Doctor Who Christmas special review: 'Twice Upon a Time' feels made for the ghost of fandom past

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The Doctor Who Christmas Special has, somewhat inadvertently, become an accessible jump-in point for festive viewers. Knowing that those viewers can just as swiftly jump off again, it generally eschews the sometimes complicated, need-to-know legacy of the BBC’s longest-running heritage brand.

Sorry Aunty Betty, that’s not quite the case with the 2017 offering, ‘Twice Upon a Time’. Indeed, the action starts with black and white footage from a 1966 adventure, the subtitle proclaiming it to be ‘709 episodes ago’ – those with a very, very, long memory will recall that to be the outgoing moments of the original Doctor, William Hartnell.

But now he’s back, back, back! Except in this incarnation he’s brought to life by David Bradley, who previously played William Hartnell playing the First Doctor, as depicted in the utterly wonderful 2013 biopic An Adventure in Space and Time. But now he’s not playing the actor playing the Doctor, he’s actually playing the Doctor. Keeping up? Never mind, it’s geek nostalgia.

For reasons unknown, the Twelfth Doctor (though technically thanks to John Hurts’ War Doctor he’s actually the Thirteenth Doctor – perhaps the Fourteenth if you count the partial regeneration in The Stolen Earth, but who really cares, eh?) ends up at the South Pole when he doesn’t want to regenerate. So far, so Christmassy. There he bumps into his first incarnation who somewhat coincidentally is also at the point of an unwanted regeneration. Snow! A former Doctor! It’s all you need, right?

From there, a First World War soldier (Mark Gatiss) turns up and the Doctors need to work out why time has been frozen. Throw in the mysterious appearance of a previous companion (the formerly dead Bill, played by Pearl Mackie) and there’s a mystery to be solved, no matter which TARDIS you choose to travel in.

Peter Capaldi, as ever, turns out an incredible performance as the Twelfth Doctor. In fact, you wouldn’t expect anything less given that his entire run as the Time Lord has been nothing short of magnificent. Unfortunately, given that this is his Doctor’s finale, David Bradley steals the show as the First Doctor. Awful generalising about the era the character originally comes from aside – rather than focusing on him being a superior being from the future – (references to male nurses, lesbianism and smacked bottoms) it’s an incredible homage, given further credence with nerd-pleasing costume and set design. In fact, many of the in-jokes that will go right over Aunty Betty’s head refer to grumbling fan complaints about the series in recent years. Bravo for Steven Moffat’s final two fingers. Let’s face it, it could’ve been worse.

Spoilers surrounding the details of the regeneration from Capaldi to Whitaker – the first female Doctor – are shrouded (i.e. embargoed), suffice to say that if you’re tuning in for the last few minutes only you’ll be hanging around a while. What happened to the brevity of ‘is this death?’ or ‘it’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for.’

Is it a sufficient swansong to one of the best Doctors we’ve had in years? No, not really. Is it a fabulously festive offering for all the family to enjoy? No, not really either. But it is the end of an era – it’s the last time you’ll see Peter Capaldi as the Doctor, the last time you’ll see the current design of the TARDIS, the last time – anniversary specials pending – that you’ll see whatever version of Bill this is. It’s also the last time you’ll hear this bloody awful version of the theme tune, so every snowy cloud.

Wonderfully nostalgic, though perhaps not for Christmas but the ghost of fandom past.

Doctor Who: Twice Upon a Time is on BBC One on Christmas Day, 5.30pm


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