Doctor Who recap: 'Twice Upon a Time'
In this year's Christmas special, Twelve plus One equals Thirteen
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)
As soon as One exits, the glassy CGI being identifies him as The Doctor of War, and it offers him a gift: the chance to speak with “her, again” in exchange for the human on board.
“Her,” turns out to be Bill Potts, back from the dead, or so it seems. It’s a gift for Twelve, who exits the Tardis and gives her a massive hug. But, as we’ve learned, never trust a hug. It’s just a way to hide your face. Happy as he is to see her, Twelve isn’t convinced that Bill is still alive. “My friend Bill Potts was turned into a Cyberman. She gave her life so that people she barely knew could live. Nobody imitates Bill Potts. Nobody mocks Bill Potts.”
And Bill can’t remember how she got there, which is our first clue that she’s some sort of apparition. The glass woman identifies herself as “Testimony,” a being (beings?) from the distant future who come back in time to harvest memories from people at the very moment of their death. The World War I Captain, it turns out, was interrupted right as he was supposed to die, and so the Testimony needs to make sure that he goes back and dies correctly, and it’s willing to give them Bill Potts in exchange.
Ever the honorable soldier, the Captain leaves the Tardis, happy to make the ultimate sacrifice to save Bill’s life, but Twelve refuses to give him the chance; instead, they’ll all escape, jumping out the hatch in the floor, sliding down chains to the roof of his Tardis, and then jumping to the ground. The Testimony takes up his Tardis, but with two Doctors, we get two rides. The gang makes their way into the vintage, bright white Tardis, for more of One’s old-timey 1960’s uncle sexism and Gatiss’s delightfully stiff-upper-lipped 20th century Brit: “These police boxes — they’re ever so good, aren’t they?”
Between the two of them, the Doctors notice that the glass woman — the Testimony — had an asymmetrical face, which indicates that she was once a real person, or at least based on one (well, Twelve would have noticed if the sunglasses weren’t disrupting his vision). And so Twelve flies the Tardis to the planet of the world’s biggest database to figure out who she is. The planet seems to be populated entirely by creepy facehugger monsters until the real primary resident is revealed: Rusty the Dalek, who dutifully disarms himself (no extermination plunger) in order to peacefully chat with Twelve. Rusty has been programmed to hate the Daleks, and so it’s willing to help Twelve identify the woman from Testimony: someone from New Earth named Professor Helen Clay.
Thanks to the Dalek network, Clay’s avatar begins to explain what Testimony is: a system that uploads people’s memories at the moment of their death so they can continue to “live” as glass avatars, like a version of Black Mirror’s tech from “I’ll Be Right Back.” And so, of course, that’s what Bill is. But, the Testimony is surprisingly, not sinister at all. “Not an evil plan,” Twelve says. “I don’t really know what to do when it isn’t an evil plan.” Bill isn’t in denial; she knows exactly who, and what, she is and she’s okay with it. “What is anyone supposed to be except a bunch of memories? I’m Bill Potts, and I’m back.” (Recap continues on next page)
Like the best Doctor Who episodes, this one is strongest when its characters are just talking. First, we’re given two heartfelt conversations about one’s inability to face death: a brief chat between the two Doctors trying to get to the bottom of their hesitance to regenerate, and a conversation between Bill and the Captain, who’s aware that the miracle of his “rescue” in the trenches might just be a temporary respite. “That’s the trouble with hope,” he says, about having to go back. “Makes one awfully frightened.”
And then Bill, whose physical form keeps slipping into Glass Lady form, leaves the Tardis temporarily to talk one-on-one with One. He’s the Doctor who stole the Tardis, but rather than ask what he was running from, Bill asks what he was running to. ”Questions are kind of my thing. How are you with answers?”
“By any analysis, evil should always win,” One replies. “Good is not a practical survival strategy. It requires loyalty and self-sacrifice and love. And so, why does good prevail? What keeps the balance between good and evil?”
It seems the Doctor always needs a companion to point out the obvious: Maybe, she says, that force that keeps good and evil in balance is just some bloke, putting things right wherever he goes. Maybe the Doctor is the one real fairytale.
