Doctor Who: Twice Upon A Time – Spoiler-Free Review

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Tony takes a spoiler-free look at the Twelfth Doctor's swansong.


On a very basic level, there are two equal and opposite approaches to writing a Doctor Who story. On the one hand, if you want to fill the screen with action and complicated storytelling, keep the deep and meaningful to a minimum. On the other, if you have a lot to say, keep the story light and untroubling, and focus in on the characters and their interplay. If you want to do both, of course… it’s probably best to make sure you have two episodes to do it in, a la The End of Time.

Twice Upon A Time had a lot to do, but most of it was in that second category – it was the Twelfth Doctor’s regeneration story, and it came with a Doctor who’d spent an inordinate amount of time over his tenure dying, or part-regenerating, in between trying to find out what kind of person he was, and what kind of Doctor. It also came off the back of the first return for the cloth-faced Mondasian Cybermen since their original outing in The Tenth Planet – which was also the first time the Doctor ever regenerated. Wheels within wheels. The idea of pairing the two Doctors for one adventure in which both their regenerational angst-issues were dealt with must have been utterly irresistible – especially when it would be the last story Steven Moffat would write as showrunner. The symmetry between the First and the Twelfth Doctors called out to be explored, and if you kept the universe-threatening nightmares light (frequently a good idea in a Christmas story anyway), there was a chance to create something entirely memorable.

Twice Upon A Time then, if such a thing is either possible or advisable, was ‘peak Moffat.’ Or at least peak Moffat since the last peak Moffat moment, The Day of The Doctor.

But does that make it any good?

Well, that depends what you watch it for.

If you were looking for enormous plots, lots of action and the ultimate Doctor Who story, you’d probably be disappointed. If you were OK with a lot of re-used elements in service to what was essentially a character study in youth, experience, ageing, bravery, fear, and all the things about our earlier selves we learn to love, learn to accommodate and learn to regret, Capaldi’s swansong was going to deliver you a damn good time.

Full Disclosure: I wasn’t entirely keen to see David Bradley step out of the role of William Hartnell and into the role of the First Doctor, because I could neither see nor hear the First Doctor in Bradley.

Cunning devil, that Moffat – one line, itself recycled from his own Time Crash, removed the issues I had with Bradley, and allowed the actor room to play the role his own way. That said, Bradley did extraordinary work in Twice Upon A Time, at several points entirely convincing us that the First Doctor was properly back with us. He was aided in that by some bold writing, allowing the First Doctor to tell us things the writers during his era could never have known, but which, for the character to make any sense in hindsight, he had to understand. Fearlessly extending our perception of the First Doctor, Moffat and Bradley together created something rather wonderful in Twice Upon A Time, which will bear rewatching time after time after time.

The ‘threat’ in the story was, as foreshadowed, nothing that will stand up against the great Doctor Who villains of any era, but then it really didn’t need to be – both Doctors were already dying going in to the story, so the burden of killing either of them was removed (and by the same villains, 54 years apart, no less). That meant all the villain of the piece had to do here was prompt action, create questions that needed answering, and allow our two Doctors to ponder the issues of regeneration and death. That much it did, though it took rather a straightforward, expositional route to its objectives, manifesting as a) something that looked like a character from a previous Christmas Special, and b) in what’s become a regeneration tradition, the people that the particular Doctor has known and loved. And along the way, forcing the Doctors to look for answers to the presence of a First World War Captain in the wrong time amid a frozen snowstorm, it also gave us something of a heavy-handed excuse to revisit a character from an early Capaldi story, and give some answers to the questions they had previously left open.

As stories went, it was reference-heavy for longstanding fans, and may even, watched one way, have unwritten a moment of what felt to some like supremely bad judgment on Moffat’s part in Series 8. But none of the references were story-crucial, and so did little to impair the watchability of the story for the less hardcore fans. What might have done that to some extent were the rather heavy-handed attempts to make the First Doctor seem more sexist than the character ever was. Hartnell himself, absolutely. The First Doctor? Rarely. He was patriarchal, certainly, patronising sometimes, but rarely if ever the unreconstructed sexist he appeared in some early lines in Twice Upon A Time. Again, the point of establishing bits of our past we’d like to forget makes sense, but in those moments, there was a little disservice done to the First Doctor, which might deter younger fans from checking him out.

The nature of the Captain’s identity, his point in space-time, and the lesson he was able to teach at least one of our Doctors was bolstered by a beautiful performance from Mark Gatiss, a fitting sign-off, should this prove to be his last involvement with the show. His scenes were warm, human, and ultimately added a lot of the Christmas Feels to the story.

Capaldi’s last scenes were spellbinding, even if the reasons for what felt like a major change of hearts seemed relatively inconsequential, more ‘Oh what the hell?’ than ‘Of course I was wrong, I have to go on.’ The Twelfth Doctor’s dialogue on why he wanted not to change was heartbreaking, his response to a parting gift elating, with a full-beam Capaldi smile, and a long final speech more like a lesson to the newcomers about the fundamental soul of the Doctor than a reflection on the way he’d lived his life. That may well have been a wise choice, establishing that the fundamentals of the Doctor are not dependent on any notions of gender.

And then, in what looked like a slightly more high-tech, but ultimately rather less impressive version of the Tennant-Smith regeneration, the grumpy Doctor who learned to be kind was gone, and the new girl had arrived. Her first words were low-key, but simple and right. A visual focus on the Twelfth Doctor’s ring was a double callback, both to the Smith-Capaldi regeneration and the Hartnell-Troughton one. People are already claiming the first conundrum for the Thirteenth Doctor (bite me, numbering protocol!) is the result of ‘women drivers’ but to claim this is a mark of pure idiocy – it’s more or less exactly how Matt Smith began his time in the Tardis, only with an extra level of symbolism: the Tardis acting like the fans who claim they will take their toys and go home now Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor. The conundrum also acts as a perfect prequel to the announcement video, where the Tardis comes back to a stranded Doctor, key first, and then the big blue box. It bodes well for a high-octane pre-credits sequence to Jodie’s first full story when it airs, which can only be a good thing as she establishes her Doctor’s credentials early.

Twice Upon A Time has already been criticised on social media and in some national media reviews as having no story, no actual adventure. This is reasonably fair criticism – but then, very few of the people tuning in to watch will have come expecting a romp. This was the farewell story of one of the most introspective Doctors of recent years, perhaps matched only by Sylvester McCoy in the whole history of the show for brooding brilliance. It was always going to be a story about the Doctor, about what makes him who he is and what makes him do what he does. Along the way, there was a certain sogginess of emotion from both Time Lord and human story-strands, but in a story of redemption, rejuvenation, hope, self-acceptance and the idea that not everything is an evil alien plot to destroy the universe, it’s precisely those emotional heartbeats that will keep you coming back to rewatch Capaldi’s swansong at least until Jodie Whittaker takes the helm for her first full series.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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