DOCTOR WHO – ‘Twice Upon a Time’

doctor who - twice upon a time

And so we bid farewell to Peter Capaldi and the Twelfth Doctor. A shame really, as Capaldi was not best served by his writers to begin with and it took the whole of 2014 for Moffat and his team to realise that turning The Doctor into a rather unlikeable person wasn’t a wise move. Eventually, his sharper edges were knocked off and, by the time Capaldi was teamed with Pearl Mackie as Bill Potts for Series 10, it felt like the Twelfth Doctor had truly come home. It’s therefore interesting to note that The Doctor depicted in 2014, attempting to discern if he was after all a good man, returns to the scene of one of his crimes in 2017’s valedictory Doctor Who Christmas special “Twice Upon a Time”. But we’ll get to that in a minute…

“Twice Upon a Time” picks up from the closing moments of Series 10 finale “The Doctor Falls“, with a battered Twelfth Doctor—on the brink of regeneration after battling the Cybermen—landing in the snowy wastes of the South Pole, raging against the dying of the light and bumping into himself. Himself being the First Doctor, also on the verge of transformation in the aftermath of his first encounter with the denizens of Mondas, wandering through the snow back to his TARDIS.

Explicitly, “Twice Upon a Time” is slotted between two scenes in “The Tenth Planet”, William Hartnell’s last story as The Doctor. To make this clear to the casual viewer, slumped on the sofa in an alcoholic haze after a heavy Christmas dinner, the episode proposes a ‘what if?’ with a precis of “The Tenth Planet”, in black-and-white, before recapping the classic scene of Hartnell upbraiding the Cybermen for their lack of emotion. It’s a lovely touch, beautifully achieved, having Hartnell then morph into David Bradley to establish the concept. To go to the trouble of recreating the scenes at the Snowcap base is laudable, to the extent of Bradley mimicking Hartnell looming right into shot as he gravely intones to his companions Ben (Jared Garfield) and Polly (Lily Travers) “it’s far from being all over.” However, I note that much of the Snowcap recreation doesn’t appear and many of these scenes were cut. This seems a terrible shame after the pre-publicity made a feature of how meticulously the sets had been built.

As the First Doctor sets off to the TARDIS, we’re told on screen that he, too, is refusing to regenerate. This refers to a cut line in “The Tenth Planet” where The Doctor specifically refuses to accept the change. It fits in with the use of David Bradley to recreate the First Doctor, based upon his moving portrayal of Hartnell’s final days working on Doctor Who in Mark Gatiss’ effective docudrama “An Adventure in Space and Time”. This refusal to regenerate also echoes Hartnell’s own reluctance to relinquish a role he’d cherished for three years, and Bradley is tasked with finding his way out of a televisual Hall of Mirrors when it comes to establishing himself as the First Doctor. He’s already played William Hartnell, interpreted Hartnell as the First Doctor, and is here re-interpreting that Doctor as a character in this story. It’s far from all over for David Bradley, too.

Moffat clearly recognises this transition skews things a bit and gives Capaldi’s Doctor a lovely observation of the First Doctor’s mid-regeneration appearance that “your face—it’s all over the place”. The opening scene with its plunge into existing canon, 709 episodes ago, and back out with Bradley on its coat-tails is an interesting hook for a story, one that fills a speculative gap in the narrative and where Moffat’s free to gleefully annoy fans before Chris Chibnall gets his hands on the franchise and heads off in a new direction. Doctor Who is about to re-make and make its history twice in the space of an hour, as the First gives way to the Second and the long established tradition of male actors playing the title role is broken by the arrival of Jodie Whittaker.

The First Doctor has always been somewhat at loggerheads with his former selves whenever he’s crossed their paths. He grumpily assessed his Third and Second incarnations as a “dandy and a clown” in “The Three Doctors” and was rather terse with the Fifth Doctor and his companions in “The Five Doctors”. It is pretty much par for the course that the Doctors tend to have a go at each other before settling down and collectively facing the crisis that has brought them together. Moffat riffs on this well, adding the emotional heft of the Twelfth’s departure to the necessity of the First’s regeneration together with his own view, through many, many call backs in this special, of what Doctor Who is. The refusal to “leave the battlefield”, for the Time Lord to let these Doctors go and then accept that change is the essential force that drives Doctor Who forward, is very powerfully communicated.

