"Twice Upon A Time".
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Rachel Talalay
Starring Peter Capaldi, David Bradley,
Mark Gatiss and Pearl Mackie
This review contains spoilers from the Doctor Who Christmas Episode
To be frank, the more recent “Doctor Who” Christmas Specials have somewhat fallen flat in my humble opinion, predominantly due to Steven Moffat’s overreliance upon festive frivolities and holiday humour. Indeed, with the possible exception of Matt Smith’s swansong, "The Time of the Doctor", I haven’t ‘thoroughly enjoyed’ one of these seasonal-themed shows since Russell T Davies’ 2008 masterpiece “The Next Doctor”. I’m also not the greatest fan of Peter Capaldi’s tenure as the time-travelling Gallifreyan either, and believe the Scottish actor’s considerable talents were woefully wasted during his first two seasons, and only really came to the fore once he was ably accompanied by characters like Bill Potts and Nardole.
"Twice Upon a Time" however, does not seemingly fall into many of the tinsel-laden traps its predecessors have succumbed to, and instead tells a relatively straightforward story of the Timelord trying to understand whether a company capable of replicating the memories of the deceased should be universally viewed as a villainous malignancy or, somewhat perturbingly for the Doctor, an actual cause for the greater good. In fact, the realisation that this particular adventure specifically occurs on Christmas Day only becomes relevant (and resultantly noticeable) at the episode’s end when it enables the titular lead to engineer a military ceasefire through the manipulation of a few blessed hours of time.
Peter Capaldi’s portrayal of a Timelord desperately seeking peace after two thousand years of life, is also far more watchable (and likeable) than the version who required Clara Oswald’s hastily-written handy cards in “Under The Lake” so as to demonstrate even the smallest amount of compassion and humanity. Despite being tired of living himself, the Doctor isn’t about to stand by and watch a single lone soldier die if he can help it, even when Mark Gatiss’ World War One British officer nobly agrees to sacrifice his life in the belief it will save others. Such natural empathy and warmth on behalf of the Twelfth Doctor was sadly missing through so many of his earliest adventures, so it’s nice to see a far more agreeable attitude being shown throughout his final adventure.
Far more impressive though, has to be David Bradley’s ‘tour de force’ as the First Doctor. For those old enough to remember, I thought Richard Hurndall’s performance in the Twentieth Anniversary special “The Five Doctors” would be hard to beat, yet the star of “An Adventure in Space and Time” effortlessly transforms into the grumpy grandfather’s role and proves a pleasure to watch; even if he is given the majority of Moffat’s less than subtle sexist jokes – ‘smacked bottom’ for Pete's sake…
Admittedly, some of the “original” Doctor’s athletics are a bit hard to accept. The oldster’s zigzagging in between numerous Dalek disintegration beams as he fast approaches a watchtower belonging to the only ‘good’ Kaled in the galaxy takes a bit of getting used to, and one could certainly never imagine the frail-looking William Hartnell hurling himself from atop the TARDIS onto the ground, even if his fall was cushioned by a sheet of Antarctic snow.
Fortunately, such physicality doesn’t jar too much upon the senses, and are always quickly eclipsed by Bradley’s acting gravitas. In fact, one of the highlights of the story is the heart-wrenching despondency etched upon the old man’s face when he comprehends that he will become “The Doctor of War” his adversary is seeking after. This fate, despite being engineered through the sheer necessity needed in order to fight the universe’s many wrongs, clearly reaches down to the very core of the Timelord’s fears as to what his violent legacy may become should he accept the need to regenerate for the first time, and the Yorkshire man ‘nails’ this inner turmoil on-screen marvellously.
Mark Gatiss’ Lethbridge-Stewart is similarly an inspiring casting choice, with the English screenwriter putting in a remarkably charming, stiff upper-lipped performance. Such firm fondness for a non-regular character is particularly impressive considering his sombre introduction, trapped inside a bomb blast crater with a wounded German soldier pointing a pistol at him. Yet the World War One Officer (“Sorry… Spoilers.”) soon becomes a decidedly engaging companion, whose baffled bewilderments and naïve nobilities quickly endear him to both the audience and the Twelfth Doctor. It’s certainly a role which seems to far better suit the actor’s strengths than his previous foray into the world of “Doctor Who” as the decidedly over-the-top villain-come-monster Doctor Lazarus.
Plot-wise, "Twice Upon a Time" undoubtedly still suffers from some of Steven Moffat’s infamously head scratching discombobulations, as no-one ever seems to properly rationalise just why the Gallifreyan’s dual contemplation of ‘ending his travels’ causes a participant of the Great War to be erroneously dispatched to the South Pole in the year 1986? There’s also little explanation provided as to just how the universe’s mysterious benefactors ever came to be in a position to extract everyone’s memories just before their moment of death, nor how they developed the technology to travel back in time and do so retrospectively?
Similarly disconcerting, though perhaps understandable given this adventure is supposed to finish with a feel good finale, are the handful of sickly sweet cameos thrust upon the Doctor at the very end of the show. Rusty the Dalek’s somewhat bizarre appearance mid-way through the tale definitely caught me by surprise, but it at least provided a valid contribution to the plot, seeing as how the Matrix no longer existed, and even Mark Gatiss’ revelation that he was Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart’s ancestor made some sentimental sense. Yet the sudden materialisation of Nardole in No Man’s Land appeared to have been manipulated purely to provide the tenth season TARDIS crew the chance for a last group hug, whilst the ‘blink and you’ll miss her’ manifestation of the Impossible Girl, Clara Oswald, was seriously super sugary-strong stuff…
Sadly, this particular Christmas Special also insists on treating the Timelord’s regeneration as an opportunity for the lead actor to perform a lengthy swansong; a trend arguably initiated by Russell T Davies dreadfully drawn-out dramatics for the Tenth Doctor in “The End of Time”. True, Matt Smith’s “like breath on a mirror” speech from “The Time of The Doctor” was memorably magnificent and encapsulated much of his tenure on the television series within the space of a few minutes. However, Peter Capaldi’s soliloquy seemingly comes across as a bit of an emotionless rant, in which the show’s producer appears, once again, to be trying far too hard to be funny or clever, and thus disappointingly causes the Twelfth Doctor’s final moments to be far more reminiscent of his disagreeable early days rather than the more warm, likeable time traveller he has become over the past twelve months.