really nice idea and the episode focuses on that relationship. Bill served as an appropriate foil for both incarnations.
The Testimony not turning out to be evil was a refreshing touch that unfortunately meant that the plot was a bit lacking despite how character driven it was. A trip to the rebellious Dalek for more information felt somewhat pointless and the inclusion of Mark Gatiss’ World War I soldier failed to have a proper place in the narrative. There was potential to explore death as well as the morality of survival but the episode doesn’t ever quite get there though I did like the Christmas armistice scene as an isolated moment. The regeneration was handled really well and Jodie Whittaker’s opening seconds were really strong. I look forward to more Doctor Who and reviews that use a different pronoun when describing the Doctor.
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