As exciting as all that first Doctor hullabaloo sounded upon its initial announcement, there was indeed an aura of apprehension in the air prior to Twice Upon a Time’s release.
Firstly, there was the larger context of the Capaldi era to consider. Whereas the twelfth Doctor’s run has been far from awful, it’s occasionally suffered from the shortcomings of a fatigued writing team. Moffat is undoubtedly a talented writer, sadly his creativity peaked during Matt Smith’s time in the TARDIS. As sharp and energetic as his screenplays may be, the truth is his more lavish of conceptions – in relation to this particular show that is – ran their course many moons ago.
Secondly, from promotional footage alone, it looked as though the episode was aiming to raise a 1966 episode from the dead so it could be slotted into a larger narrative frame. Turning the Tenth Planet into the first act of a 2017 final sounded like a tonal disaster in the making. Ever since 2013’s Name of the Doctor aired, Moffat has developed something of a habit when it comes to digging up parts of the show’s lore and threading them into his own narratives. There was indeed an air of exhilaration in reviving particular aspects of the show’s origins, especially in the run up to Day of the Doctor. As is the case with many popular franchises, however, revisiting the golden years fast grows tiresome. Although Moffat successfully bridged old Who with new Who, periodically zipping down its internal timeline started to imply he was trying to meddle with its history. Adding new takes on popular lore is all fine and dandy in moderation. Doing it once or twice a year, on the other hand, implies that someone might be attempting to rewrite history in their own image. Which is why whizzing back to 1966 and adding a bit of Capaldi-era flare to the Hartnell years felt a possible in the run up to this story.
Finally, there was also the risk of Twice Upon a Time falling victim to a case of departing show runner syndrome. A head writer’s swan songs often brings with it a number of familiar traits; a selection of subconscious ticks baked into their psychology. Usually a concluding script will have their lead protagonist reluctantly cling onto life as if their regeneration will bring about a total collapse to Doctor Who. More often than not this turns out to be a head writer’s attempt to translate their heart break toward handing in their notice into a character arc. Another habit is to ramp up scale to ten, turning the entire story into a bombastic fireworks display. Russel T Davies was guilty on both counts of this; unnecessarily stretching the Tenth Doctor’s final story out over two feature-length episodes whilst having his lead mope about for 20 minutes before turning into Matt Smith. It dragged on for far too long, serving up a melodramatic marathon that was miles too big for its own good.
Fortunate enough, Capaldi’s final outing as the Doctor manages to avoid a majority of these concerns for the most part. Instead we get a story capable of utilising its limit of grand ideas to give us something primarily character-driven, void of revising the show’s internal history and content with ending on a humble note.
As already mentioned, Capaldi’s era has been a bit wobbly for much of its run; mainly due to show runner Steven Moffat running out of stream long before its end came about. All his bigger stories were used up during Matt Smith’s time piloting the TARDIS. That’s not to say there hasn’t been any good or brilliant stories over the past five years, it’s just there’s been a lot less consistency in terms of its quality. The types of stories effected most due to this were the larger scale “epics”. From series eight onward, any attempt to go “all out” and give us something sizeable in length or ambition often collapsed in on itself (see Deep Breath). The moments in which the twelfth Doctor did shine, however, is when the scope is trimmed down. Episodes such as Listen and Heaven’s Sent mark the era’s more superior of moments. This is partly down to Capaldi’s acting chops – allowing him to flourish whenever expected to drive an entire episode through his performance – not to mention Moffat’s talent at excelling under creative pressure. Seeing as smaller means better with regards to the twelfth Doctor, it’s fitting to end on such a note.
Unlike several previous attempts, having the old and the new clash with one another works well here. Instead of having the show’s lore be reshaped and influenced by the program’s present, Moffat decides to play this generational collision on the down low. We don’t get a story in which the twelfth Doctor goes back to become the timey-wimey architecture of his first incarnation’s regeneration. There’s no attempt to have Hartnell’s final days as the Doctor fit into a larger, overarching narrative. It’s lovely, simple and doesn’t fiddle with any of the show’s mythology in the slightest. There’s no colossal event or game changing twist which wraps 54-years of television; just a quaint and surprisingly honest comedy about an old man meeting his younger self.
Moffat’s departure doesn’t seem to effect the size or quality of the story either. Show runner syndrome may have turned Russell T Davies’ departing tale into a bit of a bloated clanger back in 2010, yet history doesn’t appear to be repeating itself. Whereas Twice Upon a Time is guilty of having its lead refuse to regenerate in similar fashion to Davies’ tenth Doctor, it’s surprisingly intimate in length and execution. It would be all too easy to turn the volume up on this one; giving us a brash epic spanning several episodes. In fact, when news first started circulating that David Bradley would be playing the first Doctor, all kinds of rumours regarding the re-introduction of the Time War began making the rounds. Many show runners with the creative clout of Moffat would have jumped at the opportunity to make this happen. Except he chooses to include no villain whatsoever, makes any kind of event next to non-existent and focuses his energies on telling a miniscule story about two Doctor’s reacting off of one another’s existences. This in turn provides us with something that’s both fitting for the twelfth Doctor’s run and thoroughly entertaining in execution. Big doesn’t always equal better; a claim Twice Upon a Time strengthens.
