[This review contains SPOILERS!]
The Doctor has fallen. The Doctor has failed.
Failed to stop an invasion of Cybermen.
Failed to turn Missy – the latest incarnation of his oldest enemy and former friend, The Master – to the path of good.
Failed to save the people who entrusted their lives to him.
Failed to save his companion, Bill Potts, from conversion into a Cyberman.
Most of all, he’s failing to stop himself from regenerating.
Stumbling into a snowy field after finding himself on his TARDIS with no explanation of how he got there or where it is taking him, The Doctor finds himself confronted by a familiar figure. Another Doctor. Indeed, the very first Doctor, who is fighting his own regeneration…
And that is when things get stranger, as time stops, a WWI-era British Army Captain shows up, they’re all abducted by aliens and an all-too-human Bill Potts is offered up by the aliens in exchange for The Captain!
One can’t help but feel a sense of melancholy while watching Twice Upon A Time. This is, after all, a story about endings, legacies and accepting the inevitable – a fitting theme not only for a story that marks the passing of Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor but also Steven Moffat’s final story as a writer for Doctor Who as well as his final episode as the series’ show-runner.
Moffat’s run as the head honcho has been viewed with mixed feelings by the Whovian fandom. Despite some arguments over his decisions as a manager, it is generally agreed that some of Moffat’s stories (Blink and the two-parter The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances are the most frequently mentioned) number among the best in the series’ history. It also cannot be denied that Moffat has brought some considerably talented people to the show, including director Rachel Talalay, who has directed every series finale of the Capaldi era and whom Moffat tasked with taking the helm on this, his final story. Drawing upon that sense of legacy and continuity is probably why this episode also features writer/actor Mark Gatiss (Moffat’s partner on Sherlock and a frequent writer for Doctor Who himself) playing the role of The Captain.
Twice Upon A Time is also significant in that it marks the first time that a past incarnation of The Doctor was recast for the modern television series. David Bradley, who played the role of First Doctor actor William Hartnell in the 2013 historical drama An Adventure In Space And Time, returns to play The Doctor in earnest for this episode. Bradley’s impersonation of The First Doctor was singled out as a high-point of that film and indeed it continues to impress here.
Everyone else delivers their A-game in this episode as well. Talalay’s direction is as solid as ever. Gatiss, playing against type, adds a surprising dash of humanity to the proceedings. Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie bring a sense of closure to the Doctor/Bill relationship that their last meeting lacked. The Twelfth Doctor era in general is given a curtain call of sorts by Moffat’s script and Jodie Whittaker gets a fan-friendly nod in her first few seconds as The Doctor, with an entrance that evokes memories of both David Tennant and Matt Smith.
The one false note in Twice Upon A Time is a bit of failed humor. While there is much in the classic series that might raise the eyebrows of modern audiences, Moffat’s attempts to draw comedy from The First Doctor’s status as an old-fashioned gentleman compared to the aged-rocker Twelfth Doctor don’t ring true. Chiding his other self for wearing sunglasses indoors is one thing. The running gag involving The First Doctor being sexist in his treatment of women (up to, and including, his threatening to spank Bill if she continues to curse) is quite another.
“Letting go of The Doctor is so hard,” says Bill Potts at one point. It is, perhaps, the biggest understatement of the episode. Still, Twice Upon A Time does make the process a little less painful, like a good Doctor should. Still, Series Eleven can’t come fast enough.