Doctor Who Christmas 2017 Recap: Twice Upon A Time
Steve Moffat’s final fairy tale graces his Doctor Who Christmas farewell on Twice Upon A Time.
If there’s one thing Steve Moffat has proven himself very good at over the course of his tenure, it’s Doctor Who-As-Fairy-Tale. There are times when fans would argue he went overboard with it, such as the later Amy Pond years, or River Song-and-The Doctor’s love story. The really terrible bits of his tenure, such as Clara and the “I flew in on a leaf” bit was a complete fairy tale that didn’t work in the Whovian canon.
But when Moffat’s fairy tales do work, such as his very first story, “The Girl In The Fireplace,” it can be magic. The Doctor’s 50th-anniversary episode also worked. And almost everything with the 12th Doctor and Bill Potts worked. So is it really a surprise that for his final hurrah, Moffat took the elements from those, mixed in a bit of real history and called it a happy ending?
First Doctor: It’s bigger than it was.
Twelfth Doctor: Well, it’s all those years of bigger-on-the-inside! You try sucking your tummy in that long!
Taking a page from the 50th anniversary, Moffat once again opened with archival footage from Doctor Who‘s earliest episodes. But in this case, he did it in the “Previouslies” as they are called, with a “Previously on Doctor Who” culled from 709 episodes back, and the First Doctor’s regeneration, a choice made by the BBC when they didn’t want to end Doctor Who, but William Hartnell’s memory problems became too great for him to continue in the role.
The resulting cross cut from the original Doctor to Bradley’s take over was a really great moment, and an explainer, for anyone who somehow missed his turn in An Adventure In Space And Time as to why he was cast. Suddenly here is the First Doctor, as if he has always been there, just parked 70 feet that way.
The First Doctor, at the south pole, refuses to regenerate. Seventy feet away, 2000+ years later, the Twelfth Doctor makes the same choice. The result is a rupture in time and space, pulling those who were in the process of dying all over the continuum into this frozen moment, along with a little-known fact: that there are glass people who feed off our moments of death. Luckily for us, one of those pulled from their moment of death is Bill Potts*, affording us one last adventure with her practical self, and her priceless reactions to the original Doctor.
(*Though we should note that her big scene with the First Doctor is actually a dead-on recreation of a shot done with Clara and the Twelfth Doctor a few years ago, giving the show a reason to call Clara back before it’s all over.)
First Doctor: This is earth, a level five civilization!
Twelfth Doctor: And it is protected!
First Doctor: What?
Of course, whatever it is these glass people are doing, and whatever they’re sucking away from this planet, the Doctor is going to find out and stop them. The Twelfth Doctor that is. The First Doctor isn’t so quick to jump into the breach and save the Earth….because for him it’s very early days. He hasn’t really had to start saving the world. He doesn’t even know it needs his protection.
Like the genius level discovery of how well the Tenth and Eleventh Doctor worked together on screen when Tennant and Smith starred in the 50th anniversary together, this too was a moment of discovering what a great double act Moffat had put together. The First and Twelfth Doctors are a fantastic pair, both utterly convinced their way is the right one, both totally crotchety over the idea that the other doesn’t agree, and yet completely delightful together. (Also? Always remember where you parked, it’s going to come up a lot.)
The two of them together also gives Moffat and excuse to indulge in the sort of sexism that he’s no longer allowed to express, under the guise of comedic effect and then having the Doctor scold himself for it every time it pops out. In lesser hands, it might be uncomfortable (and it’s telling that the lesser hands of Mark Gatiss intruding on it is the moment where it gets genuinely uncomfortable) but David Bradley is a far better actor and makes it work.
Upon investigation of the glass people, the Doctor is exposed to himself, which allows Moffat to bring back his other major theme from the 50th Anniversary special, one that was never properly resolved. With Eccleston refusing to come back, Moffat created “The War Doctor” played by the late great John Hurt. This then added the dimension that there was this “War Doctor” who existed sometime during the off-air years between Eight and Nine, but who was never quite properly explained, nor was he sufficiently understood: what does it mean to be a War Doctor?
The Glass People: He is the doctor of war!
First Doctor: What was that?
Twelfth Doctor: To be fair, they cut out all the jokes!
In this episode, Moffat finally gets to explain himself and what he was trying for but never quite achieved until now. When Gatiss is returned to his timeline, and the moment of his death, he’s actually fourteen minutes late…so that instead of dying he, and us at home, can experience a recreation of one of the most remarkable moments in the history of World War I: The Christmas Truce of 1914, when soliders, in a moment of Christmas giving all spontaneously laid down their arms and sang Christmas carols to each other, ending in everyone coming out of their trenches and celebrating for one night, in No Man’s Land.
The Doctor is there, in times of war, and in times when humanity is better than War. He’s there to help heal man’s impulse that drives him to war. He is…A War Doctor.
Oh and coincidentally the Glass People aren’t anyone’s enemy. Sometimes not everyone you meet in the Universe is an enemy. Sometimes there are ones out there that are kind. (Heck, even the Dalek in this episode was a good guy, the one called “Rusty” from back during Capaldi’s first season.)
Of course, then we also learn that said World War I officer that Gatiss is playing turns out to be a Lethbridge-Stewart, who asks the First Doctor to look in on his descendants once in a while. This gives a whole new twist to the Third Doctor’s relationship with Brigadier in the 1970s episodes.
So there it is our final fairy tale from Moffat, reminding us that the people we love are never really gone and that when it’s time to go and let change happen, we should do so. It’s a tale of rebirth, a time to look forward to the future. Both for the First Doctor, who, just before we cut back to the original footage of the very first regeneration says that it’s time to take “the long way”, his “slow path,” to the Twelfth Doctor, who is given one more beautiful tirade of a monologue before h too sets off into the sunset and becomes something else.
Twelfth Doctor: Oh, there it is. Silly old universe. The more I save it the more it needs saving. It’s a treadmill…. You wait a moment, Doctor. Let’s get it right. I’ve got a few things to say to you. Basic stuff first. Never be cruel, never be cowardly. And never ever eat pears! Remember – hate is always foolish…and love, is always wise. Always try, to be nice and never fail to be kind. Oh, and….and you mustn’t tell anyone your name. No-one would understand it anyway. Except…. Except….children. Children can hear it. Sometimes – if their hearts are in the right place, and the stars are too. Children can hear your name. But nobody else. Nobody else. Ever. Laugh hard, run fast, be kind. Doctor, I let you go.
And with that history was made, and the Doctor regenerated into a woman for the first time, only for the TARDIS to explode. You know, you would think after the Tenth Doctor regenerated into the Eleventh Doctor and the TARDIS explodes and crashed….or the Eleventh Doctor regenerated into the Twelfth Doctor and the TARDIS explodes and brought along a dinosaur into London….that someone would tell him to go outside.
Ah well, maybe the next one will be smarter. After all, she’s got a lovely practical Yorkshire accent.