Who Review: Twice Upon a Time

The First Doctor, wearied by his adventures, complains that his body is wearing thin. Yet, while he knows he is about to regenerate, he doesn’t want to change. Instead, he ventures out into the harsh cold of the South Pole, where he comes upon a strange man in front of a Police Box very much like his own…

Fresh from his adventure with the Mondasian Cybermen (see “The Doctor Falls”), the Twelfth Doctor, mortally wounded, is also resisting regeneration. He too wants to continue on in this body and isn’t ready for change. A familiar figure approaches, also claiming to be the Doctor. Suddenly, time stands still, and the two Doctors are joined by a World War I officer, confused by his sudden dislocation. The three of them, along with Twelve’s TARDIS, are kidnapped and taken on board a spacecraft. When Bill steps out to greet them, the Doctor knows something is seriously wrong. Bill was converted into a Cyberman, and is now dead. How can she be there? And who is the strange glass woman piloting the ship?

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen the episode. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

In my review for the previous story, “The Doctor Falls,” I hoped that the Christmas story would be more than “just Twelve and One chatting about life for an hour.” I wasn’t exactly disappointed, but close to it. Perhaps the best way to understand “Twice Upon a Time” is to remember three things: First, it’s a Christmas Doctor Who, and the tradition is that these stories are generally lighter and feel-good. Second, it’s Steven Moffatt’s farewell story, not just Peter Capaldi’s. Finally, Moff was not planning to write a Christmas episode. His original plan was to have Capaldi regenerate at the end of Season 10, and that would be his last story. However, the new show-runner, Chris Chibnall was not planning to write a Christmas episode. Rather than give up the coveted Christmas Day slot, Moffatt came up with a way to hold off Twelve’s regeneration and wrote a Christmas episode around it. I think this explains a lot.

It explains why there is no bad guy, though I suppose you could say the bad guy in the story is death. Twelve and One are trying to avoid it, and the glass people are in the business of capturing the memories of the dying so they can live on while their mortal bodies perish. No-one wants to die. The thing that eventually convinces Twelve to regenerate is the fact that if he doesn’t regenerate, he will eventually die for good, and the universe can’t handle that. We’ll come back to this in a moment.

It also explains why we have Bill, Nardole, and even Clara coming back. At the end of Season Nine’s “Hell Bent,” the Doctor’s memory of Clara had been erased. But now the glass people give it back to him so he can see her once more before he regenerates. There seems to be a tradition now, begun with the Tenth Doctor, of the regenerating Doctor seeing all his old companions (this only happened one time in the classic series, when Four changed into Five, and that was more out of respect for Four’s unusually long tenure). And these glass people who can conjure up the dead from their memories are the perfect vehicle for bringing back the Doctor’s companions who are no longer a part of his life, after he had moved on. There was no purpose to this. Let dead companions lie, I say.

It also explains the Doctor’s pre-regeneration speech. This wasn’t the Twelfth Doctor letting go of being the Doctor. It was Steven Moffatt letting go of Doctor Who. And as poignant as it might be for Moff, it came across to me as self indulgent.

What we end up with is an episode that is pure padding. Yes, it was fun to have One and Twelve in a story together. The effects were superb, and the acting top-notch. But it was exactly what Moff planned it to be: a means to delay the regeneration so we can have an episode of Doctor Who on Christmas Day.

Chris Chibnall wrote the post-regeneration scene, including Thirteen’s first word, so he could give us a taste of where his first season as show-runner is going. We have deep symbolism with Twelve’s ring falling from Thirteen’s finger, which is something that happened when One regenerated into Two. That very first regeneration was a landmark event for the show, as is Twelve’s regeneration into the first female Doctor. I think the ring falling was supposed to underscore that parallel. I’m not exactly sure why the TARDIS has such a bad reaction to this regeneration, but it’s possible the reason has more to do with Moff wanting to give Chibnall a clean slate to work with (and possibly a re-design of the TARDIS?), just as Russell T. Davies gave Moff a burning TARDIS at the end of Ten’s time. Eleven (and Moff) started his first episode holding on to the TARDIS for dear life. Thirteen finds herself ejected completely, falling to the ground. “To Be Continued…” indeed!

