Goodbye Peter Capaldi. Although you got off to a rocky start, you grew into your own Doctor. But each Doctor’s time in the sun must come to an end. So now, welcome Jodie Whitaker. While we only got to greet you for a moment, there’s certainly been quite the buzz leading up to your arrival. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Twice Upon a Time introduces Whitaker’s Doctor at the very end. Like most regeneration stories in Doctor Who, it’s primarily about the preceding Doctor’s last days. Or in this case, the last days of two of them.
After landing on the South Pole in the previous episode, Capaldi’s Doctor struggles with the fact that he is about to regenerate again. Over the years, the Doctor has had to say goodbye to many companions and make many tough decisions. Finally, he’s had enough. But who should greet him upon his stepping out into the snowy landscape but the First Doctor. This Doctor, originally played by William Hartnell and here by David Bradley, is also fighting his own regeneration.
The reunion (if you can call meeting yourself that) is interrupted when a captain (Mark Gatiss) from World War I arrives. Wounded on the battlefield of Ypres, he arrived at the South Pole after a woman made of glass transported him. It turns out this being takes people and scans them right before their death. He accidentally ended up at the South Pole instead of his time and place of death, and the woman returns to rectify this. The two Doctors then put their minds and respective skills together to figure out what this being is really after.
Not the first time we’ve had multiple Doctors onscreen at once, but the age gap between the two is notable. Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor has seen and done so so much, while Bradley’s is essentially at the start of his journey (even though they appear to be around the same age, which the episode does joke about). This provides a nice thoroughfare for how the Doctors come to terms with the fact that they must regenerate. The Twelfth Doctor only exists because all the others have passed on the torch before him. Bradley is convincing as the First Doctor, and really nails the feeling of being from a different time in the Doctor’s life. It’s a shame in a way, since the episode ostensibly exists to be about the Twelfth Doctor. There’s a bit of a balancing act for a bit, but towards the end, it ensures that this is the Twelfth Doctor’s moment.
While it doesn’t take too much for the First Doctor to realize that he has to move on so his other forms may exist, the Twelfth is less motivated by this. He needs a bit more pushing, and that primarily comes in the form of Bill (Pearl Mackie). In exchange for handing over the captain, the glass being promises that it can return Bill, who died in the previous episode, to the Doctor. Naturally, the Twelfth Doctor is convinced he can save both, unwilling to lose anyone else. This plot fits in well with the overarching story of the Doctor and his regeneration. The episode does a great job of reflecting on themes of loss while tying these into the Doctor’s decision. Surprisingly (or not, since you already know he regenerates), it also manages to end on a positive note.
The problems with the episode arrive in the middle act, which see the Doctors and co. traveling to a war-torn planet to access a database. The group bickers over who will stay where and do what in their plan to reach the database. It’s here that having multiple Doctors slows things down, as each wants to be the one to save the day. There’s also a running gag of the original Doctor having old-fashioned views on women, which is funny the first time but gets increasingly groan-inducing, especially when it’s in regards to Bill. While the section is slow, the moments with the captain are nice as we get a better sense of his character.
The end of the episode is where things truly shine. Capaldi secures the spotlight and is given his moment to come to terms with his decision and reflect on his past. A few familiar faces show up, which I won’t spoil here. Even though his departure isn’t bombastic or epic like many of the others, it’s a fitting end to a Doctor that was always a bit more about internal conflict than external. But that’s not to say the episode ends on a quieter note. After Capaldi has his time to reflect, Whitaker takes the stage in a whirlwind both figurative and literal. Trying to navigate a rapidly rotating TARDIS, the Thirteenth Doctor exclaims, “Oh! Brilliant!”
The latest Doctor Who Christmas special takes its time to tell the story of the Twelfth Doctor’s goodbye while interweaving it with the episode’s conflict of the week. The addition of the First Doctor helps this farewell along its feet, while only occasionally stepping on its toes.