Bringing back the first Doctor is a pretty big decision to make, mind you, one that could have quite easily gotten lost in the breadth of its own premise. As an anniversary special, this would have been fine, except this is Capaldi’s last episode. Which is why giving us a quieter script works far better here than going down the other route. Opting to give us a 60 minute set piece that largely revolves around two version of the same person act in shock over their own generational gaps serves as a light bit of fun. It’s a joyous chunk of TV; free from the weight of its own mythos.
Reuniting Doctors one & twelve at this particular point in time works more than it probably would have done anywhere else within post-2005 Who. If you had Matt Smith bumbling about alongside this incarnation, it would be considerably harder to accept them as being the same person. Same would apply if you had a dashing David Tennant or war-torn Christopher Ecclestone in the picture. Capaldi has often fashioned his version of the Doctor by subtly channelling previous regenerations throughout his performance. Hints of Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee, Baker, etc have crept into his portrayal over the years; making the idea that all these faces belong to the same soul all the more plausible. Yes, each regeneration is a vastly different individual, yet it’s those glimpses of familiarity which help to establish these two Doctors as the same man separated by age; two generations removed from one another by millennias.
Generational shock works both ways in Twice Upon a Time. From the First Doctor’s point-of-view, we see an individual learning about the notoriety and significance of their own future. Through this meeting, the First comes face-to-face with a legend yet to be etched into the foundations of time and space. The theme of impending folklore is established further through the events of both the Captain and by extension, World War One. The Captain (played by veteran Doctor Who writer, Mark Gatiss) is unaware of his position as the father of longtime companion and Unit commander Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. In addition to all of this, he’s completely oblivious to the significance the surrounding war will have within the history books. His salvation even arrives in the form of an unforeseen symbolic Christmas truce that inevitably goes on to become something of a legend within the context of World War I.
The formation and preceding of myth lies at the heart of this episode; which in many ways teases what’s to come in Doctor Who’s future. Its message revolves around the idea that legends aren’t prophesied, but evolve over time and rise from unexpected places/people. Whereas the Doctor may well be considered a myth right now, the most important of stories lie ahead. What better way to end an era than by flirting with the excitement of an unknown future. Because that’s where Doctor Who really is at its most thrilling. Whereas some might think the joy comes from its past, the show’s thrill factor usually peaks whenever it hints at what’s to come. Why do you think for most of its 54-year run it’s relied on cliffhangers and reinvention? This is a show that’s forever evolving, and that’s where its appeal lies. This is also why moments such as the introduction of River Song made such an impact during her debut in 2008. Here was a character privy to parts of the show which audiences had yet to see; an individual who’d witnessed events from series 5, 6, 7 and 9 long before they’d even been planned. Legends aren’t merely apart of Doctor Who’s past, they belong to its future too.
From the twelfth Doctor’s viewpoint, we get to see our hero wince at the embarrassment of his former self. We’d all no doubt hang our heads in shame if we got to meet our younger selves, which is why it’s great to see the same can be said for our beloved Time Lord. What’s most interesting here is how the first Doctor’s immaturity is dealt with, as it’s done by acknowledging a rather awkward truth regarding the show’s past.
Seeing as this is the continuation of a program that’s been on the air for over five decades, there’s no denying its earlier days were drenched in the less PC attitudes held by the writers of that period. 1960’s Doctor Who was a product of its time; meaning sexist, racist and other forms of ignorance made its way into its scripts. Consequently this means the Doctor made some pretty questionable remarks, particular when it came to women. Twice Upon a Time decides to write the first Doctor’s political incorrectness into its narrative DNA, using it as a means of showcasing some of the Doctor’s questionable stupidity during those younger years. Ok, so suggesting an earlier Doctor was a sexist with 1960s Earth attitudes does kind contradict the enlightened attitude Time Lords have now been given with regards to gender binaries and genderfluidity. I guess the best explanation lies in the fact he spent much of his younger years living in mid-20th Century London with his granddaughter. He might well belong to a race more enlightened when it comes to gender, yet his immature mentality may have made him more impressionable to the toxic and oppressed mindsets of whatever society he became overly exposed to. But anyhow, I digress. Showing the younger Doctor act in such a pigheaded manner reveals just how much this character has evolved over the years. This transformation from 60s era ideals to enlightened hero is highlighted further during the regeneration sequence. In the same story we witness a younger version of our protagonist acting as if men are superior to women, only for an older version of that same character exclaim “oh brilliant” upon discovering she’s now a woman herself.
Which brings us on to the most notable characteristic of Twice Upon a Time. At the end of all this, we’re not here to see the show’s past collide with the present, but to witness Jodie Whittaker usher in the future as the first ever female incarnation of our beloved Gallifreyan renegade.
