We tend to think of the present as mutable and past as inevitable. But, of course, it’s only by wading through the mutability of today that we forge the history of tomorrow. As a recent viral Tumblr post noted, “When people talk about traveling to the past, they worry about radically changing the present by doing something small, but barely anyone in the present really thinks that they can radically change the future by doing something small.” If Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip hadn’t assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand there might not have been a World War I. And if the First Doctor hadn’t regenerated into the Second there would’ve been decades of adventures left un-had and millions of lives left unsaved.
Doctor Who Christmas specials are an odd beast. They seem to come in one of two flavors: fun romps of little ongoing consequence (think “The Return Of Doctor Mysterio,” “Voyage Of The Damned,” and “The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe”) or massively important regeneration-related stories (think “The Christmas Invasion,” “The End Of Time,” and “The Time Of The Doctor”). “Twice Upon A Time” definitely falls into that latter category. Not only does this episode have to bid adieu to Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor and all his associates, it also has to double as a goodbye to the entire seven-year, six-season era of the show as helmed by Steven Moffat. Plus it has to introduce Jodie Whittaker’s 13th Doctor, who—as the first woman in the role—has more weight on her shoulders than any Who actor since perhaps Christopher Eccleston did when he rebooted the series back in 2005.
When it comes to those three goals, “Twice Upon A Time” is an unquestionable success. This is a thoughtful, funny, incredibly moving episode about kindness, bravery, and the way small choices can make a huge impact. It allows Moffat to reflect on Doctor Who as an entire 54-year series while also serving as a more specific tribute to the 12th Doctor. And it gives Peter Capaldi a beautiful final showcase that demonstrates just how much he’s grown into the role since his rather ominous beginnings back in season eight. The 12th Doctor has never felt warmer and more youthful than he does when paired with his stodgy, old-fashioned first incarnation. And I love the idea that the best straight man for the 12th Doctor to bounce off of is actually just himself.
The problem is that in its efforts to achieve all of that, “Twice Upon A Time” kind of forgets to have a plot.
At the core of this episode is a lovely sci-fi short story about the Christmas Truce of 1914. But “Twice Upon A Time” proceeds to stretch that short story into a heavily padded, paper-thin 90-minute adventure. In place of an actual plot, “Twice Upon A Time” just raises some not-all-that-interesting questions: Is the miraculously returned Bill Potts a duplicate? Who is the mysterious Glass Lady? What is the all-powerful database the Doctor keeps referring to? There’s not much in the way of action and some of the visual effects are laughably bad (the glass avatars in particular look like they walked out of a computer game from the 1990s). There’s a lot of sitting around waiting for something to happen, both for the characters onscreen and for the audience at home. And while the idea of being forced to spend time grappling with a fate you know you can’t avoid is at the heart of this story, the languidness of “Twice Upon A Time” feels less like an active storytelling choice and more like a limitation of either budget or imagination. There’s a clever twist wherein the Doctor discovers the mysterious Glass Lady and her Testimony group aren’t nefarious after all (“I don’t know what to do when it isn’t an evil plan”), but all-in-all this is an episode that doesn’t quite feel like it’s fully gotten off the ground until its final 15-20 minutes.
And the truth is, I couldn’t care less. As much as I can appreciate a good timey-wimey Doctor Who adventure, I’ve always cared much more about the emotional, character-driven side of this show. And “Twice Upon A Time” is an episode that made me openly sob about an era of Doctor Who I wasn’t even that invested in beforehand. (The 12th Doctor is my least favorite of the new series Doctors, although that has more to do with how much I love the other three incarnations rather than any particular animosity towards the character himself.) In centering this episode on the Christmas Truce of 1914, Doctor Who finds a perfect core of hope around which to anchor a story all about change, the passage of time, and the fear of the unknown.
Though one could argue there are never clear-cut bad guys and good guys in war, World War I reflects that idea in its extreme. It’s a war in which millions of people died for basically no reason, only to lead to another World War just a few decades later. I was in the bag for this episode pretty much from the moment Mark Gatiss’ Captain—who we later learn is the grandfather of Alistair Gordon “The Brigadier” Lethbridge-Stewart and the great-grandfather of Kate Stewart—quietly asks, “What do you mean ‘one’?” after the Doctor accidentally refers to the supposed “War To End All Wars” as “World War I.” The First World War is a tragedy on an almost unimaginable scale and “Twice Upon A Time” smartly boils that massive tragedy down to a single tableau: A scared British solider and a scared German soldier locked in a violent stalemate both would prefer to walk away from. But because they don’t speak the same language and because they’ve been charged with fighting for their countries, they’re almost surely going to end up as dead men. That is, unless a very old, very kind man comes along to save them. Or two men as the case may be.
As we saw at the end of “The Doctor Falls,” the 12th Doctor’s decision not to regenerate sends him on a collision course with his very first incarnation (David Bradley, doing lovely work standing in for original First Doctor actor William Hartnell). The First Doctor is similarly struggling with the idea of moving on and all that Doctor-ly angst causes the two Doctors to suck Captain Lethbridge-Stewart into their orbit in a “don’t think about it too hard” plot contrivance. I expected this episode would be far more referential towards Moffat’s entire Doctor Who tenure, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if we’d gotten cameos from the 11th Doctor, Amy Pond, Rory Williams, River Song, Missy, or the Paternoster Gang. In the end, however, I really appreciate the restraint Moffat shows in keeping this story focused on just the 12th Doctor’s era. Though it could’ve used a bit more plot, there’s also a power in the simplicity of “Twice Upon A Time.” At the heart of this episode is the story of three men struggling with the idea of facing their impending demises and/or death-like regenerations.
