Warning: contains spoilers.
This is, without doubt, the quietest regeneration story you’ll ever see. It begins and ends in the silence between gunshots. On the battlefields of war-torn France, two frightened, exhausted soldiers stare at each other down the barrel of a service revolver, locked in an awkward stalemate, a Mexican standoff that stems from a language problem. The bullet that will kill them both is never fired, because it is interrupted – as is the way of things – by a song that drifts on the air; a chorus of Silent Night, in the original German. Elsewhere, the cannons on another world are silenced by a reunion between two old foes that learned to get along. And the Doctor awaits his end in a frozen landscape – but it is a quiet end, soft and subdued, the way that snow renders things mute.
‘Twice Upon A Time’ is a story about consequences. The Doctor has faced down the Cybermen and paid the price; it’s appropriate that his younger self has reached the same stage in his journey, and thus it is here that we come in – up to a point. Nods to ‘The Tenth Planet’ are fleeting, the much-touted recasting of Ben and Polly reduced to a twenty-word exchange that is over in a matter of seconds and has no bearing on the plot other than to give the First Doctor an excuse to go outside, possibly for some time. Like every incarnation since 2005, the re-imagined First Doctor’s regenerating hand is seen to glow; it would be easy to complain about the retcon, but it serves as an appropriate visual shorthand, so perhaps we should turn a blind eye.
In a way, it’s going to be a disappointment. This is not a story in which the Twelfth Doctor weaves in and out of the scenery at the Antarctic base, endeavouring to hide from his younger self, like Marty McFly or Harry Potter or that episode of Red Dwarf where Lister steals his own kidneys. Nor is it the much-anticipated resolution of Capaldi’s very first appearance, a pair of ferocious eyebrows and the clank of a lever as the thirteen Doctors unite to save Gallifrey. The Hybrid – another plot strand that was never fully resolved – doesn’t even get a mention. Perhaps that’s something we’ll revisit further down the line. We can only hope it isn’t.
Instead, there is a tale about dying, and what happens afterwards. ‘The End Of Time’ gave us a Doctor refusing to face death; ‘Twice Upon A Time’ depicts a Doctor who is facing it with perhaps a little too readiness. Bill returns, seemingly from the afterlife, but the Doctor is mistrustful: is she all that she appears to be? The answer, of course, is yes – and also no, with this Bill comprising a composite of memories mapped onto a glass gestalt. We are given next to no information as to how this works: it is enough (or at least it ought to be enough) that it does, but there is commentary here about the nature of what is real and what isn’t, and whether we can really believe anything that anyone tells us about themselves, an analogy of constant, increasingly uncomfortable relevance in this most ambiguous of ages. “May you live in interesting times,” as the old Chinese curse goes, and the Twelfth Doctor’s concluding story, while not exactly high octane, is never less than interesting.
Having said all that, perhaps the most surprising thing about Moffat’s final episode is how little it surprises. It is no surprise at all to learn the Captain’s true identity; nor does the appearance of Clara raise any eyebrows, given that it occurs at a point in the narrative when we already know the host to be a shapeshifting intelligence capable of mimicking anyone it pleases. The moment this is finally explained to the Doctor, in the convivial hush of No Man’s Land not long after the football match, it becomes inevitable that Matt Lucas is waiting in the wings, brushing the crumbs from his duffle coat. Even the appearance of Rusty is foreshadowed by the head crabs that scour the ruins of Villengard; the resemblance to mutated Daleks is obvious, and the Doctor all but names them even before he climbs to the top of the tower.
The strange thing about the Rusty cameo is how pointless it seems. The Doctor’s requirement for a database that’s even bigger than the Matrix is tenuous at best: this is an excuse for a couple of explosions amidst a barrage of laser fire, something the episode otherwise lacks. It is, perhaps, a way for Moffat to revisit old stories he never quite resolved – something that Davies did with vigour back in 2009 – and indeed, the very presence of Villengard hearkens back twelve years to the chief writer’s very first tale for Nu Who. So too it provides an opportunity for us to see how much the Twelfth Doctor has changed; his trajectory from the manipulative apathy of ‘Into The Dalek’ to his plea for kindness in ‘The Doctor Falls’ (by way of the mid-life crisis that constitutes most of Series 9) is as wide ranging as character development gets, and if nothing else, a reappearance from the Good Dalek serves as a timely reminder of exactly how we got here.
