The latest Doctor Who Christmas special, “Twice Upon a Time,” has come and gone, bringing us another rousing Christmas-themed adventure while also marking the long-awaited regeneration of the Twelfth Doctor. And although the episode is charming and full of heart, it also felt very much of a kind, as if I’d seen it all before.
***WARNING: SPOILERS GALORE***
In a way I had seen it before, or at least elements of it. Testimony’s plan to upload everyone’s memories into a database at the moment of death so they could be downloaded later into glass avatars is strikingly similar to Missy’s plan with the Nethersphere in season 8, where the uploaded memories of the dead were held until they could be downloaded into Cybermen for some reason (to be honest, I’m still iffy about why, considering the fact that those memories were immediately subsumed once they became Cybermen, but let’s not go over well-trodden ground again). The First Doctor leaving at the end of the episode, secure in the knowledge that he doesn’t need to be afraid of who he will become, and entering his TARDIS to regenerate into the Second Doctor is almost identical to the end of the 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor,” where the War Doctor leaves at the end secure in the same knowledge and regenerates into the Ninth Doctor. And of course, this is the third time in a row that we’ve seen the TARDIS start to crash while the Doctor is still disoriented from regenerating. I’ve long held the opinion that Steven Moffatt’s time on Doctor Who has been spent telling the same stories over and over again, and I’m definitely ready for Chris Chibnall to hopefully take the show in a new direction.
But that doesn’t mean there weren’t parts of the episode I loved. In particular, for someone like me who is a fan of classic Who, it was a real trip to see Ben and Polly again! They’re hardly memorable companions, and I doubt they’re anyone’s favorites, but it still made the fanboy inside me happy to see classic companions return, even if only briefly. David Bradley as the First Doctor is a far better recasting of the late William Hartnell than Richard Hurndall was in 1983’s twentieth anniversary special “The Five Doctors.” Bradley nails every line, while Hurndall never seemed to understand the lines he was supposed to say. (Although one could say the same about Hartnell sometimes!) The reappearance of Rusty the Dalek from the season 8 episode “Into the Dalek” was clever; I didn’t realize how much I’d missed Bill until she showed up again; and I practically cheered when Nardole returned (“Now I’m all made of glass, not just my nipples!”). The interplay between the two Doctors is delightful — where Moffatt has always excelled is in those small, humorous moments between characters, something he’s much better at than melodrama, even on Sherlock — but to be fair, the First Doctor was never portrayed as quite that sexist. Although he did order Tegan into the TARDIS kitchen to get everyone something to eat in “The Five Doctors,” so maybe I’m wrong about that!
Still, the First Doctor’s reactions to the sonic screwdriver (which he didn’t acquire until his second incarnation), sonic sunglasses (which the First Doctor dislikes almost as much as I do, although the “browser history” joke was great), and updated console room (“It’s a flight deck…not a restaurant for the French”) were all quite funny. Mark Gatiss does a great job as the Captain (although the revelation of his surname didn’t surprise me and therefore felt a bit stale), and I think it might be the best role he’s played over the course of his long association with Doctor Who. The Christmas Armistice scene was really touching. I was pleased to see a snippet of Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor at the end, although it was too short to judge how she’ll be in the role. And who didn’t love “Previously on Doctor Who…709 Episodes Ago”?
Things I didn’t like about “Twice Upon a Time”? The reappearance of Clara, mostly. I’m over her, and I wish Moffatt were, too. I felt similarly about the reappearance of Amy during the Eleventh Doctor’s regeneration scene, to be honest. There’s no need for these “blast from the past” moments. Also, I was pretty sure the Doctor’s memories of Clara were back already, considering there was a mural of her on the side of the TARDIS at the end of the season 9 finale “Hell Bent,” a mural that happened to look exactly like the woman he was just talking to in the diner! But anyway, his memories of Clara are back, that’s nice, can we please move on now? I also didn’t like that we never really get clued into the Doctor’s thought process about why he chooses to regenerate instead of dying. The line “Well, I suppose one more lifetime won’t kill anybody” doesn’t really cut it. I wanted something deeper in that moment.
