‘Twice Upon a Time’: A Classic Whovian’s review (spoilers)

BBC

With the First Doctor himself a major character, ‘Twice Upon a Time’ was rather naturally full of references to the Classic Series. But were those references and nods used well? And even if they were, was it a still a good story?

From the very beginning of Twice Upon a Time, I was glad I had recently rewatched The Tenth Planet. Beginning with a recap from that story, as well as merging Hartnell into Bradley, was a nice touch.

Admittedly, the new Ben and Polly didn’t look or sound much like their original counterparts. But they only barely featured in the story. And I’m glad about that. It’s not just the fact that the actors are so different. Or that I’m a massive Ben and Polly fan, and so have very high standards with those characters. Or even that continuity wise, their roles would’ve been difficult to fit into the story, anyway. No, Twice Upon a Time is a story about two Doctors. It’s also a goodbye to Twelve, but before that, let’s take a look at One.

The First Doctor – what went wrong

I’m just going to come right out and say it. The characterization of the First Doctor can be summed up with one word: frustrating. It has nothing to do with David Bradley. While not a 100% match for Hartnell, he does an excellent job. No, it’s because of another person, and you can probably guess who: Steven Moffat.

I’m not a Moffat hater. While I haven’t always agreed with all of the choices he’s made, there’s many others that I’ve been happy with. However, his handling of One at times is awful.

I’m a big, big fan of Hartnell’s Doctor. Without him and his brilliant performance almost five and a half decades ago, we wouldn’t have the show we have now.  So if you’ve never seen any of his episodes, I should let you know right now: he’s not nearly as sexist as Twice Upon a Time portrays him to be.

There are a number of awful moments that Moffat intends to be funny, and it just doesn’t work. Be warned, I’ll be going into even more extensive detail on this soon. For now, just know that Moffat handled One really badly in those moments.

The First Doctor – what went right

That alone isn’t what makes it frustrating though. What makes it really frustrating is the fact that at some moments, Moffat gets One completely right. For example, we see his reluctance of gadgets like the sunglasses or even sonic screwdriver. (The screwdriver didn’t originally show up until Fury from the Deep, with the Second Doctor.) One always liked to demonstrate his knowledge and observational skills, and it’s great we get to see some of that in this special.

I also enjoyed exploring his fear of change. At this point, this is the first time that the Doctor has ever had to go through regeneration. It makes sense that he’s reluctant to face it. So the scenes of Bradley’s Doctor admitting to Capaldi that he’s afraid are fantastic to watch. (Interestingly, similar themes of One facing his death were explored just a few months ago, in Big Finish’s The First Doctor: The Companion Chronicles: Volume 2.)

I think the greatest moment that gets One so well is his explanation for why he wanted to see the universe. His speech on the nature of good and evil is so Hartnell. In the early days, Hartnell’s Doctor came across as neutral, and a reluctant hero at best. While he grew a lot over the years, it’s nice that Bradley still gives off that outsiders viewpoint on good and evil. And I love that he doesn’t see the effect that he’s having on the universe, even this early on. The First Doctor is a hero, but he’s not the legend he will become.

These moments are absolutely brilliant. So it’s a massive shame that Moffat decided to include some terrible characterization of One in there too. Still, maybe that sums Moffat up: sometimes terrible, sometimes brilliant, but just as often, both in the same episode.

World War One and the Captain

I was surprised that World War One was used for this episode. But it was used perfectly. Given Moffat’s love of happy, reset endings, I was expecting a magic resolution to the Captain’s dilemma. What I got was something far, far better: a tribute to an amazing moment in history. And a tribute done right. The First Doctor realizing exactly what kind of man he will become, and how he’ll be able to save even just a single life, is just the icing on the cake.

I must admit, the Captain’s identity – or at least, his connection to the Brigadier – was a bit predictable. Both the uniform and the moustache were definitely meant to be a clear nod to the much loved Classic Series character.

