To start, then, at the end. The Doctor is dead, long live the Doctor, and, indeed, long live Doctor Who.
Having accepted his fate, the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) regenerates into the Thirteenth (Jodie Whittaker) who, making history as the first female Doctor, is (as is now traditional) faced with a TARDIS which is exploding and/or crashing. Glimpsing her reflection, the new Doctor says just two words: “Oh, brilliant!”
This scene has confirmed the feeling that the show will be moving into largely new territory, what with the replacement of showrunner Steven Moffat with Chris Chibnall, a new roster of companions, a new Doctor, and a largely new behind the scenes crew. Change is on the horizon, and is underscored by our last glimpse of the TARDIS interior which has been embroiled in flames, ready to be reborn.
It is difficult to judge a new Doctor on their fleeting appearance at the tail-end of their predecessor’s swansong, but Whittaker’s face as the Doctor realises he is now a she and her enthusiastic reaction to that fact gives one hope. Whatever happens, Jodie Whittaker feels and looks like the Doctor in that brief scene.
But this is not just the Thirteenth Doctor’s debut, it is more importantly the Twelfth Doctor’s farewell. The story begins in 1966, with the First Doctor (William Hartnell/David Bradley) story The Tenth Planet.
This story, which saw the first regeneration, is recreated here with new actors and original footage, with a lovely morphing of a black-and-white William Hartnell into latter-day First Doctor David Bradley. Twice Upon a Time
takes place between two scenes from The Tenth Planet
and brings the First Doctor face to face with his future in the form of the Twelfth Doctor.
Both men refuse to regenerate, preferring death to losing their identities. And so, a paradox is created and they are thrown together with a WWI Captain (Mark Gatiss) and reunited with Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie). Oddly, for a regeneration story, there is no big bad to fight, no epic adventure in the style of Matt Smith or David Tennant’s departures. There are merely two old men facing change, unable to embrace the future, meditating on the nature of identity and who they are, while the importance of memories in what makes people people is demonstrated by Bill and reasserted by the return of a former companion (see below) - memories about whom the Doctor had wiped.
It is, of course, a Christmas special and so it is not all grimness and melancholy. Humour is abundant, the Twelfth Doctor acting like a grandchild embarrassed by a grandparent’s lack of political correctness at Christmas dinner. The First Doctor is old-fashioned, seeing his female companions as maids for the TARDIS rather than, well, companions. He even threatens to smack Bill’s bottom for her rude language (incidentally directly quoting a classic story where the First Doctor really did threaten to do that to his granddaughter). Nonetheless, he is also wise and warm and kind, played to perfection by David Bradley, who is nigh-indistinguishable from William Hartnell in his First Doctor costume and make up.
This goes both ways, however- reflecting some fans, the First Doctor is aghast at his future self’s guitar and sonic sunglasses. More seriously, the First Doctor does not recognise himself, for whereas he is a doddering adventurer, his future selves end up as epic heroes - sometimes even warriors. A lovely scene shows us snippets of past Doctors, who are the future for the First - from a grumpy but warm old man to a man of godlike, mythical stature.
However, the glory must go to Peter Capaldi, who manages to convey an extraordinary range of emotions and states of mind in his swansong. He is funny, angry, epic, heroic, melancholy and, finally, accepting of his fate. Rusty the Dalek (Nicholas Briggs) from Capaldi’s first series returns and the Doctor’s great friend the Brigadier is sweetly referenced. We see Clara (Jenna Coleman) and Nardole (Matt Lucas) again, and the latter, with Bill, urges the Doctor to accept that he must change or the universe will lose a saviour. Mackie and Capaldi effortlessly re-establish their chemistry, which was one of the finest things about this year’s series.
Viewing the Christmas Truce of WWI, the Doctors accept their fates and return to their TARDISes to regenerate. Peter Capaldi’s final speech, giving advice to his successor, is emotional and beautifully executed. He tells himself to “laugh hard, run fast, be kind” and his final words show how far he has come: “Doctor, I let you go.” These words apply to the character, Capaldi and Steven Moffat.
A great era has come to an end, and a new one is about to begin. Melancholy but hopeful, like Christmas. All that remains to be said is: onwards.
Doctor Who will return for an eleventh series in 2018.
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