Goodbye Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat (for some fans, one of those farewells might be considerably more bittersweet than the other)… and hello, Jodie Whittaker.
“Twice Upon a Time” provides a perfect showcase for Capaldi’s impatient, expressive, oh-so-Scottish Doctor. And for Moffat, a writer who’s had a tendency to overreach with big, plot-holey, season-upending twists, it’s an episode mercifully down-to-earth — just three men (well, one man and two Gallifreyans), dealing with what it means to die.
Yes, two Gallifreyans — like 2013’s 50th anniversary special, we get two Doctors at different points in their timelines: Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor, and David Bradley as the First (originally portrayed by William Hartnell).
After a vintage introduction from 709 episodes ago, colorized and merged expertly with new footage, the Christmas special begins just where “The Doctor Falls” left off, with the Doctor attempting to extinguish his own regeneration in the snow at the South Pole when he’s approached by his own first incarnation, also trying to stave off a bodily change.
“This is it, the very first time that I, well, you, we, regenerated,” Twelve says as he looks at his former self (I’ll be using Twelve and One to talk about the Doctors to avoid confusion here). Because One’s regeneration has already begun, we get a helpful little explanation for why his face might look different than it does in reruns. “Your face… it’s all over the place,” Twelve remarks. After all, strange things happen to Doctors mid-regeneration — they can regrow hands and use energy to blow spaceships out of the sky. And, it seems, they can also change actors.
Even if One doesn’t quite recognize who he’ll become, Twelve understands the situation almost immediately: They’re both resisting regeneration, frozen figuratively, in a frozen landscape that also becomes literally frozen around them, with snowflakes hovering in the air and never falling. “Either we change and go on, or we die as we are,” Twelve says, an early explication of the episode’s (and really, the show’s) theme.
But, poignancy is interrupted by a bit of comic relief in the form of Mark Gatiss’s mustachioed Captain approaching from the distance. “I don’t suppose either of you is a Doctor?”
Post title-sequence, we see the story from the Captain’s point of view. He was fighting in World War I, one of two soldiers pointing guns at each other in a perfect stalemate: neither wanting to kill the other but each terrified that the other will kill him first. But time stopped for them too, for everyone except the Captain, and he’s left walking the ruins of the trenches wondering what’s going on. He sees a silvery figure, hears a voice repeat, “There is a timeline error,” and is dropped into the snow, a few yards from our Doctors.
Ever hospitable, One invites him into the Tardis and we’re gifted with two classic Who moments: an older doctor remarking on how he hates the renovations (“My Tardis!”) and a new guest commenting that it’s bigger on the inside. “I thought so too,” Twelve deadpans. “Glad it’s not just me.”
One offers some Brandy, and Twelve offers some heartbreaking historical spoilers when he identifies the Captain as World War I-era. “World War I,” Captain says. “What do you mean, ‘One’?” Not quite convinced that he’s looking at his future self, One introduces Twelve as his nurse. “Older men, like women, can be put to use!” he proudly declares. “You can’t say things like that,” Twelve replies. One’s — let’s call it a less-than-PC attitude — is just one of the fun ways our two incarnations clash. (“This whole place could use a good dusting. Obviously Polly isn’t around anymore.” “Please, please stop saying things like that.”) Another difference? Sunglasses vs. a monocle. Twelve’s rock star electric guitar. And, surprise, One didn’t have a sonic screwdriver yet, and that means he’s able to be the outsider who points out the ridiculous thing we’ve all ignored: “Sonic screwdriver? An audio screwdriver?”
But there isn’t much time for the rest of the culture clash because the Tardis is taken up by a sinister ship with the announcement: “Exit your capsule, the chamber of the dead awaits you.” (Recap continues on next page)