Doctor Who Christmas Special
“Twice Upon a Time”
Posted by Sage
I’m delighted to report that my second live regeneration went much better than my first.
Yes, I’m still bitter about “Time of the Doctor,” which I came to with such high expectations that I initially didn’t trust my own low opinion of it. (Text to Kim: “Oh no, I think this is really bad. Is this really bad?”) Matt’s exit, in my opinion, tried to do too much that it didn’t offer a strong emotional foothold. (Handles, the years going by, random nudity, Eleven’s old age makeup etc. etc.) And “Twice Upon a Time” — even though it ends up involving the First Doctor’s regeneration, the 1914 Christmas Armistice, all of this Doctor’s companions, and again, the question of what it truly means to be deceased — is somehow refreshingly simple. A problem presents itself, the Doctors get to the bottom of it, but in the end, what was always meant to happen happens. I don’t know if “Twice Upon a Time” stands up as a great Doctor Who story, but it’s an elegant farewell to Peter Capaldi, whose performance is going to go down in history.
As a writer, I don’t mind telling you that most of us are obsessed with death in one way or another. And Steven Moffat (a far better one than me) certainly brought his fascination to these last few series. In “Dark Water”/”Death in Heaven,” Missy’s master cyber-plan introduces the grotesque concept that the dead can feel, making the very idea of an afterlife disturbing. “Heaven Sent” puts the Doctor in a hell of his own making, forcing him to stage a billion-year jailbreak. But this episode presents a sort of pre-death ritual, wherein a charitable foundation preserves the memories of every dying person. For what purpose? It doesn’t seem from the brief informational video that the Doctor sees that Testimony really has one, except to value and safeguard life. (“It’s not an evil plan. I don’t really know what to do when it’s not an evil plan.”) If you COULD ensure that someone would be remembered — their precise memories and points of view — why wouldn’t you? (Black Mirror: “Like, a million reasons.”)
The Doctor doesn’t trust it, at first. For someone with 13 faces and counting, he has a big thing about individuality. And really, it’s somewhat shocking that he hasn’t run into these futuristic do-gooders before. Though, with One in the mix, he technically has. Their shared stubbornness about regeneration causes the anachronism that expels the Captain from his time stream. But they’re holding themselves back from their destiny for different reasons. One staunchly believes that he has the right to “live and die as myself”; and Twelve is just tired. Our current Doctor remembers that feeling he had several lifetimes ago, before that first regeneration, but One understandably has some trouble putting himself in Twelve’s shoes. At this moment, he’s the teacher and traveler. He’s not the Oncoming Storm nor the Doctor of War. He has yet to step up and volunteer as time’s peacekeeper and the Earth’s protector. He’s a reminder of how far the Doctor has come and WHY he put himself, begrudgingly, into this role. (“The universe generally fails to be a fairy tale. But that’s where we come in.”)
The earlier version of himself also has not lost as many people as our Doctor has, so he’s much more inclined to accept Bill Potts as she presents herself (though he thinks she’s the maid at first) than Twelve. The memory of this Doctor’s first companion was taken away from him, now he fears that Bill’s will be made a joke by Testimony. Sometimes they’re photos, sometimes they’re stories, and sometimes they’re songs — this Doctor’s run as a whole has been big on how we collect our experiences and the people who touch our lives. Knowing what happened to Bill and how she was violated makes it an offense, in his mind, for someone to reproduce her as she was. WAS the person in this episode Bill? I feel like you can make a strong case for either answer. Whatever she was, she was a guide to accompany the Doctor as he crossed a bridge into another life. That’s a pretty good function for Testimony memories, if they’re still looking for a purpose.
This episode didn’t undo the problematic circumstances of Bill’s end, but it was so damn good to see Pearl Mackie and Peter Capaldi acting together again without a cyber-barrier. For me, her appearance compares to Eleven’s call to Clara in “Deep Breath” — a bonus goodbye that helped to ease the transition a little bit. Honestly, Pearl deserved at least that much after how her character was mutilated on-screen and forced to sacrifice herself to save some nameless farm kids. And it’s thorny too that again in this episode, her consciousness is separated from body; Bill is again something beyond human. But once Twelve stopped scanning her for defaults, their scenes in the episode had a graceful sadness to them. They both wish to live long, happy lives. And they can — just not together and not as they currently know themselves. (“Shall we go for one last stroll, Miss Potts?”)
Also, more lesbians on Doctor Who always so we can get more annihilations like this one:
Compared to some more fluid scripts, this episode feels more like moments strung together than a cohesive story. But the moments are mostly lovely, and together serve as something of Twelfth Doctor’s Greatest Hits. (This club has EVERYTHING: Sonic sunglasses, Rusty the good Dalek, a Brigadier reference that you totally saw coming but cried over anyway…) I can’t really tell you what the database thing was about or how Testimony works on someone like Bill, who isn’t really dead in a human sense. But who the hell cares? The entire purpose of this episode was to let Peter Capaldi act with his first Doctor and to set up a regeneration monologue to get us all weeping.
