Television

Doctor Who Christmas Special Review: Twice Upon a Time

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WARNING: Major Spoilers ahead!

And so, the Peter Capaldi/Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who reaches its conclusion. Twice Upon a Time not only sees the departure of a wonderful leading man and a highly respected (albeit divisive) showrunner after a huge number of years, it also signals one of the show’s biggest changes in the show’s fifty-something year history.

Pairing up a near-death Twelfth Doctor with an equally stricken First Doctor (played here by David Bradley, who previously bought life to the First Doctor’s original actor William Hartnell in the sublime 2013 anniversary film An Adventure in Space and Time), the Doctors are confronted with a displaced World War I Captain (Mark Gatiss), frozen time and something that resembles the Twelfth Doctor’s departed companion, Bill (Pearl Mackie). Together, the two dying Doctors must solve the mystery of the time distortion and face their impending deaths.

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As regeneration episodes go, Twice Upon a Time is a strange beast. A Doctor’s final episode is usually a melancholic but celebratory affair, the stakes raised to their highest as our hero gets closer and closer to their ultimate fate. A regeneration story is mean to be a major showcase for the outgoing Doctor, placing them front and centre and reminding us just why we’ll miss them so much. Sadly, Twice Upon a Time never quite manages that feat.

The presence of the First Doctor ultimately detracts attention away from the Twelfth. His presence here feels forced and unnecessary, whilst the central conceit that the Doctor refuses to regenerate is never explained beyond the usual ‘I’ve lived too long, etc…’ schtick. David Bradley gives a wonderful performance, but the story never really justifies having two Doctors together. The idea of one’s past self encouraging the future version to live on is a solid idea that only Doctor Who can pull off, but the idea is wasted here, almost abandoned entirely in favour of the usual bickering and bitching that occurs whenever the Doctor meets a former incarnation.

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As Steven Moffat‘s final Doctor Who episode, it’s a huge shame to see him resort to his usual annoying habits. An over reliance on continuity, fan references and self congratulatory backslapping pervades throughout the episode, ensuring casual viewers will be left scratching their heads. The reveal of the Captain as the ancestor of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart will comes no surprise to any hardcore fans, but for those unacquainted with 1970’s Doctor Who, it’s a flat, confusing and pointless exercise in fan-w***. Add in the appearance of Rusty the Dalek from 2014’s Into the Dalek and a tacky recreation of scenes from First Doctor swan-song The Tenth Planet (1966), and frankly, any non-fan watching will need a few diagrams and a trip to the internet to make sense of it all.

Moffat also seems to have got it into his head that the First Doctor a mysoginistic old fart, clearly confusing the character with the period of British history in which he first appeared. William Hartnell‘s Doctor was never so outrageously sexist, nor did he ever spout such awkward lines about ‘experience with the fairer sex’. It’s a pointless, frankly insulting running ‘gag’ that feels awfully uncomfortable and shoehorned in for no other reason then that Moffat can’t help himself, thus leaving a rather sour taste in the mouth.

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But for all its flaws, both in terms narrative and tone, Twice Upon a Time just about manages to deliver what it sets out to. The final ten minutes are the real highlight – full of poignancy, understated emotion and some truly beautiful, heartbreaking performances. The scenes of the Christmas armistice in the trenches are beautifully shot by director Rachel Talalay whilst the farewells between Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie and even Matt Lucas in his cameo role as former companion Nardole are full of so much genuine warmth and heart that it brings a tear to the eye.

All this brings us to the final, inevitable moments. Throughout his four years in the role of the Doctor, Peter Capaldi has given us the full range – from the angry-eyed, emotionally insulated alien of his first year to the mad guitar-strumming ageing punk he has become, Capaldi has proven time and time again that he was born to play the role, delivering the best performance, even in instances when the material was lacking. His final scene here is superb, an uplifting and defiant end for a Doctor who has been exactly that.

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And then, in comes number thirteen. In just one minute (and about as many words) Jodie Whittaker has us on the edge of our seats, eager for more. The Chris Chibnall/Jodie Whittaker era looks set to be an exciting new beginning for the show, if that cliffhanger is anything to go by. Roll on Autumn!

All told, Twice Upon a Time is not the final epic send-off Peter Capaldi deserved, nor does it quite serve as a solid celebration of the Steven Moffat era. The over-reliance on fan-pleasing nods to the past and the inclusion of another Doctor distract from what should be the outgoing Twelfth Doctor’s final hour. But thanks to excellent performances and solid direction (as well as a much needed plot course-correction in the final ten minutes), the Twelfth Doctor’s farewell is as emotional and brilliant as it should have been from the start.

One thing is for sure – the future of Doctor Who is looking very bright indeed.

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Doctor Who returns to BBC One in Autumn 2018. Be sure to check out our other Doctor Who Series 10 reviews here on Critical Popcorn.

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