It’s the end of an era, 2017’s Doctor Who Christmas Special makes Peter Capaldi’s final appearance as The Doctor and fans are treated to an adventure with two Doctors.
After the events of “The Doctor’s Fall,” the Twelfth Doctor lands on the South Pole refusing to regenerate. There he meets his first version of The Doctor (David Bradley playing William Hartnell’s role), the only other time the Doctor refused to regenerate. Because of this meeting, the Doctors inadvertently cause a time paradox, leading to them meeting a First World War army officer (Mark Gatiss) and a race of people from the distant future known as The Testimony: but this event could also lead to the resurrection of Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie).
Steven Moffat has an extensive knowledge of Doctor Who and its history. He was even able to turn his own fan theory about The Doctor being the linguistic source of the word doctor meaning wise man or healer in every culture. Throughout his time as showrunner he has referenced events in the classic series as well as the modern series, and with his final episode he continues two stories: as well as continuing from “The Doctor’s Fall” “Twice Upon a Time” continues from the First Doctor’s episode “The Tenth Planet.”
Both stories followed an adventure against the Cybermen and looked at why The Doctor refuses to regenerate. It also served to fill in a gap that was when The Doctor disappeared before his regeneration in “The Tenth Planet.” “Twice Upon a Time” starts with footage from “The Tenth Planet” which turns from black-to-white in 4:3 ratio to color and widescreen. Fans of the classic era will appreciate the combination of the old series with the new while fans who only really know the modern version of the series should still be able to follow the events of “Twice Upon a Time.”
Compared to the send-offs for Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi’s final episode is a more thoughtful and reflective take on regeneration since the process has already started. Capaldi had his grand action set piece in “The Doctor’s Fall” fighting off Cybermen and made an impassioned pledge to The Master and Missy. The story for The Doctors is one of acceptance of their change. The First Doctor has to accept he has to regenerate and The Twelve Doctor questions why The First Doctor reacted this way. Capaldi had a poignant final monologue as the Twelve Doctor tells his future self what they should be like.
However, the drawback of this reflective approach is that the stakes felt low in comparison to the previous Doctors’ final episodes. The Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Doctors went down fighting protecting people and falling a great enemy. Of course, the Doctor can’t keep fighting bigger and bigger battles, that would get stale over time, but there still needs to be some level of peril. The Testimony were an interesting concept as a race that goes into the past and preserves human memories but their cause is benevolent, and their mission is hardly evil: returning a man to the point of his death. The Doctor would normally side with that The Testimony’s philosophy.
The other issue affecting this Christmas Special was the comedy. Normally Doctor Who Christmas Specials are aimed towards a slightly broader audience, and comedy is the way to do this, but most of the jokes in this episode fall flat and relies on the music to compensate. There is an exciting play on the dynamics between The Doctors – despite the First Doctor looking older he is actually the younger and inexperienced member of the pair: he is surprised when The Twelve Doctor says he protects the Earth. But other jokes made at the expense of Bill’s sexuality don’t make sense because The First Doctor is a time-traveler so shouldn’t be surprised that a woman might like other women. The First World War officer’s reaction is understandable but not the First Doctor’s.
As a final episode for a Doctor in the modern era “Twice Upon a Time” is sadly the weakest. It has interesting concepts and Capaldi final scene does hit the necessary emotional beats, but it is an average entry in the Doctor Who canon.