At the heart of the story is Moffat’s key obsession with memory. He constantly asks if memories are all that we need to define ourselves. When the Twelfth asks himself, “I don’t remember trying not to change. Not back then” Moffat addresses the elephant in the room. Why doesn’t The Doctor remember this encounter? The Doctors appear to be in a state of grace at the South Pole and have a choice to die or regenerate and live on. The problem is that if the First Doctor doesn’t regenerate and he doesn’t “do the things that you are supposed to do” then the Time Lord’s very existence, built on all those lives and memories, will dissolve away. As soon as this is uttered, the consequences the Twelfth fears become evident, “something has gone very wrong with time” and the story gets underway with the arrival of the Captain (Mark Gatiss).

The Doctor as ‘warrior’ has long been a theme that Moffat’s considered, and he even went so far as to create a ‘War Doctor’ incarnation, building upon the idea of The Doctor ending the Time War that Russell T. Davies created as the backdrop to the survivor guilt of the Ninth Doctor. Moffat is always keen to examine the essence of heroism, especially a heroism entangled in and scarred by the very violent actions of warfare, and how The Doctor compromised his ideals, as a reluctant hero, to fight in such a war and end it. “Twice Upon a Time” returns to these themes, particularly in the way The Doctor’s life or death choice to regenerate hinges upon the Captain’s true destiny, first caught up in a killing in self-defence stalemate with a German soldier (a cameo by regular writer Toby Whithouse), to survive the trenches of the fragile Christmas Armistice of 1914.

But before we get to explore the ramifications of the Captain’s appearance at the South Pole, the expected clash between the curmudgeonly original and the incumbent Doctors is played out in typically amusing fashion. To a point, that is. There are in-jokes about the First Doctor calling the TARDIS his “ship”, that its windows are the wrong size, and a declaration that its current decor is hideous. The banter in the TARDIS starts, as is commonplace in multi-Doctor stories, with a comparison between outward appearances but then Moffat does something quite strange. He uses his First Doctor as a figurehead for all the outmoded social prejudices and attitudes of the 1960s.

His First Doctor, given the World War I setting, is almost a ’Colonel Blimp’ caricature and used to expose certain social and cultural attitudes possibly embedded within Doctor Who of the early 1960s and beyond. Perhaps it’s also a satirical dig at how unprogressive certain fans have been about the casting of Jodie Whittaker. It’s not entirely successful and there is a unpleasant elision between the mores the scriptwriters of the day may have had, particularly when writing female roles, Hartnell’s own oft-discussed discomfort with and reaction to the changing times in which he found himself while playing the role, and the established portrayal of the First Doctor. We know the circumstances Doctor Who was made in when Hartnell played the role and to us those attitudes are definitely of their time.

However, The Doctor is a wanderer in Space and Time from an advanced alien race and wasn’t a man born into and living through the early 1960s. Why pin those outmoded attitudes onto him as a character trait? Looking back at the Hartnell era, there really aren’t that many instances where such attitudes are determinedly part of The Doctor’s character. It doesn’t quite work and comes across as a convenient way to squeeze in jokes about how far we’ve come from those misogynistic, xenophobic, and sexist times. It has a detrimental effect in reducing the character’s integrity.

So we get his digs about nurses, the French, Polly being unavailable to do a spot of dusting (or put the kettle on, natch), and his horror at Bill Potts’ sexual preference. And, yes, the Twelfth’s own liberal horror at such out of control non-PC outpourings is funny to a degree, because it’s our own horrified reaction to what unenlightened older relatives might say. It’s just a very strange way of hammering the point home and does a disservice to Hartnell and Bradley’s portrayal. Bradley doesn’t often escape beyond a version of the First Doctor as a memorial for past attitudes. Mind you, he has some genuinely amusing scenes with Capaldi, particularly the spot on deconstruction of the sonic screwdriver (“an audio screwdriver?”) and those bloody sunglasses. These work because we are seeing a contrast between two versions of The Doctor and not between two eras.

