Doctor Who: Twice Upon a Time
(1 episode, Christmas Special, 2017)
The (other) two Doctors.
709 episodes ago, the First Doctor faced the Cybermen. After the threat was over, the Doctor walked through the snow storms of the South Pole to his TARDIS. There he found someone claiming to be the Doctor.
He found the Twelfth Doctor.
The First Doctor is obviously confused by the new Time Lord and the confusing proportions of the TARDIS. The Twelfth Doctor realizes that the First Doctor is refusing to regenerate, and as he outlines the problems with that idea, time stops around them. They are soon greeted by a British soldier from World War I.
This soldier comes from Ypres 1914 where he was engaged in a standoff with a German soldier. Both hold the other at gunpoint inside a bomb crater and the British captain is startled when time freezes. He takes in the bizarre battlefield before encountering a glass avatar that deposits him half a world away with the two Doctors. When he greets them, the glass avatar appears and the Doctors approach it. When the Twelfth Doctor declares that the planet is protected, the avatar disappears and the First Doctor invites everyone inside the TARDIS for protection.
The First Doctor is astounded because he thought that this TARDIS was his TARDIS. Meanwhile, the Twelfth Doctor mentions that the British captain is from the First World War, which shocks him since he only knows of the War to End All Wars (which it obviously did not). As the captain tries to understand the wonders around him, the two Doctors come to terms with their mutual situation. The Doctors offer the captain some brandy to calm his nerves and the Twelfth is astounded by the First’s lack of decorum toward gender roles.
The discussions all halt when the TARDIS is pulled into an overhead spacecraft that holds the Chamber of the Dead. The First Doctor exits the TARDIS to face the chamber as the captain and the Twelfth Doctor watch from the console. The First Doctor doesn’t understand being called the “Doctor of War.” Meanwhile, when Bill Potts arrives from a portal, the Twelfth Doctor rushes to meet her before realizing that this being is not the Bill that he knew. In fact, she is a duplicate and his Bill is dead.
The Doctors wonder who has been stealing the faces of the dead and investigate the chamber. They find the glass avatar who explains that they chronicle the lives of beings in the moments before their deaths, becoming a living testimony. They explain that they tried to capture the captain’s testimony but a timeline error caused him to become misplaced. The captain offers to take Bill’s place, but the Twelfth Doctor proposes taking both Bill and the captain. The First Doctor demands to know who the Twelfth thinks he is, and the First is astounded to find out just how his future will play out as the avatar reveals his legacy. It is recorded as one of battles and bloodshed.
Technically, what the Testimony shows him is accurate. It’s just missing context.
The Twelfth Doctor opens the airlock and everyone jumps, holding onto the chains restraining the TARDIS as it drops to the surface. The Testimony retrieves the Twelfth Doctor’s TARDIS and the four travelers escape Earth in the First Doctor’s ship instead. As they run, Bill figures out how the two Time Lords are related.
The Doctors realize that the glass avatar’s face is asymmetrical, and they decide that they need to find a database to figure out who she represents. The Twelfth Doctor considers the Matrix on Gallifrey, but instead decides to visit Villengard at the center of the universe. There is a database there, but it wants to kill him. Unfortunately, the area is swarming with Kaled mutants.
The Twelfth Doctor insists that Bill wait in the TARDIS with the captain and the First Doctor, but Bill stands defiant as her Doctor considers her nothing more than a doppelgänger. The tension is broken when the First Doctor chastises her for bad language. With a laugh and the hope that she and the Twelfth Doctor can joke about this for years, she joins the captain while the First Doctor explores the surface with his future self.
They discuss their mutual decision not to regenerate. The First Doctor admits his fear of the future, but when he asks about the Twelfth’s rationale, the answer is pre-empted by weapons fire. The Twelfth Doctor stands in the open and demands that their assailant scan him. When the truth of the Doctor’s pending doom is revealed, the sniper allows the Time Lords to enter the tower.
In the meantime, Bill and the captain talk about his fate. The captain recognizes that he must die, but he’s no longer ready to do so. He’s shocked when Bill reveals herself as a glass avatar.
The First Doctor remains at the tower entrance for his safety as the Twelfth Doctor climbs to meet his assailant. The shooter is revealed to be the Dalek named Rusty. They come to a truce as Rusty tears off his own gunstick, and the Twelfth Doctor finds out that the glass avatars and their ship, the Testimony, were created on New Earth. This comes from the Dalek programmed to hate Daleks and his connection to the Dalek hive mind. Rusty agrees to provide the information since helping the Doctor harms the Daleks.
Bill’s glass avatar meets up with the First Doctor as he finds Dalek parts nearby. She talks to the Doctor, probing his past and his motivations, asking what he’s running toward. She declares that the Doctor is amazing and thanks him for his efforts. When he realizes that she’s a glass avatar, he comes to understand her motives as an agent of Testimony.
Bill and the First Doctor ascend the tower and time stops again. The Doctors realize that there is no evil to fight, and while Bill is an avatar, she reminds the Doctor that reality is merely a function of memories. The Twelfth Doctor tells her that he’s tired of losing people, hence the reason why he doesn’t want to regenerate. He decides to return the captain to his proper time as he considers how their decisions not to regenerate caused the timeline error that displaced the officer.