Several things grate. The First Doctor was curmudgeonly and brusque, but no more bigoted than anyone else of his generation, or at least the generation he represented: it is not necessary to have quite so many nods to ‘casual chauvinism’, and while Capaldi does a good line in embarrassed outrage, it’s a joke that’s cracked at least five or six times more frequently than the episode needed. There are needless references to the notorious ‘smacked bottom’ scene from ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’; teamed with more conversations about Bill’s sexuality, it feels like political point-scoring, an exercise in ticking the diversity box juxtaposed with a desperate plea from the writers and actors not to turn this into a big deal. We’ve been trying, honestly, but you keep giving us ammunition: it was a recurring theme during Series 10, and perhaps the requests for press restraint would have been better served if the stable door hadn’t been closed when the horse was already halfway to Guildford.
Bradley himself is a curiosity, a visitation wrapped in an evening suit. Practically the first thing he does is grab his lapels, but that’s where the resemblance stops. Bradley does not take it upon himself to try and be Hartnell portraying the Doctor, nor does it follow that he should. The man’s twenty years older. He doesn’t even fluff his lines, for pity’s sake. But a curious thing happens: it more or less works. Bradley was a good Hartnell, and a less effective Doctor-played-by-Hartnell, but unshackled from the confines of scripts and scenes we know all too well, and given room to breathe as opposed to simply mimic, the suspension of disbelief suddenly becomes that much easier to maintain. There is a certain poetic license in his performance – this is an older, less assured First Doctor, perhaps closer to the character we saw in ‘The Three Doctors’ than anything that appeared on TV during the 1960s – but if you squint, you can almost imagine that this ageing Yorkshireman could inhabit the role that Hartnell made his own.
It ends, as one might expect, in fire and torment and the mother of all monologues: one that is disappointing if only because we’ve heard so much of it before. Capaldi paces the TARDIS with similar restlessness to his manner at the end of ‘The Doctor Falls’ – raging, it seems, against the old girl herself, as if her mechanisms were somehow guiding his transformation. (It’s really not so much of a stretch, given that so many of them have happened on the console room floor.) There are jokes about pears. Meanwhile, the more astute among us will no doubt be wondering why the soldiers were singing in German when there was a TARDIS parked just up the road. Is it because of the religious content? Is this another nod to ‘Extremis’? Or do two TARDISes cancel out the translation effect? And why am I even bringing this up, unless it’s to pick up on social media trends?
Finally – in the moment we were denied at the press screening – Whittaker emerges, staring at her reflection with a look of wide-eyed amazement, like someone who’s experiencing every birthday and Christmas in one go. It’s obviously not a controlled regeneration – it never is – but it’s clearly hoped that we’re as enamoured of her appearance as she is herself, even if you half expect Amy to pop her head out from the bedroom and ask if she wished really, really hard. Within seconds, the new Doctor is failing to fly the TARDIS in the most spectacular manner possible, plummeting to what we assume is Earth in the sort of slow motion you normally reserve for Hollywood action movies, and we’ve already forgotten about Mark Gatiss – who, it must be pointed out (because I haven’t yet) was actually not too bad at all.
Still, there is something good about all this. There is something right about a tale that does not need to rely on visual spectacle or the fate of the universe to make its point. There is something good about a Doctor who has already died in battle, and who is living on borrowed time: two Doctors, if you like. Stories that occur in frozen moments (hello, Key 2 Time, have a celery stick) are a big part of spinoff lore; rarely do they translate to the small screen, but the fact that ‘Twice Upon A Time’ works when it really shouldn’t is largely down to the chief writer’s decision to turn the narrative into an elegy that is actively about that moment, rather than an excuse to tell an unrelated story. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of unabashed escapism – god knows that’s what we had in ‘Voyage of the Damned’ – but a protracted, reluctant farewell seems a better fit, even though it won’t be to everyone’s tastes.
But it’s more than that. There’s a sense of cautious joy here, a bittersweet lament for the things we leave behind coupled with a willingness to look forward with hope, even in the face of the unknown. It’s not a call for unity. This isn’t Brexit. It’s a request to understand each other. “Sometimes,” Moffat seems to be telling us, “things don’t go wrong. Some motivations are sound. Some purposes are good. Sometimes even if something is seemingly too good to be true, it still happens. Things change, and no one likes it. And yes, people die, but sometimes opposing sides can reach a fragile, uneasy peace.” And perhaps that, more than anything else, is the message we need to hear this Christmas.
This review originally appeared in The Doctor Who Companion.