'Doctor Who': "Twice Upon A Time" Review

Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi & Showrunner Steven Moffat Exit with the 2017 Christmas Special

Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor with Mark Gatiss as The Captain (left) and David Bradley as the First Doctor (right). Source: BBC

Warning: Potential spoilers for the episode below.

“It's the end but the moment has been prepared for.”

Those words spoken by Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor on the brink of his regeneration more than three decades ago could also be applied to this year's Christmas special. It's safe to say expectations were high thanks to the announcement of Peter Capaldi exiting the series alongside showrunner Steven Moffat, Jodie Whittaker taking over as the first female Doctor, and then the return of David Bradley playing the role of the very First Doctor (Bradley had previously played actor William Hartnell, who originated the role, in 2013's "An Adventure In Space And Time"). So did "Twice Upon A Time" live up to those expectations or did it crash and burn?

Given the sheer amount of elements on his plate, Moffat certainly had a lot to play with given the hour of screen time. Perhaps it's not a surprise then that the special's plot is relatively straightforward. Picking up both from the end of Series Ten finale and between scenes in the First Doctor regeneration story "The Tenth Planet," "Twice Upon A Time" finds the First and Twelfth Doctors dealing with moments of frozen time with a group of glass-like creatures snatching people out of time at the moment of their deaths. Two of those they encounter is a First World War British army captain (played by Moffat's Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss, whose previous Who screen appearances include the title role in "The Lazarus Experiment") and former companion Bill Potts. The special then is a bit of a runaround but one that packs a punch.

A punch that is driven home both by the characters and performances. Moffat uses all of the aforementioned characters to explore how we face death, something appropriate given that "Twice Upon A Time" marks the end of an era in many respects. It's something which Capaldi, Bradley, and even Gatiss play wonderfully in their own ways at different times throughout the hour. Indeed, some of the best moments being the two Doctors together from very different ends of their lives looking at each other as two old men raging against the dying of the light. Yet the end of the special is also a life-affirming one filled with hope for the future after spending nearly an hour looking so much to the past.

The First Doctor staves off regeneration in a recreated scene from 'The Tenth Planet' featured in the special.

It's the looking to the past that will also help this special stand out. The special begin with footage from "The Tenth Planet," which morphs seamlessly from black and white with William Hartnell into newly shot color footage featuring Bradley (featured in the trailer above) which offers snatches of scenes long lost due to a BBC archive purge in the 1970s. It's wonderful to see those moments recreated as a long-time fan and it is perhaps fans who will appreciate those touches and another major reference that comes late in the special more than the average viewer. At times though it might be a bit much such as the return of a character (for lack of a better phrase) from a very early Capaldi episode or the over-played sexism of the First Doctor (something which was there back in the 1960s as part of the era but to a far lesser extent in the character himself). For longtime fans it's much fun, a chance for the Doctor and viewer alike to look backward and forwards all at once.

What "Twice Upon A Time" will be remembered for more than anything else is its closing two minutes or so. Regenerations have not been a forte of 21st Century Who, it must be said. David Tennant's regeneration was spread across more than two hours and turned into a sloppy, poorly plotted, and over-sentimental mess with him moaning, “I don't want to go!” Matt Smith's 2013 exit was tonally all over the place due to trying to cram so much into sixty minutes, though "Time Of The Doctor" was redeemed somewhat by an excellent final scene for Smith. Indeed, only Christopher Eccelston's exit can be said to have really worked. Here, though, Moffat gets it right with a scene that lets Capaldi say goodbye not just in character as the Doctor but to the role that he, as a life-long fan, had clearly always wanted to play. Moffat keeps it from being too self-indulgent before it gives way to Jodie Whittaker's much-anticipated entrance which will undoubtedly leave appetites whetted for her first full episode in 2018.

The two Doctors survey a scene, contemplating their futures.

For all of those reasons, "Twice Upon A Time" is a winner. It might well be the best Christmas special Doctor Who has yet aired and is the best regeneration story we've had in more than a decade. More than that, it's the end of an era and the beginning of a new one, something that everyone involved from Moffat to Capaldi are intent on making clear. It's a look back and a look ahead with nostalgia on one hand and hope on the other.

Goodbye chaps, and thank you for all the Who.

Matthew Kresal
Matthew Kresal

Matthew Kresal was born and raised in North Alabama though he never developed a Southern accent. His essays have been featured in numerous books and his first piece of fiction was published in the anthology Blood, Sweat, And Fears in 2016.

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'Doctor Who': "Twice Upon A Time" Review