En route, he has a revelation and changes course, dropping the captain at the start of the famous Christmas Truce, ensuring that his life will be spared. The captain will not be able to remember his adventure and won’t be able to see the Doctors or Bill once his timeline restarts. He asks them to check on his family from time to time, introducing himself as Archibald Hamish Lethbridge-Stewart, an ancestor of the Brigadier. The Doctor is overjoyed at the prospect.
When time starts again, Captain Lethbridge-Stewart and the German soldier nearly pull their triggers, but they stop as both sides begin to sing Christmas carols. The truce was a miracle, a one-of-a-kind, but one that allowed everyone to stop fighting and be kind for a short time.
The First Doctor is happy to see how the “Doctor of War” solved the problem, to which the Twelfth responds that their place is to help when the universe isn’t a fairy tale. The Doctors decide that they are both ready to go on living and they part ways.
The First Doctor returns to the South Pole as the Twelfth bids farewell to Captain Lethbridge-Stewart. Ben and Polly find their Doctor on the TARDIS floor as he regenerates into the Second Doctor. Meanwhile, the Twelfth Doctor asks Bill if she’d like to take one last trip in the TARDIS. She tells him that the hardest thing about knowing him is letting him go then gives him a goodbye present as she kisses his cheek and turns into Clara.
The Doctor is overjoyed to remember her, as is the memory of his former companion. He also gets to say goodbye to Nardole, who encourages him not to die since it would mean that the universe would go cold. The Doctor refuses to offer his testimony to the avatars, stating that he must be left alone to face his fate. He thanks them for what they have offered and they agree with a hug.
The Doctor boards the TARDIS again, ready to leave the battlefield. As he engages the TARDIS, he gazes upon the universe and concedes that one more lifetime won’t kill anyone. Well, except him. He relays some advice to his future self in a powerful speech before falling to the floor. He picks himself up and utters his final words: “Doctor… I let you go.”
The regeneration process is so violent that it rips into every corner of the console room. As smoke fills the room, his ring falls from his hand and his face transforms into a younger version. As the smoke clears, the Doctor’s new face is visible in a reflection.
The Thirteenth Doctor is a woman. Oh, brilliant.
She smiles broadly for just a moment until the TARDIS suffers a catastrophic systems failure. The ship tilts to one side as the console room explodes around her. The doors fly open, and even though she holds on as tight as she can, she eventually falls out of the TARDIS as it hovers thousands of feet above Earth.
The Doctor can only watch in horror as the TARDIS is engulfed in flames and dematerializes, leaving her to plummet toward the planet below.
Starting with the good stuff, I adore this multi-Doctor special because the threat isn’t really a threat at all. Fans have been conditioned since 2005 to expect a monster of some sort each week, and this fake-out driven by that assumption is a nice change of pace. I also like how the story was carved out of a space in The Tenth Planet‘s finale, drawing a parallel between the two Doctors as they ponder their futures. The classical romanticism and vulnerability are touching.
The setup also ties off a narrative thread started in The Pilot, which showed us a Doctor fresh off losing two people close to him. The thread has run across this series and comes to a beautiful conclusion here as the Doctor faces the loss of three people in The Doctor Falls. In a sense, both Doctors share a fear of the future.
It doesn’t hurt that I have a soft spot for the Christmas Truce. The truce was not unique in general – World War I had quite a few “live and let live” moments like this where soldiers would stop hostilities and fraternize – but this was one of the largest and most memorable.
The biggest failing of this adventure was the writing for the First Doctor. This story treats the character as a sexist dinosaur, but it seems like Steven Moffat’s target was the 1960s in general and he used the First Doctor as an avatar for his grievances. Certainly, the era didn’t treat women fairly, but Doctor Who stood apart with more well-rounded characters in comparison to some of the portrayals and dialogue found in later decades. Yes, the First Doctor was the character who let a caveman die until Ian stepped in, threatened a “jolly good smacked bottom” for Susan after her clumsiness inconvenienced him, was generally irascible and cranky, and even said a few things in The Five Doctors that made his successors squeamish, but this representation betrays the progressive heart that this show has had since birth.
Don’t get me wrong: David Bradley’s performance is amazing. It’s Steven Moffat and his meta-commentary that failed here because his research into the character seems to have stopped at the First Doctor’s first adventure, which is a far cry from the character’s nature in his final adventure.
That huge downside is unfortunate because there’s so much to love here, from the regeneration being a good narrative cover for the change in actors, the First Doctor’s treatment of sonic technology, the transitions from 1966 archive footage to modern imagery and back, and the fantastic rebuild of the First Doctor’s TARDIS. I also didn’t notice that Bill’s wardrobe constantly changes throughout the episode, perhaps as a tip of the hand to her true nature.
Not bad at all for an episode that was supposed to be Jodie Whittaker’s first adventure. That would have been a sight to see.
Finally, the regeneration is probably one of my favorites of the modern era. I was visiting family on the other side of the country when this episode first aired and I stayed up late at my brother-in-law’s house after everyone else had gone to bed. Peter Capaldi’s final speech was perfect and brought me to tears then, as it still does today.
Even with the imperfect writing, this story still does it for me.
Rating: 5/5 – “Fantastic!”
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