The present is thought of as mutable and the past is thought of as inevitable. But, when we wade through the mutability of today, we forge the history of tomorrow. Someone has recently said that we all worry about going back in time and changing history but nobody in the present worries about changing tomorrow. If Gavrillo Princip hadn't assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, we wouldn't have gotten World War 1 and if the First Doctor hadn't have regenerated into the Second, we wouldn't have had thousands of adventures and all the those lives would have been lost.
Doctor Who Christmas Specials have been something of an odd beast. More often than not, they come in two flavours, good little adventures with little lasting consequences, like The Return of Doctor Mysterio, Voyage of the Damned, The Runaway Bride and The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe. Or they can be big regeneration stories like, The Christmas Invasion, The End of Time and The Time of the Doctor. Twice Upon A Time is a story that certainly falls into the latter catagory. Not only does this story say goodbye to Peter Capaldi's but also to the showrunner, Stephen Moffat. Plus it also introduces Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor, an actress who now has arguably more weight on her shoulders than Christopher Eccleston did when the show came back in 2005.
David Bradley, (The First Doctor), Lily Travers, (Polly) and Jared Garfield, (Ben), recreate the final moments of The Tenth Planet, which have been lovingly restored.
When it comes down to the three goals that Twice Upon A Time had to accomplish, then it is an unquestionable success. It is thoughtful, funny and moving story about kindness, bravery and the how all the small choices we make can have a big impact later down the road. It allowed Moffat to reflect on the last fifty-four years of Doctor Who and also serves as a wonderful farewell for the Twelfth Doctor. And it gives us the opportunity to see how much Capaldi had grown into the role, following his rather shaky start in 2014. In fact, the Twelfth Doctor never felt younger and more lively than when he was about to regenerate and was paired with his first incarnation.
The problem with everything is that after it has acchieved to do all of these things, the story forgets to have any plot.
At its core, there is a very nice story about the Christmas Truce of 1914. But Moffat being Moffat, he decides to stretch that story over some convulted sci-fi concept and in place of plot, Twice Upon A Time just raises some not-interesting questions. Is the returning Bill Potts a duplicate? Who was the mysterious Glass Lady? And what is the all-powerful database that the Doctor keeps refering to? There isn't a lot in the way of action and some of the visuals are laugably bad, like the glass people who look like they have stepped out of a video game from the ninetiees. There is an awful lot of sitting around waiting for things to happen, not only for the characters but the audience at home. And while the idea of grappling with a fate you know you can't avoid is at the heart of the story, everything in this seems to have come across a the limit of someones imagination or budget. There is the brilliant twist where we discover that the glass lady and her Testiment aren't evil at all but when everything is said and done, this episode never feels like it hits the ground running until around the final twenty minutes.
The Twelfth Doctor, (Peter Capaldi), The First Doctor, (David Bradley) and Bill, (Pearl Mackie) join forces.
But I didn't really care, I've always prefered the more thoughtful side of the show and this episode made me sob for an era that wasn't really making people invested. Even me, life-long Doctor Who fan reached a point where it wouldn't have bothered me to miss a Matt Smith episode. And in setting this episode around the 1914 Christmas Truce, it finds the perfect core of hope to anchor the whole tale about change, time and the fear of the unknown around.
Of course, one could argue that there are never clear-cut villians when it comes to war and World War 1 reflected that in the extreme. It was a war where millions died for no real reason and only lead to another war a few decades later. The whole thing took a much more emotional turn when Mark Gattiss turned up as the Captain, who later tells us name is Lethbridge Stewart, the grandfather of The Brigadier and great grandfather to Kate Stewart. He only ramps the emotions up when he asks what the Doctor meant when he said 'one'. World War 1 was a tragedy on an almost inconcievable scale and Twice Upon A Time boils that fact down to the tableau of scared British and German soldiers locked in a stalemate that they could both easily walk away from. But because they don't understand each other and have been charged with fighting for their countries, they are surely going to end up as dead men. Well, until a very kind old man turns up to save them, or two old kind men...
We saw at the end of The Doctor Falls, the Twelfth Doctor refusing to regenerate put him on a collision course with his first incarnation, originally played by William Hartnell but this time portrayed once more by David Bradley. At the end of The Tenth Planet, the First Doctor is having just as much of a difficult time coming to terms with moving on and all the Doctor-angst causes the Captain to be pulled into their orbit in a 'don't think about it too much' plot. I had expected this episode to be a homage to all of Moffat's era with cameos from the Eleventh Doctor, Amy, Rory, River Song, Missy and the Paternoster Gang. I was thankful then for the restrant that Moffat showed in keeping this as the Twelfth Doctor's moment and though it could have used more in the way of plot, there was a delightful simplicity to Twice Upon A Time. At the end of the day, it was about three men facing death and coming to terms with leaving those they love behind.
The First Doctor, Bill and The Captain, (Mark Gatiss) have a little discussion.
However, while the story finds the time to give the First Doctor and the Captain monologues on why they don't why to die, it doesn't give the Twelfth Doctor time to do the same. He talks about wanting peace and how he is fed up with being the last man standing on any battlefield. But this question that should have been at the heart of the story takes a back seat to the Glass Lady storyline. It isn't a huge mistep however and there is enough explination for us to make up our own stories about what is going on his head. But I would have much prefered a look at the Twelfth Doctor through discussions with Bill, the First Doctor or the Captain than the pointless inclusion of Rusty the good-Dalek, from Into the Dalek. Of all the cameos I thought would feature, Rusty wasn't one of them.
Luckily though, when it comes down to emotional heft, Twice Upon A Time more than strikes its landing. What begins as a story about the inevitability of history, quickly becomes a story about the celebration of hope. Everyone lives. Just this once, everyone lives! By adjusting the time line just slightly and bringing the Captain forward by a few hours, the Doctor ensures that both the Captain and the German soldier are saved not by a sci-fi plot device but a true Christmas miracle. And the story of the Christmas Day truce is all the more powerful because it is true. The real world is rarely a fairy-tale, but every so often, it really is. And because of the Doctor, everyone lived.
Even the Twelfth Doctor decides that his death isn't going to be good for the universe and decides that one more lifetime of exploration and adventure wouldn't hurt. Perhaps it was a way to get over the way Matt Smith sneezed his way into being Capaldi but Moffat gives the Twelfth Doctor more than enough time to say his goodbyes to his companions. The Doctor gets to bid farewell to Bill and Nardole and to prove they are more than just memories Bill even gives him his memories of Clara back, in a moment which is even more powerful because of the way it is underplayed. Capaldi then takes his time in passing his core beliefs on to his incoming incarnation.
The final monolgue for the Twelfth Doctor also felt like a message from Moffat to incoming show-runner Chris Chibnal about all the things Moffat had learnt from working on the show. While the Doctor can't save the universe all the time, Moffat says that she shouldn't let that stop from trying. It is important that the Doctor isn't cruel or cowardly and is always nice in the end. Children are the ones who need this show the most, write whatever stories you want but remember that the Doctor needs to laugh hard, run fast and always needs to be kind.
We only get the one line from the Thirteenth Doctor before the TARDIS crashes and sends her tumbling into the air but it's the perfect note on which to leave her ahead of her proper introduction next year. "Aw, brilliant", she smiles when she sees herself for the first time. We need to remember that life is just memories, we'll always have memories of each incarnation of the Doctor but for the Doctor, it is time to make some new ones...