I digress.

The two Doctors and the Captain find themselves aboard an alien ship, dragged into the Chamber of the Dead. The concept of the glass aliens collecting the memories of the recently dead for the Testimony fits in with Moffat’s continuing exploration of mortality, a theme that has really come to the fore since “Dark Water”/”Death in Heaven” and “World Enough and Time”. The Chamber of the Dead is also another iteration of the Aplan tombs on Alfava Metraxis in “Time of the Angels” or the dead converted into Cybermen of “Dark Water”’s virtual heaven inside St. Paul’s Cathedral.

A recurring trope is Moffat’s version of the afterlife and it’s cropped up several times. The Chamber and the notion that Testimony is a preservation of memories explores several themes pertinent to this final episode of the Moffat era. For The Doctor, the reappearance of Bill Potts (or the manifestation of her as a living memory) fits in with the idea that a mausoleum like the Chamber is representative of how good something or someone in The Doctor’s life used to be. Michael Pickwoad’s set design for the Chamber also reminded me of the huge stairway up to heaven in Powell and Pressburger’s own meditation on mortality in A Matter of Life and Death.

For a minute, when the First Doctor is told he may “speak with her again” in exchange for the Captain, I was half-expecting Susan Foreman to step out of the shadows to greet him. It’s great to see Pearl Mackie return to the series as Bill Potts but the implication here is that she and Clara Oswald, who also reappears later, have now actually died. The Testimony is “what awaits at the end of every life” and “as every living soul dies, so we will appear”. It harvests these souls or memories and then returns the recipient to the moment of their death. Again, as The Doctors assess the problem, Bradley gets wonderfully close to catching the essence of the First Doctor as he bats away the Twelfth’s technobabble analysis for a hard stare at the Testimony’s interface. It is not a computer generated avatar as the face is asymmetrical, he observes. His other incarnation would deduce this “if he could see properly” and with that he angrily whips the sonic sunglasses off The Doctor’s face.

The Captain was being returned to his timeline by the Testimony when an error occurred and he was plonked down at the South Pole, just as the two Doctors dug their heels in and refused to regenerate. Very much like Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, where June agrees to save Peter’s life by taking his place in the afterlife by travelling up the stairway to heaven, and similar to Clara’s extra time between her final heartbeats granted by the Time Lords, the Captain agrees to the Testimony’s offer of taking Bill’s place. Bill rejects that idea and, tested by The Doctor, she appeals to him to “serve at the pleasure of the human race.” Bill, the Captain, and the First Doctor escape with him, Moffat sneaking in another little nod to the past, referring to his first incarnation as Mr. Pastry. This was a character played by Richard Hearne back the 1950s and Hearne had been considered for the role of The Doctor when Jon Pertwee departed the series in 1974. Mr. Pastry accompanies Mary Berry and Corporal Jones in the slew of Twelfth Doctor digs at what he perceives as his doddery earlier self.

Aghast at the Twelfth’s threats to Testimony, the First Doctor is then shown what he will become and, in time-honoured tradition, we get a series of memory bubbles on screen tracing The Doctor’s bloody, war-torn evolution into the Oncoming Storm, the Beast of Trenzalore, the Imp of the Pandorica, the Shadow of the Valeyard, and so forth… until he’s betrayed as The Doctor of War. In its own way, the First Doctor’s shocked reaction to this catalogue of destruction is a disturbing reminder of how far The Doctor has taken his threats and how sometimes he has to be pulled back from the brink. There isn’t time to debate these issues, unfortunately, as the action now takes precedence.

The Doctors and their companions escape and find shelter in the First Doctor’s TARDIS, a beautiful recreation of the original gleaming console room, complete with ormolu clock, astral map and a ‘Bernard Wilkie’ label under one of the switches on the console. The latter references BBC special effects genius Wilkie who worked, uncredited, on the very first story “An Unearthly Child”. A shame, then, that Moffat persists in making the First Doctor a spokesman for outmoded attitudes, demeaning Bill as a member of the “fairer sex” and then looking aghast when she voices her preference for such a sex. What is this, Carry On, Doctor?

