Recap | Doctor Who Christmas Special 2017: “Twice Upon a Time”

By Tyler Howat
Published: December 27, 2017 (Last updated: February 13, 2024)
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Doctor Who Christmas Special 2017

In his final outing as The Doctor, Peter Capaldi meets The First Doctor (David Bradley, in the role, originated by William Hartnell in 1963). Each incarnation strains to keep his regeneration at bay, willing himself to remain the same. In the meantime, they stumble across a World War I captain (Mark Gatiss) at the South Pole. The two Doctors must find a way to figure out why he’s there, what’s after them all, and come to term with the end of their times.

“Just this once — everybody lives!”

Captain Lethbridge-Stewart (Gatiss) has been pulled out of time at the moment of his death by The Testimony, a futuristic organization that stores memories for posterity. He’s meant to die in a trench in World War I, facing off with a German soldier. Unfortunately, the fact that both the First and Twelfth Doctors refuse to regenerate, and have ended up in the same location, has caused some problems with time (as the Doctors are wont to do). So, the captain was accidentally not returned to the moment of his death, but to the location of the time problem. This causes the Doctors to investigate. They are sure that there is something evil afoot.

As the Doctors investigate the captain’s anachronistic appearance, they learn that there’s nothing horrific in the offing. They just need to put the Captain back where he belongs. Though he’ll die if they do. So, the Doctor does a bit of his time management and returns the captain to the moment of the 1914 Christmas Truce, in which the Allied and German soldiers ceased battle for one evening in order to celebrate Christmas.

The episode then takes the time to revisit some of Capaldi’s companions. Pearl Mackie’s Bill Potts (or a shadow of her) joins him for most of the show, but then Nardole (Matt Lucas) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) return briefly to remind the Doctor why he must press on. There’s even a group hug to bring it all together. It’s not slightly cheesy or trite (that comes a bit later). I loved this moment.

What works incredibly well in “Twice Upon a Time” is the tight focus that outgoing showrunner Steven Moffat holds on the Doctor himself. Moffat has not done this often enough in his tenure. When he does, it’s touching. Rather than go out in a shocking blaze of glory, fighting off hordes of Daleks or Cybermen, Moffat sends off the Twelfth Doctor in an episode where no one dies. There’s no evil plan, no universe shattering plot, no human-munching villain. Just memories, kindness, and love. 

The Two Doctors

Multi-Doctor stories have long been a staple of tentpole moments in the Doctor Who franchise. “The Three Doctors” kicked off season 10. “The Five Doctors” was a Children in Need special that also marked the twentieth season. The brilliant “Day of the Doctor” fiftieth anniversary special brought together the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors (David Tennant and Matt Smith) along with the War Doctor (William Hurt). There’s even a mini-episode done for Children in Need in which the Tenth Doctor meets the Fifth (Peter Davison – David Tennant’s real-life father-in-law).

We don’t talk about the horrendously terrible “Two Doctors” which celebrated nothing but terrible writing, acting, and production.

These multi-Doctor stories give the Doctors time to talk and debate. To wheedle out information from one another. The First Doctor must regenerate in order for the Twelfth to exist. The Twelfth must do so to keep the universe from going cold, as Nardole reminds him. Neither wants to change, because it means losing all that they have become. Yes, they’re still technically the same humanoid, yet they’re no longer the same personality. Everything about the Doctor changes upon regeneration. It’s a deep loss for him and for the audience when this occurs.

This episode largely attempts the deal with that shift, that handover to a new character. In this case, it’s a bit more meta than that, because not only will there be a new star – for the first time, a woman (Jodie Whittaker) steps into the Doctor’s shoes, more on that later – but a new showrunner in Chris Chibnall (Broadchurch). That makes everyone nervous. It makes everyone hesitant because everything about the new series will be brand new.

The Regeneration

My main sticking point in this episode is the end. The Doctor’s final monologue is just a bit self-indulgent. Yes, it’s Moffat’s last episode after being a part of the series since the 2005 reboot and showrunning since 2010, so I absolutely understand the need to write a big finish. However, the speech just largely feels like a set of trite sayings that are supposed to be deeper than they are.

“There it is, the silly old universe. The more I save it the more it needs saving. It’s a treadmill. [The TARDIS seems to say something to him] Yes, I know they’ll get it all wrong without me. Well, I suppose, one more lifetime won’t kill anyone. Well, except me. You wait a moment Doctor. Let’s 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 Pez.

Remember, hate is always foolish, and love is always wise. Always try to be nice and never fail to be kind.

Oh, and, you mustn’t tell anyone your name. No one would understand it anyway. 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.”

This sums up Moffat’s tenure, but particularly the rut he found himself in from seasons 7-8. Saying cool things that seem more important than they are. But in the midst of the rough bits, you can find some diamond shards.

Throughout Capaldi’s time as the Doctor, he’s had a difficulty being an empathetic person. He’s saved the Universe countless times, as the Doctor does, but he wasn’t really being a nice person for his first season. That was Clara’s project. She even had cue cards for him to remind him how to be. Many of the lines here are ridiculous and a bit dumb. Especially the “Children can hear your name part” (maybe it’s just a reference to the fact that he can speak Baby, or that the Doctor has always been seen as a children’s program, but mostly it’s just supposed to sound nice). However, some of it is exactly what this Doctor has tried hard to learn. Don’t be cruel, be kind. Love, don’t hate. Remember, when the Doctor hates, he tends to burn things down and break the Universe and all of Time. With this speech, he tells himself, and whatever form he’s about to take, that he must learn from this incarnation. It works incredibly well.

You can watch the entire regeneration here.


Random Thoughts

Director Rachel Talalay (of Freddy’s Dead fame) shoots this entire episode beautifully, but the scenes on the battlefield are among the most poignant for the sheer juxtaposition of war and peace. She has regularly elevated Moffat’s scripts. I hope she stays on with Chibnall.

I’ve always loved Murray Gold’s score to Doctor Who. I’ll admit that he can sometimes be a tad heavy-handed, telegraphing what the audience should feel, rather than accompanying and amplifying our feelings. In this case, he’s subtle and spot on. He weaves different cues throughout “Twice Upon a Time,” such as “Rose’s Theme” and “Vale,” as well as many more than I couldn’t catch on this watch.

TUaT 7 13th

Keep Watching?

I plan to write more on this later, especially as I hope to cover Doctor Who more regularly when it starts up again in Fall of 2018, but Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor looks to be a lot of fun. Immediately upon her regeneration, she sees her reflection and says, “Brilliant,” with a wonderfully gawky grin. I’m very excited to see where they take her. Hopefully to a brighter, lighter place with punctuating moments of darkness and heavy story. I’d love to see Chibnall really start from scratch with Doctor Who, bringing back the hearts to the show.

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