“Memories. You’re talking about memories.” — Rick Deckard, Blade Runner
It almost seems like a no-brainer that Steven Moffat should craft his final hour of Doctor Who — a finish line he crosses alongside leading man Peter Capaldi — as a meditation on the power of memories. Following the episode proper, Moffat revealed in the half-hour BBC America wrap-up special that he’d always intended to come back and fix this Doctor’s missing memories of his longest-serving companion, Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman, who appears here for all of 30 seconds). This mission seems to have been the springboard of the entire concept of “Twice Upon a Time,” which is surely one of the least bombastic, most thoughtful Christmas specials the series has produced.
Beyond the narrative, the no-brainer part really comes into play when one considers that Moffat has been waist-deep in Doctor Who for the last seven years as executive producer, and at least knee-deep as a writer for the five years prior to that. He’s been crafting how we view this TV series since the very first season of the revival way back in 2005, when he unleashed “Are you my mummy?” on an unsuspecting public, and he’s barely had time to look back since. Perhaps this final hour was his chance to walk down memory lane by reintroducing the incarnation of the Doctor that started it all, and toying with the notion that more than anything else, memories make us who we are. After 12 years of working on the show, coupled with a lifetime of fandom before that, there can be no doubt that Steven Moffat’s memories are often overflowing with Doctor Who.
“A man is the sum of his memories, you know. A Time Lord even more so.” — The Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison), “The Five Doctors”
“Twice Upon a Time” is lean on plot and heavy on character, which, after Matt Smith’s bloated misfire of an exit four years ago, was precisely the correct tone for the series to strike. There was no way that this hour could best the mission statement of the season-ten finale “The Doctor Falls,” which was as much about the end of the Twelfth Doctor as this outing was. This hour was the postscript, the epilogue, the punctuation at the close of a terribly long sentence. Four years ago, after the gargantuan 50th-anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor,” Moffat seemingly attempted to go even bigger with “The Time of the Doctor,” and it failed. He learned a lesson, and this time around, seemingly knew that going bigger than the season finale was not in the cards. Instead, he gave us a subdued hour of character beats punctuated by blasts of nostalgia — undoubtedly a sly way to go about wrapping things up.
After excelling as William Hartnell in the love letter of a TV movie An Adventure in Space and Time (and before that as the villain in an episode penned by incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall), David Bradley returns to the world of Doctor Who to play the First Doctor proper, and the results are nothing less than dazzling. The posture, the stance, the look — all of those things unquestionably worked, but to my ear, it was the speech patterns that knocked it out of the park. I kept waiting for him to purposefully fluff a line just to make it authentic. I’d swear Bradley spent hours poring over Hartnell episodes in an effort to get it right. Never for a moment did I not buy this version of the original, and beyond nailing the character, he’s marvelous at playing the material itself. There’s much beauty in the way the old fogy responds to the brave new worlds ahead of him.
Way back in the third season of the new series, Who scribe Mark Gatiss’s performance as a mad scientist was the high point of the otherwise somewhat average “The Lazarus Experiment.” He arguably felt even more at home in front of the camera than behind. So an onscreen return for one of modern Who’s most controversial writers was more than welcome, and his Captain never for a moment feels any less important to the goings-on than the three scene-stealers he’s working with here. The moment of the Captain’s death provides the jumping-off point for the drama, and culminates in the Twelfth Doctor jiggering with time just enough to save him from that death by returning him to the war in the middle of the Christmas truce of 1914. This hour wisely stays away from Christmas altogether until that moment, and it is the deftly played ace in Moffat’s narrative deck. We needed that sequence right now more than we needed to see two Doctors bickering, or Bill’s return to the Doctor’s world, or the Doctor regaining his memories of Clara.
Speaking of Bill, while it was great to get a version of sorts of her, courtesy of Testimony, a sort of galactic consortium of memory chroniclers (was anyone else vaguely reminded of “San Junipero” on Black Mirror?), those wanting some kind of closure from her exit at the end of the season could have felt a bit disappointed. But given Bill’s quite literally stellar exit earlier this year, how much more was there to do with the character? This works nicely as the very same sort of epilogue to Bill that so much of this episode seemed to be about, and Pearl Mackie delivers the vaguely angelic goods, keeping her Doctor on the right path as the tale moves forward.
Speaking of Bill’s Doctor, I’ve barely talked about Mr. Capaldi. I’ve been putting it off in much the same way that I’ve put off thinking about his exit nearly every single day of this year. We’ve known since January (!) that he’d be leaving, which marks one of the longest periods of time between announcement of departure and the actual exit of any Doctor. I’m ecstatic about the future with Jodie Whittaker, but I am equally somber about losing this Doctor, whom I’ve come to regard as the pinnacle of this TV series, and that is not a word I choose lightly. Peter Capaldi came into Doctor Who at what was not a particularly exciting time for the series, but his presence managed to make it exciting all over again. The Twelfth Doctor is arguably the only Doctor in the history of the series who actually grew as a character from one season to the next, if not from story arc to story arc.
It says a lot about this series that its Doctors tend to end up more or less the same as they were when they started. Yes, this assertion can and should be argued, but I suspect you’d be hard-pressed to find any other Doctor who went through as many changes and phases as the Twelfth. The Doctor we saw in “The Doctor Falls” is a drastically different sort of man than the person we met way back in “Deep Breath” — and yet they are absolutely, believably the same character. This character learned and grew, and it was marvelous to behold. It’s not something that this series has ever really dared tackle before, but now that it’s been done and accomplished so successfully, it will be difficult for the show to turn back. Peter Capaldi raised the bar for who and what the Doctor can be, and the series is all the better for it.
Four years ago, I called for a future ban on regeneration at Christmas. Nobody listened to me. Clearly, I loved this special, and it’s been proven that it can be done, but at what cost? “Twice Upon a Time” left me in as melancholy a mood as any sad episode of this series ever has, which isn’t quite how I want to feel at the end of Christmas night, even though — Doctor Who or not — we invariably do. Indeed, the joy of the Who Christmas special typically gives a jolly lift at the end of the day. That didn’t happen here. I wanted to turn off the TV and have a good, long cry. So I stand by the assertion that I made four years ago. Even if an episode is as amazing as this one was, Christmas, which is at least supposed to be happy and festive, is simply not the right day to traumatize your audience. (CC: Chris Chibnall and the BBC brass.)
What else is there left to say? Rusty the Dalek from “Into the Dalek” makes a surprise reappearance. The Captain is the grandfather of the Brigadier. The lovely re-creation of the classic Tardis interior is a sight to behold. And Jodie Whittaker manages to do as much with two words (“Oh, brilliant!”) as most Doctors in the same moment do with a sentence or two. That look on her face tells me that the Doctor is about to relish being something she’s never been before, and we in the audience will relish it, too.
The Radio Times put together an exhaustive list of “Twice Upon a Time” minutiae for the hard-core fan. Check it out. See you folks next autumn!