The episode hot foots it to Villengard, where the weapons factories once supplied Captain Jack with his blaster as mentioned in 2005’s “The Doctor Dances”, in search of a data bank big enough to track down the owner of Testimony’s asymmetrical face. There the ruins of the factories are infested with Dalek mutants. It’s a suitably eerie setting, filled with the scrabbling creatures, and we find ‘Rusty’ the Dalek, first encountered during “Into the Dalek”, alive and well and continuing its mission to destroy its own race. This was the unfortunate result after The Doctor linked telepathically to the Dalek, in order to show it the beauty, rather than the horror, of the universe, and he instead bequeathed to ‘Rusty’ his hatred of the Daleks. It shows another aspect of The Doctor as warrior, with the Oncoming Storm reconfigured as a ‘good Dalek’ and a reminder of how Capaldi’s version of The Doctor started out.

Arguing that if Bill Potts is still alive he would want her safe inside the TARDIS, The Doctor tries to persuade her to leave the ruins. There is a immediate call back to “Deep Breath”, Capaldi’s debut episode, when she accuses him of not believing she is real. “You’re looking right at me and you don’t even know I’m here” is what the freshly regenerated Doctor said to Clara when she refused to believe he was the same person that an episode ago was played by Matt Smith. The Doctor is also the sum of his memories, Moffat reminds us, and is inside still the same person whatever face he or she wears.

Bill’s protestation that he’s “a stupid bloody arse” unfortunately generates yet another daft line for Bradley about smacking her bottom for swearing. I know The Doctor threatened this treatment to his granddaughter Susan but that was a paternalistic attitude uttered once, a long time ago. Now it feels odd to use this as a comedic response to Bill and, as if acknowledging this, Moffat then attempts to defuse it, with Bill proposing they can have a bit of a laugh about it, expressing her fondness for his company and his safe return. I’m with The Doctor: “Can we just never, ever talk about this again?”

Fortunately, we get that lovely scene between the two Doctors as they pause on their way to see ‘Rusty’. Both acknowledge they’re on borrowed time, by pausing their regenerations, and they are afraid of what’s to come. It allows Moffat to humanise the First Doctor, particularly, and this is where David Bradley shines in the role. He also offers, in counterpoint, a moment of sober contemplation for the Captain, waiting in the TARDIS, as he too articulates his unreadiness for impending death when Bill, who is confirmed as a doppelgänger created by Testimony in this scene, asks about his family. “Sons are supposed to move on from their fathers,” he offers, touching upon the generational theme of the episode and, of course, hinting at the Captain’s destiny and importance to Doctor Who’s history. Death without hope is frightening and hard to contemplate and Gatiss gets an evocative moment of calm to project this theme.

As the Twelfth Doctor reasons with ‘Rusty ‘that by helping him he will inflict further harm to the Daleks, Bill spends a moment talking to the First Doctor about the reasons why he left Gallifrey. His analysis of good and evil echoes the tipping point between the two concepts symbolised in the relationship between the Twelfth Doctor and ‘Rusty’. He left Gallifrey to understand how, in the light of good not being “a practical survival strategy”, it still toppled evil. He offers that “loyalty, self-sacrifice and love” are the qualities required to maintain the balance between good and evil and, as a statement of The Doctor’s raison d’être, it’s probably one of the purest along with him being “never cruel nor cowardly”. Bill reckons it’s truly embodied in “some bloke wandering around, putting everything right when it goes wrong.” This selflessness is the core of The Doctor’s being, at the heart of the fairy tale metaphor and that’s what Testimony, his testimony in this episode, is about.

Thanks to ‘Rusty’ and his database, they discover that Testimony is the avatar of Professor Helen Clay (Nikki Amuka-Bird), based on New Earth, where the Testimony Foundation used time travel and memory extraction techniques to preserve the memories of the past, the testament of the long dead then being reconstituted through the glass avatars. Moffat crowns his themes of mortality, death, and memory by having Clay declare it as “Heaven on New Earth.” It’s here that the episode turns way from the simple conflict between The Doctor and his alleged enemy. Testimony is not evil, there isn’t “an evil plan” and The Doctor, left nonplussed, is shown that he is not the only kind force in the universe.

