Twice Upon a Time

Story No. 302 The original, you might say
Production Code Series 10, Christmas episode
Dates December 25, 2017

With Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas
Written by Steven Moffat Directed by Rachel Talalay
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: Two Doctors find themselves facing their impending regenerations.


"It's the end but the moment has been prepared for" by Matthew Kresal 16/6/19

Those words, spoken by Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor on the brink of his regeneration nearly forty years ago, could also be applied to the 2017 Christmas special. It's safe to say that expectations were high, thanks to the announcement of Peter Capaldi exiting the series alongside showrunner Steven Moffat, Jodie Whittaker taking over as the first canonical (for lack of a better phrase) female Doctor, and then the return of David Bradley playing the role of the First Doctor (Bradley having previously played actor William Hartnell, who originated the role, in 2013's An Adventure In Space And Time). So did Twice Upon a Time live up to those expectations or did it crash and burn?

Given the sheer amount of elements on its plate, Moffat certainly had a lot to play with given the hour of screen time. Perhaps it's not a surprise then that the special's plot is relatively straightforward. Picking up both from the end of Series Ten finale and between scenes in the First Doctor's regeneration story, The Tenth Planet, Twice Upon a Time finds the First and Twelfth Doctors dealing with moments of frozen time with a group of glass-like creatures snatching people out of time at the moment of their deaths. Two of those they encounter are a First World War British army captain (played by Moffat's Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss, whose previous Who screen appearances include the title role in The Lazarus Experiment and numerous scripts) and former companion Bill Potts. The special then is a bit of a runaround but one that packs a punch.

A punch that is driven home by the characters and performances. Moffat uses all of the aforementioned characters to explore how we face death, something appropriate given that Twice Upon a Time marks the end of an era. It's something that Capaldi, Bradley and even Gatiss play wonderfully in their own ways at different times throughout the hour. Indeed, some of the best moments are having the two Doctors together from very different ends of their lives looking at each other as two old men raging against the dying of the light. And yet, the end of the special is also a life-affirming one, filled with hope for the future after spending nearly an hour looking so much to the past.

It's the looking to the past that will also help this special stand out. The special begins with footage from The Tenth Planet which morphs seamlessly from black and white with William Hartnell into newly shot color footage featuring Bradley, which offers snatches of scenes long lost due to a BBC archive purge in the 1970s. As a long-time fan, it's wonderful to see those moments recreated, and it is perhaps fans who will appreciate those touches and another major reference that comes late in the special more than the average viewer. At times though, it might be a bit much such as the return of a character (for lack of a better phrase) from a very early Capaldi episode or the over-played sexism of the First Doctor (something that was there back in the 1960s as part of the era but to a far lesser extent in the character himself). For long-time fans, it's much fun, a chance for the Doctor and viewer alike to look backward and forwards all at once.

What Twice Upon a Time will be remembered for more than anything else is its closing two minutes or so. Regenerations have not been a forte of 21st-century Who, it must be said. David Tennant's exit in The End of Time was spread across more than two hours and turned into a sloppy, poorly plotted and over-sentimental mess with him moaning "I don't want to go!" to the heartbreak of some and the heavy cringing of others. Matt Smith's 2013 exit was tonally all over the place, due to trying to cram so much into sixty minutes, though The Time Of The Doctor was redeemed somewhat by an excellent final scene for Smith. Indeed, only Christopher Eccelston's exit in Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways can be said to have really worked. Here though, Moffat gets it right with a scene that lets Capaldi say goodbye not just in character as the Doctor but to the role that he, as a life-long fan, had clearly always wanted to play. Moffat keeps it from being too self-indulgent before it gives way to Jodie Whittaker's much-anticipated entrance, which left appetites whetted for her run (at least among those not already putting the proverbial nails into the coffin of the show following her casting).

For all of those reasons, Twice Upon a Time was and remains a joy to watch. It might well be the best Christmas special Doctor Who has yet aired and is the best regeneration story we've had in more than a decade. More than that, it's the end of an era and the beginning of a new one, something that everyone involved, from Moffat to Capaldi, are intent on making clear. It's a look back and a look ahead with nostalgia on one hand and hope on the other.

As the Third Doctor said to Sarah: "Where there's life there's..."