Where Tennant’s final episode was a fast-paced action adventure, and Smith’s was a high-stakes showdown spanning 1000 years, Capaldi’s last Christmas special takes a huge step back to become a much more low-key affair.
Since we had already seen the climax to the Twelfth Doctor’s story in the explosive series 10 finale, ‘Twice Upon a Time’ is intended to be more of an epilogue than a loud, dramatic farewell. As such, this allows room for a nuanced, character-driven piece that focuses on the Doctor’s journey to this point in time. This truly was Peter Capaldi’s episode to shine, but before getting to the main event it is important to dwell on the aspects of the episode that deserve to be acclaimed and discussed in their own right.
‘Twice Upon a Time’ is an episode of farewells for many, but one departing Doctor Who stalwart who has seemed to pass under the radar is Mark Gatiss. As a writer and actor on Doctor Who for many years, it seems fitting that he is immortalised in this episode as the grandfather of Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. He demonstrates the calm sensibility typical of his family, and although he serves little purpose other than to set the narrative in motion, he proves to be a likeable albeit temporary addition to the TARDIS team.
As always, David Bradley is an absolute pleasure to watch onscreen, and here he is as faithful as ever to William Hartnell’s original incarnation of the Doctor. The voice, the minor mannerisms, all of it is present here in Bradley’s own interpretation of the First Doctor. Together with the Twelfth Doctor, the two incarnations represent the journey that the show and society have gone through over fifty years.
As they are investigating the episode’s central mystery, the Twelfth Doctor’s obsession with his sonic screwdriver leads to him missing key information that the First Doctor picks up on by simply looking at the alien life form. While this thinly veiled commentary on society’s obsession with technology serves a few laughs, not all jokes in this episode hit the mark.
Some of the First Doctor’s misogynistic remarks are played up for comedy and attempt to highlight the disparity between the two incarnations’ social awareness. Unfortunately these jokes tend to fall flat, as this brand of humour feels untrue to the First Doctor’s character.
Still, these issues are easily forgotten when we get scenes like the one where the First Doctor realises the meaning behind “the Doctor of War”, and his one-on-one with Bill. Another layer of secrecy is peeled back, as we discover that the Doctor left Gallifrey to find what keeps the essence of goodness alive in the universe. He still hasn’t really discovered the answer, but to everyone else the answer is clear. The Doctor, in all his incarnations, inspires people everywhere he goes, and keeps the balance of good against evil.
But of course, the Bill we meet in this episode isn’t the real one. She has the same personality, appearance, and all the same memories, but she is merely a copy created by the mysterious entity, Testimony. As her last official appearance in the show, this was a very risky move. If Testimony had really been a villain, then Bill’s final legacy to the show would have been sullied. From there, the episode could have easily devolved into a simple plotline of good vs. evil, rather than the nuanced character study it turned out to be. So I am incredibly grateful for the decision to use Testimony as a means of character development rather than as an easily forgettable antagonist.
Testimony even provides a nice segue into the Doctor’s regeneration sequence, as he nostalgically reflects on his lost companions. As uncomfortable as it felt not having the “real” Bill with us during the episode, she makes a beautiful point that it isn’t appearances that make up a person, but rather memories. Testimony then takes the form of Nardole who sends his final goodbye to the Doctor, and Clara, who poignantly returns all the Doctor’s lost memories, before evaporating mid-hug. Once again, the Doctor is left alone, his infinite life likened to the battlefield he stands on—one where he is the only one left fighting while his companions perish around him.
Survivor’s guilt weighs heavily on the Doctor, but after seeing how he could inspire his original incarnation to keep living, he too finds hope in his future. In his last moments, he leaves some poignant words of advice for his future self, underscored by the same piece of music from ‘Heaven Sent’ that saw the Doctor dying and being reborn in an endless loop for billions of years. The parallels are clear—this is a man who will keep living and dying for eternity, and yet whose relationships are only fleeting.
And in another parallel, this time to Ten’s final words “I don’t want to go”, the Doctor shows how far he has come. He is no longer hanging onto the past. He is ready to embrace the future.
“Doctor, I let you go.”
A bright explosion of regeneration energy bursts forth from each limb, and within a few seconds the Twelfth Doctor is replaced by a distinctly younger, female incarnation—the much-anticipated Jodie Whittaker.
Her first moments are genuinely exciting. After a few seconds of shock, the Thirteenth Doctor’s face breaks into a Tennant-esque grin, and in a Northern accent delivers two words that will keep a fandom theorising for eight more months:
Then in a true Doctor Who post-regeneration cliffhanger, we leave our new Doctor falling from a malfunctioning TARDIS.
All in all, ‘Twice Upon a Time’ didn’t deliver what we were expecting, but it certainly delivered what we needed: the perfect swansong for the Twelfth Doctor. It evoked some unexpected nostalgic callbacks to previous episodes, such as the return of Rusty the “good” Dalek, while tying up the Doctor’s own emotional character arc. While it was light on Christmas themes, touching on the World War I Christmas truce was a spirited and feel-good moment of Christmas cheer that also doubled as a plot device.
‘Twice Upon a Time’ packs an emotional punch in one of the few Moffat episodes that doesn’t rely on time-travelling plot twists or nonsensical scientific ideas. It farewells the past, and in its final few minutes it sets up an exciting future for Doctor Who that promises to shake up the formula we are used to.