Doctor Who: Twice Upon a Time

Doctor Who: Twice Upon a Time January 3, 2018

I was blown away by the 2017 Doctor Who Christmas special, “Twice Upon a Time, written by Steven Moffat. It begins with “Previously on Doctor Who” followed not by a recap of the last episode, but “709 Episodes Ago” and both original footage and new from the classic episode “The Tenth Planet,” which featured the first regeneration. Unfortunately holiday travels delayed my watching it and blogging about it, and so I apologize that I am only getting this onto my blog today. The post includes spoilers, if you haven’t seen the episode yet.

The story is not exactly what I guessed it would be back in June 2017, but I am still struck that I was on the right track about so much. The premise is that Doctor refused to regenerate at the south pole – and did so twice! I loved that they both included scenes from “The Tenth Planet” and also redid some and added more with David Bradley as the First Doctor, who did an excellent job, I thought, just as he did in An Adventure in Time and Space. Apparently in the original script for “The Tenth Planet,” in a scene that was never filmed, the Doctor initially resisted regeneration. Moffat was drawing on a very deep knowledge of Doctor Who in this episode.

The episode begins with the two Doctors meeting, soon followed by them encountering a WWI soldier who has been lifted out of his time, a foxhole in Ypres in 1914. Therein, two soldiers (one English one German) are holding each other at gunpoint. The English one (referred to until the end of the episode simply as “the captain,” played by Mark Gatiss) says he has no wish to kill except in self defense. Then time freezes, a translucent female figure appears, a “timeline error” warning sounds, and then he is transported to the south pole, where falling snow has also frozen in midair.

There was a lot of excellent humor of the sort that is required when more than one Doctor appears in an episode. The captain’s words “I don’t suppose either of you is a doctor” gets an appropriate response from the current Doctor, who asks, “Are you trying to be funny?” When the captain responds to the Doctor’s mention of “World War One” by asking “what do you mean by ‘one’?” he replies with an echo of River Song’s phrase: “Sorry – spoilers.” And it is fun when the First Doctor discusses the electric guitar, sonic screwdriver, and sunglasses. Given the Doctor’s early tendency to turn his female companions into “assistants,” it was great to see the First Doctor invent a role for his future self as his assistant, his “nurse.” The episode uses the presence of the First Doctor to tackle the sexism of the earlier show (as in most if not all TV in the 1960s). The presence of strong female characters in the episode – including the return of Bill Potts and later Clara Oswald, as well as the Doctor herself after the regeneration – provides the strongest challenge to that legacy.

The mysterious translucent figure’s ship takes the TARDIS on board. She introduces herself and the other entities of which she is a part as “what awaits at the end of every life…We are testimony.” They travel back from the future to harvest something from those who are about to die – memories. The interaction with the show’s past and future makes this theme of memories a powerful one about the show as well as within the narrative. The reference to the “Doctor of War” as Testimony shows the First Doctor his future reminds us of how the Doctor’s actions have evolved over the years through the classic as well as the modern series. And when “the Shadow of the Valeyard” mentioned among the Doctor’s many names, it is not merely an allusion to the classic series, but one that strikes at the very heart of the Doctor’s shadow side.

When the Doctors and their companions end up in the First Doctor’s TARDIS, the Doctor finds he needs access to a bigger database than is there. He mentions the Matrix on Gallifrey, then reconsiders, as there is something bigger than the Matrix. They then travel to the center of the universe where one can apparently find the most comprehensive database in the universe. There is just one problem – its owner wants to kill the Doctor. That individual turns out to be the “good Dalek” whom the Doctor nicknamed “Rusty” in the episode “Into The Dalek.”  The Doctor persuades Rusty to give him access to the Dalek database so that he can identify the person whose transluscent image had been appearing to them.

Bill Potts asks the Doctor what he was running to rather than what he was running from when he left Gallifrey. When he tells her that is a good question, she says, “Questions are kind of my thing.” His response is that by any analysis, evil should always win. “Good is not a practical survival strategy…so why does good always prevail?” The Doctor went looking for an answer to the question of whether there was some force at work behind the scenes. When it becomes clear that he has no idea who or what that might be, Bill suggests that there might be a bloke holding it all together, which the Doctor dismisses as simply a fairytale. This is Doctor Who at its most theological, as it contemplates the possibility that a being with a kind heart, a long life, and a time machine could in fact produce the kind of thing we see in the universe, one that has a tendency towards chaos and evil and yet in which good regularly claws its way in that direction. Later in the episode, this divine or mythical aspect of the Doctor is highlighted as the current Doctor tells his original self, “You’re right. The universe generally fails to be a fairy tale. That’s where we come in.”

