Creator: Steven Moffat
Director: Rachel Talalay
Starring: Peter Capaldi, David Bradley, Pearl Mackie
These days, Christmas all but guarantees one thing: another Doctor Who Christmas special. Sadly, there’s often not much that special about them. It often feels like, at Christmas, the writers and producers of Doctor Who get that bit lazier; the specials often feel just like extended, yet also lightweight versions, of normal episodes. Obviously the show’s always been a daft, fun show aimed at kids, but it’s generally at Christmas where it barely even bothers going at all beyond that.
This year’s special, however, promised to be a bit weightier, since it was of course the last episode to be starring the continually impressive Peter Capaldi in the title role. The coming of the next, female Doctor in Jodie Whittaker has attracted the headlines, but of course, saying hello to a new Doctor also means bidding farewell to an old. Capaldi has been a highly impressive Doctor all in all, reminiscent of the older style (even if he did only really grow into it in his second two seasons). By necessity then, this, like most regeneration stories, was likely to be a more serious, sombre affair.
The double-edged sword to this is that, in bidding a goodbye to an era for the show, these kinds of stories can often end up quite up themselves, becoming drawn out an self-referential in it’s goodbyes to the point of tedium. The temptation for this must have been even greater than usual with this one since, like David Tennant’s last story, The End of Time, this was goodbye not only to a Doctor, but also the head writer, and the chief production staff. Writer Steven Moffat has been in charge of the show for the past seven years; for all that time he’s steered it’s identity. As the episode opened, I found myself thinking a lot of The End of Time, and it’s torturous, overly drawn out, twelve-minute long closing montage of the Tenth Doctor visiting all the significant characters of his era, whilst looking mournful. Mercifully however, Moffat’s script does, for the most part, avoid this, the call-backs to his era being, for the most part, fitting and serving to the character’s arcs, rather than self-indulgent.
Twice Upon a Time, despite the fact it unites Capaldi’s Doctor with his very first incarnation as well as heavily referencing a 1966 story in the process, is quite a simple, uncomplicated take examining just how much the Doctor has changed since those days; whilst all the time never changing too much. The plot is pretty simple; in having two Doctors reluctant to regenerate, and a WWI Captain facing death before being plucked away by an entity saving the memories of the fallen, it all revolves around the passing of an era, examining what it means to face one’s end (even if, with the Doctor, that invariably also means a new beginning).
There’s not much else going on really, even with returns of old companions and monsters in the mix, it is largely a character piece as much as anything. This was probably the best route to take considering it’s the end of an era and we’d already had an explosive action-packed finale in the last episode, The Doctor Fall’s. That doesn’t mean there aren’t drawbacks to this style. Given it’s a Christmas special, you’re going to have a few extra viewers who aren’t quite as invested in the characters so might have their attention wandering.
The characters themselves can also be a bit dodgy. On paper, the WWI captain probably seems fairly one note, although Mark Gatiss gives a wonderful performance that does make him seem somewhat more human. And the appearance of the First Doctor is also probably a little wanting. Regular viewers may well have been left a little uncertain as to exactly why this character from 1966 (complete with a catch-up including old black and white footage) should even matter, whilst fans were given a weird old sexist rather than the wise ancient scientist the First Doctor was generally portrayed as in his run.
All these are just passing gripes though. For the most part, this is a story that works quite well overall. Certainly, in both wrapping up an era of Who, and avoiding too many call-backs and thus alienating casual viewers, it’s probably a far better, and certainly a far less self-referential regeneration story than perhaps any other since Christopher Eccleston’s departure as the Doctor in 2005.