Interestingly, however, while “Twice Upon A Time” finds time for lovely monologues in which both the First Doctor and Captain Lethbridge-Stewart express their fears over the idea of dying, it never quite finds the time to dig into why the 12th Doctor himself is so hesitant to regenerate. He talks about wanting to find peace and wanting to rest and being tired of being the last man on the battlefield. But the question that feels like it should be at the heart of this episode largely takes a backseat to the Glass Lady mystery. It’s not a huge misstep and there’s enough there to craft your own narrative about what’s going on in the 12th Doctor’s head. But I would’ve gladly taken a few more scenes of the 12th Doctor discussing his state of mind with Bill or the First Doctor or Captain Lethbridge-Stewart over his largely pointless adventure to visit Rusty the Dalek-hating Dalek from “Into The Dalek.” (Of all the many cameos I thought were likely to happen in this episode, Rusty definitely wasn’t on the list.)
Thankfully, when it comes to emotional heft, “Twice Upon A Time” more than sticks the landing. What seems like it’s going to be a “Waters Of Mars”-style tragedy about the immutability of history becomes a “The Doctor Dances”-style celebration of hope. Everybody lives, Bill. Just this once, everybody lives. By adjusting the timeline only a few hours, the Doctor ensures that both Captain Lethbridge-Stewart and his German adversary are saved not by a sci-fi plot device, but by a very human Christmas miracle. And the story of the 1914 Christmas Truce is all the more powerful for being true. The real world isn’t usually a fairy tale, but every once and awhile it is—sometimes because of the Doctor and sometimes because of humans themselves. Just this once, everybody really did live.
Except, of course, for the 12th Doctor who decides that maybe one more lifetime won’t kill him after all (well, it will, but you know what he means). Perhaps in an effort to make up for the controversially quick manner in which Matt Smith sneezed his way into becoming Peter Capaldi, Moffat gives the 12th Doctor more than enough time to say his goodbyes before he goes. The Doctor bids farewell to both Bill and a very welcome Nardole, who may be glass avatars but are also still themselves because our memories are what make us who we are. To prove that, Bill even gives the Doctor back his memories of Clara, in a moment that’s all the more powerful because of the way it’s underplayed. Capaldi’s Doctor then takes all the time he needs to pass along his core beliefs to his incumbent incarnation.
The 12th Doctor’s final monologue to the 13th Doctor feels equally like a monologue from Steven Moffat to incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall about all the things Moffat’s learned from working on the show for so long: The Doctor will never be able to save the universe permanently, Moffat seems to be saying, but she should never stop trying either. It’s important that the Doctor is never cruel, never cowardly, and almost always nice (the pear-avoidance, I imagine, is a bit more negotiable). Children are the ones who need this series the most so don’t forget about them. Write whatever kind of stories you like, Moffat seems to be telling Chibnall, just ensure that the Doctor laughs hard, runs fast, and is always, always kind.
We get just one line from the 13th Doctor before she tumbles out of the Tardis and goes falling into space, but it’s the perfect note on which to leave her ahead of her proper introduction next year. “Aw, brilliant,” she smiles as she sees her reflection for the first time. Life is just memory and we’ll always have the memories of the Doctor in each of his past incarnations. For now, however, it’s time for Doctor Who to make some new ones.
- Hello, I’m your new Doctor Who reviewer here at The A.V. Club! In terms of my bona fides, I used to co-host a Doctor Who podcast with your former Who reviewer Alasdair Wilkins (a podcast that’s still ongoing if you want to hear Alasdair and A.V. Club-er Allison Shoemaker discuss the series). My favorite Doctor is 10; my favorite companion alternates between Rose and Donna; and I couldn’t be more excited to be reviewing this show in its game-changing new era! Until then, feel free to chat all things Who with me over on Twitter.
- The most Steven Moffat thing in the world is using “The Day Of The Doctor” to mock the 10th Doctor’s “I don’t want to go” exit line and then writing an entire episode about the 12th Doctor not wanting to regenerate. Never change, Moffat. Never change.
- This episode largely under serves Bill Potts (I’m still not sure I fully understand her post-“The Doctor Falls” timeline), but man-oh-man is it a joy to have Pearl Mackie back onscreen for one last adventure.
- This episode also marks the end of an era for Mark Gatiss, who has served as both a writer and actor on Doctor Who since its 2005 return. He delivers a wonderful, subtle performance that serves as a lovely tribute to both the British stiff upper lip and to the whole Lethbridge-Stewart family. Plus more so than anyone, I’m sure Gatiss is thrilled to be going out on a note that isn’t “The Lazarus Experiment.”
- For the most part, I was totally onboard with the show lampshading the First Doctor’s casual sexism, and I thought the moment in which he and Captain Lethbridge-Stewart laugh over women being made of glass before Bill puts them in their place was the perfect note to end it on. The final gag about the First Doctor threatening to smack Bill on the bottom felt like one joke too far to me.
- I love the moment the First Doctor realizes he’s the one who took his own brandy.
- I wasn’t even the biggest fan of Clara, but seeing her again made me immediately burst into tears.