Consulting the Dalek database, they learn that the person represented in Testimony is Prof. Helen Clay from New Earth, who would live in the year 5,000,000,012. She refers to their efforts to gather the memories of all who die and preserve them (an effort very reminiscent of the Matrix of the time lords). The statement “This is heaven on new earth” highlights the theological aspect of that endeavor, too. The Doctor is struck that what he is dealing with is not an evil plan, and says he doesn’t really know what to do under such circumstances – at which point he is reminded, “You’re not the only kind one in the universe.” It turns out that the Doctor trying to die twice caused a temporal disruption. As he returns the captain to his own time, when he is supposed to die, the captain asks him to look in on his family, and it turns out that he is the ancestor of Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart. The Doctor, however, had brought him back a few hours later to save his life. Just as he and the other soldier are likely to shoot each other, we hear the sound of Stille Nacht sung by German soldiers, then the English responding with Silent Night. The Doctor says that it is “Christmas 1914 and a human miracle is about to happen…It never happened again in any war, anywhere.” The latter is not quite true, but the event is still a striking one, historically speaking, and makes a beautiful point within the episode, as it is a spontaneous expression of kindness which the Doctor witnesses rather than causes.

The importance of memories (of the show as well as on the show) is a central theme of the episode. Bill is said to be a “duplicate” but she responds by asking what anyone is but a collection of memories. As Testimony seeks to emphasize the importance of memories, the Doctor is given his memories of Clara back. The Doctor says that his own memories, his testimony, would shatter all their glass vessels. The inevitability that all lives and all stories must end, including his own, offers a complementary rather than contrasting focus on mortality, one that goes hand in hand with the emphasis on memory in conjunction with the question of whether a collection of memories simply is an individual rather than a copy or imitation. The Doctor asks, “Can’t I ever have peace? Can’t I rest?…A life this long is a battlefield, and it’s empty because everyone else has fallen.” He goes on to say that it is “time to leave the battlefield.” Furthermore he refers to the “silly old universe. The more I save it the more it needs saving. It’s a treadmill.” But ultimately he decides that “One more lifetime won’t kill anyone” – other than himself.

The Doctor then offers a speech that is rather like the testaments known from within the Bible as well as extracanonical Jewish and Christian literature. In this case, however, the speech is not addressed to descendants but to the Doctor’s own future self. In it he says things such as the “Hate is always foolish and love is always wise.” The Doctor also says that no one can be allowed to hear his name, and no one would understand it anyway. He then qualifies that statement, however, by saying that children can hear his name if their heart is in the right place and the stars are too. This makes a direct connection with the ability of children to appreciate fairy tales when adults often fail to. Eventually he says, “Doctor, I let you go,” and we get a depiction of his regeneration. As his hands change size, the Doctor’s ring falls off, in an echo of the effect of the first regeneration as seen in the episode “Power of the Daleks,” the first to feature Patrick Troughton as the Doctor. And as Jodie Whittaker steps into the role, her first words as the Doctor turn out to be “Ah, brilliant.” The episode ends with quite a cliffhanger, as the TARDIS dumps books and eventually also the Doctor out through its doors! This might be striking symbolism of the way the show has regularly jettisoned the old even while maintaining an element of continuity. Some of the continuity is even audible in the use of music, as we hear strains of the Doctor’s theme music from previous seasons.

The language the Doctor used very early in the episode, that “we must change and go on or die as we are,” was poignant for more than one reason. The introduction of regeneration involved a serious risk for the show back in the 1960s, just as changing the gender of the Doctor does today. While most fans are simply delighted by this as all other instances of continuity and change, some then as now would prefer that the show die rather than change in ways that make them uncomfortable. But Doctor Who – both on screen and behind the scenes – is all about having the courage to change nonetheless.

I found this to be a wonderful episode. What did you think of it?


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  • TrevorN

    I set this episode to record while we were on holiday in Europe for nearly a month. I managed to avoid spoilers while away and watched it last night as soon as we returned home. Unfortunately I was so tired I must have slept through parts of it because some points in your summary came as complete surprises to me! Clearly I’ll have to watch it again. In my sleep-addled version there seemed to be some sort of parallel conversation going on between Dr Bradley with Bill and Dr Capaldi with Rusty. The presence of the Dalek now makes more sense 🙂

    • Let me know what you think of it once you have watched it again!