The 'Doctor Who' Christmas Special: Everything Is As It Was, and Everything Has Changed
Everything is as it was, and everything has changed, in a festive special that didn’t really go anywhere, except where no woman has gone before.
Characters died but they kind of didn’t; doctors refused to regenerate but then they did; there was an evil plan that turned out not to be evil after all; and the Great War stopped for a day before carrying on as normal. All of this set a backdrop for an episode built on a massive paradox: sometimes a great change really is just more of the same, neatly setting the scene for the arrival of Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteen — significantly different, and yet the same.
Where to start then? The juxtaposition of One and Twelve invited the audience to compare the evolution of the Doctor; Twelve is embarrassed by One’s politically incorrect attitudes, where One thinks that Twelve’s sonic sunglasses and guitar represent an embarrassing mid-life crisis. We get to see the inside of One’s TARDIS — and reminded that it’s not that there are two TARDISes, but the same TARDIS twice; again, a fitting metaphor for the episode’s central theme of Different and the Same. It’s not so much change as evolution, shown more clearly when comparing the earliest and latest points on the spectrum, mirrored in the way that modern material with Bradley was morphed with original black and white footage from 1966’s episode ‘The Tenth Planet’.
The Evil But Not Evil plot of the episode took this theme further. What constitutes a person? Is it their flesh? If their memories are in a new body, are they still ‘them’, in all the ways that count? The Doctor struggled with this when it came to Memory-Bill, and it took the arrival of Memory-Nardole and Memory-Clara to make him feel more comfortable with the idea. I think — and I admittedly watched this with bleary eyes — that Memory-Bill is pre Watery-Bill, having given her ‘testimony’ just before departing with Watery-Heather, so there is still another version of Bill hanging out in the universe somewhere. It was certainly a delight to see her again, and Nardole and Clara were a wonderful surprise too. But they probably shouldn’t have been a surprise — the tour to say farewell to former friends has become a New Who tradition, via a long death with time to travel for Ten, or visions in the TARDIS for Eleven. Once again: the same, but different.
But there were other callbacks here as well: Rusty the Dalek (from ‘Into the Dalek’) made a reappearance as a kind of weaponised Google, and Mark Gatiss’s Captain turned out to be the Brigadier’s father. The soundtrack was playful too, using the Bad Wolf theme, and apparently the theme from the ‘Husbands of River Song’ special at one point, though I didn’t catch that one myself.
It wouldn’t be a festive special without something Christmassy. Compared to previous specials (Father Christmas, Murderous Christmas Trees, Scrooge) this one was pretty restrained. Yes, there was snow, but using the Christmas Day Truce of 1914 was a really lovely touch. The Captain faces his fate with dignity, vowing to return to the moment of his death, only for Twelve to pull some timey-wimey trickery — just a little nudge forward — to find a miracle that would save him. There are quite a few things in life that are guaranteed to make me cry, and the Christmas Truce is up there, for the beauty of the truce itself, the brief camaraderie across enemy lines, the guts it must have taken to be the first person to leave the trenches, and the short-lived oasis of calm and peace before both sides resumed trying to kill each other again, thus demonstrating the futility of war… sorry, getting misty-eyed again. For one glorious moment, two opposing sides realised that they had more in common than they thought; they sing the same carol, but in different languages. Yes, that’s right — Same and Different, again.
But it was in the first glimpses of Thirteen that perhaps this Same/Different dynamic played out best. Like other Doctors before her, she has trouble with the TARDIS — let’s not forget that the iconic scraping noise of the TARDIS is apparently the Doctor leaving the handbrake on…
So was all this ‘everything changes, but everything stays the same’ theme just a message to reassure fans about the newest Who-era? It can be difficult adjusting to a regeneration; there is often a sense of loyalty to the previous Doctor and a sadness in saying farewell, which means it takes time to warm to the new one. This is especially tricky when there isn’t a companion to play this role out for us on screen. And for Thirteen’s era, everything is changing, and (understatement), it’s caused a bit of a ruckus. So ‘Twice Upon A Time’ reminds us that Doctors regenerate all the time. They evolve. Their attitudes develop. Regeneration changes their entire body, not just their face. They might be wearing the same clothes, but that doesn’t mean that they will fit. When Twelve’s ring fell off Thirteen’s finger, that was a lovely little moment, paying homage to Capaldi’s tradition of always wearing his real wedding ring (awwww) and metaphorically shedding the last Doctor’s paraphernalia. “But how can a Doctor change gender? That’s silly!” Well, if we’re brutally honest isn’t this whole thing wonderfully, irrevocably silly? If you can accept relative dimensions in space and the principle of regeneration, it’s not too much of a stretch to consider that sometimes when bodies change, bodies change.
Change is inevitable, but that doesn’t make it threatening. Like the glass avatars that seemed evil but turned out to be nice, just because something seems unsettling doesn’t make it bad. Besides, has the Doctor ever looked so delighted with their new face? Ten found the new teeth ‘weird’, both Ten and Eleven were disappointed not to be ginger, and Twelve was perturbed by his frowny expression and his “attack eyebrows”. Thirteen took one look at herself and thought, “Brilliant”. For those fans who have had reservations (either because there’s a new Doctor, or because the new Doctor is female), try doing the same thing. It’s what Twelve would have wanted. It’s what Peter Capaldi wants. Here’s what Capaldi wrote in a letter to a young fan, who was dreading the regeneration, not because he didn’t like the idea of a female Thirteen, but because he didn’t want to say goodbye to Twelve.
“Dear David, I hope you are having a very merry Xmas,” Capaldi writes. “Xmas is always good fun. Well, not always. Not every single second. Regenerating is not completely good fun. And it usually happens about Xmas-time. But you know what? Even though it can be a little bit icky (like really bad flu) it has always, always turned out good for Dr. Who.”
Capaldi continues: “The new doctor always becomes your favorite and the one that goes… well, he never really goes, he is always there, somewhere in time and space, and if you think about him hard enough you’ll see him, and he’ll see you. It’s like the Doctor says, ‘Everything ends and it’s always sad. But everything begins again, and that’s always happy. Be happy.’ So, have a brilliant Xmas, a happy new year, and a wonderful life — I’m sure you will. All the best, Peter Capaldi, Doctor ?”
From BBC America
Farewell to Capaldi’s Doctor, then. As usual, I had reservations about Twelve out of loyalty to Eleven, who I was initially suspicious about out of loyalty to Ten, who… yeah, you get it. But he did a fine job, saving the day with attack eyebrows, crazy scientist hair, mid-life crisis shades and guitar, excellent shouting, warmth, fire, humour, and best of all, the Capaldi Monologue (trademark pending). He couldn’t go without giving us another one, and his final words are certainly words to live by. And as I’m writing this on New Year’s Day, perhaps they are just the perfect resolutions for 2018.