Twice Upon a Time

Posted in Episode by - December 26, 2017
Twice Upon a Time

Aired 25 December 2017

Doctor Who, perhaps more than any other franchise in any medium, is predicated upon change and revolution, the replacement of its lead character resulting in a wholly unique entity sharing his predecessors’ memories and moral fibre a conduit to allow much greater character development and opportunity for growth than any one single character could ever be afforded. Although recent regenerations have not shied away from the foreboding sense of inevitability that the process brings- the Eighth Doctor grimly accepting that he must take part in the Time War, the War Doctor finally accomplishing his ultimate goal in a most unexpected manner, the Ninth and Tenth Doctors both sacrificing their lives for that of their companions even after the latter admits just how frightening the process is physically and emotionally, and the Eleventh Doctor committing the remainder of his natural life to the protection of his adopted community before accepting his fate- ‘Twice Upon a Time’ studies death and the effects of the past upon the future in a much more perceptive and intimate manner to provide one final momentous outing for Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth incarnation.

The return of the First Doctor, here played by David Bradley who so wonderfully captured the essence of William Hartnell in the fiftieth anniversary movie An Adventure in Space and Time, was quite heavily publicised prior to the broadcast of ‘Twice Upon a Time,’ and rightly so. Following a brief recap of the events of ‘The Tenth Planet’ that reveal the First Doctor approaching his own demise, wisely showing the original cast to pay due respect to the past before then switching to the updated reimaginations, Bradley instantly makes the role his own while deftly channeling Hartnell’s original. With such a long time having passed since Hartnell last graced Doctor Who in 1973’s ‘The Three Doctors,’ it would have been easy to simply base the performance on the character quirks that have become so affectionately adored as part of Hartnell’s legacy. And while the First Doctor here does grasp his lapels and resolutely stay true to his 1960s sensibilities in ways that catch his future self off guard, it’s the irascible but well-meaning nature of a proud man trying to find his place in the universe at the very beginning of his travels that Bradley manages to bring to the forefront in a poignant performance that perfectly bridges the two eras on display.

Indeed, the First Doctor is the easiest incarnation to point to in order to show just how much the character of the Doctor has changed over time, but ‘Twice Upon a Time’ manages to show just how similar the character remains despite any outward and temporal changes. As both the First and Twelfth Doctors find themselves in a state of grace while refusing to regenerate, the importance of the past has never been quite as personally prominent as it is here for Capaldi’s Twelfth. There is unquestionably an underlying fear whenever the Doctor must confront his own mortality and the consequences that it will bring to the universe around him, but the Twelfth Doctor experiencing his very first self undergoing that fear for the very first time is a powerful motivational force that gives the two a much deeper bond than simply sharing a common timeline as the necessity of change boldly stares down both. Bradley and Capaldi have a dazzling chemistry together and each highlights different aspects of his own incarnation in terms of how the Doctor may approach and analyze a problem, and the respect these two versions come to form for the other as the definition of being the Doctor is further expanded for both is an absolute pleasure to behold and firmly proves just how timeless this franchise is regardless of who is at the helm.

Yet it’s not simply the return of his earlier self that provides the study of the past and oncoming death needed for the Twelfth Doctor. A mysterious glass entity who is able to pull individuals on the brink of death from out of time sounds like a sinister plot that would in most cases form the impetus for the Doctor’s heroism in many episodes. However, with the practice truly well-meaning and beneficial with no disruption to the timeline, the incidental appearance of the World War I Captain from Ypres in the Antarctic due to a timeline error is in reality nothing more than that. Instead, this appearance allows the Doctor to see yet another man grappling with the prospect of death, the Captain having just come from staring at a gun pointed directly at him. Mark Gatiss gives an expressive performance filled with the commensurate determination and honour of a man in war, but the lightly-shrouded sorrow he imbues when discussing the family he will leave behind and the despair that this glimmer of hope has caused him is superb. Of course, the revelation of his name as he is placed back into his wartime setting provides the very personal connection the Doctor needs to again affirm the role that death must play in events to ensure the legacy that the future will both bring and remember.

The Testimony that this otherworldly setup allows also brings Pearl Mackie’s Bill Potts back into the Doctor’s life in a gloriously unexpected fashion. The relationship between mentor and student was a masterful highlight of the preceding series, and though the Doctor never really believes that Bill has returned from the dead, she still asks all of the right questions and reminds him of just how important he is to so many people no matter the scale of his actions. Also managing to put the First Doctor’s journeys into greater context to facilitate the earlier incarnation’s acceptance of his own fate and resulting role in the future, Bill maintains the ability to see through shades of gray and to say exactly what is needed at exactly the right time to spur her friend forward, and Mackie is magnificent as she deftly flits between funny and serious to become the voice of reason the Doctors so need on this occasion. With the precedent then set for the brilliant reappearances of both Jenna Coleman’s Clara and Matt Lucas’s Nardole, the Twelfth Doctor is able to realize the scope of his entire life and understand the context of his impending demise all the better, and the cameos hit all of the right emotional notes for a fulfilling send-off.

Ultimately, the Doctor of War moniker is one that the Doctor has been battling for lifetimes, and it’s fitting that it’s the duplicity of its meaning that provides a sense of closure to both Doctors’ storylines thanks to the amazing true event of the Christmas Armistice of World War I that the two witness upon returning the Captain to his intended time. Whereas the First Doctor had been mortified when shown the carnage that would surround his future incarnations, the ability of the Twelfth Doctor to just slightly play with time enough to herald the arrival of the Armistice in order to save the Captain brings about a wholly different connotation to that title that peacefully sits well with both a man looking forward and one looking backward. It’s fair to say that the lack of a true villain against whom the Doctor can battle does create a lack of spectacle and that the ‘Rusty’ Dalek sequence in order to access the largest known database is somewhat jarring from the remainder of this character piece, but those are minor quibbles at best in a spectacular effort from all involved. The incredible direction and score highlight a truly emotion-laden script and round of performances that emphasize everything that Peter Capaldi has brought to the role of the Twelfth Doctor and that the character of the Doctor has experienced and undergone over so many years brilliantly, providing a surprisingly solemn but incredibly powerful ending to an era as Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor steps onto centre stage.

  • Release Date: 12/2017
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