Let’s come back to some of the philosophical points of the episode. First, this whole idea of the Doctor being a great hero without whom the universe will cease to exist. Thinking about Moffat’s time as show-runner, this is perhaps the most annoying aspect of his presentation of the Doctor. For the past seven years, Moff has given us an incarnation of the fan’s Doctor. Whovians love the Doctor. We think he’s cool. He’s the On-coming Storm. He is the one person all his foes should fear. But throughout the show’s history, the Doctor has never thought that of himself. Maybe a few times he hints at being “more than just a Time Lord” (as the Seventh Doctor put it), but ,on the whole, he sees himself as a wandering traveler trying to help out where he can. The last time he got notions of grandeur was at the end of Ten’s run, and realizing it caused him to sacrifice his Tenth persona to save the life of an old man, Wilf Mott. Because it’s people like Wilf that are important, not the Doctor. I think one of the reasons I like the Second Doctor so much is the fact he was happy for people to think him a bumbling idiot, because they would always end up underestimating him. The Fourth Doctor had a similar quality.

Finally, I can’t let this idea of people being the sum of their memories pass without comment. One simply has to ask: does this mean people with dementia, or Alzheimer’s, are lesser people? Is Moffat suggesting that our value as people is tied to our ability to remember? As a Christian, I see this as yet another humanistic fumbling attempt to explain what it means to be human, and why people are important and valuable. Need I point out how fallible the human memory is? I may remember some events vividly, but I don’t remember all events infallibly. And my memory of events is subject to the influence of time, and the influence of other people. And what about newborn babies, whose memories are only just beginning to form? As I age, my memory will fail, and I will start to forget things. Do I become less of a person as I get older? Biblical teaching is that every person has identity and value not because of what they remember, but because they are each created in the image of God. And we are image-bearers of God from womb to tomb, no matter how well we remember anything!

In short, while this is a fun episode for Whovians, aside from the regeneration at the end, there is nothing in this story that is Must-See. In fact, you can skip this and start watching Season Eleven having missed nothing. Given how much I enjoyed Season Ten, I had hoped for a more substantial send-off for Twelve. Perhaps a better plan would have been to regenerate Twelve at the end of Season Ten, and then to give us a special one-off Eighth Doctor story for Christmas. Oh well…

What did YOU think? It’s your turn to share your thoughts…

11 thoughts on “Who Review: Twice Upon a Time

  1. AJ Blythe

    Wow, you got this up fast! It only opened at the cinema’s here today, and aired on TV tonight (Boxing Day). My Whovian only finished watching a little while ago. I haven’t had a big chat to him about it but my impression is that he really enjoyed it and was excited to see the next incarnation of the Doctor at the end. As he’s never seen the original series he thought the look into the past was awesome =)

    Reply
    1. cds Post author

      As I said, it was a fun story for Whovians, and I also liked the way they morphed from “The Tenth Planet” (the First Doctor story at the beginning) into a recreation of that same scene with David Bradley as the First Doctor. Throughout there were nice touches and smiles for the fans. My biggest gripe is that it lacked substance. And for Capaldi’s (and Moffat’s) farewell, I expected much more.

      Reply
  2. Ian Smith

    Given that almost every single episode of the series since 1963 has involved the Doctor facing off against some villainous foe, I think it was refreshing that Moffat chose to have Death as the ‘villain’; something that even the Doctor will have to succumb to one day (just not today).

    Now, I’m not trying to pull a political move here by trying to improve one thing by comparing it favourably to another; but I’m going to anyway. The original plan for Tennant and RTD’s last story was going to be the Doctor stranded on a dead ship with a family at Christmas. He would have to sacrifice himself to save this regular, normal family. Elements of that idea survived into what it turned into, of course. If it had not been for Benjamin Cook of Doctor Who magazine telling RTD that he needed something much bigger for his finale, then we would have got low-key and understated rather than ‘This is your life’!

    I would argue that the substance is there. The words, the ideas… the Doctor seeing his past as a battlefield full of dead friends and he is the one who is still standing and asking ‘why?’ And perhaps realising that despite that battlefield, he has a positive role to play and needs to keep going.

    ‘The on-coming storm’ was a thing invented by Ben Aaronovitch for the novelisation of ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ (as was the ‘Ka-Faraq-Gatri’) and didn’t make it to the screen until the newer series. It was part of an idea to invest more mystery back into the character during the 25th anniversary season. Who is this man who turns up out of nowhere with no visible weapons are topples regimes in one evening and defeats entire armies. This isn’t a Moffat idea, this goes back to 1988, and that is very much who the Doctor has always been. Remember the way he is described in ‘Meglos’ by Zastor (1980)?