Overall, I thought it was an enjoyable episode, but one that, by treading such familiar ground, reminded me how ready I am for the show to go in new directions. I will, however, greatly miss Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, and Matt Lucas. They were a great trio with impeccable comic timing and real chemistry, a trio I think may even rival that of Patrick Troughton, Wendy Padbury, and Frazer Hines.
And now the part I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for: some fun Doctor Who neepery! When the First Doctor tells Testimony that the Earth is a level five civilization, that’s a classification that dates all the way back to one of Romana’s lines about how primitive Earth is in the 1979 Fourth Doctor serial “City of Death.” The Doctor says, “Snap,” to the First Doctor when revealing himself to be a future incarnation, which is apparently a useful, agreed-upon code because the Sixth Doctor said it to the Second Doctor in 1985’s “The Two Doctors,” and the Tenth Doctor said it to the Fifth Doctor in 2007’s “Time Crash.” The Captain says his death will be a big shock for everyone back in Cromer, which is both a location Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart mentions in the 1973 Third Doctor serial “The Three Doctors” and the name of Kate Stewart’s file for multi-Doctor encounters in “The Day of the Doctor.” Among the many names that Testimony has for the Doctor is “the Shadow of the Valeyard,” the Valeyard being the big bad in the 1986 umbrella season “The Trial of a Time Lord” and who was, according to the Master, an amalgamation of the darker sides of the Doctor’s nature, taken somewhere between his twelfth and final incarnation. In other words, he’s the Doctor’s dark side, extracted from his psyche like Mr. Hyde from Dr. Jekyll somewhere toward the end of his life (it’s interesting that the Master said final incarnation instead of thirteenth). The Valeyard never showed up again, which I think is a good thing, but I like that they keep making references to him.
Villengard, the planet where Rusty lives, is located at the center of universe, which means it can’t be too far from Terminus, the medical space station in the 1983 Fifth Doctor serial “Terminus,” which was also located at the center of the universe. We get to see the First Doctor regenerate into the Second Doctor, including the use of existing footage from the end of the 1966 First Doctor serial “The Tenth Planet,” although they make it look like he’s alone in his TARDIS when this happens. He’s not. Ben and Polly are there, too, and would continue traveling with the Second Doctor for a time. The Twelfth Doctor’s ring slipping off his finger after regenerating doesn’t just show that his body has changed in size, it’s also a callback to the very first regeneration: the First Doctor wore a ring that no longer fit the Second Doctor’s hand.
And now, the biggest, nerdiest bit of neepery of them all. Seriously, you have to imagine me pushing my glasses up my nose as I say this. It may in fact be the nerdiest thing I’ve ever written about Doctor Who in the many years since I’ve been doing these write-ups. Ready? Deep breath.
The First Doctor has already met several of his future incarnations, and most importantly has retained those memories, so the whole premise of him not wanting to regenerate out of fear doesn’t make sense! (I mean, I went with it, but the nerdy fanboy inside me kept asking pointed questions!) Here’s what I mean: In 1973’s “The Three Doctors,” the First Doctor meets the Second and Third Doctors, and together they defeat Omega inside his black hole and then are sent back to their proper time streams. But in 1983’s “The Five Doctors,” all three of those original Doctors remember having met before! In fact, the line that’s used in “Twice Upon a Time,” when the First Doctor says, “The original, you might say,” that’s from “The Five Doctors,” when he’s talking to the Fifth Doctor’s companion Tegan! So if the First Doctor is at the end of his life in “Twice Upon a Time,” he’s already had those experiences and would presumably still remember meeting his future selves! Plus, he’s quoting himself from when he met them! So, since he knows what’s coming, surely he would not be against the idea of regenerating! The only answer to this would be to retcon it so that when Rassilon sends all the Doctors back to their proper time streams at the end of “The Five Doctors,” he also removes their memories of having met each other, so that now the First Doctor no longer remembers either of those occasions. (We can presumably discount the First Doctor meeting all his future incarnations in 2013’s “The Day of the Doctor,” when they work together to send Gallifrey into the pocket universe, because it’s explicitly stated at the end of the episode that the time streams are all messed up and only the Eleventh Doctor will remember what happened.)
Okay, everyone shout it with me now: “Neeeeeeeeeeeeeerd!”