Before that, however, the Captain is returned to his timeline, trying to find his way back to being ready to accept his death. (“That’s the trouble with hope. Makes one awfully frightened.”) If you paid close attention in history class, you probably predicted what was to come. In 2017, a year of conflict, dismay, and frustration, Steven Moffat chose to set his Christmas special during an unprecedented and not-to-be-repeated moment where the wiser and more patient aspects of humanity won out over its lesser qualities. I’m not saying we should join all join hands and sing campfire songs with people who hate us, but sometimes you have to give yourself a brief respite from the fight. We all needed something gentle and not taxing this holiday season, and Doctor Who took it easy on us. Instead of dying with honor as he intended to (also, my heart at him offering to take Bill’s place earlier in the episode), the Brig’s grandfather lived (it seems) to go home to his family and continue setting an example for his sons, who would set examples for THEIR sons. (Sorry about the other World War, guy.) The First Doctor learns that being a Doctor of War doesn’t mean starting them but being brave enough to be there and to do what you can. And Twelve remembers that giving up the battle doesn’t always mean surrendering.
It’s special, I think, that this is the last bit of human that the Doctor gets before he gives up his battle and lets Gallifreyan nature take its course. But if he wasn’t already in an introspective enough mood, Testimony gave him even more to think about. I think, by the end, the Doctor comes to believe that he IS walking with Bill, his friend and student. But he’s also engaging with a being that has the ability to restore something that was NEARLY gone. We did it, fam. We got our Jenna Coleman cameo.
Blatant fan service it may be, but I want my first female Doctor to have Clara Oswald fresh in her mind when her adventures start. And considering the merciless rollercoaster of feelings that these two were on for two full seasons, they deserved their happy ending. Look at the man’s face! (It’s a face that says, “Our love story is canon.”) When she was the first face his face saw, he didn’t even want to be the man that he was. He questioned himself and her constantly, deep in the throes of an identity crisis. He didn’t know if this version of himself could be the hero he needed to be. And when Clara returns, the Doctor remembers that she was the deciding factor in all that. It was their relationship, her pushing and his need to step up FOR her that got him to this point, where he’s holding on to this incarnation of the Doctor with all his might. He’s so pleased to see her and yet so fearful of what Testimony could do if they gave him the full “This Is Your Life” Treatment. (“Do you know how many of you I could fill? I would shatter you. My testimony would shatter all of you.”) But with Clara’s blessing, and with Bill’s and (sigh) Nardole’s, he’s off to try again. To make some new memories, many of which will be very sad indeed.
Kim counted down our favorite Capaldi moments right before the special, and naturally, they’re almost all monologues. I can’t imagine the pressure of writing or performing a speech that you can bet is going to be remembered as THE moment for any given Doctor, but Twelve’s farewell did everything it had to. His audience? Only his future self. And where this Doctor once felt unsuited to the role and unsure even of how much he cared, he’s now the expert, with a strong sense of where he stands. We went on a JOURNEY with him, you guys. And I’m so proud of where we ended up.
“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 pears! Remember, hate is always foolish. and love is always wise. Always try to be nice, but never fail to be kind. Oh, and you mustn’t tell anyone your name. No one would understand it, anyway. Except, ah! 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…”
Of course, the entire episode is masterfully directed by Rachel Talalay. But particularly the moment when she arrives. After what’s felt like a lifetime of waiting, the Thirteenth Doctor takes over the TARDIS. (And promptly loses control of it, but what else is new?) Her introduction was packed with meaning and wonder, from Twelve’s signature wedding ring sliding off her slender finger to her first, PERFECT words. I want so many things for this Doctor, but mostly I want her to be happy to be herself. Not just because it would be trite to re-do Twelve’s arc, but because we as a people need this. This is a do-or-die situation, and there’s no other way forward than for the Doctor to be psyched as hell to be in this particular body.
The Twelfth Doctor goes out on a note of acceptance. He stops struggling and lets change happen, and the immediate payoff of that is Thirteen’s elation. There’s something there that I wish people who are protesting this choice could see, but I’m not counting on it. (They don’t have the wisdom of a couple millennia of existence, CLEARLY.) We’ve come so far, as this episode shows. Bill has to EXPLAIN to the First Doctor the value of “just some bloke, thundering around, putting everything right when it goes wrong,” because that’s not his beat yet. Being the Doctor and loving the Doctor isn’t just about letting go. It’s about taking that leap. And I’m ready to jump off a cliff with Jodie.
Timey Wimey Observations:
- There’s a scene in this episode in which Capaldi’s hair is lit so lovingly that it has to have been intentional.
- “Your face is all over the place” — a genius throwaway to explain David Bradley.
- “It’s been rock and roll.”
- Making him into a crotchety bigot wasn’t really fair to the First Doctor, but it was hugely entertaining to watch Capaldi react to his inappropriate comments. Also it felt like a meta FU to fans crying over the tradition of the show being thrown to the PC wolves of whatever. (No unwanted opinions, please!)
- He’s a hugger now:
- “Long story short, I totally pulled.”
- “You’re the very first Dalek that ever got naked for me.” — I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH THIS.
- From my notes: “ugh the nipples comment. shut up nardole.”
- Mark Gatiss’s wig was really something.
- Best line reading of the entire episode, coming up:
What’d you think about the special?? Tell us everything in the comments below.
Featured Image Source: BBC