    ‘Some fifty years ago I knew a man who solved the insolvable by the strangest means. He sees the threads that join the universe together and mends them when they break.’

    And while I’m dreaming of the past…

    ‘A man is the sum of his memories, a Time Lord even more so.’

    Unless one can fully live in the moment and appreciate that the things that have happened in our lives are gone and we only have what is now, then we are fuelled in our day-to-day lives by our memories. Our memories are rose-coloured and heavily edited at times, but I think there is a way that we as a species have been encouraged to examine ourselves. We are whatever ‘story’ we tell ourselves we are, and that will depend on how kindly or harshly we judge ourselves. Our memories are the ‘zeitgeist tape’ we use to describe our successes or justify our failings.

    The Doctor is over 2000 years old and seems to have a remarkably good memory, and not all of those memories are good ones. Perhaps this is a point where he will step away from the painful memories and embrace the present. The Doctor will cease to be the ‘Doctor of War’ and just be the ‘Doctor of Now’; once she stops plunging to her doom at any rate!

    I don’t believe the intent was to suggest that we are only as good as what we can remember, but rather it was more a personal thing for the Doctor.

    The original plan was to regenerate at the end of season 12, but Chibnal wasn’t ready to pen the Christmas story so Moffat had to stretch it out a little longer.

    A few notes for fans… the jacket hanging up at the top of the stairs as the Capaldi Doctor is making his final monologue, is Jon Pertwee’s jacket from ‘Planet of the Daleks’; kindly loaned to the production by a Mr M. Gatiss. Also, my TARDIS Builders buddy, Tony Farrell, was instrumental in providing the plans for both the Bradley Doctor’s TARDIS interior and exterior. His thank you was a set visit in June to watch the recording. Imagine being a Doctor Who fan and not being able to talk about that for 6 months!!!

    Reply
    1. cds Post author

      I know the Cartmel Master Plan was to feed back into the show some of the “mystery” of the Doctor, implying he’s more than merely a Time Lord. I don’t have a problem with the mythology surrounding him (“Oncoming Storm” etc.). It’s that Moff has allowed the Doctor to believe and live that mythology. And I think the stories have suffered for it.

      There were lots of words and ideas, indeed. Just no PLOT. I read a lot of books with words and ideas. I watch Doctor Who for a cracking good story. When interesting ideas can be mixed with an engaging plot, that’s when you have Who at its best. This was a lot of Whovian fun with the Doctor navel-gazing on behalf of Moff. I’m sorry, it’s was that transparent to me.

      If you recall, the whole idea of the Testimony was that they capture people’s memories at the point of death and can re-create those people based on those memories. The theory behind this is that what makes a person who they are is their memories. It’s that idea which I think is Moff’s vain humanist attempt to give meaning to life. For the baby and the victim of Alzheimer’s, there are no memories. Does that mean their lives have no meaning? Memories are important, and help us to make sense of ourselves. But they don’t define us. I am not what I remember. I am what the Lord has created me to be, even if I don’t fully know what that is.

      Reply
        1. cds Post author

          … and it ended up being a problem that wasn’t really a problem. No plot twists (that would require a plot)… as I said, no substance. It was an hour-long geek-out for the fans and an opportunity for Moff to say goodbye through the Doctor. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it because I could geek out with the fans. But it wasn’t worthy of Capaldi. He deserved better.

          Reply
  3. Ian Smith

    Like what though? His entire tenure has been about who the Doctor is, why he chose that face, why he he does what he does and where he draws his line in the sand… The inclusion of the first Doctor gave him an opportunity to see how far he has come and grown and that, perhaps, he is not a slave to who he has been.

    Reply
    1. cds Post author

      You can certainly see Capaldi’s tenure as one of re-self-discovery. But–and this is especially true of the last season (10)–up until now it’s (generally) been within the context of telling a good story. Who has a long tradition of exploring deep themes, including the Doctor’s character and the consequences of his actions, while not losing sight of story. From “The Ark” to “The War Games” to “Planet of the Spiders” to “The Face of Evil” to “Caves of Androzani” to “Silver Nemesis” to “Parting of the Ways” to “The End of Time” we’ve seen the Doctor reflect on who he is and what he does. But these are all also cracking good stories!!

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