Because the Doctors feel responsible for the time vortex that accidentally summoned the Captain, they feel it’s necessary to be the ones to bring him back. The Captain, ever stoic, finally feels brave enough to face death, even if he wishes he could see his wife again, to whom he promised he would be home for Christmas. He asks the Doctors to look in on his family from time to time. And then he gives the name. “Lethbridge-Stewart.” In the first tear-jerking moment of the episode, of course, the Captain is the father of Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, one of the Doctor’s most famous companions.
One promises to look in on them from time to time. “You can trust him on that,” Twelve confirms.
“I believe, I am now ready,” Captain Lethbridge-Stewart says, and re-enters his pose of death, time restarts, and the standoff between the two men with guns resumes.
But just then, there’s singing. “Silent Night” in German drifts from across No Man’s Land. And we get the second beautiful revelation of the episode: It’s Christmas, in 1914. It’s the Christmas armistice, the real historical moment when both sides on the Western Front laid down their arms to enjoy Christmas together, just so briefly. Twelve adjusted the time frame, for just a couple of hours, to return the Captain to that “human miracle.” (That real armistice is so heartwarming, it will make you tear up at a Sainsbury commercial. Just me?)
“Never happened again, any war, anywhere,” Twelve says. “But for one day, one Christmas, a very long time ago, everybody just put down their weapons, and started to sing.”
As the sun rises and the men from both sides sing and shake hands, both Doctors shake hands as well, and they begin to glow. “I think I’m ready now,” One says. And the Doctors say goodbye. The Captain gives Twelve a confused salute, indicating that he probably doesn’t remember anything that just happened. But the Doctor of War found a way to bring him home to his family.
“Here we go, the long way around,” One says once he’s safely back in his Tardis, and the film goes grainy again, 1960s-era, and we get the vintage shot of his transition into the Second Doctor. Time flows on.
But Twelve isn’t ready yet. Sitting in the cold, he invites Bill Potts to go for one last walk. “Letting go of the Doctor is so, so hard, isn’t it?” Bill says. Twelve still doesn’t believe that she’s the real Bill, but she’s insistent, and as a goodbye present, she kisses him on the cheek, and brings back Clara — all of his memories of Clara are back. “And don’t go forgetting me again,” she says, “Because quite frankly, that was offensive.” And Nardole is back too, the trio of his old companions coming back to give Capaldi his final farewell.
“Don’t die,” Nardole says, “because if you do, I think everybody in the universe might just go cold.”
“Can’t I have peace? Can’t I rest?” The Doctor (now, he’s the only Doctor I’m referring to) has had so many memories, lost so many people, that he could fill the glass Testimony until it shatters. His life is an empty battlefield of people he’s lost, and soldiering on alone seems very, very lonely.
His former companions, the Testimony, disappear. “Time to leave the battlefield,” he says. And then we get Capaldi’s final monologue, his painful, wobble through the Tardis before death. “Well, I suppose….one more lifetime won’t kill anyone. Well, except me.”
Moments from regeneration, the Doctor ends with some advice for himself, and his future self, reminders about the type of man — the type of person — he wants to be: “Never be cruel, never be cowardly, and never ever eat pears…Remember hate is always foolish and love is always wise….And never tell anyone your name. No one would understand it anyway. 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…Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind.” (That last one seems a bit like something you might find on the Instagram of the most basic girl you know.)
And then, in the spirit of a Doctor’s final lines also acting as a farewell for the actor (Ten’s “I don’t want to go,” Eleven’s “I will never forget when the Doctor was me,”), Peter Capaldi gives his last words as the Doctor: “Doctor — I let you go.”
We see her eyes first, hazel eyes. And then we see the Tardis through her eyes. And then, finally, we get to see her for the first time: Jodie Whittaker, the first female Doctor. “Oh, brilliant,” she says, before pushing a button and sending the Tardis violently sideways and exploding off into space.
And that’s where we leave her, falling through space, with endless possibilities, and an open future. That bloke that Bill was talking about? That bloke that travels around who keeps the good from being defeated by the evil? Well, he doesn’t always have to be a bloke. My heart is swollen with Christmas and a “Just this once, everybody lives,” ending, and the first female Doctor! It was a phenomenal ending to ignite a new era.