In effect, Testimony has brought Bill Potts back to life to examine why The Doctor, in both incarnations, has decided not to regenerate and to accept the end of it all. “There has to be an end, Bill—for everyone, everywhere,” he reasons. However, he soon realises that the Captain’s life has ended prematurely because the Doctor “tried to die twice in the same lifetime” and screwed up the timelines. The Captain is, of course, very important to the history of the universe and he must be returned to his proper place in Space and Time. He is, after all, Captain Archibald Hamish Lethbridge-Stewart and, presumably, Brigadier Alistair Gordon’s grandfather and, therefore, Kate Stewart’s great-grandfather. This revelation doesn’t come as a huge surprise, being mooted during production, but it’s a lovely touch to the story.

The Christmas Armistice of 1914 is as good a setting as any to reestablish the balance between good and evil and The Doctor, discovering that the Captain is integral to the survival of the Lethbridge-Stewart family, returns the Captain to a time frame where his death can be rightfully postponed as the singing of Christmas carols gradually fills the air above the trenches. “The human miracle is about to happen” as British and German troops pause the fighting and come together in good will. The fairy tale of the universe, about a good man going to war, which Moffat has spent several years retelling, is told again. Kindness prevails because, as the First Doctor realises, “that’s what it means to be a doctor of war.”

A key moment arrives when the First Doctor acknowledges he’s ready to regenerate. He returns to Snowcap base and that fateful, final moment of “The Tenth Planet”, where the series became one vast Testimony itself, a sense of hope and new possibilities fulfilled by all the Doctors “the long way round”. Equally sad is Bill’s admission that letting go of The Doctor is the hardest thing of all. Not just for her, but for him, for Capaldi and for us, the audience. It’s the saddest and happiest of times. Even Clara’s brief cameo (Jenna Coleman green-screened into the battlefield), the restoration of The Doctor’s memories of her, and Nardole’s admonishment of “don’t die” can’t put off the inevitable. He must be the last to leave the battlefield.

Alone, this tired, dying Doctor considers the treadmill he’s been on, always having to save the universe and, arguing with the TARDIS, he considers that “one more lifetime wouldn’t kill anybody” and prepares to brief the new Doctor on her duties. “Never be cruel, never be cowardly” (thanks, Terrance Dicks), “hate is always foolish and love is always wise” and, perhaps controversially, “never fail to be kind” given he was generally an unpleasant fellow in his first season. This does to tend to go on at length and a restless audience, keen to see Jodie Whittaker appear, would perhaps be forgiven for thinking this a rather over-indulgent soliloquy. It’s Moffat and Capaldi drawing a line beneath the Twelfth Doctor’s tenure but there’s also a sense that a fairly radical overhaul is on the horizon and this is an opportune moment to state categorically what and who The Doctor is, in essence. What the character means to children is particularly highlighted and it’s they who can hear The Doctor’s name sometimes “if their hearts are in the right place.”

That overhaul finally makes its presence felt as the fiery regeneration destroys the TARDIS (again!) and a beaming Jodie Whittaker, introduced through point of view dissolves and reflections by director Rachel Talalay, is shown plunging out of the ship, its interior engulfed in flame, and falling towards Earth and a very different future for The Doctor. Here we go again.

To conclude then, “Twice Upon a Time” is more of an afterword to Steven Moffat’s era of Doctor Who and, like that era, this final goodbye has its great highs and unfortunate lows. It looks stunning, due in no small part to the efforts of Richard Stoddard, the Director of Photography, the inventive production design of Michael Pickwoad and, of course, the sterling direction from Rachel Talalay, who’s become one of the series most accomplished directors. I also enjoyed the way Murray Gold wove in many of his musical themes, taking us right back to motifs created in 2005. Capaldi turns in one of his best performances as The Doctor, his development in the role given an excellent showcase. The First Doctor, as played by David Bradley, was full of potential and, in many scenes, he was exceptional. It’s just unfortunate the character was lumbered with Moffat’s crude attempt to judge 1960s attitudes by those of the present.

So farewell Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat. “Doctor, I let you go.”

doctor who - twice upon a time

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