For many, the family, feasting, and festivities of December 25 have merged with the tradition of the Doctor Who Christmas Special. Since the rebirth of the Doctor Who series in 2005, we’ve come to anticipate the Christmas spirit that emerges from the intersection of space and time. “Twice Upon a Time,” written by Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay, does not disappoint.
“Twice Upon a Time” not only serves up the annual holiday treat we’ve come to expect from Doctor Who, but it also carries the weight of transitioning from one Doctor to another. Peter Capaldi gives his final performance as the Twelfth Doctor, alongside David Bradley as the First Doctor and Mark Gatiss as a World War One officer. As we say a sad farewell to Capaldi as Twelve, we’re introduced to Jodie Whittaker as the much-anticipated thirteenth Doctor.
Not only is Capaldi leaving the series, but “Twice Upon a Time” is the final episode for Executive Producer Steven Moffat, who will be succeeded by Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall for Season 11. The dialogue of “Twice Upon a Time” is filled with Moffat’s self-aware humor, delivered with skill by Capaldi and Bradley. The controversy over the next doctor being played by a woman is lampooned by highlighting the first doctor’s old-fashioned conceptions of gender.
First Doctor: “This place could do with a good dusting. Obviously, Polly isn’t around anymore.“
Twelfth Doctor: “Please, please, stop saying things like that.”
As the first doctor and the Captain share a laugh about women being made of glass, Moffat uses the moment to mock antiquated notions about women. These moments are comical, clever, and fun. It’s a terrific riposte by Moffat, reminding the audience how much has changed over 50 plus years of Doctor Who.
Though many writers have showcased Capaldi’s excellent acting with lengthy monologues, Moffat keeps “Twice Upon a Time” fresh with a lighter and leaner dialogue through much of the episode. In the final scene, we do a get a final monologue from the Twelfth Doctor that is full of connections to the past.
“You wait a moment, Doctor. Let’s make sure we get it right. I’ve got a few things to say to you. Basic stuff first. Never be cruel, never be cowardly, and never ever eat pears. Remember– hate is always foolish and love is always wise. Always try to be nice, but never fail to be kind. Oh, and you must never tell anyone your name. No one would understand it anyways. Except…except children. Children can hear it. Sometimes if their hearts are in the right place, and the stars are too. Children can hear your name. But nobody else. Nobody else. Ever. Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind. Doctor–I let you go.”
Moffat maintains the focus on the various incarnations of the Doctors. The Doctor faces a mysterious new adversary, known as the Testimony, and eventually turns to an old enemy to learn more about her history. Sometimes Doctor Who takes the story a step too far by introducing unnecessary complications to the plot, but in “Twice Upon a Time” the reintroduction of a Dalek from one of Capaldi’s earliest episodes helps to bookend his tenure as the Doctor.
When the First Doctor returns to own TARDIS, he gets some new lines prior to regenerating into the second Doctor. The episode not only incorporates the first Doctor, but makes the episode about his regeneration as well, crafting a story of continuity and change. The Doctor, in his many forms, belongs to all of us.
Director Rachel Talalay integrated black and white footage from the original first Doctor, played by William Hartnell, into footage of David Bradley as the first Doctor. We’ve seen black and white footage of Hartnell used in other recent Doctor Who episodes, but it’s still a fun effect and creates a nice transition between the actors playing the same role.
Pearl Mackie returns as Bill Potts, yet it’s clear she’s already had her own good-bye. Christmas specials are usually standalone episodes with little or no appearances by companions, but sometimes, as in “Twice Upon a Time,” the character of a companion stands in for something else. After living as the Twelfth Doctor for so long, he no longer needs a companion to serve as a humanizing force. He may have needed a companion to serve as a moral compass initially, but at the end of his journey the twelfth Doctor has integrated the best aspects of humanity into his demeanor–appearing warm, wise, and funny.
Though he doesn’t get a visit from River Song, the Doctor get a few blasts from the past courtesy of the Testimony. Nardole (Matt Lucas) leaves us wondering where exactly he is and what he is doing. The Testimony returns the Doctor his memories of Clara Oswald, with actor Jenna Coleman making a brief appearance. She was Twelve’s first companion, so her appearance seems fitting (similar to Eleven seeing Amy Pond on the TARDIS before his regeneration), but perhaps it’s a precursor to her returning to the series as a future guest.
The Captain, as played by Gatiss, brings a very British element into “Twice Upon a Time.” From the start, his presence feels like an homage to the past (both for Britain and for the series).
Twice Upon a Time” puts the “Christmas” in Christmas Special, by returning to the Battle of Ypres on Christmas Day, 1914. The Captain is placed back into his own time on the day when German and British troops stopped hostilities for the famed Christmas Truce. Soldiers singing carols, a short-lived armistice, and falling snow amidst the battlefield was a unique and beautiful way for the series to integrate Christmas. The battlefield scene is made that much more poignant when the Doctor’s comments touchback on a theme in recent seasons regarding the horror of outliving all your friends and enemies:
“A life this long, do you understand what it is? It’s a battlefield, like this one here, and it’s empty. Because everyone else has fallen…It’s time to leave the battlefield.”
“Twice Upon a Time” was a beautiful sendoff for Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat. It had all the heart we expect from a Doctor Who Christmas special. Light and unexpected moments were successfully integrated into a serious and important episode, creating a warm and wonderful Christmas special.