However, that doesn’t stop me from loving the connection. Particularly how well it was handled. I find it beautiful that for both Doctors, knowing he’s a Lethbridge-Stewart is a significant moment. For One, although he doesn’t know it, it’s his first ever encounter with the Lethbridge-Stewart family. For Twelve, it’s another connection to one of his best friends. It’s understated, but it is beautifully played.

Also, I think Gatiss gives a very strong performance of a man who’s just escaped death, only to find he has to go back to it. His speech on how hope can make you afraid was brilliant. It also highlighted the true strengths of Twice Upon a Time: its focus on character moments over epic scale.

A quiet final episode

Twice Upon a Time is an episode that’s relatively light on plot, especially when compared to almost all the regeneration stories of the New Series. The Parting of the Ways, The End of Time, The Time of the Doctor. Even The Day of the Doctor for the War Doctor. All of these have focused on huge, epic scale as well as emotional drama. The one exception to this was The Night of the Doctorwhich had a short, simple plot, but still packed full of emotion. As you can probably tell from this article, you might have an idea how much I love that one.

Perhaps it’s because technically, the cause of the regeneration did start in an epic story, just not in this one. World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls were closer in tone to your typical regeneration story. So it’s wonderful that for once, the final episode of a Doctor is a more introspective one.

The First Doctor regenerates… (BBC)

Regeneration – One

It’s even funnier to think that this story is such a relatively quiet one, as it’s not just a regeneration story for one Doctor, but two. Now, with One, we already had his regeneration story with The Tenth Planet. Giving him one more story could have undermined that. The bad handling of his Doctor in the first half especially came close to doing that.

However, the final scenes of the First Doctor? I think they’re really beautiful. His acceptance of his fate, learning to change, knowing what kind of man he will become. It’s all wonderfully done.

And then you get his final words. Believe it or not, his original final words in The Tenth Planet weren’t,

It’s far from being all over!

While those words are iconic, he actual final words are:

Keep warm.

Yeah…not the most dramatic goodbye for a Doctor, quite honestly. That’s why I really loved the regeneration scene itself. Especially his new last words.

Well…here we go..the long way round…

I love the first part of that. It not only echoes both Ten’s and Twelve’s final words. It’s also a nice nod to the third regeneration too. Specifically, the Brigadier’s reaction:

Well…here we go again.

If I’m honest, it could have left out the last part of “the long way round”. Like I said, the first part was just about perfect. But it’s still an improvement on, “Keep warm”, at least.

BBC

Regeneration – Twelve

This being a Twelfth Doctor episode, it’s Twelve’s goodbye that’s most important here. So how’s that handled?

Well, of course, there’s all the old companions kind of returning, as expected. But there’s one part I really appreciated about Twelve’s goodbye. Before the regeneration itself, he clarifies that he’s ready to die. He’s not afraid of change, he’s afraid of carrying on.

I must admit, I loved this. At the end of The Doctor Falls, I was afraid that Twelve was just having the same vanity issues as Ten did in The End of Time. I was afraid they were just making him afraid of change itself. With One, that makes sense. He’s never been through it before. With later Doctors, arguably less so. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be afraid. Just perhaps not as afraid of it as One should be.

So it’s a relief that Twelve isn’t just being vain. Instead, it’s the Doctor feeling he’s ready to have some peace. He’s lived for a long, long time. He’s saved the universe so many times, and lost so many friends. And he’s just died defending a small colony from Cybermen. For him, that’s as good an ending as he could ask for. So I love that he’s not just talked into changing. He’s talked into living. And that’s what regeneration is. Another chance at life for the Doctor, another fresh start.

And so, we’re given one last speech by Capaldi. Because his Doctor was always the best at giving speeches. His last words are fitting. The equal to and exact opposite of Tennant’s:

Doctor…I let you go.

Overall, it’s a satisfying sendoff. Goodbye, Peter Capaldi. You were my favourite New Series Doctor.

And hello to Jodie Whittaker as Thirteen! Despite crashing the TARDIS in your first minute, I must admit, the smile and the reaction to your new body is very promising! I don’t know whether the era will be the greatest since the show came back, or the worst. But I’m looking forward to finding out.