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…