To call this moment one of the show’s most exciting and important turning points in its history would be something of an understatement. Whilst some may rant about how changing an iconic character’s gender betrays the very nature of who they are, such claims really can’t be applied to the Doctor. This is a shapeshifting alien who travels through time and space in a police box that’s bigger on the inside. Having them switch from one gender to the next is no more outlandish than any of the concepts that’s already been raised. Yet in spite of this, sexism and hostility toward anything that might resemble gender fluidity has made such logic seem illogical in the eyes of many for over five decades. The introduction of a female Doctor not only makes perfect sense within this universe, it similarly means the show’s casting (as well as character) potential just doubled in size. Whittaker’s casting marks the moment in which an additional 50% of the population became officially able to take on the role of the Doctor. So many possibilities now lie ahead; all those new takes, tackled from the experiences and perspectives of more than merely one gender.
Such an exciting and sizable moment, one which everyone working on the show is aware of. It’s no secret that changing a main character’s gender within the continuity of a franchise remains a pretty big deal in 2017. We may well be more tolerant than we were a few decades ago, however there’s still a surprising amount of folk out there who have little understanding or tolerance toward the existence of gender non-conformity or gender reassignment.
The magnitude of this sort of turning point clearly had an impact on the outgoing production team, as they chose to dial everything up to ten moments before the regeneration takes place. Whereas most of Twice Upon a Time opted to play everything down, the regeneration sequence does the very opposite. Capaldi gives his grandiose “never cruel, never cowardly” speech, the TARDIS control panel dances to an assortment of vibrant colours, a selection of Murray Gold’s most valiant tunes make up the non-diegetic soundtrack, and the scene drags out for far too long. Yes, it’s melodramatic to the point in which it feels tonally inconsistent with the larger episode, but this doesn’t mean it’s not well executed. In isolation to the larger episode, it’s an exciting slab of television.
Whittaker’s opening moments are relatively well handled. It’s a surreal turning point in which everything surrounding her tumbles inward. She’s given no more than two words of dialogue before the TARDIS burns away and she falls toward earth. The world around her collapses. Everything we’ve come to know has been turned to dust, paving way for a phoenix to rise from its ashes and soar toward a new world.
Having Whittaker only say two words prior to the credits will no doubt be frustrating for fans (such as myself) itching to see what sort of a performance she plans on bringing to the role. Admittedly this does ramp up the excitement factor mind you. We’ve no idea what series eleven will be like. Concealing Whitaker’s performance maintains the level of mystery already surrounding the Chibnall era. For all the rumours and theories, we know next to nothing about what’s to come, which is pretty thrilling for a show that’s been suffering from stagnation during the past couple of years.
Seeing the Doctor gleefully utter “brilliant” upon discovering her new face is a pretty neat way of empathising this character’s lack of discomfort toward her gender. There’s no panic or disgust at her shift in gender. This is a nice little way of reminding fans that such a regeneration isn’t a massive deal for the Doctor’s species; in case Missy, the General and all other references weren’t enough for them.
In addition to the return of the Doctor’s first incarnation (played this time round by David Bradley), not to mention its introduction to history’s first female Doctor. Twice Upon a Time marks the end of two eras. First and foremost, this is Peter Capaldi’s final story as the twelfth Doctor. Such a moment is always considered a pretty big deal within Doctor Who lure; the point in which everything changes and the baton is passed on to a new performance.
As pivotal as its lead performer is to the creative design of Doctor Who, there’s one other key factor more central to the show’s artistic makeup than whoever is playing the lead protagonist at a given time. I’m referring of course to the head writer; the individual who pulls all the strings and assembles the general narrative structure.
Twice Upon a Time marks the moment in which Steven Moffat departs as head writer and executive producer after running the show for over seven years. After Russel T Davies’ departure in January 2010 it was Moffat who took the reins; introducing Amy Pond, Rory Williams, River Song, the Pandorica, Trenzalore, the Paternoster Gang, Clara Oswald, Gallifrey’s return, three Doctors, the Silence and Missy. Moffat’s influence upon Doctor Who stems further back than his time as showrunner. He was one of the first writers to properly introduce time travel as an actual narrative structure, devised the Weeping Angels and introduced characters from the show’s future. His love of puzzle box plots, fairy-tale approaches to science fiction and non-linear style of storytelling assisted in reshaping the foundations of 21st century Who.
All in all, Twice Upon a Time is a great little story wrapping up Capaldi’s run as the Doctor on a delightfully quiet note. An intimate piece of television that uses its smallness to offer up fable of a man responding his existence at two points in his own. Don’t expect an all guns blazing epic intent on reinventing the program’s origins. It’s a lovely little character piece that plays up to Capaldi’s strengths, fails to make the same mistakes seen in recent times and modestly passes the torch over to a new generation.
Twice Upon a Time may well serve as a rite of passage for Doctor Who, yet its moment of change is preceded with a blast of humble entertainment. Just what we need before diving into the brave new world which awaits us.